Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Album Review: Laura Marling, I Speak Because I Can, Laura Marling

Laura Marling suffers the scrutiny common to many female artists. An obsession with her personal life, from her hair cut to her love affairs, which can sometimes take precedence over her music. In Marling’s case the situation was exacerbated of course after Charlie Fink bared his soul about their break up on The First Days of Spring. It is disappointing none-the-less for an artist like Marlin, whose contribution to British music should not be underestimated.

Out of all the artists on the anti-folk scene, Marling has probably been the most successful. Her Mercury Music Prize nomination for her debut, Alas I Can Not Swim, brought her music to a wider audience. Certainly on the blogosphere there was much anticipation for her second album, and whether it could match the virtuosity of the first.

Now it is here the general consensus seems to be that there has been a maturity in her sound, which is no doubt helped by the production. Where as Alas I Can Not Swim was produced by Charlie Fink, production for I Speak Because I Can has been handed over Ethan Johns, who has worked with the likes of the Kings of Leon. The sound is fuller and bolder, building to its gut wrenching crescendo in Alpha Shallows. It’s the kind of track that makes you want to cry, although you don’t really know why.

The album is by no means all bells and whistles. Fans of the simpler side of folk should delight in the striped down melancholy of What He Wrote or the Joni Mitchell-esque Rambling Man. From these to the rockabily stylings of Nature of Dust, the album is certainly one of diversity.

With so much of the female new music market dominated by the much debated kooky women brigade, its refreshing to listen to an artist of such sincerity and depth. Where Marling will go from here, and how long she lasts, is anyone’s guess. In my mind she deserves however to became the sound, if not the voice of a generation.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Albums That Shaped My Life: Phantom Power, Super Fury Animals

I like dogs. They have wet noses and waggy tails. In fact I like a lot of animals. In many cases I like animals a lot more than humans. They’re less than complicated.

So it stands to reason that I should like a band called Super Fury Animals. Yet it took me an astoundingly long time to get into them. I was aware of them but they were slightly off my radar. In fact I just looked it up and it was nearly 10 years before I finally noticed them. That’s shocking, because they’re a great band. A really great band!

The song that finally locked me on to them was, maybe slightly unsurprisingly, Golden Retriever from the Phantom Power album (2003). It was fun, bouncy, bassy and made absolutely no sense (why on earth would you compare your girlfriend to a dog?). I loved it!

When I bought the rest of the album I was a bit shocked. Although there were tracks like Out of Control that had a real rock edge, the rest of the album was chilled out with delicate harmonies and dream like effects. Even Sex, War & Robots talks about ‘going to bed before midnight’. They sounded a bit wussy.

It took me several listens to get my head around it. I’m not sure what eventually made it click, maybe the brilliant line in Cityscape Skybaby (She came in smelling of cabbages/Winter roots and winter’s ravages) or maybe the off kilter electro beats of Slow Life that gave a small nod to their techno beginnings. Whatever it was I suddenly saw them for what they were - one of the most exciting, creative and fun bands of our time. A view that was only the more enforced seeing them live dressed as yeti’s driving around in a golf cart to the A-Team theme tune.

Phantom Power isn’t necessarily the best SFA album, but it was the one I bought first and I love it. Gruff Rhys has gone on to other projects, such as Neon Neon, laying on the genius in spoonfuls (and I’m talking tablespoons not teaspoons). He really is a musician who keeps on giving. Here’s to those lovely Welsh boys…may they continue to entertain us for many years more.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

First BBC 6 Music and now Camden Crawl

The Sugarbabes at Camden Crawl – what’s that all about then? It’s like putting ketchup on a Chinese takeaway.

Camden Crawl has always been about curious young (and not so young) minds coming together for two days to discover the very best in new music. It’s about discovery, and chance surprises. It’s about popping into a bar for a drink and finding the place going off to a group of Norwegians in matching tracksuits playing slap bass (trust me, it was good!).

Of course there are always headliners, and they can sometimes be a bit predictable. Last year we were treated to been-there-done-that Kasabian, and the dullsome Macabees. No doubt they delighted fans, and that’s fine - festivals need headliners and everyone has their own tastes. But still, there is a big jump between that and the Sugarbabes. They are not what Camden Crawl is or should be about.

I did really like the Sugarbabes when they first came on the scene in the late 90s. For a start they looked different from all the other pop acts around (wow, a red head in a girl group – whatever next!). Their debut single Overload won a Brit award and seemed as at home in a Hoxton club as a teen disco. That’s a pretty hard combination to get right.

