Thursday, 23 April 2009

Observer Music Monthly Pop Reviews

Conor Oberst - Outer South (Merge)
The days when musicians would release several albums a year are mostly over – just not as far as Conor Oberst, aka Bright Eyes, is concerned. Only months after his solo album, he returns with the Mystic Valley Band for more sacrilegious alt-country and the odd acoustic ballad. The band's contributions are low points on this 16-track epic, but Oberst proves as iconoclastic as ever.

The Maccabees - Wall Of Arms (Fiction)
Enjoying the widescreen production that Markus Drav once brought to Arcade Fire and Coldplay, this time round the vocal quiver and inimitable art-pop hooks that distinguished the Maccabees' 2007 debut are offset by darker undercurrents. Wall of Arms is the meticulously evolved sound of a band aiming to bid to breathe life into British indie.

Monday, 20 April 2009

School Of Seven Bells and Bat For Lashes @ Shepherds Bush Empire 19/4/09

Fashion and music are fickle bedfellows – at the best of times mutually affirming; at others making fools of those whose musical substance fails to match their stylistic pretensions.

School Of Seven Bells are fairly recent navigators of the volatilities of musical whimsy. Williamsburg origins and quasi-supernatural themes, not to mention the visually striking nature of twins Alejandra and Claudia Deheza, have rendered them a genuinely intriguing trio and won them much critical and cultural praise with the recent release of debut LP Alpinisms.

Their recorded sound, self-professed “music to dance to”, enchants with left-field pop propulsions – but tonight this is somewhat lost in translation. The diminutive twins, surrounded by the stage-clutter of Bat For Lashes ephemera, are missing their usual radiating glow. And while the venue is packed, those in attendance observe passively, mustering appreciative nods and polite applause to the familiar looping refrains of ‘My Cabal’ and ‘iamundernodisguise’. It is an incredibly difficult gig to support due to the singular allurement of Khan’s iconic persona, and the inanimate ‘weird-folk’ advocates of her audience. While School Of Seven Bells demonstrate their usual aptitude for markedly inventive mystical pop, it seems lost, even wasted, on the crowd present.

The icon in question, Natasha Khan, aka Bat For Lashes, has long been the darling of the higher echelons of credible fashion magazines – as evidenced by recent shoots for Spin, Dazed & Confused and Fact magazine where she features as the paragon of smouldering musical vogue. Her music, however, has always sounded faintly derivative, conjouring mysterious etherealities from eighties synths, tribal percussion and neo-folk inflections, rendering Khan the hotpotch progeny of Kate Bush, Stevie Nicks and Bjork.

It is these preconceptions of nostalgia that make her performance tonight even more astounding – Khan is an artist who must be seen to be believed, her live shows hypnotically captivating. That same audience passivity that School Of Seven Bells struggled seems to annoy Khan equally: she tries to encourage dancing in more upbeat numbers, but everyone’s just staring, visually enthralled by her presence. Her tiny, leaping form is encased in a pink-silk jumpsuit and clown-ruff, her aura is as big as a stadium and her voice unexpectedly magnificent, reaching through octaves with furious power and soulful wispiness in equal measure.

Instrumentally, the diverse talents of Khan’s three-piece band transform esoteric pop-songs into panopticons of sound with a plethora of equipment, from keys and electronic drum kits to bells and an autoharp. In a set that spans an hour and a half and includes two encores, Bat For Lashes leave no doubt that Khan is one effigy of the fashion world wholly substantiated by her musical origins.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Album Review: King Creosote Flick The Vs (Domino)


Prolific Fence Collective progeny King Creosote returns to Domino for the release of Flick The Vs, his own little fuck you to those who’ve wasted his time over the last few years. The man behind the moniker, Kenny Anderson, has had plenty to kick back against, from the demise of his long term relationship with fellow songwriter Jenny Gordon, to his failed stint with Warner imprint 679 records, who dropped him in 2007 following their takeover by Atlantic. Ever one to translate his troubles into albums, Anderson’s latest offering mines these emotional and professional troughs for darker material, whilst managing some remarkable ebullience that arrests with the familiar optimism of this first man of Fence.

