Saturday, March 01, 2008

You scintillate today



Outside, it's the usual nr-symphonic scree of sirens and car alarms, the low hum of underground trains shaking deep-lying tree roots, buses' tyres lurching to a halt across heavy tarmac while emitting a familiar, bloodcurdling screech (this is the sound that a bus makes when it's braking, ha). In the flowerbeds of the terrace gardens, little gangs of thugg'd up grey squirrels face-off inscrutable gaggles of wood pigeons, part of an interminable competition for supremacy on the ground, while bemused drunks, benignly cradling cans of Super, look on from their Saturday bench with a kind of wistful detachment. If, as Johnson reckoned, the tavern chair is the throne of human felicity, then the park bench has got to be its chaise-longue.

Inside, it starts with a 2006 revival, of sorts. You may dimly remember 2006 - a long time ago, a time when Tony Blair and Sven Goran-Eriksson were in charge, a time before Lethal had fallen off, a time when Harper Lee were still in business (hell, they still were the business). And it was that same year when we stumbled across Glasgow's twin newcomers Strawberry Whiplash and Bubblegum Lemonade, marvelling mightily at their knowing names and shambling wiles. And now, Matinee. Recordings. Of. Santa. Barbara has put its hands across the ocean once more to embrace both bands. The result is pleasingly symmetrical and tres sympa: a 4-track CD EP from each.

Highlight of the Lemonade's "10 Years Younger" is still probably "Unsafe At Any Speed", their driving JAMC-ish journey down avenues of sixties-tinged indie-pop. Of course, the quality doesn't end there: the EP, taking in the catchiness of its title track and, with "That Thing You Do!", an excursion into covers territory, gently touches on a few different reference points, not least the way "The Tomorrow People" very earnestly shadows Creation-era Razorcuts.

But, of the new Matinee brace, it's Strawberry Whiplash's "Who's In Your Dreams ?" which is the amazingest, we think. Indeed, its fantastic fuzziness and singer Sandra's clipped vocal delivery make us think of another superlative Glaswegian single, Baby Lemonade's "Secret Goldfish", that Narodnik 7" from aeons ago, variously described as "my awakening" (Are You Scared To Get Happy?) and "badly produced" (Woosh!), that got a welcome re-release on CD-R thru Egg Records rather more recently.

"Who's In Your Dreams ?", just like "Goldfish", shambles. Not in an unrefined way, not in a bad way, certainly not in an "underproduced" way: it's just a happy, gargling stream of revivalist ba-ba-ba's, of gargantuan guitar melodies, of Bubblegum Splash-style thudding drum n' bass, which peaks with the marvellous conceit where they use the ba-ba-ba's, instead of the guitars, to do the melody in the break. And all this even before you contemplate the rest of the EP, which includes the wonderful "Factory Girl", where early-Primals guitar stylings elide into a girl-fronted acoustic Mary Chain; the smiling popfulness of "It Rains On Other Planets"; and the shimmers of sunlight feedback on "My Day Today". Not that there's quite enough feedback, of course. There's never yet been a record with enough feedback.

But the real trick, of course, will be if Strawberry Whiplash can follow up this rather spiffing start with something else just as admirable - the way that Baby Lemonade managed to give us both "Secret Goldfish" (cherubim) and "Jiffy Neckwear Creation" (seraphim). If they can, then there's gonna be drama.

2008 gives us a third opportunity to relive a high from 2006 in the shape of Horowitz's "I Need A Blanket" EP, a *free* download from Thee Sheffield Phonographic Corporation, wot you can get here. The title track, commandeered from their "Frosty Cat Songs" opus, is, basically, skill: it's unlikely that we've listened to any single song more in the last year or so. People tend to be using the word "Pavement" when describing it, but - even if we were quite that lazy - we'd go more for "Urusei", or, if you'll let us have it, "Sportsguitar". Even earlier this week, when "INAB" was rubbing up on our current listening mixtape against the much newer and brasher "That's How People Grow Up", it was slaying it.

Horowitz have also made two contributions to the new Filthy Little Angels split 7" with Projekt A-ko (who, while perfectly engaging, are in the Driller Killer role here, we guess). And this is where things get really thrilling, because "Sweetness, I Could Die In Your Arms" and "Hug Target" are just ace. When we first heard a version of "Sweetness" last year, it was an instant revelation - yet another effortless step, jump-up, sea-change, whatever - crucially, showing that even so soon after "Tracyanne", they were showing no inclination at all to rest on their laurels. "Sweetness" is all vibrant Smithsy treble and heart-fluttering, stop-start indie powerchords, somehow rendered even better by the way that Ian puts the emphasis on "could" as he delivers the hook line (Cutting Crew, of course, went for plonking it all on "die", and look where it got them). Just swell. While the short, sweet "Hug Target" boasts feedback, New Order-ish bass and sung-from-a-bunker distorted vocals before it magically coagulates into a particularly joyful instrumental at about 1'14 which makes you want to leap up to the rafters, and swing on them 'til they break.

