Thursday, June 11, 2009


It ain’t right. In a shop (Virgin → Zavvi → Head) where I usually struggle to find anything at all to buy, there was all this for £2 – £3 each in the sale. And that is after putting back Talk Talk’s The Colour of Spring, Japan’s Tin Drum and the Citizen Kane soundtrack. Why would they do that? We are all doomed.

The one you can hardly read in the picture is the one I know least about – an EP by I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness. The second song, ‘The Less You See’, nicks the keyboard riff from Liza Minelli’s ‘Losing My Mind’, it works quite well.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Tenniscoats, Mono, Glasgow, 4th June

Another thing that happened at Le Weekend was a screening of Wild Combination, the film about Arthur Russell. It left an impression of a man utterly absorbed by his music, to the extent that there wasn’t much of a story outside of that. He grew up, got bad acne scars, turned gay before Allen Ginsberg’s very eyes, played in some New York bands, and ultimately found himself making music more and more on his own, rarely with any intention to release or even to finish anything; the process of making it was almost all he cared about. In a touching scene at the end, his mother wondered aloud what success he would have had if he had lived, and his father added drily: ‘...or maybe we would just have got another 5,000 tapes.’ In a way, this devotion to recorded sound is fantastic, because it left us (eventually) with Love is Overtaking Me and First Thought, Best Thought, which are great, great records (the drone pieces on the latter leave me a bit cold, but the first half...), but it is no thanks to Russell’s treatment of his own songs that a lot of them came out. In the article on Tenniscoats I linked to last time (here it is again), there is a description of the duo from collaborators Tape, which suggests a similar absorption: they ‘literally play and sing themselves to sleep. They catch some sleep here and there, and wake up to musical work again with coffee and cigarettes as their only fuel.’ This is what I thought of watching Saya sing with Eddie Marcon in Stirling last weekend, and seeing her and Ueno play their short set the following day.

The turn with Eddie Marcon seemed unplanned: Saya appeared at the side of the stage as though unable to keep away from the music. She was content to watch, until Mizutani offered her his microphone, but given this encouragement, she soon moved centre stage, harmonising for a time then crouching down low during an instrumental section, totally unselfconscious, inside the sound. It was so powerful to see the effect the music had on her – I don’t understand how it was possible to see that, but it was. It didn’t strike me that way in 2006 or 2007, when Tenniscoats played sets which didn’t connect in the way that their earlier record, The Ending Theme, had. They made a lovely sound, but Saya’s stage presence was muted, sat as she was behind a keyboard the whole time. Ueno was always fun to watch, with his unusual volume guitar technique (see the Grizzly Folk article again, it involves constantly changing the volume of the instrument, fading it in and out as notes rise and fall). His guitar would move through the air like a fish though water, as though it were these movements which caused the volume changes.

Since then there has been a slew of great releases, and even a song, ‘Baibaba Bimba’, which equalled the early peak of ‘Mou Mou Rainbow’ and seems to have become their equivalent of The Sugarcubes’ ‘Birthday’: the song audiences hang on as though it had been The Bit Hit – not because it was a big hit, but because it sounds so fresh each time and so essential it is hard to imagine it ever not having been there. Impossible to imagine anybody actually writing it. Maybe it was in making the Nika Soup and Saya Source record Ipiya (practically a capella, just totally joyful) that Saya learned how to channel her love for music back out again; more likely it was always there, and I just missed it. But I think it is more obvious now, and that she has reached a point that Arthur Russell never got to, with his endless reworkings and unsatisfiable perfectionism. She can see the value in working quickly, and in sharing that work quickly: the audience is important, the now is important.

