Thursday, 31 December 2009

The Best 20 Tracks of 2009 (Part I)

Here it is then, my musical year in review. I was initially planning to do a top ten albums like last year, but when I started making a list I quickly realised what a truly awful year for albums this has been. The only two exceptional albums I’ve heard in the last twelve months were Fuck Buttons’ Tarot Sport and Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavillion. If you have ears and £20 of Christmas money left to spend, I suggest you go and buy them now, or you will be shunned when I encounter you on my travels. Decent efforts like HEALTH’s Get Color, The Horrors’ Primary Colours and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ It’s Blitz abounded, but somehow it doesn’t feel right to celebrate albums that I feel are merely good rather than transcendental. And as for The XX, sorry indie credibility, but I just don’t understand them and I fear that I never will. But this being the season of goodwill, I must shed my Grinch-like demeanour for at least a few hours. Regardless of my personal worries about the whole ‘death of the LP’ thing being heralded in music publications the world over, there have been plenty of fantastic standalone songs to concentrate on showering with hyperbole, so here without further ado are my top 20, starting today with 20-11 and continuing at some point next week with the eagerly anticipated 10-1 countdown. Eagerly anticipated, that is, if you are no good at forming subjective opinions of your own, or just feel like bitching me out for not including ‘Dominos’. Shit, that’s a spoiler, sorry.

20. MSTRKRFT – 1000 Cigarettes

Best one-sentence youtube review I’ve ever read: ‘This track really punches you in the balls’. I couldn’t have put it any better myself. MSTRKRFT have translated the gut-vibrating energy of their DFA1979 bass driven sucker punch into a yet more frenetic bass driven electro-skronk. And for those of you who didn’t know, I don’t ever use the term ‘skronk’ lightly. And that’s all that I have to say about that, apart from the fact that I have probably thrown my arms in the air and danced to this song more times this year than anything else.

19. The Maccabees feat. Roots Manuva – Empty Vessels

Bit of a late entry, this one. I heard this on the radio last week (6music really does perform a valuable public service by being the only vaguely tolerable radio station out there), and since then I must have listened to it about thirty times, which is usually a good sign. For me Roots Manuva is the forefather of what NME would call the ‘urban poet’ explosion (just FUCK off) of recent years, and Mike Skinner, Arctic Monkeys et al owe him a huge debt of wry, grittily humorous gratitude (Jamie T doesn’t get included in that list because he’s not an ‘urban poet’, just an urban twat). Anyway, it’s good to see him back kitchen-sink philosophising and cramming as many celebrated musical references as he can into his verses. The Maccabees, for their part, deliver a handful of pleasantly downbeat cooing hooks that make the whole thing entirely suitable for daytime, before going all ‘The Chain’ for the coda.

18. Destroyer – Bay Of Pigs

So, instead of an album, Muse decided this year to put out a bloated wreck that somehow managed the neat trick of being impenetrably pretentious to even the most hardened Yes fan, whilst simultaneously containing some of their laziest, most insipid ballads yet (seriously, note to Matt Bellamy: you are a very, very good guitarist, but your lyrics are awful, so please stop forcing us to focus on them). Anyway, someone had to fly the flag for prog, and they came in the unexpected form of Destroyer, who went for a sort of ambient 9 minute take on ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ with lyrics by Neil Hannon. It takes a whole 5 minutes for the bass and the beat to come in, at first glitching before resolving themselves into a pleasant Flight of the Conchords style singalong which, just as it gets into its stride, fades out. I don’t care if you don’t think this is prog at all, it infuriates and amuses me like the most indulgent half hour gong solo ever, and I bloody well loved it.

17. Manic Street Preachers – Peeled Apples

This is probably my equivalent of one of those best director gongs handed out for lifetime achievement rather than a particularly life-changing piece of cinema (I’m looking at you Marty Scorsese). But hey, Nicky Wire’s bass sounds filthier than it has done in years (now if we can just get him making inadvisable, unsolicited comments about famous people again we’ll be in business), and it’s the first Manics track to be blessed with Richey lyrics since ‘Kevin Carter’, plus there’s a really emo Christian Bale sample at the start, so let me have this one.

