Saturday, May 25, 2024

Stage (mis)management

Outdoor festival season is upon us again, with Bearded Theory taking place as I write. Typically, the organisers have assembled the best bill yet, but the elements have conspired in the build-up to render the site something of a mudbath. Hopefully the bad weather will hold off and things won't get as bad as they did at Bluedot last year.

Major contemporary festivals are (by and large) slick, well-coordinated affairs - safe and somewhat sanitised. A far cry from their counterparts of the past, in other words, Just take a look at David Hurn's pictures of the Isle of Wight Festivals of 1969 and 1970 for proof.

Or consider the example of the Bickershaw Pop Festival, which took place in Lancashire in 1972. The brainchild of an eccentric and ambitious local entrepreneur, the event featured appearances from Captain Beefheart, the Kinks, Hawkwind and the Grateful Dead, among others - but, by virtue of a perfect storm of weather conditions, inadequate infrastructure, poor planning, local opposition and gross naivety on the part of the organisers, it descended into complete chaos. And - as this fantastic BBC archive footage illustrates - at the centre of it all was a young Jeremy Beadle, a bedraggled and beleaguered optimist trying in vain to hold everything together and looking for all the world like he'd been, well, framed.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

"This triumphant bellowing is curdling into a corrosive bluster"

Read the latest Music In The Air report from Goldman Sachs - "a TED Talk from Gordon Gekko in a biker jacket", in the words of Eamonn Forde, writing for the Quietus - and you'd get the impression that all is rosy for the music industry.

Not only does it smack of arrogance and hubris, suggesting that lessons from the early years of the millennium have been swiftly forgotten. Unsurprising, perhaps. But it's also horribly head in the sand and tone deaf, ignoring the contemporary, widely reported realities for so many in the industry - whether that's the record company staff and writers who've found themselves as collateral damage in corporate restructuring; the grassroots music venue operators trying to keep their spaces open on a shoestring; or the artists themselves, earning a pittance from streaming and essentially paying to play thanks to the horrific costs of touring

As Forde argues, the smug assumption that it'll be "jam today, jam tomorrow, jam forever" is at risk of looking extremely foolish. If there's not a rapid recognition that ensuring the health of the whole ecosystem is essential, then the magic money tap enjoyed by the industry's top brass may run dry.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

(Not yet) a class act


ENGLISH TEACHER / GLADBOY, 11TH MAY 2024, CARDIFF CLWB IFOR BACH

Gladboy are every inch a conundrum, corroborating the notion that their birthplace Norwich is something of an outpost, an outlier, a city with its own distinct culture where odd is the norm.

On the one hand, the quintet seem a little scrappy and out of sync (and not entirely artfully so), and the sound levels do them few favours - the bongo drum, for instance, is rendered merely a visual rather than a sonic component. But on the other, there are some unusual three-part harmonies, 'Johnny Come Lately' is a great name for a song and they have an intriguing knack of twisting the familiar into the novel - for example, angrily turning the rhythmic groove of Modern Lovers' 'Roadrunner' on its head ("TURN THE RADIO OFF!") and exhuming the goth dub corpse of Bauhaus' 'Bela Lugosi's Dead' for a track called 'Karloff'.

Headliners English Teacher, meanwhile, go big and bold early, opening up with 'The World's Biggest Paving Slab' - a taut post-punk toe-tapper that unexpectedly blooms into something more expansive at the chorus. It's one of a slew of smart, savvy singles - also including 'Nearly Daffodils' and 'R&B' - that put the band firmly on the indie curriculum.

The dilemma then is how to follow it up - and (if you'll pardon another blindingly obvious pun) this is where English Teacher still have a bit to learn. All five cuts from 2022 EP Polyawkward seem to have been discarded, which means that the main set is simply the entirety of freshly minted debut album This Could Be Texas on shuffle.

The title track signals serious (and very welcome) intent to move into more ambitious Black Country, New Road territory, and 'Broken Biscuits' is a neatly personal state-of-the-nation survey. But with the muted introspection of songs like 'Mastermind Specialism' - affecting though they are - the momentum sags and interest wanes. The set only really jolts back to life with the urgency and bite of 'R&B', Lily Fontaine's bitter and withering comment on racism within the music industry - "Despite appearances, I haven't got the voice for R&B" - and relies on a fine cover of LCD Soundsystem's 'New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down' to reach a heady climax.

English Teacher are still finding their feet sonically, but the problem tonight, perhaps, isn't so much the material as their manipulation of it, and the fact that they're as yet unable to completely command a room. Allowances need to be made, though, and touring will help with confidence (if not with finances). They're far from the first band to be propelled to attention prematurely, forced to develop faster and on bigger stages than most and inevitably subjected to greater scrutiny. Here's hoping that they don't take lukewarm reviews like this one to heart and are given the time and space to fulfil their considerable potential.

A final word on the crowd. Perhaps it's inevitable given 6 Music's listenership, but the fact that a young band touring their debut album can only seem to attract old farts twice their age (guilty as charged) fuels concerns about gig demographics post-COVID and amid the cost-of-living crisis, and about the health of the live music scene and indeed the music industry more generally.

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

Saturday, May 18, 2024

"I remember he was explaining the history of the pencil to our bass player once"

Paying tribute to the late, great Steve Albini, I argued that he'll be best remembered as a producer (well, engineer). That much is borne out by the first-hand accounts of his expertise (and humour) in and around the recording studio gathered by Ben Beaumont-Thomas, Stevie Chick and Annie Zaleski for this Guardian article

PJ Harvey, Will Oldham, Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite and Sunn O)))'s Stephen O'Malley are among those who talk in glowing terms about their time spent working with Albini. Jon Spencer is not alone in noting how it was very much a learning experience, and neither is David Gedge of the Wedding Present in lauding Albini's general approach and attitude - offering advice but refusing to egotistically leave a thumbprint on records, instead striving to help bands to realise their own visions and create the conditions in which they could be the best versions of themselves. For Andrew Falkous of Mclusky, it was a matter of personality as much as of technical nous - not only did he understand "the scientific principles of where to place a microphone", he also "had empathy, he knew how to listen to a band".

Huw Baines has surveyed the fruits of those many hundreds of recording sessions and selected ten of the best, rightly including Nirvana's In Utero and PJ Harvey's Rid Of Me.

Meanwhile, for Crack, Daniel Dylan Wray has singled out some of the quieter records on Albini's CV: Low's Things We Lost In The Fire, Dirty Three's Ocean Songs, Joanna Newsom's Ys. "It was arguably Albini's love of noise music, and his inherent understanding of its principles and dynamics, that resulted in him being able to produce such genuinely stirring, beautiful and often tender music", he writes. "Albini specialised in capturing a sound that, for the most part, understood the essence of holding back. Of knowing when to strike. A lot of the music he wrote, or produced, explored space and breadth as often as it unleashed kicks to the temple."

Friday, May 17, 2024

Sonic youth

Not only does the new, improved Quietus site looks lovely, but it's been relaunched in fine fashion. First came John Higgs' interview with Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson - quite probably the only musician to pilot his band's tour jet - and then author Benjamin Myers' recollections of what some might consider a misspent youth (but he certainly wouldn't) as a member of teenage punk band Sour Face.

Myers' piece is an absolute delight - from the description of Sour Face exhibiting "an inability that was disrespectful to the entire concept of music", to the tales of drug experimentation, dealing with a crowd comprised exclusively of fascist skinheads and discovering a frozen shit in the backstage fridge of much-missed Newcastle venue the Riverside. If he ever decides to write a memoir, then this will surely be all he needs to persuade a publisher to put it out.

While I'm no musician and never have been, I can still relate, as a hanger-on who took vicarious pleasure in my friends' teenage musical endeavours. Myers' article brought back fond memories: of drunken "stage" diving from a table at the back of a venue; of the overenthusiastic use of a smoke machine during a gig in Morpeth Leisure Centre bar, and the complete chaos that ensued; of the night at the Cumberland Arms in Newcastle (unwittingly following in Sour Face's footsteps) where I first saw someone assault a guitar with a screwdriver and where the headliners were the delightfully named Delicate Vomit; and of the friend who, performing under the name of Brian Damage, was busy smashing an acoustic guitar against the Town Hall's brand new stage at the exact moment that the Mayor walked in, leading to an immediate ban on all bands playing the venue. Happy days.

