Monday, June 17, 2024

The high life

Reviewing Thurston Moore's memoir Sonic Life for Punktuation last year, I argued that the book is particularly notable for its vivid portrait of late-70s/early-80s New York as "dirty and dangerous, but a mecca for musicians and artists drawn by the prospect of cheap rents and plentiful opportunities, a city crackling with creative energy and experimental zeal". The ready availability of disused industrial buildings, particularly loft spaces, helped to birth and fuel the various exciting scenes that sprang up.

Four decades on, and New York is a very different place indeed. But some artists' lofts still remain, protected by a 1982 law and holding firm against the forces of gentrification. Photographer Joshua Charow's images, gathered together in a book and exhibition, offer a glimpse of these unique working/living spaces.

And there's a connection of sorts back to Moore, with one of Charow's featured loft-dwellers being JG Thirlwell, who in the early 80s moved in the same circles as Sonic Youth, working with Lydia Lunch, Swans, Nick Cave and Richard Kern.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Pan's people

Goat Girl's third LP Below The Waste didn't win me over instantly - but, with a bit of time, its scattershot sonic approach proved to be more hit than miss.

Buzz review here.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

All White on the night


FAT WHITE FAMILY / JOHN FRANCIS FLYNN, 10TH JUNE 2024, CARDIFF GLOBE

Covers bands are the Globe's meat and drink, but John Francis Flynn is cut from a different cloth. The Dubliner's renditions of traditional Irish and American songs such as 'Kitty' and 'Mole In The Ground' are less covers and more reinterpretations, constructively reimagined for the current moment, cloaked in darkness. Drawing on drones, tape manipulation and subtle electronic effects, he sings of painful memories and drinking blood like wine. Twee, cosy, fireside folk this is not.

Gripping the mic stand with eyes closed, Flynn has the intimidating stature of Mark Lanegan (who, as a resident of Killarney prior to his untimely death, might well have gone on to make music like this). Instrumental 'Tralee Gaol' is performed on a pair of tin whistles taped together to create an eerie analogue echo, and a sublime bare-bones version of 'Dirty Old Town' closes the set. These are songs that are not so much covered as carefully handed down, passed from generation to generation, and Flynn is clearly a respectful yet innovative custodian, allowing the past to speak through (and to) the present.

Reviewing Ten Thousand Apologies: Fat White Family And The Miracle Of Failure for the Observer, Miranda Sawyer succinctly described co-author Lias Saoudi's band as "always on the brink: of stardom, of madness, of brilliance, of disgrace". From birth, Fat White Family have been synonymous with instability, controversy and acrimony - and earlier this year it seemed that they'd finally reached breaking point. Saoudi revealed that the creative process behind latest album Forgiveness Is Yours was a "nonstop fucking argument", and the Metro went as far as reporting that they'd split in the wake of "a complete breakdown", with Lias' brother Nathan having followed fellow founder member Saul Adamczewski out of the door. And yet here they are, a rag-tag bunch of charity-shop trousers, mullets, waistcoats and berets, launching into 'John Lennon'. As ever, it seems, rumours of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Confession time: I'm here half hoping for a car crash. For all their combustibility and volatility, and for all the rabidly enthusiastic reports of feral Fat White Family performances, previous encounters have only ever left me feeling let down by a band who seemed to be merely going through the motions, as curiously unsatisfying as their albums.

That tonight will be totally different is immediately evident.

The band are on furious (and remarkably coherent) form, but Saoudi is the barometer, a bare-torsoed Iggy-esque conductor of ceremonies who's roaming around in the crowd just three songs in ('Tinfoil Deathstar'). Admittedly, appearing onstage in nothing but a Legends Of The Fall T-shirt and a pair of black briefs is relatively tame for a vocalist who once performed while getting showered in a dead man's ashes and who wore flesh-coloured Spanx and smeared himself with butter to support Liam Gallagher at Knebworth. But it does enable him to do his best Cornholio impression, and the ever-present risk of a wardrobe malfunction ensures a frisson of danger. Thankfully, the elastic of his M&S pants (an upgrade from the H&M kecks of yore - "I've written a best-selling book") holds firm and the boys remain safely in the barracks.

