Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Pale Sunday "The Fake Stories About You And Me" (Matinée Recordings)

If we had a pound for every Pale Sunday release over the past decade we'd have... well, barely enough to buy a pint: the estimable Jardinopólis, São Paulo quartet don't exactly deluge their devotees with new material. So, because having new Pale Sunday "product" to review doesn't happen every day, please allow us to reminisce a little first.

When they released their first Matinée EP, "A Weekend With Jane" in 2003 we branded it

"tight, focused, jangly indie, drawing much from the pristine international tradition of compatriots brincando de deus as well as the european likes of brideshead and aerospace"

and on re-listening to it now that doesn't seem unfair: there's a definite post-Sarah thing going on, plus the reassuring drum machine thwack of many a blazin' indie-pop tune over the years. Mind you, that's only the half of it: for every time we cop an earful of the hooks on the title track or on the closing "Girl With Sunny Smile" we have to be physically restrained from hailing a cab to the airport, stowing away on a plane to South America and trying to find and bear-hug everyone who's ever had anything to do with Pale Sunday.

Next, in 2005, came the group's only full-length to date, "Summertime ?" (not-Porgy & Bess inspired!) although with unedifying negligence we managed, as far as I can tell, not to review the LP at all, only managing a few words instead on its touchpaper-lighting first track, "The White Tambourine":

"a song made not by its happily sherbet verses, but by the exhilarating bursts of noise that then kick in, at just the right time"

yet immersing ourselves in the album again we realise that we really shouldn't have left it at that. Yes, we still worship at the altar of "The White Tambourine", because even now those extra injections of guitar tend to knock us sideways (forget the icing on the cake, they're more like an extra cake, with icing, on top of the icing on the already-delicious cake). But other morsels on show, like "Mary" and the nr-anthemic "Never Fall Apart", are just as tastily tuneful (and could easily have led off EPs in their own right).

The Sunday then went AWOL awhile, as we understand it splitting up and re-forming before the "Shooting Star" EP appeared a couple of years ago. With that record came the underpinnings of a more polished sound, the title track in particular being the closest they'd come to summer radio staple,

"newly confident, a strident, riproaring popsong which combines the necessary "we're back!" feel with a whiff of mid-period BMX Bandits and a pleadingly naive protagonist ("I can prove to you I'm different / if you'll just give me a chance": she'll have heard that before, matey). It's fizzy, instant and satisfying"

'tho the accompanying "Are You Scared To Get Happy ?" garnered still higher plaudits:

"seamlessly interweaves the coursing indiepop melodies of halcyon days past with a little more good ol' fash fuzzy six-string strum, and the "downhill" section to the end, which repeats the title whilst accumulating some lovely string-like harmonies along the way, is pure gold."

So that's the potted history. Now, bounding over a grateful horizon, comes "The Fake Stories About You And Me", a new and intriguingly-titled four-course serving of Pale Sunday's ever-vibrant, sun-tinged indie-pop. It's also the third of Matinée's hat-trick of soaraway, super sunny summer singles (on the heels of the Bart and Friends  and Charlie Big Time EPs).

The lads certainly land on their feet with opening salvo "Happy (When You Lived Here)". While it doesn't pack quite the hit parade-punch of "Shooting Star", we'd back our past analogies and say there are shades of Creation-era BMX Bandits on this one too, although we appreciate that our Bandits comparisons perhaps elide into the Teenage Fanclub ones being deployed elsewhere. Lyrically, singer Luiz Gustavo plays a once-conscientious man driven to cigarettes, alcohol and bunking off work by his girlfriend's untimely upping of sticks, although despite a nagging fear during the song that he's going to end up in the Priory (or worse), it thankfully ends on an upbeat note when he realises that he's just going to have to dust himself down and get on with it. Atta boy, Luiz: what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

"About My Life" follows and in some ways it's a more obvious 'sell' to indie-pop pickers: a buzzing guitar line quickly gains traction, and while the 90s sound of young(ish) Scotland rings most smilingly from the speakers, there's also - hurrah! - a chugging soupcon of '00s Wedding Present guitar. The third tune, "That's The Way", initially feels a bit throwaway, and the lyrical references to "getting high" seem decidedly retro, but the verses are just as driving as those on "About My Life" and the only shame really is that just as the song is properly getting into its stride (embarking on a glorious slightly-shoegaze instrumental section which resembles the Beatnik Filmstars circa "Laid Back And English") a studio engineer with a grudge decides to fade it out. Oy!

