Monday, July 07, 2008

A Feeling Mission

When we were talking, sat in that Tin Pan Alley bar and by now nursing near-empty glasses, I mentioned that first trip to the Astoria, in the 80s.

Back then, we were hanging on the coat-tails of a cooler crowd, who got us tickets for the gig and tolerated us with pleasing equanimity. Pocket money was too scarce to shell out on a Capitalcard for the train, so we'd actually travelled to the smoke on a pea-green double decker bus, one of those old Eastern National jalopies that would have taken us all the way to the pre-refit Liverpool Street. It would have juddered between the other satellite towns, then eventually followed the main arterial that clings to the Central Line, as the oases of green belt gave way entirely to the sprawling suburbs of Havering and Redbridge, pockmarked by between-the-wars semis, and then the bawling hubbub of East London proper.

We could have watched, arrayed as we were across of the front of the top deck, as the embers of the day were ground out by the slow descent of the summer eve, though likely as not the change would have passed unnoticed, lost in the excited chatter of schoolboys on their way to a night out with real grown-ups. How we made it from the bus station to the promised land of "up west", memory defeats, but it would either have been hopping on buses (in those days, when the Routemaster ruled Central London, you simply chased buses down as quarry, leaping on and off as they moved) or the more tried and tested hurdle over Underground ticket barriers.

But there was to be no epiphany at the Astoria that night, a night which sank like a stone once we'd arrived in the acrid, filthy atmosphere of the club, a teeming smog of dry ice and Silk Cut fumes and the stench of undeodorised teenagers, all the time having to pretend to be 18 by drinking drinks that we couldn't afford, we didn't like the taste of and that made us ill. And as for the band, they were risible, truly atrocious: let's not detain ourselves with them any further. But after what seemed an eternity of their dull-witted stagecraft and posing, we took the oppo to scramble for the exits while the singer, during a thoroughly unmerited second encore, began scaling the speaker stacks.

And then, suddenly it was clearer. All that expectation had dissipated, inexorably, into the Astoria fug, and now we realised we needed - longed for - music on our own terms, without this fakery, this self-absorption, this utter lack of self-consciousness. Not because it was bad per se, but just because it wasn't us.

We realised that the posing and the pouting and the gradual creep of rawk histrionics were, yet again, so much plastic. Yes, on the train home, everyone else was wearing Cheshire cat grins and yapping about how brilliant the band were, and we were happy they were happy, but we were happier still that we knew, with the wrongheaded but righthearted conviction of any teenager, that they were also *utterly deluded*, and when we got back we proved it to ourselves by listening the songs that we'd been taping off John Peel, by bands that would never scale speaker stacks in their life, and we picked up the fanzines that we liked but no-one else seemed to and even the copies of Sounds that were lying around (these were days when the papers had a cabal of writers at least showing sympathy for youngbloods like the June Brides and the Pastels and Close Lobsters and the Wolfhounds...) and we re-read and re-listened and yeah, "got into" these bands because we found we really did like them and because they spoke to us then, because they were trying only to be themselves (that line from Give My Love to Kevin, "I'm not trying to be anything..." was a tonic because we identified with it, so completely - later of course, it would be the Field Mice's iconic "I'm not brave / I'm not special / I'm not any of those things") and we no longer went for music just because others at school did. And before we knew it we were translating late night Radio 1 into shopping trips for vinyl, and spinning delightedly into all sorts of new worlds, even if it was a generation later when the speaker-climbing band's old manager reappeared out of the blue at our door, trying to sell us double glazing, and it seemed a virtuous circle was complete.

Ahem. Back on Tin Pan Alley, how we then got on to Floridian wonder-marque Cloudberry is less clear, but we did. At a guess, it started when we were talking about how once-cherished bands found it so easy to believe their own hype, to treat their advance as a sign they'd made it, to relentlessly milk their new found popularity by starting to act the role of pop star, minor or major league, rather than to do it because they wanted to. Even if climbing speaker stacks was very 80s, whereas to walk the walk in super media-savvy 2008 needs a more studied cool (handily now taught at stage school): act like you don't care, curl your lip, wear a Ramones t-shirt as if you mean it, glibly drip in and out of rehab. As a king of Manchester once said, and it seems to apply more than ever today: "All the young groups now / Act like peasants with free milk".

