Monday, March 21, 2005

Lady Sovereign "Random" (Casual London): Blak Twang "The Rotton Club" (Black Magic): West Ham, Chas n' Dave and an FA Cup Semi Final (various august venues)

Michael Howard is sinking further into the gutter than I'd have dared imagine. The non-sequiturs in his "thinking" are glaring enough, but this hardly matters when the newspapers blow every issue into a headline to be writ large, non-negotiable, never challenged. In 2005 the lazy stereotyping of travellers is bad enough, but coupled with vague promises to torpedo the Human Rights Act, it takes the breath away. Even with Thatcher and Tebbit pulling the strings in the 80s, there'd have been some baulking at an open crusade against alternative lifestyles, especially with a recognised ethnic grouping bearing the brunt of his tirade. How is criminalising gypsy camps going to assist with the problem of finding sites for travellers to live on ? How can you trespass on your own property anyway ? Is there nothing this guy won't do to try and rake up the prospect of an ugly, trench warfare election where both parties compete for the lowest common denom ? Don't answer.

Oh yes, the blog. The week began by splashing out £2.99 on Lady Sov's "Random", she of course being the petite rhymer outta Chalk Hill whose "Ch-Ching" made for an out-of-body grime experience when it came out on 12" last year. Whereas Kano's breakthrough single seemed to betray the drudgery of major label influence a little, Sovereign's (despite being released under the auspices of the evil Island empire) remains utterly untarnished by concessions to the mainstream: a ludicrous, booming garage loop, engagingly daft lyrics (though "whine like a gypsy" is unfortunate in the context of the last para), in a song cheerfully bereft of traditional structure which instead starts, stops and occasionally wanders into a more punter-friendly chorus, all punctuated by Lady S either shouting, singing or chatting back to the listener with casual abandon. The remix, featuring Riko rapping live from HMP Brixton, is musically less daring but Riko's lo-fi rhyming, down one of the worst telephone lines ever, helps bring it to the boil. All in all, much much better than I feared, and I am genuinely shocked that it seems not to have gone Top 40 this week. Still, I'm sure when she does fall off big style (can you get the kind of coverage she's pulling in London-centric style mags and stay fully on top of the underground game ?), that will be remedied. Sigh.

As one career starts, another moves into its middle age. SE8's Blak Twang aka Tony Rotton has just released his fourth album and... it's pretty good, if no cigar. Eschewing the unrestrained high-octane shoutfests of last album "Kik Off", "The Rotton Club" calms things down for an accessible, thoughtful set, the quality of which is uneven not because of his rapping, which is indefatigable and defiant throughout, but because of the wide variety of musical styles he uses: the best tunes for my money being "Beef Stop" with its soulful, dub underlay; "Soldier" with its lean bass and 70s brass, and the very stripped-down, almost grimy "Where Lions Roam". While some of Twang's topics are maybe less defensible than others (the congestion charge, traffic wardens and petrol prices all get a kicking, whilst he is keen to point out that men should drive and women wash up(!)), he hits the big issues very hard. The self-explanatory "Stop n' Search"; the commendably altruistic sex education single "GCSE"; "My World", a textbook knockdown of the government ministers who flagellated So Solid for society's ills when BT shared a sofa with them on "This Morning", and "Prayer 4 The Dying", a powerful statement of desperation, just as "Fearless" was all those years ago. Likeable and intelligent then - IT CAN BE DONE.

After those diversions to London's West and South, everything got a bit more Cockney.

Firstly, I went to Upton Park of a cool evening and watched West Ham gallantly foil themselves in front of 26,000: their dominance over Crewe was absolute, but that didn't make the latter's last-minute equaliser any less predictable. Always nice to go for a pint on Green Street though.