Next, the better of some new 12"s to get out of the way, not least because that will stop us having to trip over them all the time, and we might even get to see the carpet again. Starting with London's self-proclaimed proponents of "emotronica", Vex'd, whose new single on Planet Mu, a tribute to Joe Corrigan entitled "3rd Choice", is a happy concatentation of dubstep gurgles and splutters that for once outdoes a Loefah remix on the flip. Equally fine is Secret Agent Gel's new "Body" 12" on Low Motion, where some very deep, minimal New York grooves are offset by Jamaica via London's suddenly ubiquitous Warrior Queen (as well as her guesting on The Bug and Skream stuff last year, we think we forgot to max up her appearance on El Carnicero's "The Butcher" EP, which is another one you should get). Being somewhat dozy, it wasn't until we were playing this particularly loud that we realised that the lyrical content is, um, somewhat explicit, so don't play it in front of the kids, grandparents or in-laws. Boxcutter's "Philly" on Hotflush, on the other hand, while a family-friendly instrumental, is only 66.67% brilliant, being one part Hood, one part Squarepusher, and one part that terrible anodyne schlock they seem to play in the bars round here all the time ("Endothermic" on the other side provides a nice contrast, sacrificing "Philly"'s echoey exported-to-the-city Bracken-isms for shimmering keyboards and an altogether ghostlier feel).

Ah, and the heavy Heavy Bronx sound of Notts' P Brothers is back: just as Smiley da Ghetto Child, Milano and (soon-to team up with ED209) Imam T.H.U.G. lit up their past post-Cappo efforts, the brothers' new single teams up more New Yorkers - crews rather than MCs - in the shape of New Rochelle's Ress Connected and South Bronx duo Boss Money. Ress is best, on this occasion - "Shoot 'Em Down" boasting a slightly more elephantine hook - but both sides bring a welcome injection of East Coast street menace (well, we've missed it) to our current listening, given that most NYHH fell-off big time once the bling took over. (As an aside, for aside fans, the reformed EPMD's recent "Blow" record is surprisingly tip-top). Be warned though: there are a few moments, as always, when the MCs' flow is almost crushed by the brothers' typically drum-heavy, take no prisoners production.

Fanzine favourites (well, favourites of this fanzine) Hoodz Underground have seen fit to lift a couple of the newer tunes from their "Bringing It Back" LP onto single format: on the jauntier "Iron and Steel" they team with Ironbridge (the Essex MC, not the Shropshire town) for some Sheffield-Southend verbal jousting, while "Home of Da Streets" takes harder-hitting lyrics (the last couple of verses especially on-point re both youth violence and the continuing creep of the BNP) and smacks them with some top-end Harry Love production. Great stuff - this 12", like their other ones, is on their own Trackshicker label.

Now, how about this for the definition of a red-letter day: when you get the new I, Ludicrous and Pocketbooks singles arriving in the post at the same time ?

The Ludicrous boys warm up for their imminent Fall support in typically wry style with the five tracks of "Dirty Washing", their first release since Sanctuary gave us the "20 Years In Show Business" collection last year. Lead tune, "Argument In The Launderette", is classic I Ludicrous: a simple keyboard motif, some busy drum machine and Will handing down pearls of wisdom as he recounts the etiquette of the launderette, without being able to resist rhyming those two words into the bargain. There's also a particularly enjoyable / excruciating pun halfway through, a trick learned so well from key inspiration Mark E. Smith, which we will leave you to discover. After snapshot profiles of Ruby Wax, Jeremy Kyle ("dirty washing makes good TV") and, to best effect, the constituent clubs of "The Highland League" (another winsome documentary tune in the mould of "Three English Football Grounds"), the EP winds down with the jangly "Finding Things Out About John", a kind of reflective, fireside Preposterous Tales, albeit two decades on, imbued with warm melancholy and not a little darkness ("He voted Tory at the last election", observes Will matter of factly, as John faintly protests: "you've got it all wrong").

