Monday, October 31, 2016

Guillemots: Through the Windowpane at 10

On the 26th of October 2006 - that's 10 years ago last Wednesday - I went to the Cardiff University Students' Union with a couple of friends to see a band called Guillemots. They were touring in support of their first full-length album, Through the Windowpane, which had hit the shelves a few months prior.

The show the Guillemots put on that evening at the SU still stands out in my mind as one of the best and most memorable I've ever witnessed. The stage was crowded with props: strange costumes, instruments of all shapes and sizes, television screens lit with snowy static, bubble machines spewing bubbles into the air. Kooky animation loops were projected onto a screen behind the band, a different cartoon for each song. And the songs themselves were just stunning - from the hits like Made-Up Lovesong #43 and Trains to Brazil to the fragile, swooning moments like If the World Ends and Blue Would Still Be Blue to the cacophonous, life-affirming climax of the spectacular finale São Paulo, it was a bodymoving, heartflipping musical rollercoaster that left me feeling genuinely elated for days afterwards.

Through the Windowpane remains one of my personal all-time favourite  albums, and last night - not realising that I was maybe 96 hours off the exact ten-year anniversary of that amazing gig - I ran a bath and gave Windowpane a proper listen for the first time in several years (I tend not to listen to my favourite records too often because I never want them to start sounding ordinary). I lit a candle and lay there listening in the low light, and I'm pleased to report that those twelve tracks made me feel every bit as alive and in love as they did back in 2006.

Friday, October 28, 2016

EP Corner: Golden Tongue

Jeni Magana has been making music for years: playing the clarinet in school, writing jingles for adverts, and doing all sorts of session work for other people's bands. However, Magana is a bit like ESKA (who spoke to this blog last year about her long-time-coming debut album) in that, while she's been a hard-working musician for most of her life, she's only recently got around to releasing a set of her own songs.

"This is a chance for me to carve out a space for myself to speak," says Magana of her new Golden Tongue EP. The record's cut-up cover art is reflective of that manifesto: after years of working behind the scenes, her contributions overshadowed by other people's aims and artistic statements, Jeni Magana can now show her face and allow a little of herself to peek out from behind it all.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Air Guitar (or, A Tale of Two Gigs)

In a moment, I'm going to tell you all about a rather excellent album called Air Guitar by a rather excellent band called Sat. Nite Duets. First, though, I'd like to share a story from several Octobers ago.

Some of you will already know that, when I'm not blogging about other people's music, I sometimes make my own under the name Shiny Tiger. I post the occasional track on SoundCloud and play the occasional gig in Cardiff - it's never going to be a career, but it's fun to indulge my rock star fantasies every so often without having to commit to attending regular band practices or actively trying to market myself.

One of my favourite Shiny Tiger gigs ever took place on Halloween night in 2013. The venue was Gwdihw, a lovely little space on the edge of the city centre; I was singing and banging the drums, and my sometime bandmates Sion and Drew were backing me up on guitar and bass respectively.

That Halloween gig was a fantastic time: all my friends were there, in costume, along with a whole bunch of other strangers who were probably there to see the other bands but nonetheless arrived early enough to fill out the room for our set. The sound was great, we all played pretty well, and Sion and Drew poured fake blood over me in the middle of one of the songs. It was sharp contrast to the show I'd played one night earlier.

On the 30th of October, 2013, I played a short set to an almost empty room at a venue on the other side of central Cardiff. I was flying solo that night - I couldn't be bothered mobilising the band for two after-work gigs in one week, so I decided to go it alone, just me and my electric guitar. The act I was opening for disappeared after completing his soundcheck, so my audience that evening consisted of just four people: the sound guy, the guy on the bar, the guy who was on after me, and his friend.

So you can understand why, when I listened to Air Guitar for the first time and opening track Attached to the Lamp came rollicking out of my headphones, this verse in particular really resonated with me:

"Maybe we could go back to Cleveland
And play for the sound guy and the other band
And the opening act got picked up by his dad
It'll happen before, it'll happen again"

Monday, October 24, 2016

Away: Pointedly Not Trying to Look Back

Away is Okkervil River's eighth full-length album, and it presents itself as a sort of new beginning for the band. Frontman Will Sheff recorded these nine tracks with a new set of musicians, and this change is reflected even in Away's artwork: William Schaff's nightmarish illustrations, featured on the cover of almost every Okkervil River release to date, have been traded for a gorgeous piece by Wisconsin-based artist Tom Uttech. His beautiful painting is filled with birds in flight, and the theme of taking wing and flying away reverberates throughout this record.

Away's first track is called Okkervil River RIP, which is a pretty strong statement right out of the gate. Before proceeding any further, Will Sheff symbolically slays and buries the band that made Black Sheep Boy and The Stage Names and my personal favourite Down the River of Golden DreamsOkkervil River RIP makes it immediately, inescapably clear that Okkervil River is dead, long live Okkervil River!

Friday, October 14, 2016

On Getting Excited for Sad Albums

When I learned last year that Nick Cave's 15-year-old son Arthur had fallen to his death, my reaction was of course one of sadness and horror and deepest sympathy. However, when I learned earlier this year that Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds had a new album coming out, I was excited - not just because I like Nick Cave's music, but because the circumstances surrounding the new album's conception would surely make for an extremely emotive listen.