Not that matters below the belt are off the agenda. 'Today You Become Man', the stand-out track on Forgiveness Is Yours (complete with Verve pisstake video), is a rapid-fire spoken-word account of his older brother's circumcision, and 'Touch The Leather' oozes sweat and seediness. Two of the latest record's slower songs, 'Visions Of Pain' and 'Religion For One' (the latter about "when I was a Scientologist", allegedly) come into their sickly, creepy own, while sordid disco thumper 'Feet' and greatest hit 'Whitest Boy On The Beach' ensure a frenzied climax. Perhaps most unsettling is the way in which echoes of everything from Billy Idol to ABBA and EMF's 'Unbelievable' are sucked into their vortex.

Sometimes it's preferable to see bands at the tail-end of tours, when the set is slick and finely honed. By contrast, I'm glad to have caught Fat White Family right at the start, burning so brightly and brilliantly before the (surely inevitable) burn-out.

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

Friday, June 14, 2024

Bold, invigorating and visionary

I made a promise to myself to largely avoid posting about (or indeed thinking too much) about politics in the run-up to the general election - that way madness lies. But I'm compelled to point out that - amid all the cynical point-scoring, power games, spin and poisonous rhetoric - the Green Party's manifesto really is a breath of fresh air, offering hope for a brighter future rather than stale promises and dog-whistle policies.

The proposal of a Rights of Nature Act, "giving rights to nature itself", will probably grab the headlines, but it's a travesty that a party with such a forward-thinking social and economic agenda - and the guts to be transparent about the need to generate tax revenue to pay for the huge proposed investment in public services - is still seen as something of a pressure group.

As George Monbiot rightly argues in his assessment of the manifesto for the Guardian, "[i]t's everything the Labour party should be doing ... but is too frightened to propose. No one expects the Greens to form the new government but we need them to hold Labour to account and press it to raise its level of ambition." When Keir Starmer is proudly putting "wealth creation" rather than wealth redistribution at the heart of the Labour manifesto, then you know they need a good, hard kick up the arse.

Of course, the chances of the Greens making deserved headway hinge to a large extent on their visibility - so it's hardly helpful that major media outlets such as the BBC continue to refuse to allow the party a seat at the debating table while happily platforming representatives of Reform...

Thursday, June 13, 2024

There's no business like business

What a pleasure it was to be at the New Theatre on Friday night, in the presence of greatness - the one and only Brian Butterfield. The irrepressible business guru and man of ideas was in town on his tour The Call Of Now, casually dispensing pearls of wisdom, singing songs of experience and talking us through a selection of his latest business ventures (not all of which have led to bankruptcy or court cases yet).

Buzz review here.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Good eggs


Boomerang Lounge - one of the most recent arrivals on Cardiff's Cowbridge Road - is a cafe with a twist, providing sustenance in more ways than one. I went along to the home of the feel-good fry-up to find out more for Buzz.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Beak> practice

In a recent interview with the Quietus' Alastair Shuttleworth, Beak>'s synth player Will Young (not that one) claimed that a stint of playing festivals in the wake of third album >>> resulted in the trio "rock music-ing it up": "We realised 'Keep this up and we're just going to sound like a really bad Foo Fighters.'"

Let's be honest, that was never going to be the case - but latest record >>>> certainly couldn't be described in those terms. Here's me trying to describe it in different terms for Buzz.

Monday, June 10, 2024

Labour pains

When the opposition are such a Tory-lite shitshow, refusing to oppose the Rwanda policy or the Israeli assault on Gaza, and think nothing of parachuting in a candidate with no connection to our constituency, it's not hard to decide not to give them my vote. But just when it seems it might be possible to tick the box for the Greens with a completely clear conscience, they have to go and do something stupid like advocating "natural" childbirth.

The Guardian's Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett has explained exactly why the proposed policy would be so offensive and regressive, reawakening the "too posh to push" narrative and denying women control over how they give birth and their own bodies. She warns that it would open up a new front in the culture wars: "This isn't about pitting unmedicated vaginal births against births that have involved medical intervention ... This is about reproductive freedom, and politics muscling in on the issue of female bodily autonomy yet again, something that all women should abhor, no matter how - or if - a woman chooses to have a baby. It detracts from the more important question of how we fix maternity services."