Lead single ‘Coast On By’, a collaboration with The Beta Band’s Steve Mason, sees Anderson bemoaning the transience of the life of a musician in a clattering, heavy-handed number of pop-sensible simplicity – but this is hardly representative of an album that oscillates between the lure of electro-hooks and organic acoustic/orchestral elements. Opener ‘No One Had It Better’ showcases Anderson’s ability to switch from dislocated, experimental electronica to the most sublime, looping guitar hooks, and meld the two into an oddly plaintive, propulsive break-up ballad. Meanwhile ‘No Way She Exists’ appears to open with the sound of a creaking door, before exploding into the jangle and honk of a baritone saxophone and a thousand pots and pans.

It is in the quieter moments of Flick The Vs that Anderson’s constantly evolving approach to song writing and arranging is best demonstrated. Though almost always favouring the melodic security of three-chords in verse-chorus form, he nonetheless transforms such simplicity with undistinguishable sound effects and samples. In ‘Fell An Ox’, Flick The Vs’s finest moment, it is only Anderson’s vocal that anchors the opening of an otherwise drifting three minutes of forlorn ephemera, both musical and lyrical.

While by no means definitive of King Creosote, Flick The Vs is nonetheless representative of the constant metamorphosis of one of Scotland’s greatest musical exports. It manages to be at once experimental and diverse without sounding completely disparate and confused, and encompasses both extremes of Anderson’s preoccupations with commercial pop and left-field contemporary folk. A promising addition to the Creosote repertoire.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Live Review: Trailer Trash Tracys, It Hugs Back, Papercuts @ The Legion, 16/4/09

Band names, like it or not, pigeonhole the groups that possess them. You could almost envisage the staid blonde pout of Trailer Trash Tracys’s Suzanne Aztoria before it appeared onstage at Sonic Cathedral. Empowered by all the frosty charisma it is possible to muster over woozy, drifting pop, Suzanne nonetheless draws the eye in what could otherwise be described as a band in the springtime of their career. All that Cocteau Twins-sounding lo-fi noise is convincing, but samey, and it’ll take more than a pretty frontwoman to set them apart as the year advances.

Meanwhile, It Hugs Back manage to so perfectly convey the wet geekery their name suggests, that everyone here feels instantly satisfied. Well, almost. This awkward four-piece appear to have been spat from the bowels of darkest Kent, etiolated and shifty-looking, all elbows and furtive glances. Their set comprises largely of material from their recently released ‘Inside Your Guitar’ LP, their first on 4AD, although there’s a good few songs here, notably ‘Other Cars Go’, that have been doing the setlist circuit for a good while longer. It’s difficult to sit either side of the fence with It Hugs Back – they are clearly an informed and innovative musical outfit with no sickening image-preoccupations, yet there’s just something about them so infuriatingly pathetic, it’s difficult to fully grasp their angle. Are we supposed to feel sorry for them?

After these humble British offerings, San Franciscan outfit Papercuts take to the stage with a kind of marked professionalism. The four-piece headed by full-time recording engineer Jason Quever are older and wiser than their line-up predecessors, and they purvey music of a markedly different class. Imbued with heady organ that pushes melodically through each track, Quever’s achievement is in rendering sixties pop songs of succinct and simple elements raw and richly-hued. He looks like a more timid Jack Black, and sings in a kind of pitch-perfect, high whine, but it all works, and the reason for this is that it comes back to solid, pop-sensible constructions and sharp, polished musical components.

The set comprises of the best of recent album ‘You Can Have What You Want’, and goes down a storm with the sparse onlookers. The rest of his band scarpers after some panicked conversation over the rapturous applause at the end – they clearly haven’t planned the encore the audience want. Eventually, Quever stands in alone, singing a rich, confident guitar-ballad that captivates all present. Their chosen name, Papercuts, might suggest the tiniest of imprints in a swamped musical pond, but it’s precisely this kind of acutely fascinating pop that makes a lasting impression among a swill of mediocrity, as tonight suggests.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Art Preview in The Stool Pigeon - Sonic Youth etc.: Sensational Fix

Sonic Youth etc.: Sensational Fix
Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and KIT (Germany) until 10 May 2009
Malmö Konsthal (Sweden) 29 May to 20 September 2009

Sonic Youth have never been just about the music. In a career that has spanned nearly three decades, their success is rooted in a ruthless artistic idiosyncrasy that includes poetry, design, art and, of course, music.

