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Mullet Over

It was very easy to dislike Damon Albarn back in the day. The gurning, mock-cockernee affectations and bow-legged, Fila-sporting lad about town look of the ’90s were more than enough to ensure he’d be pinned to the bullseye of many a pub dartboard the length and breadth of northern Britain for many a month. And yet, and yet… He was the creator of some of his era’s most wistful and melancholic moments; the creeping paranoia of The Universal, the shoegaze blues of No Distance Left To Run, the stadium swoon of This Is A Low (have you ever stood in a field and experienced that in the moment?) the double-hitting lo-fi sighs of Sad Song and Sweet Song… strip back the bravado and bluster of Blur and at the heart you’ll find a wee bit of soul, with Albarn the master of his band’s mass-market melancholia.

In the days since, he’s released about 32 gazillion albums. Some, like Everyday Robots, are solo affairs. Others – The Good, The Bad And The Queen – are magpie-gathering collaborative efforts featuring the cream of musicians across the genres. Others still – his Gorillaz project – brought him to a whole new audience for whom Blur meant absolutely nothing. Then there are the Chinese State operas, the Michael Nyman soundtracks, the Africa Express foundation… By the time you’ve read this paragraph he’s probably laid down a brand new track stuffed full of phat beats and analogue synths and sent it off to Idles or Loyle Carner or maybe even Taylor Swift to add a vocal line that he can twist and manipulate into a Novello-garnering hit. Say what you like about his music, but unlike the punchable cheese-making fop that played bass in his old band, Albarn has a work ethic that’s second to none.

His most recent album, The Nearer The Mountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, may sound like it took its title from a badly translated haiku, but it was recorded in his now-native Iceland, with Albarn using the view from his Reykjavik studio window (above) as insipiration.

Originally planned as a grand orchestral album, the 2020 lockdown instead forced Albarn’s hand, and the album came out last year in a much more stripped back, lo-fi form. Elements of jazz raise their nodding heads, with autumnal clarinets or maybe oboes – I’m no woodwind expert – meandering for as long as that questionable mullet of his between tinkling Fender Rhodes and wheezy melodica on many tracks. It’s a good late night/early morning album, the close-miked vocals and processed beats of Royal Morning Blue fighting for earspace with its wooden thunk of bass and woozy synth, the Bowie-esque Polaris leaving you momentarily disorientated before unravelling in a flood of Blackstar-ish sax and counter melodies. Worth investigating.

Damon AlbarnDarkness To Light

I’m a sucker for a street-corner lament though, and the waltzing, lilting doo-wop of Darkness To Light is the track I like to hit repeat on the most. Recorded, I’m only speculating, quietly and during one of Iceland’s never-ending daylight, darkness-free nights, it’s the whole album in miniature; vintage synth, brooding instrumentation and free-flowing, tumbling melodies where Albarn manages to sound both sad and relieved within the same 3 minutes.

If y’like the Trashcan Sinatras’ quieter moments, or Andrew Wasylyk’s way with an analogue synth, or indeed David Bowie’s more introspective moments, Darkness To Light might just be for you. Add it to a playlist including half of the latest record plus some of those Blur tracks mentioned above and you’ve got yourself Now That’s What I Call Melancholy Vol. 1.

 

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FLip Out

Cosmic acid-fried avant gardeists Flaming Lips will always be known for the glitter cannoned, unicorn-topped ode to joy that is Do You Realize?? I don’t know anyone who isn’t continually affected by its crashing, sweeping uplifticisms and a happy/sad lyric delivered somewhere between ’73 Neil Young and a sandpaper-scoured frog. It’s long-been an accepted classic and quite rightly too.

Flaming LipsDo You Realize??

It hasn’t yet happened in twenty years of teaching, but I have this continued idea that, in my role as a primary teacher, I’ll be asked one time – just one time – to prepare the school choir for an event where the parents are present and eager to be entertained. This could be an in-house school event or maybe even a slightly grander multi-school ‘n local councillors affair, perhaps in a public building that most pupils pass by without ever knowing what’s inside its sandstone and stained glass exterior, but either way, we’ll be doing Do You Realize?? and by the end of the song We. Will. Own. It.

It’ll start with the kids lined up in three slightly curved tiers; tallest to the back, the most ragamuffin and coos-licked at the front. Taking two steps beyond middle front will be the sweetest wee girl, lopsided bunches in her hair, pulling perhaps at her pinafore in awkward acknowledgement of her main starring role in the proceedings. I’ll count in – ‘1, 2, 3, 4‘ – and a couple of hipster kids on guitars will begin to strum. I’ll be keeping them in time from the side on my own 6 strings, but the eleven year-olds will get all the plaudits. The assembled choir will begin to sway gently and self-consciously, and maybe even in unison, as our ragged guitar music washes across the room. A handful of kneeling pitched percussion players in the front row will join in after a couple of bars and tinkle the song’s root notes and descending scales on a collection of glockenspiels and xylophones.