16. Radiohead – These Are My Twisted Words

Radiohead decided this year to trade in their frankly ludicrous long-player conversion rates for a more scattershot flurry of download single releases, but if that means more regular doses of Radiohead, I guess I can’t complain to vehemently, right? This is far from the best thing they’ve ever done, but let’s face it, Thom Yorke farts out songs that most UK indie bands would be quite content to build an entire career around, and sometimes it’s just refreshing to hear Jonny hitting up the whammy pedal again, even if it is in a little more subdued manner than on 'Just'.

15. Jay-Z feat. Alicia Keys – Empire State Of Mind

However fed up I am of Jay-Z’s increasingly targeted cross-promotional sales pitch flows (and it’s clear that he’s not really even trying here), there was no other hook this year more likely to make me pull diva-like vocal performances in my kitchen when it came on the radio than this one. So shut up.

14. Fever Ray – If I Had A Heart

Criminally, I still haven’t heard the Fever Ray album, despite ‘kind of like Kate Bush produced by The Knife’ sounding like possibly the best musical elevator-pitch ever (actually, after writing that sentence I realised what a fool I’d been, took a break, walked into town and bought the thing). It was a toss-up between this, the lead track, and its Fuck Buttons, steam-powered remix for inclusion in the list, but the original wins out in the glacial lovely/creepiness stakes, assisted by the fact that otherwise I could be accused of going on about Fuck Buttons a tad too much.

13. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Heads Will Roll (A-Trak remix)

All the best bits of the original, but with more sexy Karen O yelping and a decent portion of squiggly bits that sound a bit like a synthesiser jizzing its pants. Also, mad love for being the only BIG HOUSE KEYS revival track that’s even vaguely listenable. Well, not just listenable, bloody brilliant, and with my favourite mentalist middle-eight break down ever.

12. Shakira – She Wolf

First off, big English graduate props for creditable use of the word ‘lycanthropy’. But honestly, I was already addicted to the intoxicating blend of flamenco guitar, eighties synths, string breaks and husky vocals before I even saw that video, which needless to say only propelled the thing even further into the stratosphere of genius. Awoo!

11. Thom Yorke – Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses

Isn’t life amusing? 2009 brought us the sheer ridiculous glee of witnessing Thom Yorke and Flea sharing a stage, surely the strangest musical personality mismatch since Morrisey teamed up with the fat one from Bowling For Soup (not really). Of course, with hindsight it all made a crazy kind of sense, when you consider the proportion of the Thomster’s basslines that really bring the funk. Like this here, created from an early version of the In Rainbows track ‘Reckoner’ (if you listen really carefully I think you can just about make out some of the chords), but warped into something like the most mental cut off The Eraser via skittery beats and one of those basslines that makes you pout like you’ve just smelt a bad smell (that’s why they call it ‘funk’, kids).

Friday, 12 June 2009

Horror Show

4th June 2009
Concorde 2
The Horrors (w/ support from Factory Floor and Disconcerts)

Like a steady drip of mascara running down the plughole, they are converging. A mass of hairspray, pointy shoes and crushed black velvet, trickling inexorably south and east through the city of Brighton, to the doors of the Concorde 2. It’s eight in the evening on a bright summer’s night. The sun is still up, but something is awry. Among the picnicking families and sunbathing couples, they are there, everpresent, a steady tide heading east of the pier. There are scene kids on the beach. The Horrors are in town.

I must confess I never really knew what to make of the Horrors. I’ve never been one of those people to shun a band just for having the temerity to dress up – for if David Bowie, Siouxsie Sioux and Nicky Wire have taught us anything (and they have), it is that outrageous sartorial posturing is an integral part of the (leopard print) fabric of rock and roll. So what if they got an outrageous springboard into the British music press before they’d even released their first single? The band can hardly be blamed for the hyperactive hype machine that is our music industry. If anything they are to be admired for playing the system to their advantage.

What really matters, as always, is the tunes. Alright, so the ghost-train punk, Cramps stylings of their debut Strange House were hardly befitting any ‘saviours of British rock music’ tag that the Horrors were afforded, but the material they were producing was a damn sight more interesting than the Kooks of this world, and there was always an indication that they might have what it takes to justify at least some of the presumptuous fanfare. With their sophomore effort, overseen by the capable hands of Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, they seem to have done just that, with a leftfield turn into post punk and krautrock inspired territory that illustrates a desire in the band for a bit less style and a bit more substance.