Then in fighting caused the departure of our flame haired wonder and bit by bit they dissolved into yet another plastic Barbie pop band. What once seemed so filled with promise had turned into dull predictability.

I don’t know whether headlining Camden Crawl is the Sugarbabes way of trying to appear a bit more edgy, or the organisers trying to bring the festival to a wider market. Whatever it is I find it really disappointing. If the Sugarbabes are going to be at a festival then they should jump on their bandwagon and head off to V.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Why the world needs Lady Gaga

Since its launch on Friday the new Lady Gaga video (featuring BeyoncĂ©’s) has received 15 million hits. It seems the world has gone Gaga, and in my mind, rightly so.

Although I think that many of those 15 million will be teenage boys who’ll jizz in their pants at the sheer mention of a lesbian kiss, there is much more to it than that. In fact watching it, I feel like a spoilt kid at Christmas. There is so damn much in it that I have to watch it several times to take it all in. The video for Bad Romance was much the same. I have to agree with Pitchfork in fearing that they’re throwing so much into these videos that they’ll quickly run out of ideas. Sustaining the freak show will be difficult.

It’s not all good of course. Both videos have rather standard pop dance routines at the key change, and the necessity for women in pop to wear as little as possible is always tiresome. In addition the overt product placement makes me want to scratch my eyes out. But having said all that the video is a spectacle – it oozes creativity and is totally hilarious (the cigarette sunglasses being my favourite). It is the moment that sees Gaga snatch the Queen of Pop crown right off Madonna’s botox filled head.

Gaga brings to the world a breath of much needed fresh air. Although I think the actual music is diabolical, laden with terrible euro pop synths, she puts personality and performance back into pop. I think before the next series of X-Factor all contestants should be made to watch and take notes on Lady Gaga. That way we might get a bit of life into the conveyer belt.

Grizzly Bear, The Roundhouse, Camden

The Roundhouse in Camden is amazing, isn’t it. It is though, isn’t it. I haven’t yet been to a bad gig there and I’m starting to think that this has less to do with the bands and more to do with the majestic awesomeness of the venue. How can you not be inspired and moved when staring up at those huge Victorian pillars. It is the St Peter’s Basilica of music venues.

The service last night was delivered by Grizzly Bear, a band from Brooklyn who defy definition. Some call them lo-fi folk, or anti-folk but I think that’s a massive over-simplification. They soar from blissful harmonies to full on bass and noise, the later being pretty non-typical of folk.

The real beauty of Grizzly Bear is in their vocals. Those boys can really sing. Of course singing isn’t necessarily a barrier to producing good music (just see Dylan or Hendrix) but it is nice to hear a band that do it so well. Their vocals have a choralistic quality, which when amplified across the Roundhouse’s amazing acoustics, creates the nearest thing to a religious experience I am likely to ever have.

And its not just vocal skills where the Bears excel. They bring on stage with them a variety of instruments and use a range of effects creating a glorious ethereal dimension. For a couple of songs they also added Victoria Legrand from support band, Beach House, adding an extra dimension to the already mutli-layered musical experience.

As far as gig going goes its near on perfect. If there is an after life then I certainly hope that Grizzly Bear will be in it with me.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Albums That Shaped My Life: The Score by The Fugees

In 1996 I saw Lauryn Hill on Top of the Pops singing Killing Me Softly. I was mesmerised by her plaintive vocals, the beautiful lyrics and the beats. I didn’t know at the time that it was a cover, so I must now give proper credit to Lori Lieberman for her heart-breaking poetry. Yet Hill brought an unmistakeable freshness and funk to it that keeps it lodged in my soul to this day.

Although I loved the song it wasn’t enough to make me go and buy The Fugees album. I’m not a fan of American hip hop. I can just about handle (some) British hip hop, but stateside I just find it too misogynistic, and tales of guns and bling impossible to relate to. But then I heard Ready or Not and again Ms Hill brought something different to the mix that finally hooked me in.

Once I had brought the album I realised how much I had been missing. It’s funky, it’s funny and while I had previously only seen Hill as just a soulful diva, the album showed me she was a butt-kicking rapper too. I loved the way she wasn’t afraid to hold a mirror up to the scene she came from, directly challenging their attitudes and behaviour (So after all my logic and my theory/I add a mother fucker so you ignorant niggers hear me).

And while other hip-hop groups were busy singing about bitches and ‘hoes, The Fugees were tackling race and politics head on in tunes like The Beast; they challenged gang black on black crime in The Score; and drug abuse in Mista Mista.