For Foolin’ Around 3 they started gently with some music from the largely instrumental EP Temporacha, Saya wandering around with a melodica and Ueno, seated, playing an acoustic guitar (sometimes, later on, he sang too). Throughout the gig shared that record’s spontaneous freedom. Released from the confines of a full size keyboard, Saya was free to move to the music, and to lead the band. There was constant eye contact between herself and Ueno, you felt that the songs were volatile, could change course or stop at a signal from her. Her voice was as pure as ever, but there was more expression there, a smile frequently bringing lines to life like there was no language barrier (she sang only in Japanese). Once she went further, coming to the front of the stage to sing with no microphone, and what I want to say is that everyone fell in love on the spot, but that would sound too flippant, but it is true. One of the instrumental songs from the Stirling gig got another outing, and Saya wouldn’t let Ueno play his part on guitar as he had then, instead making him use her keyboard, which he didn’t look too comfortable with. She might even have placed his fingers on the right keys to start him off. He got through it, smiling in bafflement, and at the end turned and gave the drum kit’s cymbal a bash, as if to say: ‘da da!’ Similarly, Saya stopped one song when she felt the drums were intruding, and on another, when there weren’t any, jumped up and down rhythmically until the drummer took the hint and joined in. That was the encore, a song which went, ‘Tenniscoats, Tenniscoats, Tenniscoats’ [*thump* *thump*, *thump* *thump*], and which drove the crowd crazy. The last song before it was ‘Baibaba Bimba’, which did that too: the goodwill in the air by the end was amazing, everyone was smiling, unable to quite take in what was happening. I have never seen a better gig, never felt so elated by a performance. The whole crowd felt that, a few of them say so here.

Afterwards I bought some records from the drummer John, and sat for a while happily listening to his tour tales. Saya and Ueno walked back in through the main door and I gave them a round of applause. Saya came over and after I had stuttered some inadequate praise for the show, she noticed that I had bought one of Ueno’s solo CDs (Sui-Gin) and asked, concerned, if I knew what it was. ‘Didn’t you tell him?’ she chided John, as though it was his job to deliberately put people off buying it. It is probably just a bit noisier that you might expect, or something*, but – how sweet of her to worry, even if it was hilariously disloyal to Ueno’s avant garde side. Lovely people, is the secret to lovely music.

* Actually it sounds like a mouse stuck in a clock. I have yet to work out whether this is a good or a bad thing.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Le Weekend 2009: Eddie Marcon, Tenniscoats and Bill Wells, John Edwards, Trio Arco, Drew Mulholland and Adrian Utley, Muscles of Joy

It’s now three days since the Sunday of Stirling’s Le Weekend festival, and I’ve left it rather too long to put a review together. This evening and yesterday have been full of what seems to be the best ever Duncan of Jordanstone degree show here in Dundee. Maybe it’s the new, spacious venue, but in previous years I’ve come out having liked two or three things, this time it’s twenty times that. Yesterday my favourites were Jessica Buchanan’s pieces in steel, silver and gold, strong industrial lines encompassing intricate, organic shapes – they reminded me of that crazy tree in the header up there*. Today I got an unexpected barrel of laughs from the TWIG duo’s furniture. It is quite something to see their ‘One Night Coat Stand’ piece, work out that it is a bit of a rude shape, then realise you are in the midst of a forest of lamps, large and small, which might be taken, not that it was too obvious, and they were actually quite elegant, almost like easels, but were one’s mind so inclined... Surely not, let’s check the labels – sure enough, ‘Large Schlong’, ‘Small Schlong’. Sadly there don’t seem to be pictures of the lamps online, but their blog does record, disarmingly, ‘Today we received our sprayed schlongs from Bentleys!’ They had sold lots of them.

But where was I? Le Weekend. Which concluded, for S. and I, with a brief acoustic set from Tenniscoats and Bill Wells, in amongst Rue Five & David Galletley’s How Children Learn exhibition. Like the one last year from Bill’s National Jazz Trio of Scotland, this was a set which benefited from being held in daylight with open windows. The complete lack of amplification was good, too. For creating the illusion that this totally special occasion was nothing really, just something plucked from the air, as transient as a breeze. The feeling was similar to walking around the best bits of the degree show – art as something easy and free for everyone. Except you felt that between them, Bill, Saya and Ueno could have provided enough Art Power to fuel several degree shows. Whatever it is that the more talented of those students have stumbled upon or worked up to with the final years of their youth (I’ve just remembered the dining table with the sugar paper table cloth and the goblets made of apples), these three have turned into a way of life. You can hear it in this interview with Saya. How did they do it? A question you should never stop asking yourself. What songs did they play? Well, ‘Wiltz’, with new lyrics from Saya, and only three others, but the final one, sung I think by the National Jazz Trio of Scotland singer, was one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard. Ueno bafflingly able to coax some sort of delay texture from his unamplified acoustic guitar, while a violin mocked up rusty stabs of feedback, and then a simple descending tune and the words, ‘I’ve spent so long in trying to escape you’. Hearts were melted.

