Get This!, Kraut-y, New! Now!

Symmetry Gates

It’s not quite Hallowe’en yet, Brexit has been given some sort of stay of execution and the tapers have yet to be lit at arm’s length on yer roman candles and squibs and firecrackers, yet magazine feature editors employed by the more switched-on music publications will already be compiling their Best Of 2019 lists. While it’s far too early for me to think of such things, a prime contender will surely be Incidental Music by camera-shy Mancunians W.H. Lung.

I’ve written about the band a couple of times before, from their debut offering being whizzed in the direction of Plain Or Pan via email, to the debut album released without fanfare or fuss in April. Back then I was taken by its clattering juxtaposition of LCD Soundsystem mid-paced grooviness and clean, chiming Public Service Broadcasting guitars. These days, it still sounds fantastic…even better, to be truthful. Best heard as a whole, Incidental Music ebbs and flows and dives and soars in the way all great albums do. That it was hatched in Manchester will only cement its status as a future classic. It sits perfectly well in a lineage that includes Unknown Pleasures, Power, Corruption And Lies and Bummed, a trio of electronically-treated albums that rocked at the core. If it fails to make the upper echelons of those much pored-over lists come Christmas time, I’ll eat my original copy of PC&L in protest. You can hold me to that.

In the unassuming way that W.H. Lung do, I arrived home from work today to an email from the band. Would I make a feature of their new track, they wanted to know. Before I had my jacket off, the familiar whooshing, metallic guitars and linear groove were spilling their tiny, tinny guts from my phone. Music on a phone sounds totally rubbish, as you know already, so it was soon booming from the speakers wired up to my PC; a fantastic, skyscraping and soaring metallic clatter totally in keeping with the album material but, more importantly for Lung-watchers, a new track.

Snippets of lyrics sung by a falsetto voice with a social conscience unravelled and revealed themselves over repeated plays in the troughs between the peaks in the propulsive soundtrack. “A body curled around a lamp-post like a cigarette in light rain….Daddy, why is there a man asleep there? Should I wake him?” And was that something too about Alan Turing, WWII code cracker and thorn in the government’s side? Turns out it was.

As singer Joseph E explains, “There’s a statue of Alan Turing in a small park just off canal street in Manchester city centre. The statue has always struck me as odd, the face is quite childishly done and Turing seems to be offering his fruit to passers-by. People often sit with him and take pictures. The park is also regularly attended by the homeless community of Manchester, as visible a presence on the streets now as the statues of the great and famous.”

In a nod to the city’s homelessness problem, the band will donate all profits from the sale of the single to Mustard Tree and Booth Centre, two local charities dedicated to the issue of homelessness in the city.

If you like the track above, use it as your gateway to the wonder of W.H. Lung. Buy the track and help the homeless. Buy the album and help the band. Go and see them on tour in November. And look out for Incidental Music topping those Best Of The Year polls come Christmas time. Amazingly, you read it here first.

 

Tour Dates:
22/11 – Riverside, Newcastle
23/11 – Moles, Bath
24/11 – Patterns, Brighton
25/11 – Rich Mix, London
26/11 – Academy 3, Manchester

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Everyone’s A Runner Baby, That’s No Lie

Pound slam pound slam pound slam pound slam… The rhythm is heavy but regular, incessant and never-ending. I am not at an all-nighter nor am I listening to Underworld’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman in the corner of my living room, turned up to 10 whilst the house is shorn of all family members for the time being. I wish I was though. Even an all-nighter these days would be better than the reality, the living hell that I’ve chosen to inflict upon myself. I am on a treadmill in a gym, surrounded by mirrors and all manner of shapely and shapeless hotties and fatties, my own contorted, mouth-breathing face staring back at me in disbelief at what I’m putting myself through. “You bastard!” I say to myself between half-gulped gasps. “You’ve conned me!

 

Joe Strummer, London Marathon, 1983

I woke up a few weeks ago with the creeping realisation that I turn 50 in the middle of November. My clothes don’t fit as loosely as they should. That favourite suit jacket that I kept for special ‘going-out’ nights no longer buttons up. The pair of indigo Levi’s I used to wear with it are suddenly, somehow, a size too small. I’ve more chins than a Chinese phone book. I am almost 50 and I’m a flabby, Jabbaesque mess. As I’m singing The Strangler’s Something Better Change into my head, get this! – a Facebook ad pops up in my feed. It offers cheap membership with no joining fee to my local community gym and so, a couple of nights later, I find myself in a new pair of trainers being given an induction in a roomful of equipment I had no intention of ever becoming familiar with.

