Sunday, November 22, 2009

Why Don’t You Sing In Your Accent?

Here is an example of what I was talking about with accents. Saint Judes Infirmary do American ones, even though they are Scottish. I suspect I am not going to be able to get past this. I just put their new album This Has Been the Death of Us on, to see whether it was going to change my mind. The first song is kinda New Order-y, which I am usually a sucker for. The third song is called ‘Tacoma Radar’, and Tacoma Radar, whose guitarist I used to play in another band with, are one of my very favourite obscure things. Not because of that connection, which made me if anything more likely to be cynical about their own blatant Americanisms (specifically their Galaxie 500-isms), but their one album No One Waved Goodbye is one of the best records you never heard. Must get around to writing about it one day. Saint Judes Infirmary take their cue not from Galaxie but from The Walkabouts, and they don’t really do it for me. I just don’t see the Pop in them. And Kid Canaveral – I can hear the tunes, but that isn’t always the same thing (credit where it’s due though, they get their own accent right).

Those are the reasons I politely declined a request to give this gig a plug. Not that it would make the blindest bit of difference to attendance either way, but that isn’t the point. Then on the way to St Andrews last week Andy was telling me about all the things you have to do to promote a gig, and it sounds a right pain. So what the hell? There are two good reasons, as far as I can see, to go along: Andy’s own outfit, Hookers for Jesus, which I am excited about because, having missed their debut show back in April, this will be the first time I’ll have seen him and Graeme strut their stuff for years. With their final shows as The Candy Store Prophets in 2000 / 2001 I remember them stripping back their sound and achieving a rawness that suited them well – there can be something reckless and liberated about a band on the verge of collapse. Here’s hoping they haven’t ditched the recklessness along with the collapse (the new names suggests not). The other reason to go is Panda Su. They have a massive Pop head start over the others in the fact that they wear panda face paint onstage, and they played a lovely set under dimmed lights at Drouthy Neebors a month or so ago. Laid back, an acoustic amble down painful memory lane, they have this line: ‘The problem with myself is that I long to be someone else’, which puts another spin on the face decoration. How can you not love that line? I want to hear more.

Saint Jude’s Infirmary, Kid Canaveral, Pandu Su and Hookers for Jesus play the Westport Bar in Dundee on Sunday 29th November. Sing local, I dare you.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Frànçois & The Atlas Mountains and Rozi Plain at The Barron Theatre, St. Andrews, 19th November

It is a rare privilege to watch someone’s talent grow. Maybe it is a trick of exposition, but this seems to be the reward for keeping up with Frànçois’ music over the last few years. ‘Hold on Twice’ would have been the first song I heard, on a 7” split with Ray Rumours, and it was lovely, but there was nothing about it to indicate that its creator was capable of ‘Swimmers / Drifters’, a stunning and stunned lovelorn lament that seemed to break all the boundaries of lo-fi recording and was quite the best single of last year. Or it seemed to be until December and his Brother EP, which upped the game again with a leap from bedroom audio pottering to full band arrangements that deepened and broadened and exploded and put his music back together again. A note in the EP explained that it was an abandoned album, and this did seem a limitation, even amongst such a great clutch of songs: perhaps he couldn’t cut it over the length of an album. The only one I’d heard up until then was Les Anciennes Falaises, a CD-R which came wrapped in an oil painting (‘Hold on Twice’ came in a watercolour) and contained some lovely Pastels-worship in ‘Katrina’ (‘she likes the frogs when dancing in the rain’, apparently) and ‘Byres Road’, but which otherwise felt lacklustre. Catching up with 2005’s delicate The People to Forget scotched this notion, but it didn’t really get totally confounded until the new one, Plaine Inondable.

The Barron Theatre is a tiny (60 seats!), university-affliated theatre with a proper angled platform for seating, divided by stairs. The stage area is bordered on the left by a large black curtain, from which theatrical things can magically appear. The mixing desk is hidden amongst its swirls. On the right of the seats is the entrance and a corridor with a ticket booth and, last night, watercolours from the new animated video to ‘Be Water (Je suis de l’eau)’ on the wall. Order something directly from his site and it’ll probably arrive wrapped in one. Though self-distribution may be on the way out: Frànçois is newly signed to Fence, where he joins his partner Rozi Plain and tonight’s other performers: The Balky Mule, who played an opening set (which was nice enough but a bit outshone), and The Pictish Trail, who did nothing solo but added vocals and playful drums to one of Rozi’s songs.