The support acts for tonight’s show are wholly representative of that shift. Openers Disconcerts do the whole ramalama angular punk riffs thing with unbridled energy and enthusiasm. Unfortunately they are also pretty terrible, showing that producing two-minute bursts of abrasive noise is actually an art form that is harder than it looks. They were followed by Factory Floor, who opted for the more ominous industrial approach, building gradual crescendos over creeping bass grooves. Both represent an element of the Horrors’ back catalogue, but neither manage to do it quite as well as the headliners, although Factory Floor at least possess some of that trademark theatricality.

When the Horrors arrived it was to universal high-pitched myspace screams, proving that you can do what you like with the music as long as you still have those totally dreamy goth boys up on stage to make the tweenagers swoon. Relatively dressed down in an array of snappy black and white variations, they played a set almost entirely comprised of material from new album Primary Colours, only raiding the older stuff for the breathless encore of ‘Sheena Is A Parasite’ and ‘Count In Fives’. The standout was the less than obvious single ‘Sea Within A Sea’, eight minutes of pure Joy Division note-taking, interrupted by the sudden thrill halfway through of a neatly arpeggiated synth line that grew in stature until it consumed all before it. Whether they’re playing the old or the new, it is this intensity that is the common thread throughout their performance, and when the music swells, it is tough not to be drawn in by its impetuous volume. This is not to say that this was a perfect gig, far from it, but in live music, atmosphere is all, and the Horrors have that, at least, in spades.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Up Pip Brown, Tommy Sparks Down

19th May 2009
Digital, Brighton
Ladyhawke/Tommy Sparks

Any aspiring musician searching for the knack of how to ‘do’ pop whilst still retaining indie sensibilities and street cred would have done well to be at Ladyhawke’s packed out show at Digital Tuesday night. The evening was a veritable indie-pop 101 of ‘do’s’ and ‘do not’s’.

Lesson one – It doesn’t matter how good the songs are, how tight the band is, however catchy the melodies, it will all be in vain if your frontman is a charisma vacuum as huge as Tommy Sparks. As he strode out onto stage, all hair gel and lycra, announcing “I’m Tommy Sparks, and this is my beautiful band”, I felt a genuine pang of sympathy for the talented musicians who have to share a stage with this giant, unfounded ego. Every intriguing piece of electropop noise was brought crashing down to earth by his Butlins holiday rep schtick, his insistence on leading into each song with a grating “Oi-Oi-Oi” exercise in vocal numbskullery. A cover of Stardust’s 1998 hit “The Music Sounds Better With You”, that could with a bit of personality have been turned into an intriguing track, instead became an exercise in bland karaoke from a preening black hole of a man. Message to ‘the beautiful band’: get out now, you don’t deserve this.

Once Tommy had flounced off, and the stagehands had been in to tether and drag away his inflated sense of self-worth, there was a perplexing wait of almost an hour before the main act finally appeared. During this time it was as though all the energy were sapping out of the crowd, meaning that by the time Ladyhawke took to the stage, she would have to work hard to get the place jumping.

In the flesh, Pip Brown (why use a pseudonym if you have such a cool name?) doesn’t really come across as a pop phenomenon. Dressed down in a denim waistcoat, her blonde fringe obscuring her eyes, her interaction with the crowd was anything but T4 Beach Party. But there was something endearing in her nervous asides that captured a personality refreshingly opposed to her support act’s cruise ship histrionics and forced jollity. Opening the set with a trio of album tracks before dropping her first hit of the night (‘From Dusk Till Dawn’), she encountered a problem all too common amongst debut album success stories – a lack of material for her audience to sing along to. Until she has another album’s worth of songs and a few more hit singles under her belt, it’s going to be nigh on impossible for Ladyhawke to provide the kind of sustained energy needed for big, headline gigs.

It was not until the last four or five songs of her set that she began to roll out the big guns with ‘Paris Is Burning’, and the room really started moving. Finally the pop hooks began to come thick and fast, and by the time the band bounced off the stage, a palpable sense of goodwill left the audience on tenterhooks for the inevitable encore.

