Thursday, 21 February 2008

More February Singles Reviews

Duffy – Mercy released 25/2/08

Thanks to the likes of Winehouse and Ronson, sixties musical stylings have been making something of a comeback in the last year. Now with the huge hype surrounding this Welsh songstress and her single Mercy, the soul scene looks set for a full-scale revival. Part atavistic tosh, part pop genius, Mercy is a particle of retro-revivalist wonder that will have dance floors smouldering underfoot just as the fiery-soled dancers in her video demonstrate. If you can wade through the hyped-up comparisons to Winehouse and, even more ostentatiously, Dusty Springfield (neither of which bear more than a passing vocal resemblance to Duffy), you’ll find a rather attractive platinum-blonde star-in-the-making with a startlingly unique voice, one that overshadows comparison. It is this vocal talent that illuminates what is essentially a rather run-of-the-mill pop track about a boy beyond the reaches of the already-taken Duffy. From the cheerfully repetitive ‘yeah, yeah yeahs’ at the opening to the quaint piped-organ backing, Mercy is a snippet of seamless soul production straight out of the provincial windpipes of an impressive new vocal talent.

Boy Kill Boy – Promises released 17/3/08

Boy Kill Boy are counting down to the release of their new album, The Stars and The Sea with this, the second single to be taken from it. Sadly, the Leytonstone four-piece don’t come very close to the astronomical heights or aquatic depths they allude to in the lyrics of Promises, which is more the musical equivalent of a puddle lit up by a dodgy street lamp. It sounds like it went out of date a good five years ago, and even then, was an economy brand of a sound that only a handful of bands successfully managed to pull off – Killers, or Hot Hot Heat, for example. A relentless guitar-pop chug persists throughout, overlaid by a tedious little keyboard riff that bears a remarkable resemblance to a Nokia ringtone. The vocals are particularly unimaginative, with Chris Peck affecting a damp slur as he slews his way through lyrics of the perfect emo-whine variety. Though likely to garner a bit of radio-play on the back of Boy Kill Boy’s brief 2006 flirt with NME cool, Promises is an unpromising indication of things to come on The Stars and The Sea.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Late Of The Pier - Leeds Cockpit: 15/2/08

All about the party...
Anyone who witnessed the limping, chainmail oddity that was Klaxons on the festival circuit last year will be well aware that their time at the pinnacle of nu-rave cool was fast coming to an end. Enter Late of the Pier, a Nottingham quartet that have been working with Erol Alkan and Metronomy over the last few months and fast gaining a following amongst the amphetamine-laced electro-teens of the Skins generation.

They were out in earnest on Saturday in Leeds, their wide-eyed party-lust outdone only by the spectacle that was before them on stage. LOTP used to look pretty quaint and freshfaced blasting out their oddball bleeps behind a humble set of synths and keys; a stint on the circuit later and they’re all done out with huge silver boxes to bash on periodically when they’re not busy pirouetting. Keyboardist Red Dog Consuela (I’m guessing that’s not quite what’s written on his birth certificate) stole the show, twirling about the stage wrapped in silver lamé on another plane of reality entirely. Meanwhile vocalist Samuel Dust held the performance together with impressive authority, leaning on the strength of the rhythm and bass section to execute some impressive tempo-changes.

Their music combines seventies mechanised elecronica with art-punk, a typical contemporary mash-up of decades gone by that explodes periodically into repetitious synth-pop hooks, outdone in exuberance only by the theatrics of their stage-presence. New single ‘The Bears Are Coming’ was interrupted by an overexcited stage-invader leaping before the microphone, babbling insensibilities; unperturbed, Dust tapped out the rhythmic refrain on his back before diving headlong into the crowd. Lyrically, LOTP are completely incomprehensible, their between-track spiels proving equally weird, with Consuela shouting about snakes and Dust translating in his best German-robot impersonation. But, let’s face it, no one was there for the chat. They might be on the fringes of musical sanity, but LOTP are all about the party, an attitude that sees them set to achieve big things in 2008.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Book Review - On The Road by Jack Kerouac

Why Kerouac still matters

Upon publication in 1957, ‘On The Road’ immediately made Jack Kerouac a literary star. For the rest of his life he would be called upon as the mouthpiece of a generation to explain the ‘beat’ phenomenon, of which his book was celebrated as the greatest achievement. It had been written in three weeks in 1951, on twelve-foot rolls of taped together drawing paper, in one single-spaced paragraph. Kerouac is said to have typed it furiously fast, shunning breaks in the narrative so as to capture the sense propulsion that carries the reader through his heady tales of life on the road.