Saya was also onstage for part of Eddie Marcon’s set the previous evening, contributing up and away harmonies to Eddie Corman’s more measured singing. In case this sounds like a sleight, it isn’t meant to be, but Eddie Marcon’s charms are quite different to those of the Tenniscoats. They are closer to Nagisa Ni te in their slow, calm delivery, but they are less rapturous too. I’ll admit that until seeing them I didn’t think they were really in the same league (almost no-one is, after all). On hearing their LP Shining On Graveposts last year, I was put off by a sound that seemed glacial when it should have been warm. I adjusted eventually, coming back to the record when I knew I needed to breathe more slowly, or just to breathe at all. Eddie’s rich toned Spanish guitar finger picking acted as a kind of sedative. This week, listening to new LP Wata no Kemuri no Syotaijo (which lists Eddie’s instrument as a ‘gut guitar’, disturbingly – is this why her blog is full of cats?), and Ai Aso, Tenniscoats, Reiko and Tori Kudo, new Geographic release (!) Gok, it has been difficult to snap back into hearing anything less elemental, I almost want to wipe everything else from my iPod, live permanently at this slower, richer setting.

There has been a marked change in the band since Shining on Graveposts. The drumming has opened out, and there are now amazing peals of flute everywhere. Reminiscent of the shift from Five Leaves Left to Bryter Layter, things have become simultaneously looser and more focused. So it was a great time to see them. Eddie seemed nervous between songs, but not at all when performing them; in matching green shoes and tights, with hair frizzed wildly outwards, she looked suitably aloof from everyday concerns. Marcon barely moved, letting his bass and his rug-pattern trousers do the talking. Mizutani switched between melodica, flute and saxophone, doing so much with the sound that I presumed at the time that he was Marcon. It was altogether a gorgeous hour, I hope they can make it back sometime.

Some other people who played:

John Edwards, a double bass improvising jazz musician, began his performance in the Tolbooth bar with a polite apology: ‘I’ll be playing for about twenty minutes, so if you can’t stand it, it’ll be over soon.’ Then he took his battered bass in his hands (he didn’t use a bow), and battered it some more. There were bangs, slaps, superfast runs of notes. It was incredibly loud for an unamplified performance. Energising, invigorating, I didn’t know I liked jazz that much.

Trio Arco had a double bass too – sometimes bowed, sometimes plucked – along with a cello and a viola. They played one long piece and a shorter one, again improvised. At the beginning the first one was a flurry of high pitched notes followed by a slap, then the same, repeated. It didn’t take long for S. to start pretending to swat a fly to this, following it in the air with darting eyes during the high, whiny passage, and then – thump! It took Trio Arco ages to catch their fly, the performance didn’t have the immediacy of John Edwards’. The second, shorter piece was better. Gentler, lighter shades. Castanet sounds coming from somewhere, though there weren’t any, then a drop in volume and a melodic, plucked bass line topped with a darting viola that could have been a flute.

Drew Mulholland and Adrian Utley were OK, producing an encompassing guitar drone with volume peaks pulsing through it, like a tremolo pedal set to its slowest setting. Without wanting to complain that I emerged from the auditorium still being able to hear, the only way this kind of set was going to impress was by being twice as loud. As it was, people were still covering their ears during the obligatory feedback at the end, but it seemed like more of a gesture. A woman walked out, too, carrying her 3 or 4 year old daughter, who had been equipped with green industrial ear protectors, which was a good look.

Muscles of Joy were fun. Their songs were very rhythmical and occasionally out of time, which made for a kind of amateur charm (does that sound snobbish? I love amateur charm). Their set consisted of five pieces intended as a reaction to the great short animations of Norman McLaren – an influence on artist / animator Katy Dove, who was one of the band. They swapped instruments a lot, were more concerned with texture than melody, and were not dull for a second. As part of their impressive percussion setup was a large marching machine, lit in pink and white to look like marshmallows.

* Now gone, but it looked like this, from this photo.

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