And now three of those mates are actually getting to live the dream (albeit a little more sensibly than they might have done in their youth), back where it all started, metaphorically speaking: playing Nirvana covers.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Bright future or false dawn?


With devolution turning 25, writer and academic Emma Schofield invited contributors from an array of different backgrounds and fields to evaluate its impact on the lives of women in Wales. Here's my review of the resulting publication for Buzz.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Non-stop post-punk cabaret


NIGHTINGALES / TED CHIPPINGTON, 9TH MAY 2024, NEWPORT LE PUB

Just in case you were in any doubt as to what sort of crowd a double bill of Nightingales and Ted Chippington might attract, within ten minutes of entering Le Pub I've overheard two men of a certain age observe to their pals "There are a lot of men of a certain age here", and there's a bit of a kerfuffle soon after when someone takes a tumble.

Comedian Chippington is used to falling flat on his face, metaphorically speaking; indeed, he's made a virtue and a kind of career out of it - albeit one with a lengthy hiatus when he deliberately ducked for cover, worried about the prospect of becoming too popular (not that that was ever really likely).

After a handful of trademark deader-than-deadpan covers in the company of his backing band the Rockin' Rebels (including 'D.I.S.C.O.' and 'Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree', but sadly not his working men's club lounge version of the Beatles' 'She Loves You'), he presents a masterclass in how to subvert the art of stand-up and yet ironically elicit laughs in doing so.

Like a man rambling to himself over a pint of mild in a Midlands pub, Chippington recounts anecdotes about irritating neighbours and pest control that stumble comically to their anti-climactic conclusion; tells anti-jokes that are all the funnier for not being funny; and delivers punchlines like "I once saw them supporting Throbbing Gristle". Pulling a setlist of sorts out of his pocket, he grumbles about not liking the look of anything on it, and, when a punter interrupts a segment about atlases to talk about the manufacture of model globes, he senses an opportunity to gather more material: "Keep going - I'll need this for tomorrow night."

It's clear that Stewart Lee has been a keen student, but whereas his routines are meticulously crafted, Chippington comes across as a natural spontaneous performer - or perhaps he's just particularly skilled in concealing the artifice.

That Lee is a fan of Robert Lloyd is even more apparent, the Nightingales frontman having been the subject of Lee and Michael Cumming's 2020 anti-rockumentary King Rocker. The affinity between Lloyd and regular touring companion Chippington is also obvious, with Lloyd also most at home holed up in the boozer, holding court with the driest of humour.

Parallels are perennially drawn between Nightingales and the Fall, somewhat to Lloyd's consternation. "I never understood that comparison", he told the Guardian's Daniel Dylan Wray in 2021. "Only inasmuch as we're both bands that you can't compare to other bands - and us both being a couple of curmudgeonly old cunts who don't know when to give up." Lloyd did give up, for a period - the band, formed in 1979, split in 1986 - but since being resurrected in 2004 their gigging and recording has been prolific. Formerly a member of the short-lived punk outfit the Prefects, Lloyd has been the one constant, the turnover of accompanying personnel astonishingly high. Another parallel with the Fall, then - as is the fact that in later years the line-up has finally solidified, with guitarist James Smith, bassist Andreas Schmid and badass drummer Fliss Kitson becoming Lloyd's regular accomplices for the last decade.

And understandably so - the quartet's chemistry is evident as, over the course of an hour, they bear witness to the truth of Lloyd's claim that Nightingales are unique and uncategorisable. In very broad terms, we're talking post-punk, but the set also encompasses everything from rockabilly, Dr Feelgood-esque pub rock and Glitter Band glam stomp to warped near-Beefheartisms and hints of motorik.

The suited and booted Lloyd is a belligerent crooner, the Sinatra of 'Spoons, an embittered middle manager letting it all out at a work karaoke night. His voice wobbling with sustain, he sings about fire and brimstone and namechecks both Jesus and Elton John, before supplementing Kitson's percussion by bashing on a metal beer tray. However, even this seasoned veteran of the stage is momentarily discombobulated by the loon up front who continues to throw Pan's People shapes during an acappella section. "You can't dance to this, mate", he says with a chuckle.

No breaks between songs, no tedious tuning up, no encore - just a tight, focused demonstration of why this band deserve their cult status.

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

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Yes men

There's simply no substitute for witnessing Les Savy Fav in person. That they're one of the greatest live bands around was confirmed at Green Man last year.*

But that's not to say that their records don't deserve attention too. Oui, LSF, their first since 2010's Root For Ruin, has much to recommend it - from the siren guitar of opener 'Guzzle Blood', to the nimble commentary on instant gratification 'What We Don't Don't Want', to 'Dawn Patrol', a beatific hymn to all-nighters in good company.

Buzz review here.

*I've now realised that Tim Harrington wasn't singing "We were there when the world got grey / We helped to make it that way", but "We were there when the world got great / We helped to make it that way". So, the exact opposite. Still, it works - they did indeed help make it that way that afternoon.

Friday, May 10, 2024

Scone with the wind


Nothing if not versatile, I can write about punk gigs, metal albums, screwball bands and legendary producers (sorry Steve - engineers) - but also an al fresco lunch at a tearoom at a National Trust property in Pembrokeshire.

Thursday, May 09, 2024

Incredible dude


Few strangers' deaths have hit me as hard as that of Steve Albini, who has passed away at the criminally young age of just 61.

When the dust settles, I doubt Albini will be best remembered as a musician - whether fronting nihilistic sonic terrorists Big Black or the caustic minimalist noise-rock of Shellac, brilliant though both were. Nor will he be primarily celebrated as a world-class poker player or an accomplished amateur chef.

No, it will be for his skills in the studio.

In a now-legendary letter written to Nirvana pitching for the job of recording In Utero, Albini effectively set out his philosophy, arguing that the band and their needs/desires should always be central. He saw his own role modestly, as merely as that of an engineer rather than a producer - someone working humbly in service of the artists and the songs - to the extent that he retrospectively claimed that his part in the creation of In Utero and Manic Street Preachers' Journal Of Plague Lovers "is kind of a footnote".

Self-effacing and refreshingly ego-free, for sure - but simply not true. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Albini was a critical contributor to these and countless other landmark records (PJ Harvey's Rid Of Me and The Wedding Present's Seamonsters, to name just two), to such an extent that he could arguably be hailed as the single most influential man in the realm of "alternative" rock - much as he'd have hated it.

There's no mistaking an Albini album - just listen for the distinctive aggressive thump of the drums, especially in tandem with the bass and scraping, searing guitar. That signature sound is most prominent on In Utero (see 'Scentless Apprentice', for example) but also ensures that the likes of The Jesus Lizard's Goat, Strange Peace by Metz and Mclusky Do Dallas carry serious heft.

But Albini was versatile, refusing to restrict himself to working only on punk and noise records. Over the years, he collaborated with artists as wildly different as Jimmy Page & Robert Plant, Joanna Newsom, The Dirty Three and Slint. It's remarkable that he worked with drone metal overlords Sunn O))) at one end of the sonic spectrum, and had a hand in bringing the impossibly fragile beauty of 'Laser Beam' (from Low's Things We Lost In The Fire) into the world at the other.

The sheer number of albums for which Albini has production/engineering credits is a reflection of his ethos. Despite being fiercely opinionated on music, he would work with anyone prepared to pay, seeing himself as a gun for hire - hence the record he made with Bush, and the fact that he was receptive to fiftysomething Scots emailing him out of the blue and offering to spend a chunk of their pension flying him to Leith for five days.

Albini's punk rock principles prevented him from agreeing to a share of royalties. As he told Nirvana, "I would like to be paid like a plumber: I do the job and you pay me what it's worth". Taking points rather than a flat fee for In Utero alone would have netted him a small fortune, but the practice was, in his view, "ethically indefensible". Ultimately, it came down to a disdain for the profit motive, a belief in fairness and a respect for the artists as the real creative forces - all of which he touched on in a 2015 interview on his business philosophy with Michael Friedman for Psychology Today.