The coming together of the book may have climaxed in this three-week fit of typing, but its roots went back much further. ‘On The Road’, Kerouac’s second novel, began to find its way onto paper in 1951 following several years of travels. Kerouac features in the novel as ‘Sal Paradise’, a lonely young writer who chases his friend, Dean Moriarty, across the continent in search of the American dream; much of the prose is autobiographical. Even today, hundreds of young beat-fanatics can be found strung across America’s highways, as they hitch their way about the country, following in Kerouac’s well-trodden step.

However the most remarkable elements of this strange, furious prose are not to be found in its roadtrip plot. Kerouac’s travelling tales succeed each other with such rapidity that the reader barely has time to digest each event before being pushed back on the road to the next adventure. Instead of pauses for explanations, the narrative is shot through with sleepless lunacy that conveys a heady lust for life and its limits, whilst retaining undercurrents of sadness that colour the fruitless search for unlimited freedom with a quiet sense of frustration.

Far from being solely representative of the first footloose youngsters of the fifties, ‘On The Road’ captures with fierce intensity the tendency of the modern world to induce existential paranoia in each of us, as we fail to find reason in the unpredictable turns that life can take. Yet Kerouac never lapses into self-pity at the human predicament. ‘On The Road’ instead resonates with an indelible optimism that captures with rare beauty ‘the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives’.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Envy & Other Sins - Highness

Thank god for Channel 4. Because, you know, I really felt the gap in the market for a fly-on-the-wall, reality-TV, celebrity-manufacturing battle of the bands. With commercial indie about as independent as a wheelchair-bound blind-man, it was only a matter of time before someone employed Radio 1 ‘legend’ Jo Whiley to whittle out the bad from the good and get under the skin of struggling-band culture in a consumer-driven hunt for musical celebrity.

Envy and Other Sins, the resulting winners of Channel 4’s Mobile Act Unsigned, fulfil all possible expectations with this, their first single, Highness. Polished to the point of slippery, these boys haven’t missed a trick. Clean guitar layers thunk and twang over a relentless bass, whilst organ and piano suspensions fill out monotonous musicality with sweet, hot air. An unwinding drum roll bridge brings to mind a jack-in-the-box filled with skinny-jean-clad fourteen-year-olds that spring out back into the chorus to hop around, until the end. It’s pretty spurious stuff, in the same vein as The Feeling, but as far as manufactured indie-pop goes, this is as formulaically perfect as it gets.

Basia Bulat - In The Night EP

Basia Bulat hails from Ontario and has been creating beautifully crafted folk-pop for a good few years now, with very little recognition. Having released an album last year entitled Oh, My Darling, she returns this year with an EP comprising of a new number In The Night, as well as a reworked version of an album track, Before I Knew, and a cover of fifties soul legend Sam Cooke’s Touch The Hem Of His Garment. Bulat is endowed with a voice that immerses the soul, gossamer soft and encompassing, yet shot through with a steel-like strength that winds around the hubbub of the thick folk instrumentation of her band, to gently waver, bird-like, at the ends of phrases.

There’s something gloriously organic about Basia Bulat’s music, which she purports to have found ‘dangling from the trees’. In The Night is a midnight musical stomp through the woods (check out the video): upbeat and somewhat anthemic, it’s definitely a grower. Meanwhile percussion and pace have been added to first-love-song Before I Knew to make a grander sound that overwhelms after hearing the beguiling ukulele-beauty of the album version. Touch The Hem is a different vein for Bulat, showcasing soulful vocal capabilities that carry the simple piano-chug of this old soul song into the realm of chamber-pop. Though enchanting, these EP tracks are still not a patch on the best songs of the album; an indication, perhaps, of Bulat’s singular talent.