And on that kind of tip, Roque (off of Cloudberry) wrote a niiice piece in the splendid Iconoclastic Cardies #2 about certain bands kind of trying to cling to the coat-tails of indie as 'trendy', at the same time as using all the old ladder-climbing tricks to pull up sales and "buzz", all that kind of tosh. It's a little like the ongoing battle in hip-hop, typified by Ice-T's "Question And Answer" as long ago as '93 where he made clear he didn't have a problem with the artists who never pretended to be anything other than 'pop' (ha, even the "new and untouchable" Hammer): but when artists sold themselves as 'street' - whether underground pioneer or straight-up gangster from the group home - and then crossed over, they were player fakers. If you're putting a record out on Cloudberry, chances are you're not doing it for a quick leg-up into the demsne of pluggers and faux-indie. (Or, indeed, to sell yourself as gangsta when you prefer a quiet night in with the crossword). Cloudberry keep it real, and we don't care how you leap on that statement. Here's the 1, 2, 3.

The first thing is the aesthetics. Every single Cloudberry release is impeccably packaged, each 3" CD-r nestling in a micro-sleeve with carefully pored-over artwork. It's amazing how quickly we get blase about it, but we shouldn't. Great labels in the day like Sarah, Factory, Pink, September, or more recently Matinee or the immaculate LTM took great care over their presentation and packaging, too, and were all the better for it. Plus, there are the little country flags that remind us of the many nations of indie-pop, the power of the international pop underground (an august organisation that, liberated by the internet, now routinely makes border raids into new worlds of possibility, staking out its territory further). Cloudberry is one of its liveliest active splinter cells (we at in love with these times, in spite of these times are just sleepers).

The second thing, a touch more important: the attitude. "Cloudberry believes in unrequited love + systems of resistance + sense of community + DIY ethics + international socialism". While those are fine words, many indie-kids in the UK profess the same kind of thing, but beyond the trappings of indiepop fandom, still manage to fire themselves up only with deeply conservative idea(l)s, or vote Conservative, or, even worse don't bother to vote at all (well done again the 3 million registered voters in London to whom it should have been abundantly clear that if they didn't vote, the BNP would get their 5% threshold: and who still didn't bother). But in describing what Cloudberry does and represents, their own words seem entirely accurate and fair, and their rightful fascination with the *SINGLE* as a primary form of revolutionary communique has much in common with our own over-romantic notions of the single as being at the heart of (musical) love, resistance and community... And there, perhaps, is the most valid, most important link with Sarah, with the way that our interpretation of the Sarah ethos + politics (there were plenty of interpretations flying around, both now and then) was, for us, intrinsic to so appreciating the records.

And then there's the third thing, lest we forget - the music. We posted a few favourites elsewhere: that's a cool quarter-century of ace songs, for a start. There's no pretence at redrawing genre boundaries or breaking brave new critical moulds, and no reason there should be: the label's own blurb makes clear that it's "an indiepop label purveying the sound of jangly guitars". Sarah were always criticised for sticking to a certain "musical type", but as Matt Haynes pointed out the same criticisms were never extended to jazz labels, reggae labels etc which would be regarded as "specialist" and therefore immune from such high-handed criticism. You know, the sort of label that gets called an "imprint". On that analysis, Cloudberry, too, is a specialist label, we guess, and one churning out greatness in occasionally frightening volumes.

