Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Pastels, National Jazz Trio of Scotland, Taken by Trees and Tape, Stirling Tolbooth, 23rd May

As I was leaving, Brogues (who actually does seem to read this blog, bless him) asked if I’d written a review in my head yet. I said yes, but it might be quite scary. I walked slowly across to the youth hostel, all of fifty feet away, feeling so weighed down. In the morning I took out my pad and had a go, ended up crying all over again. As I had, in the middle of the front bloody row, the previous evening a few songs into The Pastels’ set. Crumpled in S.’s arms. Ten feet from Stephen, who must have seen me. I imagined him thinking, ‘Some people take the immutability of Pastels sets really badly’, but that wasn’t it, it was to do with my grandmother’s illness. You don’t want to read about that. But this set of theirs, evolving slowly since at least 2003, about which I complained on Tangents last year (I’m so glad it didn’t close before I got a chance to write an apology piece), felt on Friday like an old and much needed friend. Kicking off with ‘Charlie’s Theme’ and Alison’s discordant trumpet opening. It’s delicious, the way it melts from that into Katrina’s downbeat drum patter. Then ‘Secret Music’, which Stephen announced as being from ‘an album we’ve been making for most of our adult lives’. Some things take that long, though. It doesn’t mean they’re not worth it.

According to the set list, ‘Slowly Taking Place’ is the name of the long instrumental song which appeared at the same time as The Last Great Wilderness, but wasn’t included. It’s like the dark side to ‘Charlie’s Theme’. All minor chords, surging, overwhelming. And it brought us to this year’s new song. On the list, ‘Don’t Wait Too Long’, and no, not a Beach Boys cover. Stephen told us a story about graffiti in a Bearsden cemetery, which I was sure was leading up to ‘Fragile Gang’, but it was nice to be wrong footed. So not only a new song, but a new Stephen song, and a new Stephen song about friendship at that. There is no better kind of song, if you were wondering. It sounded great, quite fast and poppy, at least relative to the gentle and brooding Last Great Wilderness tone that tends to dominate these days. Then on to last year’s new song, Katrina’s ‘Ballad of Two Elms’, wistful and sedate, autumnal, circular, completely wonderful. Tantalisingly, there was what seemed to be another new song listed as an encore, ‘Shadows’, which didn’t get played. We got ‘Nothing To Be Done’ again though, which was fine by me. Oh, and they played ‘Flightpaths to Each Other’! Again, a lift from the gentler tone. Things have shifted, slightly. It’s a privilege and a pleasure to watch them do it.

Of the other bands, the best were Bill Wells’ National Jazz Trio of Scotland. Perversely named, obviously, as they sound even less like any kind of traditional jazz than The Bill Wells Trio or Octet ever did. There were also four of them. Bill played guitar rather than his usual keyboard-with-a-sampler-sat-on-it. Lovely finger picking electric jazz guitar, but always with some contrasting strangeness keeping the sound fresh. All instrumental, though with some song melodies (‘Smile While Your Heart is Breaking’ was one, I think). There had better be a record of this amazing and gentle music coming out. Backed with a marimba and a viola, Bill did quiet-as-you-can-go dynamics in the Tolbooth bar, oblivious to the noises of cash registers and car exhausts through the open window. The whole room strained to hear, and you could tell everyone was enraptured. They finished and I had no idea if they’d played for an hour or for ten minutes.

I still don’t really get Tape. Their sound is very pretty, very relaxing. There is the squeezebox drone, a guitar, a xylophone. Bill notwithstanding, instrumental music often leaves me cold. Tape don’t exactly do that, but the warmth is only there when they’re actually playing. Can’t remember a thing, now. Taken by Trees were good, playing songs from last year’s Open Field LP. The sound, particularly the drums, was richer than on record (Chris thought this about Victoria’s voice, too). She squeezed her eyes shut singing certain lines, and stood for one song tapping a cymbal with a brush. Metronomically, arm outstretched. They sound a bit too much like a toy band though, and Traceyanne Campbell’s ‘Lost and Found’ still stands out a mile as their best song. ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ closed the set, and sounded pretty good. Better than it did before, easy.

Monday, May 19, 2008

When You Disappear

Anyone who’s read this or that post from several whiles ago will have some idea how much I love Anne Bacheley’s songs. It’s a whole lot, anyway. I had a go at recording one, ‘Mixtape Babies’, half in response to Candy Cane’s version, and half to try out a new fangled digital eight track I impulse bought a few months ago after a particularly boring Saturday in work. Eight tracks! What freedom, after years using (or not using) four track tape machines. ‘Mixtape Babies’ uses three. Oh well.