Then it's over almost as soon as it began, because before we know it the EP is waving us off at the station with a soul-soother, "The Winter Song", a stripped-down and delicate number urging optimism in hard times, and bolstered by a gorgeous wash of strings. There's an elegant piano melody too which, unfolding itself so late in the EP, recalls how "Strangeways", the final track on their album, was similarly illuminated by mellifluous piano tones. (Us being us, we also think of the piano that so wonderfully encroached on Brighter's "Summer Becomes Winter", and fantasise that "The Winter Song" could be a nod to Brighter's "A Winter's Tale" flexi: failing that, there are definitely hints of Harper Lee at play, so if "Summer's Day" was Electric Pop Group's Keris Howard tributethen perhaps "The Winter Song" is Pale Sunday's). Regardless of its precise influences, though, the song is a little gem, one that twinkles crisply through the curtain of the night sky.

Looking at all their records in the round, "The Fake Stories..." is definitely Pale Sunday's most mature and focussed EP yet (the vocals have a newfound confidence too, with the titbits of falsetto feeling almost disturbingly contemporary) but the subtle shifts in style over time are a good thing, particularly as we were running out of synonyms for "fizz" and "fuzz". Were it not for the fact that we'd sworn a solemn oath not to bang on about random Braziliana in Pale Sunday reviews anymore, we'd now be explaining how they mean even more to us than "Refuse / Resist", "Roots Bloody Roots" and Josimar.

Instead, we're going to treat ourselves to that pound for each Pale Sunday outing, and we're going to buy that pint, and raise a glass to them. Each time they've managed to get a new record out over that last ten years, it's lit up an otherwise grey day several thousand miles away, here in the English city. A toast is the least their persistence deserves.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Hobbes Fanclub "Your Doubting Heart" (Shelflife)

From park avenue to valley parade, the fair burghers of Bradford have little indie-pop limelight to revel in. Instead, they must fall back wearily on distinctly secondhand glories: having one of the (many, ephemeral) new Smiths named after the city (a group who were actually from Blackburn anyway), plus a solitary and typically random M.E.S. shout-out on one of the myriad remixes of "Hit The North". Happily, the Hobbes Fanclub are in a mood to do something about indiedom's longstanding neglect of their hometown, and this - the third instalment in their sonic adventures so far - packs a punch which should resonate well beyond their native West Yorkshire.

Until now, Hobbes FC's finest moment was probably "Outside Yourself", from their Cloudberry split with Young Michelin,

"Original no, somewhat derivative yes, but sparkling all the same... a rush of fuzzy-enough guitars, little-boy-lost vocals, just grooving along and hoovering up any hooks and rushes in the general vicinity"

but "Your Doubting Heart", a 7" single on premium US indie Shelflife (you know: Brideshead, "Picnic Basket", "Tactical POP! for Coffee Cadets" , all that), continues their ascent. This is the kind of muscular indie-pop that we hear too little of these days, but that first bloomed in the very last knockings of the 1980s and the early years of the 1990s, after all those impatient indie bands who couldn't face going "dance" had turned instead to harvesting Homestead, SST or noise influences in their efforts to woo the music press (some went for volume, some went pseudo-shoegaze, most of them then signed to Creation for a while, all of them secretly wanted to be as cool as J Mascis).

Now bear with us. We are not suggesting that the Hobbes Fanclub themselves sound like those bands: for a start, they've more regard for melody, and less for fleeting fashions. Where we're going with this (yes, it's digression time) is that it was that period, rather neglected by modern-day chronologers of indie-pop's evolution, that helped spawn fine yet still-underrated combos like the Edsel Auctioneer and, a few short summers later, Boyracer. These were groups who enthusiastically embraced the resurgence of raucous guitars, but were also schooled in, and moulded by, the post-C86 canon. (Some of you may doubt the Auctioneer's janglist credentials: but Summershine, who a knew a belting indie-pop song when they heard one, had no qualms about putting out a single by them).

The bands that we were in back then desperately tried to emulate this shift in the musical zeitgeist: but parents and irate neighbours soon put a stop to us turning up the amps. Thankfully, others seemed unencumbered by such strictures, making these - however briefly - heady days. We're plucking artists a bit randomly from our fond rememberings, but how about Razorblade Smile, the Lavender Faction, Aspidistra, the Sunflowers... gosh, those names take us back. Hell, even Gentle Despite went a bit "rocky" with their slept-on second single. And (getting back to the point now!) it's the unashamedly boisterous take of many such bands on the shambling sound - perhaps taking its lead from the Mary Chain's crucial liberation of the love song from the shackles of AOR balladry - that can be glimpsed on this cracking 7", too.

