Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The June Brides "A January Moon" (Occultation / Slumberland)

With Wolfhounds and Black Tambourine having recently (and triumphantly) resurfaced, here's *another* new single from long-dormant old favourites.

We originally discovered the June Brides during that fertile time when we were transitioning from Smash Hits to the "grown up" music papers (if shortly after the band got their prized, Andrea Newman-referencing NME cover), so hold them gratefully in a mistily nostalgic esteem. Praise be, then, to revival specialists Occultation (who brought us the Wild Swans' somewhat momentous comeback 45) and to Slumberland (who've brought us a simply inordinate number of fine records this last score of years, including singer Phil Wilson's solo catalogue from "Industrial Strength" onwards) for this, the first June Brides single since, gulp, 1986.

The Brides may have failed to dent the top 75 in their short career, but their critical stock now rightly eclipses that of their many peers who did. And even if, with their turns at the Living Room or their club nights in Clapham, they were part of a mildly insular eighties counter-culture, the durable songs and their universal themes have stood the test of time. When we listen to the records we bought - the 12" that compiled their first two singles and the "There Are Eight Million Stories" LP - both courtesy of hotbed of alternative choons Our Price Basildon, and both on the short-lived but marvellous Pink Label (the East London home not only to them but to the Wolfhounds, McCarthy, That Petrol Emotion et cetera), what's notable is how the JBs always had more range than many gave them credit for: from the ear-friendly poppiness of "Every Conversation" (at least until bIG*fLAME got hold of it!) through the taut, nervy angst - which as teenagers we *so* identified with - of "In The Rain", to the scratchy plectrum-baiting fury that underlies "Heard You Whisper".

And yet this new 7" touches on a different strand of songsmithery again: picking up from some of Phil Wilson's solo work, it brings out a semi-acoustic and alt-folk tinge that resonates surprisingly well with current musical fashions. "A January Moon" gamefully employs its bounteous melodies and upbeat arrangement to create four flowing minutes which, despite its title, are redolent far more of (mid)summer (sun)shine than bleak midwinter night. The trademark June Brides strings and brass are still there, but instead of dominating for short bursts of song they're weaved in more skilfully, while Wilson's delivery provides a Webster-esque undertow of vulnerability. They haven't exactly picked up where they left off: the single is neither quite as punchy as past Brides favourites (unlike the early days, I suppose, they haven't had to record it underneath the railway arches whilst trains rumble overhead), nor as feral as some of our picks from Wilson's recent "God Bless Jim Kennedy" long-player. But there's still enough - more than enough - for this shimmeringly-administered song to wrap itself around our age-hardened hearts.

Perhaps what's really great about "Moon" is how it rings with defiantly wide-eyed emotion, a rare treat indeed these days. Like any June wedding, it's about celebration (in part, a Razorcuts-style celebration of the beauty of nature): so much so that its passionate refrain - "our love is all" - seems neither hackneyed nor cloying, but heartfelt and genuine, a complement to the optimism once crystallised by "We Belong" or by the achingly plaintive sentiment of "I Fall"...

"somehow, the "we can make the sun shine for us..." line plucks heart strings like harp strings"

There is, but of course, an immaculate and strikingly-photographed sleeve. And copies of the single bought direct from the labels also come with a bonus CD that features quite a few treats, not least a lounge-lizard remix of Phil's fine last single "I Own It", the Brides' classic "Every Conversation" reimagined as ukelele-tastic C&W duet, a divinely pretty solo rendering of "Sunday To Saturday" and the Granite Shore's excellent, and JB-featuring, "Flood of Fortune" (the 7" B-side, "Cloud", is also a Granite Shore song, albeit more more wistful and winsome).

And... even as the winds howl, and the rain dribbles onto pavements as grey as the skies, we can't help but be enthused by being outside, by the fresh air, by trying to enjoy (rather than moan about) the caprices of the weather. I guess we're still trying to sample life as "glass half-full", even if it's been half-full of these June rains. And "A January Moon" - a shy but rewarding tableau of indie-pop splendour - seems to chime with this, with this feeling of being... well, in love with these times and in spite of them too.

