Sunday, December 16, 2012

Monorail and the Cool Cat Club

Monorail’s 10th birthday party, featuring The Pastels, Sacred Paws, Moon Unit and Richard Youngs, at Mono, Glasgow, 9th December.

The Cool Cat Club meets Monster A-Go Go Xmas Special, with The Won Over, Hookers for Jesus and Blood Indians, at Beat Generator Live!, Dundee, 14th December.

Isn’t there supposed to be some sort of crisis amongst record shops? No one wants physical product anymore, no one wants to pay. Music is free to be whatever it wants to be, in the ever decreasing gaps between wage-earning activity; it’s cheaper than chips, and mushier than peas in the retromanic rush to satisfy a craving for an infinite replication of those two or three great and simple sounds in whose presence the listener’s heart first opened. That last sentence adapted from the Camus quote draped elegantly over the artwork of Scott 4*, which I had to reach down from my CD racks, a physical object of some vintage by now, there having been at least one reissue since, and three new Scott Walker albums, which isn’t something that happens overnight. It would be too easy on this occasion to be triumphalist, to point out to Avalanche that the reason they struggle to sell records is that they don’t curate them well enough — too easy because their falling away didn’t come from nowhere, it’s a reaction to lack of interest. But still, it’s sad when you go in and can’t think of anything to buy (I hadn’t seen their closing down statement before, that is sadder still). In the shop, just prior to the birthday bash, I was thinking that my recent Monorail haul (Chain and the Gang, Lee Hazlewood, Cults Percussion Ensemble, Movietone) was going to be enough to keep me going for the moment, until Chris cracked open his just-acquired copy of Dep’s latest foray into releasing records. A white box set called Some Songs Side-by-Side, it comprises two LPs and ‘documents a community of bands that have been active in Glasgow throughout 2012’. Each of the eight bands gets half a side, or twelve minutes. Also included are a poster, three art prints on paper and an LP-sized / shaped sticker by David Shrigley, which reads ‘I collect records, I am obsessed with them.’ There’s a booklet with more art prints and a CD of the music — it’s such a beautiful object. Consider this a rave review, and I haven’t even listened to it yet, though I’m looking forward immensely to more Gummy Stumps and Muscles of Joy, the first released recordings of Sacred Paws, and finding out about other things I’d missed. It’s only £20, somehow. If you love records, you need a copy. Monorail understand that objects matter, they put in the time and care to contextualise them, to make them tantalising. ‘Atmos., transactions, good times’, as a flyer slogan of theirs once had it.

The above written last Monday night, after the gig on Sunday. I stopped to listen to Some Songs, (much more fun than typing) and didn’t get started again. But what happened was: Richard Youngs set up a table with a laptop, a tiny guitar amp and a noise generating thing with knobs, and intoned, using the lower of John Lydon’s two patented notes, ‘Another sleepless night’. It became annoying almost immediately, which was the point, I think. He repeated it continuously for most of the twenty minute set, pausing occasionally to drop the microphone with a loud bang, to set the laptop drum loop going, or stop it again, or to twiddle with amp or noise generator. He’s a great performer to watch — fearless, hyperactive, bloody minded. The last time I saw him he played the same song twice in a row because he didn’t like the key, so he moved the capo on the guitar and played it again. ‘Another sleepless night / Another sleepless night’, on and on. ‘I wonder if he has kids?’ said S. After Youngs, it was all about the drumming: Moon Unit did an Acid Mothers style squall that took a while to whip itself up, but once it had it tore through sails and rigging alike, and you might even say that the drums tore through the guitar and the bass, fixing their vagaries. Sacred Paws were as excellent as they had been at the CCA a few weeks previously, and seemed a little awe struck by the large audience, which thanks to the shape of Mono does look a little like the outer reaches of a stadium brought right up close when it’s packed. A wall of faces. The Pastels sounded louder and generally bigger in this small venue than they had in the Bush Hall, and more overwhelming in consequence. New song ‘Come to the Dance’ came off better this time, more confident, less hurried. There could hardly be more of a home crowd than this, and Stephen took the opportunity of a pause occasioned by a snare drum problem (if there was ever an opportunity to ask for a Spare Snare...) to say a little about the occasion. That he and Dep had started Monorail with little more than a loan, and that it was amazing to have everyone here... He trailed off, and a loud cheer from the crowd completed the thought. Then he dedicated ‘Baby Honey’ to Dep. It would be too easy to be triumphalist, but it doesn’t hurt to be celebratory now and then. Thank you, Monorail.

