Monday, June 30, 2008

'77, Nearly Heaven

He's calls himself 77Klash. His label's called Klash City. On the lead track from his new single, he namechecks "London Calling" within the first verse. And if he ever comes round ours we're definitely going to dust off our Strummer and Jones posters 'specially. You might remember the Brooklyn-based Jamaican (in fact, his name's meant to be pronounced "two seven" Klash, as in Culture's meisterwerk) from Team Shadetek's stunning "Brooklyn Anthem" single, also on the "Pale Fire" album, where he teamed up with Jahdan to lace the track with pure fire. We're pleased to say that "Anthem", which also features on this EP, was no one-off. Even without the grimey dancefloor stylings provided by the brothers Shadetek, "Mad Again" and "Yes Shotta" are pretty intense rhyme & reggae fusion, as 77K lays down the law with no little refinement. And "Code for The Streets" - no relation to fellow New Yorkers Gang Starr's classic "Code of the Streets" - even has some Clash-like shouty bits, as 77Klash rides an electronic pulse into the NYC sunset. Best of all, you don't have to take our word for any of this, because two of the EP tracks, "Mad Again" and "Code" can be downloaded for nowt, here.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Saturday's Kids / Kill Me, I'm Twee

"I will like bands because I'm told to / Cut off my hands, because I'm told to"

So Euro 2008 is (wrongly) over, and I'm afraid that means we're back for a few days. During those halcyon three weeks, it's fair to say that Turkey made a very convincing stab at overtaking France as in love with these times, in spite of these times's favourite international football team - we'll let you know where that goes.

Olders might recall the era when football and Saturday afternoons were synonymous: we guess they still are for real football, which covers 99% of the sport by volume, if only 1% by over-fevered, ill-thought out media coverage. But youngers would probably have to be sat down as it was patiently explained to them why the UK's best football publication has the now quaint title of "When Saturday Comes". Which choice of name was itself a knowing nod to one of the Undertones' less spectacular numbers (remember how the post-punk fanzine explosion fed through to the football fanzine upturn, as well as the indiepop fanzines we all spent the mid80s poring over). The song, in turn, is 1,000,000 (approx) times better than the execrable film of the same name, although at least that gave us the celluloid novelty of Sheffield United at the pinnacle of high sporting theatre. Anyway, this rumination is all prompted by the arrival of the Pains of Being Pure of Heart's "Come Saturday", their new single (split with new Australian sensations the Summer Cats) on Slumberland's Searching For The Now series). Which, um, has nothing whatsoever to do with football, the Undertones, or Sean Bean.

However unoriginal an observation this is, it would be dishonest not to say that the Pains of Being are still ringers for early MBV (post-terrible goth stomp, pre-"You Made Me Realise"). So if you're expecting any kind of departure from the songs that lit up last year's overlapping EPs, or their split single on Atomic Beat with the Parallelograms, you'll be firmly knocked back. But, as ever, the band manage to combine this sublime one-track fizzy guitar grogginess with lyrics that are more uplifting, deliberate and inspirational than they're often given credit for: "Come Saturday" positively rattles with the same conviction that saw them shake the foundations at the Betsey Trotwood and the Buffalo Bars (they were, we felt, especially amazing at the latter).

Also part of Slumberland's quest for the present is a double-sider from Another Sunny Day In Glasgow and Electrophonvintage splinter duo the Sunny Street. The former is a left-field take on the Pastels' "Sometimes I Think About You", but it can never really get past the fact that the original was immaculately sweet and coy, and no amount of musical discombobulation is going to surpass it. But the Sunny Street's unassuming "Pottery & Glass" is a a chiming girl-sung treat, reeking of easy melody. Plus, they have an imminent CD-r single coming out on Cloudberry, the preview track from which, "College", shimmers with low-key jangly splendour.