You can hear it here, under ‘Misc’. Thanks so much for putting it up, Anne. You are great.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Jens Lekman and Ray Rumours, Glasgow and Edinburgh, 15th & 16th May

Maybe When I Said I Wanted To Be Your Dog was always going to be an impossible record to follow. Adopting as it did the Mary Margaret O’Hara approach to song-gathering: wait until something great turns up before you even consider including it, even if that means an album of spontaneous songs takes five or ten years to put together. Which is OK for a first album, but who’s going to wait around that long to see if you can repeat the trick? Night Falls Over Kortedala felt too much like an attempt to force the issue: luscious production dressing up songs that didn’t quite have it. With the exception of ‘And I Remember Every Kiss’, which he didn’t play at Oran Mor on Thursday. His set consisted of a few old songs (‘Black Cab’, ‘You Are The Light’) and the songs from Kortedala which aren’t ‘And I Remember Every Kiss’. So how come it was brilliant?

He started with a song ‘about cutting out all the bullshit’, which sounded as if he meant business at least. A capella at first, ‘I Am Leaving You Because I Don’t Love You’ soon picked up its plinking piano and swinging drums, and came instantly alive. Then a segue into ‘The Opposite of Hallelujah’ (‘Dexy’s!’ yelled Chris in excitement, as the Celtic Soul Brothers were suddenly before us), and it’s all effortlessly pop and exuberant and the noises aren’t there to plaster over cracks, they’re as essential as they are bright as they are batty. As the song closes and the laptop plays the xylophone outro, Jens picks out the notes in the air above his head, like he’s plucking fruit from the Clangers’ music tree. Later in the set the laptop will take over completely to allow the whole band to stretch their arms out to the sides and swoosh around like aeroplanes. It’s all as carefully planned as the album it comes from, but done with a lightness which lifts the curse, and the songs get to breathe. The band are a lot to do with this: particularly the drummer and the violinist, who play with such verve that there’s no chance of a mire. Jens too, strikes one as more of a performer than a recording artist – didn’t he say somewhere that ‘Do You Remember the Riots’ once had a big arrangement, but they couldn’t top the simple finger-snap backing? He should get back to that instinct.

In a great pop detail, Jens has taken advantage of his resemblance to the young Scott Walker (who would have given anything to have been Swedish), and had keys on strings made up for himself and the band to wear around their necks. The cover of Scott Sings Songs from his TV Series is brought to 2008. For the rest, ‘A Postcard to Nina’ is spun out to twice its original length as Jens fills us in on the background story, talking over the music, and ‘Pocketful of Money’ (‘a song about payday’) is done with the crowd whistling and singing the Calvin Johnson ‘I’ll come running with a heart on fire’ sample. An octave too high. Come on, Glasgow, I thought you were hard? But it’s a lovely end to a show in which Jens betrays not the slightest awareness that he may have slipped a bit from being the king of Richman rock – and, who knows, perhaps he hasn’t after all.

And so to Edinburgh, for Ray Rumours, who were playing as part of Ladyfest. I was looking forward to this much more than Jens, their recent run of split singles having been a wonder to watch unfold. But you never can tell, can you? The venue, the Forest Café, was the problem. ‘Cost: free. All ages welcome! BYOB’ ran the blurb on the website, which sounded friendly, if a bit hippy-ish. The place was kinda grimy though. As were the dreadlocks and the bare feet of some of the people in it. Did your mothers never tell you to wash behind your ears? I wondered. Or in front of them? Or to vacuum the carpets if people are coming round? Or, failing all of that, not to fall over fighting then dry hump each other on the floor at quiet acoustic gigs? It was such a shame – in any pub in the city, this would have been a great show, and it was still alright, but... there was half an attentive room, to the left, and then to the right all these other folk who had come because it was free and they wanted somewhere to be loudly alternative. Somehow Ros managed not to be phased by any of this, even enquiring, ‘So I hear there are some people here who have lived up a tree for six years?’ [Pause. Cogs whirred. BIG CHEER from the right.] She thought, living in London, that this sounded quite nice. Then they played ‘Secret Hideout’. There were three in the band, sitting in a row: Ros, a second vocalist and a drummer, equipped with only a snare drum and a tambourine, which was surprisingly effective. There were flamenco flourishes, quiet finger picking, a Spanish song (the one that breaks into English at the end – ‘If you’re going to make me choose / Between you and anything / I’ll choose you / I’ll choose you’). They seemed to pick songs as they went, asking the crowd ‘Do you want a fast or a slow song next?’ and going in to ‘Staying In’ as a result (it’s relatively fast). Under the hubbub, they were as warm and fun and mildly melancholic as their records, and it would be great to see them in better surroundings.