At the same time, Albini could be notoriously prickly and cantankerous, particularly in his youth. He was eternally forthright in his opinions, whether savaging the corporate music industry, dismissing "club culture" or ranting about "tomato paste as a base for pasta sauce".

Of course, some of the sentiments Albini expressed over the years were rather more unsavoury, especially within the left-leaning punk community. It's not like these need to be dredged up - they're there for all to see, not least the fact that the agent provocateur par excellence saw fit to form a post-Big Black band called Rapeman. But it's to Albini's huge credit that unlike some of his peers, in his later years he not only refused to double down but actually held his hands up in unequivocal apology - first on Twitter and in an interview with Mel's Zaron Burnett III, and then in an illuminating and frank conversation with Jeremy Gordon for the Guardian. This was an old dog willing to denounce his old tricks and learn to be a better person.

Like so many of my generation, I first came across Albini the producer via In Utero, which he felt was defanged somewhat in post-production but to my ears still sounded like a red-raw howl of an album. But it was at the inaugural ATP in 2000 that I first encountered Albini the musician, onstage with Shellac telling jokes ("What's orange and looks good on hippies? Fire") and leaving Kim Gordon speechless with his band's force. (Curators Mogwai would later enlist his services for 'My Father, My King' - and, like so many others, be taken aback at his refusal to accept royalties.)

Shellac were on the bill again when I (very belatedly) made it to my second ATP, in 2009, curated by The Breeders, one of the hundreds of bands with an album listed on his CV. Nothing had changed, thankfully: "For their first set of the weekend, as always, they set up their own equipment and insist on nothing but harsh bright white light on stage before clobbering us full in the face with their precise, abrasive, minimalist bludgeon - a fusion of Steve Albini's fingernails-down-blackboard guitar (attached with his trademark waist strap), Bob Weston's subterranean bass rumble and whipcrack drumming provided by Todd Trainer, who, stick-thin and dressed all in black, looks like a character from a Tim Burton film."

I saw Shellac at ATP several more times. They practically became the festival's house band, but I never took those regular appearances for granted, savouring each one (though I also never plucked up the courage to take up the mass invitation to his chalet to play poker, regrettably). It was fitting, then, that - after a welcome encounter on foreign shores, at Primavera in Porto, in the summer of 2012 - they curated the last ATP I ever went to, at the end of that year. The line-up featured everyone from Neurosis, Zeni Geva and Mono to Kim Deal, The Ex, The Membranes and Nina Nastasia, all of whom had benefitted at some time from Albini's expertise - testimony to the mark he made on the landscape.

Now, Shellac's forthcoming new album To All Trains - their first for a decade - will be their last, and the cover feature on the band in the June issue of The Wire will be an epitaph.

As Albini himself would have said, requiescat.

(Thanks to Abbie for the photo.)

Sunday, May 05, 2024

Relative ways

It's often galling to see what other writers can do with the same album and a more generous word count - but it would be petty not to salute JR Moores' superb review of Fat White Family's new album Forgiveness Is Yours just because I've written my own.

Moores nails certain songs. 'Religion For One', for instance, is aptly described as "the Fat Whites' version of a lounge ballad" and "not a million miles away from what Arctic Monkeys have been doing of late, albeit with greater emphasis on failure, pain, humiliation and resentment". Even better is the characterisation of creepy closer (and standout song) 'You Can't Force It' as an "elegant final number [that] feels like peeling the skin from Noel Coward's face to find yourself confronted by the rotten-toothed grin of Papa Lazarou". More League of Gentlemen references in music reviews, I say!

The album also proves to be a prompt for a more general discussion of the phenomenon of musicians claiming or at least implying, somewhat arrogantly, that they're the last passengers aboard the good ship Rock 'N' Roll as it crashes and sinks. That doesn't wash with Moores, quite rightly: "At the risk of sounding like the once-urgent lyricist turned mainstream festival bore, Alex Turner, rock & roll will never die. It mutates. It is cyclical. It shrinks and then swells like a leathery pufferfish. It repeats itself. Young musicians make similar mistakes and commit to the same cliches as countless others did prior." It seems strange to suggest that a band as willfully perverse as Fat White Family - or a frontman as unique as Lias Saoudi, at least - might be at all cliched, but it's a fair point well made.

Friday, May 03, 2024

Respiration and perspiration

In April 2023, Heavy Lungs made a big impression at Clwb in support of DITZ. Almost exactly a year to the day, they were back to show what they could do as headliners. Let's just say that no one who was there left disappointed - and most of them left with some merch.

Buzz review here.

Thursday, May 02, 2024

"This is a time of crisis"

When it comes to the state of the music industry, and live music in particular, I continue to try to look for the positives (see here, for example) - but it's extremely difficult when confronted with an unrelenting torrent of grimness on a daily basis.

Take Daniel Dylan Wray's recent Guardian article on the cost of touring from the perspective of artists, for example - an alarming eye-opener that has drawn universal acclaim for exposing the extent of the crisis. 

Once upon a time, gigging was seen as a lucrative business. Then, when revenues from sales of recorded music collapsed with the advent of streaming, it became a crutch (or was perceived as such, at least), helping to subsidise the costs of creating, recording, producing and releasing albums. But now touring often seems to end in debt - not only for smaller acts but even for those filling decent-sized venues who you would automatically assume must be turning a profit.

The situation, essentially, is simple: costs are increasing but the size of fees and audiences are not. Indeed, there's some concern that attendances are actually declining for sub-arena gigs. Perhaps, in the post-pandemic era and with the cost of living biting hard, the general public are preferring to save their money for stadium acts (not that you'd have caught many Swifties down at the Moon before COVID-19 hit, mind).

In revealing the realities for artists and examining the various factors at work, Wray touches on three themes that also recur in analyses of the predicament of other sectors of the arts: the impact of Brexit (which in this case has made touring Europe an expensive, bureaucratic ballache and led to a saturation of the gigging market in the UK); the fact that making and performing music is becoming more a hobby rather than a vocation (which makes the industry increasingly inaccessible and hostile to working-class artists); and the collapse of the whole vital ecosystem.

Perhaps understandably, Wray focuses on diagnosing the problems, devoting little space to the consideration of solutions. On a micro-level, merch sales are now more crucial than ever, helping by putting money directly into the pockets of artists - but some venues demand a cut, and I can't be the only gig-goer who has to choose between picking up a CD or T-shirt (to support the band) and buying a pint or three (to support the venue). This can't be the long-term answer.

Tom Excell of Nubiyan Twist argues that what is required is "more state funding and support from the top down", to follow the model found on the continent. David Martin of the Featured Artists Coalition agrees: "The government needs to start looking at spending money on the music industry as an investment rather than as a cost."

But, given that the Tories appear intent on waging war on the creative industries and have no interest in bringing about much-needed change within the world of music (see the dismissive refusal to act on the recommendations of the Misogyny In Music report), the chances of this happening seem very slim indeed. And even if they are turfed out in the general election, as looks likely, it seems pointless pinning hopes on their prospective Tory-lite successors being any better.

Wednesday, May 01, 2024

Canteen closure

Paying a visit to Tukka Tuk Canteen last month, I was alarmed to find it "undeservedly unloved on a Friday lunchtime", with ours the only occupied table in what is a reasonably large restaurant. My review ended with the plea "Let's not lose this one, please" - but now, sadly, we have.

Their statement on Instagram revealed: "For the past year we have tried our hardest to fight the hospitality battle that we know everyone is fighting, but there is a time when surrender seems the only route possible."

Looking back, I guess the writing was already on the wall by the time I visited - a terrible shame. One of our March party returned with another group and left - like many others - raving about the bone marrow varuval in particular. The fact that closure was the only option for a restaurant serving up food as good as that, with Anand George's pedigree and nous behind it, and located on a street with decent footfall, underlines just how serious the current crisis is.