And a new epoch of Cloudberry (if any project so young can already be on to a second epoch) comes in 2008 with their first forays into 7" vinyl, the first handful of releases having come already from the Bridal Shop, the Summer Cats and the louche, luxurious OJ / Smithsy (but think via some of the classic Marsh Marigold or Firestation Tower bands) Twig. The Tartans' "My Baby Doesn't Care For You" is the fourth instalment: it's fragile as hell, and you almost feel you could despatch the lot of them with no more than an idle Subbuteo flick, but like other gems of the er, fetherlite genre (our chance to mention Bunny Nightlight's "Hail" again) it actually subverts our usual cynicism and desire for noise and velocity at all costs, and by the end of its 2 1/2 minutes (with a great dead stop ending) it's managed to wind us entirely around its little finger. We'd also exhort investment in the fifth Cloudberry 7", the Westfield Mining Disaster's "Hank Williams Saved My Life": it's grrreat, a slo-fi post-Tramway burn of insight, retrospection and perhaps a little latent Pastelism, that couples nicely with the similarly weighted semi-c&w B-side, "Six Months In Arrears". Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by the quality though, given WMD Paul Towler's connection with the Haywains, a band who, if sometimes a little too prolific for their own good (if you've got any fanzine compilation tape from the late 80s, we bet you they're on it, along with the Driscolls and Thrilled Skinny, plus they ended up putting a fair number of tunes out on Vinyl Japan in the 90s if we're not mistaken), were always capable of raising themselves to great things ("Bythesea Road", "I Wouldn't Want That"). When they aimed high enough, and really put their minds to it.

Look. Anyone who tells you, in 2008, that Cloudberry *is* the new Sarah, or that Cloudberry has already eclipsed Sarah or 555 or Subway or Matinee or K or Earache or Relapse or Postcard or Music of Life or Factory or Maximum Minimum or Fast Product or Dischord or Rhyme Syndicate or er, Decca is wrong (even though it's been "statistically" "proven" that Cloudberry was the best label of 2007). We don't feel we can properly make such comparisons for a few years yet. And the label's far too prolific for us to be able to say, hand on heart, that every release meets with our approval: there have definitely been some that *don't* add all that to the global store of indie-pop goodness. But these, of course, are small, inevitable and irrelevant things. What matters of course is the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is the now.

That it would be worth Cloudberry existing even if they'd only given us one gem: just one single of the calibre of the ones mentioned above. It frankly wouldn't matter, in that light, if there'd been a hundred duds inbetween. And because of that track record, we're grateful for Cloudberry existing - no, not "existing", but HAPPENING - because faced as we are at any time with about 1,000 new records to listen to (most of which are B.A.D) Cloudberry is a pretty good filter for us to discover music, and without which we wouldn't have been able to follow up on half the bands above, for a start. Like all the labels we've namechecked, it's one we feel we can trust - even if that's not the same as meaning we blindly love everything they release. And it wouldn't be able to be that filter if this wasn't being done for the love of points one, two, three above, if it was just an extension of the rest of the "indie" industry in 2008, all pluggers and £40 haircuts and posing and fake self-deprecation. In short, without Cloudberry and its precious cavalcade of bands, our record collection would be a lot lighter and a lot poorer.

Hey. It's way past our bedtime, and we've kinda forgotten starting the post, but basically, so long as these DIY scenes - yes indiepop, but also grime, some techno, UKHH and so many more - are still whirring away, we can tell ourselves we're vindicated in still devoting our spare hours, our time off from real-life, to looking for them. Sometimes the journey sucks, like that first trip to the city did. But when it works, there's a kernel of joy we want to try and transmit to someone, anyone. We chase and paint, rapids and rainbows. That's our feeling. That's our mission.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

lust, camden aka north london summer listening aka pimp your picnic

"rappers with more holes than biggie's torso / swear so much, the radio / well it sounds like morse code..."*

what up, how r u. as well as "all these records", we've had classical english cultural institutions to the x-treme this wk: the national theatre, morrissey and the enb. indeed, "a million kisses to my skin" was one of the best things we've seen in ages: we give it the full five mics. anyway, it's playlist time. yes, again. here are the tunes to slay yr summer.