Inevitable, of course, because she had not yet played her biggest hit to date, the big, dumb, glorious romp of ‘My Delirium’. Whilst there could be hardly anyone in the room who didn’t know what was coming, Ladyhawke had one more trick up her sleeve, returning to the stage to belt out an impassioned Patti Smith number. For the few minutes of ‘Free Money’ she let go of her inhibitions just as much as her crowd had been willing to the whole evening, and her obvious enjoyment stirred those last reserves of energy among us for the big finish. And yet, when it came, this three-minute slice of indie disco perfection was curiously underwhelming. Brown seems to be tiring of ‘My Delirium’s status as the ‘big hit’ among her repertoire, and it was not infused with the same sense of glee with which she had owned someone else’s song minutes before. Whilst her enthusiasm may have been waning, however, the audience’s excitement still reached its crescendo, and it was impossible not to be swept along by the sugar rush grooves. If anything, by playing down her most famous song in favour of an obscure yet charming cover, Ladyhawke made herself a much more interesting proposition, for this reviewer at least. It is clear that she possesses a way with a grunge-pop melody, and her lack of interest in being seen as a ‘one-hit wonder’ hinted at further promise just waiting to be realised.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009


13th April 2009
The Albert

If you can’t stand unbelievably abstract similes, look away now, because this review is going to contain a lot of them. Apologies, but that’s just the way it’s going to have to be. There’s a great difficulty in describing what HEALTH (all caps, don’t ask me why) actually sound like, chiefly because they sound like precisely nothing else. Looking at the four men standing on stage as the gig starts, you might be forgiven for thinking that the sound they’re about to produce can’t be that radical. I see a drummer, a bassist, and two guitarists, one with a microphone, one with a synthesiser. Sure, there are a lot of wires and pedals going on, but they can’t sound that dissimilar to a traditional rock band, right?

Wrong. Because after about five minutes of unadulterated mayhem, band members clambering over each other, beating drums, screaming, hammering god-knows-what buttons to produce full-throated blasts of multi-layered noise, you come to realise that you have never seen a gig like this before, and will probably never be lucky enough to see again.

HEALTH are only doing five dates on this UK tour, and Brighton’s The Albert is the first venue to play host. They’re famous enough (Their collaboration with Crystal Castles on ‘Crimewave’ charted in the UK top ten) that they don’t need to play gigs this small, but on tonight’s evidence alone, booking HEALTH into a succession of sweatbox rooms above pubs might just prove to be an artistic masterstroke. The sell-out crowd are packed in tight to the low stage, and the energy and enthusiasm is palpable, only increasing in fervour with the painstaking sound-check, each individual drum tested and retested a hundred times until the desired ‘robots fighting in a lift shaft’ tone is achieved.

Then suddenly, without warning, the show begins with new single ‘Die Slow’, hinting at a move into more dance-oriented territory, perhaps buoyed by the success of remix album ‘HEALTH//DISCO’, certainly the point in the band’s career at which they began to garner more attention in the music press. The band have remarked in interviews how often people come to their shows and shout for a song that has already been played, not recognising it from the remix, and it seems that their response has been to hone their chaotic noise palate into rhythms and grooves.

That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of chaos going on, but it steps up a notch when the band plunge into early single ‘Triceratops’, showcasing what made their noise-rock debut so suitable for remixing in the first place; that whilst the bizarre, roaring sounds HEALTH make may sound unhinged, as a unit they are incredibly tight, handling labyrinthine, polyrhythmic beats and guitars that sound like a jet engine playing a harmonica, at breakneck pace, without ever slipping out of time. Loops upon loops of feedback and zoothorned vocals pile on top of each other and coalesce into a dense, pulsing throb.

The crowd are certainly in a mood to move their feet. Heads and arms flail everywhere as the front five rows bounce and writhe with the noise. Up on stage, this unleashed energy is reflected by the band, who tear into each song, giving every last ounce of themselves to the performance. They speak only once in the whole hour they are on stage – “Hi, we’re HEALTH, we’re from Los Angeles. Thanks for coming out tonight. This is our last song.” – before exiting on the frenzied, minute-long ‘Courtship’. A drumbeat, a scream, some mutilated vocals and the spectacle is finished, and all that is left are the hundred or so reeling audience members, trying (and failing) to put into words what they have just witnessed.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Orchestral Manouvres in the Cowley Club

A version of this review appears at

April 10th 2009
Cowley Club
Lamp/Cove/The Pirate Ship Quintet

Let’s get this straight right from the off. I love post rock. LOVE it. It’s an alien thought to me that someone could fail to be sonically aroused by that simple yet brilliant concept of combining roaring wall-of-sound guitar with propulsive strings and brass, then proceeding to do the quiet-loud-quiet-LOUDER dynamic until the cows come home. It’s a genre that, provided everyone concerned knows what they’re doing, cannot fail to impress.

