Monday, April 18, 2005

Forest Giants "Beards" (from "UFO Stories" EP on Breaking Down): Lovejoy "Sid Vicious" (from "Everybody Hates Lovejoy" CD on Matinee Recordings)

Quality, not quantity. It's a truism, but it really should strike a chord more often. I remember Paul Morley's interview with the Fire Engines, "notorious" for their 15 minute sets, and it was an aphorism they spat back at him. They'd rather pay a fiver for a "great fucking single" than £1.99 for a dodgy treble album (this was "Sandinista!" time, remember). These days, of course, everything is too long. Set lists go on for ever, and encores are the norm. Even the best bands seem to forget the art of leaving you wanting more. And CDs are 78 minutes long, so all of a sudden people are making albums that last for an hour or more, ignoring the fact that the 78 minutes was designed to cope with the carefully nuanced orchestral sweeps of the baroque composers: and, incidentally, it's a fabulous medium for them. This either means that "pop" albums are full of overlong, indulgent experiments; or packed with fillers that would previously have been out-takes; or both. Bands were spreading themselves thinly enough due to their contractual obligations (another year, another album) even before the pressure to do 16 or 18 songs at a time started ratcheting up. And that's even before taking into account of the reality of life these days, that there simply isn't time to wade through such dross (hip-hop albums often being the worst exponents): I can only think of a couple of albums ever made on which every single track is outstanding. If you're going to do an LP, make it less than 20 minutes long if at all possible - it's worked to produce blinders like "Leaders Not Followers", "A Cat Escaped", "Communique No. 9" and even "They've Scoffed The Lot", if you want to count comps.

So one of the reasons my love for music has come back to life in the last year or so has been realising that singles, not albums, are where it's at (and must be). Everything - the packaging, the production, the playing - channelled into, and based around, a single tune, or at worst a focused EP. No need to skip the less scintillating tracks in the search for an adrenalin rush. And the fact that I have belatedly realised that paying £6.99 for a single (not uncommon now, unless you're buying a new-release chart-destined CDS...) is usually much more worthwhile than, say, £11.99 for a CD or album containing a couple of great songs and a dozen merely okish ones. The corollary of all this is that when a band comes up with a truly superb tune, whole mountain ranges should be moved to get it out there as a single. Clutch the disc with care, running all the way home from the record shop if need be, stick it on the turntable. A few minut es of wonderment. No encores, no filler - the curtain goes down when the needle goes up. The show is over, everyone has got their money's worth and nobody need gripe about expectations unmet. The great feeling I've got from a million singles (although, truth be told, the paradigm for me was "Sensitive", where the feeling I've just described seems to persist no matter how many times I recue the record). But sadly, the better indies, and the hardcore / metal labels, neither of whom tend to be releasing singles much, are now getting my attention less than the grime / hip-hop / techno boys and girls, who are chucking out runs of 500 all over the place, if only as flyers for their (less compelling) long players.

But these are two songs, two should-be singles, two wish-they-were-hits (and from the indie stable), that deserve much better than to be half-mentioned in my usual slew of disparate record reviews. There are other great songs on both these releases, but sometimes one should reserve one's awe for the most precious moments. And I know that I am being too romantic and snobbish and precious about formats and that real life dictates that you have to get product out there anyway you can and not expect labels and artists to limit their range or accept their losses, but this is my blog and my secret world and I can therefore dream and say that it shouldn't take me to have to pick out these pearls and say, "you must hear these". Although you must hear these.