We still can't hear the name Pocketbooks without hoping that they named themselves after those lines in Biggie's "Ready To Die", about "doing whatever it took / from snatching chains to pocketbooks..." I mean, we know they didn't, but if they did they would be even more amazing. Anyway, Pocketbooks single #2 is a four-track EP, and in patches, yes, it does sound a little like it was recorded in a church hall, but nothing can detract from the skill and care in the arrangements, the palpable ambition, and the terrific, nuanced songwriting (and here, we mean songwriting in a good way - much as we know that songwriters and musicians are usually the twin nemeses of good music) not least those already-trademark lyrical flourishes we went on about last time.

From the lithe opening piano of the title track - already one for the classic intros round as far as we're concerned - the EP is a treat, a freewheeling bicycle ride on a beautiful clear day: "Waking Up", fuelled by a perfectly weighted vocal performance from Emma; "Falling Leaves", with its Sunny Intervals vibe, bringing in Andy's delicate, wavering voice; the serene, more mannered "Love Is The Stick You Throw", which brims with a more grown-up feel (we would say a much more "adult" feel, but that could invite inaccurate and frankly inappropriate comparisons with the Secret Agent Gel record) and "Don't Stop", which rounds things off by conspiring to be upbeat, thoughtful and inspirational all at once, a kind of noughties take on the Gain's "Casino Classics" which does start to suggest that Pocketbooks really might prove to be a band in a million (and nine). Wow, that chorus.

And all too late, we're reminded that it's not just our postman that provides a link between "the" Ludicrous and *THE* Pocketbooks. They share a welcome lyrical emphasis on the inanities and mundanities of everyday London living, whether Oystercards, library cards or cashpoint cards, with which we the listener identify, and from which wider life lessons are drawn. They're a marker that tender observation can still happen, can still work. And they're a joint demonstration that the art of good storytelling in song isn't confined to the Fall.

Now last year saw the fledgling Atomic Beat label's twin single triumphs from the sparkly one (Mr Green) and er, the sparkly five (the 'books). Atomic Beat's latest offering, the split 7" ABR 003 has therefore been eagerly awaited - not just by us - and now sits resolutely on our turntable, facing off any attempt to replace it. One suspects that the Pains of Being Pure of Heart's side, "Kurt Cobain's Cardigan" (like Little Dee, and just as sincerely, they sing about their "young lives"), will properly be fending off plaudits from all sides already, so we thought we'd try and flip the game for once and dive straight into the Parallelograms' side - more particularly, their track "1, 2, 3, Go!" - instead.

Taking off where the Fucking Rosehips left off (and given that the Fucking Rosehips had taken off where no less than the Rosehips themselves left off), 123G! is boundlessly amazing, the more so because, on the face of it, there's not much to it - a simple celebration of 1986 that namechecks as many bands of that era that scan or rhyme, whilst the guitars pay due deference to early Rosehips or the noisier Talulah outings. You might say it's unremarkable. But there's something about 123G! - just in the same way there is something in "Sweetness, I Could Die" - that transcends glib analysis and demands that we simply celebrate its effervescence. A little like the feeling we had when we first heard the Rosies' "Something Happened", and realised that there was no point thinking too hard about something so enjoyable: so much goodness is ephemeral, we could walk under a bus tomorrow (even if these days we might hear the brakes first) and we should simply listen to it as many times in a row as we could, while we still could. 123G! has settled snugly into that role.

Finally, the first great album of the year comes from the Airfields, with "Up All Night" (we're expecting that the second and third great albums of the year will be from Riko and Trim, which we've got on pre-order). The first minute or so of "Up All Night" is dazzling enough, "Prisoners of Love" chimingly resonating with midperiod Wake-isms before it opens out and the first of many fab little guitar runs is delivered, but as the album skips by, topped off with harder, fuzz-filled passages echoing just-signed to Creation-MBV, and as ghosts of Sarah and Factory past flit in and out, the Airfields manage to touch every er, touchpost you could sensibly want them to (we thought of the Field Mice, early Smiths, and even Gentle Despite in some of the vocals).

We also reckon that our past Airfields-14 Iced Bears analogy is sustainable (so there), simply because of the blend of fey-melodic indieness and unrepentant fuzz noise that gives "Up All Night" its distinctive pattern. There are fine versions of all three songs from the bravura Cloudberry EP - the title track of that, "Yr So Wonderful" being a foggy, blissful Secret Shine, while we all know that "The Long Way Home" is just a stunning indie-pop song with, yes, probably the best of all those many fab little guitar runs. And there's the thumping "Never See You Smile" and the sumptuous "Happy & Safe". But it's "Love Tariffs" where everything really comes together - seductive guitar distortion caressing a lonely vocal and shining melodies. It comes from the same place as AR Kane's "When You're Sad", and as you might appreciate, that's a gorgeous place.

Talking of which, we're off to Millwall.