Secondly, I went to the 100 Club. Now, I have had the privilege of seeing some amazing bands in my time: from Public Enemy to Morrissey, Bo Diddley through to the Mary Chain, the Wu Tang Clan to Extreme Noise Terror. And Chas n' Dave, even at £18 on the door, hold their own in such company. Looking barely older than they did when having a string of top ten hits in the late 70s and early 80s, they pumped out goodtime tunes with the same joy as that other power trio, Milky Wimpshake (never forget that Chas n' Dave are really a three-piece, thanks to uncredited sticksman Mick, the Jam Master Jay of pub rock, having kept them in time for 30 years), but with grand piano instead of guitar. They know exactly what they're doing: holding the audience in the palm of their hand (and, I am relieved to say, refraining from any of that party medley stuff they used to have to do to pay the rent). They start with "Gertcha", end with "Ain't No Pleasing You" - the greatest song ever to peak one place off the top - and encore with "Rabbit" (superbly, the second rendition of that tune tonight: recalling when the Mary Chain opened for the Sugarcubes with their own signature piece, "Just Like Honey" twice in a row...) and of course there's space too for the likes of "Mustn't Grumble" and "London Girls" (one of the tunes that Tori Amos covered recently, of course: but then you can hardly go wrong when your opening lines are "Some people sing about Deutsche girls / And girls from California / They might be all right for a night all right / But don't trust them I warn ya"). It only really falls down with the wack-lustre "Beer Belly" (a dedication to the blokes, following "Rabbit"'s dedication to the ladies): oh, and the fact that, as per an apparent policy decision, there is no sign of any of their Cup Final tunes - these are also, bizarrely, expunged from their greatest hits. But there's enough to leave you in no doubt that these pioneers of musical evolution and experimentation invented hip-hop (tonight, Dave just out-MCs Chas in the battle of the beards and shades); punk (the anarchy and thrust of their defining "Sideboard Song" surely recalling their protegees, the Pistols at this same venue, with the cartoon proto-Sid Vicious violence of "Wallop!" being another highlight), funk (Dave slapping his four-string to Mick's shuffling rhythms in a way that would paint Mark King green with envy) and dub (that blissed-out green baize tribute, "Snooker Loopy", being given an unlikely but v. welcome echo-bass treatement). And remember - with a 3xCD compilation coming out soon - and an appearance at Glastonbury this year (I kid you not - now that will sock it to muppets like Razorlight) - there will be no excuse for you not to investigate the CnD legacy further. BTW, Mick is 67.

Thirdly, it was time to hit Dagenham East for the FA Cup semi-final: Bristol Rovers v Charlton. The fact this was fourth plays first in the Premiership tells you we are talking women's football, but I have to say that I have rarely got as good value at a game of footy as with the £3 it cost to see Charlton sneak a tense, increasingly dramatic tie 1-0 (with the winning goal being a bundled calamity of errors that wouldn't have been out of place at Plough Lane circa 1990). There is something indefinably, inexplicably, inevitably great about people playing the game *BECAUSE THEY WANT TO!* in modest, sympathetic surroundings, with an attentive and actually interested audience, away from the ludicrous trappings of the (male) premiership, with its glam teen-oriented marketing and vacuous, blinged-up, testosterone-fuelled tearaways ploughing cars drunkenly through the English countryside en route to gang-%&£ing 15 year olds while praised to the hilt by the same commentators and "fans" who lay into referees and each other with unbending boneheadedness and pepper phone-ins with lazy cliches, hackneyed negativity and tired synonyms for "disgraceful". If it takes the women's game to restore my faith in football - and it might yet - I'll gladly go for that.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Kano "Typical Me" (679 12"): Manage "Rise Up" (Defcon 12"): Chris Liberator & Guy McAffer "Steel Grey" (Maximum Minimum 12"): Lethal Bizzle "Backwards" (white label 12"): Roll Deep Crew "Let It Out" (Relentless 12", promo): The Wedding Present "I'm From Further North Than You" (Scopitones): Hood "The Negatives..." (Domino, impending single): Milky Wimpshake "Popshaped" (Fortuna Pop! CD album)

Just in case you were wondering from past postings (or the sparseness of them) whether Napalm Death had produced not just the first but also the only great tune of 2005 so far, you should be reassured that there quite a few other candidates, and in a rather different vein. Funnily enough though, Kano's "Typical Me" isn't really one of them - despite the cranking up of - gasp - guitars, and Kano's inimitable MCing style (just as engaging as his his old-skool parka and cheeky smile on the cover), it just seems a little mainstream and sluggish compared to the manic - and let's face it, garagey - energy of "P's and Q's". There's also a concern that now the Sunday supplements and major labels have got a toehold on grime, its days of being a punk-style force of real excitement and intrigue are already on the wane, and it probably doesn't help that I haven't been able to switch on 1Xtra in the last two months without hearing "Typical Me": nor that the B-side only gives you "Mic Fight", which nouveau-grime arrivistes like me will already have got when we snapped up "Run The Road". Still, it knocks the spots off Goldie Lookin' Chain. Oh, and stop press - official chart position: 22.

