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Morrissey, Alexandra Palace, 1 May 2006: Beatnik Filmstars "In Great Shape" (The Track And Field Organisation): Forest Giants "Welcome To The Mid-West" (Cherryade)

After the event, it appears that most people I know were also at the Ally Pally on bank holiday Monday, proving that Morrissey and Mark E. Smith are still the only artists whose gigs I frequent who can really lay claim to an audience that properly spans all ages, professions and music tastes. Odd, really, especiaIly as Moz's own range has never been dramatically versatile, but that's the force of his cult of personality, and yes perhaps also the legacy of all those alcoholic afternoons, when we sat in your room, listening to the Smiths: and that, now and then, they meant more to us than any living thing on earth. On ee-ea-aa-aa-a-rth, on earth...

First four songs were about as blinding as you could hope for - the middle-aged chanteur taking no chances and stepping up to the mic for "The First Of The Gang To Die" with a justified swagger. The tune's sweet but soppy wiles helped counter the fact that, beautiful as the venue is, the huge blank floor still makes it resemble little more than a decoratively over-elaborate aircraft hangar. In quick succession we then got "Still Ill", "You Have Killed Me" and "The Youngest Was The Most Loved": the place was rocking. And the new one about gang lords also boasted an immediate appeal.

After that, though, the set deepened further into new LP territory, with gradually diminishing returns as the power of his dramatic entrance was diluted by the length of the set, even where interspersed with the odd re-run, like "Girlfriend In A Coma". By the time "How Soon Is Now ?" closed things off, the attack had wilted rather. Still, subsequent arguments in pubs and curry houses revealed that some of my compadres reckoned that the set (and particularly the encore of 2 1/2 minutes) were too brief! They were most wrong about the encore, because "Irish Blood English Heart" was tip-toppingly short and sweet, an absolutely cracking canter thru a wrongly-maligned classic comeback single. At least as much a great statement as a great song.

We also found that Morrissey's ban on the Palace staff from serving meat had led to an early run on spring rolls, with nothing left for us ageing slackers to ingest by the time we arrived save for an unsatisfying selection of KitKats (Nestle - tut tut) and crisps. With tickets at mid-thirties a head they could at least have bussed in some veggie burgers, instead of more confectionery.

And did I mention that Sons and Daughters were supporting ? If not, then there was probably a reason for that.

The day before that, I had seen the Beatnik Filmstars at Pow! to the People, that august popular combo now officially being BACK [with] "In Great Shape". I know that you shouldn't call it a comeback, because they'll say they never went away, but starved as we've been of their famously lopsided musical oxygen for nigh on seven years, it damn well feels like a comeback to me. What I will refrain from is describing "In Great Shape" as a 'return to form': not because it's bad - it very isn't - but because the Beatniks never lost form. Like Ronnie Mauge, in my mind anyway.

I should be upfront and say that it's not (yet ?) my very favourite BF album. Nor can I pretend I'm helplessly in love with every single track. Then again, as there are 23 of them, that would be a tall order for any band, this side of Nasum. But realistically, it's very hard to see what more one could ask for for the price of a CD. Not when the album starts with the Beatniks-are-back (sorry…) feel of "Really Quite Bizarre", an immediate, effervescent aggregation of fuzzy guitars, superlooping Fallish bass and scratching over which Andrew Filmstar reads out fast food freezer instructions and laments distinctly unmerrie consumerist modern England - a theme that reasserts itself in the revisited popgem "Supremer Queener". Not when "I Eat Healthy Food" runs with the maniacal indie-billy vibe of "New Boyfriend" or "Bigot Sponger". Not when "Ocean Breeze" is the most romantic thing to have come out of Bristol since Rovers did City in '92. Not when "Wonky Music" digs into that more Pavementesque feel that made "Laid Back and English" so compelling, topped off with splendid "wo-wo-wo's". Not when "It's Not What You Know" tiptoes lightly on indie-rock perfection. Not when "The Greatest Of Minds" recalls the unfussed, uncluttered, vibrant noise-pop that decorated some of "Phase 3" and "Inhospitable" - you know, like "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous". Not when "World Wide Fashion Crisis 1998" harks to those past outings with collided semi-acoustic softness, distorted spoken word and joyous guitar / keyboard silliness. Not when "And Here's One I Made Earlier" is one of several songs whose sparseness and space pick up the regret of post-Beatniks projects Kyoko and the Bluebear: the loops and shuffling samples placed just right (the "PCs and vegetarians" line could be directed at me, but I'm not going to argue at the wealth of sadness and subtlety…) Not when, from nowhere, "I Was Shot At In A Drive-By Shooting" exquisitely describes the march of Mickey D and friends, revealing itself as an oddly effective ballad about cultural homogeonisation. And certainly not when "When You're Dead" is - oh God - such a horribly moving, wonderfully affecting, tragic and romantic hymn.