Rozi Plain’s set was quietly stunning. Her album Inside Over Here, so charmingly evoked over there, puzzled me initially. Rozi’s singing voice is quite affected, nothing like her posh-with-a-hint-of-Bristol speaking voice. It is crone-like, a witch captured on wax and played back on 78. Usually I hate people singing in affected accents, but at least this one wasn’t obvious, she wasn’t trying to sound American or anything. Still, I didn’t trust it: what was it trying to do? It seemed to want to crawl into cracks and frighten the spiders … maybe not frighten, maybe tell them ghost stories before bed. The music I was fine with, all underplayed, acoustic, animated not with energy but a dreamy wellbeing. But her voice. Face to face it made a lot more sense, though. She wasn’t trying to cultivate a mystique, her between-song interjections were down to earth, chatty (‘I told a lie today, in a shop. Said I was a student. Got a 10% discount. And I’m not!’), she would smile a toothy smile and then close her eyes to sing, and somehow there was no divide between the chat and this becalmed spookiness that her songs create. Almost a year on I now get what Daniel was talking about: ‘if you took away the world, Rozi would deliver you more or less the same sort of song as she does with the world and all its distractions very much in place’. The set seemed to be mostly new, too – at least, the only song from Inside Over Here was ‘360°’, sung last ‘so you can buy it on my album at the shop’, indicating the ticket booth which doubled as a merch stall.

Back in April, Frànçois played with Ray Rumours in a similarly sweet, diminutive venue and, whilst he was brilliant, it was a brilliance which was short-circuited somewhat by Ray’s casual, breezy worldliness. Where she looks endlessly outwards, suggesting how easy and interesting things can be if you are sufficiently friendly and outward looking yourself (a seductive enough vision, but what if you actually aren’t?), his extroversion all comes from within. I said then, ‘he could as well have been on another planet’, and it was meant as a criticism, but I think now I would defend him and say, everyone is on a different planet from everyone else, and few performers can bring their own internal landscape to life as vividly as Frànçois, especially when he has The Atlas Mountains in tow. So he came on, in a cardigan and socks, played a song, walked off. ‘Encore’, I heckled, encouragingly. Remember those curtains? He emerged belly down on an office chair with castors, going full tilt right across the front of the stage area, to be stopped on the other side by an incongruous ’70s wardrobe where maybe costumes are kept. He marched up the steps between the two slim sections of seats and announced that as a boy he had learned to play harmonica with the aid of some steps, like this. Up and down them he skipped, playing harmonica as we clapped in time – a syncopated rhythm, no less (try doing that in a venue big enough to have an echo). Then he disappeared briefly, past the ticket booth and through the door, before bursting back in, running, and skidding on his knees to the point where he had left his pile of white fairy lights. He plugged them in and kissed them. You know what? I think Pop may not be dead after all.

What did he play? ‘The Way to the Forest’, announced peremptorily, leading Rozi to clarify: ‘It’s a song, not an instruction’. ‘Do You Do’, ‘Be Water’ and ‘Years of Rain’ from the new album. Drummer Amaury Ranger played standing up using one tom tom, one vertical and one horizontal conga (the latter placed on a chair), and a dome shaped thing which I think was a water drum. Not forgetting, too, the shaker attached to his left leg. All of this kept him in perpetual motion, his whole body swinging as it played the drum area, limbs and head moving in circles. Out came the wonderful rich percussive sound of the record, stretched further and riffed upon, Frànçois warbling more Bolan-like than ever over the top (I wonder if he would consider covering ‘Electric Slim & the Factory Hen’? That would be good. Though the sound I’m really talking about is ‘Debora’). Plaine Inondable switches between this sound and a sedate but tension filled incursion upon Tindersticks / Lee Hazlewood territory, though neither comparison occurred to me before Andy made them. Frànçois seems to have arrived there naturally, under his own steam, and at the moment it seems as though this is the music of his life, but I’m almost certain that he will confound this reaction a good few times yet.