The first days were laughable. I managed a whole 7 minutes on the treadmill; a heaving, wheezing sack of useless mess, huffing and puffing my way through my mantra of “just one more song before I stop.” The radio in the gym is permanently tuned to Smooth FM, with Sade’s Your Love Is King and Spandau Ballet’s True taking turns to push me through the miles metres and I hate it. In a bid to reach my first real milestone of week three – 10 long minutes – I sang bloody Bohemian Rhapsody to myself from the 3rd minute mark, convincing myself that if I didn’t look at the stopwatch that was counting up the long seconds that would become unattainable minutes, by the time I’d rocked out the solo in my head and come crashing back down on the “mama, oo-oo-ee-oo” section, I’d be almost home and dry. It only went and worked too. I’d try this again, definitely, but with far better source material.

I know! The iPod!

I’ve tried using headphones, but from around 12 minutes, the sweat really comes on, so the wee tricky buds won’t stay lodged in my ears. The right one especially slips out at the first hint of a trickly brow. They stay in place a bit better when I’m on the rowing machine – a whole other version of repetitive hell where you provide light entertainment for the heavy weights doing the serious bench pressing and weight lifting behind you – and my tunes have helped me row as far as 5000 metres in the one arm-numbing sitting.

Johnny Marr, NYC Marathon, 2010

It’s the treadmill that I favour though, and I really need my tunes. I’ve realised I’m a luddite. Everyone around me is streaming their music through the musty ether from smart phone to ear pod with not a wire in sight. My old iPod Classic looks out of place, but then, so do I, so fuck it. I’ve discovered that if I happen to be the only one in the gym, I can sneakily switch channels on the TV that pumps out the blandfest that is Smooth FM, so this is what I do whenever I can.

It’s a magic sight when you see the teams of hardened gym folk, all daft hair and stupid, tight, jogging trousers and oriental tattoos and suspiciously golden skin coming in for a serious workout to the wonky pop of Pip Blom and Ty Segall blaring wildly on Marc Riley’s BBC6 Music show. Nobody knows quite how the channel changed, nobody bar the new guy in the new trainers seems to like this stuff and nobody is brazen enough to suggest changing it back again, so everyone works up their sweaty sweat to a beatless racket while I ignore the stopwatch on the treadmill and try to work out who is on Marc’s t-shirt for the night.

Ty SegallDrug Mugger

And d’you know what? This approach has seen me clock up 30 minutes – half an actual hour – on the treadmill of death. Two and a half sloth-like miles, where every pffft step eugh is hrrrr an accchht almighty heugh effort.

I think I can do this…

Dylanish, New! Now!

Appetite For Destruction

A few months ago I found myself driving Alan McGee – yer actual, Creation Records, King Of Indie Alan McGee – back to his hotel. With the car radio pre-set to Radio Scotland, it was the Billy Sloan show that sound-tracked our short 5 minute drive. As I drove and Alan held court I realised Billy was playing a new track by King Of Birds. My initial reaction was to interrupt my esteemed passenger’s non-stop flow of conversation to say, “Hey! I know these guys!” but a voice in my head suggested that King Of Birds might not be Alan’s kinda thing, so I stopped short of butting in and listened instead, my driver’s-side ear struggling to make out the rich music on the radio as the other battled with McGee’s non-stop enthusiastic monologue about the two seismic Oasis shows that had taken place on Irvine Beach 24 years previously, “just over that hill there, Alan.” As we reached the hotel, the song on the radio was ending and in the half gap that followed while McGee scrambled around the footwell in my car for his bag, I managed to squeeze in a quick but proud, “King Of Birds! I know these guys!” McGee nodded and cocked an ear to the radio, just, would you believe it, as the Pavlovian rush of Oasis’ Rock ‘n Roll Star barged in. “And I know these guys,” nodded McGee in the general direction of my car’s dashboard. And with that, he was out and off.