Thankfully, the Greens have taken note of the backlash, seen sense and backtracked - but, personally speaking, the episode is a timely and painful reminder that of the dangers of giving wholehearted, unequivocal support to any party.

Saturday, June 08, 2024

Pay to play?

Nadine Shah is renowned for being frank and honest - and, it turns out, won't make an exception even when it comes to the nation's most venerable music festival.

Scotching rumours that she might be playing down Pilton way at the end of the month, she said on Twitter: "I would have liked to but I wasn't offered a televised stage so I declined. It's too expensive a hit for me to take otherwise."

When some people responded critically, accusing her of diva-ish behaviour, she was forthright in her explanation: "To be clear, if I'm offered LESS money than what it costs me to play a show then I WON'T play it. BUT if there's the bonus of it being televised I MAY take the hit for the exposure. Sorry if you find this crude and sorry to break it to you but music is my JOB."

First and foremost, she shouldn't have to justify her decisions to anyone - but this seems perfectly reasonable. If you're an artist, by all means take a gig or embark on a tour that you know will leave you out of pocket (as seems to be increasingly the case) if you weigh up all the factors and decide to do it anyway - but no one should feel obliged to undersell or bankrupt themselves just to be able to perform. On the contrary, you'd hope that a festival of the size and income of Glastonbury would be able to cover the costs of the musicians it puts on, at very least.

Thursday, June 06, 2024

"Ugly beauty"


Wales is renowned for its natural beauty, but Treforest-based photographer Jon Pountney finds himself instinctively drawn to the opposite: the distinctly unnatural beauty of crumbling buildings and a landscape radically and irreversibly transformed by heavy industry. His most recent exhibition Allure Of Ruins - featuring work prompted by two previous projects, Beachcombing and God Forgive Me - includes images of nature attempting to heal wounds (the long incision made for the Brecon railway at Fochriw, for instance, now only a scar) but also of landforms that are entirely manmade (most obviously Splott Foreshore, constructed out of the rubble from the demolished East Moors steelworks).

Pountney has previously spoken of his fascination with "horizontal archaeology" - the sort you can find on the surface, without having to dig - and there's a sense in which the conical spoil heaps are South Wales' own pyramids and the overgrown Penallta Colliery silently overlooking new-build houses is a remnant of some ancient civilisation, hidden in plain sight. The exhibition booklet carries Myfanwy Evans' apt comment on painter Paul Nash: "No interest in the past as past, but in the accumulated intenseness of the past as present." That Pountney shares this hauntological perspective is evident in (for instance) the photo depicting the great towering mound of slate that continues to cast a shadow over Blaenau Ffestiniog.

Like David Wilson, Pountney appreciates the rich colour and textural quality of rusting metal (especially against blue sky) and characteristically uses light to best advantage, capturing the warm glow of the setting sun on the red brick of Dowlais Ironworks and finding poetry in an open-air urinal.

Allure Of Ruins illuminates the ways in which we continually make and remake the landscape around us, and the significant human toil required to do so. It also asks us to reflect on what we consider worth conserving and what we let fall into disrepair.

(This review was originally written for inclusion in the Offline monthly newsletter.)

Monday, June 03, 2024

Mary: quite contrary

Talk about blowing your punk credentials. Mary Timony may have been childhood friends with the MacKaye brothers in Washington DC and raised on the city's famous hardcore scene, but that didn't stop her from selecting records by the likes of Rainbow, Yes and Fairport Convention, as well as a clutch of lute albums, when invited to do some shopping at Amoeba in LA. She does pick the punkiest Iron Maiden album (Killers), though.

That Timony is a fan of Fairport Convention won't have come as a surprise to anyone who read her We've Got A File On You interview for Stereogum back in February. It was conducted to coincide with the release of her solo LP Untame The Tiger, on which the Convention's Dave Mattacks plays drums after she plucked up the courage to cold-call him.

