Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Book Review - Apples by Richard Milward

Twenty-three year old Milward’s critically acclaimed debut, ‘Apples’, is a heady concoction of drug-fuelled adolescent antics and council estate violence. Set in his hometown of Middlesbrough, it addresses the condition of British youth with an unflinching frankness born of personal experience. Intertwined tales of teenage love and loss are spelled out to the reader through the unapologetic colloquial voices of the characters, their stories punctuated by pop culture references and bravely abstract monologues by (amongst others) a butterfly, and a pair of street lights.

Although his landscapes are gritty and grey, Milward’s story is one of endless colour. ‘Apples’ is relentlessly upbeat in tone, bringing light to Middlesbrough’s bleak estates and dark humour to his downtrodden characters. The opening line, “We got a McDonald’s the night my mam got lung cancer,” characteristically expresses main character Eve’s deadpan acceptance of life and her unconscious evasion of sentimentality. Milward, although born into a family of boys, is surprising adept in expressing the tribulations of the young Eve as she grapples with her developing sexuality, involving everything from the aches and pains of periods to the necessity of owning the latest brand of lip-gloss.

Meanwhile Adam, Eve’s unrequited Romeo, must deal with a violent father and consuming social unease under the constant shadow of his obsessive compulsive disorder, introducing himself with, “I had to shut the door seven times or else my family dies.” He is the hero in this transparent fight against the chauvinist. As inexperienced party girls drink and dope themselves to paralysis in numerous drug-saturated mini-plots, they become the victims of rape and aggression from the deluded, devastatingly immoral Gary Clinton, leading to pregnancies, babies, and one terrifyingly misguided case of infanticide. Though ‘Apples’ will raise eyebrows with its honest portrayal of drug-addled fun, it is better understood through Milward’s own words as an ‘anti-macho fairystory’, a fictionalised first hand account of the horrific damage caused by the inbred machismo of British youth culture.

The fearless confidence of Milward’s authorial voice is breathtaking, undoubtedly deserving of the high critical praise it has received. Even more satisfying is the way in which his story never fully resolves into romance or tragedy, skirting cliché in favour of the realism of loose ends. ‘Apples’ is a gutsy, hot-blooded debut from an essential new voice of our time, making Milward one to watch in 2008.

Book Review - after the quake by Haruki Murakami

When the Kobe earthquake struck Japan in 1995, its effects extended further than the physical cracking open of the earth. Each of the characters in ‘after the quake’, live far from the epicentre of the disaster, but still feel the shock waves ricochet through their lives, setting off minute chains of events that lead them eventually back to the cracks in their own existence.

Japanese master of fiction, Haruki Murakami, here presents six short stories exploring the way in which the earth’s unidentifiable power can change all of us in the most unexpected and unconnected of ways. His writing is full of a powerful knowing that is seemingly beyond even him to express. It is as though each thread of narrative is a feather-thick inky stroke of Japanese calligraphy, unable to portray the whole, but nonetheless part of the whole, and perhaps clue to the meaning of all this human fragility in the face of the mysterious power of the environment.

The distant earthquake, witnessed by these individuals only on the television and the radio, forces them to confront an overwhelming sense of emptiness that they have carried within them for a long time. In ‘UFO in Kushiro’ an electronics salesman, Komura, comes home from work one Sunday to find his wife gone, leaving only a note saying, ‘living like you is like living with a chunk of air’. ‘Landscape with Flatiron’ explores the suicidal feelings of a young runaway and her middle-aged friend with a talent for building the perfect bonfire.

Through these beautiful small sketches exploring the gently consuming ache of life without love, Murakami defies genres by slipping with authorial ease between the romantic, the terrifying and the absurd. In a bizarre cartoon-like yarn, Katagiri, the ‘less than ordinary’ protagonist of ‘Super-Frog Saves Tokyo’, is visited by an enormous frog one evening, and coerced into doing battle against a giant subterranean earthquake-causing evil, known as Worm.

Murakami’s elusively twisting plotlines succeed in rendering his stories infectiously intriguing and endlessly strange. He gives us little detail and keeps each chapter too short to be anything more than a fleeting glance at the goings on in foreign lives. But as Murakami pulls each narrative thread from the tangle of time he sheds shards of light on ineffable truths, making his prose nothing short of magical.

