Sunday, 6 January 2013

The Sound of Endeavour

So, Haim (pronounced Hiam – somebody really should have pointed out the typo) are the BBC’s one-to-watch for 2013. The Californian trio pipped fellow hyped hipsters Chvrches, Aluna George, Laura Mvula and Palma Violets (see blogpost 26.05.12) to the Sound Of 2013 award that, depending on your opinion, is either hugely coveted, with past winners including Jessie J and Adele, or deeply cursed, with past winners including The Bravery and Little Boots (for the record, I really liked The Bravery - apparently I was alone).

These days it seems that music artists are never more popular, talked about and in the limelight than at the beginning of their careers.  At the moment, you can’t flick through a newspaper arts supplement without being confronted by articles on who to keep an eye and an ear out for this year.  We are told of artists with prodigious talent and remarkable gifts.

Somehow I can’t help but feel that all this praise and hyperbole is, not only often wide of the mark, but also inappropriate and unhelpful.  In which other professions, maybe apart from some sports, do we give awards for people who haven’t actually really done anything? Is it helping to foster a sense of work ethic in the minds of these, no doubt gifted, but largely unproven artists?  And should we be at all surprised when they fail to live up to the towering expectations?

This is why it particularly pleases me when artists who have been around the block pick up overdue praise and recognition.  The classic example of recent times is Elbow, the journeymen musicians who, after three critically lauded albums which failed to capture popular attention, won the Mercury Music Award for The Seldom Seen Kid – a record that has now sold over a million copies. That prize was richly deserved; it was recognition of a masterful album but also a reward for hard work, patience and determination.

It is often forgotten that David Bowie had written a lot of music and played many concerts before acquiring any real degree of fame. Three self-doubt-ridden years passed between his first hit Space Oddity and his next commercial success.  Though he often made song-writing look easy, he definitely served his apprenticeship.

Many of the artists that are exciting me at the moment have been around for a few years but are only now making their best music.  One of my favourite albums of last year was Eugene McGuinness’s The Invitation to the Voyage - a punchy pop record that hoovered up the noughties’ Killers and Kaisers inspired sound and regurgitated it into a more stomping, feisty form.  Over the last six years I have seen him support three different bands which is why it is so enjoyable to see him grow into his shell.

Another band who appear to be blossoming after two albums and several years of diligent touring to tiny crowds are Dutch Uncles.  Their new record Out of Touch in the Wild is released on the 14th January but has been preceded by two teasing tracks that are typically jerky but also layered with cleverly crafted melodies.  If I were to give a Sound of 2013 award I would give it to the Uncles because they have the potential to reach new audiences and gain considerable air play but, more importantly, and unlike Haim, they have put in the hard yards, honed their skills and done something to merit an award. 


Saturday, 26 May 2012

Trust Travis! (that's Geoff not the band that get rained on)

As his track record suggests, Geoff Travis is a man who knows what he’s talking about; the boss of record label Rough Trade has made some hugely successful signings in his time, notably The Smiths, The Strokes and The Libertines.  So, inevitably when he persuades an artist to agree upon a contract, music industry people (I always read about these ‘people’ but who are they?) tend to sit up and take notice.  One of his most recent coups was to snatch Alabama Shakes from the snapping jaws of rival labels; their album Boys and Girls has sparked much salivating from critics and punters alike this year.  And now he has caused a stir by recruiting south-east London four-piece Palma Violets apparently off the back of only one song.  Unfortunately, we don’t even have that luxury - the only available recordings are a few painful videos of live performances on Youtube.  But they must be good, surely?  To place that much faith in a band with potentially only one good tune you must have fairly strong belief.  No doubt we will find out pretty soon with the record label sure to take advantage of the hype by rushing out a single.

Like many others with a keen interest in music, I get quite excited any time there is lots of excitement surrounding a new band.  I still remember hearing people feverishly talking about the Arctic Monkeys before I had actually heard anything by them.  And I think this is how it should be.  The days when new music was shared by word of mouth are a thing of the past so it is a real thrill to experience that buzz about a mysterious new act. 

Consequently, I am disappointed to see that ALREADY the backlash has started.  The Guardian has a fantastic feature on their website called ‘new band of the day’ which has, on a number of occasions, opened my eyes to exciting new music.  However, in their piece on Palma Violets from the 17th May, they are guilty of one of my pet hates - criticism for effect.  Paul Lester, author of the article, has a right to express his opinion having watched them support the aforementioned Shakes, but rather than constructively criticise the performance or the music he has clearly set up camp on the anti-Palma Violets side of the river and has no intention of deconstructing his tent and pouring water on the camp fire any time soon.  It is understandable to take this anti-hype view if the artist is getting over-played by Fearne Cotton and their face is on the front of NME every week but to come down so strongly against a group who have not yet produced any music is confusing and narrow-minded.