Monday, April 29, 2024

Mercy mission

Four albums in and I still haven't fully warmed to or been totally won over by Fat White Family. But Forgiveness Is Yours does boast at least two instances of warped genius - 'Today You Become Man' (with its Verve parody video) and queasy closer 'You Can't Force It' - and ultimately provocative eccentricity is in short supply these days and therefore something to be encouraged. 

Buzz review here.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Superiority complex

Given all I write about the plight of live music venues, I shouldn't really be smirking about Coop Live's teething troubles - but the Schadenfreude is just too irresistible.

The latest development is that the Peter Kay "opening" shows have been postponed for a second time, with today's scheduled Black Keys gig bumped backwards too. The venue has explained that the "extra time" is needed "to continue testing enhanced emergency communications and measures thoroughly". This comes after problems with the power supply.

Former boss Gary Roden had claimed that some grassroots venues are "poorly run", in the course of dismissing the Music Venue Trust's campaign for a £1 levy on arena ticket sales as "quite aggressive". The arrogance and ignorance were bad enough, but, as the MVT responded, "the irony of making ill-judged, unnecessary and misleading comments about grassroots music venues on the day that the launch of their new arena has unfortunately fallen into such difficulties is not lost on anyone in the music industry, on artists, or on audiences".

Roden resigned on Thursday (possibly before he was pushed), but credit to the MVT's Mark Davyd for rising above any pettiness. He wrote on Twitter: "It's not us versus arenas. It's everyone together in one big ecosystem. We are simply asking that this reality is acknowledged, respected and acted upon."

Davyd's "We're all in this together" message is a veiled warning, and the whole Coop Live saga should be a cautionary tale for other smug, cocky arena execs before they spout off condescendingly about their venues' supposed superiority.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Old dogs, new tricks

Now into their fifth decade of existence, sludge metal titans and grunge godfathers Melvins show no signs of packing up and leaving us all in peace - something to celebrate, given they're still turning out albums as solid and surprisingly fresh as Tarantula Heart.

Buzz review here.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Fighting talk

I'm far from being a boxing fan - so it's a measure of how good Stable: The Boxing Game is that I was gripped throughout. The four-part BBC documentary follows the fortunes of the fighters under the mentorship and guidance of Shane McGuigan, son of former featherweight champion Barry.

Ultimately, boxing boils down to an intense confrontation between two individuals within the ring. However, Stable underlines all of the training and work (physical and mental) that goes into preparing for a fight, and all of the scaffolding in place around boxers to help them reach their goals. It also shows the mutual respect, support and camaraderie between all of those under McGuigan's tutelage; in what is a solo sport, they are effectively teammates, willing each other on to success.

What made the documentary particularly powerful, for a non-boxing devotee, was that it goes beyond the ring, and indeed beyond the gym, by delving into the personal lives, backgrounds and motivations of the different fighters. In doing so, it tells very human, relatable stories about faith (in oneself or a higher power), determination, obsession, loyalty, betrayal and friendship.

Friday, April 19, 2024

A force for change

I recently had the misfortune to encounter some knob on Twitter declaring that war photographers (like working-class photographers) are merely virtue signallers who do nothing constructive and make no positive impact. Anyone who uses the epithet "virtue signallers" doesn't deserve to be taken at all seriously, but let's briefly do so. OK, done: even if we leave aside the question of whether it's reasonable (as he seems to think) to expect lone individuals to resolve complex structural problems, history shows that his argument is patently absolute horseshit. Take Vietnam alone.

And not only history. Just look at Mohammed Salem's image named Photo of the Year in this year's World Press Photo Contest: Inas Abu Maamar, head bowed in grief, cradling the shrouded corpse of her five-year-old niece Saly. Amid all the abstract talk, the photo - respectful and taken with humanity - conveys the individual and intensely personal consequences of the Israeli assault on Gaza. It underlines that those who have been killed are not merely numbers - they have names, and families, and friends, and communities.

Nothing can quite capture the reality of what is happening (and has already happened) there, and the image is not going to bring an end to the horror on its own. But the judges' decision to award this photo the prize will mean that its stark power will resonate more widely, and it can't fail to have an impact.

Meanwhile, several of the regional winners in the contest depict the devastating effects of climate change: forest fires in Canada (Charles-Frederick Ouellet), gas flares in Venezuela (Adriana Loureiro Fernandez), rising sea levels in Fiji (Eddie Jim) and, most astonishingly, a bone-dry Amazon riverbed (Lalo de Almeida). Such images help to bring home the gravity of the situation and the urgency required to address it, and should be thrust in the faces of those who continue to prioritise short-term personal self-interest over implementing solutions for the benefit of all.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

(Renewable) power to the people

In the face of the increasingly dire warnings of climate scientists, it seems like an absolute no-brainer to insist that all new homes should be built with solar panels on the roof as standard (not least because it costs four times as much to retrofit them). But no, not for the Tories, whose (in)actions - as ever - pander to their most prominent donors. We can't possibly risk upsetting those nice housing developers, now, can we?

The grim reality is that, as with under-threat music venues and the music industry as a whole, the best (and perhaps only) way of garnering the Tories' attention is to speak their language and reiterate the specifically financial case for significantly ramping up renewable energy schemes: "creating long-term jobs [and] boosting our ailing economy", in the words of Friends Of The Earth's Tony Bosworth. The alternative is an even grimmer reality in which we fry/drown/starve because those with the power to put the brakes on continue to refuse to act.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

It's a family affair


At first, I struggled to warm to Zadie Smith's 2005 novel On Beauty - billed as a return to form after 2002's The Autograph Man - and suspected I'd have been better off taking her celebrated debut, 2000's White Teeth, as the more obvious starting point.

Perhaps it was because it had been a while since I'd read such a densely plotted doorstop novel. Perhaps it was because I'm unfamiliar with the book to which On Beauty is (in Smith's words) a "homage", E. M. Forster's Howard's End.

But gradually I was drawn into this dramatised clash of culture, class, politics and personality just as inexorably as the fictional Belsey and Kipps clans find themselves drawn together by circumstance. The relations between the different members of the two families are varied, mediated by everything from lustful attraction to professional enmity. The intricate web that Smith weaves gets progressively more tangled, perhaps too overly reliant on coincidence and contrivance (the friendship between the matriarchs, Kiki Belsey and Carlene Kipps, in particular is a stretch) but only to ensure that there's a great deal that can unravel as the book reaches its satisfying climax.

On Beauty is in some respects a comic campus novel in the tradition of Kingsley Amis and David Lodge, with the pretentious liberal Howard Belsey and the pompous conservative Monty Kipps locking horns in a satirical swipe at the self-importance of academia. But all of the characters are subjected to the mockery of their creator to a greater or lesser degree, whether gently or sharply. I particularly enjoyed the passages featuring Jack French, a smartly observed caricature of the sort of scholar pressed into service as head of department against his will, who talks in circles but says nothing while presiding over interminable staff meetings and seems to have a pathological fear of conflict.

There is a seriousness to On Beauty, too. Most affecting is the scene in which Howard tries to reconcile with his estranged father, only to be painfully let down once again by the old man's incorrigible racism. In a novel that repeatedly highlights the distances that spring up or inevitably exist between parents and children (most notably, between Howard and his youngest son, the streetwise non-academic Levi), it's a bitter but poignant reminder of the difficulties of cross-generational communication and understanding, and the challenges of intra-family (rather than inter-family) discord.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Love thy Neighbourhood


Neighbourhood has invited a variety of different chefs to take over its kitchen since opening on Cardiff's Tudor Street three years ago. Tacos Del Barrio are currently in residence and, as a sucker for Mexican tucker, I was lured into paying a visit.

Buzz review here.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Seen but not heard

You'd think it would be a no-brainer that if you were commissioned to write an article on the barriers facing working-class photographers, you might actually start by talking to some of them. But no - they're conspicuous by their absence from Lanre Bakare's piece for the Guardian.

Bakare's interviewees are sympathetic, for sure - but, as is all too often the way with these things, those who are at the heart of the matter find themselves spoken for, rather than given a platform of their own. Would it have been too difficult to ask the likes of Jim Mortram or Joanne Coates - both of whom are vocal on social media about the struggles of working-class artists - about their own personal experiences? 