More photos
‘Be Water (Je suis de l’eau)’ video

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Kitted Out

This week I’ve been taking photos of my musical instruments and associated equipment. There is quite a lot of it, and much of it hardly ever gets used, but all the same, it is nice to have around. There is something about the physical presence of a drum machine or a portastudio which a computer can’t replace – though maybe it’s more about the absence of the big bright multi-tasking monitor, the necessity of peering at small grey LCD displays and muddling through the over-complex functions which have been squeezed into too few keys, which forces your attention back to the sound. For me, anyway. I always want to know How Things Work, and whilst it is quite possible to absorb over a few months all the tricks and foibles of, say, an SR-16 drum machine (these are brilliant, by the way), the same just is not true of computers, which are complex enough in themselves, and furthermore have access to all human knowledge within a few clicks. Too much information! With Linux audio, which is such a great undertaking, I found myself spending more time on the Linux than the audio, and even less time playing guitar (though I still have a Pure:Dyne memory stick for emergencies). So – back to the boxes.

A note on the guitars pic: I used to keep them like this in my old flat sometimes, where the sofa was – not unnaturally – against a wall opposite the telly. S. would wonder what they were watching, eventually reaching the conclusion that it must be tennis, because of the strings.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Cormac McCarthy – ‘The Road’

Nick Cave-related, in that he and Warren Ellis have done the score for the forthcoming film, but there is also a similarity in the way this and And the Ass Saw the Angel treat readers with suspicion – and treat them to words they’ll never find elsewhere. The silent, sinister protagonist in Cave’s book addresses ‘you silent and most sinister sitters’, and The Road’s prose slips on occasion from bare bones description to something more enigmatic:
What time of year? What age the child? He walked out into the road and stood. The silence. The salitter drying from the earth. The mudstained shapes of flooded cities burned to the waterline. At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering. No sound but the wind. What will you say? A living man spoke these lines? He sharpened a quill with his small pen knife to scribe these things in sloe or lampblack? At some reckonable and entabled moment? He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt. (pp. 279-80)
There are a few of these passages. You’re tramping along at the end of the world through the fallout dust with dead trees and suspected cannibals around every bend, inhabiting every derelict building. But at least the pages are falling away quickly. And then, like a thick trunk blocking the way of the shopping cart stacked with everything you own, comes a paragraph that brings you to an abrupt halt, which needs chopping up before you can continue. There is some help to be found here with the word ‘salitter’: ‘It is the essence of God which is “drying from the earth”’. ‘Spoken bones’ is tricky, because objects can’t be spoken (as opposed to spoken about). Only words can be spoken. So the bones must be words: they communicate mortality to future generations, and part of the reason they are mouldering is that future generations are fast running out. ‘The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion’ (p. 93). The passage moves on to consider its own readers, and the likelihood of their hostility to a narrative which comes ‘to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt’, and which, being what-if fiction, has no good reason to do so. It is scarcely possible that this account could be written, and wholly impossible that it could be read afterwards, with mankind all but wiped out. We are not reading it afterwards, though, but beforehand.

The two man characters are a father and son, travelling from somewhere north to escape the harsh winter there. It is America, the road of the book’s title is an interstate road, and they follow it to the sea. Maybe there are several roads. The father and son are not named, they are mostly ‘he’ (the father) and ‘the boy’. Sometimes the father is ‘the man’, and this serves to distance him, to push him further into this world of unimaginable bleakness. This is appropriate to his character because he is over-cautious, seeing himself as a survival machine. He trusts no one, and has a strong sense of purpose in the protection of his son. The boy does not share this, he sees far more clearly that there is no point in merely surviving: ‘I don’t know what we’re doing’ he protests, and the father concedes: ‘There are people. There are people and we’ll find them. You’ll see’ (p. 261). But this is just to placate the boy: he doesn’t really believe it.

Is The Road a cautionary tale? If so its message is a little on the obvious side: Mankind, do not destroy yourself in a nuclear holocaust. You will not like it. The plants and the animals will die, the sun will become pale through the debris in the atmosphere. Most of you will die too, and those who live will have to survive on whatever canned food they can scavenge, because new crops will not grow. Others will turn to cannibalism. Eventually there will be no cans or people left, and that will be the end of everything. But the end of everything is not what The Road is interested in. Who cares if the human race is wiped out? It wouldn’t be such a catastrophe, because there would be no one left for it to be a catastrophe to. Everything – everybody – depends. This is the real point of the book. It is pretty obvious too, really.

