Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Prize fighters

The nominees for this year's Welsh Music Prize were announced yesterday, with a couple of prominent names among them. While I haven't yet listened to Gruff Rhys' Babelsberg, there will (or at least should) be some wearied rolling of the eyeballs at the fact that the Manics' Resistance Is Futile has made the shortlist - despite aiming high, it's only sporadically satisfying.

Far more deserving of the judges' consideration are Boy Azooga's 1, 2, Kung Fu and Le Kov by Gwenno, who I'll hopefully be seeing here in the Welsh capital on Wednesday, to kick off the Swn Festival. Like Rhys, she's a former winner, having scooped the award in 2015 for Y Dydd Olaf. I certainly wouldn't bet against her repeating that feat.

Other notable nominees are Rhodri Brooks & Eugene Capper, who I unexpectedly saw playing over the road at the Lansdowne pub at one of their summer beer festivals, and Seazoo, whose album was brought to my attention earlier this year by one of the Prize's founders, Jon Rostron.

Community spirit

Almost unbelievably, there's a Tory policy I can get behind: a new strategy aimed at tackling loneliness, something that in recent years has become a problem of epidemic proportions.

Affecting both young and old alike, loneliness has been identified as a major cause of ill health and disease - so funding measures to combat it through the NHS suggests an acknowledgement of the severity of the issue and a political will to seek prevention rather than merely cure.

Does this strategy also perhaps signal a hint of recognition that cuts in public spending can have the sort of devastating effects I was writing about only yesterday, and that David Cameron's so-called Big Society cannot be left to pick up the pieces? I'm not holding my breath.

Know Your Enemy

"A culture, cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying, harassment and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed."

Welcome to life inside the House of Commons, according to Dame Laura Cox. The BBC's Chris Cook, who first broke the story about abuse back in March, is right to call Cox's independent report "a thunderbolt". Those who make employment law are, it seems, utterly incapable of upholding it.

Monday, October 15, 2018

No home comforts

One of the things that struck me about San Francisco in April was the scale of the city's homelessness problem. I certainly hadn't been expecting to see someone shooting up on the street in the middle of the Financial District in broad daylight on a weekday.

Relatively speaking, the city might be one of the most prosperous in the US, standing in stark contrast to somewhere like Detroit, but that obscures the fact that significant disparities can and do exist within a single place as well as between different places. Not everyone has benefited from the West Coast's economic boom, with many finding themselves priced out, evicted and living on the streets.

Hugo Bachega's recent article for the BBC exposed the alarming extent of the nation's homelessness crisis and also reminded me of the damning report produced by the UN's special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston - all the more embarrassing for Donald Trump and the US given the sorts of violent, war-torn countries on which Alston often comments.

Of course, we should acknowledge that homelessness is a huge problem here in the UK too, with new research from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism suggesting that at least 449 homeless people have died in the last year - a staggering and shameful statistic.

To compound matters, less than a week before these findings were announced, Theresa May was cheerfully and confidently declaring at her party's conference that "a decade after the financial crash, people need to know that the austerity it led to is over and that their hard work has paid off". Austerity has meant considerably more than merely "hard work" for a great many people - it has cost livelihoods and lives. That she can treat so lightly the profoundly damaging consequences of her party's policy - one that was ideologically motivated and failed to achieve its key objectives - is appalling, though sadly not surprising.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The hitwoman and her

After eight brilliant, edge-of-your-seat episodes, Killing Eve concluded rather abruptly - so it's reassuring to know that it'll be back on the BBC for a second series. And presumably on terrestrial TV, too - why it started out on BBC Three remains baffling.

Aware that it was written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (of Fleabag fame) and on the recommendation of several friends, we sat down to watch the first episode of the first series a couple of weeks ago. Four and a half hours later, we were six episodes in, it was half one in the morning and reluctantly we just had to call it a night. The final two episodes were duly polished off the following day. When Caitlin Moran observed that it was "straight up the best thing in YEARS" and that as a result she was "inhaling it like TV cake", I knew exactly what she meant.

Take a superb script (based on the Codename Villanelle novels by Luke Jennings), an excellent cast (most prominently Sandra Oh as detective Eve and Jodie Comer as psychopathic hitwoman Villanelle) and plot twists and turns aplenty and you have a smart, stylish thriller that feels fresh for upending tired old cliches and somehow avoids taking itself too seriously while ratcheting up the tension and intrigue with every passing scene.

The beauty of this portrait of mutual obsession is often in the detail: the opening scene, which sees Villanelle ruining a young girl's day; the much-celebrated line about a rat drinking from a Coke can; the way Villanelle makes a point of taking the name of the person who designed one victim's throw before killing him; the cut shot from a reference to castration to some sausages sizzling in a pan; Frank Haleton (Darren Boyd) desperately seeking brown sauce and over-eagerly eating hot chips when Eve is trying to get a confession out of him.

I won't pretend to understand all of the various characters' machinations, but thus far have just been content to sit back and enjoy the ride - something, thankfully, that I'll continue to be able to do on the Beeb.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

"'You know the way out, I assume?'"

What happens when you're back home from touring, no longer in a band and trying to reintegrate yourself into society by getting a normal job? If this article for Talkhouse is to be believed (and he claims it's 93.6 per cent true), Andrew Falkous of Mclusky and Future Of The Left found that his past came back to bite him in the arse. Cracking lyrics, though - and the piece is just further proof that he's a great writer.

Friday, October 12, 2018

A very modern family

My first reaction to this piece about a couple of single mums choosing to live together in one house with their children was, admittedly, a shrug of the shoulders. Why were their living arrangements worthy of an article on the BBC site? The truth is, though, that those arrangements are unusual - and perhaps strangely so in the current context.

Recent research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies revealed that house prices in England increased by an eyewatering 173 per cent over the last two decades, whereas the average salary of those in the 25-34 age bracket rose by just 19 per cent. Add to that the nation's loneliness epidemic (a condition with potentially lethal consequences) and the attraction of increased childcare options and companions for your kids, and it would be surprising if such arrangements didn't start to become more popular.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The wild west

I may have visited St Davids in May and also attended a wedding in Fishguard and spent a weekend near Tenby more than a decade ago, but much of Wales' most westerly county remains undiscovered country to me - something made abundantly clear by A Year In Pembrokeshire, a collaboration between broadcaster/writer Jamie Owen and photographer David Wilson that I've just reviewed for Buzz.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Apocalypse now

To call the warnings contained in the latest IPCC report alarming would be a gross understatement. According to the scientists who contributed to it, environmental disaster is imminent - they estimate that we're now just 12 years away from exceeding the critical 1.5C global warming mark.

Will the report be the final wake-up call that the authors hope? Faced with such a dire prognosis, some people will probably still shrug - many because the situation seems hopeless and action seems futile, rather than because they moronically refuse to believe the science. To counter that attitude, the report has stressed that there is still time to turn things around and has proposed concrete, everyday ways in which individuals can do their part, such as cutting down on the consumption of meat and dairy products, walking and cycling more, avoiding planes and insulating homes. While in our house we're not about to go entirely vegan, we have been significantly reducing how much meat we eat - and if everyone committed to that alone, it would make a huge impact. That's the point: individual actions might seem a drop in the ocean, but the cumulative effect can potentially be enormous.

Of course, there remains a big question mark over the reaction of the political class and the corporate world. The report's title, Summary For Policymakers, gives a clear indication as to its target audience - but politicians' self-interest usually means that short-term wins are prioritised above long-term goals. Similarly, neoliberal capitalism is predicated on short-termist thinking with little regard for the future. Some of the changes required to turn things around are drastic and likely to be both politically unpopular and enormously expensive. That, presumably, is why the report underlines the economic advantages of staying beneath 1.5C (talking in a language that business will understand) - and the fact that apocalypse is now looming ever larger on the horizon might, perversely, prove to be a positive, in that what may have seemed far off in the future is increasingly something to which not even those of a short-term perspective can remain blind and ignorant.

Even if some politicians do refuse to heed the warning, though, all is not lost. As the report makes clear, elections present ordinary voters with the opportunity to club together and remove from power those who continue to ignore or indeed worsen our environmental predicament. It's an opportunity that we should all feel morally obliged to take.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Under cover

Inspired by Episode 33 of Sounding Bored, here - in no particular order - are ten covers that are each, in their own way, pretty remarkable.