The mainstream media, evidently, represent one such barrier. Another, inevitably, is financial viability. As Bakare implies, the market for such work is much smaller than it was in the era of Bert Hardy, who was able to sell images to publications like Life and Picture Post, which had huge circulations.

For those who lack independent means or professional family backgrounds, then, external sources of funding are essential. However, as noted by Paul Sng - whose superb documentary Tish is now available on iPlayer, prompting Bakare's piece - in many cases assistance is required merely to access that support. Such assistance - and indeed help of any kind - is highly unlikely to be forthcoming from a Tory government that has just announced plans to slash funding for university creative arts courses.

The difficulties don't merely revolve around money and politics, though; the art world is also to blame. Sng's film makes clear that Tish had an innate raw talent but lacked self-confidence, needing to be convinced that her photos had artistic value outside her immediate circle. As Johny Pitts tells Bakare, his current touring exhibition After The End Of History: British Working Class Photography 1989-2024 features artists who "haven't been given either a chance, haven't conformed to upper-middle-class notions of what good taste is, or simply haven't had the chance to build a network within that world". The onus is on cultural gatekeepers to do better too.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Brewers' droop

"It's like death by a thousand cuts at the moment" is precisely the sort of statement that might be uttered by many a grassroots music venue manager. But it actually comes from Alex Troncoso of brewer Lost & Grounded, as reported in this Guardian article by Rob Davies, which makes it abundantly clear that times are tough for the craft beer industry.

Some of the challenges are common to both venues and brewers: most prominently, the cost of living crisis, which has meant the double whammy of rising costs coupled with a growing reluctance among consumers to spend money; burdensome repayments for loans taken out to ensure survival through the COVID-19 lockdowns; changing post-pandemic drinking/leisure habits; and the multifarious negative repercussions of Brexit.

However, other challenges identified by Davies and his interviewees are specific to the brewing industry. For example, while the Tories may be widely trumpeting their draught-duty freeze, the tax charged on beer remains hefty compared to our continental neighbours. Meanwhile, the supermarkets' apparently growing reluctance to stock the produce of independent breweries is undermining those breweries' efforts to stay afloat, as well as reducing and narrowing the selection of beers on offer to customers.

Davies quotes some in the industry who are up for the fight, but survival instinct hasn't been enough to save the likes of Purity and, very much closer to home, Rival. Some small-scale solutions and strategies are discussed in the article, but intervention on a national level seems necessary, and increasingly urgent.

Of course, Carling and Madri drinkers most likely won't care, and there will be some real ale aficionados celebrating the fact that the craft beer bubble may have burst, or at least arguing that the boom couldn't last. But biodiversity is inherently a good thing in any ecosystem, so its loss is a serious cause for concern.

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

"An elusive presence"

Talking a few years ago about his now famous pictures of Glasgow, Raymond Depardon admitted that he felt like a "Martian", and that this distance and disorientation shaped the images that he took. In this illuminating Guardian article on Akihiko Okamura, Sean O'Hagan begins by mentioning the Strange And Familiar exhibition (which, incidentally, also featured Depardon's work) and argues that, while the Japanese photographer was somehow able to blend into the background in Troubles-torn Northern Ireland, his outsider's eye resulted in arguably the most striking and affecting images of the conflict.

O'Hagan zeroes in on precisely what makes Okamura's work stand out from the rest: "his rich colour palette ... that reanimated a turbulent time for so long portrayed solely in stark monochrome" (see for instance Chris Steele-Perkins); his preference for "quiet observation" over "frantic war reportage"; an eye for images that are simultaneously comic and poignant.

For O'Hagan, Okamura's pictures "brought back a sense of the peculiar texture of that time living in the north of Ireland: the almost surreal dislocation of the everyday that the early, unpredictable momentum of the Troubles brought in its wake. Suddenly and unsettlingly, normality was ruptured, the ordinary upended and the unspoken rules we lived by rendered redundant." That much is amply illustrated by the wonderful selection of images that punctuate O'Hagan's piece.

Given that Okamura's work made such an impression on him, it's obvious why O'Hagan would want to co-curate an exhibition (Akihiko Okamura: The Memories Of Others). I won't get to Dublin to see it in person, but the accompanying photobook is set to be an essential addition to the shelves.

Monday, April 08, 2024

Acid flashbacks

If you've ever wondered how the countercultural momentum shifted from punk to electronic music (and acid house in particular), then you could do worse than trace Richard Norris' career. The man himself does it for you in Strange Things Are Happening, the latest publication from the White Rabbit stable.

There are, inevitably, tales of excess and erratic behaviour, but this is no crude warts 'n' all memoir. Norris arguably bucks the trend by placing greater emphasis on the dynamics, delights and disappointments of musical collaboration and the general joy of creativity.

Buzz review here.

Saturday, April 06, 2024

Leap of faith

Like many people, I imagine, I first came across the photo that Charles Peterson recently identified as his best on the back cover of Nirvana's live album From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah (albeit with added blur). It's an incredible image - a fan in mid-air, having hurled himself off the top of the amp, suspended momentarily above the heads of the crowd.

The photo may not actually feature any members of the band, but it speaks volumes about the frenzy that Nirvana could create even before the release of Nevermind. It's also vindication of Peterson's tactic of being in the thick of the action: "The way I work is very loose and fluid, and I liked to get involved, so I was often dancing at the same time that I was photographing. That was something that bands liked too."

Thursday, April 04, 2024

Forced exposure

It's one thing to overshare about yourself publicly online (you are at least in control of the initial decision to post), but it's quite another to overshare about your children - especially when you're doing so for cash.

Cosmopolitan's reports on the phenomenon of "sharenting" are both eye-opening and horrifying. They shine a suitably harsh spotlight on the parents who appear to have no scruples about commodifying their kids, treating them as nothing more than manipulable mini-influencers, pliable pawns in a toxic get-rich-quick marketing scheme. Child labour is still alive and well, it seems.

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

"There's a lack of mercy, a lack of forgiveness"

Nick Cave has attracted a fair amount of flak as a result of the growing suspicions about his political leanings, so fair play to the Guardian's Simon Hattenstone for asking straight out whether he's a Tory and whether he really does despise woke culture. Cave flatly denies the former charge, and offers a thoughtfully nuanced response to the latter.

The interview revolves around Cave's recent endeavours as a ceramicist - he's created a series of pieces called The Devil - A Life, which is due to go on display shortly - but inevitably touches on other, broader topics, such as grief, parent-child relationships and the joy "that leaps unexpectedly and shockingly out of an understanding of loss and suffering".

Cave's comments on art and its cathartic powers are particularly worth savouring: "Making art is in itself the great expression of joy and optimism, in my view. That's why we need it. Music, art, reminds us of our fundamental capacity to create beautiful things out of the fuckeries of life."

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Get the Tuk in

It had been the best part of a year since my last restaurant review assignment for Buzz, so I'm glad to have rectified that at an establishment that genuinely deserves writing about. Given the recent loss of both Brass Beetle and Society Standard, Tukka Tuk Canteen - Cardiff gastronomic entrepreneur Anand George's latest venture - is a very welcome addition to Whitchurch Road's array of eateries.

Buzz review here.

Friday, March 29, 2024

"We were some genuinely fucked-up people"

Some bands are reluctant to reform because they're worried that the chemistry may not be there anymore. Others are concerned with integrity, anxious to avoid accusations that they're merely cynical money grabbers milking nostalgic fans for a little more moolah. But for Butthole Surfers, the reasons are rather different. As founder member Paul Leary told the Guardian's Daniel Dylan Wray, "[w]e're really lucky not to be in prison and I don't want to push that any more. I don't want to be sending a bandmate home in a body bag or for a venue to burn down".

It's not hyperbole, either - Butthole Surfers gigs were routinely raucous, dangerous affairs (though, admittedly, not by the time I saw them, at Reading '96, when they'd somehow become MTV palatable).