"Your Doubting Heart" grabs us that same way, a tale of distrust and mistrust that mixes simmering, iridescent guitars with free-roaming and high-in-mix bass, satisfyingly clattering drums and Racer-esque female backing vocals. It's about a relationship soured by jealousy, maxing on a poignant "having friends is not a crime" line which all of us, at some point, will have had reason to identify with. By the end, singer Leon is simply asking for him and his beau to treat each other the same way, and as that doesn't seem such a big ask, you really feel for him. Flames and feedback, vivid and flickering, this is the kind of indie A-side that one could easily imagine people weren't making any more, but we're utterly delighted they are. It's not *quite* Boyracer: one of the beauties of Boyracer was that even at their brilliant best, their songs still felt that they could fall apart at any moment, a fragility to be savoured, whereas the Hobbes Fanclub seem more assured, safer from implosion. But "Your Doubting Heart" drives us towards the same hallowed ground nevertheless.

On the other side "The One You Love", though still pacey, is (marginally) less feral, the Fanclub penning a hymn of regret for letting a lover down, combined with the age-old plea to be forgiven. It's possible to listen to it and see it as a retort, an answer record, a literal and figurative flipside to "Your Doubting Heart". Again, though, the guitars glimmer and shine, and while it may lack a little of the memory-pricking magic of the 'A', it confirms that the latter's confidence was no fluke. And that the Hobbes Fanclub are developing into (yet another) band to get quietly excited about.

In 2012, it feels relatively rare for indie-pop to fully realise the same tangles of noise and emotion which flourished in those earlier, pre-Br*tp*p days: our scene now paints on a wider canvas, equally comfy with polished jangle, farfisa retro, folksy slo-fi, or coy electro. If this had come out in the early 1990s (on Sunday, or Slumberland, or Fluff, or Lust ?) we'd have celebrated it too, but not as such a breath of fresh air. And I know we say this pretty much all the time but - what the hell - it makes it so much sweeter to hold this on vinyl, just as with all the bands mentioned above, just as with the recent June Brides and Black Tambourine singles, just as with so many of the brightest indie-pop 45s of the last half-dozen years, from "Cross The Line" and "Tracyanne" right through to "Tally".

It's the wonder of the artefact, you know, and it gets us *every time*.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Tex-Rec "Encoding" (Darknet): Tobias Luke "Hard And Dry" (Hydraulix): Tom Laws & Henry Cullen "Wolf Slayer" (Hydraulix): Ryuji Takeuchi "Last Piece" (Bound): Pe'ja "Gilgamesh" (Sick Weird Rough): Cripple Bastards "Senza Impronte" (Relapse): Public Enemy "I Shall Not Be Moved" (Enemy Records): The Purist featuring Roc Marciano / Action Bronson "Change" / "Northern & Roozey" (King Kong Holding Company): Roc Marciano "Warm Hennessy" (GoodFelons): Footsie vs. Darq E Freaker "B.O.G. (Bag Of Grease)" (Braindead Entertainment): Rival "Headshot Season" (Major Music Entertainment): DPower Diesle featuring Frisco, Riko, Flowdan, Chronik & G-Man "Horror Show" (DPower Recordings): M.I.K. "Mor£" (Launchpad): Experimental Pop Band "Little Things" (Wear It Well): Wormrot "Many Funerals" (Earache)

Er, hello.

* * * * *

Like Creation Records, the Factory label still seems to bask in a mythical glow that dramatically over-represents the number of great records it actually released (although at least Factory had Joy Division and New Order delivering the goods right through into the mid-1980s, whereas the best bands on Creation tended either to splinter, fall off quite badly or disembark from the label early doors). But without ever pretending that more than 1% of their catalogue was any good, we still dabble in sporadic Factory-worship. As none other than Keris Howard told us, sometimes Joy Division remain the only band that ever mattered, and we can always make time for the understated, ghostly joys of "Unknown Pleasures" or the youthful gloom of the Wake in the days before they lightened up, turned the sarcasm up to 11 and signed to Sarah.

But it's not just those doomier corners of the Factory roster that merit close attention. We raise a pint to anyone anywhere who, like us, owns and treasures "Meat Mouth Is Murder" (FAC 196). And we've been listening to a lot of the Bemusic (Donald Johnson / New Order) productions, courtesy of LTM's excellent "Cool As Ice" and "Twice As Nice" selections. There are some real stunners within, especially Marcel King's "Reach For Love", 52nd Street's "Can't Afford To Let You Go" and Paul Haig's "The Only Truth", a woefully underloved but brilliant torch song which provides the missing link between "Blue Monday" and Revenge's "7 Reasons".