And we should also mention here Sarandon's "Kill Twee Pop!" album, also on Slumberland, even if it's been out long enough for many of you to have grabbed already. For Sarandon are simply one of the best British bands out there at the moment, both live and on record, and this their debut album proper (after the 28-track "Completist's Library" whetted appetites) merely proves it, both including and building on the finery of last year's "Joe's Record" 45 as they move towards (marginally) longer, but still infinitely spiky and sprightly, numbers. It's hard to describe their sound without (a) confirming that it ain't twee pop, and (b) reeling off a list of names of our favourite 80s awkward squad bands plus perhaps 90s' outsiders like the Yummy Fur and second-phase Beatnik Filmstars, so we'll restrict ourselves to saying that if you liked any one or more of the bands on the superb "Commercially Unfriendly" compilation, this will probably be one of the most exciting records you trip across this year.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

He's at it again

And so London no longer has its anti-racist festival. Again, we knew this kind of Toryboy gesture politics was on its way, but even we didn't realise quite how near this would be to the top of his in-tray: axing the theme of a festival actually set up in response to a number of racist attacks, including the Lawrence murder in relation to which Johnson's own pronouncements over the years have been so shameful. It was, of course, a move warmly applauded from a predictable quarter, as well as one that would have no doubt been cleared by Central Office.

But did he really not have more important things to worry about in his first few weeks than bolstering his rep as posterboy of the unhinged old-skool right ? Or did he worry that he might have dimmed that rep by casting a few empty words, before the election, in the vague direction of inclusion ?

In the meantime, we're grateful for all our Rise and Respect memories, from Fallacy, Blak Twang and De La Soul at the turn of the century right up to what turned out to be the last one we'll ever go to.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Amble Side Story

The photographer would have had to stand in the middle of the A591 to take this particular northern portrait. After clicking the shutter, their best bet would have been the Royal Oak, the welcoming Tudor-era free house that takes up the right-hand side of the picture.

Retracing their steps, strolling across the threshold, we spot all yer proper pub necessaries: the fruit machine, the dartboard, the "Support the Lifeboats" window sticker, the roll of dishonour that lists the score of locals barred from this and seemingly every other boozer in the village. Pumps for a trio of Keswick ales are on proud display - the Thirst Oak is allegedly brewed exclusively for this very hostelry - but like pretty much everywhere in the Lakes now, the main trade is being done in Guinness and lager. There's Carlsberg on draught: the bubbles rise, dance. We partake.

On one wall of the drinking hole we'd just left, the Churchill Hotel, there was a signed portrait of the appropriately Churchillian figure of Terry Butcher: the famous pose where he troops off the field with his head wreathed in bandages, the three lions on his shirt drenched in blood (possibly his own). The Royal Oak is not so bellicose, long having shed previous, rather more aggressive monikers (the Fighting Cocks, anyone ?). Instead, its walls warm traditionalists' hearts by boasting framed diagrams of beer engine fittings, porcelain spirit measures and brewers' sundries; sepia photos of old Ambleside; and an action shot of Skelwith Force in full torrent. From the ceiling hang wooden skis, an old-fashioned ice-skate, a vintage lacrosse stick: the usual random pub paraphernalia. No mazy neon or glimmer globes in here.

The snug rooms either side of the Oak's front bar contrast in character. The space to the right is carpeted, with stools and saloon chairs upholstered in deep, ornate, reds: their incumbents appear to be happily slumped fellwalkers, taking the weight off aching feet as ITV Sport flickers on the back wall. On the emptier left-hand side of the bar, the decor is more parsimonious: white walls, a wood-panelled floor, dark oakwood chairs and Channel Four news. Unsure as to which side to plump for, we take our glasses out front instead.

Here, back in shot on the patio, the canopies are now green, but otherwise it's pretty much as you see it (though there's a disappointing lack of people taking happy snaps from the middle of the road). Passing tourists come and go, on their way from guest houses and B&Bs to ambitiously-priced restaurants. The local youth gabble with their mobiles and each other, while a lone old dear necks a G&T at the adjacent table. As for the beer "garden", the shrubbery consists mainly of firs and wilted pansies nestling forlornly in pots of earth, overrun with stubbed-out cigarettes. As evening interlopes, we breathe in the traffic and the teenagers' Lambert & Butlers. The sky cools.

Once the bubbles are spent, we venture to the yellow-washed eating house, the Priest's Hole, on the left hand side of the photo. What this picture doesn't show you is the vicious curve of Church Street as the double yellow lines veer down to your left: you might step inside the restaurant at street level, but you're a good storey above the A-road by the time you reach your table, with a whole Oxfam shop beneath the floorboards. We dine until late amongst jaunty Mediterranean music, hearty veggie options and copper kettles that dangle from the rafters. And so today's Cumbrian chapter closes.