It's true there isn't really anything here with quite the insatiable energy of "Milk" or the ultra-ramshackleness of "Climbing Mountains" (ooh, and wasn't it great to see them open at the Barfly with "The Family That Plays Together" ?), but while I've had reservations about some other old lags' albums (Mozza, for one, as well as Boyracer's merely very good "A Punch Up The Bracket"), "In Great Shape" is a contemporary declaration that none of the classic Beatnik Filmstars essence has been lost. Props to Track & Field for that.

Right. Every review of the Forest Giants starts with mentioning the bands they used to be in. I'm gonna skirt that (hey, I once reviewed Tender Trap without referring to Talulah Gosh, and I love Talulah Gosh) because the reason you need to buy "Welcome To The Mid-West" is nothing to do with any other bands and everything to do with the fact it is the year's brightest reminder that guitars can still sound great and ache and echo and contort and dance and summon up all kinds of feelings to reflect love and life and pain. Yes, guitars, the same instruments used by Dirty Pretty Things, Kaiser Chiefs et al: I certainly needed reminding of it. And "WTTMW" is a dense, fuzzy er, forest of the things.

"I Don't Think You Understand" is the claustrophobic opener, and one of the heavier songs, a distorted vocal giving way into a pounding chorus. Its shadowy texture and booming bassline can't help but bring to mind Joy Division: ditto the kinda Hannett-ish laser effects that encircle the increasingly fractured singing, before everything culminates in a sorta pretty rolling haze of Fallish vocal barbs and six-string disarray. But the feel of the LP as a whole is perhaps better set by the succeeding tracks - more bitter lyrics, but duelling with jauntier hooks (such as the "Inbetween Days" motifs of "So You Think You're Unhappy ?"), and crafty, dogged New Order style guitar lines allowed freeish rein amidst yet more pummelling chords. Plus that gift that the Wedding Present always had, of lyrics you can empathise with and that trail off just at the right time, leaving instrumental swells to ram home the anger and regret. Witness the single "Planes Fly Overhead" (eulogy in here), which fits uber-snugly into the album's cross of noisy nihilism and peeping melodic optimism. We should have learned the lesson long ago that sometimes you need a few slabs of reverb and distortion to properly capture emotion, and that's probably the reason why some of the Mary Chain comparisons have got wheeled out.

Then comes "The Message", second best song ever of that name. Deviating frighteningly from the template, it glistens flirtatiously, all super-Sarah Records balladry: I can almost imagine it on that shimmering, mightily underrated Rosaries 7", although they wouldn't have added the keyboard glow and violin that make it sound like, ooh, Vinyl Japan recording artists Slumber, if you remember them. Paula's crystal-clear vocal starkly counterpoints Tim's fuzz-painted voice of the opening five tracks, and bridges the two halves of the album beautifully. It's blip not trend though, because then the shambling old-skool fuzz of "Wasted" (er, second best song ever of that name) even musically recalls peak-era Flatmates (shhh) or "Don't Talk Just Kiss"-era TWP (please remember that, to me, these are near-unbounded compliments). The next track is even better - for the guitars on "Closure" make me want to wander out into the street and hug random passers-by, even as the disgust and vituperation in the lyrics suggest quite the opposite response. And still they come - "Stars" picks out all the things that made "Darklands" so desolate yet beautiful and drapes them matter-of-factly around Dean Wareham's soul inside. Killing the pace of previous songs in favour of a well of shimmering guitars, the melodies are given all the excuse they need to jump up and around the longing and melancholy of the words. The guitars weave their way rapidly skyward once the vocal disperses. And then we drift into the slow burn of "Namesakes" - a very barren, rainsodden song, pointing fingers, upset, lyrically abrupt, musically delicate. Her new friends are so much plastic. The bass and keyboards compete to wrest the song from the simple jangle of guitar that underpins it all. They kind of get there in the end.