Now Tex-Rec was barely born when the Factory chapter closed. But, as we've opined before, we hear something of the Martin Hannett in his more skeletal productions. And the thing about "Encoding", a truly crashing release on Electrax sublabel Darknet following the excellent Michael Schwarz single "Incarnation" earlier this year, is that it provides a gateway between the eerie, feedback-splashed, bent of Tex-Rec's recent "Line" single and the kind of unashamed danceability which Bemusic injected into a disparate range of artists back in the day. Powered by a decidedly non-minimal bassline, and featuring a fragment of drum pattern which is a dead ringer for a roll deployed on "The Perfect Kiss", "Encoding" takes up where "Incarnation" left off, injects "Line"'s ghostly wail and proceeds to embed thudding bliss into your lucky, lucky cranial cavity.

There's something of Bemusic / New Order in the two new Hydraulix offerings too, particularly Tobias Luke's compact "Hard And Dry". Like "Blue Monday", in one sense it's little more than a drum machine workout, all sneaky trills and percussive layering while the bass pulse rattles along modestly, yet like "Blue Monday" it has a magnetic quality that makes it the perfect tonic to prescribe for an even mildly-discerning dancefloor. Tom Laws and Henry Cullen's "Wolf Slayer" is more expansive: its no-frills, no-gimmicks approach makes us fair weep for the nostalgia of tracking down Hydraulix 12"s in the HMV racks on Oxford Street, rather than having to resort to mouse-clicks for our fix. As we've said before, Hydraulix must be one of the most consistent UK labels this century, in any genre.

And then there's the marvellous Ryuji Takeuchi. While capable of scripting beautiful instrumental narratives ("Possibility" from last year's "Ichi-Ren-Taku-Sho" EP was, despite its hurtling hundreds of beats per minute, engagingly pretty, like apple-blossom discarded by the warm spring wind), he also excels at the kind of dystopian machine instrumentals that made "Vital" such a colossal record. Indeed, were it not for the fact we can't stand science-fiction, we'd recommend his songs as perfect accompaniments to sci-fi's darker fantasies. "Last Piece" inherits this tradition, Takeuchi appropriately enough forging an unforgiving jigsaw of percussive clatter which uses drums not merely to punctuate the song, but to drive it on and on, as a variety of industrial sounds and smog-bound white noise populate the mix and roundly whip any remaining vestiges of melody into meek submission.

Pe'ja's Sick Weird Rough début, "Gilgamesh" (effectively a quarter of an hour, split over two tracks) shows yet again how new artists up their game when producing for Sven Wittekind's somewhat imperious imprint. The song pivots around a repeated, scuffed and fuzzy motif, Amedeo Mazzotti masterminding its rise and fall with the confidence of a man who's been raised into the firmament by starmaker Sven, but what distinguishes it from much of the rest of Europe's minimal techno crop is Pe'ja's use of breakbeats to provide a crunching, pizza-crust edge to proceedings. Nice.

* * * * *

Staying in Italy, but switching genres slightly (OK then, switching genres massively), Cripple Bastards have come a very long way from their early demos (as showcased on "A History Of Grindcore"), which were essentially staccato blasts of white noise accompanied by lung-scarring screams. Their new five-track 7" on Relapse sees them combining a more refined high-speed grind with Gridlink's treblier, screamo tendencies, creating songs of substance (especially the title track) underneath still-fairly excitable high-pitched yells. Best of all, there are guttural, grunted low-end vocals too, which help to give the songs a real 'Peel Session' feel.

Public Enemy are hard-faced veterans too, and "I Shall Not Be Moved" is another defiantly retro single, the samples still hard, regimented and funky as Chuck D excoriates everything that moves and that doesn't keep it real. Tantalisingly, it's a taster for the two (yes, two) albums that P.E. are ostensibly to release this summer (I know we really *shouldn't* be tingling with anticipation for these, but we just are).

As for new New York blood, two of Cormega's mates from "MARS", Action Bronson and the hyper-prolific Roc Marciano, each team up with UK producer the Purist (and on the label that brought us Salvo and Kashmere's "The Info") for a joint, um, joint on 7", although it's actually the former's "Northern & Roozey" which takes the prize, a Queens summer love song set to swooning string backing which presses every possible right button. Roc's "Change", on the other hand, seems surprisingly timid for its subject matter ("fuck what the Bible says / I hustle with my final days... bang! bang! to get change"). There's nowt wrong with the Purist's laidback and jazzy backing, which gives Roc more than enough space to spit fire, so either Roc's just mumbling, or his voice is simply too low in the mix. It could also be that any song called "Change" feels like it must be either a parody, or a dis, of Obama (friends from across the pond have opined that his technique for presidency rather resembles Boris Johnson's blueprint for his first four years as London Mayor, i.e. do nothing much; let things slide).