Monday, 14 January 2008

BBC Cambridgeshire Music Feature - Deaf By Stereo

There's nowhere better to be right now than Peterborough if you fancy a bit of indie-magic. Local reveller Hazel Sheffield tells us about a particular trio who are bringing bands to the masses.

There’s a buzz on the streets of Peterborough. No longer satisfied with the monotony of the chain-owned bar circuit on Broadway, the weekend crowd are heading downtown to be a part of the most exciting local development since John Lewis started opening on Sundays. The whispers are that three musically inspired individuals are revolutionising the Peterborough music scene under the name ‘Deaf By Stereo’.

This three-way partnership is putting Peterborough on the live-music map, organising nights out the likes of which the locals have never seen before by attracting some of the most exciting new acts in the country to the culturally undernourished streets of the ‘borough. The weekend will never be the same again…

Deaf By Stereo was conceived nine months ago by good friends Mark Pearson, Rachel Devlin and Jenny Leaman, through a shared passion for new music and their recognition that Peterborough desperately needed to offer more than corporately owned nightlife to its local population.

After scouring the festival circuit for the cream of musical talent last summer they began to formulate some of the most exciting live line-ups the city has ever seen. These personally financed, not-for-profit bundles of musical joy began with a bang on the 15th September, with local heroes Dirty Little Faces wowing fans with a sell-out set, supported by Ipswich’s finest, Rosalita.

Rachel speaks for the majority in Peterborough when she says, “It was clear Peterborough was lacking the live entertainment necessary to draw people from their homes on a Saturday night. Since Deaf By Stereo began we’ve been amazed by local support from live music fans of all ages and persuasions turning out to hear some of the best new bands in the country.”

Concentrating on bands from the medium-sized tour circuit has helped the trio attract a remarkable array of exciting new talent – from twisted electro of Dan Le Sac, Does It Offend You, Yeah? and Fenech-Soler, to the indie-cool of The Anomalies and The Brays.

With the line up for this year already stretching into May, Deaf By Stereo are poised to achieve big things in 2008. Expect unsurpassed entertainment on your doorstep from Late Of The Pier, Video Nasties, and The Librarians, to name but a few. Tickets are already on sale for the 26th January, when the Xoo Bar will host an indie-rock riot in the form of Rosalita, with support from the Brays.

Information about all future events and how to reserve your place can be found on the Deaf By Stereo myspace page. “The most important thing is that we continue to give the people of Peterborough the opportunity to hear great music in their home town,” Rachel explains, “and as long as live music lovers in the city continue to show us support on the level that we’ve received so far, Deaf By Stereo can only go from strength to strength.”

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Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Album Review - Instruments of Science and Technology: Music From The Films Of R/Swift

Instruments of Science and Technology – Music From The Films Of R Swift

The side project of self-deprecating pop wonderman Richard Swift, Instruments of Science and Technology, is less a different sound for the American film-maker-cum-songwriter than an alternate musical universe. His last album, ‘Dressed Up For the Letdown’, was released last year to critical acclaim, a self-conscious depressingly cheerful pop record complete with clanging piano and smiley strum-along guitar. If you loved it, be wary: ‘Music From The Films Of R Swift’ is not cut from the same cloth. This is a dark, experimental avenue for Swift, one that follows in the electronic tradition of some of the most influential bands of the last fifty years.

INST is a revivalist hybrid, reworking elements of dub, hip-hop and contemporary composition into a strong kraut-rock foundation. The opening narration informs unsuspecting listeners, “The best way to relax is to lie down upon your bed and stretch out.” Presumably Swift didn’t intend this to be the soundtrack to his recommended relaxation technique, as what follows is a kind of musical salvia nightmare perforated with swaths of twisted ambience.