There might be a switched on parent or two in the audience who thinks they recognise the frayed beginnings of the song but they’ll catch themselves with a ‘no! surely not!‘ and then break out in a grin of giddy realisation when their initial thoughts are confirmed. Do You Realize?? indeed. Before a word is even sung, we will have the audience in our collective hand.

Then the singing starts.

Do you realize?? goes everyone, loud and confident, parochial and pitchless. The wee girl at the front takes the second line alone, high and sweet and wavering in and out of tune. That you have the most beautiful face.

Hearts melt. Parents sigh. Signs are raised.

The signs. I never mentioned those. D’you know the Gabba Gabba Hey one that Joey Ramone held aloft at Ramones gigs? Or the Hang The DJ one that Morrissey battered around during those riotous Smiths shows in 1986? That. Only our signs have pictures rather than words.

On the ‘most beautiful face‘ line, half the back row  – every second person – holds up a sign which features a self-portrait painted by that child. The image remains aloft until the end of the next line.

Do you realize?? the massed choir sings again. The wee girl comes back in, stronger this time, beginning to find her feet. We’re floating in space.

The self portraits are spun 180 degrees on their makeshift handles to reveal some generic planets on the other side – Saturn’s rings etc –  shooting stars, the occasional spaceship, all that sort of cosmic stuff. The audible ‘ooh‘ that rises from the audience is just perceptible above the clanging racket of percussion and those barely held-down chords on the nylon-strung guitars.

Do you realize?? they repeat for a third time, almost enjoying it now, as Freckles comes in for her solo once again. That happiness makes you cry.

The other half of the back row holds up a new sign – an acid house smiley that appears on the ‘happiness‘ word and then turns on the appropriate lyric to reveal the same smiley, but with a single teardrop trickling from the left eye, solid black on effervescent yellow.

Do you realize?? they bellow for the last time, far louder now, and much more confident. The soloist psyches herself up for the final line. Bar only the single most competent tinkler, all of the percussion drops out. The kids’ guitars momentarily drop out too, although I keep playing softly to keep the rhythm and pace of it all.

That everyone…you know…someday…will die.

It’s pin-drop quiet. The middle row  – too short for the tall stuff at the back, too ham-fisted to be trusted with the percussion instruments – now has their moment. They hold proudly a picture of a loved one no longer with them and then hold it to their heart as the killer line is delivered. Bad choice of word, killer, given the context, but you know what I mean.

At this, there’s another audible ‘ooh‘ from the audience, more of a gasp, perhaps even a slightly shocked one, but it all resonates; the strangled guitars, the tumbling and out of time pitched percussion, the visual cues on the signs, wee freckle face out front, no longer holding on to the hem of her pinafore, but focused on the clock at back of the room, awaiting her cue for her next line. It’s an explosive twenty or so seconds and the room is ours.

Then we get to the refrain? Chorus? I don’t know what it is but that’s merely academic.

And instead of saying all of your goodbyes
Let them know you realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun don’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round

On the last line, the kids in the middle row pick up a hand-painted circular Planet Earth – or an actual globe, if resources allow – and rotate it speedily clockwise. Every child is singing as one by this point. Freckles steps back from the front and merges into the choir. They’re belting it out, this west coast primary school gospel, baked in local accent, stirring and uplifting, surging every parent’s proud-o-meter well into the red. The kids, those not playing instruments or illustrating the world spinning round, clap every other word – realise, life, hard, good, realise, don’t – until the last line when there are none. There’s a tricky F minor for the guitarists to negotiate, but any dull strings and bum notes are quickly drowned out by the stratospheric choir as they up the volume, up the ante and go for it.

Do you realize?? – ah-ah-ah!!!

The kids are swinging, swaying, singing. No one’s noticed the guitar players have stopped due to the key change and trickier chords. E flat?! G# minor?! Just sing louder, Jayden, no-one will notice you’re not playing. The percussionists have downed their beaters too, lost in a heady bridge of adlibs and joyful, unselfconscious singing.

My guitar brings it all back to earth. Heavy strums and accented bass notes give way to lighter flourishes, signifying the song must get back to the message. All the kids sing all the lines – verses, refrain, chorus, the lot. Some of the parents have joined in too, recognising the simplicity in the lyrics, the universal message of hope over fear, that love conquers all. The room vibrates as one.

As the song fizzes to a clanging, banging, wonky and ragged end, the head teacher is overcome with emotion. “Wow!” she’s saying before she’s even reached the stage. “Just wow!” The parents are on their feet, clapping wildly. There’s a two-fingered wolf whistle from somewhere at the back, piercing through applause that sounds like a tropical rainfall. My colleagues – the ones who think nothing of sticking on a backing track and ‘teaching’ the kids to sing to it – think I’m a pretentious wanker. I am brought back to earth wondering where my unicorn has gone. One day this will happen.