Finally, a mention for one of the support acts, Sarah Doherty. In bright red tights, with a painted guitar, and the chords to her songs written in biro down her left arm. Really pretty songs, what shed written of them. One stopped dead and she explained that she hadn’t written the second verse yet. Another, ‘about an Irishman’, was Bowie’s ‘Changes’ with different words, the chorus going ‘J-J-J-James Joyce’. She gave that one up in embarrassment, saying that the whole point of the song was that ‘James Joyce’ sounds like ‘Changes’ (it does?), and that if we wanted we could use this joke later in the evening and pass it off as our own. Almost before she’d got going, she modestly declared that she would vacate the stage to make way for ‘people who have played before’. Great first gig, Sarah!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mark E. Smith with Austin Collings – ‘Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith’

It took me the first hundred pages to get over the disappointment that this book is ghost written. How much of a media cliché is that? Given, too, how much of it Smith devotes to his famous work ethic, how no-one reads these days (except, apparently, in Germany and Scotland), how the feel of Hex Enduction Hour is novelistic, how his play ‘Hey! Luciani’ grew almost involuntarily from songs for Bend Sinister, it feels pretty lazy. I thought of his contribution to Chris Roberts’ Idle Worship book, typed on a typewriter with scribblings out and a stipulation that it had to appear as presented, none of that nasty typesetting. Which finds an echo of an echo here in the ‘Voices’ segments, in an all too neat monospaced typewriter font, presenting some of Smith’s free associations, of the kind he describes himself picking through for lyrics. Much of the time, the ‘proper’ chapters give the strong impression that they have been compiled from conversations, with the result that they are genial rather than electrifying. Which makes for a nice easy read. We learn a little about Mark’s childhood:

I devised this thing called ‘Japanese prison camp’. I’d make [my three sisters] sit in this room under a table with a big cloth over them because the air force might be coming. I’d be the Japanese guard. ‘You can’t go out. You must stay under there,’ I’d tell them. Then I’d shut the door, say I was going to the bridge on the River Kwai, have some pop, go out with my mates and, half an hour before mam and dad came home, I’d return, saying, ‘Japanese prison camp is now over.’ (p. 14)

It’s hard not to think that he might have barked these commands through a cardboard tube. We learn that he doesn’t think much of anyone who was ever in The Fall apart from his wife Elena (Burns, Hanley and Scanlon get a scathingly brief mention, accompanied with the comment, ‘I’ll only talk about the following for the benefit of the ghost-writer and the publishers’ (p. 54)), but we probably knew that already. We discover the Fall albums he actually rates (what’s so great about Extricate? Though he’s right about The Infotainment Scan.) There are many digressions, into The Stooges, Manchester, Edinburgh, thick journalists, the thick state of thick society. It’s all mixed in, and often feels quite slight.

The exception to this is chapter 17, ‘The March of the Gormless Bastards’, in which Smith tells the story of the disastrous 1998 American tour, on which the band bizarrely tried to split from The Fall as The Ark (‘Mark without the M’ (p. 207), he points out), understandably causing tensions. There was an onstage fight, after which Mark ended up getting arrested and held in custody for two nights. During which:

‘Wilson – what’s in your urine?’ And he goes, ‘I don’t know, and I don’t care.’ And then onto the Puerto Ricans, and theirs is all pure. And then they get to this black guy and he’s got it all – VD, the clap, crack, heroin, the green scum, the lot – all in this tube. And some of the guys are saying, ‘That’s our Bo-Bo, always flying the flag!’ and the guy in question’s slumped down, dribbling, saying, ‘Well, it was a good night.’ (p. 211)

This really has nothing to do with anything, but the few pages during which Smith describes his time in custody, the police incompetence, the scary bastards he’s in with, and his own edginess in the company of same, is the only passage in the book which approaches the overwhelming paranoid feel of Hex Enduction Hour, and this is a shame. Could you try a novel next, Mark?