"In Sequence" saw them feeling their way, and had some great songs, but "Welcome To The Mid-West" attacks in formation, hints more at darkness, and well repays a few listens (it was on the fourth that it really hit me, somewhere in the middle of "Stars", on the top deck of the 37 as it bombed it down towards Battersea Rise). When a whole generation is giving up on guitar music because of what the NME is pushing these days, it's as well to have such moments of rediscovery.

Anyway. Other listening, some new some not (there is frankly loads in the queue for my increasingly stolen moments with my headphones, and an even bigger pile of stuff very unlistened to not least thanks to the glut of goodness described badly herein), but honestly, these are all great:

Hood "The Rest Of Us Still Care" (from "The Lost You" CD single on Domino): Irritatingly, it seems that Hood are currently enjoying an extended hiatus, presumably to try and give other bands a chance to catch them up. It's a fat chance. A song like this is criminally discarded on a hardly-pressed LP taster, like "Dead Souls" all over again - when Hood are the only band who can turn their mind to so many genres at the same time, in the same song, and still come up reeking of roses.

The Lucksmiths "A Hiccup In Your Heart" (CD EP on Matinee Recordings): The title track we already know, but any excuse for new Lucksmiths product in this particular very small corner of south west London is worth raising a VB to. Also, track 4 flirts with POLITICS and sometimes that transcends just soppy stuff about relationships any day.

Chris Liberator & K.N. "Soba Grey" (Maximum Minimum, 12"): the "Classic Silver" 12" from Liberator and various randoms is nearly as good, meaning Max / Min is back with a vengeance.

Regal Players "Rude Boy" (12" on Frog Records), Hector "Paper Cash Cheese" (12" on Frog Records): Players, and their frontman, with 2005 grime exercises. Kind of a whole genre it's difficult not to get excited about. A bit like C86.

Jeff Walker and Die Fluffers "Welcome to Carcass Country (sic)" (CD LP on In Grind We Trust): Frankly, I can't sensibly begin to describe this, but perhaps this will be my gateway to learning to love country standards. Bill Steer and Ken Owen also guest, which raises the evil thought that they could have released this as a Carcass comeback album. I'd have liked to see how Terrorizer magazine took that.

Tullycraft "Polaroids from Mars" and "Leaders of the New School" (both from "Disenchanted Hearts Unite" CD LP on Magic Marker): This is a really strong record, now I've tracked it down, their best - and lyrically, especially, you can hear how their songwriting has developed without ever stopping them sounding quintessentially f.e.y. Musically, the Wedding Present influences really come to the fore - ooh, that reminds me, I'm going to see them soon (clashes with Sportique, annoyingly…)

Negative Approach "Total Recall" (Touch & Go CD): Knew I'd like it, it was just getting round to buying it. NYC seemed the right place, given exchange rates right now.

Unsane "Blood Run" (Relapse, CD LP): It's the simplicity of it all - just shards of guitar noise tracing the elastic bassline that leads the way, and an occasionally-welcome shouty vocal - that makes the best songs here: but it can bit a get samey, so best taken one track at a time.

Sick Of It All "Die Alone" (from "Death To Tyrants" CD LP, on some label): Not bad, if a bit Raging Speedhorn-like - though they've (wrongly) come a long way from the likes of "Injustice System"...

East River Pipe "Druglife" (from "What Are You On ?" CD LP on Merge): Yes, I know, I kind of went hunting for ancient New York acts. The album doesn't offer much that's new, but seems a little more focussed, even if still as minimal as ever. But I already like at least half of it a lot.

Flood "Testing The Water" (self-released, l guess): Best of the CDs I bought from the guys hustling round Times Square and further down Broadway. He's from South Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop if you subscribe to the gospel of KRS One. Very roughly recorded indeed, but the two opening tracks, esp "What Are You Thinking Of ?" could be great, especially if the P Brothers could get hold of him next time they're scouring New York for MCs. Flood himself seemed a nice enough (if fairly hard) bloke.

Whew. All done, in the usual rush. Next time, something more important.


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