 

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You’re Not Looking Forward And You Are Not Looking Back

Girls At Our Best!  – that exclamation mark is important – were the product of a fertile Yorkshire post-punk scene. The Leeds band bore all the hallmarks of the era; individuality, style, self-administered haircuts, socialist tendencies, scratchy guitars and articulate lyrics that when sung teetered on the edge of being in tune. In an ‘anything goes’ era, GAOB! grabbed it and ran, half a pace behind front runners Slits, but easily keeping up with the likes of Au Pairs and Delta 5.

Fiercely independent, their self-financed debut single is arguably their best known. 1980’s Getting Nowhere Fast is a riot of fizzing guitars, shouty refrains and sudden endings. 

Girls At Our Best!  – Getting Nowhere Fast

Metronome tight, the guitar shoots angry sparks, the bass bounces up and down the octaves – that repeating, descending and divebombing run is a beauty – and the drums punctuate the end of every verse with a window rattling rat-a-tat military precision. I bet this sounded absolutely brilliant in a wee room with a low ceiling and a couple of pints swilling about inside the stomach. Being 10 going on 11 at the time of its release, I can only imagine.

I first discovered Getting Nowhere Fast via fellow Leeds band The Wedding Present. Their Anyone Can Mistake A Mistake single had a version on the b-side and although I’d worked out it was a cover, in a pre-internet era it would be a long time before I would track down the original. By default, The Wedding Present’s version – slightly throwaway but honest – was long-considered the definitive one, even if I’ve come to really like GAOB!’s more disciplined approach.  

The Wedding PresentGetting Nowhere Fast

Eschewing the original’s solid and steady mid-paced chug for something altogether more immediate and frantic, Wedding Present attack the track with everything they have  “Quick lads!” shouts the tape op. “We’ve got two minutes of tape left…see what you can do.” And off they fly, shaving a full 20 seconds off the original’s already brief running time.

All Wedding Present markers are in place; rattling, chattering electric guitars that by the middle eight are being played by knackered wrists and bleeding, raw knuckles, a bassline as solid and gnarly as an old tree, drums that sound like they might be falling down three flights of tenement stairs, the meat ‘n potatoes delivery…If you didn’t know it was a cover you’d swear it was one of David Gedge’s very best, although he really missed a trick by not renaming this version Getting Nowhere Faster

 

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The State That I Am In

Tonight’s The Night is Neil Young‘s 6th studio album. Counting the live Time Fades Away album it’s the 7th in his discography, recorded in 1973 but shelved until 1975, by which time he’d recorded and released a whole other album in the form of On The Beach. Who says stoners ain’t productive?

The period around this time in Young’s career is well-documented: His fourth album Harvest becomes an international smash, its down-home, pastoral acoustic sketches, good time bar band boogie and occasional orchestral flourishes striking a chord with millions of people, and whiny ol’ Neil suddenly finds himself the custodian of a hit album. A record company with at least one eye on the balance sheet is understandably keen for more, but Young, in an act of bold self-sabotage steers his musical output from the mainstream to the margins, from the middle of the road to the ditch.

So began his Ditch Trilogy, a series of three albums – Time Fades Away, On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night – that displayed a single bloody-mindedness to do as he pleased at whatever cost. Time Fades Away, for example, is a live document of a tour where he played wholly new material to sold out theatres and arenas keen to hear the whole of Harvest in the live setting. ‘Here’s one you’ve heard before,’ he’d announce to a jeering then cheering audience in the encores…and he’d play ‘Don’t Be Denied‘ for the second time that night.

If y’want the true essence of the artist in microcosm, look no further than these three albums. Every facet of his personality; the peacemaker, the confrontationalist, the political commentator, the grief-stricken musician, and every facet of his musical output; the acoustic troubadour with the asthmatic Marine Band harmonica, the wind blown one note soloist, the country pickin’, banjo bashin’ hippy and ham-fisted piano botherer is amongst those grooves. You knew all that already though.

I’ve spent a few nights recently in the company of Tonight’s The Night, to the point where it’s beginning to surpass On The Beach as my favourite Neil album. It’s very much a night time album, sleepwalking from the speakers in a fug of narcotic narcolepsy, vocals whispered and cracking, the band inhaling deeply before easing their way into the chords.

Right from the off you know you’re in for the long run. The title track (reprised, not for the first time in Young’s ouvre, at the end of side 2) is a slow blues, its pulsing bass and off-kilter (and mainly off-key) backing vocals dragging it to its conclusion.

Nils Lofgren’s bluesy, spidery guitar lines tip-toe and creep their way through the heavy air, non-flash yet essential to the record’s feel, providing the ambient atmospherics that slow the whole thing down.

The theme of the record; death from heroin, mainly, is reflected in the slow-moving, treacle-thick tracks and woozy, woolly, atmospherics. Side 2’s Albuquerque is the best of Neil Young in one song.

Neil YoungAlbuquerque

It begins with that idiosyncratic slow chugging Neil Young groove, lazy pulls-offs and hammer ons played in Young’s unique clawhammer style, valve amps cranked up to the max but the volume low on the guitar. You can feel the power in those six strings. A subtle turn of the volume knob on Neil’s Les Paul could unleash howling fury at any point, yet he keeps it restrained and under control.