'Hurt' - Johnny Cash (2002)

No consideration of the art of the cover version would be complete without mention of this - and thankfully podcast panellist Josh did the honours. He noted how it was Rick Rubin - famous as a rock and rap producer - who effectively revived Cash's ailing career, giving the Man in Black a new lease of life in his twilight years and introducing him to a whole new audience.

Over the course of four albums working in collaboration with Rubin, Cash covered a host of tracks to tremendous effect, including Depeche Mode's 'Personal Jesus', Bonnie "Prince" Billy's 'I See A Darkness' and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds' 'The Mercy Seat' - all of which felt like perfectly natural choices.

But none of them could top his version of Nine Inch Nails' 'Hurt', which appeared on American IV: The Man Comes Around, Cash's final LP before his death in 2003. In the hands of its creator, Trent Reznor, 'Hurt' was harrowingly bleak and laden with self-loathing; Cash turned it into something very different, a weighty meditation on ageing and his own mortality. In tandem with Mark Romanek's profoundly moving video, Cash's 'Hurt' left me completely speechless.

It had the same effect on Reznor, who was stunned to hear "this other person inhabiting my most personal song". After first watching the video (in the company of Rage Against The Machine's Zack de la Rocha), Reznor just knew that "that song isn't mine anymore". He was right - and it never will be again.

'Changes' - Charles Bradley (2013)

Unlike Cash, fame came very late to Charles Bradley, the self-styled "Screaming Eagle of Soul". His life story was scarcely believable: abandoned by his mother at the age of eight months and raised by his grandmother, he lived an itinerant lifestyle working odd jobs and hitch-hiking across America, regularly performed as a James Brown impersonator, nearly died due to an allergic reaction to penicillin and had a brother who was murdered. It was a reconciliation with his mother that brought him back to Brooklyn, where he was finally discovered and appreciated as a vocalist of considerable talent.

'Changes', from 1972's Vol. 4, wasn't your average Black Sabbath track: an emotionally rather than musically heavy song written by guitarist Tommy Iommi with lyrics by bassist Geezer Butler about the break-up of drummer Bill Ward's marriage. Ozzy Osbourne recorded a horrific cover, a duet with daughter Kelly, that topped the UK Singles Chart in 2003, but when Bradley - who claimed to have never heard of Ozzy - first came across the song, the lyrics instantly struck a chord. His mother was gravely ill, and Butler's words seemed to express his anguish at the looming prospect of losing her again, this time forever.

He poured every ounce of that emotion into his performance, while the transformation of the song into a brooding 70s soul number, complete with blazing brass, felt so natural that it was hard to believe no one had had the idea before.

First made available for Record Store Day in 2013, the cover then became the title track of what proved to be his final LP in 2016. Two months after its release, Bradley was diagnosed with stomach cancer and, despite rallying briefly, he passed away in September 2017, still nowhere near as widely known as he deserved to be.

'SOS' - Portishead (2015)

If the previous two picks are examples of artists investing existing songs with a whole new layer of meaning by virtue of their own personal histories, this is an instance of a band boiling a track down to its base elements, thereby foregrounding something that was always there.

For so long derided as purveyors of kitsch nonsense symbolising the decade that taste forgot, Abba have benefited from a critical reappraisal that has (quite rightly) seen them lauded as arguably the greatest pop band of all. According to Bjorn Ulvaeus, 'SOS' was the song on which they truly found their own identity. It was an extraordinary single that saw melancholic, desperate verses married to an irrepressible chorus.

Portishead made their name with music for long, dark nights of the soul, and the Bristolians' take on the song was (as you might imagine) phenomenally bleak, dwelling pointedly on that devastating line "When you're gone, how can I even try to go on?" However, having been originally recorded for the film adaptation of J G Ballard's novel High Rise, the cover was then released in tribute to Jo Cox, the video ending with the murdered Labour MP's message of hope: "We have far more in common than that which divides us".

'Superstar' - Sonic Youth (1994)

Unlike Abba, The Carpenters have never really shed their image as the epitome of 70s kitsch: the cutesy brother-and-sister combo playing cheesy soft-focus ballads together. So how, in 1994, did they end up being covered by a whole host of rock acts, foremost among them the impeccably cool Sonic Youth?

The New Yorkers had never been shy of paying tribute to their heroes - whether that was through covering 'Hot Wire My Heart', San Franciscan punks Crime's debut single, on 1987's Sister, or, five years later, by finding room on their most commercial LP Dirty for a rampage through the minute-long hardcore frenzy of The Untouchables' 'Nic Fit', a song written by Alec Mackaye (younger brother of Fugazi's Ian). Their artfully messy 'I Know There's An Answer' was a highlight of Brian Wilson tribute record Smiles, Vibes & Harmony, and they were also among the remarkably disparate cast (including Wet Wet Wet, Hue And Cry and The Christians, as well as The Fall and The Wedding Present) who came together for the charity tribute LP Sgt Pepper Knew My Father, contributing a spectacularly good take on the original album's most out-there song, George Harrison's 'Within You Without You'.

Initially, it was Thurston Moore who was the Carpenters fan, his childhood fondness morphing into an appreciation of the "certain sort of dark mystery" lurking deep within their songs. Kim Gordon, by contrast, was dismissive: "It was music your parents would like you to listen to." But she soon came around, charmed by Karen Carpenter in particular: "There was this girl-next-door image with this incredibly soulful, and at times sexy, voice. Even though Karen didn't write the songs, she really made them her own - in much the same way that a singer like Billie Holiday did. With both of them, the words came right from the heart."

That "girl-next-door" image was complicated by Todd Haynes' 1987 film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which began with the brute fact of her death at the age of just 32 after a long struggle with anorexia. Sonic Youth's fascination with her wasn't merely ghoulish, however; it was driven by a preoccupation with the (often restrictive and damaging) ways in which female artists are perceived, portrayed and packaged within the male-dominated music industry - the same preoccupation that had previously given rise to an obsession with Madonna that resulted in 1988's Madge-sampling cover of 'Into The Groove' (credited to Ciccone Youth).

'Tunic (Song For Karen)' appeared first, on 1990's major-label debut Goo, but when the idea of tribute album If I Were A Carpenter was floated, 'Superstar' seemed tailor-made for them, a sad tale of unrequited love/lust, broken promises, romantic delusions and the power dynamic between performer and fan. They played the verses understatedly, Moore singing in hushed tones, but ratcheted it up a notch or two for the choruses. The video also mimicked the original, even down to the way that Moore handled the mic. Needless to say, in the context of the album, it stole the show.

'Easy' - Faith No More (1992)

The initial motivation behind Faith No More's decision to cover Commodores classic 'Easy' was rather different. The band had no great affection for the song; bassist Bill Gould claimed they liked it "in a painful kind of way. It gives us memories of our childhood." The point was not to pay their respects to Lionel Ritchie and chums, but to get up the noses of the narrow-minded metalheads drawn to their gigs by the promise of tracks like 'Epic''Jizzlobber' and their version of Black Sabbath's 'War Pigs'.

And yet as a result the cover was remarkably faithful to the original - a break-up song whose protagonist, far from being heartbroken, seems strangely unphased and contented in the circumstances. The guitar solo was one of the last things that Jim Martin would do before being fired from the band and going on to become a champion pumpkin grower, while vocalist Mike Patton showed off a versatility and range with which few would have previously credited him. Of course, simply having Patton singing "I'm easy like Sunday morning" was a joke, given his manically aggressive stage performances. I still can't decide whether that elongated "Ewwwww" that introduces the solo is an expression of disgust or a lewd insinuation.

The song reached #3 in the UK Singles Chart, attracting legions of admirers who would have been appalled by the band's previous output, and signalled the start of an unexpected fascination with easy listening, lounge music and bossa nova. As recently as three years ago, having reformed and put out a new LP, Sol Invictus, they recorded a very decent cover of Burt Bacharach's 'This Guy's In Love With You' for the audience of Radio 1's Rock Show. That they are so often identified merely as the godfathers of nu-metal does them a gross disservice.

'Too Drunk To Fuck' - Nouvelle Vague (2004)

The only covers band to make this list, Nouvelle Vague were the brainchild of French musicians Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux. It all started with Collin dreaming up the idea of performing a bossa nova cover of Joy Division's 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' - presumably, being French, he'd had a full cheese board shortly before going to bed the night before - and just spiralled from there.