diversion tactics "no collaborations" (from hip-hop connection june 2008 cover cd)
no lay "bars of truth" (from "no comparisons" mixtape on no.lay's world / ggi enterprises)
jaydan "pull up" (12" a-side on propaganda)
zinc "tigerz talkin" (from "marching" 12" with dynamite mc on bingo records)
jaydan "gun salute" (12" a-side on smokin' riddims)
zinc "robot party" (12" a-side on bingo records)
g-dub "forever (original sin v.i.p.)" (12" on ganja)
jaydan "after dark" (12" a-side on propaganda)
logan d and 4q "fish monger" (from majistrate / g-dub "yeti muncher" remix 12" on lowdowndeep)
robert natus "endless sequence" (12" a-side on inflicted recordings)
bas mooy "bokkenpruik" (from "alliance vi" split 12" with dj boss on audio assault)
sutura "arabian nights" (12" a-side on inflicted recordings)
sven wittekind "never forget" (12" a-side on sven wittekind records)
original sin "feels good" (12" a-side on propaganda)
danielle "beat it" (single on stainless records)
*dpf "what can i say" (single on son records)
no lay "what a pity" (from "no comparisons" mixtape again)
wiley "grime kid" (from "grime wave" cd on eskibeat recordings)
skepta "king of grime" (from "rinse: 4" mix cd on rinse)

& while we think of it, this may also be the place to say to richard walker, so long and thanks for the memories. and some of those memories truly were great.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Ranking Queens

In case you'd wondered what we'd been working up to for the weekend, well this for one is what we've been working up to, one of the things we had to tell you about before our imminent hibernation. It kind of goes back to when we mentioned Zipper the other week: how sometimes the secret of great music, of music that puts a smile on your face, is absurdly simple. So the skinny on this one is this.

Imam T.H.U.G, the Iron Sheik who teamed with the P Brothers to deliver "Across The Planet" on Heavy Bronx in day, knows how to drop rhymes: grizzly, filmic, props-to-Queensbridge street stories. Leicester's Ed 209, who wowed us with the "Stay Ex Static" collaborations with some of our favourite UK emcees last year, knows how to concoct block-trembling, back-to-basics beats. Put those ingredients together - connect the chemistry, if you like - and the result, in this case a 12" on VRD called "Karma 360", is mighty. It's as brooding a collabo as you might expect, the Imam patrolling the streets of his home borough surrounded by the dislocated smog of 209's gently crackling breaks, all shot through with a grimy, "Hell On Earth"-style piano sample.

Hey, it won't ever be a hit. *Sigh*. But "Karma" is a treat for you and I, at least: a transatlantic nod to the rawer sound from when hip-hop felt more like it mattered, when rapping was righteous, and the producer's role was the realisation, not emasculation, of those skills. Crucially, though, records like this, or Cee-Rock 'The Fury's newie, aren't merely sops to a listener's weary nostalgia: whatever side of the ocean you're on, they serve as a reminder that real street music can still be both created in, and rooted in, the present. And they give us more reasons, however incessant the barrage of depressingly lowest common denominator "hip-hop", not to give up on the genre that's maybe given us the very mostest over the past 25 years.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Taste The Poison

3 groups for you today. Starting with two variations on grindcore, both featuring members of some particularly devastating (blast)beat combos.

Venomous Concept's line-up is two Napalm (Shane and Danny) plus two Brutal Truth, and "Poisoned Apple" is their follow-up to the dismembered metal of the marvellously brief, bitty, lo-fi "Retroactive Abortion" LP. Whereas Shane Embury's Lock-Up side project (also with a fellow Napalmer - or should that be Napalmist ? - the late Jesse Pintado), showcased effective, almost clinical grindcore moshery, on this one it's a much rawer, more scabrous soundclash between grindcore and punk: track titles like "Drop Dead", "Think!" and "Chaos", and the fact that its 17 tracks go by in a blur of 33 minutes, probably tell you enough. Throughout, it's gratifyingly great, keeping all the (barely) controlled chaos of their debut - including a constant amp hum and guitar buzz that lasts during and between tracks - and takes you to such rarefied reference points as the last Extreme Noise Terror record, Flyblown's "Genocide-Genocide", Scalplock's rather smashing "Spread The Germs (Over The Human Worms)...", "Retroactive Abortion" itself and perhaps even one of the few truly great punk albums, Discharge's "Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing", even if it lacks the sheer bloodyminded focus of HNSNSN. And you can hum Anti-Cimex's "Victim Of A Bomb Raid" along with most songs here, which must be a good sign. If we had to pick favourite moments, they'd probably be the brilliant blur of the opening three tunes (the second of which, "Toxic Kiss", features vocals from ENT mainstay Phil Vane) and the mid-album, Discharge-influenced "Workers Unite" (since we were at Marx's graveside not too long ago, natch)... but really, you won't go far wrong with anything here.