Chord changes take an age to come, Young slowing the band to a pedestrian pace. When he hits the titular phrase in the chorus, its usual four syllables is stretched and eee-long-gated to an impressive ten. ‘Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-al-bu-quer-que‘.

A chrome-coated weeping pedal steel, the ghost of the Flying Burrito Brothers vamps its way across the verses as Neil sings of Santa Fe and fried eggs and country ham and getting away from it all. Fame, fame, fatal fame, as someone else would sing a decade later. Neil wants away from it so much that he allows the pedal steel to take the lead at the appropriate point in the song, its eerie sliding glissandos emerging from between wheezing harmonica squeals to flood the tune with harmonious countryfied colour and life until the end. It’s a beauty.

Non-Compulsory Follow-Up Homework

Go and listen to REM‘s Country Feedback; the mood, the feel, the slow-burning gothic country blues of it all, and compare it to Albuquerque. Uh-huh.

 

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Shaken, Stirred.

If you’re a regular tuner-inner to night-time BBC 6 Music, you’ll be no stranger to the music of Los Bitchos. Their largely instrumental pot pourri of surf guitar, fuzz bass and Columbian cumbia rhythms is pretty unique and well worth further investigation if the likes of Khruangbin or Cats Eyes or the Allah-Las are on your radar.

If you’re a garage rock aficionado whose tastes extend far beyond the mother lodes of Nuggets and Pebbles, you may well be familiar with Danny Lee Blackwell, authentic mid-’60s sound seeker and prime mover in a scene of wonderfully-named bands; his The Old Explosives and White Light Fever sound exactly as you’d expect. I’ve yet to dive into the back catalogues of Night Beats and Medicine God Box, but I can imagine what awaits.

You can, then, make a good guess at what might happens when an ex-Los Bitchos – Carolina Faruolo – collaborates with Danny Lee Blackwell under the name Abraxas.

Great, isn’t it!

A minor key reggae ‘n garage-fried head nodder, it has shades of Jonathan Richman’s Egyptian Reggae and Byron Lee’s Rocksteady, a vapour-trailed late summer groover that would sound perfect played out in a melting heat haze or wherever your sun may set. It’s the perfect sound of offset Fenders, hip swinging and hair.

That Los Bitchos cumbia beat is still there, shuffling along on a bed of Os Mutantes tropicalia and the sort of lazily shaken maraca shimmy that might well stir Lee Mavers’ inner yet dormant Bo Diddleyisms. The surf guitars are still there too, aimed skywards, set to maximum whacked-out reverb and twang and happily chattering away like a couple of auld clucking biddies at the Beachcomber Bingo.

It’s the vocal though that elevates it all; Blackwell channelling Lee Perry, half-singing the effect-heavy verses, elongating the words and phrases for extra frazzled effect, echoes of key words morse-coding their way into the ether before hitting the high notes with the double tracked ear-wormy refrain. Dry my tears, ah-ye-aye. It’s a beauty!

Midway through, the guitar breaks out in a rash of heavily-delayed psychedelia, some nicely pitched wah-wah going toe to toe with a delay pedal, but it’s short lived. Before you know it, we’re back to that hip swaying desert blues shuffle, Tinariwen by way of Texas (the state, not the band), as Faruolo freeforms her way up the higher reaches of the frets and Blackwell mutters his way to a lightly toasted conclusion.

What’s amazing – but not surprising these days – is that the track was recorded not in some suitably lo-fi, low rent studio, but across the internet between Blackwell in Dallas and Faruolo in Manchester. That such great music can be created when its principal players are separated by the Atlantic Ocean and a couple of time zones is pretty impressive.

A word too about the band name. Abraxas, as you well-know already, is the title of the second album by jazz rock Latin guitar strangler Santana. It’s no coincidence that this new collaboration has named itself after an album that is packed full of interesting rhythms, experimental percussion and endless, inventive, meandering guitar playing.

Planet Abraxas is a world filled with jungles, mist-covered rivers, panthers lurking in the night, desolate shopping malls, Neolithic citadels and sand-worn walls,’ they say. Well, of course it is. You know that just by listening to the track above. It bodes well for the album – Monte Carlo –  released at the end of October on Suicide Squeeze.

You can find Abraxas at Bandcamp and in all the usual corners of the internet. I’ll see you there.

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Sound Waves

How do you pronouce certain band names? Hingmy Malmsteen? Sun O))) or just Sun? (It’s Sun, believe it or not, despite the ‘O’ and the trio of parenthesese – that’s the sun, innit?) What about !!!? And what of Lynyrd Skynyrd? Is it Suede to rhyme with Fred or Suede to rhyme with frayed? (It’s Fred, obviously, if you’re Scottish.)

What about Fatherson? Is the emphasis on the ‘Father‘ prefix or the ‘son‘ suffix?

It’s not, as you might think (or say) Fatherson, with the heavy emphasis on the end of the word, turning one word into two. It’s run together as one word – Fatherson – the way you might say Andy Robertson, or perhaps if you’re of a certain vintage, B.A. Robertson.