I'd like to be able to be a bit more positive about Manage's "Rise Up", as anything with "beats by Chemo" seemed worth a gamble, given the quality of that Frontline 12" last year. Unfortunately, either Manage is / are trying to recreate the heady confusion caused back in the day by Gaye Bykers on Acid's self-explanatory "Drill Your Own Hole", or, more realistically, the pressing plant royally messed up: at present, I can't get the record to spin on the turntable, let alone explore Chemo's first beats of '05. I will persevere, however, and possibly even report back.

"Steel Grey", on the other hand, a Valentine's day release no less, circulates quite contentedly on ye olde faithful Aiwa decks, and is a peach. Maximum / Minimum is fast becoming one of my favourite labels (being yet another originally introduced to me by the late great John Peel), even when they deign, as here, to be so mainstream as to put the artist's name on the record: this time McAffer and Chris Lib's techno-house stomp leans closer to the McAffer side, rather than the drop-filled Liberator side, of last year's "Sloppy Brown" double-header, and goes for a straight-up hypnotic effect with some success. It's not up to the mighty standard of Ant and Nick Grater's blistering "Emergency Red", which crashed through the barricades quite recently on the same label, but it's still a midfield workhorse with imperious presence.

The premise of "Backwards" is simple enough - Bizzle (formerly B's) entourage loop the frantic garage riff from "Forward Riddim" / "Pow!" in reverse. It's a revelation to find that it still sounds pretty great. What makes "Backwards" lyrically so compelling (as well as, to be honest, depressing) is the furious dissing of Roll Deep that ensues. Aping, amongst other things, the fractured vocal rhythms of "Wot Do U Call It ?", Lethal piles into Wiley (not least laughing at XL having seemingly dropped him), Riko and God's Gift with the youthful verve of someone who doesn't quite remember how the B.I.G. and 2 feud started: or, indeed, why Riko is currently in clink. Having said that, the bit where Lethal makes fun of Wiley's singles chart positions "31, 'Wot Do U Call It ?' / "pies", 46" and compares it with his own last two choons' peak positions (11 and 7) is fairly unanswerable. It would be good if more bands did the same - imagine how much more interesting Kaiser Chiefs or Kasabian would be if they devoted a few couplets from each track to trading sales-related insults...

Worse for Wiley is probably the fact that RDC's "Let It Out" is not, at least on first listens, much of a step forward, certainly compared to some of his (solo) tunes on "Treddin On Thin Ice": and not a patch on the intensity of (rival camp) Fire Camp's "No" - or even Roll Deep's own "Poltergeist Relay" white label not that many months ago. Again, it could be that the effect is dulled by having heard it many times before (courtesy of "Run The Road" again), but I have to admit to a smidgeon - I'll put it no higher - of disappointment. (Looking up, the B sides are better, as is his upcoming collab. with JME). Intriguing that Relentless (the imprint being a Virgin conceit) seem to have no problems about accommodating More Fire and Roll Deep on their label at the same time. Could all end in tears, or at least a Pistols vs. Rick Wakeman style "this label ain't big enough for the both of us" face-off.

...Where were we up to ? Blimey, yes, the Wedding Present. My 24 year old room-mate has never heard of them - young people, eh ? So she'll not be aware that, after the stylish, powerful, aggressive, departure of "Interstate 5", "I'm From Further North Than You" sees Gedge and friends returning to a more conventional tune, somewhere between the better Hit Parade singles and the carefully-balanced Saturnalia set, but it's still a really rather lovely single, mixing regret and mewling guitar lines with some catchy stabs of melody and a hook which sees him observe, "we had some good times, too.... but just not very many" as the drums clang back in. Aaah. The DVD single has the video for "Interstate 5", too, another little bonus: Dave looking mean and moody throughout. (Stop press: chart position 34. Kano gets to diss Gedge on his next record).

