Friday, 28 November 2008

Interview: Frightened Rabbit

Few Scottish bands these days can say they’ve sold out huge venues in the states, garnered a celebrity following and written an article for a British national newspaper. Especially while retaining a level of relative anonymity on home soil that makes it possible for them to gig in tiny pubs in their neighbourhood without so much as turning a few heads. Yet Selkirk natives Frightened Rabbit find themselves in this unusual predicament.

Their latest album, The Midnight Organ Fight, released back in April, is already big news stateside. Early blog support saw it spread like wildfire and has propelled the band to the prestigious ranks of Pitchfork darlings – an enviable if not impossible feat for most British rock bands. This side of the pond, they fill huge venues with ambitiously instrumented layers of sound, if not always people. On top of intricately woven guitars and keys, lead vocalist and songwriter Scott Hutchison, who was the first, lone Frightened Rabbit back in 2003, splutters a cracked and plaintive brogue, by turns desperate, bitter and brave, about a break up that happened some years ago, to him at least.

These days, he’s found someone new, someone who calls over to him to hurry up as we squeeze onto an open table for our interview in the frozen winter night. His brother, Frightened Rabbit drummer Grant Hutchison, comes too, and it is striking how tired they both look this evening. Grant’s drumming is part of what makes Frightened Rabbit one of the singular most exciting British rock acts of the moment. On stage he is transformed into a deranged yeti, teeth bared, shoulders squared, fists clenching drumsticks that he has been known to snap in seconds.

“We haven’t been off the road for months and months,” Scott offers by way of excuse for their exhaustion, “but why would you be in a band and not do all the gigs you can?” Plenty of bands have bemoaned life on the road – few have been invited by The Guardian to write about it. I ask Scott about this recent journalistic triumph. “I’ve actually had loads of e-mails requesting I do more!” he exclaims, clearly delighted. “It’s hard to write about life on the road without coming across as if we’re moaning, because it is great. We’re lucky: I know hundreds of thousands of other people would want to be doing what we’re doing, but sometimes it is just like, fuck this, this is ridiculous! I’m taking years off my life living like this.”

It must be exhausting, too, to relive the trauma of losing someone every night in front of a whole load of new people, I suggest of The Midnight Organ Fight and its barefaced, wounded account of a breakup. “There’s no rawness anymore,” Scott says. “It was two and a half years ago, and I wrote it six months after it all happened, so I could tie a knot over everything, as closure. If you hammer out a song over a hundred times, a lot of the emotion is going to fade away.”

Nonetheless, Scott still manages to recreate the confusion and hurt of that time live. He explains: “We still love playing live. A lot of the audiences, especially on this tour [they are currently supporting Death Cab For Cutie], are new to our songs, and that makes us feel new to them as well, in a way. And maybe our new audiences have just had their big ‘thing’ that happened to them recently, and that’s great, that people can walk into our songs and become the person that I’m singing about.”

Maybe its Scott’s lyrical frankness when dealing with the private universalisms of love, loss and sex that explains Frightened Rabbit’s disproportionate success stateside. “It’s different the way that music spreads in the US. They’re really big on blogs over there – I know we have blogs here as well – but in the US that’s kind of how you find out about new music, whereas over here it tends to be the NME and the music press,” he tells me. It was those faceless, secretive creatures – bloggers – who caught wind of Frightened Rabbit early on in the states and propelled them to the front of their ones to watch. “The Americans have this romantic view of the Scottish,” Scott tries to explain, meekly. Or, just maybe, Frightened Rabbit are really very, very good.

Frightened Rabbit seem perfectly happy with the way things are going, anyway, even if a lot of people ‘over here’ have never heard of them. (“It’s weird to say ‘over here’ as if we’re not from the UK!” they laugh.) But all that could change with their current and upcoming tours with Death Cab For Cutie, of which Ben Gibbard and Nick Harmer are huge fans, and fellow Scot, Biffy Clyro. They’re re-releasing a Christmas single, ‘It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop’, which stings with the broken humour of putting grudges aside ‘just for one day’, and they hope to start working on new material in the new year, if they ever stop touring. I tell Scott that I hope we don’t have to wait for him to go through another messy breakup before he can write a new album. “Speaking of which,” he smiles, motioning behind me where his girlfriend waits, “I’d probably better go.”

DOWNLOAD (that's right kids, my first ever download) Frightened Rabbit - It's Christmas So We'll Stop

Friday, 21 November 2008

Some Tracks I Liked In 2008

There may well be more to come, but it's getting to that list time of year again. And there's nothing I like better than a good list, so I'm getting mine in early. Jamie dabbles in that sort of thing, too...