Liverpool lining up tonight with an unusual back four of Robertson, Richarlison, Gerry Cinnamon and Fatherson. It’ll be interesting to see how they get on against the pacey Kilmarnock wing backs….”

To my shame, I’d pegged Fatherson as Biffy-lite without knowingly listening to so much as a note by them; hairy muscle power pop in Scottish accents, I’d presumed. I’ve eaten at least one slice of humble pie in recent weeks as a result. Firstly, I was involved in the running of a brand new festival, Making Waves, and Fatherson had been booked as late afternoon performers.

Being responsible for the press and what not, and with band interviews being lined up, I dipped a hesitant toe in their back catalogue and was immediately taken by a sound distinguished by loud, anthemic, ringing guitars and proudly parochial vocals sung brilliantly. Where had they been all my ignorant life?! I lost track of time into the wee small hours one night while I found myself falling for the song that coincidentally gave our festival its name.

FathersonMaking Waves

Photo (c) Kerrin Carr. If you steal it she’ll send the boys ’round.

It starts as many Fatherson songs do, with bookish and bearded guitar-playing vocalist Ross Leighton strumming out a kind of audible preface to what follows, just Ross with his plugged-in electric and soft Scottish burr setting the scene. As the intro plays out, there’s a wee brief pause where you just know the band is going to come crashing in, all flailing limbs and howling instruments, and Making Waves doesn’t disappoint. In they lurch, all divebombing, disorientating Valentine wooze and wobble, a wave of silver and mercury effect-heavy instrumentation filling the room then dropping out just as quickly to allow the vocals back in.

The wee brief, chiming guitar riff that introduces the chorus is totally ripe for soundtracking the goals of the week on a particularly hip football highlights show, maybe even Sky if they had suitably ‘on it’ researchers. I say ‘on it’, but Making Waves is four years old, so what do I know – it may well have soundtracked the entire 2018-19 season on Soccer AM for all I know.

Photo (c) Kerrin Carr. If you steal it she’ll send the boys ’round.

Making Waves is Fatherson in miniature. Riff heavy, melody-rich and hooky, played out with a we mean it, man sturm und drang. There are some great call and response vocals in the chorus, all keening heartache and sincerity, a sign that despite the ability to turn everything up to 10, there’s a compassionate soul beating at the heart of the band.

Cut to the Making Waves festival. Live, Fatherson are terrific. Like, really terrific. They’ve got the band look sorted – orange and grey boiler suits, turned up to ankle dusting levels like some hipster, fashion-conscious, guitar totin’ Beastie Boys collective – and boy, they can talk it like they walk it. They run on stage and they’re straight into it, a downhill without the brakes on riot of hair and frets and space-age chrome ‘n steel pedal boards. Those brief wee pauses the band so-loves are well-timed and slick. Flyaway hair freezes in midair then continues its trajectory as the trio slam back into it. Drums clatter like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The bass guitar sounds like a speeding Paul Simonon in some places, my neighbour’s non-stop nail gun in others. Ross’s enviable collection of vintage guitars take a good heavy-plectrumed scrubbing.

I hang back sidestage and experience the show from a new perspective, watching their loyal audience mouth the words back to the band, watching as the band is spurred further on by the frenzy in the crowd. It’s all thrilling stuff.

Photo (c) Stuart Westwood. If you steal it he’ll send the boys ’round.

*Bonus Track

Just when you’re thinking that Fatherson don’t, or can’t, do acoustic-based music, along comes the loveliest version of Making Waves, floated in from the furthest corners of the internet, intent on worming its way into your primed and ready for it ears. Wonderful stuff all in, it’s the unexpected call-and-response female vocal in the chorus that pushes this version towards greatness. A gently restrained take of one of the band’s best tracks. You just can’t argue with musicality, melody and properly great singing.

FathersonMaking Waves (acoustic)

Photo (c) Kerrin Carr. If you steal it she’ll send the boys ’round.

Fatherson, man, where have you been all my stupidly ignorant musical life?

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Eye Tunes

In a game of two halves, Trompe le Monde would prove to be Pixies ‘final’ album before their resurrection in more recent times. Frank Black has said that the record was made in fractuous times, the band splintering, Kim being marginalised, with all of Black’s songs making the cut at the expense of everyone else’s. Although credited to ‘Pixies’, the album foreshadowed the singer’s solo career and should probably be classed as his first such record.

It’s a patchy set of songs. It lurches from the punkish rush of Alec Eiffel via a hundred mile an hour cover of the Jesus & Mary Chain’s Head On to the ultra sweary U-Mass and half a dozen other weird and wonky rockers that would benefit from a dusting down and reappraisal at some point.

Lead single Planet Of Sound came housed in a sleeve featuring an eyeball dipped in salt, a metaphor, surely, for Pixies’ uncompromising and at times uncomfortable sound. It’s sci-fi AC/DC, a proper screaming throat loosener with blowtorch guitars, chugga-chugga bassline and a neat line in counter vocals buried under the chorus.