With "Postcards", Forest Giants had a tune of the sort I described up there - where the stylus going up was like Forster and McLennan's "lip lifted from a lip". And you could get it on 7", which made everything taste seemingly even sweeter. "Beards" is the lead track from their new EP on Breaking Down, and it happily tracks similar territory, and in doing so helps to act as a magnet to pull you several steps back towards guitar music - even though every time you hear Razorlight or the Subways you feel like running as far away from it as you can. There's a little bit more ambient about the guitar noise here, an almost ethereal weave of keyboards, and the song culminates in an overhasty fade rather than the bravado finish of "Postcards", but emotionally we are still in the same place, a desperate acknowledgement of time having slipped past altogether too quickly ("everything's upside down... the future's upside down" laments Tim), arranged around a neat conceit that as the years went by, yes some of those ex-friends have sprouted facial wigs. There aren't that many chords, and nobody tries anything too tricky with the playing: but there are a few picked, crystalline guitar lines that pick up where "Postcards" left off, and tiny embers of feedback buried at the back of mix that help make the music a little more dense, suffocating. It's just delicious.

"Sid Vicious", from Brighton collective Lovejoy, does the same, albeit that the edges are a little cleaner. It intermingles the same regret and longing, at the same time making you think back to the records you loved in this way when you were 16, 17, 18, 19. It screams "fall in love" at you. It has a Wake-ish feel, a little "Crush The Flowers". Again, it's not flash: it doesn't rush - instead, it has that TV Personalities trick (at their very best) of simply sucking you in, identifying with the feelings on display... this time it's Dick Preece, introducing himself plaintively with "I don't believe this / another place where I don't fit..." and from then on in the tale just winds its way around you: "I've never been so alone", he admits as the first chorus closes, and you're plunged back into the weave of guitars - at times "Sid Vicious" makes me think of Ego, the band from Montpelier who issued a brilliant album on Lovejoy's Matinee label before disappearing off the face of the earth. And could there be a greater symbol of unfulfilled potential, or at least wasted youth and disappeared memories, than Sid himself ? Regardless of whether you share Lovejoy's nous for musical nostalgia, this, too, is a wonderful song.
Tripping over the flag

Alas, the absurdity of the election campaign does merit a little further comment. At least four parties in the last week have come out with manifestos majoring on the meme of "giving Britain back to the British" and, best of all, preserving "British culture", a somewhat nebulous construct which I have yet to see any of them attempt to define. Either they're thinking of drinking and fighting, the first two national cultural activities which leap to mind, in which case we're preserving our heritage damn well already thank you, or their thoughts have turned to idle reverie concerning village cricket matches, fetes and jam-making competitions, in which case, aside from some of the backwoods constituencies, someone needs to invent a time machine to keep them all happy. Kilroy-Silk and co are painting a picture of the country which I'm finding rather hard to recognise - a land in which persecuted white middle-class middle England is wrestling bravely against a tide of pesky "political correctness", presumably finding itself underachieving in schools, under-represented in employment, constantly stopped and searched, wrongly imprisoned, harrassed, demonised and misunderstood, while minorities of all types are attracting nothing but the sympathy of the press and public. Perhaps this, frankly insane, perception explains the focus on immigration as an election issue. (Powell peddled the same logic in his hateful 1968 speech, you may recall with a shudder, so this portrayal of "native" as "victim" obviously has a continuing appeal). And yes, while it is certainly possible to be anti-immigration without being racist, a "drawbridge up" policy will still appeal to the ardent racist too: and, given that the BNP got 3/4 million votes (that is not, distressingly, a misprint) in the last national elections, there is clearly a groundswell of opinion which can be mined if you position yourself appropriately. Hence Howard's recent rhetoric returning to the "small island" cliche beloved of many before him. It's a pity, to put it at its mildest, that so many politicians (including the current government) seem happy to line themselves up to do just that.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Pipas "Chunnel Autumnal" (Matinee Recordings): Cappo "I.D.S.T." (Zebra Traffic, 12"): Ant and Rackitt "Surge" (Powertools, 12"): The Wedding Present, The Forum, London, 6 April 2005: The Chemistry Experiment "The Melancholy Death Of The Chemistry Experiment" (Fortuna Pop!): New Order "Krafty" (London Records 90): Rachel Stevens "Negotiate With Love" (Polydor): Morrissey "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" / "REDONDO BEACH" (Attack)