I could certainly have picked 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' for the way in which Collin and Libaux transformed the oppressively gloomy, fateful original into a breezily insouciant shimmy. But even better was their take on Dead Kennedys' 'Too Drunk To Fuck', which swapped the angry, on-the-verge-of-puking Jello Biafra for a giggly, breathy, coquettish female vocalist to brilliant effect.

Their self-titled debut LP was all a comic novelty, of course, but very nicely done, and actually didn't sound out of place alongside the likes of The Concretes, Camera Obscura and other mid-noughties indie-poppers. A second album Bande A Part followed, featuring versions of New Order's 'Blue Monday', Buzzcocks' 'Ever Fallen In Love' and Blondie's 'Heart Of Glass', and then a third, on which a number of musicians - including Depeche Mode's Martin Gore, Echo & The Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch and Magazine's Barry Adamson - got in on the joke, contributing to covers of their own songs. But nothing quite came close to matching 'Too Drunk To Fuck'.

'Wicked Game' - Giant Drag (2005)

For a brief period in the mid-noughties, Annie Hardy was indie rock's new poster girl. That was largely thanks to her band Giant Drag's debut album Hearts And Unicorns. The album was notable for several things, including the slacker gems 'Kevin Is Gay' and 'Slayer', and song titles like 'My Dick Sux', 'You're Full Of Shit (Check Out My Sweet Riffs)' and 'You Fuck Like My Dad' (abbreviated to 'YFLMD'). Perhaps most remarkable, though, was a bonus track that was initially exclusive to the UK release, only appearing on US pressings the following year.

'Wicked Game' is by some distance the best-known song by Chris Isaak, a 50s throwback whose music has featured in the films of cult directors David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick and Quentin Tarantino. Its cinematic quality is immediately evident, Isaak inhabiting the persona of a tortured romantic crooning in a Roy Orbison-esque style about smouldering and unrequited desire over the top of dusty, arid Americana. For her version, Hardy zeroed in on the song's sense of inner conflict and emotional tumult, amping up the chorus so that it had a sonic impact to match that of that fantastic line "I don't want to fall in love with you".

Just as the original came to popular attention through featuring in Lynch's Wild At Heart, Giant Drag's cover was memorably used in the trailer for US drama series Nip/Tuck. Sadly, though, Hardy was unable to capitalise on either that or the relative success of Hearts And Unicorns. Since then, there have been collaborations (with Deftones, The Jesus & Mary Chain and The Icarus Line) but only one Giant Drag album, 2013's Waking Up Is Hard To Do. She's been diagnosed with fibromyalgia and suffered horrific loss in her personal life, only returning to music with last year's solo LP Rules. Given the promise contained within Hearts And Unicorns and 'Wicked Game' in particular, it's a terrible shame that she's been unable to be more prolific.

'Hounds Of Love' - The Futureheads (2004)

In the podcast, this earned a brief mention, in relation to white, all-male indie bands covering pop classics either ironically or over-earnestly. I feel it a matter of duty and responsibility to disassociate it entirely from some of the abominations discussed in the same context.

Mackem new wavers The Futureheads couldn't really be accused of using their version of the title track from Kate Bush's 1985 LP as a crutch; after all, they'd already released a slew of spiky and brilliantly idiosyncratic singles - 'First Day', 'Decent Days And Nights', 'Meantime', all preceded by the 123 Nul EP and its lead track 'Carnival Kids' - by the time 'Hounds Of Love' came out. They were always far sharper and cleverer than the rest of the post-Strokes/-Libertines pack they got lumped in with, and covering a Kate Bush song was a shorthand way of simultaneously identifying with her maverick spirit and distancing themselves from the herd. The choice of song was no doubt carefully considered, too, proving ideally suited to a barbershop punk makeover. To this day, I'd maintain that it's better than the original.

Reaching the heady heights of #8 in the UK Singles Chart, 'Hounds Of Love' was subsequently named as the Best Single of 2005 by NME. Unfortunately, that meant that the pressure was on, and The Futureheads wilted. 2006's News And Tributes was a disappointment, and while they went on to release three further LPs after extricating themselves from their deal with 679 Recordings, none of them matched up to their eponymous debut. In that respect, 'Hounds Of Love' turned out to be as much a curse as a blessing.

'Diane' - Therapy? (1995)

1995, and Therapy? were flush with the success of the previous year's pop-metal masterpiece Troublegum. Andy Cairns' head was full of ideas and his nostrils were full of Columbia's finest. Cue Infernal Love, a preposterous gothy monstrosity that drew on Afghan Whigs and Nick Cave much more than metal and saw the band donning smoking jackets, frilly dress shirts and false moustaches. Just as Troublegum had upset those who had been won over by their earlier amalgamation of Big Black, industrial and punk, Infernal Love seemed deliberately calculated to baffle, infuriate and alienate their legions of new Kerrang!-reading fans.

Having introduced a whole load of impressionable grunge-era kids like me to Joy Division by including a cover of 'Isolation' on Troublegum, Therapy? followed it up by recording a version of Husker Du's 'Diane' (from 1983's Metal Circus) for Infernal Love. It instinctively made sense - the influence of the Minneapolis punks had been discernible in some of Therapy?'s earliest work. This take, however, bore very little resemblance to the original; instead, the song was reconfigured very much in the style of the album on which it appeared. Out went guitars, bass and drums, and in came strings and OTT production values. The song's author, Grant Hart, was reportedly appalled by the results.

The lyrics referred to the kidnap, rape and murder of waitress Diane Edwards in 1980, and there was a sense - arguably corroborated by the lavish Anton Corbijn-directed NSFW video, a symbol of mid-90s pre-Napster record industry excess - that Cairns enjoyed playing the part of murderer Joseph Ture with a discomforting degree of relish. At the time, though, he clearly didn't give two shits about what might be deemed distasteful. That 'Diane' somehow made it to #26 in the UK Singles Chart is perhaps the most remarkable thing about it.

'Where Did You Sleep Last Night?' - Nirvana (1993)

Nirvana's decision to perform an unplugged set for MTV was somewhat contentious. Their last studio LP had been the gloriously uncompromising In Utero, and so the sight of Kurt Cobain perched atop a stool (well, an office chair), amid flowers and candles, strumming an acoustic guitar was enough to horrify many - a tacit acceptance that he and his band somehow needed to prove themselves as serious and talented musicians in a language that middle-aged, middle-class audiences and arbiters of taste could understand. So, in one sense, it was a defeat - but in another, it was an utter triumph. Cobain's humanity and wit shone through, making a mockery of the tabloid caricatures, while his songs turned out to be every bit as resonant in stripped-down form as they were at full blast.

Not that Nirvana restricted themselves to their own material, of course. Not only did they play 'Jesus Don't Want Me For A Sunbeam' (a track they'd been covering live for years) and David Bowie's 'The Man Who Sold The World', Cobain also took the opportunity to plug one of his favourite bands, the Meat Puppets, by performing a trio of their tracks. In fact, 'Jesus Don't Want Me For A Sunbeam' was effectively a cover of a cover (being their version of The Vaselines' 'Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam', which was itself a sardonic parody of Christian song 'I'll Be Your Sunbeam') - and it wasn't the only one to feature as part of the MTV Unplugged set.

The song variously named 'In The Pines' and 'Black Girl' is a traditional folk song of unknown provenance that has been part of the great American songbook since the nineteenth century. Cobain first encountered it under the title 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night?' when he and bandmate Krist Novoselic were invited to contribute to a cover for Mark Lanegan's debut solo record The Winding Sheet in 1990. Cobain credited the song to Huddie Ledbetter aka Lead Belly, but in truth his was merely the most famous interpretation - until Nirvana came along.

Those few minutes were arguably the most electrifying of Nirvana's whole recording career. Cobain encapsulated more in that final screamed verse than many artists do in a lifetime. This wasn't merely the "teenage angst" of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' to which he mockingly referred on 'Serve The Servants'; this was a howl into the abyss. It was a suitably extraordinary performance to conclude both the MTV Unplugged show and what would turn out to be the last Nirvana album recorded before Cobain's premature death.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Know Your Enemy

"This is old-fashioned, self-absorbed, self-congratulatory entertainment, whichever way you voted. ... Pointlessly unhelpful. Painfully partisan. Uniquely awful. Waffle so reductive it might have been spluttered out by Boris Johnson. It would be infuriating if it wasn't so hilariously bad."