Unfortunately, the ubiquity of the internet means that everyone wants to say something different and often this leads to comments not based on thought or true consideration.  But why can’t critics just wait to see what the music is actually like? Who knows, maybe Rough Trade will guide the group down a completely different direction to the ‘garage rock’ genre in which they have been pigeon-holed.  It would be nice to see critics not feel the urge to be so vehemently pro or against for a change.  A spot of fence-sitting ambivalence would be strangely refreshing in this case.  The fence is certainly where I will be perching for the time being even if I may join in with the excited whisperings and animated gossiping that will surround this band for a little while longer.

Here is the terrible live film that I mentioned:                                                                                          


And here is some stuff currently trending on the Milward jukebox:

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

My attempt at prophecy.

It is almost that time of year again when magazines, newspapers, DJs and other music industry figures produce their own lists of the ‘Ones-to-Watch’ for the new year.  Most people in the music business love to feel like they have tipped an artist for greatness long before anybody else knew about them.  Though (sadly) not in the music industry, I am no different.  I still like to tell anyone who will care to listen that I once saw Florence and the Machine in a tent with about 30 other people and now she’s dressing like the Virgin Mary and performing to thousands (maybe millions, if you count those sitting on their sofas at home?) on the X Factor. These Next Big Thing lists are usually fairly boring and often pretty predictable, with certain artists seeming to crop up in all of them.  In fact, I find it more interesting to look back at previous years’ lists and assess how many of the tipped acts have actually gone on to real success.

Every year the BBC compiles a list of 15 acts to watch out for which is then cut to five artists and, finally, one act is chosen to receive the title of ‘Sound of 2011’ (or whichever year it may be).  Last year the BBC had rather mixed fortune telling success: their number 1 tip was Jessie J, whom no one can deny has had a very successful year; others who have reason to be pleased with themselves are James Blake, The Vaccines, Anna Calvi, Wretch 32 and Warpaint. However, there are some, such as Daley, Esben and the Witch and Nero whom I have barely heard of.  Furthermore, Claire Maguire was an artist who, this time last year, was on everyone’s lips but where is she now? Curiously, in a year when female solo artists are all the rage, Maguire has totally failed to drum up any sort of attention, despite major label backing.  Looking back further to the BBC’s 2010 list a similar pattern is apparent: a number of clear successes in Two Door Cinema Club, Ellie Goulding, Everything Everything and Delphic but also a group of complete nobodies in Daisy Dares You, Devlin,  Rox and Owl City. Perhaps Daley, a Manchester born singer-songwriter, apparently, will have a phenomenally successful 2012 but it was a mistake to describe him as the Sound of 2011.

Therefore, it will be interesting to see which artists gain the thumbs-up from industry big-wigs in the coming weeks.  I would like to put out my selection early doors: They are a band called Spector whom I saw a few weeks ago at the Shipping Forecast in Liverpool and who gave a lively and refreshing performance on Later Live with Jools Holland last night.  I was a big fan of vocalist Fred Macpherson’s previous two outfits, Les Incompetents and Ox.Eagle.Lion.Man and, therefore, was extremely excited to hear about his new project. I am not sure how much their name owes to Phil Spector, the revered and now incarcerated record producer/murderer, but, on the basis of the few tracks they have released so far, they have created a sound which I am sure would turn the head of their namesake (if they can get their songs played on Corcoran Prison FM they will have done very well).  Their style is, for my mind, definitely pop and they could go on to achieve a degree of mainstream radio success.  It largely depends on whether that is what they want because, equally, I could see them maintaining a loyal fan base and receiving critical acclaim without ever selling many records. I really hope they do well in the next 12 months if only because Macpherson deserves it; I recently saw an interview in which he declared that he would never stop making music because it is what he loves doing. This kind of persistence and determination deserves to be rewarded, particularly in a world where someone like Lana Del Rey can become famous over night.  

So, let’s hope that in 12 months time Spector will be ubiquitous and not sitting in a trash can with Daisy Dares You nostalgically discussing what might have been. Then, at least, I can turn around to everyone and say ‘I told you so’.