On Easter Monday, the sun had settled agreeably into a comfortable mid-sky position, ensuring that the seagulls and pigeons chased up from the water by the swans were strolling the harbourside with a royal swagger. St Mary Redcliffe, its bells no longer chiming incessantly as they had the day before, relaxed into its preferred serene pose, poised a goodly (godly ?) distance above the rest of the skyline, its outline picked out by the firm blue of the cloudless sky. Indeed, by the time I made it from there to the top of the Gloucester Road, the combination of the latter's prodigious gradient and the lack of shadow rendered my extra layer superfluous. However, as I took my spot on the terrace at the Mem, watching the blue and white quarters warm up for their happily futile game with Darlington ("meaningful" games, like the one against Darlo this time two years ago, are invariably the ones you have to win in order not to end up well and truly in the relegation soup), the first traces of cold began to reappear, and the sunlight decided to edge its way quietly out of Horfield whilst everyone's attention was concentrated on the hoof-fest unfolding before them. Indeed, by the time the second half began in earnest, I had deployed not only the extra layer but also a cup of standard-issue Bovril, the staple ration for cold, chapped hands clutching match programmes. What the sun missed, as it extricated itself from the Mem, was a fairly typical Rovers performance: goal conceded within about 30 seconds; mucho huffing and puffing; an equaliser with the last kick of the first half; second half, conceding a fairly dodgy penalty (converted by Craig Hignett with the sort of dummy only an ex-premiership striker could really get away with); seemingly capitulating completely by allowing an 18 year old to score the goal of his lifetime (the defence parting like the Red Sea before him); missing an open goal which could have brought us back into the game (hello Agogo); but unaccountably then scoring twice in two minutes to bring things back to 3-3 and herald a chaotic final 20 minutes of football pinball in a playground stylee, during which both teams did everything but score. Frankly, by this stage it was fabulous entertainment. It was certainly a far cry from the game against Scunthorpe earlier in the season, which wasn't football, or indeed sport, at all: instead, that day had heralded the invention of a new art form, "pantomime noir", but played out by twenty-two thespians (and a man in black) on an open-air stage with Cawdorian wind and rain howling all around.

But, just as the deceptive summer's day which I left home in had fairly swiftly turned to an unforgiving late-winter freeze, so the atmosphere had soured my day increasingly from the moment the whistle blew for kick-off. Surrounded by fans who had apparently turned up only to bait their own players - Robbie Ryan managing to elicit abuse from within the first minute, although Agogo took sufficient aggro over the course of game to overtake him in the public enemy stakes - I found myself desperately willing us to score, just to shut up those around me who delighted in singing "What a load of rubbish" when the score randomly hit 1-3, and who spent the rest of their time imploring the manager to resign. When, of course, we did come back to 3-3, showing a character we simply haven't had for five, probably ten years, you could sense the disappointment. Of some of our own fans! Who have seen only one home defeat in the league this season... The argument deployed, of course, is a familiar one. "We've paid our money, and we're entitled to shout abuse at whoever we like" - like those gigs you go to when loudmouths and their mobiles fair drown out the band, or lads decide to barrack whatever poor unfortunates have had the gall to turn out support their idols. I'd paid my money, and felt I deserved better than to be surrounded by one-gag merchants tirelessly slating the efforts of the players in front of them. A pound for every "Sort it out, Atkins", and I'd have been able to hire one of the corporate boxes and escape to it. It all reminded me of years back, when a gangly young lad called Josh Low used to be called out by rotund booze-filled blokes: "You're not fit to wear the shirt". Remember, at this level, the players can hear it. Low promptly moved to various other clubs, usually skinning our defence in subsequent fixtures...