PixiesPlanet Of Sound

When Kurt Cobain openly admitted stealing Pixies’ quiet-loud-quiet blueprint, there’s a good chance he had this track as his point of reference. It’s all there; the semi-spoken vocal atop the bassline, the hint of Marshall-stacked guitars straining at the leash, Black singing his way to a chorus where fuzz boxes are stomped on and guitars snap free and twang their giddy way to the outer reaches of space like a hopped-up Duane Eddy auditioning for Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion. Go and listen to the filth and the furore of Nevermind‘s Lithium or In Bloom or even Teen Spirit if you don’t believe me. Total Pixies, man!

By the second verse, the guitars are back under control, just, itching to break free once more against a backdrop of rolling bass and space-referencing lyrics: I got to somewhere unknown, with its canals and colour of red. Joey coaxes wee angry squeals from the six strings under his fingers and lets them loose again on the chorus. Somewhere along the line, the sound of a bottle can be heard dropping, shaken loose from a studio shelf by Pixies’ electric blast of rampant energy. This time the chorus is twice as long, twice as loud, the guitars pushing the vocals to the very limit of Frank Black’s larynx-ripping abilities, the vocals spurring the guitars on to even angrier retorts. I wonder if that flying ‘P’ in Pixies’ logo is a reference to the way the band flies off the grooves of this record…

A fat-free solo pops up, no frills, simple and economic, with just enough requisite bend and strangulation to sate the appetite of any indie guitar hero-loving listeners. No sooner has it flown in than it’s flown off again, and a red-templed Frank is back again to scream his head off through another verse and a chorus that stops just as suddenly as this post.

demo, Get This!, Live!, Sampled

Twin Reverb

Check…check…check!

A-woo-oo! A-woo-oo! A-woo-oo! A-woo-oo! A-woo-oo! A-woo-oo!

(Pause)

Trrrr-rat-at-a-tat a-tee-tee

Trrrr-rat-at-a-tat a-tee-tee

Bass. How low can you go? Actually, not that low for now. A tight ‘n taut bass guitar plays high up the frets, its woody thunk foreshadowing what will follow:

dur der-der-duh-der

dur der-der-duh-der

Nagging, inistent. Immediately earwormish. It moves through the gears a semitone and the drummer falls in with a loping, skipping, skittering beat that’s been rescued after falling from the back of a lorry last seen leaving Manchester in 1989.

A brief dropout from the bass brings another burst of rat-a-tat percussion, immediately followed by two short and teasing electric guitar riffs – bendy, wobbly, hypnotic – and then, on a surge of nagging, asthmatic guitar, the band is here. The second guitar player makes themselves known by triggering their distortion pedal and a viral squiggle of feedback bleeds from the speakers for a bar or two before plectrum meets nickle. It’s a cheap, punky trick and you love it. 

Spitting in a wishing well. Blown to hell. Crash. I’m the last splash.

As far as song intros go, Cannonball by The Breeders is so familiar, so engrained that even 29 years later, Pavlovian rushes make their way to the soles of the Doc Martens without you realising.

The BreedersCannonball

It might be the riff that moves the feet – a nagging, twanging, guitar player’s sore finger of a lick jigsawed to a monster, see-sawing tidal wave of fuzzed-out barre chords, but it’s the vocal that moves the mind.

Kim Deal, moonlighting from a by then fragmented Pixies, has the unequalled ability of sounding as if she’s constantly grinning as she sings. Not in a Marti Pellow, I-can’t-believe-I’m-getting-away-with-this dimple buster of a grin, but a proper mile-wide smile as expansive and welcoming as the Ohio of her birthplace. In the golden age of Hollywood, Kim and her cheekbones would’ve been filmed swinging carefreely around lamposts. “I’m in love…I’m in love with singing, and I want the wurld t’know!” Check the video below for proof.

Freed from the pressures of Pixies, Kim takes centrestage and ropes in her twin sister Kelley (replacing Tanya Donnelly who’d by now left and formed Belly) alongside English bass player Josephine Wiggs and Slint’s Britt Walford on drums; an alternative rock supergroup of sorts that occasionally – especially on Cannonball – surpasses much of what made them so revered in their respective day jobs.

Kim and Kelley mesh and meld and harmonise across the verses, an electrified Mamas and Papas (or should that be Mamas and Mamas?), surfing the wave where two voices become one yet sound like three. Clever stuff, you’d need to agree. A metallic clatter of muted six-strings amplified to dangerously exciting levels heralds the noisy bit and suddenly you can see why The Breeders were one of Nirvana’s tour supports of choice. Melody and mayhem – always key ingredients in a proper guitar band’s arsenal.

Cannonball rocks. From the static bursts of fuzz mic, to the spontaneous “Heys!” that appear with satisfying regularity, to the underlying breathy a-woo-oos that you’ll spot if you scratch below the surface, it’s a real beauty of a guitar track, punky yet, eh, funky too. Do they really sing, ‘I’ll be your whatever you want…the bong in this reggae song‘? Yes. Yes, they do.