Fear not, though, because Roc has also released (re-released ?) "Warm Hennessy" as a single: again, we think there are 7"s of this floating around, not to mention a dozen (we're not exaggerating) remixes. With the Arch Druids again providing the beats (as they did for the excellent "Emeralds"), it's another great song, a convincing evocation of the Marc's life on road. For a man who's released, Wedding Present-style, at least a single a month during 2012, he hasn't half got a good hit rate. So if "Emeralds" is his "Come Play With Me", then "Warm Hennessy" is his "Blue Eyes". Or something.

* * * * *

What about the UK ? Here, overall, the news is not so good. You may have tripped across Plan B's "Ill Manors": according to the Guardian, "the greatest British protest song in years". Naively excited by such a prospect, we invested 79p (I know; I know). We deserve all we get for this, true, but dear God it was disappointing. It's like he'd listened to Scorzayzee's "Great Britain" and More Fire's "Oi!" and then just chucked in some half-hearted stuff to capitalise on the riots, thinking "this'll do - after all, the broadsheets reckon the Streets are proper hip-hop". "Ill Manors" does not soundtrack a rebellion against anything, except quality.

For a better taste of the capital's far more complex street flavours, the best recent singles have been true grime: Footsie and Darq E Freaker's "Bag Of Grease", a very loose update of Newham Generals' 2010 EP of the same name on Dirtee Stank, Rival's "Headshot Season" - on a fairly ambitiously-named label! - which is full of invigorating urban darkness even if it's not a patch on last year's "Lock Off The Rave" (which - incidentally - we were very pleased to see on Dandelion Radio playlists), the DPower Diesle and friends skengman love-in "Horror Show" (a promo for Diesle's latest mixtape) and M.I.K's recent proto-capitalist outing, "Mor£" (again, though, a mere trinket as compared with the grandstanding, head-popping greatness of M.I.K. and Merky Ace's "Shut Down" in 2011).

Even better tidings from these shores come via Bristol, via the incremental renaissance of the Experimental Pop Band. "Little Things" (and yes, we know it's been out for ages) still owes much of its sound and feel to their 1990s heyday, during which we purloined everything EPB produced with near-religious fervour, but it's still a very enjoyable single: Davey Woodward still drawls deliciously (even though you can hardly imagine the Brilliant Corners in their early days coming up with lines like "if you're glum / I'll make you come"), and we swear that he has a pop at Gasheads at one point. While EPB are no longer particularly experimental (in contrast to their early days as the South West Experimental Pop Band) there is an enjoyably chaotic and heavy guitarbreak which emerges from nowhere, just when you were thinking that this is otherwise the kind of song that Sleeper or their comrades in the Britpop front-line would have killed for back in the day. "Little Things" is apparently from EPB's sixth album "Vertigo", which we'll be making a beeline for when we're next allowed out.

* * * * *

Finally, Wormrot (they have to be last really, as they are basically unfollowable). Last year, Wormrot staked extremely serious claims for best single of the year, best album of the year *and* best gig of the year.
There's nothing properly new from them yet in 2012, but the Earache i-Tunes release of last year's extraordinary "Noise" EP is accompanied by one previously unreleased track, "Many Funerals". It's a cover of a song by the Texan band Eisley, but whereas the original is excruciatingly dreadful (think bad indie meets bad rock meets bad folk meets M.O.R), the Wormrot interpretation of it is inevitably JOYOUS, a verily hectic punkcore pound which spiritedly douses the original to remove all trace of its unremitting poorness (lest this seems too harsh on Eisley, we would point out that they merely sound like a thousand other bands, rather than being uniquely terrible in any respect, and to be fair you can't entirely dislike *any* band who have managed to inspire Wormrot). It seems a little odd, given that 2011 was positively awash with brilliant new hardcore, grindcore and powerviolence records, that 2012 has been almost completely devoid of them: "Many Funerals", if hardly up to Wormrot's now-exacting standards, at least gives us something to tide us over.

And, um, that is all.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Charlie Big Time "Dishevelled Revellers EP" (Matinée Recordings)

Although we're conscious that a number of our posts this year have paid tribute to decorated and doughty scene veterans, rather than celebrated a newer wave of pop shakers and heartbreakers, there are a number of boxfresh bands whom we fully intend to big up over the coming months, and Bolton's Charlie Big Time are the first of those. Mind you, they're not complete ingénus: they've already achieved the "double" of recording for both Cloudberry and Matinée (even if Bart & Friends just got there first, what with Cloudberry 708 and this one).