Wray's article - published to mark the release of a trio of reissues, reviewed here by Buzz's Adam Jones - gives a potted history of the band and their modus operandi, with contributions from Leary, drummer King Coffey and (to a lesser extent) frontman Gibby Haynes, who is now (it seems) suffering from the consequences of his druggy excesses. If it whets your appetite, then allow me to point you (not for the first time) in the direction of Michael Azerrad's superlative tome Our Band Could Be Your Life - the Butthole Surfers chapter therein is a riotously entertaining insight into the insanity of their world.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

(I'm not your) steppin' stone

The Music Venue Trust (MVT) do an enormous amount of vital work, but they seem to have kicked up a bit of a stink this week simply by flagging up how few acts on the Reading/Leeds bill did not find their feet in grassroots venues.

In an article for the Quietus, Luke Turner acknowledged that #ItStartedHere is "a well-intentioned campaign". However, he rejected "the assumption that artists are all on a career path in search of bigger stages and larger festivals, that success is defined in ticket sales and streaming numbers", and indeed argued that "the music industry's traditional escalator increasingly only suits those born into privilege and/or playing it safe".

He concluded with a heartfelt plea: "To focus on music venues as steps to be conquered on the way to a typical career is everything that is wrong with the commodification of art, especially in a time when that route is a slippery illusion. Let's celebrate grassroots venues not as part of the infrastructure of an industry that's nigh-on kaput, but for what they are - vital, beloved rooms where those onstage create an energy that, even if it's only witnessed by ten, twenty people, lets us touch the electricity of music, and find a little joy."

One of the people to applaud Turner's sentiments was Kingsley Hall of Benefits. Hall is a champion of the MVT's Independent Venues Week but has previously taken issue with the organisation for using this particular line of argument. When CEO Mark Davyd described grassroots venues as "the research and development wing of the music industry", Hall reacted by rejecting the idea that such spaces are merely stepping stones and criticising the implication that artists performing at that level aren't "the finished article".

First things first. Turner and Hall are both absolutely correct in insisting on the inherent and non-financial value of grassroots venues and the live music they host; any function they might (or might no longer) play in generating stadium stars of the future is irrelevant to that value.

However, at the same time, I also endorse the position taken by Davyd and the MVT - and, to an extent, Hall does too. Of the star factory narrative, he told NME: "I get why people push it - it's marketing, a cute soundbite, and you've got to get people into these venues by any means necessary so that they can keep ticking over." It's a fair point. If the prospect of catching the next Radiohead on their way "up", however improbable that might be, draws in more punters, then who can blame struggling venues and vexed promoters from trying to play up and capitalise on that narrative (among others)?

It should also be acknowledged that one of the MVT's aims is evidently to force those who run arenas and book their shows to start giving a shit about grassroots venues and taking steps to protect them (such as raising funds through introducing a levy on ticket prices). How better to achieve this than by referring to an ecosystem and arguing that the closure of grassroots venues might result in the pipeline of stadium-ready artists running dry, thereby endangering the arenas' own long-term futures? Appealing to base self-interest rather than enlightened altruism is perhaps not the most noble of tactics, but it may well prove to be the most effective.

It is for the same reason that, in making their case to politicians, Davyd and the MVT regularly choose to emphasise the sizeable contribution of the music industry as a whole to the UK economy. As acknowledged above, the worth of grassroots venues should not and indeed cannot be measured in purely financial terms. But our current Tory overlords are a terrible gaggle of philistines who wouldn't know "the electricity of music" if it bit them on the arse, so does it not make good sense to try to coax them into taking action by talking a language they actually understand?

So, to clarify. We - Turner, Hall, Davyd and the MVT, and I, and hopefully you too - know the real reasons why grassroots venues and the music performed therein matter. But when those reasons routinely fail to convince politicians, purse-string holders and those with the power to bring about change, or simply fall on deaf ears, the MVT shouldn't be condemned for adopting a pragmatic approach - especially given how desperate the circumstances are.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Buried treasures

If you read one review of Julia Holter's new LP Something In The Room She Moves today, read this one, by Pitchfork's Jazz Monroe - a superb example of the artform, in the terms recently set out on this very site by Treble's Jeff Terich.

If you read two, here's mine for Buzz.

As an artist, it must be infuriating to have people clamouring for you to essentially make the same album again, especially if you're a naturally restless and creative free spirit like Holter. I can't help continuing to yearn for Have You In My Wilderness Part 2 - but, with every listen since I submitted the write-up, the album has revealed more of its depths and delights. In Holter's own words on 'Spinning', "What is the circular magic I'm visiting?" I'm still not quite sure, but feel compelled to try to find out.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Where there's a Will, there's a way


BILL RYDER-JONES / SWEET BABOO, 18TH MARCH 2024, CARDIFF CLWB IFOR BACH

Stephen Black aka Sweet Baboo confesses to Clwb's early-doors crowd that, as he gets older, he's increasingly distracted from creative pursuits by pointless chores and is finding it harder to be arsed to write new songs - but he's got a couple and is using tonight as an opportunity to conduct some market research. Should he retain the middle eight? Can he get away with a line about wanting to find time to read Roy Keane's autobiography? Are both songs as good as his older material? Our survey says yes.

A perennial exception to the rule that all singer-songwriters armed with an acoustic guitar must be arse-numbingly boring, Black is part musician, part deadpan stand-up. His lyrics take unexpected turns, and his songs adopt unusual perspectives. One, for instance, finds him tenderly reassuring his neighbour's dog that they'll go out for a lockdown walk again tomorrow. Another features a tape machine salvaged from scrap that works when jammed with a piece of rubber, and a flute solo - "like Lizzo, or Jethro Tull" - that (he explains) requires him to down guitar because he's too cheap to pay for a full band.

Midway through 'Clear Blue Skies', Black pauses to note that this is the point at which he normally flies a papier-mache rocket over the audience's heads before setting off the fireworks, but that Bill Ryder-Jones has specifically stipulated no pyrotechnics. No matter - none needed.

The same goes for the headliner himself. Ryder-Jones recently told the Quietus' Patrick Clarke how playing the material from 2018's Yawn made him miserable, but tonight, performing the majority of new LP Iechyd Da to a sold-out crowd in the Welsh capital, he appears completely at ease. As the title of the album's lead single 'This Can't Go On' suggests, he seems to have drawn a line in the Wirral sand: it's time to come to terms with a tempestuous personal past, look forwards and - with cautious optimism - move on.

He apologises that the quality of his between-song patter has gone downhill since cutting back on drinking, but that's hardly borne out by the evidence - whether he's playfully chastising the audience for reticence of response or expressing mock irritation at seated, Spillers T-shirted guitarist Liam Power stealing the limelight. The intra-band dynamics and rapport are strong, Ryder-Jones joking about their WhatsApp group debate on when the various members should be introduced, "like it's a given".

With Ryder-Jones, there's never any image or artifice (his rugby shirt and straggle of hair are suggestive of someone who's peeled himself off the sofa to perform). That honesty is reflected on the open-hearted, frank, romantic Iechyd Da, which draws on folk, Americana and Merseybeat to form a companion-piece to 2013's A Bad Wind Blows In My Heart.

Like the record, tonight's set starts slowly, with 'I Hold Something In My Hand', but it's on 'If Tomorrow Starts Without Me' that everything really begins to click. A solo rendition of 'Seabirds' is met with reverential silence, other than the sound of rapt punters quietly shifting their feet on the sticky floor, and 'Thankfully For Anthony' enables Ryder-Jones to pay touching tribute to the friend who helped him out of a dark place.

As the evening reaches its finale, 'Two To Birkenhead', a pitch-perfect Pavement impression from 2015's West Kirby County Primary, is sandwiched between Iechyd Da's two cinematic masterpieces, 'Nothing To Be Done' and the aforementioned 'This Can't Go On'. And, with Clwb's curfew bringing the curtain down without an encore, it can't. If only it could.

Friday, March 22, 2024

A site for sore ears

Recently, there's been a lot of glum commentary about the plight of music websites and indeed music criticism, sparked by the radical and disruptive changes at Pitchfork and Bandcamp (and, to a lesser extent, Vice) - damage wreaked by greedy techbros and ignorant corporate bean-counters.