*Bonus Tracks!

Here’s the demo of Cannonball, working title Grunggae. Very much a work in progress, you can hear the seeds being sown; that shuffling beat, the twin vocals, the a-woo-oos, the metallic k.o. and rattling clatter before the noisy bit. The DNA is all in place, even if the arrangement isn’t.

The Breeders  – Cannonball (demo)

Fantastically lo-fi live version here:

The Breeders  – Cannonball (Live in Stockholm, 1994)

Magpie DJs Radio Soulwax have oft incorporated Cannonball into their sets, mashed up occasionally (as was the parlance of the time) with Skee-Lo’s I Wish, intelligent rap and indie rock cross-pollinating into something wholly different.

Radio Soulwax part 0

 

Listen from 3 min 20, or download the whole thing and marvel at the psychedelic jigsawing of it all; Beastie Boys, Maceo & The Macks, EMF, God Only Knows, Elastica, Jack And Diane, Eye of the Tiger, Mr Oizo, Erik B & Rakim, What Have You Done For Me Lately?, Basement Jaxx, Funky Cold Medina, No Diggity…..all fed into the Radio Soulwax super-blender and served up as something brand new…. even 20+ years later. The soundtrack to every one of my barbecues for the past two decades, I can never get enough of 2 Many DJs mixes.

 

 

 

Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

Cramp Yr Style

What’s Inside A Girl? by The Cramps is a riot of primitive rock ‘n roll riffage and neanderthal tub thumping hooked to semi-pervy lyrics delivered in reverb-rich vocals; in short, the perfect introduction to one of The Great Bands. If you’ve never heard What’s Inside A Girl? or its parent album, A Date With Elvis, you ain’t nuthin’ but an incomplete music fan.

The Cramps – What’s Inside A Girl?

It’s Ivy’s guitar that’ll hook you first. Six strings of electroshock therapy, feral and fried and white lightning-bright, the true sound of a hollow-bodied Gretsch plugged in to an impatient amp and turned up loud, her electrified strings alive and buzzing and looking for any excuse to sneak a bit of howling feedback into the proceedings.

She shifts between rhythm and lead, her big, twangin’ countrifed chords dissolving into a creeping and snaking, Eastern-tinged wander up the frets – the very sound of anticipation and danger that The Cramps seem to project within the first bar of any of their records.

Nick Knox, eh, knocks seven shades o’ shit from his rudimentary drum kit – tom/kick, tom/snare…tom/kick, tom/snare…tom/kick, tom/snare…tom/kick, tom/snare – the jungle drums that signalled to anyone looking for a decent alternative to what passed for music in 1986 to look no further.

Straight of back and dark of shade, Knox is the tribal heartbeat of The Cramps, a drummer so skilled in repetition, metronomic swing and discpline that that guy from Rush should be laughed out of the room to a chorus of Can Your Pussy Do The Dog? It takes skill to be flashy and polyrhythmic on a drum kit as large as a theme park ride, but it takes real skill to keep it dumb and simple on a couple of upturned dustbins. Flash or trash? You decide.

Then there’s Lux. Mr Ivy. Stick-thin, wolfish eyes, hair that can be Frankenstein fringe-severe one record then Little Richard stacked and pompadoured the next, often in high heels and perhaps not much else, the length of the microphone disappearing down his throat mid-verse as he country hick hiccups his way across the vocals, a hillbilly that would be run clean outta town by every other hillbilly within eyesight and make no mistake.

A vocalist rather than a singer – and you’ll know that that’s important – on What’s Inside A Girl? he runs the gamut of his schtick; breathless and gulping, subversive and suggestive, stealing old rock ‘n roll lyrics when he thinks no-one is paying close attention. The little alliterative run he goes on in the second verse – boots, buckles, belts outside…whatcha got in there tryin’ ta hide? – tells you all y’need to know. Magic stuff, it has to be said.

Our friends Scott and Gill were married yesterday. With DJ services provided by Rockin’ Rik under his Songs Ya Bass guise (Songs Ya Bass is an occassional club night in Glasgow with a catholic music policy and friendly crowd – it’s billed as ‘the club for people who don’t go to clubs any more’ and finishes in time for the last train home) it was always going to be a wedding reception unlike most weddings north of the border. Rik’s choice of music did not disappoint and his eclectic mix of hip hop, punk, ska, soul, pop, The Clash (always The Clash) ensured the dancefloor stayed busy until the very end.

It was wonderful to see the groom, his best man and his pal twisting and contorting unselfconsciously to What’s Inside A Girl? as Lux and co twanged and banged their way across the room at a decent volume.

Pausing only to shout the occasional lyric in the faces of his friends, Scott looked like the happiest man on the planet right there and then. A wop bop a loobalop, a lop boom bam, as they say.

Not Gill & Scott, not yesterday.

Get This!, New! Now!