The Dodos – Ashley (Visiter)

There was something about the biting cold of early spring that I found within the music of The Dodos. I was heading towards my finals at uni and each day entailed an uphill hike to the library for hours of silent reading, and something about the cross rhythms in Ashley seemed a part of the heavy momentum of that time. Coupled with which, the exponential improvement in this band’s live shows over the course of the year make them worthy of an end of year accolade, if nothing else.

Laura Marling – Blackberry Stone (Cross Your Fingers EP)

Alas, I Cannot Swim blew the large majority of the music press, including myself, away, even earning Miss Marling a Mercury nomination. (“I’ve no idea what all this is about,” she later confessed to me at the awards ceremony.) But it is in ‘Blackberry Stone’, originally the B-side to single ‘Cross Your Fingers’, that Marling’s astounding vocal range and the mesmerising ache in her lyrics really comes to the fore.

Frightened Rabbit – Backwards Walk (The Midnight Organ Fight)

The Midnight Organ Fight seems one of those albums that people can form an almost unspeakably personal relationship with – even bloggers who usually muster prolific jive on any given subject. Scott Hutchison’s broken Scottish brogue and the band’s epic approach to instrumentation express a kind of red-blooded hurt that is severed before it really takes off in Backwards Walk, a musical manifestation of the frustrated lyrics. The Daytrotter session of this track is a must.

MGMT – Kids (Oracular Spectacular)

Maybe one day, I will be able to listen to this song again. Right now it’s still more irritating than Katy Perry. It became the inescapable summer anthem of 2008, and it was rammed down my throat almost hourly at every festival I went to. But it’s for that reason it makes the top five, too, because one day I’ll hear it and remember chasing mediocre pop stars around Glastonbury and climbing midnight trees in Benicassim and drinking whisky with boys in bands at Roskilde.

Fleet Foxes – Tiger Mountain Peasant Song (Fleet Foxes)

It was actually stumbling upon a First Aid Kit cover of this that I fell in love with it, leading me to properly listen to Fleet Foxes’ much lauded debut album. Baroque pop? The saviours of American music? Sounds overblown, but in a strange way Fleet Foxes deserve it for reinventing Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young for a new generation, for sounding so unlike everything else that was released this year, and for the best Jesus facial hair this side of the bible. Amen.

And the shortlist: The Acorn – Oh Napoleon (Glory Hope Mountain) / British Sea Power – Canvey Island (Do You Like Rock Music) / Deerhunter – Saved By Old Times (Microcastle) / The Kills – Cheep and Cheerful (Midnight Boom) / The Last Shadow Puppets – Meeting Place (The Age Of The Understatement) / Mystery Jets – Flakes (Twenty-One) / Raconteurs – Many Shades Of Black (Consolers Of The Lonely) / Tokyo Police Club – In A Cave (Elephant Shell) / TV On The Radio – Halfway Home (Dear Science)

The Smiths - 'What Difference Does It Make?' (1984)

Like the second sibling, floundering in the shadow of its predecessor, ‘What Difference...’ had a tough act to follow in the shape of 1983’s ‘This Charming Man’. Both Morrissey and Marr have spoken of it as the song that got away. “‘What Difference Does It Make’, I thought was absolutely awful the day after the record was pressed,” Morrissey confessed in an interview with Q magazine in 1992, whereas Marr put its relative chart success – it peaked at a very respectable 12 in the UK – down to it being part of ‘the peak’ that followed ‘This Charming Man’.

In fact, ‘What Difference…’ was the first single to come off The Smiths eponymous debut album, released just a few weeks later in February 1984. And while its opening riff wasn’t as brashly distinctive as that of ‘This Charming Man’, or its lyrics so boldly poetic, it is significant for its rambling catchiness, as evidence of just how early on in their career The Smiths honed their singular style.

The opening guitar riff was based on Jo Jo Gunne’s ‘Run Run Run’ of 1972, indicative of the importance of Marr in bringing the guitar-based sounds of the seventies back into vogue in a climate saturated in dance music. If you listen carefully to the recording, you’ll also hear a sample of children playing just before the final bridge, the reason for which is somewhat unclear given the lyrical theme of unrequited love.