But, in the spirit of positivity that I try to channel round these parts, let's set all that to one side. We should all be doing more than merely mourning beloved sites and publications when they disappear; we should be celebrating those that we hold dear without having to be prompted to do so by threats to their existence, and paying tribute to the people whose passion keeps them going.

And so it was that I contacted Jeff Terich, who's now been fighting the good fight with the excellent Treble for more than two decades, to find about more about the site's past, present and future and canvass his opinions on music writing more generally.

*****

How did Treble start? What was the ethos/vision?

Treble began back in 2003 essentially with a suggestion from my brother, Matt, that he could build a website for me, and I'd kind of casually talked about starting a music website. I was still in college at the time, so my vision wasn't super sophisticated - essentially just: write about as much music as possible. At first, I roped in some friends, and my other brother Terry (who still contributes!) was doing a lot of writing at the time - he did a lot to establish the tone by writing with a lot of humor and thoughtfulness. I think from the get-go we had a considerably different approach than a lot of other critics, in part because we didn't include number or star ratings and wanted to let the writing speak for itself. As a writer, I was still pretty raw, but I think I still had a good idea of what I wanted Treble to be - namely, as much of a resource for readers seeking a greater depth of writing on independent artists as well as a site that (mostly, I hope) avoided a lot of critical and media cliches. We never really pivoted to video, for instance (though we did make some videos), so that's something.

Any sites/magazines/writers you looked up to when setting out? Did/do you take inspiration from music books too?

At the time, Pitchfork was still fairly young but everybody read it, so obviously that was an inspiration, being one of the first real music review sites on the internet. CMJ, Magnet, Alternative Press from 1994 to 1998-ish, SPIN around the same era, plus sites like Tiny Mix Tapes (RIP), Cokemachineglow (RIP) and Stylus (also RIP) that started around the same time or a little earlier that had some of that internet frontier spirit that kind of made it an exciting time to be writing about music.

How has Treble evolved over time?

Well, we pay our writers now, which is probably the most important thing, because they do amazing work. We've changed the look several times, added a lot more features, shuffled through many different writers over the years and changed our focus a few times. There was a point when we might have been a little more invested in mainstream pop, but that's waned a bit, in part because that world seems narrower now (even major labels are complaining about how few stars there are, which seems ironic because don't they *make* the stars?). But more importantly because advocating for smaller, independent artists is just something we're more passionate about, and while I'm not trying to cast aspersions - I honestly think it's important for all of us remaining music sites to be united and advocate on each other's behalf! - I don't think there's a lot of value in everyone covering the same things on the same schedule. That said, we've just written about Taylor Swift and Beyonce, so there's no hard-and-fast rule about this stuff. Just that we have something interesting to say, really. But it's healthy for an editorial outlet to re-evaluate their priorities every now and then.

How is Treble supported financially? What's the business model?

We're supported a handful of different ways, primarily through Patreon subscriptions, a webstore that's currently down for maintenance (and eventually some new merchandise), affiliate marketing sales and brand partnerships. We're not really driven by profits - everything we earn goes back to the writers or paying for the site's operational costs. We're not *opposed* to profits, either, but one step at a time...

What are the secrets to Treble's longevity? Are there any particular challenges you've faced along the way?

Stubbornness! Basically, I've kept it going for this long because I enjoy doing it. There were probably several times in the past when taking the offramp might have been the wise choice, but on the other hand, despite being a lot of work and not being a terribly profitable operation, it's made me a better writer, a better listener, a better editor, and so on. I've made lots of friends in the process - both writers and musicians. It's become something much bigger than me in a lot of ways, but it's also just been such a huge part of my life that it's not really a job or an obligation. It's far more personal than that.

What tips would you have for anyone thinking of starting up something similar?

Oh boy, uh, I don't even know where to start with this one. A lot of people are starting newsletters now and that's probably the smarter decision. Something like this becomes a lot of responsibility before you know it and most people would have quit by now. I don't know if that's admirable or ill-advised on my part, but it's still going. Short answer: start small.

Any favourite Treble articles/reviews you'd particularly like to direct people to?

The simplest answer is to direct readers to this Roundtable we did recently where we all picked some of our favorite writing on the site. I went a little overboard, but you know, I'm super proud of these writers and the work we do.

What does the future hold for Treble? Any new developments/regular features on the horizon?

Well, we're hoping to finish up our Treble 100 series very soon. I started a live column called In Concert that rotates between live reviews, meditations on concerts I've been to in the past, live albums and so on. It's a pretty fun thing to work on and has me thinking about music in a different way. Plus we've been doing lots of great features in general this year in a lot of capacities. As for bigger plans, nothing concrete to share, but we always have more ideas than we have time to implement them.

What role/function does music criticism have today? What, in your view, should a good review do?

I tell new writers all the time that our purpose is not to be a consumer guide. (I realize the irony in having affiliate links in reviews that are literally linking to sites where people can buy what we write about, but you make do with what you have.) But I think writing in the '70s, '80s, '90s ... good writing anyway, shouldn't have been that either. Good music writing/criticism shouldn't be solely focused on whether or not an album is good, in part because that's not an objective measure. We all have opinions and biases. But a good piece of writing will get into the nitty gritty of what an album is *about*, what makes it unique, what makes it interesting or not in the context of the landscape, the artist's overall body of work, thematically and musically. Sometimes there are narratives at play, sometimes it's more like trying to make sense of an abstract painting, but the idea is to engage with it and try to observe what's happening in the world of the album - and, if possible, understand it. My favorite reviews are those that observe something that makes me want to listen to an album differently or possibly think differently about my own assumptions. I like it when writing sheds light on something that I missed or never considered. One of my own editors told me that he loved it when something I wrote compelled him to go and listen to that album. I'd take it a step further and say that the best kind of review makes us not just want to listen to an album, but to lean in closer and get to know it better - even if we don't necessarily like it.

In what ways do you think streaming as a method of music consumption is affecting music creation? Is it affecting music writing too?

Streaming is a double-edged sword in that it gives people access to so much music that you can find literally anything you want at your fingertips, and yet it disincentivizes buying music and thus artists are paid significantly less. In that sense, I think that means a long-term career in music is less sustainable, though it was never terribly easy to make a living as a musician before. Your odds are better if your song is added to a popular playlist, but that's led to intermediaries who will get your song onto a playlist for a fee, and so on. That's never really sat right with me, but I suppose it's the reality of the landscape. Some people are also making high-volume uploads of short songs or generative meditation music which increases their likelihood of getting paid more. I'm not sure if it works, but it's definitely happening. I think streaming's effect on music writing is that anyone can basically give an album a test drive now, so it's less of a consumer-driven thing, in a way, though people tell me all the time that they bought an album because of something they read on Treble, so maybe that's not conclusive.

Any particular trends we can expect in 2024?

A lot of my favorite music this year has leaned toward a goth or noise rock aesthetic, or sometimes both. I, for one, will be celebrating Noise Goth Summer 2024.

Three bands/artists we should all be listening to this year?

Amiture, Gouge Away, Jlin.

*****

Big thanks to Jeff for his time. SWSL salutes Treble and its writers. Check it out.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Rebel yell

In this deeply concerning thread about restaurants, cafes and bars closing (which highlights the looming cut to the business rates discount in Wales as likely to sound the death knell for yet more establishments), Wales Online reporter Ben Summer apologised for its Cardiff-centricity: "That's my patch but this is happening all over Wales."

Take Newport, for example, where it's been announced that Tiny Rebel's bar on High Street will be closing at the end of this month. The loss of a city centre pub run by the local brewery, based in Rogerstone, is a significant symbolic blow, and the announcement from owners Brad Cummings and Gazz Williams pulled no punches, claiming that the city is "slowly imploding".

Cummings has since spoken to Wales Online's Jonathon Hill about the general strains on the business, but also those specific to the Newport bar - principally, disappointing footfall and a perceived lack of support from the council, which (much to Cummings' chagrin) continues to piss away money to cover the cost of empty units in the Friars Walk shopping centre.