Fergus Morgan's Stage review of People Like Us, a new pro-Brexit play co-written by Julie Birchill, is not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

This woman's work

It's not every week that you get to see an eight-strong band paying tribute to the work of Kate Bush through both music and theatrics. More's the pity - San Diego's Baby Bushka were brilliant at Gwidhw on Tuesday night.

I'd like to think that their presence on these shores has prompted the decision to reissue Bush's entire back catalogue on vinyl and CD next month - it surely can't just be coincidence, can it?

Friday, October 05, 2018

"Opportunity" cocks

The Tory party conference may have seemed like an improv episode of The Thick Of It, admittedly, but to say the Guardian's Marina Hyde was shooting fish in a barrel in writing about it would fail to do justice to her frequently delicious turns of phrase.

Her powers of observation are evident throughout, even in the apparently throwaway comments: "I saw lots of Conservative baby bibs. (Interesting to market your logo as something that specifically is going to get thrown up on)". But she's particularly good at mercilessly skewering the key protagonists in just a few choice words. Theresa May is "a Quentin Blake drawing of an unravelling postmistress", her policy agenda "now straight-to-meme", while her adversary Boris Johnson is described as both "the Cabbage Patch Draco Malfoy" and "the Great Twatsby": "Like several of the worst men of the age, he appears to deem high office the place to explore issues that really should be worked out via his dream journal". Philip Hammond? "Still delivers lines with all the rhetorical flourish of a reversing Securicor vehicle". Gavin Williamson? "Continues to look as though he took the rejection letter from Starfleet Academy pretty hard".

This is, however, very much laughter in the dark - as she reminds us at the end. Labour have somehow failed to make up ground on this catastrophically incompetent bunch of wankers, and both parties are now waiting for a crisis to hit - which it surely will, given the Tories' fuckwittery in negotiations with the EU and Jeremy Corbyn's apparent contentment to sit back and enjoy the ride as May drives us all off a big cliff.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

The price of vanity

Once upon a time, taking a quick snap was only a dangerous pursuit if you were a war or wildlife photographer. Not any longer - the obsession with deliberately obscuring a famous landmark or natural wonder with one's mug for the benefit of friends and followers on social media is now costing people their lives. Another reason to JUST BLOODY STOP DOING IT, then.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

A Sticky end

Yesterday brought the news that Sticky Mike's Frog Bar in Brighton will shut its doors for the final time on New Year's Eve. I've never been, but it's evident from the reaction and the venue's regular appearance on tour itineraries that it's a well-loved institution very much at the heart of the city's music scene.

The Music Venue Trust's response is well worth a read: a mixture of sadness and anger. It makes the very pertinent point that "All too often each of these venue closures has been treated as a single problem rather than part of a larger picture". These are not isolated incidents; they're occurring up and down the country, as a result of the same stresses and strains. Just ask those who run the Cellar in Oxford, or any of the venues on Womanby Street here in Cardiff.

What is needed, then, is a serious, coordinated, national-level, multi-stakeholder strategy - one that is properly resourced rather than merely fine words. The MVT acknowledge, however, that for such a strategy to materialise, there must first be "a dramatic and urgent change in the attitude from local authorities, government, the music industry and the cultural sector". How many more venues like Sticky Mike's have to die before such a change takes place?

Street spirit

The Friday and Saturday night Street Food Social events at Depot sound great - it's just that the venue's a bit of a pain to get to. So the news that a new permanent street food hall is opening right in the city centre is very welcome indeed. Sticky Fingers will be situated in the Brewery Quarter, so may well entice people in from Chippy Alley.

Among the traders set to take up residence there is Darren Lewis aka Mr Croquewich. To call his creations cheese toasties does them an enormous disservice. I first sampled his wares at the Riverside Farmers' Market one Sunday, and am certainly looking forward to being able to do so more regularly and more easily.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Not the marrying kind

In the wake of the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in the case of Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, Theresa May has announced that the law will be changed to allow mixed-sex couples to choose civil partnership over marriage. The inequality created by the 2004 Civil Partnership Act and the 2013 Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act was blatant and in the circumstances the Tories didn't really have any option other than to concede - but it's nevertheless delicious to imagine the fusty old traditionalists in their ranks squirming at the prospect of their own party taking deliberate action to offer people an alternative to the sacred institution of marriage.

Monday, October 01, 2018

Know Your Enemy

"I can only assume you relate to his personality on some level. Delusions of grandeur, extreme issues with narcissism - none of which would be a talking point if we weren't speaking about the man leading our country. If you think it's alright to support someone who believes it's OK to grab a woman by the pussy just because he's famous, then you need an intervention just as much as he does."

Lana Del Rey may have performed at Ye's wedding to Kim Kardashian - back when he was plain old Kanye West - but she's clearly unimpressed by his support for Donald Trump, as reiterated on Saturday Night Live at the weekend.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Fighting for laughs

According to host Dara O'Briain, Mock The Week is no longer as competitive and cut-throat as it was: "Now it's far looser, more fluid conversation than it was. It used to be boom, boom, cut across each other, elbows, and it's just thankfully relaxed a lot now." Certainly, it was an ugly spectacle, privileging those who spoke most loudly and confidently and all too often egging panellists into making mindlessly offensive comments in the hope of stealing the limelight.

While O'Briain's right about this shift (and the fact that it's a very welcome one), and the show continues to enable rising stars of the stand-up circuit to break into the mainstream rather than booking the same old faces, it still suffers from a serious problem: it just isn't funny.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Dream sequence

Ask a bunch of music nerds what their favourite Sonic Youth album is and it's pretty much guaranteed that Daydream Nation will come out on top. Albumism did just that, and the band's 1988 magnum opus polled a whopping 26 per cent of the votes.

Personally, my vote would have gone to Dirty (1992), which placed fifth. As the first Sonic Youth album I heard, it was my gateway drug to their world, and it's accessible in a way that perhaps none of their other LPs are, yet never really sounds like a band compromising their vision. Plus it features some of their finest songs: 'Drunken Butterfly', 'Sugar Kane', '100%' and 'Theresa's Sound World'.

Don't get me wrong, though: Daydream Nation is an awesome LP, probably the most prominent landmark in their career and an incredible experience live - but it didn't have the same impact on me as Dirty did, and I do struggle with the recording quality.

Elsewhere in the rankings I was surprised to see 2006's Rather Ripped (#7) rated so highly. That and A Thousand Leaves (1998), while undoubtedly not without their merits, wouldn't have made my top ten, whereas 2004's Sonic Nurse and The Eternal, which turned out to be their swansong, certainly would.

If the LP that topped the pile didn't surprise me, neither did the one that attracted the fewest votes. I'd agree that NYC Ghosts & Flowers (2000) is the hardest album to love. It's all relative, though.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

National health disservice

As if it wasn't disgraceful enough that, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, life expectancy has stagnated (and indeed fallen in some areas), several academics argue that the government's austerity measures are primarily to blame.

Kingsley Purdam of the University of Manchester is among them: "Poverty, austerity and cuts to public services are impacting on how long people are living in the UK. We all need to look after our health but many of us, including the most vulnerable populations, need help at a time when evidence suggests that services are being cut. The lost years of life have an impact not just on the individual but on those people who are ultimately left behind including partners, children and grandchildren."

A complex array of factors are involved in the stagnation, but it seems clear that the cuts are a major contributor. Ultimately, then, citizens' health and life expectancy are being callously sacrificed in the single-minded pursuit of ideologically driven goals.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Investment opportunity

According to some reports earlier in the week, Bestival have called in the administrators, while the organisers themselves have claimed (perhaps euphemistically) to be merely suffering from "financial challenges". What seems beyond dispute is that the problems have been caused by the withdrawal of support from a major backer - though the inclement conditions that blighted this year's Camp Bestival event and (I gather) a relatively poor turnout for Common People in Oxford can't have helped.

In a tweet, founder Rob da Bank remained bullish about Bestival's various manifestations - "The show must go on! And will ... fear not and keep the faith" - and, as Ronan of Nightshift commented, it would be a blow if Common People was axed given the support that Rob and his team have shown to the Oxford scene.