Book Review - Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland

Cult bestseller tackles facing cultural fall-out in the post-nuclear age

Generation X, a term invented by Douglas Coupland in his 1991 novel of the same name, has gained popular usage to describe the twenty-somethings of the last two decades. Saturated by materialism and brought up to believe they could have everything, Coupland instead captures the tendency of a whole generation to seek liberty from modern life’s oppressive superfluity. The result is a novel fractured into snappy vignettes invented by the three central characters, whose own lives sink into stasis as they retreat from modernity.

Andy, our narrator, lives in a nuclear-age desert landscape, in a bungalow complex with his two best friends, Dag and Claire. All have been thrown together by their collective sense that modern life with its celebrity obsessions, disposable ethics, and plastic commodities, is hell. Each of them is on a personal mission of escapism. Dag, a reformed advertising executive, is the most erratic, disappearing for days at a time, while Claire tries to forget her long-term corporate-boy romance in their desert retreat. Meanwhile, Andy’s search for less-in-life dislocates him from his loving family and draws him closer to his two pals. All three have shunned their educated, middle class upbringing for ‘McJobs’, low-paid unskilled employment as bar attendants and shop assistants. When their physical separation from the corporate world fails to ease their sense of something lost they retreat further into invented and recalled folk-tales, all the time seeking a sense of the concrete in a world of entropic chaos.

Though the story-telling diversions are entertaining, not to mention necessary in a novel whose characters fail to really do anything themselves, they do tend to fragment the narrative somewhat. Footnotes on almost every page explain Coupland’s prolific pop-cult expressions that saturate the novel, ranging from ‘brazilification’ and ‘option paralysis’, whilst mini-slogans and meaningless cartoon frames in the margins add an element of novelty, maybe even an attempt at post-modernism.

This is a funny piece of fiction, in a pessimistic The Office kind of way; one that, after the laugh, prompts the question, ‘how did we end up here?’ Perhaps the most striking element of Generation X, however, is that all the pop-culture references remain relevant today, almost twenty years later. Coupland’s anti-modern message is truer than ever: faced with too many choices in consumer-driven culture, the twenty-something graduates of the iPod generation are retreating, and making none.

Album Review - Scanners: Violence Is Golden

Musically schizophrenic four-piece, Scanners, have crafted a genre-elusive long-player with the re-release of their debut album Violence Is Golden, featuring four additional remixes. Sarah Daly’s searing, spitting vocals snare attention and prove capable of sculpting an arena of sound that is filled out by this mightily talented boy-boy-girl-girl outfit. But the album’s a bit of a puzzler. It explores a plethora of musical avenues, resulting in an aurally dizzying finished product: there are moments of inspired, biting, punk rock that wilt in the interim into the dreary plug-plug of ‘In My Dreams’, or twist into the strange, electronica and thick vocal harmony of ‘High Flier’.

Album opener, ‘Joy’, skids from feedback intro into grunge-rock gore, with eighties synths and a monosyllabic stop-start chorus, producing an overdone, outdated whole that hangs heavy off disjointed vocals. At other times Scanners shun grunge for the mystical, as with the psychedelic slide-guitar of ‘Evil Twin’, that sees Daly switch from screeching to soothing and seductive. Though eclecticism can make for excitement, this strange psychedelic twist is sandwiched between ‘Air 164’, a dirty, grinding Kills-esque number, and swathes of bubbling keyboard swoops in ‘Raw’, suggesting stylistic confusion more than genre evading genius.

The highlight, and a good place to start, comes in the shape of first single release ‘Lowlife’. There’s a clarity here lacking in the finished album, allowing Daley to execute gripping melodic shifts over a sophisticated guitar riff, balanced with piano punctuation and subtle violin strokes. A joyous bassline propels the track forward, eschewing both monotony and melodrama. Scanners slip easily into the quiet chug of the Cardigans in ‘Look What You Started’; Daley is just as accomplished at melancholic pleading as nasty squalling, and there’s a good lift here mid-track even if the effort seems a little tame surrounded by all that angry grunge.

The eponymous and ultimate ‘Violence is Golden’ entwines a rugged guitar riff with the waltzing fury of Daley screaming ‘a conflict of souls/a beautiful war’. Whilst this is typical of lyrics that tend to veer more towards insipid than insightful, it expresses rather adeptly Scanners’ predicament. Dark and seductively dirty, with moments of enthralling sonic exhilaration, Violence Is Golden loses cohesion in failing to consistently reproduce the tight outfit Scanners have perfected on some of their best tracks.