It might have been panned, but on today’s ears ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ seems to embody more than ever that mordant humour and social realism that was so important when The Smiths emerged in the 80s. Their very name was chosen as the antidote to fanciful names found in 80s dance music, like Spandau Ballet and Orchestral Manoeuvers In The Dark. ‘What difference…’ is musically humdrum and lyrically fatalistic, and yet as one of the five most commercially successful Smiths songs ever released, the difference it made in the course of rock music history is immeasurable.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Live Review: Death Cab For Cutie and Frightened Rabbit at Brixton Academy 19/11/08

Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard is all grown up, which is more than you can say for his average fan. At 32, Gibbard is still purporting Death Cab’s particular breed of teenage angst and hapless romantic pessimism. And the teenagers are still buying into it. ‘Narrow Stairs’, released earlier this year, marked their sixth album release since their debut, ‘Something About Airplanes’ back in 1998, ten years ago now. They must surely wonder at how their music still reaches an almost exclusively adolescent market – the only people above drinking age in the Brixton Academy tonight appear to be emo-sympathetic parents.

Support for the ‘Narrow Stairs’ tour comes from Selkirk’s ‘Frightened Rabbit’, easily one of the best bands to emerge in 2008. It was Gibbard and Nick Harmer of Death Cab who asked the Scottish fourpiece, personally, if they’d provide support on their UK tour, and it’s a well-judged selection. Scott Hutchison’s strained and aching brogue befits the acoustic of the well-worn theatre perfectly. Frightened Rabbit stick to uptempo numbers, but there’s still something brawny and raw about their sound that reverberates magnificently in the Academy, propulsed forward by percussion of unusual ferocity. Drummer Grant Hutchison inexplicably declares ‘drink stella!” before he leaves the stage at the end of the set – maybe that’s his secret.

It must be daunting following support as good as this, even for an act as well-established as Death Cab. Either that, or they’re not quite up for it tonight – ‘The Employment Pages’ is a poor opener, sounding pallid and empty in the stage lights reflected on the expectant, upturned faces of so many teenagers. Ben Gibbard is almost unrecognisable, skinny, lank-haired and spectacle-less, positioned stage-right rather than centre, perhaps to emphasise the parnership between him and lead guitarist Chris Walla.

If anyone shines tonight, it is neither of these two. Bassist Harmer is the only band member who seems genuinely enthused to be onstage, and a lot of the set is somewhat lacklustre – perhaps a pitfall of trying to recreate the fragile intimacy of Death Cab live. ‘We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes’ particularly suffers from this predicament; it almost sounds as though Gibbard is singing someone else’s song rather than his own as he trips over himself to get to the finish, while ‘Movie Script Ending’ is rushed, and loses all poignancy.

There are some moments that verge on a kind of polished melancholy, where the music really does seem to work. The anthemic ‘New Year’ is greeted with arms aloft, and set closer ‘Bixby Canyon Bridge’ is thick and taught with instrumental tension. Gibbard executes an acoustic ‘I Will Follow You Into The Dark’ mid-set, “for all the people hoping to find love,” and everyone sings along. It screams teenage campfire, but seems appropriate given surrounding company.

The encore is a generous four songs long, including a request in the shape of the lovely ‘What Sarah Said’, and they finish as per on ‘Transatlanticism’, distortion left to hang in the air as the band leave the stage. That Death Cab can draw such a prolific teenage following so many years since their inception is an impressive feat – they sit pretty in an emo-indie market that demands equal parts love-centric lyrical goo with credible amounts of guitars. Yet there is something particularly disheartening in witnessing such a prosaic rendition of songs that tend to teeter on glib, anyway. Gibbard has certainly endeared a new-generation of angst-ridden teenagers to Death Cab’s well-honed romantic existentialism, but whether the music he now produces still convinces himself seems slightly less certain.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Album Review: Pavement 'Brighten The Corners - Nicene Credence Ed.' released 18/11/08

Completists rejoice, Domino have kept up with their millennium promise of a Pavement reissue every two years with reissue no. 4, ‘Brighten The Corners: Nicene Credence Edition’.

The original Brighten The Corners was released back in 1997, as Pavement hit their early thirties. They were all living in different cities by this time and made the exception to come together for recording, which evidences itself in the aural completeness of this, their fourth album. In true Pavement fashion, the record is snailpaced, embracing a kind of lazy lysergia that washes over rather than arrests. In many ways Malkmus et al were the underground band of the nineties – they embodied a kind of commercially unconcerned, stoner-rock materialist discontent with modern life, that manifested itself in Malkmus’ dry wit and Kannberg’s deliciously cyclical, unhurried guitar work. The British musical underground were to draw extensively from their intentionally lo-fi sound, with many bands including Blur and Radiohead citing Pavement as a major influence.