Coldworker are the latest project of ex-Nasum man Anders Jakobson, and their second album, "Rotting Paradise" is more of a melange of grindcore with straight-up death metal: rarely recalling the sheer speed of Nasum, although there's still plenty of aggression. With the brightest tunes like "Reversing The Order", "Scare Tactics", and "I Am The Doorway", a three minute blaze of glory followed by a minute or so of slower moshery a la Napalm's "Silence Is Deafening", Coldworker start to live up to the high expectations we've not unreasonably set for them. And that's probably true of at least half the record, which is more than we were quite able to say of Deicide's recent long player.

Technically speaking, fresh-faced Bandung combo Sunny Summer Day are not anything to do with grindcore at all, but any of their tracks will actually nestle rather lovelily between Venomous Concept and Coldworker on yr average playlist, and we confess to have fallen rather totally for their free download single, "So Much Fun", on Letterbox (the Cumbria-based label who provided a home for California Snow Story's touchingly classy "Close To The Ocean" album a little way back in the day). Like their Cloudberry EP, "You're The One For Me", and a little like fellow rough diamonds the Fantasy Lights, "So Much Fun" shares much of its DNA with early Sarah demos: writers rather tougher on their charges than us might speculate as to whether that's quite enough, in today's rather crowded (frankly overcrowded - sorry) indiepop market. But given that we could quite happily spend any given day ensconced entirely in early Brighter, Another Sunny Day or St Christopher demos, and quite frankly often have done, we think "Fun" is rather brilliant, with the guitar lines all doing exactly what they should do as the band breeze along easily-imaginable country lanes of impeccable summery indieness. There's also a full 6-track download EP ("Me, Myself And The Empty Soul") from where this comes - it's worth investigating if you were charmed by their Cloudberry release, but probably not worth investigating if you're, say, Sarandon.

We continue to harbour (because we can) a strongly alliterative fantasy that Sunny Summer Day could do a covers EP, perhaps taking on "Sunny Sundae Smile", "Super Sunny Summer" and - though this would involve a bit of branching out - growl their way thru Gallhammer's "Sunnyday Slaughter" - but back in the world of stuff that actually happens, yes "So Much Fun" is something pretty spesh to be going on with, and you can sample it here.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Happy Secret

How long should a band take between their first and second albums ? For most bands, the answer is pretty easy - probably about a hundred years, accompanied by a stern rebuke for having put out the first one at all. Other artists, however, can leave it far too long - we get worried if Eskiboy hasn't put any long-player out for more than about three months, and there are plenty of combos stuck on the "one" mark at the moment who could do with pulling their fingers out (are we alone in dreaming that the Shop Assistants could reform, er, again, and put us out of our misery...?)

The great Terrorizer managed to leave it 17 years before recording what even Brits (well, lazy Brit journalists) are now prone to call a "sophomore" effort: yet that proved rather too long as it transpired, as while their second record, "Darker Days Ahead", was pretty great, it perhaps said it all that one of the best tracks on it was "Dead Shall Rise '06", a re-recording of a ditty that had been on their seminal "World Downfall" debut back in '89. For Bristol swoongazers Secret Shine, the gap between Sarah eight-tracker "Untouched" and Clairecords newie "All Of The Stars" is a cool sixteen years - so would this prove to be the same kind of gentle disappointment ?

Well, on first listening, the jury was out: after so long, it can be quite hard to reconnect with what you love about any given band, and the Shine had inadvertently handicapped themselves by putting out such an immediate, strong comeback single ("Elemental") in the cold of early 2006. They'd also reminded us of how durable some of the older tunes turned out to be when they brought some into their set at the Water Rats an autumn or two ago. But on re-spinning "All Of The Stars", we soon found ourselves locking back into their groove, as those sweeping hi-altitude boy/girl vocal harmonies made their mark over the trademark quiet-loud passages and sweetly distorted guitar oscillations. In particular, we remembered that you always had to accept the stucco swirls of the slower, quieter passages as a prelude to the the sublime rushes of noise they bookended, the moments when the guitars began to crackle with energy and the hairs on the nape of your neck stood to attention.