The title song is, we think, the pick of the four here. It plunges straight into an unapologetically breezy sax-keyboard hook (!) before light-touch guitar trills and ornate strum-patterns team up to flank an earnest, fairly understated male vocal. As dextrous worldplay tangles with the jauntiness of said guitars, we're almost in the territory of the Sundays (or even of the Siddeleys, whose hearty "best of" compilation is yet another Matinée catalogue highlight). Then, just as the verse is gliding along so airily that it risks floating away into the ether entirely, the song is tethered by an extra injection of guitar that drives the killer chorus forwards, allowing CBT deliver a line like "I confess / my life's a mess" with an impish joy that rather belies its sentiment. So, yes, "Dishevelled Revellers" is ace: it's about carousing, about friendship, about being glad you'd gone out, about being sad you'd gone out, about scuffles on the dancefloor and high-jinks on the fire escape, about being haggard, ragged and bedraggled, about life's rich tapestry viewed through the prism of nights spent out on the tiles. Probably.

Um, we'd better turn to the rest of the EP. The languorous "The Liberation Of Love", with its blue-eyed "indie soul" feel, will be the highlight for many. Despite a simple and nagging guitar melody which anchors things confidently, the pace seems a little saturnine and tentative - as if they're frightened to speed things up, for fear of dislocating the carefully-struck mood of the piece - but then Beth Arzy's vocals drift exquisitely into view (yes, for it is she, of Aberdeen and Trembling Blue Stars fame) and lift the song towards a stately refrain of no little beauty. Beth's extra vocal also works its magic on the remaining tracks "Real Estate" (the chorus of which features a surprisingly but reassuringly old-school guitar hook) and the elegant and moving "Passion and Headaches", in relation to which we would say any Lovejoy comparisons are best deployed.

On the evidence of their Matinée début, Charlie Big Time nestle most neatly within the grand tradition of grown-up indie pop which stretches from the early Railway Children, say, right through to the likes of the Cavalcade. But there are other things going on here, too. The more swashbuckling moments suggest shyly danceable, starshy post-Orange Juice pop; the ambition of the songwriting recalls the eyes-on-the-prize genius of former Sarah stalwarts Blueboy; their setting of lyrical pearls within winning guitar rhythms harks back to the Smiths, or at least to the long line of bands - from Bradford to Gene - that 'succeeded' them.

All this, of course, is ample to ensure that "Dishevelled Revellers" barges Charlie Big Time onto our 'watch list'. If there's any justice in the world, they'll be bothering our ears with new material soon.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Various Artists "World's Shortest Album" (Earache)

The clue's in the title. "World's Shortest Album" is the rather belated culmination of the thinking that, in 1989, coupled Napalm Death's 1.3-second "You Suffer" with Electro Hippies' 1-second "Mega-Armageddon Death Pt.3" on the shortest 7" single ever: it is also a retrospective of sorts, marking 25 years in showbusiness for Earache Records (one of the best, if at times maddeningly inconsistent, labels over that period). So if you thought that Chulo and Gripe's recent sub-one minute split single was still a little too self-indulgent, then this is probably the only record that is going to satisfy you.

A disclaimer first. Yes, this compilation (of 8 bands playing 13 tracks in 87 seconds) is tacky, it's unnecessary, it's frivolous, it's a novelty, it's ephemeral, it's gimmicky, it's too easy, it's cheap (but not cheap enough), it leaves a barrel-scraping stench and does a disservice to the genuine musical greatness acheived elsewhere by both the label and most of the featured bands. It's the equivalent of the cassettes (C-12's, natch) we once made and passed around the classroom, putting together the very shortest tracks from some of those early "Britcore" (as it was briefly christened!) Peel Sessions. Most of the class were more used to their dads showing off the new compact disc invention by playing "Dark Side Of The Moon" or "Brothers In Arms" on ye olde hi-fi system: so the novelty of such short, ferocious songs back then is difficult to overstate. But those C-12s were hardly likely to bear repeated listening.

On the other hand, "Shortest Album" is still better than most long-players that will be released this year. Indeed, we'll go a step further and observe that listening to it in a darkened room (remember, a fair proportion of the 87 seconds consists of the gaps between songs) can remind you of the power of noise, the value of silence, the all-pervading tentacles of nihilism and the fundamentally human need to, just occasionally, ponder on the futility of all existence. Earache go further still and claim that it's a celebration of brevity as an art form, but then they're the ones who are asking us to pay them for the pleasure.