Creedence. x


Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Autumnal anticipations

           I have now spent two days working in the rain and wind so I think I can confirm that the summer is officially over.  Although, given that similar weather conditions typified August perhaps the summer ended weeks ago. Whilst it is easy to allow one’s mood to mirror the gloomy skies, there is one reason to be excited that a new season is upon us.  For some reason, I suppose because theoretically we are all frolicking in the blistering sunshine, the world of art and culture largely switches off in this country during the summer months.  All the good television programmes dry up (my apologies to the makers of the The Hour and Shooting Stars), few interesting films are put out (my apologies to the makers of Beginners , The Tree of Life) and record companies too are wary of releasing new material in July and August (um, nope, can’t think of any apologies to make).  Whilst I am not sure I believe in the logic of this situation, there really does appear to be a trend because suddenly a number of hotly anticipated albums (at least they are hotly anticipated by me – hell, I’m allowed to be subjective in a blog) have appeared or are fast approaching on the horizon. 

Of the albums in the shops right now, Bombay Bicycle Club’s A Different Kind of Fix, Fionn Regan’s 100 Acres of Sycamore and Beirut’s The Rip Tide are the stand-outs. It is BBC’s third effort, an incredible achievement considering that they are all still in their early twenties, and has won much critical acclaim. 100 Acres is a record that may have slipped your attention - publicity is not one of Regan’s strong points - but I think it is a bit of a hidden gem. The track The Lake District glows with the kind of beauty fitting of the place it describes and may well be the best thing he has ever written.  And finally Beirut, the brainchild of the immensely prodigious Zach Condon (who has now reached the grand old age of 25), return with another heart-warming record that retains their trademark Eastern European influences and still contains generous portions of trumpets and accordions. The title track is the stand out.  

As exciting as these three records are the albums which are due to hit the shelves, both physical and digital, in the next few weeks.  If you haven’t heard it already please have a listen to the new single from Florence and the Machine called What the Water Gave Me. It does take a couple of listens but it certainly has got me salivating for more. Journalists often speak of the infamous ‘Second Album Syndrome’ but if the rest of the record is as addictive as this taster then she may have discovered the antidote to that troublesome condition.  I heard the new Kasabian single Days are Forgotten on the radio today and although it is not as radio-friendly as, say, Fire or Empire, the vocals are still punchy, the guitar still bites and the Primal Scream influence is as obvious as ever. It might be one of those songs that works better live.  Another artist who, like Bombay Bicycle Club, is mature beyond her years is Laura Marling (21 years old). She has set an extremely high bar with her first two truly remarkable albums and it will be fascinating to see how she fares with A Creature I don’t Know, released on the 12th September.  Finally, a band, whose self-titled debut album was curiously and unforgivably underrated, The Drums put out their second album just in that The Drums’ album is actually out now, apologies.  Well you should definitely grab their record right now because although it does not deviate hugely from their previous winning formula there is no one quite like them right now. Their brand of sunny, short and sweet pop is very refreshing. There’s this band called The Vaccines who are quite popular at the moment. Well, imagine the Vaccines and then think of a band that is about 100 times better and you sort of get the Drums.

                So yeah that is my round up of the new albums that are exciting me at the moment.  I am sorry to brush over all the artists so quickly but I wanted to mention as much as possible without losing your attention. One thing that I have learnt from this article is that, judging from the ages of those bicyclers from Bombay, Marling and Condon, I really need to blooming well hurry up if I am going to make it as a world famous musician. I don’t even need to be world famous, just to make it into somebody’s blog would be nice. Creedence. 

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The metronomic Mercury Music Award

It’s been a while. Not since Glastonbury. I am never going to gain any sort of reputation as a world famous blogger if I continue to make these posts so infrequent.

It’s one of those boring clichés that as you get older the years seem to take less time. I am afraid, though, that it does seem to be true. Bizarrely, one particular event that appears to come round quicker every year is the Mercury Music Award – to many minds (including mine), this country’s premier music prize. It is awarded to the best album of the year by a British artist. A nomination for this award is a big deal. I have often found it hard to care about awards for music because the core idea of music is that it is totally and vitally subjective; when so many differing opinions exist how is it possible to make definitive assessments of the best albums and best songs? I suppose to a certain extent it is the same of all awards ceremonies. Nevertheless, I must admit to getting a tad excited about the Mercury. I am not sure why. Perhaps it is that unlike many other awards, the artists actually seem to really respect this prize – indeed it really is an honour.

