May 2011

Predictably, Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse is weird and wonderful in equal measure, but the best endorsement I can give it is that ‘America!’ sounds as if he’s chanelling the much-missed spirit of one Don Van Vliet. Opening with pulsing bass that never fails to remind me of the weirdly controversial school-disco staple that was Robbie Williams’ ‘Rock DJ’ and then careering between melodies throughout, Callahan sings America’s praises and imagines an army made up of figures like “Captain Kristofferson” and “Sergeant Cash”. It’s really odd, and placed amongst the more serene, contempletive tracks that make up the album, it sticks out like a (brilliant) sore thumb.

Bill Callahan – America! (YSI)

This was originally written for The Courier, which I’ve just finished editing. Forever. Good night, sweet, proof-read prince:

You can say a lot with an album cover. Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut revealed the band’s character, with depictions of rustic, pastoral life and religious imagery all bathed in the glow of the watching sun. If we take the same approach to the cover of Helplessness Blues, things seem a little more confusing three years on. That busy image of humanity is certainly still present, but in twisted form, and that sun sits at the centre now, unfamiliar, almost alien.

That’s exactly the feeling that reveals itself in the sound of Helplessness Blues. This is their trademark sound; lilting, harmony-laden, but with new purpose. Singer Robin Pecknold opens the album (on ‘Montezuma’) with, “So now, I am older/ Than my mother and father/ When they had their daughter/ Now, what does that say about me?” These are no longer stories about people and their actions, these songs are questions of what it is to be a person, and all the uncertainty that can bring. This is manifested in shifts throughout the album, with the gentle Simon & Garfunkel-esque acoustic plucks of ‘Sim Sala Bim’ giving way to the echoing choruses you’d expect of the band, before dropping away again and building to a wordless, furiously strummed outro. Some songs end prematurely, with ‘Someone You’d Admire’ seeing Pecknold questioning his dual personality and admitting ‘God only knows which one of them I’ll become’ – the song mirrors his indecision, ending soon after with as little resolution as Pecknold himself seems to come to.

Helplessness Blues is an immaculately constructed affair, on the surface providing more of what the  fans were after; beautiful, fragile folk songs. But look deeper and there’s a new introspection present, reflections of turmoil that weren’t present on the first album. Fleet Foxes have almost imperceptibly changed, but it’s that image of the sun that returns again in the eight-minute breakup saga of ‘The Shrine/An Argument’ – in the first time we’ve heard Pecknold’s voice crack, he shouts ‘sunlight over me, no matter what I do’. That warmth of Fleet Foxes’ music is still there, but it has new, darker implications, and is all the more interesting for it.

Fleet Foxes – Someone You’d Admire (YSI)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – the popular resurgence of folk in the British mainstream is brilliant. Quite apart from the fact that I still really like the artists who’ve got big, it means a whole new raft of wonderful young folksters are making appearances, buoyed by interest in their kind of music. These are two:

I’ve written about Bristol’s Alms before, but their three new tracks are worthy of further discussion. What seemed most important about their sound last time round was a commitment to understatement – a wonderful avoidance of the kind of showy buildups they could be tempted to indulge in in favour of gentle melodies that surround the listener rather than attempt to carry them along with them. This feeling has been kept up in the new batch of songs, but, like any young band should be attempting, these songs have evolved from what came before, revealing new talents. ‘All Good’ sounds like it could come closest to a blustery flurry of noise, but instead builds to a reverb-laden background guitar coming to the fore, gently trickling a new melody into the already established song. ‘Only Up To Me’ is the most upbeat song the band have released so far, an endearing ditty that takes the best of traditional folk music’s rollicking, forthright nature and twists it into a more twee shape. The final of the three new tracks, ‘Sane’ displays the the band at their most adventurous so far, eschewing the more obvious folk tropes of their work and embracing the electric guitar. Not only does the track show off a willingness to play around with the band’s dynamics, but a knack for interesting production that hasn’t been seen before, with looping, echoed vocals making a welcome appearance late on. Alms are slowly building up a nice little body of work, and with an ear for melding extremely catchy melodies and well-constructed folk, they certainly have it in them to catch the attention of a far greater audience than this tiny corner of the blogosphere.