As long-time and possibly even short-time readers of this blog will know, I love depressing music. I love listening to sad songs and sinking into that sadness and luxuriating in it, feeling what the artist is feeling as I listen. Here's something I wrote in anticipation of Skeleton Tree, that at-the-time forthcoming Bad Seeds album, back in July:

This, Nick Cave's sixteenth album with The Bad Seeds, has the potential to be a very harrowing listen indeed. It's Cave's first set of new material since his son died at the age of fifteen last year, and one can only speculate how he will translate this tragedy into music. I'm personally hoping for something along the lines of 1997's gloomy The Boatman's Call.

When I wrote that, I was actively trying not to sound too ghoulishly thrilled that Arthur Cave had, in death, provided his father with some A-grade material for his next album, but in truth I was really, really looking forward to hearing the bleak aftermath of that accident (Nick Cave described himself as feeling 'paralysed' after it happened) set to music. And that's kind of horrible, isn't it? Obviously I would never hope for Death to darken the doorstep of a favourite artist and cast the shadow of sadness over their songwriting, but I have been feeling kind of guilty nonetheless.

Skeleton Tree came out last month and it proved, if anything, to be an even bleaker listen than miseryphiles like me could reasonably have hope for. It doesn't sound very much like The Boatman's Call at all; whereas that record took a simple sadness that we're used to hearing in pop songs (the sadness felt at the end of a relationship) and expressed it using death as a metaphor, the altogether more complex new album looks into the abyss of death itself, inevitably resulting in a far more confrontational listening experience. Listening to The Boatman's Call is like putting on a hoodie that you purloined from an ex-lover: it might make you feel a little melancholy, but it's warm and it's comfortable. Neither of those adjectives could reasonably be applied to Skeleton Tree, on which the Bad Seeds create a sparse, barren soundscape just to see if life can still flourish there. Skeleton Tree is the sound of Nick Cave unflinchingly challenging himself to find wonder and beauty and reasons to carry on in a world that was harsh enough to rob him of his child. In the end, he manages it - Rings of Saturn and Distant Sky offer a glimmer of hope, a sense of life somehow going on - but this is still easily the most devastating CD you'll put in your stereo this year.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Super Low

Warehouse are a band from Georgia, and their music sounds a bit like what early R.E.M. might have sounded like if Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe had taken a field trip back to 1920s Germany and spent a day deep in thought at the Bauhaus.

Super Low - reportedly named after a supermarket that's just across the road from the studio where this album was recorded - is a dense, intricate slice of tightly-wound art indie that's kind of difficult to pin down. Each song is full of musical ideas, and even the most accessible, straightforward track (lead single Simultaneous Contrasts, a krauty number that has something of Electrelane about it) features several surprising colour changes and gear shifts.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Happy Birthday Dog Man Star

Suede, the debut album from the band of the same name, came out in 1993. It topped the album charts, spawned a top 10 single in Animal Nitrate, and arguably laid the foundation for the Britpop movement that would come to dominate the mid-nineties.

However, as much as I love Suede, but I'm not a particularly big fan of Suede. I find the production a little too murky, and the songs - bar the exhilarating Moving and one or two other exceptions - never really grabbed me as tightly as it seems like they grabbed everyone else.

Perhaps my opinion would be different if I had heard the album at the time, when it presumably sounded fresh and new and exciting, but I wasn't even two years old when Suede first appeared on the racks at HMV. In actual fact, Suede wasn't even the first Suede album I heard when I eventually *did* get around to investigating them: that was Dog Man Star, the band's sophomore effort.

Dog Man Star was released on 10 October 1994, which means that today is the record's 22nd birthday. A couple of months earlier, Oasis released Definitely Maybe, one of the defining records of the Britpop era and an album so overrated that it makes Suede, which I find somewhat overrated, look not at all overrated. But while Oasis were codifying the sound we now think of as standard Britpop fare - swaggering guitar rock with no interest in moving hearts, minds or feet - Suede were working on something far more ambitious, far more grandiose, and...well, far better.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Review: Cosmetic by Nots

I think Memphis four-piece Nots were being deliberately ironic when they named their second album Cosmetic. Their music - delivered with ragged aggression and tousled by raw, lo-fi recording techniques - is pointedly not interested in cosmetic concerns. Rather, it's just here to beat you about the ears with pummelled drums and a harsh, hard cocktail of guitar, bass, and burbling synth noises.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Burst Apart

Last week, I blogged about Mutual Benefit's Skip a Sinking Stone, an album that's all about getting over past breakups and learning to believe in love once more.

Today, I'd like to talk about an album that's similar in theme but far more visceral and desperate in its delivery: Burst Apart by The Antlers.

Released in May 2011, Burst Apart is the sequel to Hospice, also known as The Most Depressing Album of All Time™. Hospice was a concept album about an abusive relationship with someone who has terminal cancer, although it's possible that the terminal cancer was just a metaphor for the gradual deterioration of the relationship itself; either way, it made for very miserable listening.

Monday, October 3, 2016

September Playlist: Gonna Be Young Again

September is a weird, transitional month that's half summer, half autumn, and doesn't really feel properly like either. That's also true of this month's playlist, which mingles the last faded rays of summer sunshine with the first crackles of autumn.

Or it's just 10 songs I listened to lots last month. You decide.

1. Paint with the Sun by Arc Iris

(from Moon Saloon)

The piano-led new single from Arc Iris is a truly majestic thing that's just the right side of psychedelic. Read my review of Moon Saloon here.

2. Please Don't Kill Me by Reptar

(from Body Faucet)

I got this album ages ago - Please Don't Kill Me itself was a staple of my summer 2013 playlist - but I revisited it last month for the first time in a while and was pleased to find it even more packed with sweet riffs and surprises than I remembered.