This year the range of nominations does not appear to be much different from past years. As usual a brilliantly eclectic mix has been chosen. The panel of industry experts have managed to cover most bases, from the mainstream pop of Adele, to the alternative indie choice Anna Calvi, to the experimental hip-hop of Ghostpoet.  They even have contemporary jazz covered with this year’s obligatory has-anybody-heard-of-them pick Gwilym Simcock (others from recent times include the Kit Downes Trio, Portico Quartet, Basquiat Strings, all of whom are obviously now household names).

I think one of the reasons that I do care about this award is that I really enjoy trying to pick the winner of the competition. The Mercury has gained a reputation as being the Grand National of awards because it blooming difficult to pick the winner. For every year that an obvious choice wins, like last year’s triumph of the XX, there are years when leftfield acts such as Speech Debelle have walked away with the gong.  This year, according to Paddy Power, PJ Harvey is the strong favourite at 6-4 but I would not want to place anything more than the minimum bet on Miss Polly from Dorset, incidentally a Mercury veteran with one win and two nominations to her name.  How can you possibly be confident when you remember that Elegant Slumming by M People (I mean, seriously?) beat both Blur’s Parklife and Pulp’s His ‘n’ Hers to the award in 1994?

So I am going to plant the kiss of death on a band from Devon by naming them my choice to win the award.  The English Riviera is Metronomy’s third album and it came to my attention because of the fantastic first single The Look – possible contender for song of the year (god, look at me now, I’m giving awards out all over the place).  I tend to see musical success as a venn diagram with two circles, one captioned ‘critical acclaim’ and the other ‘popular acclaim’ and, after threatening for a number of years, this album has opened the door for Metronomy to slip into the holy overlapping section where the critical and the popular are coupled.  The record stays true to its title throughout as nostalgic songs about leaving your career and running away to the coast are interspersed with the squawking of seagulls and the sounds of rushing waves.  It is refreshing to hear such a celebration of the English summertime when, at this time of year, we are usually surrounded by constant complaining about the weather.  I have mentioned before in this blog about my frustration with the current deluge of electronic artists and the rigorously imposed ban on guitar music. However, here is an electronic album that is intelligent, precise, thoughtful and tight. It contains no filler and not one duff track.  

So please, if any of you industry big-wigs are reading this blog, consider awarding the gong to the brilliant Metronomy. They are truly deserving of it. Alternatively, if you don’t want to give it to them then Anna Calvi’s album is equally as worthy.  But what do I know? I would not be at all surprised to see Gwilym Simcock walking away with a £20,000 cheque clutched tightly to his chest and his reputation hugely enhanced.  

The Mercury Music Prize will be decided on the 6th September (I think)


Thursday, 30 June 2011

Move over U2, I want to see some Mexican wrestling.

I arrived back on Monday, the morning after the (long) weekend before, looking like, as my girlfriend affectionately described, Stig of the Dump, eager to hear what my family (all keen music lovers) had made of the BBC's coverage of the festival. I was particularly intrigued to hear their opinions on Beyoncé's headlining set which brought down the curtain on the Somerset festival until 2013. I thought she had put on a brilliant show even if it was unfair to describe it as a solo performance when much of my enjoyment was derived from the fantastically energetic dancers and the novel and impressively tight all-female backing band.  My father, however, wondered whether having a commercial pop artist headlining the Pyramid Stage was, in his words, ‘really Glastonbury’? Many punters see it as a ‘rock’ festival and thus should be headlined by rock bands. It was similar to the reaction of many Glastonbury veterans to the decision to choose Beyoncé’s spouse Jay-Z as a headliner in 2008. Does the music of Beyoncé and Jay-Z really fit in with the vibe of the festival?  

Well, firstly, my answer would be yes. Glastonbury is not a rock festival. Those who subscribe to this view should rise from off their sunken deck chairs in front of the Other Stage or crawl out from under the canvas of the John Peel tent and take a walk around the whole festival site. On this stroll they will absorb all the different genres of music, the theatrical and comedic performances and the circus and cabaret acts and then hopefully reassess their claim. Even the title of the festival, ‘Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts’ tells you that this is not just a musical event, least of all just a rock music event.  This year saw performances from the Wombles, the physicist and broadcaster Brian Cox, some Mexican wrestlers, the comedian Angelos Epithemiou, Caroline Lucas MP, U2, and a talk on whether ‘veganism is the ideological glue to bring together movements for social change’. Now, I have been scratching my head but I am struggling to think of an umbrella under which all these acts can be placed. This is why it is not just acceptable that a pop act headlined the Pyramid Stage but also imperative that they continue to do so.

Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, what rock acts could have headlined this year?  At this point there may be many people hurling names at me such as Pulp or Radiohead but their secret, special guest slots on the Park Stage were a huge success and the story of the festival.  Radiohead never seem to do anything by the book so it is no surprise that they did not headline and Pulp probably needed a break after a throng of headline performances (I mean they are middle aged now). Some may wonder why the Arctic Monkeys did not headline but, although I am pained to say it, the Sheffield lads have lost something of their spark over the course of their two most recent, interesting but rather limp records.  What about the Strokes? Over the hill. Muse? Headlined last year and past their best. Perhaps Primal Scream could have headlined the Pyramid rather than the other but even they have resorted to just bashing out their 1991 classic album Screamadelica. There really are not that many options at the moment.  However, the dearth of rock bands is not just apparent at the headlining end of the scale. It is true of new bands too. Whereas in previous years I have spent a considerable amount of time in the John Peel tent checking out the next big thing, this year I only watched one act there, Yuck (that’s the band’s name, not just my disgust at the situation).  Perhaps it is just my taste but I really think the problem goes deeper than that. If you listen to the charts at the moment you will be lucky to hear a strum on an amplified guitar for they are perpetually flooded with synths and electro-dance tunes.  Whatever happened to those heady days of 2004 when you could not turn on the radio without being told about the next Kaiser Chiefs or Franz Ferdinand.

So what I have done there is give you a much longer, more ranting version of the conversation that I had with my dad which pretty much ran as follows:
Dad: “But is Beyoncé really Glastonbury?”
Me: “Yes.”
But in my head all these furious thoughts were aching to come out.

So we must wait another two years before the return of Britain’s premier festival. I think a year off will do everyone good as it will serve to keep us hungry for more. One can too easily become complacent. I would not be surprised if by 2013 the drought is over and Glastonbury sees three blistering headline sets from the world’s most exciting rock bands. But I doubt it. In fact, I wonder if one day there might be a non-musical act headlining. I think Mexican wrestling would really work rather well on the Pyramid Stage. 

P.S. I saw this band at Glastonbury and they were absolutely sensational. This is a video for their song How It Ends. You may recognise it from the film Little Miss Sunshine for which they wrote the soundtrack. It's beautiful. 

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

New Hope #2

I'm not very good at keeping up the momentum here. I was hoping to do a blog a day. Ambitious.

New Hope #2

I am definitely a sucker for singers who are also mad dancers. I don't want them to be particularly good at dancing or to take it really seriously. But you get some bands with singers who have just perfected their own unique and extraordinary style. In the same way that Jonathon Pierce, lead vocalist of the Drums, grabbed my attention with his remarkable shapes, Duncan Wallis of Manchester band Dutch Uncles left me flabergasted as he performed his fantastically jerky and awkward routine. I first saw Dutch Uncles supporting Bombay Bicycle Club at the Liverpool Academy in December 2009 and enjoyed them a lot without noticing any stand out tracks. I kind of forgot about them for about a year until I saw an advert for a gig at the Shipping Forecast in February of this year.

In that time little changed, not least the dancing, but I had listened to a few tracks so was able to get more involved in the gig. They have now released an album called Cadenza. It's quite hard to get into but once past the prickly exterior it is a really enjoyable album. Their brand of sharp, spiky, off beat pop appears often constructed to a scientific degree and this does not aid its accessibility. However, they have a surprising propensity to mould catchy melodies which jump out at you when you least expect them to.

There are two reasons why I am so fascinated by this band. Firstly, they are not synth based. It seems every new band has to be electro influenced or synth filled and it's really boring. I know all those years ago in the mid noughties there was a horrible deluge of skinny four-piece guitar bands all trying to look like the Pigeon Detectives. It was not a good time. But I really wish the backlash had not been so thorough. Dear record Labels, please stop turning guitar bands into electro bands.

Secondly, Dutch Uncles are not what you might consider conventionally cool. It is hard to tell whether they are deliberately trying to appear geekish or if that is actually them. I hope it is just their natural style. I love this because it gives us all hope. It makes me think that, you know, if they can be cool then why can't I? I think it is similar to the connection that people felt with Morrissey when he wrote about everyone hating him. He was a nerd too but people thought he was cool. Dutch Uncles are a perfect antidote to the disgusting plague of macho, gobbing, greasy bands that are so synonymous with their home city.

Right I ought to pipe down and let you listen to them. I hope you like them. This is the title track from their new album. I think it is just brilliant. Please also look out for Duncan's dancing. I often catch myself trying to recreate those moves in my bedroom. So enjoy that mental image too.