I was thinking about all that great drumming — particularly Sacred Paws’ — watching Blood Indians on Friday at Andy’s Christmas Cool Cat Club gig. It’s not that you have to have joyously complicated rhythms to be worth watching, but Blood Indians are a little too basic for me. Very straight strumming, or sometimes picking, nothing much in the way of syncopation. They played two covers: ‘Silent Night’, as this was a Christmas gig, and that suited their pared down style well; and the Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’, which I liked a lot less. The whole taking a synth song and making it a guitar song idea is open to the suspicion that the performer is trying to add integrity in a dreadfully unimaginative way. I don’t like the song either. They were at their best on the closing ‘Wolves’, which is based around Depeche Mode’s ‘Personal Jesus’ riff, and which takes off into strange vocal territory. The two singers’ voices are folky and inward, a bit Rozi Plain, and when they soar and intertwine that can be interesting — mysterious, even.

This year Andy’s put on quite a few gigs: Vic Godard in March, Edinburgh School for the Deaf in September, an Oxjam house gig featuring his own, reformed Candy Store Prophets in October. Then there was a slightly odd experiment in June, when the best band, Creeping Ivies, went on first and the headliners, The High Fevers, essentially a wedding band, played very famous ’60s songs, wearing polo necks and fringes pinched from mid-period Beatles. That didn’t quite work, but it was an interesting thing to try, and it probably paved the way for Friday’s extravaganza. The poster advertised burlesque dancers, in a move presumably half-inched from Dexys, but considerably more down market. It was the incongruity of it that was so wonderful: following the sedate Blood Indians, and in the context of several craft stalls at the back of the room, selling jewellery and home-made greetings cards, we got an amusingly gobby Glaswegian** on the mic introducing two burlesque dancers and one belly dancer. The belly dancer was good (we were warned not to ask her to get her tits out — never had that at an indie gig before), and the other two... I mean, what do you say, really? The second one emerged covered in glitter-filled balloons which she proceeded to burst until there were only suggestively-placed ones left. Immediately after she’d finished, the barman rushed out with a dustpan, broom and bin, the MC still in mid flow with her concluding remarks. You can’t buy faded glamour like that.

All of which was the perfect introduction to the best Hookers for Jesus set I’ve seen. In amongst the crafts stalls was a face-painting one, and Graeme (hair already dyed orange, and a fox tail attached to his guitar) got himself made up as a fox; Andy as a death’s head. They had expanded to a four-piece with the addition of Peter from Vladimir on guitar, and ex-Candy Store Prophet William on bass. I’d been a bit apprehensive that the extra bodies might dilute the Hookers magic, which relies so much on Graeme’s idiosyncratic sensibilities (both audio and visual), but in fact the increased stage presence gave both protagonists more leeway. Graeme got to be more of an axe hero (no pun intended, other Graham), and the extra guitar and bass gave him the chance to open up some seriously corrosive pedals, which made me think of Scars. Andy reacted to this with a visceral performance, shouting choruses, lying down, climbing on to the monitors. It was thrilling stuff: more rock than normal, I guess, but such a slow, strange, gothic-theatrical version of it. This reached its peak on either ‘Cabaret Song’ or ‘The Dead Don’t Dream’, the two dark monologue monoliths of recent Hookers shows. They revisited their cover of Spacemen 3’s ‘I Walked With Jesus’ to increased effect, too, and played a Christmas song — not ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker’, sadly, though it had been a contender (it did get played by the DJ).