Post-narration, Swift takes an aural plunge into the retro-pulsing eponymous ‘INST’, thick with cheese-grating vocoder and strongly reminiscent of the revolutionary industrial sounds of seventies Kraftwerk. Drifting, spacious ambience in ‘Subplot’, ‘Plan A and Plan B’, and ‘War/Unwar’ break up the darker, almost tribal propulsion of ‘Shooting A Rhino Between The Shoulders’ and ‘Theme 3’, whilst the muted groove of the percussion in ‘Ghost of Hip-Hop’ is almost lost in a synthetically hypnotic electro-cloud. What all the tracks on the album have in common is the ability to render vivid cinemascapes in sound, like a twisted modern day Fantasia for a digital generation. Forget melody and convention, INST explores sound on the periphery of human comprehension. That isn’t to say that this is groundbreaking stuff – in fact far from it – but it does cement Swift’s position as a schizophrenically talented, genre-dodging musical innovator.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Album Review - Kyte: Kyte

Kyte – Kyte (KIDS) released 18/2/08
If there is a shoegaze revival going on, Kyte aren’t a part of it. Especially not shoerave, whatever that might be, thank you NME. What this Leicestershire five-piece have achieved with their self-titled debut album is a musically enlightened glacial soundscape born of the surging ambience of Sigur Rós and the deft lyricism of Death Cab for Cutie: an instrumentally organic, homegrown parcel of Postal Service dream-pop.

Layers of clean sound swell and subside through each track on this album, a huge departure from the encompassing white-noisiness of quintessential shoegazers such as My Bloody Valentine. For Kyte, each musical component is polished and placed within a swirling mêlée that builds electronica into the gentle chug of math-rock guitars, tidal currents of percussion and the hypnotic twinkle of piano and xylophone. Somewhere inside this sonic hangar the lonesome lo-fi vocals of Nick Moon float on a synth cloud, murmuring charismatic threnodies. If only the boy wouldn’t affect an American accent…

Opener ‘Planet’ is the only track to be previously released as a 7” single on Sonic Cathedral. It showcases orb-like loops of piano and lead that slip into gasping percussive currents under the indie-sensible reaches of the vocal, eventually climaxing in pulsating reverb-saturated guitars and endless cymbal froth before pattering out to keyboard chords. It seems an odd choice for the band’s debut, whose talents might be better explored through the celestial 8-bit and grounding arpeggiated piano loop of ‘They Won’t Sleep’. This album highlight switches to the fizzing skitter of 16-beat drum-work mid-swell, building into the fuzz of a white noise finale that echoes into the barely audible intro of the ultimate track, ‘These Tales of Our Stay’.

There are clattering drums and piercing glockenspiel in the Mercury-nominated Maps mix of ‘Secular Ventures’ and evidence of extraordinary percussive talent in the range of instrumentation used on the latino-shuffle of ‘Home’. One of Kyte’s warmest offerings, ‘Sunshine’, begins with a screeching dial-up modem loop, becoming a synthetic track of continuous upward movement interspersed with delicious vinyl crackles and the gentle thump of the piano, like the yellow of the day creeping through cold window glass, warming etiolated winter skin.

Since the release of ‘Planet’ in September Kyte have clinched a backing track deal with the ubiquitous HBO for the Sopranos’ new trailer, been hailed by NME as ‘Best New Band On Myspace’ and toured with the likes of The Whip. With an average age of 20 and a sound that leaves plenty of scope for maturation, this is a band to look out for in 2008. The album’s a slow burner lacking in the melodic hooks that make Death Cab or Postal Service so lucratively listenable, but there is movement here – the evolution of organic-electro sound – and it is tangible and real and promises to make Kyte an exciting live act, too.

Gigwise - Singles January 2008

The Brute Chorus – Chateau/The Cuckoo and The Stolen Heart feat. Tigs
Mardy four-piece The Brute Chorus sound like bluesy cotton-pickers transported by fairytale pumpkin to a skiffle party in a garage: these boys might reside in London but their music heralds from the rural dirt of their provincial origins. It’s pretty glorious to behold, too. ‘Chateau’ evolves from heartbeating bass into the drunken stutters of guitar over filthy string bass, exploding into vocal fury as the Brutes lyrically conjure a nightmare nursery tale before swaggering back to brood, like a lover scorned, in the dark corners of the castle. ‘The Cuckoo and The Stolen Heart’ confirms the band’s gift for ingenious name giving whilst moving musically up-tempo. A growling Kazoo introduces a blues band complete with hillbilly banjo that titters away through dizzy rounds of 8 bar blues. Meanwhile vocalist James Steel and featured artist Tigs spin yarns and spit accusations of absorbing folk-intrigue. The Brute Chorus are dirty drunken troubadours etching out an overdue remedy to the sugar-sick, mindlessly slick pop fodder of our spurious musical age with the strut-thump of jutting garage pop genius.