Initially, Sonic Youth’s reputation was conceived and established underground in a pre-internet era, through tours and the micro-distribution of independents. Most bands today wouldn’t stand a chance under like conditions. If in the eighties they lurched between genres, labels and line-ups, 1990’s //Goo//, their first on a major, and subsequent tour with Nirvana, raised the bar in terms of the band’s aspirations. It was at this point that Sonic Youth were almost alone in ushering in a new era of alternative rock, when the supremacy of American hip hop threatened to suffocate guitar-based noise entirely. Then in 1994 //Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star// became their highest charting US release.

Since, Sonic Youth have eschewed both limelight and categorisation through a process of constant sonic shapeshifting and artistic diversification that has continued to this day, a feat celebrated in //Sonic Youth etc.: Sensational Fix//. The exhibition features artwork by influential and directly connected New York artists including Dan Graham, Vito Acconci, and Tony Oursler, displayed alongside the creative work of their West coast contemporaries, from Mike Kelley to Todd Haynes. The Beat poets feature, as does seminal photography by James Welling, Sofia Coppola, and Richard Kern, among others.

Finally, in a pavilion especially designed for the exhibition by Dan Graham, Sonic Youthʼs complete audio output, including rare videos and live shows, are presented. The exhibition takes place in Dusseldorf, Germany, until May 10, before moving to Malmö, Sweden, where it stays until September.

Those unable to make the cross-continental trek can now purchase a condensed, published version, edited by Roland Groenenboom. which features interviews, catalogue texts and archival material for a bedroom fix of the Sonic Youth phenomenon.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Art Project Press Release

The following was used by a local artist as a press release for an exhibition in Hackney.

195 Mare St. Refuge
open for one evening only by Ella Medley-Whitfield
and the women of the Elizabeth Fry Hostel

Mid-afternoon in a greasy Hackney café, and five or six women sit around a table, hungrily awaiting fried breakfasts and chips. The women range in age, appearance and temperament, but there is one thing that binds them: all of them have recently been released from prison.

“When you go into prison everything is taken away from you,” explains Sarah over steaming plate of lasagne. “Even down to what your children wear. It takes a very long time to get used to that feeling of not having any control.” At forty, she’s the eldest of the group, her long grey hair tied back from smiling eyes that have not properly seen the outside world, or her children, for over a decade. Sarah says it takes at least a year to acclimatise inside – to let go and let the system take control. Recently she’s be awarded ROTL (Release On Temporary Licence), which means that four days a month she stays in a half-way house in Reading called the Elizabeth Fry Hostel, where she is allowed a little more freedom. In this way, she is slowly rehabilitated into a society that, many years ago, excluded her.

Two hundred years ago, women like Sarah would have been shunned for life, kept in appalling conditions for ‘crimes’ like littering and disobedience, some of them locked up without trial. It was only when Elizabeth Fry, a female pioneer familiar to all of us from the back of the five-pound note, began to campaign for fairer treatment in the nineteenth century, that these conditions began to improve.

Today, it is one of Fry’s greatest achievements that the residents of the modern-day hostel are here to visit – the now derelict Refuge for Women on Mare Street. A huge, barren construction of broken floorboards and peeling wallpaper, this neglected monument of hope is seeing the return of a new generation of women prisoners. Under the guidance of local artist Ella Medley-Whitfield, modern-day female convicts are hard at work conceiving of an art project that will revive the broken remains of the refuge.

“We are all governed by rules,” Ella explains, “but for some, every waking moment, every move, is dictated by others. This project allows women who have experienced that extreme to recreate elements of it for the rest of us – perhaps shedding light on the constraints of our own lives in the process.” Ella’s work habitually concentrates on human systems, both psychological and societal. Often, this involves undergoing lengthy research periods – for this project she has spent days working with the residents of the Elizabeth Fry hostel in Reading, and weeks studying the tumbledown remains of the derelict refuge in Hackney that would have once been their home.