After this the burlesque MC returned, in a Darth Vader outfit, to do her own routine. The night’s headliners, The Won Over — featuring my old boss Owen — were always going to struggle against such weirdness, and they were good, but too normal, really. They reminded me of not liking Broken Social Scene and, without being totally overblown, were reaching for the epic without really getting their hands dirty. The night belonged to the Hookers, the fuck ups, the waifs and strays.

* ‘A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.’

** Pretty pleased to discover, looking up ‘gobby’ to make sure it’s a real word, that my dictionary gives ‘a gobby Glaswegian’ as its usage example.

Hookers for Jesus photo by S.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Chain and the Gang and Sacred Paws, CCA, Glasgow, 27th November / Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat, R.M. Hubbert and Gordon Legge, DCA, Dundee, 28th November

Downstairs at the CCA was a moveable stage they set up sometimes. The last time I saw it, they put it up against the back wall, opposite the balcony. This time it was in front of the stairs, you could see people walking down it from backstage. The support act, Sacred Paws, and the Chain and the Gang musicians. But none of them really arrived until Ian Svenonius and Katie Greer, descending, spotlit, he in a grey suit and implausibly big black hair, she in a red dress with a puffed up underskirt, bustle-like (there will be a proper word for that, I'm sure), wearing a matching 1950s snarl. Slouching on down from heaven, and suddenly that staircase was Busby Berkeley, or A Matter of Life and Death. What presence!

Upstairs at the DCA, in from the cold to a gallery emptied of art and filled with red plastic chairs, like a school assembly. Art and music don’t mix, right? Art and pop don’t mix, neither can survive the other’s glare — of hauteur, of hatred. But before pop could get going in this art place (much more pure art than the CCA, if pure art is white walls and precious captions), there was some reading to be done, and it was as though whoever put the evening together had dredged Scotland for an intonation more dour than Aidan Moffat’s. I was too impatient to follow the story he was reading, but Gordon Legge had the crowd stupefied with his resigned monotone, at a higher pitch that Moffat’s, and slightly scuffed. This was presence too, hypnotic as exhaustion, and few left, so maybe the others were listening. But it struck me as too pure art in attitude.

Ian Svenonius jumped, and kept shrieking something akin to Iggy’s ‘Shake!’, which it gradually dawned on me must be ‘Chain!’ He jumped four, five feet, it seemed, kicking outwards and somehow missing the front teeth of the front row. He and Katie had most of the P.A.’s volume — you could hear the band, but this was a vocal performance, and a largely improvised one at that. Svenonius can go off piste whenever the mood takes him, and he riffed, because of the CCA, on the subject of contemporary art, dispensing advice such as, don’t make any art in the first two decades of a century, and work in stone, because nothing else — especially not live performance — will last. But as well as art there is having a good time to consider, he conceded. He jumped into the audience a few times so he could sing directly at people, at least one of whom cracked up at the deadpan stare. Katie didn’t do that, but her zombie jitterbug demeanour was hyperactive enough, and made me think of Edinburgh School for the Deaf. Each casually held their microphone backwards without looking when the guitarist or the bassist (who chewed a toothpick the whole time) was required for backing vocal duties. It was slick-ish but also chaotic, a dizzying, exhilarating performance.

R.M. Hubbert gave a more static performance but a more moving one. His guitar playing was incredible, relaxed but virtuosic, and included on several songs a rhythm tapped intricately on the instrument’s body whilst he played at least two other parts on the strings. It wasn’t an ostentatious kind of virtuosity, it was sounds lost inside themselves, with a warmth and a succour that contrasted with the prettiness of Alasdair MacLean’s equally proficient playing with Amor de Dias the other week. Hubbert’s between-song chat was candid and self-deprecating, the opposite of Svenonius’ hilarious and invigorating posturing. He talked about the death of his parents, and a twenty-year struggle with depression. He recommended therapy, but said he prefers playing gigs. ‘In therapy you sit there and talk for an hour, the therapist doesn’t say much. You pay him and you leave.’ Gigs fulfil the same function, with the money flowing the other way, ‘which works better for me.’ This sounds joyless and self-absorbed, but it didn’t come across that way, it’s hard to say why.  It was partly the music, but that wasn’t the whole story. One song was about his ex’s father, who died whilst he was away on tour, and he plays the song so that he can remember him for a few minutes each day. A lovely man, we were told, but modest. ‘Me telling you all about him... he would have fucking hated it’ said Hubbert, a glint in his eye.