It's at times like this, when you almost feel defeated by your own frustration, but determined not to allow others' anger at random targets to multiply and become your own anger with theirs, that you need Pipas. It's all very well having Pipas in times of peace and tranquillity - there are few places they cannot reach to soothe and mop your brow and cause you unexpected smiles - but they come into their own when the world is frankly bugging you, and you need convincing that there is an up dividend to all the pettiness that informs your work and even your play. And "Channel Autumnal" - though a re-release of their first work - is as complete a record as they've produced. Take "Moss Oval": an absolute epic by Pipas standards, which seamlessly passes through the three minute mark with a taut combination of guitar and drum machine that recalls the likes of Sundress. Or "Tout Va Bien", where Mark's vocal wrests hope from the tedious tangles of a typical London day. Or "St Pancras", which, far from disrupting a "smooth and peaceful album", as Splendid had it, simply offers a pounding, more uptempo feel which buffers the other tunes nicely and brings the album proper to a majestic close. It's hardly heavy metal. I say "album proper" because you also get the 3 tracks from the subsequent "A Short Film About Sleeping" 7" on Matinee, which brought me my first rosy Pipas glow what now seems many moons ago. And I know it won't happen - margins, units, what-have-you, being what they are - but Pipas really should do more singles. It suits them.

So a couple of singles now - first, our old friend Cappo. "I.D.S.T" is an odd single to release at the start of 2005, not because it is duff (believe me, with its P Brothers backbeat and Cap's braggadocio, it's a floor-filler par excellence), but because it's single no. 3 from his 2003 album, "Spaz The World", at a time when you'd more realistically be hoping for a new LP. The main interest, therefore, lies in new tune "I Know" on the other side of the record. Despite being produced by Cappo and Atomic Roost rather than the P's, it is easy to see why it's been chosen to partner "I.D.S.T.", as it is another crunching, defiantly non-concept piece showcasing massive beats designed primarily to coax nervous feet out onto the dancefloor. It's also my favourite hip-hop tune of '05 so far.

Then there's Ant, not the Ant who used to be in Hefner, but the London techno Ant (I mean it's possible they might be the same person, in which case my opinion of Hefner would actually rise, but I've really got my doubts, though if Chris Liberator can jump from indie tweeness to super-DJ status, I suppose it shouldn't be beyond anyone else...) Anyway, this Ant has got fellow DJ Rackitt on board for a huge choon, on the former's own Powertools label, called "Surge" and it is fabulous. It works itself up into a mild lather at first, and then the frequencies become higher and more prominent. Then they go slightly mental, topple like a pile of cards and back in comes the banging beat. Surge! Not original, but still great. The inevitably untitled B side is not bad at all either, concentrating more on the bass end of the frequency range.

The Wedding Present are better than Cinerama. There, I've said it. It shouldn't hurt. It is is just THE TRUTH, in the same way that Joy Division were better than New Order, the Smiths than Morrissey, the Yummy Fur than Franz Ferdinand, McCarthy than Stereolab. Cinerama managed to provide us with many, many great songs, and I'm still not sure that the latest WP album is any less patchy than the three Cinerama ones. But seeing The Wedding Present live again (the previous occasions were '89, supported by Thrilled Skinny no less, and '96, when Cable were the undercard) had to be savoured, not least as they played "Interstate 5", "It's for you", "Ringway to Seatac", "Queen Anne", "Perfect Blue", I'm from further north than you", "Drive", "Venus" (I think - it was one from Saturnalia anyway, "Kennedy", "Go go dancer", "Queen of outer space", "Careless", "Health and efficiency", "Starry Eyed", "Spangle", "Dare", "Dalliance", "Crawl" and, best of all, "Once More" and "My Favourite Dress". (How I would have loved to see the nascent TWP on their early London dates...) A jibe at Athlete, a wry acknowledgment of the deleted "Watusi" as being their 'lost album', and a blissfully prosaic elongated "What have I said now ?" to finish, and the night was complete.