Um, this is not the first time we've bigged up the Brides (the last time was when Cherry Red put out the anthology). But sometimes, the obvious bears repeating. In 1984, when Phil sang "I never know just where I'm going to land", I'm sure that he wouldn't have foreseen a Brides reunion nigh-on thirty years later. Nor would we, when reluctantly casting Smash Hits by the wayside, have realised that we were graduating to beat combos to whom we'd fondly return, deep into the next century. *That's* why it feels like such a privilege to buy a new June Brides record.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Black Tambourine "OneTwoThreeFour" (Slumberland)

"OneTwoThreeFour" is the eye-catching return of the bashfully seminal Black Tambourine, made up of two slabs of 7" vinyl upon which our now firmly trans-atlantic heroes - this record was recorded in Crystal Palace and Maryland - tackle a quartet of works by the Ramones. We have not always made friends with our frank admission that we still prefer bands *inspired* by the Ramones, like the Flatmates or the Rosehips, to the Ramones themselves: for us the Ramones were not the start of punk, merely one of the best things available before punk kicked through all the doors and we could all start again properly. However, given the number of people in our manor swanning around in Ramones T-shirts (about one in three, we'd hazard) and the number sporting Flatmates-related regalia (approx. zero), we accept that the world as a whole takes a different view.

There's no debate, on the other hand, about Black Tambourine's rightful place in history. We readily accept that Black Tambourine would never have *planned* on now being regarded as one of the best and most influential American alt-rock bands of the last twenty or so years: it just happened, a tribute to the hold their sleek pop imaginings took on a cabal of eager indie-pop consumers but also a testament to the strange vicissitudes of history. To get forensic about it, the bare facts are these. In one sitting in March 1991, Black Tambourine recorded seven songs which, over the next year, were released in the States as two 7" EPs (although they came to our attention later and more lopsidedly, originally via "Throw Aggi Off The Bridge"'s inclusion on the "Munch Part 1" international indie-video compilation). Over time, as the band members moved on to myriad other projects, the rest of us belatedly realised just how great Black Tambourine actually were. When those songs got re-released on "Complete Recordings" in 1999, the legacy was cemented. And the good news is that "OneTwoThreeFour", their first wholly-new release since 1992, leaves that legacy fully intact. Um, there is no bad news.

One of the great things about double-singles is you get, in effect, two 'A' sides, and both live up to that billing with the fearsomely good "I Want You Around" and the cascading "I Remember You" being the pick of the interpretations, both instantly recognisable as Black Tambourine at least as much as the Ramones. The former, all honeyed reverb, strawberry wine and brittle shoegaze fragments, bristles with Pop Threat-like fuzz and desperate melodic tension, while Pam's vocals are gorgeously deadpan. Plus, there's a blissfully trilling guitar bit from er, 1'23.4 which reminds us of, ha, the Flatmates. "I Remember You" is less intricate, but near-overflows with the warm caress and percussive rushes of Mary Chain-meets-early MBV which made the Tambourine such an essential band in their first incarnation.

By way of contrast, "What's Your Game ?" gives its target an altogether more tender treatment: it takes early Slumber Party's golden appropriations of slowed-down Shop Assistants and overlays them with a choral sheen credited to the 'Rinettes, a veritable Dick Kerr's XI of songstresses including all-conquering heroine of ours Rose Melberg, former Harriet Records star Linda "Gorgeous Weather" Smith and someone out of Dum Dum Girls. And "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" - neatly deployed as closing statement rather than gung-ho opener - is stripped down to its purest essentials, the original's sense of longing floating serenely to the surface.

Black Tambourine's welcome return illustrates how the wheel has turned full circle over the course of a generation: part of the magnetism of hearing (and, in particular, seeing) the Pains Of Being Pure At Heart for the first time was the realisation that a new wave of groups were playing music that seethed with the nervous energy, anticipation and contradiction which Black Tambourine once brought to the party. As we understand it, Black Tambourine aren't hanging around: "OneTwoThreeFour" and some associated shows are just a one-off, before they retire to luxuriate once more in the annals of indiedom. After all, the history of Black Tambourine shows they're smart enough operators to know that you should always leave the punters wanting more.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Sven Wittekind "Broken Mirrors" (Sick Weird Rough)

Coldplay have been in our neighbourhood the last few nights, playing a few shows at our local football ground. So instead of the usual matchday scenes (our town becoming a veritable Little Moscow, swarmed by high-end bling, champagne breakfasts and jet-black Range Rovers), we've had an influx of earnest graduates sporting preppy fashions, and suburban couples driving Volvos. For its part, the Highbury Tavern declared it "Coldplay weekend", and put on its own 'pre-show' specials (presumably milky tea, and weak lager). Don't remember them doing that when the Fall decamped to Islington for four nights, the bastards.