Had I been brave enough to stop the flow of rich one-way conversation, Alan would’ve heard I Hope We Don’t Fall In Love, the then current single by one of our country’s brightest talents. King Of Birds have been on the go for a wee while now. I first saw them maybe 4 years ago and was instantly taken with their knack for a good melody, a strong harmony and a seemingly never-ending run of songs that flowed as freely as water from a tap. “The McEverly Brothers,” I dubbed them at the time, a tag that sits well with the band’s principal writers. Sometimes a duo, sometimes a full piece band, King Of Birds is essentially Charlie and Stirling Gorman, two brothers with a long-standing relationship with the Scottish music scene. In recent years there have been right turns and wrong, a none-more Gallagher fall-out that threatened to derail all their good work included, but it’s from this frictious tête-à-tête that the seeds of a very fine album were sown.

Eve Of Destruction is the result, a dozen tracks of what you might call Americana. With nods to the twin towers of Michael – R.E.M.’s Stipe and The Waterboys’ Scott, main vocalist Charlie carries the songs with a gravel-throated world weariness. Brother Stirling is the perfect foil. A Peter Buck-obsessed R.E.M. fanatic (the band’s name should be clue enough), he’s never far from a waistcoat and a ringing Rickenbacker, his six and twelve string symphonies colouring the music with the requisite amount of jangle.

Like origami in reverse, the songs take time to unravel, exposing classic melodies from the simplest of chord structures. Built on a bed of dextrously-plucked nylon acoustics, the tunes tumble as jaw-droppingly effortless as the acrobats at the Cirque du Soleil. It’s all in the carefully considered arrangements; tinkling piano, weeping pedal steel, an occasional Springsteen-esque yearning harmonica, dust-blown sweeping strings in every other coda…….it’s ‘proper’ music, played expertly.

The band’s undeniable influences are all over it, from One Horse Town‘s opening Simon & Garfunkel flourish on the nylons and lightning-fast ascending riff last heard flying off the grooves on Bob Dylan’s I Want You, to the keening, Don and Phil-influenced “tell me if you see-eeee her,” from the track of the same name. Rod Stewart could do worse than involve himself in a cover of the crashing When We Were Kings. 12 string Rickenbackers tease out a widescreen Caledonian epic that manages to be both anthemic and reflective. There’s even a drop-out in the middle where ol’ Rod can do that leaning back with the microphone pose he’s been perfecting since The Faces. It’d be the perfect song for getting him back to what he was once good at.

In an era where bands don’t really release singles in the traditional sense, tracks such as Hard Times For A Good Man and I Hope We Don’t Fall In Love were the obvious promotional tracks to release to influential radio folks, but dig deeper and you’ll find the likes of Here And Gone or Peace Of Mind, with its banjo-led hillbilly hoedown by Travis vibe the track most likely to break out the social dancing round these parts.

My favourite track is buried deep on side two. Hang Me Out To Dry, the penultimate track, has a pretty, cascading guitar riff the equal of anything Paul McCartney recorded in his first post-Beatles years. Little shattered jewels of crystalline melody float on a sea of harpsichord and woozy, wonked-out synth. The whole thing reminds me very much of Elliott Smith, and that’s no bad thing at all. It’s so unlike the rest of the album I fear it’ll be forever overlooked by those seeking potential radio-friendly hits – of which, as you now know, there are at least half a dozen. Hang Me Out To Dry though is the diamond in a field of gold.

The whole record has a terrific ambience. It’s airy and spacious and in places brings to mind Neil Young’s last great masterpiece, Harvest Moon. Much of the credit for this must go to mastering engineer Frank Arkwright. Based at Abbey Road, he’s the man Johnny Marr trusted with the task of remastering The Smiths back catalogue a few years ago. Arkwright’s magic touch is all over Coldplay’s The Scientist, Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible and a whole host of respected records. He’s an inspired choice, no doubt costly, but the results are outstanding.

Packaged lovingly in gatefold vinyl, the finished record is a thing of beauty. The brothers, you feel, have put everything into this release. From the detail on the labels themselves, to the sepia-tinted artwork, to the carefully placed picture (of their parents?) that sits atop the piano on the front cover, everything has been carefully considered. Make no mistake, this is proper heart and soul music. It may be King Of Birds’ one shot at releasing a record (I sincerely hope not), but man!, they’ve gone all out to ensure that, should this be the case, they’ve made their mark with a masterful piece of work.