London twosome The Skeleton Dead caught my eye by writing two things in their initial email to me. Firstly, they said they loved me. I’m not sure how personal the email was, but it’ll work to pique my interest. Secondly, they said that they “write songs on classic themes of love, seafaring and finding porn hidden in the woods”, which is as good a description of what lyrics should be about as I’ve ever heard.  Tom Sharples’ deep, breathy vocals are reminiscent of Maximo Park’s Paul Smith, but eschew the pretension I associate with that voice in favour of compelling phrases like,  ‘Didn’t feel the chill at all/ Most probably the alcohol/ But money never better spent/ On a bank holiday weekend’ (in ‘Gather Up Your Clothes’). Lyrics like that could seem banal in less well-executed circumstances, but the band’s music is perfectly suited to that articulation of message, as the dark, intimate tone that pervades each song helps elevate the lyrics into loftier, more poetic territory. The swirling background noise of ‘Are You Going To Overreact?’ augments a relentlessly strummed guitar, whilst my initial difficulty with ‘A Nautical Theme’s fairly literal musical choices (harmonium, thunderclaps and creaking) was quickly allayed by the swoonsome lullaby of the refrain, aided by Claire Wakeman’s velvet vocals. This is the sound of grey, British clouds and what goes on underneath them, and I really, really like it.

This post comes with thanks (and apologies) to the two bands involved, because I have taken a fucking age to get around to writing it, and they haven’t even seemed overly angry about that fact.

As a little surprise for my dear ladyfriend, Cat, we took a four-day jaunt up to Scotland’s unfairly beautiful capital for the bank holiday weekend. Whilst we fitted in the usual tourist trips, seeing as most of my favourite music of the moment is coming out of the city, I crowbarred in a little music here and there, and what follows is a small account of the kind of aural treats we encountered in various forms.

Our first night ended with a (belated, due to poor, poor map reading skills on my part) trip to The Wee Red Bar for the Unpop club night. As an indie-pop night, we knew what to expect, but the main reason for my insistence on attending was down to the fact that none other than Pat Nevin, ex-Chelsea player, commentator extraordinaire and “indiepop conoisseur” (as the flyers proclaimed) was the DJ all night. Quite apart from his self-evident good taste, Nevin was a very nice man indeed, even asking our opinion of what to play later. Cat asked for this:

Camera Obscura – Honey In The Sun (YSI)

Of course, no trip to a new city would be complete without a scouring of the local record shops, and in the process I picked up a couple of delights. From the rightfully acclaimed Avalanche Records in Grassmarket I finally picked up Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and from a “rare records” emporium on the Royal Mile, I was given a John Lee Hooker collection by Cat after she watched me hanker over it for too long.

Pavement – Cut Your Hair (YSI)
John Lee Hooker – Boom Boom (YSI)

Whilst planning the trip, I’d frantically tried to find a gig worth heading to whilst we were in the city, but hadn’t found a suitable choice. Luckily, Matthew at Song, By Toad had me covered and posted about the Grassmarket festival, a three-day “micro festival” I suppose, free to enter, with craft stalls, food and, most importantly, live music. Taking Matthew’s advice/cowing to his threats (you can see this in the comments of the linked page above), we headed down on Sunday to catch Edinburgh School for the Deaf. Despite never wowing me beforehand, their particular fuzzy, punky tones were perfect for the sunny day and drew a great reaction out of the pretty sedate crowd (including one well-dressed drunkard who insisted on dancing directly in front of the stage throughout. Later, he was arrested). Unfortunately, we’d got there a little late and for no apparent reason, the plug was pulled after a couple of tracks. After a nifty pint, we headed back to the stage for The Second Hand Marching Band, who somehow managed to cram an uncountable number of musicians and bulky instruments onto the small stage to perform an uplifting set of brassy singalong numbers that swelled the crowd steadily throughout. We had to shoot off shortly afterwards, but the Grassmarket Festival has, in my limited experience anyway, set a precedent that could, and should be followed. Tiny events like this would be relatively easy to organise in an area with a good enough music scene, and with the cooperation of local small businesses, it’s a perfect way to draw attention to an area’s music or location that might otherwise be ignored.

Edinburgh School for the Deaf – 11 Kinds of Loneliness (YSI)
The Second Hand Marching Band – We Walk In The Room (YSI)

Of course, it all had to end sometime, and on the train home, Cat managed to infect my brain with this apposite number:

Adam Buxton – Holiday Blues (YSI)

Let me just end this little account with a message to anyone who lives in Edinburgh. I envy you. And Because I envy you, I hate you. So lock your doors, because I might want to steal your house and live in it myself sometime, and you’d better not get in the way of my doing that. Bye!