But we’re straying from pop and art now. So this might be the time to flit back to the CCA and mention Stephen Pastel’s ‘guerrilla film screening’ in a side room before the bands played on Tuesday. The idea was to show the episode of This Is Our Music (the MTV show) about él records impresario Mike Alway, on the basis that Ian Svenonius once made a record under his direction, playing the Alway-created character David Candy. Interviewed by Stephen after the twenty-odd minute screening, Ian recalled how he had fallen under Alway’s spell to the extent that he agreed to come to London for a month to make a record for him, with Alway supplying the concept, the look and the musicians. When they met, Alway told him that ‘The musicians aren’t quite ready yet’, and they remained not ready for some time. Come the last few days before Svenonius’ return flight to America, he finally told him, ‘The musicians are ready, you’re going to have to go to Bristol.’ In Bristol the musicians, él regulars, said ‘Don’t tell Mike, but we haven’t prepared any music.’ So they knocked the record out in a day or two, and Ian caught his return flight. He re-recorded some of the material later on, but Mike said ‘No, it’s perfect.’ ‘I don’t think he understood that other people knew who I was,’ speculated Ian, of this makeover in Alway’s 1968 mould. In the film Alway admitted to a fascination with the ’60s but denied that the records he puts out are retro. ‘Because... Who would want to buy them?’ he argued, winningly.

Sacred Paws seemed totally at odds with Alway’s high concept, hands off approach. A duo, drums and guitar, Eilidh out of Monorail and Rachel out of London, which sounds impractical, but it works. Rachel’s guitar sounded like Four Brothers, like early Orange Juice. Harder, but that sort of rapid melodic meander. She said she’d hurt herself dancing to — what was it, George Michael? — and that she normally danced more on stage. She still danced quite a bit. Hair skewed immaculately to one side and wearing no shoes, she had presence too. Once the two of them started to play two different songs, and came to a stop after a few seconds. Eilidh started talking, but Rachel banged out some open non-chords to drown her out. ‘You were about to apologise,’ she said, accusingly. One song near the end of their set gelled so suddenly and so beautifully out of its shifting rhythms that I was transported to the bit which does that in New Order’s ‘Perfect Kiss’. Not a bad first impression.

Are Bill and Aidan pop? Didn’t they put out a cover of Bananarama’s ‘Cruel Summer’? And isn’t the CD decorated, bereft of text, with a fearsome photo of the sun, filling the small disc? So yes and no. Chris was reassured at the sight of the trumpet player, stage right, who looked, as he put it, like an ‘equable Rasputin’. This was Robert Henderson, he explained, from the Bill Wells Trio. That time at the Tron Theatre... ‘Oh my God’ I exclaimed, remembering the most beautiful half hour of music I suspect either of us has ever heard. ‘Exactly. Robert Henderson just makes things better.’ And he did. His muted trumpet sidled its way around Bill’s spare chords like fog on film, giving Aidan a platform a mile high and three miles around. And he rose to this occasion, which is what makes the collaboration a success, I think. The first time I heard them together (minus Henderson) I thought he did a decent job but diminished Bill’s music. I’ve come around since then, and I enjoyed the set a lot, including Aidan’s predatory persona (particularly in ‘Man of the Cloth’, where he dresses up as a vicar at a Hallowe’en party). Such grounded, linear stories as Aidan tells can seem too well defined, their sharp edges bound to puncture... the fog. But you can’t puncture fog. And it can be heightened by the sense that behind it there lurks a hidden danger.


Bill Wells photo above taken from a stunning set on milnefaefife’s generally stunning photostream.

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