Operahouse – Born A Boy
Operahouse are Camden-town skinny-jean clad kids bravely attempting to catch a sniff of the melodic jittery pop that the Maccabees excelled at last year, but they remain sadly unconvincing. ‘Born A Boy’ is infected with post punk angles that are so of the moment they happened yesterday. The single is a headlong hurtle through wanky basslines and watery guitar solos that whine through the instrumental. This is then punctuated with a hideous assault on a high hat mid-track, leading into a finale that sounds like the drummer had an epileptic fit on the crash cymbal. The lyrics are barely comprehensible and frankly disappointing when they emerge over the racket. High-energy north-London punk-pop habitually comes with ladles of pretension, but Operahouse smack a little of desperation. The B side, ‘Telescopes’, is marginally better and slower in tempo, giving the band a greater chance of holding the constituent parts of their limited musicality together. ‘Telescopes’ ends on the repeated wail, ‘I don’t care anymore, I don’t care anymore,’ a rather apt pre-emption of the creeping apathy induced by this release.

Gabriella Cilmi – Sweet About Me
Born to second generation Italian parents in Melbourne a mere sixteen years ago, this pretty little lady and her dust-covered bluesy vocals will be invading your headspace with pervasively jaunty jangle-pop anytime soon. She repeats, seemingly incessantly, for nearly the entirety of her new single, ‘there’s nothing sweet about me,’ but it doesn’t take more than a myspace to see that this mechanically exported industry product is the musical equivalent of a Nigella Lawson dessert involving three kilos of sugar and a garnish of gummi bears. Expect heavy airplay from major radio stations as her label, Island, try to market their pop sweetheart of choice ahead of contenders for the 2008 pop-princess crown (and there are a lot of them) including Duffy, Adele and old hats Lilly and Kate. She’s already performed on Later with Jools Holland (But then, who hasn’t these days?) and recorded the title music for ITV drama ‘Echo Beach’. The year’s off to a good start for Gabriella, with ‘Sweet About Me’ a sure-fire pop hit.

Butterfly Bangs – Junk Sky
Butterfly Bangs fall into the ubiquitous four-man band bracket and aren’t the most ball-grabbingly original outfit to flutter around the edges of indie-rock mainstream. Their second single, ‘Junk Sky’, is melodically elusive, perhaps tactically avoiding the descent into guitar-riff stadium anthem gore, but failing to replace this with a sense of musical direction, and this is a bit frustrating. There’s something in there, but it never quite happens. The guitar work is impressive, invoking a sound reminiscent of The Rakes or a cleaner Art Brut. An Idlewild-inspired static-filled spoken recording adds interest mid-track under a pleasingly tight 16-beat splashy high-hat, and a trumpet makes a brief twiddling appearance. Lyrical limitations are apparent in the rather boring refrain ‘It’s sad, sad, sad, being alone,’ probably the most disappointing part of a single from a band that should be capable of big things. This isn’t the record that will make Butterfly Bangs. ‘Junk Sky’ is a jigsaw puzzle of a great brit-rock track, but this time the pieces just don’t quite fit together.

Subliminal Girls – Hungry Like The Wolf/Self Obsession Is An Art Form
Subliminal Girls created a bit of a buzz with last year with their rainbow hued ‘Burn KOKO’ that sounded like mashed 80s electro injected with a relentlessly annoying football anthem chorus about how terribly awful it must be to be indie. They return with a double A side comprising of a sad, synth-led reflection on modern times in ‘Self Obsession Is An Art Form’ and a Duran Duran cover from 1982, ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’. The latter is dragged screaming into 2008 with a faster tempo, though thankfully retains the endearing, hiccuppy eighties electro-blips and a good bit of synth. It’s inoffensive, but was the world really yearning for a subtly souped up version of a mediocre Duran Duran track? Meanwhile ‘Self Obsession Is An Art Form’ moves down-tempo, following in the same lyrical vein as ‘Burn KOKO’ minus the cocksure arrogance. Its fizzy synth-imbued charm hangs over chugging guitars and breathy eighties keyboards: a kind of introspective pop-sensible number, not genius, but actually pretty good. This self-proclaimed ‘nu-pop’ has an obvious shelf life, but taken as lightly as the Subliminal Girls intend, it’s also got the potential to induce a bit of an eighties-electropop revival amongst those pretentious indie kids this year.