That said, in focusing on the future we shouldn't neglect the past. Some friends who played Common People and who were all set for Camp Bestival until the weather pooped the party have confirmed that they're still waiting for payment, and not hopeful of getting anything much. If a new incarnation of Bestival does plough on in 2019, here's hoping that the old incarnation doesn't leave performers out of pocket.

All talk?

An end to the "greed-is-good" culture within the financial sector, a bold environmental strategy, renationalisation of major industries, the extension of free childcare: the prospect of a Labour government certainly sounds good, Jeremy, but your dithering on Brexit and the party infighting have meant that, depressingly, it still doesn't seem that likely - incredible, given the horrendous mess the Tories are in.

Monday, September 24, 2018

No strength in numbers

It gave me no pleasure to find fault with Lost Horizons and their gig at Clwb Ifor Bach last Thursday, considering all of the superb albums that Simon Raymonde's Bella Union label has given us over the years - but, as many others seem to have decided, it really wasn't worth braving the filthy weather for.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Cover art

What makes a good cover version? And what makes a bad one? Those are the key questions occupying a panel comprising host Rob plus regulars Amy and Josh in Episode 33 of Sounding Bored.

First, the good. Josh and Amy's suggestions - Johnny Cash's 'Hurt' and Pet Shop Boys' 'Always On My Mind' - are perfect, as covers that come from a position of respect but that adopt a dramatically different approach to the original and in doing so offer a fascinating new perspective. As Amy notes, the latter is particularly remarkable for the way that it changes the resonance or subtext of the lyrics, as well as (of course) for finding a novel angle on a song previously performed by countless others. The Fall's improbable take on 'Lost In Music' and Soft Cell's 'Tainted Love' manage to pull off a similar feat. Sometimes this transformation or subversion occurs along the lines of gender, determined by who is singing the song: see the panel's suggestion, The Raincoats' cover of 'Lola', or (very recently) Soccer Mommy's 'I'm On Fire', which takes Bruce Springsteen's evocation of restless, irrepressible male desire and puts it in the mouth of a woman.

And then there's the bad, and the downright ugly. Josh and Rob single out David Bowie and Mick Jagger's duet 'Dancing In The Streets' as a career nadir for each of them; Amy criticises Madonna's version of 'American Pie' as a "horrendous misjudgement" that woefully misses the point; all three are rightly appalled by Catfish & The Bottlemen's car-crash mash-up of Kanye West's 'Black Skinhead' with the Black Keys' 'Howlin' For You' and Kasabian's 'Shoot The Runner'.

Beyond the assessments of quality lies the question of what prompts artists into recording or performing versions of other people's songs in the first place. On this point, I'd suggest, the panel are a little cynical. Most often, it's simply about a band setting out to pay tribute to their influences and thereby attempting to establish their place within a particular musical lineage. The Ramones and The Jesus & Mary Chain both sought to underline their affinities with The Beach Boys by covering 'Surfin' Safari' and 'Surfin' USA' respectively, while (for example) The Icarus Line honoured Spacemen 3 by producing a superior, amp-blowing version of 'Losing Touch With My Mind', Red Hot Chili Peppers attempted to prove their funk credentials with a cover of Stevie Wonder's 'Higher Ground' and The Flaming Lips couldn't pick a single Dark Side Of The Moon track so instead just  covered the whole album.

However, covers are also regularly (to use Amy's neat phrase) a translation from one genre or generation to another: Jimi Hendrix taking Bob Dylan's 'All Along The Watchtower' from folk into rock, for instance. In some instances, it does seem to be a way of reaching new markets, whether deliberately or inadvertently. When Billy Bragg covered 'She's Leaving Home' for the NME's 1988 charity album Sgt Pepper Knew My Father, the formerly on-the-margins polemicist folkie suddenly found himself at the top of the UK singles charts - though, admittedly, that was largely because his effort was a joint double-A side with Wet Wet Wet. 'With A Little Help From My Friends' indeed.

Prospective starlets on American Idol and X Factor are compelled to perform familiar songs because it makes assessing them easier (there's already an established benchmark), and covers are certainly used by up-and-coming acts as a means of grabbing attention and padding out short live sets. Anyone who gets sniffy about covers should remember, too, that some of the most celebrated artists around rose to fame on the back of interpretations of songs that they had no hand in writing (Elvis being a prime example) or by extensively borrowing (stealing?) from others (hello there, Led Zep!), and that jazz has a long-established tradition of common standards that are reworked and rephrased by successive generations of musicians.

However, it's only fair that bands should confess to their borrowing: I recall a friend being (rightly) irritated by Fear Of Men for their failure to acknowledge at a gig that 'Pink Frost' was actually by The Chills, which made it seem as though they were trying to pass it off as their own. As Amy notes, it's also true that some artists' attempts at musical translation could be seen as troubling instances of cultural appropriation - most often, white musicians repackaging black music to make it palatable to a white audience.

Amy is spot on in decrying "earnest white-boy indie covers of pop songs" as a particularly egregious trend, one for which Radio 1's Live Lounge is chiefly responsible. Travis' take on Britney's 'Baby One More Time' may have set the tone, but the smirking xylophone-heavy Elbow cover of 'Independent Woman' (as cited by Amy) and the aforementioned Frankenstein's monster of a track created by Catfish & The Bottlemen are arguably the absolute nadir. (You'd hope that as a Radio 6 DJ Guy Garvey is now suitably embarrassed.) There are precious few instances of roles being reversed (i.e. pop artists covering indie songs), though Amy Winehouse's 'Valerie' is a notable exception.

Another very odd trend - one not discussed by the panel but identified by Spin - was the penchant of late 90s/early 00s (nu-)metal acts for covering classic songs of the 80s. Josh did raise the horrific spectre of Limp Bizkit's cover of George Michael's 'Faith', but could also have pointed to: Alien Ant Farm, who enjoyed their brief 15 minutes with a version of 'Smooth Criminal' transplanted to the white suburbs (see the video); Fear Factory, who roped Gary Numan into a cover of 'Cars'; Disturbed, whose surprisingly passable take on 'The Sound Of Silence' was preceded by covers of Genesis ('Land Of Confusion') and Tears For Fears ('Shout'); Coal Chamber, who contrived to get Ozzy Osbourne to contribute to a reworking of a Peter Gabriel track, 'Shock The Monkey'; Marilyn Manson, whose sinister 'Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)' was as good as his 'Tainted Love' was appalling; or Deftones, who at least showed off the best taste by choosing to cover The Cure, Cocteau Twins and Depeche Mode.

Finally, it's worth observing that cover versions can break careers as well as make them. Stephen Jones aka Babybird could only look on in horror as 'You're Gorgeous', a track about seedy glamour photographers and their subjects, was misunderstood and performed as a straightforward love song at countless open mic nights and weddings, before suffering perhaps the greatest indignity: a cover by The Wurzels. No matter how much material he's produced since, he can't seem to escape the shadow cast by that song and the thousands of mawkish versions it spawned.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Honesty: the best policy for a biographer

Back in 2007, I wrote an admiring (and very long) review of Andrew Motion's biography Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life. Earlier this month, a new edition was published, and to mark the occasion the Times Literary Supplement reproduced an extract from the introduction in which Motion writes not so much about Larkin but about the nature of his relationship with him.

Some have accused Motion of popularising a damagingly negative portrait of the poet - see, for instance, Peter J. Conradi, who in a review of a rival biography branded A Writer's Life "a condescending performance" that "helped paint Larkin as a sterile, loveless, nationalist, racist, woman-hating bigot". But, as his introduction makes clear, this was no nasty hatchet job; on the contrary, Motion greatly respected and admired Larkin and adopted a warts-and-all approach out of respect to his subject, someone who (after all) "had believed very firmly in the value of plain speaking".

Motion continues: "I wanted him to appear as the occasionally salty, selfish, vulgar, intolerant, difficult and 'fucked up' person that he knew himself to be, as well as the brilliantly observant, truth-telling, romantic, tender and sometimes uproarious person that he was also capable of being." In truth, it's hard to see how he could have done anything else, given the source material available to him.

(Thanks to Adam for the link.)

Thursday, September 20, 2018

"It was a really fun time"

It's hard to believe, personally speaking, that Los Campesinos!'s first two records - Hold On Now, Youngster and We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed - are now a decade old. While the band - or at least frontman Gareth - disowned the former for years, they're now reissuing them to mark the anniversary.