* * * * *

Er, yes, Half Man Half Biscuit. The Prenton Park regulars and onetime indie darlings who surfaced halfway through Thatcher's time at the helm, who were feted for singing so succinctly about the twin travails of that era (unemployment and daytime TV), who are now most fondly remembered by many only for their first - arguably their weakest! - LP, "Back In The DHSS". But who, over eleven albums and 22 years now, have been ever expanding their lyrical range.

Nigel Blackwell remains essentially a storyteller, always beckoning us to confront the humour, the romance and the occasional toe-curling grimness of our lives. So HMHB still vividly sketch out the healthy absurdities of pop and pomp, still breezily prick the cult of (micro)celebrity, still deliciously max on the sarky, snarky and surreal. Yet they've also patented a new strain of defiantly British road music - the shambling guitar travelogue of "Keeping Two Chevrons Apart", "M6-ster", "Bottleneck at Caple Curig", "Asparagus Next Left" - which casts Blackwell as a latter day Alfred Wainwright, unafraid to describe every hill and dale, every peak and trough of his journeys, in his own inimitable prose.

Cast a glance at the band's touring schedule over the years: inbetween wowing the likes of Rock City, the Queen Elizabeth Hall or a packed LA2, they've made trips to Ulverston, Charlbury, Frome, Bilston, Holmfirth, Stourbridge, Matlock, Penzance and darkest New Cross... it's all grist to the mill, to their tales of crawler lanes and cats-eyes, street signs and tailbacks. Blackwell is a quiet evangelist, coaxing us insular urbanites outside: whether from mews houses and Georgian crescents, or stifling estates and dank alleyways, the listener is implored to explore the myriad byways of rural and semi-rural Britain he celebrates. It's no coincidence that the new record's sleeve contains a quote from another eminent traveller, George Borrow: "There are no countries in the world less known by the British than these self same British islands".

That's why we thought this pilgrimage of sorts was the least we could do. Besides being a good chance to get away from it all (we do still love London: just not those 4x4-driving bastards in Bexley & Bromley: even if,and hey, let's be fair to Boris, so far only a quarter of a million Londoners are worse off as a result of his policies).

* * * * *

Anyway. Every 2 or 3 years we write pretty much the same thing about HMHB (here's last time round). Our schtick basically boils down to recording that (a) they're social commentators par excellence, (b) their two decades or so of unfailing post-C86 aceness have been brazenly, unfeelingly overlooked, and (c) as befits this pattern the kids are gonna ignore their latest album. Maybe the overlooking is partly down to the fact that HMHB are usually ahead of their time in what they choose to champion or disdain (their falling out of love with football song, "Friday Night and the Gates are Low", was released when everyone else was starting to pretend to like the sport, when the zeitgeist was Britpop, ladmags and wannabe cool Britannia: though we feel sure that Nigel would have appreciated the local paper's Ambleside FC promotion supplement as much as us).

And we could witter on for England about how HMHB are also one of the best singles bands in world history, despite only intermittently releasing any: their discography on 45 includes the likes of "Eno Collaboration", "Dickie Davies' Eyes", "Look Dad No Tunes", "Jarg Armani", "Trumpton Riots"... many of indiedom's very finest songs. But there comes a point where you've heard it all (though we've tried a thousand times, a thousand times to change your mind). If you don't like HMHB now, you never will: if you somehow still think they're a novelty band, you always will.

Plus, we've got hillsides, tearooms and churchyards to explore. So we'll dispense with even the pretence of reviewing "CSI: Ambleside" (brief memo to Lake District felony stat fans: the parish newsletter notes approvingly that crime in Ambleside has fallen by 6% in the last year). Suffice to say that if you're a fan, and you don't already have it, it won't disappoint.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Cheer of a Black Hat

This, a great shame. People who know about these things have told us that when folks first heard "Bo Diddley" (the song) back in the day, it was a little like our generation hearing "Upside Down" for the first time. But whatever the truth of that, we'll continue to remember our encounter with him in Camden with no little warmth. Rest in.