On 7th April she invites us all to this monumental listed building to experience the culmination of a groundbreaking project. Bridging the divide between the past and the present, the liberated and the imprisoned, the imagined and reality, Ella and the women of the Elizabeth Fry hostel are offering a unique opportunity to see life through the eyes of stranger – or perhaps our own lives, reflected in the faces of those who have lived behind bars.
Hazel Sheffield

The Stool Pigeon Interview: Papercuts

“You can have what you want,” Papercuts’ Jason Quever sings on the title track of his third album. Only what he means is, you can’t.

“You grow up hearing that you can have whatever you want, but there are so few people who are actually at peace. I think it’s just the limitations of humanity: why happiness is so elusive, when it seems so simple.”

Papercuts’ album is drenched in this discernable longing. “I like dreamy pop music – I like the mystery. Anybody can buy a computer and make a pristine recording, but it’s just not as exciting as leaving in these strange artefacts in which give it character and definition,” Jason explains over his morning coffee. Recorded onto tape, each shimmering three-minute gasp of pop on his new album is immersed in layers of extra noise – reverb, distortion, drums, and organs with weird frequencies.

Obscured melodies and hidden meanings speak volumes of Quever’s personal humility. Though his last album, 2007’s ‘Can’t Go Back’, was critically praised, Quever himself immediately reviled the album for the way people picked up on its more retro elements. “I honestly wish the last record didn’t exist,” he says quietly, that soft vocal falsetto audible in each word. “I used to have to get really drunk to play the last record live – a lot of the old songs were only recording tricks, that band doesn’t exist.”

This time Quever is trying a new approach. He’s currently recording Port O’Brien at his home studio, and explains: “[Port O’Brien] were reading the comments on their Youtube video and laughing about them. That would have had me in bed with a bottle of whiskey! But I try and learn how not to get hurt by things, because some people have thick skin, so I should just, uh, be more like them, the people that don’t care, you know?”

Maybe that’s what Quever wants. But his music, saturated in a humanistic frustration and fear of the unknown, could never come from someone that doesn’t care. On some level, he’s aware of that, and better prepared for it, too: “at least if people don’t like this record I can think ‘fuck you, I know this is good.’” And he’ll be right.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Alela Diane @ St Giles Church 30/3/09

Gigs in churches are strange creatures, far removed from their bar-dwelling cousins. At times, live secular music in such an antiquated, unfamiliar setting can seem wilfully sacrilegious – at others, overly reverent. This evening, Alela Diane creeps onto the stage in St Giles so softly that it is only when she begins singing that the audience realises that it’s started, and a palpable hush descends immediately as her voice reverberates around the vaults. To say the acoustics in a place like this are unforgiving is an understatement: every minute mis-tuning and finger-stumble on the picked acoustic pierces the air, and no one talks in a church gig, so there is no disguising mistakes. Alela’s voice takes a little while to warm up, though she shows no physical signs of nervousness.

Her father, Tom Menig, joins her for ‘Age Old Blue’, and together they turn a simple double acoustic sound into something utterly spellbinding. Alela’s vocals verge on yodelling, both plaintive and oddly powerful. During her folkier moments that arresting voice could be the howling of a wolf, but in the delicate country twang of ‘Lady Divine’ or ‘To Be Still’ she sounds like the bluest whistle of a steam-train on a damp morning. So much of Alela’s music is cinematic, conjouring landscapes of pre-colonial America, when people lived in the valleys and trees. She looks almost like a Native American, too, and there’s no doubt that this otherworldliness goes some way to explaining her popularity in grimy central London at a time like this.

But of course it’s that voice that really steals the show, over and above her propensity for escapist musings. The set is organised crescendo-like, with a female vocalist, bassist and drummer joining her onstage for the bulk of it, and then disappearing off to let her close alone. ‘White As Diamonds’, the big single, comes off perhaps the weakest of the whole set – both hurried and clumsily executed, it bears the hallmarks of overplaying. Meanwhile a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Gold Dust Woman’ really works, and provides welcome respite in an hour-long performance that consists mostly of very similar folk and country arrangements.

Some material from her first album, The Pirate Gospel, is included. ‘Tired Feet’ seems especially appropriate this evening, Alela tells us, because it was written in Europe’s churches on her solitary travels. She also tells us that she’s that hers is the last gig to take place in St Giles. It seems like a fitting valedictory gesture for live music here, if that is the case. Both inadvertently jubilant and respectfully hymnal, Alela Diane’s music complements these majestic surroundings perfectly.