Unlike Pavement’s fifth and final album, Terror Twilight, which was completely written (and almost completely credited to) frontman Stephen Malkmus, two of Kannberg’s best contributions to the Pavement compendium appear here in ‘Date With IKEA’ and ‘Passat Dream’. That the duo were still working under the guise of a songwriting partnership during ‘Brighten The Corners’ sessions manifests itself in the balance of band components, with ample space given to instrumental noodling that is indelibly stamped with a heady Californian languor. It was as Malkmus began to overshadow his bandmates towards the end of the decade, with Terror Twilight, that Pavement began to fall apart.

Brighten The Corners, featuring perhaps Pavement’s best known work in ‘Shady Lane’ and ‘Stereo’, showcases the band at its most cohesive. This year’s reissue features two discs containing the whole of the 1997 record remastered from the original tapes, plus all the B-sides and compilation tracks from that period, and a plethora of unreleased live and studio tracks, numbering an impressive 43 tracks in total. Some of the most exciting new material to surface is in the outtakes and live recordings of Pavement’s 1997 John Peel Live Sessions – evidence of Peel’s continued support of a band that he championed right from their roots in the early nineties. The CDs come in an embossed slipcase with a 62-page book containing photos, ephemera, writings and more. Just in time for Christmas...

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Television: 'Marquee Moon' (single), 1977

Punk music was all about doing it yourself, and making the music you wanted with the tools you had. It was ramshackle and raw, and that became its signature: a doing-away with the need for co-ordination and complication in favour of sometimes piecemeal musicality but a professed unwavering inclusivity.

Yet something about the whole movement was ferociously protectionist, from the maverick nastiness of the Pistols to the purer, punched-up bite of The Clash. The Wire perfected a storming yelp and The Ramones made mince meat of eardrums with their unforgiving preoccupation for volume, but all of them snarled that punk belonged to them, and to you, if you only dared to take it.

In their early, Brian Eno-produced sessions, Television showed little sign of being any different. The taught pleading of Tom Verlaine’s vocal comes off wafer thin and grating back then, the balance all wrong. But by the time they recorded Marquee Moon in 1977, Television stood apart from their peers. There is an artistic purity in what they managed to achieve with 'Marquee Moon' that signposted the evolution of new wave and post punk.

The title track from their debut longplayer is Television distilled. There is a subtle artistry behind the musical textures here that goes beyond the simplicity of trademark punk, and yet Verlaine’s desperately reaching vocal alone would have you believe that Television just happened upon the careful progressions of their sound, that anyone could have it that way, if they wanted.

‘Marquee Moon’ rests on the casual groove of Fred Smith’s bassline, and percussion so impeccably placed that it barely registers. Verlaine’s solos meld twisted upturned riffs with noodling motifs, but are always executed with a steely conviction that makes them stand firm against the abstract tension of Richard Lloyd's rhythm guitar. Lloyd refused to sit pretty on rhythm: he had a knack for creating totally unexpected tonalities that coloured Verlaine’s confident solo work with an intense unpredictability.

Television took up Sunday residency at New York’s CBGB in 1974, the first rock band to perform at the club, which soon became the epicentre of the New York punk scene. Later that year Blondie, The Ramones and Talking Heads, to name but a few, would appear in that same venue. There at its inception, Television took punk’s magnetic filth and made it aesthetic – no where is this apotheosis more apparent than in ‘Marquee Moon’.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Album Review: Castanets 'City Of Refuge' released 10/11/08

City Of Refuge is by turns twitching and soothing, awash with experimentalism and the upturned familiarity of American alt-folk. It was recorded in three weeks in a motel in the Nevada desert by one Ray Raposta, in a burst of creative solitude that resounds within the confines of the fifteen tracks.

Most of the themes within City Of Refuge are fleeting, ephemeral glimpses into the mind of a man alone in the vastness of the dustbowl landscape and the hollowed plains of his own consciousness. ‘Celestial Shore’ introduces the City with a guitar fanfare that resounds with sun-bright reverb and a melodic warmth. From thereon in, however, there is probing sparseness about the soundscape that Raposta has created in the City Of Refuge, which manifests itself as a mind creeping into forgotten corners of memory and undiscovered rifts of thought. Some of the time, Rasposta’s compositions are completely abstract. The ‘High Plain’ trio are pointillist experiments in the echo of crystal drops of synthesised sound, left to reverb as though in a goldfish bowl, or the outer layers of the earth’s atmosphere.