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Jean-Yves Tadié – ‘Marcel Proust, a Life’

Walking to my grandmother’s house a week last Wednesday, from the bus stop at the shops opposite my old school, after a long journey spent reading this book. In the sun, listening to the two Ray Rumours / Frànçois split singles. Which are beautiful from beginning to end, and this short walk through a pretty village in the first warmth of spring felt Proustian. Towards the end of the journey I’d started to think about how Proust and pop might be explained in the same way – the feeling you get during his incredible description of the Meglisé Way (or is it the Guermantes Way? The passage with the river and the hawthorns) being similar to the rush of great pop. Slowed down, of course, slowed to a barely perceptible crawl, but a rush all the same. Translucent, enraptured, calm. A bit like Nagisa Ni te’s music. Also how this might link in to rockism / authenticity in pop, because Proust very obviously didn’t get his stunning effects from nowhere. Tadié describes his walks in Paris during the First World War:

The bombing raids over Paris continued. During the one that occurred on 29 May, the courtyard of Proust’s building was struck by ‘large amounts of shrapnel and splinters from bombs’; Céleste claimed to have found some in the brim of Marcel’s hat after he returned home on foot, brave as ever, ‘through a barrage of firing’. ‘Now, Monsieur, look at the bits of metal all over you! Didn’t you come back by car? Weren’t you frightened?’ – ‘No. Why, Céleste? The spectacle was much too fine for that.’ The truth was that Proust needed to see something in order to describe it. (p. 682)

Part of Proust’s theme is how life can be translated into art. Authenticity is absolutely crucial to his writing, and I think this is true of any good art. Pop is a good test case because it is supposed to be fleeting and frivolous, concerned with the thrill of the chase more than with the wells of serious emotion from which rock music self-consciously springs. Which I don’t mean to mock, being after all an American Music Club addict. But authenticity isn’t as easy as dressing sloppily and singing in a gruff voice (or, these days, pretending to be Joy Division). Proust puts this more elegantly:

I, who experience a sensation such as that but once a year, I envy people whose lives are so well organised that they can devote some time each day to the delights of art. At times, too, especially when I see how much less interesting they are in other respects than I am, I wonder whether the reason they say that they experience these sensations so frequently is because they never have them. (p. 313)

It’s odd that this statement isn’t more irritating, because it seems egotistical. But it isn’t: this is the thing Proust was most sure of, that he worked towards all his life, and achieved. Drafting and redrafting, copying, pasting, reorganising In Search of Lost Time in order to create a book composed wholly of the sensations he mentions above. Which are real, and translated into art.

This biography is a peculiar thing to read, because Proust’s life was peculiar. The action, such as it is, all occurs in the first half, as he takes holidays, avoids a career, and holds dinner parties. He meets many many people, and Tadié is assiduous in letting us know how they fitted into his fiction. He talks a lot, and his reputation for verbosity in his writing was established early (this is from 1904):

The duke, asking him to sign the visitors’ book, said to him: ‘Your name, Monsieur Proust, but no thoughts!’ (p. 414)

His literary career forms a continuous path from school onwards in the form of articles for literary papers (his anxiety about getting published in Le Figaro features in In Search of Lost Time), and there are the early books Pleasures and Days, Jean Santeuil and Contre Saint-Beuve, all of which can be seen as dry runs for In Search of Lost Time. After abandoning Jean Santeuil, he leaves fiction behind for a time and translates several of Ruskin’s books, with the help of his mother. Tadié demonstrates how Ruskin’s aesthetics (particularly concerning cathedrals) found their way into Proust’s fiction, and how they helped to make it fiction.

The most interesting section for me (told in a fragmented and dispassionate way, as though Tadié does not agree) deals with Alfred Agostinelli, Proust’s chauffeur and one of the models for Albertine. I remember reading a comment once (in The Guardian’s book supplement, possibly?) to the effect that Albertine was based on a woman, and wasn’t that a relief? It is abundantly clear from this biography that for the most part she wasn’t, and this is in itself a relief, to learn that the obsessive love which fills The Prisoner is drawn from experience rather than observation. Tadié describes how up until 1913,

Proust’s life and his book evolved along parallel lines. All of a sudden, from the day in May 1913 when Proust gave house-room to Alfred Agostinelli and employed him as his secretary, those lines were at right angles, and life began to cut across the book. All we know about that impassioned relationship, about the young man’s flight on 1 December 1913 and his death on 30 May 1914, and about the stages that led to him eventually being forgotten, is to be found in a curt news item and in what Proust himself tells us in his correspondence. (pp. 605-6)

A great deal of embellishment goes on, right the way through the writing of In Search of Lost Time, but this is the first time it goes completely off at a tangent, based on events in Proust’s life at the time of writing (the First World War was included too, in a similarly impromptu way). These were the major reasons why, ‘over the last eight years of Proust’s life, the work doubled in size’ (p. 605). Writing at such tremendous length was the only way Proust could include both the impassioned relationship and the subsequent forgetting in the same book. ‘Suffering alone seems to me to have made [...] of man something more than a brute’ (p. 626) he wrote in 1915, and an unfair quantity of suffering (in terms of his relationships and his health) made him less of a brute than most of us, because he had his book into which to pour it.

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