It starts well. Seriously. We've become connoisseurs of sub-five second songs over the quarter-century of Earache's existence, and believe us that while most are terrible (here's looking at you, Intestinal Disgorge), there are a few good ones, and even some great ones: it's quite a discipline to master. And the three opening tracks, from Birmingham's favourite sons Napalm Death of course, are classics of the um, genre (let's call it "sub-5"): the hardy perennial "You Suffer", the self-explanatory thump of "Dead" and the blistering, rather *personal* "Your Achievement". The Broadrick / Bullen composition "You Suffer", in particular, is iconic: once on that record-breaking single and still a part of Napalm's live set to this day, it has spawned not only a multitude of cover versions (most remarkably the hour-long industrial interpretation by Kylie Minoise), but a whole remix project featuring the likes of Necrotic Goat Slaughter, Awesome Bin Laden and Gay Napalm Death. It even has its own Wikipedia entry. (Are we allowed to say we still prefer the Peel Session version, "You Suffer Pt.2" though, with its crashing echo ?) Just *please* never let it be said that these youthful bursts of sheer energy are all Napalm should be remembered for: listen to their outstanding latest LP "Utilitarian" and you will be instantly disabused of such slender notions.

Next up come a brace of tracks by the recent inheritors of (early) Napalm's crown, our Singaporean friends Wormrot. "False Grind Sodomy", one of the bonus tracks on the iTunes version of their second LP "Dirge", is overlong even at two seconds, and frankly left for dead by the brilliance of that album's other songs. On the other hand, "You Suffer (But Why Is It My Problem ?)", also from "Dirge", does as much as any song reasonably can do in five seconds. It's both an extended cover of, and an answer record to, Napalm's original: there's an initial fraught barrage of noise, which quickly subsides; then they regroup, and launch a second onslaught, a furious final flourish. It's one of our favourite sub-5 tunes.

Brutal Truth contribute two hurricanes of sub-5ism, "Collateral Damage" and "Blockhead", both of which are blastingly direct (it's no coincidence that as a bonus track on their last album "End Time" they covered Napalm's "Dead"). Mid-LP, Lawnmower Deth and Painkiller then turn up to deliver a track each, "Be Scene Not Heard" and "Trailmarker" respectively: two perfectly respectable chunks of sub-5, the former an of-its-time dig at scenesters, the latter a colourful explosion of noise that sounds like "Everyday Pox" played at the speed of sound. Surprisingly, perhaps, Morbid Angel also make an appearance: hardly prone to economical songwriting, they're not a band you would expect to be involved in this festival of pithiness (especially given that their recent remix album is um, *128 times* as long as this LP).   "Bil Ur-Sag #2 Lava" however, is not a proper sub-5 tune at all: it's a mere throwaway experiment, a barely-edible instrumental morsel plucked randomly from the Angel's back catalogue. Boo.

And then there are the ever-fragrant A.C: as a combo who could merrily bundle dozens of tracks on to their every 7", they were always going to be featured on this. "Windchimes Are Gay", it's fair to say, is typically representative of the band's ouevre: it will make you think back to when A.C. started to appear on Earache label comps in the 1990s, so that betwixt two proper choking slabs of thrash or metal by the new and hotly-touted you'd hear a Beavis and Butthead-like sketch from the late Seth Putnam's crew. So at least it has nostalgia on its side. The other A.C. number, "Howard Wulkan's Bald", however, offers nought: it was poor to start with, and has dated badly. The reality with A.C. is that it tended to be more entertaining perusing their track listings - "Extreme Noise Terror Is Afraid Of Us", "Having To Make Up Song Titles Sucks" - than listening to the music within (although we will make exceptions for some of their cover versions, which include the definitive version of EMF's "Unbelievable" as well as of, um, "Hungry Hungry Hippos").

But just as the album began stormingly, it concludes as strongly, with Insect Warfare's "Street Sweeper". At an epic 13 seconds - the longest composition here - this track from their disturbingly good "World Extermination" set even has time to get into a stride of sorts, and hint at the influence the Texans bore on probably the greatest grind bands of today, Wormrot and Death Toll 80k. But, again, just being featured on this fly-by-night compilation risks massively underselling just how good a band Insect Warfare really were.

Hm. Moving to another fundamentally human need - the need to ponder on alternative tracklistings in distinctly anorakish fashion - we can see no good reason why the album fails to feature "Mega Armageddon Death" itself (or indeed any other songs from Electro Hippies, an underrated band with both a sense of purpose and a sense of humour). And if we'd somehow got the gig of curating this, we'd have dropped A.C. and co, instead drizzling in a sprinkling of other ultra-concise cuts for a rather fuller flavour: Where's The Beach's electronic cover of "Mega Armageddon", Terry Edwards' all-trumpet Napalm Death Medley, one or other of Unseen Terror's briefer-than-brief Garfield tributes, Doctor and the Crippens' lovelorn "Bench" and an oft-overlooked indie contribution, Beatnik Filmstars' "Diseaser 399" (probably the most nuanced and moving song ever to end almost as soon as it's started). Nor should any self-respecting "short song" compilation really neglect new kids on the block Sidetracked or two masters of the genre from mainland Europe, Japanische Kampfhorspiele and legendary Italians, Cripple Bastards.