We're sure we remember someone telling us once that Secret Shine's lyrics were inspired by Keats, but you'll be used to us recycling pub talk as musical lore, so we can't swear to the truth of that (or, indeed, speculate as to what either the band, or Keats himself, would make of the allegation). What is true is that the words - for a band that deploy the vocals, especially Kathryn's, almost as instruments in themselves - seem to fit in just fine with the swathes of fuzzy melody on offer. And so by the time we revisited "Oblivion" (track eight) it was as if they'd never been away, the chorus delivering a doughty reminder of the cobweb-blowing away cascades of past faves from "Untouched", like "Towards The Sky" or "Underworld". Indeed, in some ways "All Of The Stars" is more consistent than "Untouched", which at times ("Spellbound", maybe ?) hadn't itself quite built on the feral brilliance of "Loveblind" (you - know we love it - always will do - etc etc). So "All Of The Stars" gives us longer, brooding numbers like "Voice Of The Sea" and "Cafe Crash" as well as the slightly rockier "Hate To See You Smile" (a nice companion piece to the Airfields' "Never See You Smile"). And the bouncier verse of the closing, bristling "The Sound Of Light" sees them meeting Stereolab halfway, before they amp things up for the refrain. Plus, unlike Terrorizer, Secret Shine haven't had to fall back on re-recording any of their classics from '92.

Finally, a from-the-heart postscript to Secret Shine arrivistes: the first couple of Secret Shine singles (one 7" on Sarah, another on A Turntable Friend) are often dismissed as being a bit watery or inconsequential (even described by the band themselves as "soulless") because they maxed on the jangle, and pre-dated the veer towards ethereal Creation-style noise that started perhaps with "Honeysweet". But, much as we love them for what they've done since, we'll always be fond of "After Years", "Snowfall Sorrow" and "Unbearable", so don't you be afraid to seek them out and stand up for them too. Then, maybe one day, they might get reissued or something, and we can give the vinyl copies a well-earned rest.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Bug Day

"Sorry for taking your last Rizla..."

Updating on a couple of artists who got us shook up in 2007. One, Londoner the Bug, began a series of cracking electronic 12"s on unforgivingly heavy vinyl, with guest vocals from the equally super-heavyweight likes of Warrior Queen and Flowdan. The other was that living legend "it's a long way to" Tippa Irie, who treated us to "Talk The Truth", a fairly towering collection of dancehall-tinged modern UK reggae. We are therefore not undelighted to report that Tippa and the Bug have teamed up for Ninja Tune single "Angry", the lead-off tune for the latter's pending LP, which will also contain "Poison Dart", "Jah War", "Skeng" et al... Tippa is at his tuffest, showing off in particular with some speed-toasting at around 2'10, as he rails against deserving, if predictable targets like climate-ruiners and US of A foreign policy. The B-side sees the Bug invite Flowdan and Killa P back to his (yep, again) for an appropriately dark, paranoid number called "Ganja" - normally ganja is the most boring subject conceivable for a song (apart from maybe er, anything to do with relationships), but on this occasion we get 3 3/4 minutes of marvellous, nervy, urban noir which suits all the parties just perfectly.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Ocean's 10

"Come on, while you still can"

You don't need to be too much of a connoisseur of the album form to recognise that the optimum LP - grindcore perhaps aside - should consist of around ten tracks, averaging 2 1/2 minutes each. And that's exactly what DC's Julie Ocean have done with "Long Gone and Nearly There", a power-pop spectacular on Transit of Venus. Agile, nimble numbers like "10 Lonely Words" and "At The Appointed Hour" (which we mentioned initially here) are as fresh as the best moments of Terry Banks' former band the Saturday People, while others, such as "#1 Song" are slightly more muscular, yet still manage to spill out hooks as they pile merrily along. And it closes with the high-bpm rush of sub-2 minute closer "Looking At Me / Looking At You", which sums the whole album up - no six-minute outros, no extraneous noodling, no self-indulgence, no attempt to hide the swarms of melodies and harmonies. Just grand.