I went on to love and adore Hill’s solo album, the multi Grammy winning Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. But as amazing as that album is, it doesn’t have the rawness of The Score. The Fugees created an album that changed my perceptions about American hip-hop forever.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Support the music not the touts

The other night, as previously mentioned, I went to see The XX. As we left the venue there were two touts outside selling bootleg band t-shirts. And at £5 per t-shirt they were doing a brisk trade.

Seeing this kind of thing makes my heart sink. Although people buying these shirts might think they were getting a bargain, even in the dark I could tell that these shirts were rubbish quality. What’s more they’re steeling money from the band, a band most of those people were probably claiming to love just a few minutes earlier.

So here is a plea to you all – please don’t buy from touts. These guys don’t love the music like we do. They don’t give a shit about it. From selling over priced tickets on Ebay to selling knock off merchandise outside venues, they are destroying the music scene. Don’t give them a helping hand in doing that!

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The XX - Shepherd's Bush Empire

Tonight I saw The XX. Well, when I say saw I mean I stared at the back of someone's head while The XX played on stage somewhere fairly nearby. Yes it seemed tonight I inadvertantly stepped into the land of the giants. When I go to a gig with someone who is 6'2" and a large percentage of the crowd are bigger than they are I know I'm in trouble.

Maybe my vertical disability was the reason that for most of the gig The XX just didn't do it for me. Their entrance was brilliantly theatrical, and the light show a technicolour delight, but it didn't help. The band felt flat and lifeless.

There was little audience interaction, and when it did occur it was one or two mumbled words. You could feel their awkwardness, which manifested itself further in duff notes and plodding basslines. At one point they actually said: "We haven't practiced this one much so we may stuff it up." Jeez, talking about setting yourself up for a fall.

Then half way through it suddenly changed. From somewhere the band found their mojo. There were more dynamics, the basslines had more drive and the vocals more confidence. Finally the crowd were dancing.

For a group who have toured so extensively it seems strange that they should act so inexperienced. Maybe it was the size of the venue and the fact that for the first time they were headlining rather than just supporting. Whatever the reason I hope the next time they don't take 30 minutes to warm up. Otherwise they may find the giants get angry and that's definately a sight I don't want to see.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Save BBC 6 Music

Back in January Nigel Lythgoe was interview on Radio 4’s Front Row where he was asked if he agreed with the BBC Trust’s view that there were too many formulaic reality and talent shows on TV. In his response Lythgoe said the shows were successful because ‘that’s what the public wants to watch’. He went on to say:

We pay our license fee so we can have what we want to watch, not what someone wants to give us.

I wondered whether it had ever occurred to Lythgoe that although 12 million people watched the X-Factor finals, there are nearly 60 million of us in the country. A lot of us don’t like that crap at all. A sizeable portion of them made their voices heard this Christmas when they projected Rage Against the Machine to the number 1 chart position. Another comparatively small but vocal group are making their voices heard now in response to the BBC’s treacherous decision to axe BBC 6 Music.

The BBC 6 Music rumour has been floating around us for several weeks now but was seemingly confirmed by The Times on Friday. I’m still in denial about it simply because I can’t believe the BBC has the gall to actually do it. Axing BBC 6 Music is in complete contradiction to the BBC’s position of diversity. They say they want a commercial outfit to take the reigns but that will never happen because commercial stations are inevitably forced to bow to market pressures (as already witnessed with XFM). Just the same way as the Roundhouse in Camden is able to support a wide range of music and artists because of its unique chartiable status, the BBC, with its public funding is the only one in the position to run a station like 6 Music. Without it new music will have no regular major broadcasting outlet and a significant niche of people will have nobody catering for their tastes.

The news that they are also probably slashing BBC Asian Network is another kick in the teeth as there isn’t nearly enough broadcasting for ethnic minority communities in the UK. In addition the media industry is notorious for being full of white middle class kids. What kind of message does this send out to Asian broadcasting graduates now?

So here’s an idea for the BBC bods – why not axe one of the many reality TV and format shows currently bunging up our airwaves and sucking the life out of our licence fee, and use the money saved to keep 6Music going. One thing I know for sure, without it the UK music scene is going to be a considerably duller place.

There are a bunch of petitions and websites going round but I found the best was Love 6 Music They give you a comprehensive list of things you can do to make you voice heard. You can also find them on Twitter @Love6Music. The guillotine hasn’t dropped yet people - make your voice heard while you can.