Other subjects of conversation included former bands Autoclave and Helium; her reflections on the music scenes in DC and Olympia; collaborating with Carrie Brownstein, Chino Moreno, the Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt and William Shatner; and giving guitar lessons to Lindsey Jordan aka Snail Mail and Brendan Canty's daughter Mabel. Well, there are certainly worse people to be taught by.

Saturday, June 01, 2024

Neighbourhood watch


A missing teenage girl, a rural northern setting, a close-knit community. So far, so cliched. But Reservoir 13 is no run-of-the-mill murder mystery; on the contrary, it's much more subtly affecting than that. Author Jon McGregor seems to take delight in confounding our expectations by toying with the tropes of the genre. We're sucked into searching for clues and speculating about suspicious behaviour because we think that's how it works - and it usually does. But we're blindsided to discover that McGregor isn't so much serving up red herrings as playing a different game altogether.

Reservoir 13 is about what happens when tragedy strikes, its shadow hanging over a place - but also about what happens as that shadow gradually recedes and the incident fades from memory. The novel is primarily a portrait of a community, and of the dramas that unfold both daily and over time: people growing up and growing apart, relationships repaired and disintegrating, separations and reunions, infidelities and incompatibilities, joy and pain.

Each chapter recounts the events of another year, the steady and even pace dictated by the passage of time and the turning of the seasons (in this, there are similarities with Benjamin Myers, though McGregor's descriptions of the natural world are less wide-eyed and lyrical).

But what is most remarkable is the way in which it is told: from the perspective of an omniscient narrator who observes from afar/above but misses nothing, making regular gossipy insinuations and routinely reporting that the characters are "seen" to be doing things. This style gives Reservoir 13 a sinister feel, the reader rendered uncomfortably complicit in the narrator's merciless surveillance of the community and drawn into the role of a voyeur. As unsettling a book as I've read for some time.

Friday, May 31, 2024

Hip hop

DIIV aren't necessarily a stopped clock - new album Frog In Boiling Water shows some signs of growth and development - but they're certainly telling the right time, with the shoegaze revival in full swing. Some might find it galling that Yanks like DIIV have stolen a very British musical style and are now passing it off as their own, but when they're doing it better than Ride and Slowdive, who cares?

Buzz review here.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The other side of the city

Glasgow and Edinburgh are often perceived as two very different cities - the former gritty, grimy, resolutely working class; the latter a genteel, well-heeled honeypot for visitors. But perhaps that's just because of how they're regularly portrayed in images and on screen.

Certainly, that would be the view of photographer Graham MacIndoe, who in the 1980s deliberately set out "to document the real Edinburgh - the ordinary people in the working-class parts of the city, away from the tourist attractions ... My photographs were a bit of a backlash against Colin Baxter who did all the picture postcard stuff - that wasn't an Edinburgh that I associated with."

MacIndoe's Edinburgh, by contrast, was one of concrete tower blocks, Alsatians patrolling the flat roofs of pubs, kids making their own entertainment in the streets and stoical Scots trying to get a tan on the beach at Portobello - as illustrated by this gallery on the British Culture Archive site.

Monday, May 27, 2024

All-round good Eggs

I've always had husband-and-wife lo-fi screwball punk duo the Lovely Eggs down as being irrepressibly cheery. So it was a surprise to hear them sounding tired and ground down in conversation with Daniel Dylan Wray for the Guardian, and to learn that new album Eggsistentialism is - in the words of guitarist/vocalist Holly Ross - "a snapshot of when we were at our lowest".

What's behind the uncharacteristic malaise, you might wonder? Primarily, it's the pair's struggle to save the Lancaster Music Co-op, a non-profit organisation in their home town that makes instruments and rehearsal and studio space available to local musicians on the cheap. It gave them a leg up, and now they're very decently doing all they can to ensure that it survives to give a leg up to others in future.

Ross rails against how engaging in bureaucratic battle and "doing that pen-pushing shit" has made her feel, but ultimately they're too heavily invested emotionally to quit: "We couldn't give in. Because of what this place means - giving working-class people access to space and music, just like we had. If the Co-op dies, independent culture and subculture in Lancaster dies, and we can't let that happen. It's a space for freaks like us." Fair fucks to them for flying the freak flag in the face of the odds.

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.