Finn de siècle

I’d lost my way with Crowded House sometime ago. That wee imperial run they went on, from Temple Of Low Men via Woodface and Together Alone to their Greatest Hits compilation, would have been enough to sate the keenest of appetites for most things Finn. Add in the eponymously-titled album(s?) released by Neil and Tim in the late ’90s plus Neil’s solo material and the Seven Worlds Collide project in the noughties and suddenly you’d be knee deep in wafting, rolling melodies and jetstream harmonies wrapped around gently scuffed acoustic guitars and chiming, jangling electric six strings sent down from the musical gods above. There’s never ever enough time in the day to get through it all and so these ears wandered off in search of new bands and new sounds when they hadn’t fully soaked in the Finn brothers’ stuff that was already right in front of me. Which was, in hindsight, a bit daft. They’ll never be hip, but where the Finn name is attached, there’s usually something happening.

I took a chance last week on Crowded House’s latest album, Dreamers Are Waiting. I say ‘latest’, but it’s been out a year already. Not for nothing do I have ‘Outdated Music For Outdated People’ at the top of this blog. So, I’m slow to catch up, but for just £6 via the devil’s online supermarket (next day delivery, a mountain of packaging) I couldn’t pass it up, no matter how many independent shops it may close or rainforests it may fell or zero hours contracts it took to get it to me. Yeah. When it comes to the price of music, I have pretty lousy double standards.

Crowded House is a real family affair these days. There’s no Tim Finn, but ever-present bass player Nick Seymour is still involved, alongside Neil and his two sons Liam and Elroy, augmented now and again by Neil’s wife Sharon and the well-travelled Mitchell Froom. The songs on Dreamers Are Waiting are well crafted and carefully considered, the production rich and vivid. It’s a good album.

The opening track is a real beauty, a real scene-setter of what promises to follow. It’s not a wham-bam opener, over and out in a breathless rush of flailing cymbals and crashing feedback. Crowded House don’t go for that. What they do go for though is control and restraint. Bad Times Good is a quietly confident, gently unravelling masterpiece.

Crowded HouseBad Times Good

With breathy Californian harmonies wafted in from Neil Finn’s stint in Fleetwood Mac and a heavy borrowing of Don’t Fear The Reaper’s multi-tracked, multi-stacked backing vocals, the album opener has all the hallmarks of soft rock greatness. It’s absolutely vintage Crowded House; from the understated acoustic opening and muted percussion to its gently tumbling piano/guitar arpeggios and close-miked vocals – and it has you hooked from the off.

Neil Finn is a tease though. He has unlimited melody the way some of us listeners might have limited patience, but still, he doesn’t give it all up at once. We’ll discuss the music in a second, but first we must acknowledge one of the finest voices in popular music. There’s an unexplainable tone to his voice that gets me right there. Very few vocalists have this impact on me – most of my favourites don’t – but Neil Finn is one of them. An undeniably brilliant vocalist. And melodicist. And writer.

The music that carries Bad Times Good threatens to fly off on a couple of well-placed chiming chords midway through the first verse –  ‘Make a good time last/Before we choose a path, let’s spend the night at Los Campaneros please,’ – but Finn pulls it back – ‘through the doorways of the past‘ – you’re not ready for it yet, he thinks, and the tune settles in again. Those chiming, not-quite-expected chords, sometimes the harbingers of deadly night, other times the chink of light in a door half ajar are, it dawns, something of a Finn trademark. Not The Girl You Think You AreNails In My FeetInto Temptation...Distant Sun (great performance from the Tonight Show here) all benefit through the principal songwriter’s way with a well-chosen chord that provides the stepping stone to melodies to die for.

Hey! Everybody wants to make a bad time good.’

Something is nagging at me by the second verse. It’s the vocals! They’re wonderful! And wonderfully close to Gerry Love’s more pastoral deliveries on those late-era Teenage Fanclub albums. No bad thing, obviously, and when married to those hazy, lazy Blue Oyster Cult heeeeyyys gives us a track that anyone with an addiction to ’60s-influenced sunshine pop and an unravelling melody should enjoy playing multiple times in a row and never tire from. Trust me on that.

As the second verse winds its way to an end, and the bass player begins a frugging run up the frets, the reins come off and we’re suddenly soaring. ‘It’s a challenge for the impresario,’ sings Neil, and the band behind him climbs upwards and outwards on a beautiful chord progression, led by understated and underscored strings – where did they come from?!? – subtle and keening, leading us to the key moment that opens the song into technicolour.

When they hit the sunshine chord – ‘Whether sunlight or shadow falls on me‘ – and the tune opens as wide as the Clyde- ‘You won’t come out….’ – aw man! It doesn’t get better than this! Neil Finn’s vocals are now flirting with that falsetto that he can do – the one you’ve tried and failed at since first hearing Weather With You – and a song that once showed real promise now really delivers and then some.

There’s an acoustic drop out, before perfectly executed ‘Heeeeyyy!‘ AOR vocals breathe their way back in, blowing the track to its slow-winding, meandering end. The rest of the album has a lot to live up to. It doesn’t quite get there, to be honest, but as far as opening tracks go, you’ll not hear a better one this year.