January 2011

Given that I’ve lived in Newcastle for nearly three years, I feel a little ashamed at complete lack of engagement, both on this blog and in general, with the local music scene. I’ve gone to plenty of gigs, but most have been out of town bands on tour and, in the usual way, now that I’ll be most probably leaving for pastures soon in future, my apathy is bugging me. This post won’t do much to allay that, but I can at least point you towards a couple of completely brilliant Newcastle acts, just for the sake of their excellence if nothing else.

First up is a band I’ve mentioned before, but who continue to amaze me, Shift-Static. They bear the questionable title of the Newcastle band I’ve seen live most (twice), and that dubious honour does not come lightly – their technical wizardry and mercurial genre-mashing comes across even better live than on record, simply because you can’t quite believe it’s happening. This five-piece specialise in oscillating between quiet, contemplative guitar work, Laura Smith’s swoonsome vocals and skittering, beat-driven electronic sections which, as a whole, is only anchored by a clear (and clearly well thought-out) sense of purpose in every song. On stage, this translates into a sort of wonderful dance, with band members constantly switching insturments and changing positions around Laura, an oddly apt physical manifestation of their sound. I was recently sent their latest recording, ‘The Furrow’, which extends the already excellent work of their debut EP (still, I believe, available for free on their Myspace page) into more ambient territory, shot through with a relaxed swirl of synth noise and the kind of claustrophobic build up Thom Yorke would be proud of. The final minute, a slow descent into silence is nothing short of beautiful.

Shift Static – The Furrow (YSI)

Our second act, Songs For Dead Sailors, is an artist I originally reviewed last year for For Folk’s Sake’s New Bands Panel. Chris Anderson’s one-man uke ‘n’ kick drum ditties avoid any problems caused by the sheer tweeness of his main instrument, instead becoming wonderful stories in a minor key. With so much attention drawn to the voice, it’s fortuitous that Anderson has the kind of buttery, engaging vocals that make it a positive treat to listen to whatever he has to say, and, usually, that’s something personally poetic (my personal favourite being, “She rubs a naked palm across my sunburned neck and I feel gorgeous”) It’s a mastery of minimalism that makes his songs what they are; quiet, dreamy and surprisingly deep for such sparse compositions. Plus, he employs the mouth trumpet to brilliant effect on ‘Dance of the Midnight Rats’, and what could be better than that? It’s unclear whether what he’s classed as demos will be reworked, or even if there will be any more material at all (his last update was in April), but this tiny cluster of songs are a wonderful beginning or end to a musical project. Now I just have to find out where he plays…

Songs For Dead Sailors – Springtide (YSI)

After watching Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (again) last night, an odd connection formed itself in my brain. Despite being decades apart, the aforementioned Edgar Wright project shares a huge similarity to one of my other favourite films, The Blues Brothers. Think about it; both are born out of the comedy styles of their times (internet and video game meme humour and Saturday Night Live sketch comedy respectively), they share an oddly non-naturalistic feel (incredibly well-choreographed fight scenes or incredibly over the top chase sequences) and, most importantly with regards to making this post the slightest bit relevant to this blog, both films centre their emotional and narrative hearts around an affectionate ribbing of their chosen style of music.

Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi created their characters out of a mutual love for all things blues, gospel and soul, adopting and affecting the clichés, mannerisms and odd back stories (in this case, being brought up in a Catholic orphanage by Cab Calloway) of their favourite performers. Bryan Lee O’Malley and Edgar Wright created a text saturated with the essence of modern indie – obscure references, tongue-in-cheek hipster (all) knowingness and a soundtrack created by Beck and Nigel Godrich, perhaps two of the most prominent, well-known and downright cool indie musicmakers of recent years. Each film shares an unbridled love of the foibles as well as the successes of their genres they portray, and it’s that willingness to mock as well as memorialise that makes each a true celebration of their music.

Maybe that’s why each has become, or (in Scott Pilgrim‘s case) is becoming, a cult film – that love of a niche is in itself inaccessible to a wider audience. But then again, maybe that’s the point, these films wouldn’t be what they are if they appealed outside of their own genre, because they’d lose any sense of that knowing affection that makes them so endearing, or the music just so good.

The Blues Brothers – She Caught The Katy (YSI)
Sex Bob-omb – Summertime (YSI)

It happens every year. Just after I formulate my favourite albums of the past year, something comes along and throws the whole thing out of whack. Last year it was The Antlers, and now, after a critical mass of blog-based recommendations, I’ve come into possession of Avi Buffalo’s self-titled debut, and it’s just messed everything up. A whimsical mix of lilting vocals and guitars that instinctively remind me of the more gentle moments of OK Computer, it’s yet another debut from an irritatingly prodigious group that stands head and shoulders over so much of what comes out of supposedly more experienced groups. The band as it was when this was recorded has broken up, but somehow that makes this all seem better – this album will probably never be replicated by this group of people, and it stands as a crystallised statement of youth that won’t be recovered.

Avi Buffalo – What’s In It For? (YSI)

“Other than Jack White, there aren’t really any guitar heroes anymore.”Anna Calvi

The idea of a guitar hero is, by most accounts, an outdated one; something reserved for the pages of Mojo or plastic Xbox peripherals. But reading Anna Calvi’s words and listening to her album, an interesting question is raised – why has today’s popularised indie scene (nebulous I know) left guitar heroics by the wayside?

Of course there’s the old punk argument that it all amounts to onanism, and you won’t see a much better endorsement than StSanders’ wonderfully manipulated concert footage, making every straining posture and self-satisfied gurn look as ridiculous as it truly is. But listen to Calvi’s self-titled debut and that loses some force. Her technical, almost classical, guitar playing weaves in and out, becoming a breathtaking facet of many of her songs, something that will appear, stun you and fade just as quickly. So why are people with skills beyond chugging chords and slow-paced picking moving into genres like metal (and its many component parts) or sticking to a classical background?

Of course, there’s the pressing concern of “cool” – the current indie media favours the lo-fi, the no-fi, the glo-fi which all stick to one central tenet: less is more. Less production, less focus, less (discernible) technical skill. If you’re a green indie band, you want to get noticed and, let’s face it, there aren’t many people who actually want to fly in the face of what’s perceived as the cool thing to do, it’s just peer pressure at its most basic level. There’s also quite probably a question of perceived benefit – someone who has practiced for their entire life to become a technically proficient player is likely to have listened to the kind of music that encourages that (all of my most incredible guitar playing friends are metal fans) and is most likely to want to play in an area that rewards them for their skill, not shuns them.

My question then is this, why has that pattern not been broken yet? In a postmodern world, the contrarian is often the most lauded, and it seems high time that a set of contrarians with above average guitar skills step up to the plate. If indie is most concerned with innovation, breaking the mould and in a lot of a cases, subverting the popularity of the mainstream, surely in a musical era dominated by heartless, singer-fronted dance music on one side and impenetrable, directionless noise on the other there’s a place for an indie guitar hero? I for one would love to see it, and I see Anna Calvi as the prototype for that, a guitar player who knows how to make their skill a part of a whole, rather than the sum of a song’s parts.

But now it’s over to you. This is, obviously, a simplistic piece. It’s not long, I’ve not researched it and it could probably do with having its argument narrowed a little. So tell me what you think – would you welcome a more obviously technical alternative music scene, is this a terrible idea, or have I missed a whole sub-genre of wildly innovative guitar maestros playing witches’-cave or whatever the fuck Pitchfork loves at the moment? Let me know!

The White Stripes – Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine (YSI)