The Tiny Rebel closure announcement coincided almost exactly with the opening of the new Corn Exchange venue, on the same street, whose team is led by Sam Dabb of local live music institution Le Pub. Meanwhile, another source of liquid refreshment, the Lamb, has reopened under the management of Vladyslava Krapyvka, and the Ukrainian's plans for the real ale pub sound very welcome indeed - so it's certainly not all doom and gloom.

Like Cummings, though, Krapyvka sees the city centre as "somewhat abandoned and unloved". Her hope is that a revamped Lamb can help to turn the tide and revive Newport's fortunes - but the circumstances behind Tiny Rebel's withdrawal indicate that doing so will be far from easy.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Battle won but war lost?

The verdict on the Night & Day noise complaint is in - and in truth it's something of a Pyrrhic victory.

On the one hand, and most fundamentally, the venue in Manchester's Northern Quarter has been permitted to continue operating. But on the other, the complaint was not dismissed out of hand, and the burden of responsibility for compromise/change has been placed firmly on the shoulders of the Night & Day - despite the fact that the prime cause of the problem (a defective party wall) was the fault of the developers, and Manchester City Council for regulatory/enforcement failures.

However, arguably more significant, as the Music Venue Trust has noted, are the wider long-term ramifications of the ruling: "The judge has decided, and placed on record, that the Northern Quarter is not a cultural area, it is a mixed-use area. Consequently, this judgment places every music venue, nightclub, restaurant and bar in this area on notice that they will, upon receipt of a noise complaint by any resident, be required to change the nature of their business to accommodate such a complaint. This applies equally to existing, new and prospective residents. As a result of this judgment, it is now open season on Manchester's night-time economy for developers."

The future for the Northern Quarter - at least as a "cultural hub" - looks bleak. Here's hoping this hasn't set a precedent for similar cases elsewhere in the country.

Monday, March 18, 2024

More than a feeling

The short stories that make up Ghost Pains, Jessi Jezewska Stevens' first collection, are engagingly enigmatic, the deeper significance of the often awkward encounters they describe seeming to be just beyond the reach of the reader and the characters themselves. Buzz review here.

In this interview with Regan Mies for the Chicago Review Of Books, Stevens talks about the stories' relation to her two novels and to her non-fiction writing, her use of the surreal/absurd and her preoccupation with the themes of debt and waste.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Point of principle

My respect and admiration for Gruff Rhys went up another notch this week - not only for the fact that he's pulled out of performing at SXSW over its sponsorship by the US Army and RTX Corporation (formerly Raytheon), which has been helping to arm Israel, but for the manner in which he's done so.

First, the social media statements announcing his withdrawal are unequivocal in expressing horror at "the hyper violence inflicted on civilians in Gaza and beyond", but rightly recognise that blame should also be apportioned closer to home, to "the utter collapse of coherent diplomacy in the West that has helped facilitate unimaginable violence".

Second, he's sensitive to his own positionality as "a musician not a politician", someone with "what I'm sure is a limited understanding of a complex situation", and is honest enough to acknowledge feeling "somewhat hypocritical as I'm no doubt tied in to other numerous imperfect capitalist constructs in my active and enthusiastic participation in the music industry" - but, critically, he still insists that none of this detracts from the fact that pulling out is the right thing to do.

Third, he remains acutely aware that withdrawing has been an easier decision for him that it might be for others who don't have US tour dates planned to supplement the festival or who are early-career musicians whose future financial viability and prospects hinge on turning up to avoid letting down funding bodies. (Lambrini Girls, for instance, were the recipients of money from the PRS Foundation, which made their dilemma more fraught: "We were trying to find a way out of the situation whilst keeping our moral integrity intact and not having to repay thousands of pounds at the same time. That really just isn't possible.")

Chwarae teg, Gruff. Symbolic gesture though withdrawing might be, it's one that many artists have now made - so here's hoping there's a significant cumulative effect.

Friday, March 15, 2024

Out of this world

What better way to spend a Sunday night than on a voyage into outer and inner space with prog/psych legends Gong and Ozric Tentacles as tour guides? Whether, by the end of the evening, we were all reborn as the best versions of ourselves, as Kavus Torabi speculated/hoped, is uncertain - but it was a wonderful trip all the same.

Buzz review here.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Church chat and fox tales

RICHARD HERRING'S LEICESTER SQUARE THEATRE PODCAST, 5TH MARCH 2024, CARDIFF SHERMAN THEATRE

Over the course of more than 500 episodes going back to May 2012, Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast (RHLSTP to nerdy devotees like me) has cemented its status as one of the most consistently engaging, entertaining and occasionally even illuminating shows around. Each installment pitches the comedian into conversation with a guest – much less a formal, structured interview than an unpredictable, freeform ramble for the benefit of a live audience. In recent years, Herring has started taking the podcast on tour around the country, booking guests with a connection to each specific venue – and tonight it’s Cardiff’s turn.

The secret to the show’s success lies largely in its host’s unorthodox questions, fondness for gentle irreverence and verbal jousting, and penchant for making shameless personal confessions – the latter in particular inducing those sat in the opposing seat to drop their guard and reciprocate with equal candour (most famously Stephen Fry).

In many ways, then, Charlotte Church is a perfect first guest – open about her past, honest in her opinions and more than willing to indulge Herring’s silliness with a joyful cackle. She immediately makes herself comfortable, taking off her shoes and socks and curling up on the armchair with her glass of red wine like she’s settling in for an evening in front of the TV. Herring, briefly taken aback, says that he won’t follow suit for fear of offending people with his “horrible Hobbit feet” and recounting how he recently stood on a drawing pin but felt nothing – and suddenly we’re barely two minutes in and the former child superstar is talking about “necrotic flesh”. This is RHLSTP all over.

The ensuing chat charts the Llandaff lass’ fairytale discovery, stratospheric rise and extraordinary career travelling the world performing for popes, presidents and royals, among others. At times, the conversation is heavy, covering topics such as the hoarding of obscene wealth, sexualisation in the media, and Church’s struggle to escape expectations and pigeonholing and find her own voice.

But there are plenty of laughs along the way – at her declaration that, having sung at Rupert Murdoch’s wedding as a teen, she’d now happily pay to sing at his funeral; at her cautionary tale about meeting your heroes (the disillusioning experience of Kelsey Grammer talking about his young girlfriend’s diarrhoea on a Republican Party bus); at the fact that the yardstick by which her family measured her success was when adverts for her album appeared on the side of Cardiff buses.

The encounter would be most memorable for the pair’s attempt to perform Pie Jesu as a duet, were it not for Church, late on, uttering the immortal line “The Woodland Trust are cunts”. Spoken with the voice of an angel, it’s quite a statement.

Herring’s second guest of the evening is unlikely to have his face emblazoned on local public transport any time soon. Benjamin Partridge immediately acknowledges that he’s hardly a household name even in Cardiff, and speculates that Superted and Maureen from Driving School must have had prior engagements. But he’s appearing fresh from winning what the host insists on calling “the Richard Herring Award” – Best Podcast at this year’s Chortle Awards – for Three Bean Salad, created in conjunction with Henry Paker and Mike Wozniak (whose appeal, he claims, is predominantly to “horny mothers”), and hits the ground running by riffing on the idea that the onstage rug might be a magic carpet.

What follows is an hour of near-constant hilarity (aside from an interlude when the pair justifiably bemoan the dearth of creativity and unfulfilled potential of the podcast medium). Host and guest are very much on the same wavelength when it comes to comedy, with Partridge admitting that he finds humour in the relentless repetition of a stupid idea, namechecking Herring’s notorious Someone LikesYoghurt stand-up show and explaining that this is the principle behind his long-running spoof industry podcast The Beef and Dairy Network.

One of Herring’s patented Emergency Questions – “What’s the largest creature you’ve had to try to get out of your house?” – elicits not one but two fox-related anecdotes that are so funny as to cause physical pain, and another leads to the duo debating whether a self-pleasuring Russian prisoner of war might be able to escape via his own arsehole. By the time Herring has managed to hold himself together long enough to bring the evening to an end, Partridge has won himself a legion of new fans.

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