So objectivity be damned, then. It was never really in doubt that Friday evening’s entertainment at the Cowley Club would be an experience of total immersion in sound, and that I was always going to leave sated, and, more likely than not, grinning from ear to ear.

It helps no end that Brighton’s favourite anarchist bookshop-cum-bar is the perfect setting for such cacophony. Some might feel that orchestral rock is best suited to that more grandiose, ‘cathedral of sound’ kind of venue, but something about this cosy, collective atmosphere channels the intensity of the music into an altogether more absorbing beast. It’s as if the university string quartet and their noisemaking guitarist friends decided to crash their college lecturer’s front room during a drinks party. Books line the walls. There is an excited murmur of discussion about the use of time signatures. The real ale is thick, and the beards are thicker.

Some of the finest facial hair on display belonged to the unenviably named Lamp, who were first to take to the stage. A tight unit consisting of two guitars and a frenetically pounding drummer, their set demonstrated an almost telepathic level of awareness between the trio that was a sight to behold. Facing inward toward each other (as if the audience were simply privy to an intimate scene of three friends creating music for their own enjoyment), their individual, rhythmic phrases wound together to create a constantly shifting, off kilter aesthetic to their lyricless songs.

In fact, vocals were almost entirely absent from proceedings for the whole night. The closest we came was during second act, Brighton’s own Cove (what’s with all the monosyllabic band names, guys?), when the occasional verse of spiky, gain-distorted guitar thrash would be leant some added adrenaline (if it were needed) by garbled, spoken word interludes, as well as short bursts of the more traditional guttural yelps, reminiscent of Fugazi or At The Drive-In. Whilst the audience seemed less drawn in by Cove’s head-throwing antics than the more measured approach of the other two bands, they brought a louder, more visceral sound to the party that achieved a pleasing balance for the spectacle as a whole.

It was this noisy aperitif that brought us round, at last, to that long-awaited post rock main course. From the off, the Bristol-based Pirate Ship Quintet (who, confusingly, appeared to have six members) wore their influences on their sleeve. It is obvious that their cello and trumpet driven sound owes a huge debt to Godspeed You Black Emperor, but really, who’s complaining? If you’re going to emulate, you may as well try and emulate the best, and the Quintet proved themselves more than adept at handling the languid build-up, the swell and release of epic proportions, and of course the imposing ten minute track lengths that were required of them.
Whilst perhaps the group failed to demonstrate as great a range of subtle intricacies of tension and atmosphere that separate a band like Godspeed or Mogwai from the crowd, it would be churlish to complain about the Pirate Ship Quintet’s sound against such illustrious company. They do what they set out to do very well indeed, which is to make music that over-indulges the senses, absorbs you into it, and makes your heart beat just that little bit faster.

Any post rock outfit lives or dies by the standard of its orchestral element, and the strains of the cello, foregrounded by the squall of guitars that surrounded it, did not disappoint. Fingers danced over the instrument’s neck at often dazzling speeds, covering the whole range from delicate melodies (over a backdrop of subdued, chiming guitars) to frantically bowed bass lines (the same guitars now galloping like thunder). These cinematic soundscapes were furthered by the occasional, constantly ascending note on the trumpet, or screamed vocal, the human voice treated as an instrument for atmospheric effect, rather than leading the action. The rush of all these elements combined, allied to a constant, gradual push on the volume pedal, is impossible to describe, but when it hits the sweet spot, it hits hard, and the only sane reaction is one of breathless satisfaction.

Friday, 16 January 2009


So I wrote some stuff over on Wired For Style which is up now. For some reason my name's not been attached to it, which is a bit of an irritation, but trust me, them words up there, they're all mine. So anyway, if you want to know how to be cool like me, there's some things to start you off. I particularly want one of those House of Bendie hoodies. They look just the thing for job interviews in trendy 'experimental' London media offices. Enjoy.