Don’t take my word for it though. Get yourself along to Stereo in Glasgow this coming Thursday (26th September) where King Of Birds will launch the album in full band mode. I’ll be there. So too, no doubt, will Billy Sloan. McGee hasn’t got back to me yet, the silly man. There are far worse places he could choose to be instead.

 

Alternative Version, Get This!, Live!, New! Now!

Sunshine From Leith

Ross Wilson has had a colourful life, growing up in difficult surroundings on a Leith housing estate, opting out of school from a very early age – “abandoning my education, I’m embarrassed to say,” – and finding himself in situations that none of us would wish to be in. Despite (or because of) this, he’s quiet, unassuming and completely humble.

His song ‘Grateful’ that opens Blue Rose Code’s 2016 album ‘And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing’ distils perfectly his life so far.

When I wake in the morning now, I try to be thankful,” he sings, in an effortless East Coast croon. “Did you know that I almost died? I’ll never be cool….I’ll never be good looking….I’ll never be rich, but Lord I am grateful.” It’s a simple song; short, direct and enhanced at the very end by a terrific gospel-tinged choir that competes with the Staple Singers for uplifting joyfulness.

Ross’s audience is grateful too. I watched him perform live over two extraordinary evenings in Irvine’s Harbour Arts Centre last weekend. A super-intimate venue that holds just 100 folk, the HAC is possibly our country’s greatest hidden secret. Audiences and performers alike have really taken to its ‘gig-in-your-living-room’ feel. The front row is a decent arm’s stretch from the headliners’ fretboards, the back row closer to the action than the front of all other ‘intimate’ venues and the performers there really respond to the cosiness of it all.

Blue Rose Code is Ross Wilson. Depending on the gig, he can have 3, 4, 5 or indeed, as when he’s fronting his amazing Caledonian Soul project, dozens of musicians on stage with him. He’s been in the HAC before as a 3 piece. On Friday and Saturday his band appeared as a duo, the sum of the parts a fraction of the greatness on display. Playing two different sets, Ross took us by the collective hand and led us through the whole gamut of human emotions. Accompanied by the fabulous Andy Lucas on keys, the duo whipped up a quiet storm of intensity.

Wilson doesn’t so much play his guitar as attack it; pinged harmonics zing across the room while back of the hand percussive beats provide rudimentary four to the floor rhythm. Listening to him play, it’s as if a tap has been turned on, a slow drip at first before gushing and overflowing, unable to be held back. Melodies cascade and tumble from his fingers, complicated arpeggios formed from open-tuned guitars and a handspan as wide as the Clyde. Jazz chords give way to ancient folk melodies that in turn part their way for minor key melancholy. It’s rhythmic, tuneful and breathtaking.

When he sings, it goes up a whole other level. Anyone can sing, but no-one can sing like Ross Wilson. It’s all in the phrasing, y’see. He stretches words beyond all recognition, he st-st-st-stops suddenly, breaking into spontaneous scatting, he barks, yelps and laughs off-mike and he takes these brilliant long run ups from the back stage to the microphone, using the dynamics of an amped-up voice like no-one I’ve ever seen. Any singers in the room over the weekend must’ve gone home with a few pointers on how to get the best from their voice in the live setting.

Behind him, strapped in for the ride of his life, Andy Lucas riffs behind the guitar on his keys; piano one minute, Fender Rhodes the next, forever on a mission to incorporate a lost blue note or a major 7th flourish. It’s a beautiful sound, incredibly nuanced yet totally spontaneous. On Friday the duo sound-checked with recent new track Red Kites. By the time it appeared in the show, it was twice as long, Andy had added a second vocal and Ross was off on some freeform guitar odyssey. For the entire weekend, Lucas never takes his eyes from Wilson’s fretboard. He knows when to cut in, when to take over and when to play softer, allowing the spotlight to shine on Wilson’s unique talent. It’s incredible stuff.