Actually, if you are missing Cinerama's sweeping arrangements, one option might be the Chemistry Experiment's full-length debut, "Melancholy Death". Expectations are a funny thing: for some reason I was priming myself for something home-made, ramshackle and quirky, but in fact the album is a full-blown, much more ambitious selection of torch songs, and yes its string and flute arrangements often recall some of Cinerama's. At its barest and most pared down, this suite of songs resembles Harvey Williams' gentle "Rebellion" set, or the harmony obsessions of Allen Clapp - but more usually it inhabits recognisably Pulpesque territory (although the singer's cocksure Cockerisms may be an acquired taste), with the odd hint of Lovejoy or Beaumont at their most lounge-lizardly thrown in for good measure. And "What Are We Good For" even seems to owe a hint of hommage to the Scissor Sisters - the band aren't shy of slipping in electro-disco where the mood takes. Considering the shoestring budget I assume this was assembled on - much of it was recorded at home, by all accounts - "Melancholy Death" is gently orchestral, innately knowing, and surprisingly grand.

I wanted to mention New Order in here somewhere. Because if Peter Hook's massively-maligned Revenge had released "Televive" or "It's Quiet" or "The Wilding" as a single, they would have sold about 12 copies. Come to think of it, they did release "7 Reasons" as a single, and that didn't exactly dent the top 1,000,000. Yet when the superannuated New Order knock off "Krafty", which is no better than any of those, it saunters into the top ten. "Krafty" is by no means a lemon - as NO-by-numbers, its gorgeous, evocative melodies are just as vivid and glistening as its lyrics are utterly appalling. But, for one, New Order - a collective unit if there ever was one - aren't really New Order without Gillian Gilbert, any more than Joy Division would have been Joy Division without Curtis. For two, even if you were tempted to buy the album - and come on, even hardened NO apologists and obsessives like myself can't really pretend that buying a New Order LP has really been worthwhile since "Technique" - investigate the Revenge double-CD "One True Passion v2.0" on LTM instead. I'm even finding myself coming round to liking Hooky's vocals more than Barney's.

On to the divas now. Ex-S Club Rachel Stevens' "Negotiate With Love" is, uniformly I might add, excellent. This, I am sure, has absolutely nothing to do with Miss Stevens herself who, while no doubt being a talented individual, is unlikely to have had more to do with this single than posing sweetly for the cover and, conceivably, being mixed down severely whilst singing along to a guide vocal. Even so, it is a popsong with the rare nous to stop after three minutes flat, and with the sort of modernist tune that would be praised to the hilt if some vaguely avant-garde, absurdly-attired Boston indiesters had come up with it (although not by me of course, not least as it would never, in those circumstances, have gone top 10 and I would never have heard it). Do at all costs avoid the "interview" elsewhere on the CD, however: it is so toe-curlingly, mind-numbingly banal that you will find it bringing into question not just your purchase of the disc, but also, quite possibly, your subscription to the human race. Still, that A-side really is much, much better than anything the over-rated Kylie has come up with recently.

"Negotiate with Love" just edged out of the UK top 10 the new single by some up and coming youngster called "Morrissey". Such a silly name. He even has the nerve to cover that Smiths classic, "There is a light", though his karaoke skills make him more than vaguely reminiscent of whoever their singer was. In all seriousness, this recording, from the Earl's Court show last year, is distinctly unmagical: while I would have traded my right arm to be there, at this distance it's nothing more than a grainy postcard of what was no doubt a beautiful evening. It's a double A side, too, with a gentler nu-skank ballad called "REDONDO BEACH" (no, i don't know why the capitals, it's like 14 Iced Bears' "RED NOW", I suppose) which sadly has absolutely nothing to do with ex-Argentina midfielder Fernando R.

And as we enter the thrall of another general election campaign, in which tax and immigration have already soldered themselves onto the front pages, I guess it'll be worth seeking solace in music more than ever. This is our friend's learned take on those proceedings.