Reading Stereogum's recent interview with Gareth looking back on those early days, it struck me that - despite having been there almost from the beginning, including at the 2006 Broken Social Scene gig that proved so critical to their subsequent career - I didn't really know much about the circumstances of their formation. However, you could have guessed that Gareth and bassist Neil might have bonded over a mutual love of Sonic Youth, Pavement, Weezer and Dinosaur Jr and that Neil and guitarist Tom "met at a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah gig because Tom overheard Neil talking about the Decemberists". Given this, their love of ATP and the fact that they blew up online through MySpace, they really were the archetypal mid-Noughties indie band (apart from not hailing from Brooklyn).

Gareth remains critical of Hold On Now, Youngster - "a lot of that record was me reacting to what I thought people wanted the band to be, rather than what we wanted it to be" - but, pleasingly, admits to being able to take more enjoyment from listening to it now than he has been able to since it was released. He had (and perhaps even actively cultivated) an indier-than-thou image that rubbed some people up the wrong way, so it's to his credit that, with the benefit of perspective, he can recognise and laugh at himself for having been "far too smug and self-aggrandising for my own good".

The interview also reminded me of the Shred Yr Face tour that Los Campesinos! embarked on in 2008, which gave me my first ever glimpse of No Age. Chuck Times New Viking into the mix too and you had a superb bill that was well worth the schoolnight trip to London.

It's great to note that they're off to North America to tour in support of the reissues, given that not so long ago Gareth was fearing they may never get to go again, on account of economics and logistics. Here's to the next ten years - and to hoping that they can last until then without losing any more original members...

(Thanks to Ian for the link.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

"Holy shit, I'm out of my fucking mind"

Could there be anything worse as a serious, well-respected music writer with leftfield tastes in both politics and tunes than suddenly discovering you're a racist Libertines fan? In a piece for Vice, John Doran, founder of the Quietus, has recalled the personality change he experienced after being knocked down by a van two years ago. On the surface it might seem absurd, even comic, and Doran doesn't deny that - but the reality, as he makes clear, was utterly terrifying.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Inflexible benefits

According to a new Timewise report, Part-Time Work: The Exclusion Zone?, many of those working flexible hours - an increasing number of us - find that there's a significant cost to not doing a standard nine-to-five. There are reduced opportunities to network, attend training to develop skills and knowledge, and build social rapport within teams, and an acceptance that the trade-off for flexibility should be more limited career prospects.

The BBC's piece on the report's findings doesn't spell it out, but this form of workplace discrimination - "flexism" - affects women disproportionately because it is they who most often make changes to their working pattern after starting a family. The difference between full-time and part-time workers is just another disparity that needs to be erased before a measure of equality can be achieved in the workplace.

Of course, it also needs to become equally common for men and women to request (and be granted) flexible working hours in the first place, and equally common for men and women to request (and be granted) extended parental leave. At present, whether they admit it or not, employers are able to choose a man over a woman on the grounds that she is more likely to be off for the best part of a year on parental leave and then more likely to return on reduced hours.

Monday, September 17, 2018

In praise of the NHS

It's heartening that everywhere you look, musicians and artists seem to be paying tribute to the NHS: Gruff Rhys' 'No Profit In Pain' single; the majority of the first programme in Grayson Perry's excellent new documentary series Rites Of Passage, which focused on childbirth and a neonatal unit; Alison Moyet on Twitter, praising the treatment she recently received after breaking her arm.

Perhaps the most heartfelt ode, though, has come from Joe Talbot. The Idles frontman has more reason than most to value the NHS, having been treated for club feet as a child, gone through the pain of miscarriage with his partner (who is herself a nurse) and experienced the care and compassion given to both his mum and stepdad before they died.

Describing the NHS as "a sustained practice of human kindness and good will", he argues that we should remember the guiding principle behind its creation: "that all humans were born and die equal and that human welfare is a right". A fundamental tenet, you'd hope, but (it's worth stressing) one that those pushing for privatisation are happy to reject.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Back of the net


Indie rock, some would have you believe, is dead. It isn't. It isn't even sleeping. It's in rude good health - and, as a recent New York Times article ventured, it's largely female artists who are keeping the flame alive.

Unlike all of those featured in that piece, Brooke Bentham isn't American, hailing instead from South Shields via London, but she could hold her own in the company of any of her transatlantic cousins. When Loud And Quiet branded her "the Angel (Olsen) of the North", it might have seemed to the uninitiated a cruel and facile comparison, burdening her with unnecessary pressure and arming audiences with unrealistic expectations. But within two minutes tonight she's exceeded them, her languid guitar style and incredible voice - reverbed, timeless, world-weary, beyond her years - holding the entire room rapt.

And the songs are sensational, compelling us to cling to every note and word. Breakthrough track 'Losing, Baby', even without piano and skipping beats, is wonderful, and yet is eclipsed by both 'Perform For You' and 'Heavy And Ephemeral'. New single 'Out Of My Mind' - recorded with Bill Ryder-Jones, the man who made The Coral interesting - sees Bentham temporarily dispensing with the folk in favour of guitar fuzz to great effect, and indeed might be even better with her backing band behind her.

It feels wrong to say this, given that they arranged for my review ticket, but Bentham's PR team would be well advised to start seeking out alternative employment. It's not that they're doing a bad job, it's just that very soon she won't need anyone to tell people how good she is.

Together with Mitski and kindred spirit Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy aka Sophie Allison is a cornerstone of the New York Times article's case. The Nashville native draws on Best Coast in imbuing the indie rock idiom with the spirit of breezy pop while retaining a mellow, melancholic reflectiveness.

She kicks off with a pair of older tracks, 'Henry' and 'Try', before concentrating largely on material from debut LP proper Clean. The teen/twentysomething melodrama of 'Cool' and 'Last Girl' makes them seem tailor-made for inclusion on the soundtrack for an indie flick made by someone who grew up on a diet of 80s teen movies. While the latter gives voice to feelings of insecurity and inadequacy within a relationship, 'Your Dog' is the polar opposite, a forthright riposte to the Stooges classic in which Allison refuses to be controlled and mistreated.

The highlight comes when the rather reticent singer is left alone to perform her sumptuous cover of Bruce Springsteen's 'I'm On Fire', which for my money trumps the original. Her bandmates - who look like a bunch of stoned arts students dragged out of a college dorm and onto the stage - return for 'Scorpio Rising', finally finding themselves left off the leash, though only temporarily at the track's climax.

Allison comes back for a solo single-song encore and then they're all gone. It feels as though it's all over too quickly - but then they've probably left a pizza burning in the oven, and those episodes of Rick And Morty won't watch themselves.

(An edited version of this review originally appeared on the Buzz website.)

Saturday, September 15, 2018

That joke isn't funny anymore

In his recent show Content Provider, Stewart Lee talks of the perils of trying to write topical material: if a joke or routine is truly topical, then it lacks the kind of longevity needed for a typical stand-up tour, the comedian running the risk of finding themselves suddenly overtaken by events.

More general shifts in attitudes in wider society can also affect comedy, though. In this article for Vulture, an assortment of American comics including "Weird Al Yankovic" and Patton Oswalt talk about jokes that, with the benefit of hindsight, they regret writing and performing because times have moved on.

When comedians are young, nervous and desperate to make an impression, missteps are inevitable, even if neither the stand-ups nor their audiences recognise them as such at the time and they only become glaringly obvious with the passage of time. The broad consensus of those interviewed is that comedians can only grow as performers if they're prepared to reflect critically on their old material, which can include acknowledging its contemporary unacceptability. It might be impossible to avoid feeling a tinge of regret at certain jokes, but you can guard against it by focusing on being true to yourself and your craft rather than merely seeking to cause offence.

(Thanks to Ian for the link.)

Friday, September 14, 2018

If you go down to the woods today...

There may have been better albums released in 2018, but there can't have been many as unique as Gazelle Twin's Pastoral, which I've just reviewed for Buzz: the multi-voiced, multi-layered creation of a lycra-clad jester that sees horror in tradition and the rural and that draws upon both medieval folk and 90s rave, often at the same time. Catfish & The Bottlemen this is not. Awarding it only three stars is perhaps a little harsh, but I do stand by my verdict that the concept trumps the execution.