Blue Rose CodeBluebell

The music on offer is superb. Recorded, it’s quite the thing, the perfect soundtrack for a Saturday night in or a Sunday morning sudoku. In the live setting though, the songs soar, a scorching cross-pollination of Chet Baker’s stoned jazz, the voodoo folk-blues of John Martyn and the meandering twilight ambience of the Blue Nile. You really should investigate if these reference points are your kinda thing. It’s led to Ross being offered tours of Canada, the west coast of America and Australia. With 4 studio albums to his name alongside a handful of live albums and non-album EP releases, Ross Wilson has quietly built a mightily impressive back catalogue. A cottage industry with no financial help from anyone other than his supporters, it deserves a wider audience and greater recognition. He’s easily one of Scotland’s greatest talents, a real hidden gem of a songwriter and a peerless performer.

All photographs courtesy of Chris Colvin

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Berry Good

Known to his mum as Alex Stephens, Strawberry Guy is one quarter of The Orielles and one wholly great artist in his own right.

Part of a thriving scene that until now I’d been totally oblivious to, his first demo release last year – demo, note – has clocked almost 2 million hits on YouTube to date.

Now signed to the excellent Melodic Records, home of the pulsating WH Lung and the soon-to-be ubiquitous Working Men’s Club, Strawberry Guy has taken his passion for analogue synths and melodies blown in on a summer breeze and created one of the stand-out tracks of the year.

Mrs Magic is one of 6 tracks on his debut release, the mini LP? maxi EP? Taking My Time To Be. If the released-to-stream track above is anything to go by, it looks like being an essential purchase. Bringing to mind another side project with endless possibilities, it sounds not unlike something from Super Furry Animals’ Cian Ciaran’s long-lost Outside In album. There, keys and soft rock vocals make space for late-era Beach Boys harmonies and gossamer-thin melodies.

Floating along on a woozy bed of 21st century psychedelia, Mrs Magic continues on a similar path. Cocooned in cotton wool and sung in an effortless amalgamation of Nilsson and Mac DeMarco, its minor key piano and liquid mercury airy synths would find it sitting happily alongside your Air and Beach House and Tame Impala and Lightships records. It’s that good. And remarkably, recorded in his bedroom and self-produced, it hints at even greater things to come.

Here’s that YouTube video that’s whipped up quite the quiet storm amongst the streamers and playlisters in the underground.

Strawberry Guy‘s Taking My Time To Be can be pre-ordered direct from Melodic Records, here. Look out for tour dates in the future….and the inevitable clash when he and his parent band The Orielles clash over headline rights at next year’s summer festivals.

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Beths Intentions

You get to a point in life when you don’t need any more new friends. I have enough old friends I can barely find the time for that to make the time for new friends is nigh on impossible. I’m not an unfriendly person. Far from it. But the circle of friends I have is rich and varied and more than enough to enhance my life for the rest of it. And it’s like this with music. I don’t have the energy or the inkling (or the cash) to invest in new music when there’s so much brilliant stuff from the past I’m happy to revisit and replay and re-evaluate, and occasionally re-buy if I fall for the remastered/repackaged/enriched audio blah blah blah that the record companies know folk like me can’t resist.

Now and again though, a new record comes along that demands my attention. The current Arctic Monkeys’ album is one such thing, even if the band didn’t quite reach out with an advance copy and ask for it to be featured Plain Or Pan. I’m regularly sent music, mainly from new bands looking for a bit of exposure. Once in a blue moon, an mp3 will arrive that stops me in my stubborn tracks. A couple of months ago it was The Saxophones that hooked me, awful name ‘n all. This time around, it’s The Beths.

If you’re of a certain age – and as you’re reading a blog with a tagline that reads Outdated Music For Outdated People, I’d suggest you may well be, you’ll be quick to point out that The Beths sound like nothing new. Which is good, isn’t it? I suspect that, like me, many of you also don’t have the time to invest in getting into new music. Familiarity, like an old Marks & Spencer v-neck or Songs From Northern Britain is just fine.

The Beths take all the best parts of that window in time post-grunge and pre-Britpop when American guitars ruled the alternative airwaves. A quick listen to them and you’ll spot obvious nods to The Breeders and Belly and suchlike. There’s a studied looseness and seemingly sloppy approach to how it all hangs together, but of course, there’s nothing sloppy about it at all.