Where the city becomes more lucid, however, Raposta shows a clarity of concept that vindicates his exploration of abstraction. ‘Refuge 1’ revolves with dark intentions to ‘run to the city of refuge’, which by the time of penultimate sister track, ‘Refuge 2’ seem to have been fulfilled, as the thickly accented vocal drowns in the watery reverb of production. The momentary gospel of ‘Fly Away’ and the dry, spaghetti western guitar riffs of ‘Prettiest Chain’ place this largely experimental album within a musical context. But it is in the lapsarian tribute of final track ‘After The Fall’ that City Of Refuge is most melodic, and that lyrically and musically the finished album is best explained. Raposta writes ‘if I’d known where we were going, I would not have gone at all,’ but this album reverberates with the sense that it is only through journeying to the vast solitude of the Nevada desert that he could properly reflect on the valleys, plains and shores of his inner landscape.

The minimalist musicality and commercially uninterested abstraction of City Of Refuge is unlikely to win Raposta many record sales or a place in the mainstream music industry any time soon. Yet City Of Refuge resounds with musicality and clarity of expression of thought that makes it undeniably a critical success – that rare wonder of an album that manages to convincingly experiment with accepted forms.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Neil Young: 'Cowgirl In The Sand' live at Massey Hall, 1971

‘Cowgirl In The Sand’ originally appeared on the 1969 album ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’, Young’s first with Crazy Horse.

He later claimed to have written it, alongside ‘Down By The River’, while passed out in bed with a raging fever in Topanga Canon. It is the oppressive thunk and shifting time of the original album recording that seems to manifest the heavy, crawling discomfort of illness. A rambling ten-minutes long, the original is dominated by hypnotic rhythmic interplay between Young and Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, of whom Young later said “he just led those guys [bandmates Billy and Ralph] from one groove to another, all within the same groove.”

1971 was a pivotal time for Young, who would hit the big time with ‘Harvest’, and its number one title track, ‘Heart Of Gold’, just a year later. He was to hate the trappings of the musical mainstream. In this recording, as part of his ‘Journey Through The Past’ solo tour, Young is comfortably unfettered by commercial pressure – over half his set was comprised of material he was yet to record. And at Massey Hall in Toronto, where he was born, he appears both coy and contented – a musician enjoying his best work before the mayhem of middle of the road success descends.

Without Danny (who died of a heroin overdose in 1972), and cut to just under four minutes, ‘Cowgirl’ is no longer about the symbiotic rhythmic conflict of two guitarists. Still anchored by that uncompromisingly sturdy tempo, it is Young’s transcendent falsetto that is the manifestation of someone who struggled for liberty from others, but ultimately could not escape from themselves.

Mumford & Sons 'Love Your Ground EP' released 3/11/08

There are only four songs on the Love Your Ground EP, evidence, perhaps of the painstaking meticulousness of Mumford & Sons, who must, surely, have a multitude of publishable tracks to chose from by now.

Each of them is lyrically lachrymose, from the quiet, introverted fury of ‘Little Lion Man’ with its refrain, “I really fucked it up this time,” to the grasping hope of ‘Feel The Tide’, that sings “you and I now, we can be alright.” And yet the words are upended and juxtaposed with banjos and mandolins and ukuleles and those sorts of folk-like, twiddling, inevitably cheery instruments that make the songs themselves seem bright as well as melancholy.

The songwriting here still sounds a little premature and not yet fully formed, and Marcus Mumford is not yet beyond writing lyrics that teeter between trite and touching. There are glimpses of poetry in ‘Hold On To What You Believe’ with the words “we’re young/open flowers in the fields of this war-torn world,” but the chorus is still irritatingly preachy. Similarly the music is heavily circular, risking mudanity, and yet is illuminated by inspired moments, such as in the surprising intrigue of a time-signature change in the same track.

Mumford and Sons have been better known as Laura Marling’s backing band for a good while now, and it is through this musical join-the-dots than they are inextricably interwoven into the fabric of new-folk, inhabiting genre shelf-space alongside Noah and The Whale, Mystery Jets, Marling and Emmy The Great. Their EP reaches for the more artistically sincere side of the new-folk stick, and yet falls just short this time, veering too often towards the predictable and twee. Yet there are moments here that speak of a kind of cold, rattling, expansive folk that needs only to be stretched and refined over time to produce something truly definitive. This will be the task at hand for the band as they put together their debut long player.