In a bumper month for albums, there are also reviews of new releases from Idles, Mogwai, Anna Calvi, Christine And The Queens, Menace Beach, Alice In Chains, Arabrot and Orbital. And not to forget a rightly glowing recommendation for 'How I Faked The Moon Landing', the latest single from Cardiff band Silent Forum.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Pandering to the protesters

So, let's get this straight. The Tories have accepted evidence that pregnant women have been left distressed by protesters outside abortion clinics and yet have decided not to introduce buffer zones on the grounds that such cases are "not the norm". Perhaps Sajid Javid could enlighten us as to just how much harassment and intimidation is too much?

Diane Abbott branded the decision "a disgusting failure to uphold women's rights over their own bodies", while two different pro-life groups responded in time-honoured right-wing tradition by claiming that "common sense" has prevailed, conveniently ignoring the fact that there's nothing "common" about something with which millions of people disagree.

However anti-abortionists go about protesting, it's clear that their mere presence outside clinics often has a profound and damaging effect on women who are already vulnerable and traumatised - something that Javid and the Tories seem unable (or unwilling) to grasp.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

"The most powerful and coherent political statement the Manics ever made"

While the anthemicism and clean lines of 1996's Everything Must Go came as a shock to many hardcore Manics fans, the record that had them really renouncing their former heroes in their droves came two years later. Twenty years on, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours is ripe for reappraisal.

As the Quietus' Patrick Clarke notes, it's hardly surprising that those who got onboard in the eyeliner, feather boa and 'Motorcycle Emptiness' days were appalled. 'The Everlasting' set out the LP's stall: lush, grand, sweeping, palatable to Mondeo Man and those whose 90s had been soundtracked by Shine compilations.

And yet Clarke is right to point out that the album is unfairly maligned as a sell-out. Take lead single 'If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next': a reflection on fascism and the Spanish Civil War originally slated to be only a B-side (incredibly), it took the band to the top of the charts. Detractors might claim that the message was diluted by the medium, but it's possible to argue the opposite: that, after years of preaching to the converted, the band were finally connecting with mainstream audiences without compromising their lyrical content.

Everywhere you look there are heavy themes set to deceptively graceful music. 'Ready For Drowning' deals with cultural imperialism and the colonial attitude of the English towards the Welsh, while 'Black Dog On My Shoulder' addressed depression at a time when, unlike now, mental health issues were given little attention and routinely trivialised.

And then there's the incredible 'SYMM', the track that closes the album, which saw the band sticking their necks out by controversially and bluntly accusing the South Yorkshire Police of gross negligence during the Hillsborough disaster. At the time, they were vilified for it - but twenty years later they stand completely vindicated. 'Liverpool Revisited', from latest LP Resistance Is Futile, is a poor relation in every respect - much as that album is largely a lame imitation of This Is My Truth.

Don't hold your breath for any twentieth anniversary shows (a la The Holy Bible), and I wouldn't go so far as Clarke in acclaiming it as one of their best - but at the same time don't dismiss out of hand a record that deserves a better reputation than it's got.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

"Total bullshit"

I've not seen the Nirvana documentary Montage Of Heck yet, though it was recommended to me again last week. Turns out that the Melvins' Buzz Osborne, who was a long-time friend of Kurt Cobain and is not exactly renowned for mincing his words, is not a fan.

In a 2015 article for Talkhouse, he accuses the documentary makers of failing to fact-check, instead taking everything that Cobain and Courtney Love said as being true. It's nothing new to hear someone observing that "history becomes elastic every time Courtney Love opens her mouth", but Osborne also makes the point that Cobain too was "a master of jerking your chain".

"Unfortunately", he concludes, "it matters very little what the facts are; what matters is what people believe. And when it comes to Cobain, most of what they believe is fabricated nonsense."

Incidentally, Osborne's piece is a reminder why I should visit Talkhouse more often - as were recent articles on Swans' ability to "express the inexpressible" by Jon Mueller and on the new Oh Sees LP Smote Reverser by Future Of The Left's Andy Falkous.

Monday, September 10, 2018

"I was embarrassed by my own body"

Pumarosa's 'Priestess' is one of the most perfect debut singles in recent memory. Subsequent singles couldn't quite match it, but the resulting LP The Witch was still very good indeed. So it was something of a mystery to me why they suddenly seemed to disappear from view. Only now have I discovered that vocalist Isabel Munoz-Newsome had been diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Thankfully, she's been successfully treated and spoke frankly about her experience in an interview with the Guardian's Nosheen Iqbal ahead of Pumarosa's Meltdown show in June.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

For folk's sake

In the fifth of the Sounding Bored interview podcasts, Rob chats to Graham Hobbs and Jonathan Roscoe, editors of Shire Folk, an Oxfordshire-based folk-focused magazine that covers more than that might imply, both geographically and musically. You don't have to be a dyed-in-the-wool folkie to enjoy it - not least because much of the conversation relates to the ins and outs (and the economics) of running a niche music publication in 2018. That such a magazine is still going strong after 40 years (thanks to Graham and Jonathan stepping into the breach when the last editor stood down) - and, moreover, is still appearing in print - should be celebrated.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

"I write from the point of view of what I'd like to watch"

Fleabag was utterly brilliant and felt like a proper game-changer in sitcom terms, so it's fantastic to hear that creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge's talk of a second series has come to fruition.

In an interview with the Guardian's Simon Hattenstone, the conversation may have dwelt on burping, farting and tits, but Waller-Bridge is no nouveau ladette; on the contrary, she's a feminist who, Hattenstone notes, "as a writer ... wants to show women indulging their appetites and venting their grievances", and she admits to being motivated by a rage fuelled by "casual and systemic sexism".

In addition to speaking about the character that propelled her into the public eye, Waller-Bridge discussed about Killing Eve, a new series she's written, the first episode of which airs on BBC1 on 15th September. It's not a comedy and she doesn't appear on screen, but such was the quality of the writing on Fleabag that it's bound to be worth watching.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Slight return

Like a turd that just won't flush, Britpop is back. The critical consensus might now be that it was, in Michael Hann's words, "a cultural abomination", but, as his intrepid Guardian colleague Alexis Petridis reports, no one seems to have told the punters who flock to festivals like Cool Britannia and Shiiine On in search of "honest guitar music" from such stellar outfits as Space, Toploader and Shed Seven and the opportunity to witness a "Britpop jukebox musical" or Phil Daniels doing 'Parklife' with an orchestra.

The fact that these events are thriving while ATP weekenders are no more is phenomenally depressing. It goes to show, though, that the ATP organisers were genuine music fans with zero business sense, whereas the pair behind Cool Britannia, David Heartfield and Jack Gray, come across as people with no passion whatsoever for music but a keen nose for cash, having ditched their 80s festival Rewind for £30 million when they decided the market was saturated.

Gray is quoted as saying "I'd love to see a Welsh version of this festival with iconic bands like Catatonia". Please, no. That said, I think they'd struggle: Stereophonics would sign up in a flash, but two people using the name Cool Britannia trying to get the likes of the Manics, Super Furry Animals and Gorky's on board? I very much doubt it.

The principal reason for the Britpop revival, of course, is nostalgia. Petridis never once mentions Brexit, but the fact is that the parallels are there: Brits looking back with rose-tinted glasses to a time when Britannia ruled the waves (or at least the charts), eulogising conservative values in the face of a modern world they can't (or refuse to) comprehend.

I prescribe the new Gazelle Twin LP.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Fine Dire dining

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: there's a genuine pleasure to be had in reading a savagely critical review (and, indeed, in writing one too). Observer food critic Jay Rayner is among the best in the business, so the prospect of Wasted Calories And Ruined Nights, a second volume of his most scathing restaurant reviews, is very welcome indeed.

Among the pieces set to feature is the one on Le Cinq in Paris, which remains one of the best and most merciless maulings I've ever read. The dishes may have been dire, but Rayner's turn of phrase is typically delicious.

Know Your Enemy

"The claims made today by Viagogo are ludicrous, laughable and most importantly totally false. This is a transparent attempt to deflect attention away from their upcoming appearance at the DCMS inquiry and the wide-ranging criticisms, multiple legal prosecutions in many territories (including by the Competitions and Markets Authority in the UK) and condemnation of their business practices."