All four Beths met in Auckland New Zealand as jazz students, and they can really play. They could’ve chosen to take a Steely Dan/Ben Folds route to showcase their talents. Instead, they’ve gone for an update on slacker rock. Fancy-pants chords chime on top of counter melodies. Mercurial, quicksilver guitar riffs are tight and taut, wrapped around the melodies as snug as a straightjacket, the only sloppiness on show being intended rather than unavoidable.

On current single Happy Unhappy, there’s a fantastically furious mangled guitar solo that sounds like J Mascis being spun at 200rpm in a KitchenAid food blender. The vocals, a saccharine-sweet rush that embraces singer Elizabeth Stokes’ Auckland twang and wraps it around sunkissed harmonies in the chorus bring to mind fellow Southern Hemispherian Courtney Barnett, one of the few new acts I like, even if despite my best intentions, I can’t seem to find the time to properly invest in her. It’s very 6 Music and “ones to watch out for” and, suddenly, when it was the last thing I was looking for, I have a new friend. I suggest you invite The Beths in for a cuppa and a chat about your favourite records. I reckon you’ll have a lot in common.

The album , Future Me Hates Me is out on 10th August. Visit the band’s Bandcamp page to stream, order and what not.

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The Turner Prize

When Neil Armstrong and his pals landed on the Moon in the summer of ’69, their landing spot became known as the Tranquility Base. I’d assume this is because it was close to the Moon’s Sea Of Tranquility, although I’m happy to be corrected on that one. Anyway, being the first to experience an out-of-this-world environment of stilled calm and slo-mo movement, I’d imagine it was the very essence of tranquility.

 

Alex Turner and his Arctic Monkeys pals have just taken one giant leap forward with their new album, in part (I’m assuming again, and happy to be corrected) named after that landing spot on the moon. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino landed last week and it’s a real departure from previous Arctic Monkeys’ records. I’ve lived with it on the commute to work the past few days and it’s fairly wormed its way into my head.

I just wanted to be one of The Strokes,” laments Alex on opener Star Treatment.Now look at the mess you’ve made me make, hitch hiking with a monogramed suitcase, miles away from any half-useful imaginary highway.”

Arctic Monkeys Star Treatment

He half speaks, half croons in his Yorkshire accent, unaffected (in voice at least) by his current choice to live in California. The sunshine’s clearly doing good for his music. He’s eased the band into ridiculous new trousers – the mark of true popstars, of course, and the mid 70s with liberal sprinklings of Carol Kaye-ish stop/start basslines, Fleetwood Mac-esque falsetto backing vocals and coke-addled Station To Station era Bowie piano. It’s as far removed from I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor‘s rattlin’ knee tremble as possible and it’s great.

OK, you’re thinking. That’s the curveball out the way. The band’ll get down to their usual business from now on in, But no! There’s more of the same on the next track. And the next. And the one after that. Fragments of half-known lyrics pop up now and again; the title track mildly pilfers ‘Mother’s got her hair-do to be done‘, from Pet Shop Boys’ Suburbia. Start Treatment‘s drawled, laconic ‘Who you gonna call?‘ is begging for a fuggy ‘Ghostbusters!‘ in response. “Take it easy for a little while,” he suggests, on Four Out Of Five. It’s bugged me all week where he borrowed that particular line from, but it’ll come to me no doubt as soon as this piece is published. Despite the sticky fingered approach here and there, Turner’s lyrics are pretty great.

So when you gaze at planet Earth from outer space, does it wipe that stupid look off of your face?” he intones on American Sports.

Arctic MonkeysAmerican Sports

The entire album continues as it starts; mid paced, self assured and self indulgent. Turner’s voice is the real star throughout. He’s the Sheffield crooner, taking his cue from those excellent Last Shadow Puppets records and using it to grease the wheels of a band who’ve worked extremely hard to steer their ship from its expected course.

It’s the sort of collection of tracks that could really tick off the festival audiences in the summer. If Alex and co choose to ignore the terrifically urgent Fake Tales Of San Francisco or the long-haired desert rock outs of Crying Lightning and everything else that followed in its globe-straddling wake, the band are in danger of losing their audience. My teenage daughter is already getting twitchy about their potential choice of set at TRNSMT in a few weeks. Me? At the age of 48 and a half, I’m perilously close to buying my first Arctic Monkeys album. Get with it, kids.