Just outside the Tavern, in Highbury Barn Square (not far from the clock tower at the top of Highbury Hill that was erected in 1897 to mark Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee) there was a street party to mark Queen Elizabeth II's sixty years in clover. It seemed incongruous that the Union flags, face-painting and souvenir bunting were overlooked by the plaque commemorating the spot where Highbury Manor had been burned to the ground during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Incongruous and slightly sad: something Juvenal said about bread and circuses comes to mind. Yet, in the corner, there was a little baby, resolutely sound asleep, ignoring the obligatory jazz trio and enforced merrymaking. Perhaps his obliviousness to it all was his way of making a thoroughly Republican protest. Or perhaps it was just his nap time. Either way, his dad was very proud of him.

Anyway, to the matter in hand.

* * * * *

Here's a hypothetical scenario for you. Given the diamond jubilee weekend, it seems only fair to use "The Queen Is Dead" as our example. So think back to the impact which that record - so eagerly awaited - had on you when you first heard it unfurl, track by track.

Next, imagine how different it would have been if, instead of including one previous single and trailing it with one more, Rough Trade had decided not to release the LP at all until more than half of the songs, and all the best ones, had already been released as singles. You would have come back from the record shop only to quickly realise that you had basically paid six quid for "Never Had No One Ever", "Frankly Mr Shankly" and "Vicar In A Tutu".

Yes, Sven's much-anticipated (by us if not by you) third album is a nine-tracker which includes no less than *five* previous singles. That's some 40 minutes of already-bought music: grrrr. Once the wailing and gnashing of teeth is over though, the considerable upside is that those five singles - including two of our top ten singles of 2011 - make a considerable contribution to the all-round excellence of this album. And despite the stabbingly obvious cover art (Sven looking moodily into a - gasp - broken mirror), there is nothing as straightforward or workaday about the seamless way which he continues to create techno charged with just the right blend of urgency and (albeit suppressed) emotiion.

"Rapture of Deep", originally released on Andy White's Audiosignal label last year, makes for a powerful opener. It starts as brooding undersea mood music, punctured by dubbed-out depth charges of crashing drum. Gradually, warm torrents of bass, anchored by a full beat, wash into the rhythm: as Sven switches on the undulating bass current and insistent percussive mesh that currently define his sonic landscapes (or, in the case of "Rapture", seascapes), it feels that "Broken Mirrors" is properly underway. A second top-notch single, last year's "Disturbed" follows: it swaps "Rapture"'s atmospheric build for a woozy, throbbing bassline which weaves in and out of the mix, framed by constantly shuffling, pitch-shifting drum patterns and occasional frissons of hi-hat.

With the template (and the standard) set, "Mind Control" maintains the momentum with its descending scales and mischievous sound effects before "Haunted By Visions" (as you can tell, the song titles are more abstract and less entertaining than those on previous LP "Fight For Techno", and less painfully literal than those on his "Seven Deadly Sins" debut) injects light industrial panache. And we reach the middle of the album, with most recent single "The Twirl" (the proper taster single, like "Bigmouth Strikes Again" was) taking centre stage. It sounds even better in the context of the album than it did as 'lone striker'.

Unlike the fastidiously-sculpted 'first side' (although sadly, unlike those first two albums there is no vinyl version of this one) the remaining tracks oscillate a little more in style. The epic "Hubster", a single from the best part of two years ago, is still a highlight of his discography, its buzzing synth and trenchant bass rumble gathering in force until reaching a serene plateau. Although as carefully hewn as the rest of the album, it's probably the *hardest* song here. Yet it's followed by last year's distinctly *underwhelming* cut, "Devil Inside", which starts with promising minimalism but soon reveals itself to be no more than half a song idea, hijacked by a lame vocal sample. We seriously suspect that Sven has only included "Devil Inside" to show that he is human after all: the distance between "Hubster" and "Devil Inside" is, to wilfully misquote Paul Morley, the difference between a dream and a cardboard box.