Anyway. While there *are* many reasons to despise the opportunist nature of this record, we're going to blank them out, if just for 87 seconds at a time, and "enjoy" its quirkiness of vision. So rather than listen to one of the 28 identikit radio stations pumping out precisely the same dreck all day, why not find a minute and a half to 'drop out' and marvel at the (intermittent) sounds of silence ?

Monday, July 02, 2012

Bart and Friends "There May Come A Time" (Matinée Recordings)

There's a tendency these days (and we are as guilty of it as anyone) to refer to any band that contains two or more people who were once in another band as a "supergroup". In fact, the incestuous nature of our 'scene' and the um, increased maturity in years of many of our favourite indie-pop stars and starlets make such hook-ups pretty much inevitable. Indeed, if you leave aside the still-too occasional fresh-faced combos that torpedo straight from Year 12 into our hearts, pretty much *all* bands doing any serious time on the circuit are technically "supergroups".

On the other hand, there are times when only the s-word will do. Sportique, obviously. The Traveling Wilburys, famously. Freebass, alarmingly. Westside Connection, indubitably. And when a new EP from Bart and Friends hoves into view, rest assured that we have no qualms whatsoever about rolling out the term (and the red carpet) for them, too.

The first time we heard an instrument plucked in vain by Bart Cummings was when we grabbed Girl Of The World's 7" on Heaven Records ("Bart - the bass guitar") from the concrete bunker in Bristol that housed Replay Records. Terrific single from a much-underrated trio, but of course it is only the tiniest fragment of a formidable catalogue of inspired Melbourne-born and Bart-featuring platters from the Cat's Miaow, the Shapiros, Pencil Tin, Hydroplane and the ever-shifting line-up of Bart & Friends themselves (although there *is* one constant in that line-up: see if you can guess who), plus a heavenly host of others. It was also Bart who, in his guise as Library Records, put out not only one of our favourite ever indie-pop compilations, "A Little Help For East Timor", but also the "Munch" video which led to us belatedly discovering Black Tambourine (without which our world would therefore be a bleaker place).

On this six-track extended play on all-time top ten label Matinée Recordings, the Friends of Bart include Mark Monnone (the 'smiths, of course), Louis Richter (latterly a 'smith, and once of Mid-State Orange, whose "Flag Festival" we reviewed a zillion years ago), a revolving cast of drummers including Jeremy Cole of the Zebras (last seen - by us, at any rate - rocking the Luminaire a while back) and none other than Pam "yes, *the* Pam Berry" Berry (the Tambourine, the Shapiros, the Pines) on lead vocals. All well and good, you say, and makes for a fabulous Rock Family Tree, but what about the music ?

Well, the title tune is not the kind of uptempo jukebox jangler you might expect to begin proceedings. Instead, it's a disarming and vaguely sombre song, arrayed over a luxurious (for B&F) three minutes, which sees Ms Berry unfold a bittersweet tale to bright percussion and lush if muted guitars, as the gentlest of melodies rise and fall, rose petals scatter in their wake, and hints of the Shapiros flutter by in the soft breeze. By the end, as Pam angelically sings "to see you smile, from across the room..." the tension is palpable, almost unbearable.

The opener is followed by a cavalcade of little bombs. "A Kiss You Won’t Forget" is a real treat, a masterly marriage of craft and melody, of trembling reverb and pealing Sarah alto, of jangle and soft fuzz. It's a song that epitomises the B&F canon, for despite being compact it's still able, without ever feeling rushed, to tell a fetching and complete tale about memories captured and held close to your heart, the kind that pricks us more and more as we grow older and further away from our own past crushes and romances.

Next, the galloping "There Are So Many Things I’d Like To See" - more naked sentiment, driven by a groovesome, upwardly mobile bassline - becomes the second marvellous sub-one minute song on Matinée within a matter of months (ha, we'll have them releasing grindcore yet). Similarly honest and captivating, "These Words Are Too Small" then sees Bart (via Pam) make a virtue of not being able to express his feelings, the song chiming all the time with that classic Victoria pop sound. "A Summer's Dream" completes the EP, and while it slows the pace back down, it also finishes with a ringing and naïf guitar-line which could have been written by the young Keris Howard (or, as last year's ace Hit Parade B-side proved, written by Julian Henry channelling the young Keris Howard). If we close our eyes, we can almost see the orange duckpond sleeve of "Around The World In 80 Days"', and remember the many special moments brought to us by the music within (apologies, but when I'm listening to great indie-pop, my head often falls into this kind of muggy reverie).

So, yes. Bart and Friends are a group. And they're super. And "There May Come A Time" is an EP as sweet, as joyful and as treasurable as an Andrea Pirlo spot-kick.