More words from The Road: transom, gambrel, blacktop, windrow, piedmont, obsidian, meconium, sapper, catamite, phalanx, kerf, chert, isocline, stanchion, clerestory, bindle, pampootie, travois

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Daniel Johnston, The Wave Pictures and Laura Marling, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 4th November

‘Are you going to call him a dick?’

‘Do I have to?’


‘But I’m not sure he is a dick.’
Excuses, excuses. He’s ill, many of the decisions about this concert will have been made for him. He wrote the best songs that ever were, he can do what he likes. He can push an old lady out of a window, crash his father’s plane. But if he tours with a set which is stone cold, then what was the point of it all? And still the fans go wild, still give him a standing ovation. Are they cheering the fact that a man with his mental health problems, so heavily medicated, can stand up and sing at all? Fuck that. Do you hear, Daniel? We don’t love you for the illness, but for the fight. Do you think that we can’t tell the difference?

The bus to Edinburgh had quite a few people on it going to the same gig. The people behind us and the people behind them, at least. It was tempting at first to turn around and say, ‘Hi, how are you?’, join in with the chat about how many songs he’d play (not which songs, curiously), and how best to make it back to the bus station in time if he finished late. The first time the louder of the pair sang ‘Speeding motorcycle’ and his companion chimed in ‘Won’t you change me?’ it was funny. But soon they were talking too loud and too much about local venues and doing sound for gigs and how everyone but them was too cliquey, and I disappeared gratefully into my iPod. They persisted with the ‘Speeding Motorcycle’ line – just that one line – eventually irritating S. into singing ‘Funeral Home’ back at them. A whole bus singing that would have been worth hearing.

The start was delayed. Arriving twenty minutes after the doors were supposed to open we found a long line of people outside the Queen’s Hall. Last time we were here we saw The Magnetic Fields. It was the week John Peel died and Marc Almond nearly did, and Claudia Gonson inaugurated the least respectful, most rushed minute’s silence I’ve ever sat through. The songs were great, but – way to alienate a British crowd. So, another excuse: a spooked venue.

How long can I put this off? Last year Daniel was so great. This year’s show followed the ‘& Friends’ format too, but the friends this time weren’t Jad Fair and Mark Linkous but The Wave Pictures and Laura Marling. The latter kinda hilarious in a New York 1960 coffee house folk style, two parts Joni Mitchell, one part Karen Dalton, but seriously undermined by a fake American accent, daft self-important lyrics and an off-the-shoulder pullover. Wish I could remember some of the lyrics. The first line of the first song on her website gives an idea of the sort of thing: ‘I woke up and he was screaming.’ Dynamite. The Wave Pictures, on first, were really enjoyable. If it had been their gig I would have come away impressed. Last year I loved their song ‘Strange Fruit for David’, specifically the lines: ‘A sculpture is a sculpture / Marmalade is marmalade / And a sculpture of marmalade is a sculpture / But it isn’t marmalade’, which are genius. And about marmalade, which is under-represented in indie rock and in songs generally. But.

They did not work at all well as a backing band for Daniel. Theirs is a dimly lit sound, bass heavy with ornate mouldings of guitar, designed to accommodate the wordy, literate sleaze of their lyrics. It should have occurred to someone that this was as likely to complement the damaged purity of Daniel’s voice as... I dunno, as The Magic Band would be likely to bring out the subtleties in a performance by a cathedral choir. ‘Silly Love’ was done as cod reggae, ‘Fish’ as cocktail jazz. Killed outright, both of them. ‘Rock ’n’ Roll / EGA’ was relatively un-messed around with, but there was none of the punch that last year’s band brought. To make matters worse, and as if to make a mockery of the earlier set’s sublime take on ‘Rain’, there were three Beatles songs: ‘Hey, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’, ‘Come Together’ and ‘Revolution’. The latter as un-rock as ‘Rock ’n’ Roll / EGA’, and prefaced with the remark, ‘Vive la revolution’. ‘What does that mean?’ demanded Chris, getting more angry with each passing song.

There were a few great moments: after Daniel’s short solo spot and before the band set proper, an acoustic guitarist came on (I don’t know his name) to accompany ‘Life In Vain’ and ‘Hey Joe’. Played straight they were simple, overwhelming, everything Daniel can and should be. Next time, someone just give him a piano and leave the friends to the support slots. Bring the boxer out of retirement. Keep punching, Joe.

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