Happily, "Stolen Paradise" sees Mr Wittekind switch focus once again: it starts with an excitable flurry of drums which arrive at a feral crescendo before the song settles into an elastic groove, populated by a repetitively-clanking metallic gong. Bringing "Broken Mirrors" back onto the rails, it's a perfect lead-up to album closer "Darkness (All Night)" which - although interspersed with another deranged vocal, pointlessly intoning the track title in the style of John Hurt's Dragon (why do you do this to us, Sven ? WHY ?) - still manages to elegantly compress the pent-up emotion of the previous songs into a silky denouement, finishing in gentle triumph amidst the sweet morning dew and a chink of sky lit by the sun's first glare.

One of the reasons that "Broken Mirrors" (largely) works so well is that despite knocking on the door of the 70-minute mark, it doesn't have any songs which attempt to emulate the bold, stretched-out and almost neo-classical experiments of post-"Fight For Techno" singles "Dangerzone" or his collaboration with Andy White, "Bass Junkies". Dazzling and ambitious as those songs were, they perfectly suited the extended EP format, and would not have fitted with the more club-sympathetic, if still haunting, world he creates on this LP.

2012 has provided us so far with three fine, if contrasting, full-length techno sets: from Deh-NoizerSpiros Kaloumenos and now Sven. And the good news (for you lot) is that we know you well enough to suspect you probably haven't already bought the five preceding singles. Which leaves no reason in Hades not to give yourself an appropriately Teutonic post-jubilee treat by rushing out through those lately flag-bedecked, bunting-strewn streets and snaffling "Broken Mirrors" from your local record shop.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Spiros Kaloumenos "Zero Point" (Planet Rhythm)

Last time we mentioned Spiros Kaloumenos, we made a weak joke about Classics, compared him with both the Garlands and Franz Carr, defended Otto Rehhagel's World Cup tactics against Argentina and only in passing declared that 2010's "Keygen" was "a veritable ciabatta of wholemeal techno goodness toasted lightly with glittering synth" and adorned with "shimmering, futurist glaze". This time, we're going to try and be a bit more sensible and give a deserved shout-out to what is, improbably, a successful concept album about zero-point energy (making it a record officially inspired by Max Planck and Albert Einstein) pleasingly split over four sides of crackling *vinyl* (Y to the AY), and which probably deserves better than random comments about sprightly former Forest wingers (although while we're on the topic, does anyone else remember Heresy giving Franz a shout-out on their final Peel session ?)

After a throughly unnecessary intro on which some girl basically reads out the Wikipedia page on zero-point energy, side one blooms with two outstanding cuts, "Quantum" and "Equation" (yes, the titles all reflect aspects of zero-point theory and quantum mechanics) marking out Kaloumenos' territory: these are sassy dubtech ripplers, dripping poise and Athenian grace with every beat and for our money probably the best couple of songs here. Nevertheless, side two continues the (wholemeal) goodness by yielding "Trademark", a tight, potent composition which gradually ups the intensity, and "Ground State", a little harder and stronger again, the mid-LP lynchpin that introduces a twanging bass motif, making it feel much more musclebound than the somewhat mercurial tracks on the first side.

The second disc starts a little less convincingly, sadly: on side three Submerge and Virgil Enzinger's re-working of "Trademark" jars with the rest of the album, while "Renormalization" only really gets into its stride late on, a heady brew of energised synth and chattering percussion bubbling to the surface. It's left to the fourth side, with its warm, blurry 5 a.m. feel, to rescue proceedings, as first "Cosmology" (one of a few songs here with a subtle Latin vibe) and then the decorous "Modified Motion" seek to draw "Zero Point" to a relatively tender, restrained conclusion. Kaloumenos may have taken his time in getting around to a full-length release, and dropped his average bpm count a tad in the process (everything here is within the 126-130 mark), but this has resulted in an LP which feels mature, unrushed, focussed.

As such, while "Zero Point" is a very different beast from Deh-Noizer's "Unconscious Reactions", both records show how techno producers are starting to compose songs that take us to the places we used to be taken by the better dubstep records, perhaps heralding a shift in the centre of gravity of cutting-edge instrumental music, maybe even returning it to the dancefloor proper. Maybe, just maybe, DJs now have a real alternative to the incessant but immature energy of jump-up high jinks, or to the infinite number of brostep goons whose wares are currently being inflicted on innocent punters...