Now "The Negatives..." hasn't even come out yet, but as we all know it's going to, and it's been previewed on their "Outside Closer" album already, the glowing reviews start here. It's accepted fact in all rational universes that Hood are an amazing band, but this has to stake a claim to being their best single yet (and I speak as a fan of all their incarnations: "Home Is Where It Hurts", "Sir ens", "You Show No Emotion At All", "I Didn't Think", "The Lost You" and "Useless" are just the first half-dozen ace 45s that come to mind, even before you get into all those 9-track limited 7"s scattered across (a) random labels and (b) the 1990s). Even with its massive, crunching hip-hop beat and atmospheric strings, which for some reason recall David Arnold's arrangements on Bjork's "Play Dead", "The Negatives..." still takes a little time to grow - especially with the usual fractured Hood-style vocal. But by God, doesn't it then just bloom - another reminder that if Hood ever, ever WANTED to prove themselves the greatest band in the world, nobody would be be able to stop them.

"...the way that you hang your head / appeals to me more than I think I should admit / if I speak in words of romance... is it slightly outdated / in this modern age?"

Yep, it's Milky Wimpshake to finish, but this is the easy one as they are, as ever the most immediate proposition of all these records, with Pete Dale's endlessly romantic, wide-eyed lyrics dovetailing with power-trio guitars and riffs that alternately recall Buzzcocks and Thrilled Skinny! (it's the lovelorn words that push them, as an overall package, much toward the former). For their third album, they've chucked in quite a few "old" tunes, although as MW are hardly the sort of band whose career has moved radically from one genre to another, this ne'er interrupts the flow of "Popshaped", which still contains 18 spiky tracks crammed fit to burst with hooks, minimal production, jaunty chord changes and ever-hopeful vocals (the optimism of "Don't get down, get even", previewed live a couple of years back now, being a prime example - wow, if memory serves they were being supported that night by an unlikely-looking lot called the Futureheads: wonder what happened to them ?). For me, the pace only slows on the two or three folksy numbers: otherwise, they are as vibrant and relevant as always. The production seems stripped down slightly from the last album: this is typified by a barer recording of "True love will find you in the end / Don't let our youth go to waste" which once appeared on the b-side of the classic Ferric Mordant 7" "Dialling Tone": but throughout there are very few noticeable overdubs, and less of the chunky keyboards that propped up some of the tunes like "Scrabble" on album number two, "Lovers not fighters". It's one-take stuff, mostly, but anyone who has seen them live (where they are even better) will not have any problem with this. Milky Wimpshake, I'm sure, would always rather be out there celebrating life and spreading enthusiasm for change rather than hiding away in a studio thinking up concept pieces or experimenting with string sections. Favourites ? There are loads - "Pearshaped" is a Nev Clay cover, a duet of sorts with Cath Tyler and the best of its ilk since "C Is The Heavenly Option"; "Not Poetry" is a stumbling, naive, gloriously throwaway bundle of self-deprecating joy; "Cheque Card", extracted above, sets out the can't-buy-me-love reality of life with all the sharpness of focus you'd expect; and " Needed: Heart Handbook" is their last single, peaking with a rushing, urgent chorus. "I need... to find a way / straight to your heart", sings Pete: he really means it, and believe me, he'll get there soon enough.

Anyway, got to go now and defend Ian Atkins from the hordes of cloud cuckooland-inhabiting infidels on the Rovers message board.

Current listening (even apart from all that lot!):
Aswad "Finger Gun Style" (from Virgin "New Chapter" LP reissue)
Primal Scream "Imperial" (Janice Long session version) - this is fabulous, especially compared to the later, Warners-released aberration. Can somebody please officially re-release this stuff ? And while we're about it, the unreleased Kershaw and Peel Wedding Present sessions ? Ta!
Visions Of Change "Under One Fist" (from "North Atlantic Noise Attack" LP on Manic Ears - did they ever do anything else this good ?)
Punk Floyd "We're Getting The Band Back Together" (12" on Stay Up Forever, from '03: don't be deceived, it's acid techno all the way...)
Hood "Any Hopeful Thoughts Arrive" (from "Outside Closer" LP on Domino - another majestic and ever-growing rustic sprawl)
Scalplock "Ensorcell" (typically brilliant hardcore / thrash / grind morsel from "Spread The Germs... Over The Human Worms" CD on Cacophonous - there are 29 other tracks, largely as good)
A R Kane "When You're Sad" (Rough Trade Shops Indie-Pop Vol 1 still rules)