Kilimanjaro Live's response to the lawsuit filed against them by Viagogo was swift and unequivocal. Whatever happens, one of them is going to end up being humiliated publicly.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Dreams burn down

It would be practically impossible to write for a magazine at the heart of Oxford's music scene for more than a decade and not be aware of the significance of Ride, at least locally.

1990's Nowhere and, to a lesser extent, 1992's Going Blank Again were both slightly before my time - and in any case in the early 90s I was distracted by what was going on across the Atlantic. By the time I took up residence in Oxford, Ride had been out of existence for ten years.

But the reputation of those early albums had been steadily growing and, on a personal level, I had belatedly discovered the delights of shoegaze. When they announced the decision to reform in 2014, it was tempting to trace it back to the boozy business meeting I'd witnessed at the Magdalen Arms the previous December.

The initial reunion tour, including a slot at Primavera, saw the band revisiting old favourites - but a new album, Weather Diaries, emerged last year. So when I went along to Tramshed on Saturday for a long-awaited encounter, I was expecting (or at least hoping) to be floored by the classics, impressed by the new material and generally left convinced that their semi-legendary status is justified.

Sadly, it didn't really work out like that - not that many other people (including the guy crying at hearing 'Vapour Trail' for the first time in years) seemed to care.

Know Your Enemy

"We're in Crazytown. I don't even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I've ever had."

US Chief of Staff John Kelly, quoted in Bob Woodward's new book about the current administration Fear: Trump In The White House. Judging by the early excerpts, it's going to be an explosive read, alleging (among other things) that staff deliberately withheld papers from Trump to prevent him from seeing or signing them.

Needless to say, Trump is attempting to muster an aggressive defence, describing it as "another bad book" as if he's read enough books to know what a good one looks like.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Open to discussion

It's heartening to read that the male suicide rate in the UK has fallen to its lowest level since 1981. It remains a disproportionately common cause of death among men, but, as Ruth Sutherland of Samaritans has noted, the welcome downturn is probably attributable to both specific initiatives designed to combat the problem and a broader cultural shift in the way that mental health is perceived.

Not to overstate the case, but it does seem (anecdotally to me, at least) that things are gradually changing and that we are growing more comfortable with opening up to each other, acknowledging the value of seeking help and support rather than keeping anxieties and feelings bottled up inside. Hopefully, gone are the days when those who have the courage to admit they're struggling were simply told to "man up".

Ticket trouble

It's all kicking off between ticket reseller Viagogo and Ed Sheeran's promoters Kilimanjaro Live, with the former launching a lawsuit alleging that the latter are guilty of multi-million-pound fraud. Surely, though, if Viagogo are convinced that a crime has been committed, then it should be a matter for the police to investigate?

Monday, September 03, 2018

The rock canon in the firing line

The musical canon established in the 1970s and still dominant today consists largely of white, male rock acts - hardly surprising when it has been shaped and defined by largely white, male rock critics. So it's significant to find one such white, male rock critic - the Guardian's Michael Hann - arguing that in 2018 "you'd have to be the most intransigent of rockists to think the canon - as defined by its previous iterations - has any meaning at all".

Anyone who finds those greatest-album-of-all-time lists tediously predictable, if not outright offensive in the way they overlook female and black artists, will no doubt agree with Hann's analysis. He's right that there is now a lack of broad consensus to support the concept of a canon, and also a lack of critics and publications with sufficient status and authority to make such pronouncements.

Looking to the future, Hann foresees more narrow genre-based lists, but also suggests that the canon might yet make a comeback as a relevant construct, albeit with a markedly different complexion.

(Thanks to David for the link.)

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Let's dance

There was a time when this long-time lover of white men with guitars would have had no inclination whatsoever to listen to a podcast all about dance music and the culture surrounding it. However, my snobbish, dismissive attitude has gradually fallen by the wayside and my stance has softened over recent years. You can probably attribute the change to LCD Soundsystem (and to a lesser extent Fuck Buttons and Factory Floor), as well as to randomly attending a trance night back in 2014. So it was with genuine interest that I listened to Episode 32 of Sounding Bored for the perspective of a couple of friends with a long-term appreciation of dance.

The episode traces its origins in Chicago and Detroit, its movement from the underground to the mainstream and the curious phenomenon of the superstar DJ. David is certainly right to suggest that, in the US and the UK at least, club culture was in some respects a response to the political climate. The hedonistic aspect is undeniable (particularly in contrast to the rather dour late 80s indie scene - The Smiths, The Wedding Present, The Jesus & Mary Chain) but, rather than merely being mindless escapism, dance was actually form of protest music. It may not have had the direct sloganeering of punk, but it effectively performed the same function and prompted the same sort of moral panic among the establishment - as evidenced by the furore over Leah Betts' death and the Tory crackdown in the form of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, and its infamous reference to music "characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats".

David identifies four DJs in particular - Pete Tong, Carl Cox, Sasha and Paul Oakenfold - as pioneers who took dance music to the masses, though also makes a persuasive case for the importance of Madonna as a finger-on-the-pulse artist who brought dance trends to a much wider pop audience. He has a riposte to anyone like the twentysomething me who scoffs at the idea of DJs being considered as artists, pointing to the difficulty of cueing up records to match keys and beats seamlessly, and the skill needed to take an audience on a journey by taking the temperature of the room and improvising in real time. It's worth adding that in one sense the DJs were to all intents and purposes the performers, in that many of the white-label tracks they spun were never actually performed live by their creators.

The transition from underground to mainstream did inevitably take its toll, though. In the late 80s, dance culture was like a utopian antithesis to Thatcher's Britain - all about solidarity and community rather than individualism, egalitarianism rather than inequality, outward-looking internationalism rather than narrow-minded nationalism. By the era of the superstar DJs and the enormous superclubs they played (Cream, Gatecrasher, Ministry Of Sound, Godskitchen), a rampant neoliberalism was at work: hefty door prices, VIP areas, dress codes, corporate branding. Those early ideals became corrupted, and a laddish culture crept in.

That era may be largely over, but what Rob and David don't discuss on the podcast is that dance music hasn't gone away - it's simply retreated back underground, making way for pop and rap to rule the roost. Dance culture certainly isn't dead - not even in its original forms. The Criminal Justice Act may have been specifically designed to stop illegal gatherings, but it hasn't succeeded. Raves still take place within the M25 as well as further afield. A few years back, some of my friends regularly used to head into the Welsh countryside for all-night sessions, and last night I found myself in what is effectively an unlicensed club right in the centre of Cardiff. There might not have been much of a dancefloor, and there were no glowsticks - but the warehouse setting and convivial atmosphere would have been familiar to any survivors from the late 80s acid house scene.

Saturday, September 01, 2018

All I want

In the course of preparing for tonight's Ride gig (I do try to be a diligent reviewer, you know), I stumbled across this episode of What's In My Bag? featuring guitarist/vocalist Andy Bell and bassist Steve Queralt.

Aside from Queralt choosing ambient metal chanteuse Myrkur, their picks were less obscure or random than those of others (hello Bradford Cox!), but they still ranged from Godspeed You! Black Emperor to Abba via Oh Sees, Kendrick Lamar, DIIV, Derrick Carter, Depeche Mode, Brian Eno and Psychic TV.

I owe Queralt a debt of gratitude for selecting Sharon Van Etten's Because I Was In Love, the snippet of opening track 'I Wish I Knew' doing more than enough to convince me to revisit an artist I've previously failed to click with. Similarly, I also owe Bell - though that's for reassuring me that my dislike of Mac DeMarco is well founded.

I also enjoyed Queralt's story about finally being granted access to the hallowed in-store record player when he worked at Our Price in Oxford, only to commit the faux pas of playing Cocteau Twins' Victorialand at the wrong speed. He's right, though - it probably does sound just as good.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Kill Venerate your idols

Since Sonic Youth split, the principal songwriters - Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo - have each pursued their own particular paths. All of them have moved on from the classic sound of albums like Goo and Dirty, when Sonic Youth were at their most accessible (everything being relative, of course). Which is where Deaf Wish's Lithium Zion comes in. It doesn't add anything new, but if you're going to pay homage to anything, you could do much worse than their chosen subjects.

If only I could be so positive about the other LP I reviewed for Buzz this month. The Coral's Move Through The Dawn is a career low - and coming so soon after what looked like a return to form.

Also reviewed this month were the newies from Interpol, Oh Sees, White Denim and BC Camplight.