February 2012

So, stadium rock. It’s shit right? The thing is, when you intentionally try to make your sound more emotional, more powerful and generally overwhelming, it often just muffles the actual emotional voice at the centre of it all. I love desperately sad folk songs because you can hear someone’s voice crack, you can hear the sound of their fingers moving along strings – stadium rock offers none of that intimacy. Sure, the sound of someone singing loudly over a lilting piano line can be emotional too, but so can chopping off a finger, and I don’t do that unless I upset my Yakuza bosses (fingers cross- oh).

Which is why I’m impressed with Exitmusic’s ‘Passage’. This Brooklyn two-piece are making stadium rock that sounds genuinely emotional, but without making any huge changes to the formula. The huge crescendo is there, the lingering reverb, ringing guitars, all of that, but with the addition of some esoteric electronic work and some wonderfully quavering vocals yelping away for most of the song, they’ve somehow wrung every drop of cynical, swaying crowd bollocks out of this cloying genre and made it seem distinctly fresh. This isn’t music to sing along to, it’s to be sung at you, and loudly at that. I don’t know whether this’ll make me a stadium rock convert any time soon, but it’s seriously interesting stuff.

Exitmusic – Passage

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Well that certainly was a week with no posts. Here’s an hour of spectacular folk music to compensate.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

There is some bloody good music on this week’s show. Some of it I’ve written about, some of it I most likely will, and some of it’s just nice to hear again. A PUZZLE: Listen to it all and find out what’s what.

I really like my iTunes library. Don’t get me wrong, iTunes is not a great program, and the fact that I like to order everything just so means that I have to deal with it a lot more than I wish I had to. Also bear in mind that I constantly desire a far larger collection of CDs, any collection at all of vinyl and all the high-end equipment necessary to play it all with. But I don’t. And I love my iTunes library. I can be gently sailing through an ocean of tracks and, more often than not, come across something I’d completely forgotten about. Maybe I meant to write about it, maybe I downloaded it and never listened, but whatever’s happened to it in the meantime, it’s resurfaced and I get a moment of joy before I get angry at myself for forgetting it in the first place.

These tracks are examples. Both released almost half a year ago, both brilliant for different reasons and both swimming alluringly into my field of hearing for the first time in an age only today. Bridge Underwater’s ‘BeLoved’ is a spectacularly ramshackle bit of yearning indie-pop, scraping itself along aimiably until it whips out a mini guitar solo and Patrick Mellon’s vocals go all Thom Yorke circa-The Bends as the song fades into the distance. It’s a nice little unexpected flourish, like watching an old man hobble past street dancers and then join in. Spirit Spine’s ‘Ocean of Sand’ on the other hand has no such disguise, instead choosing to reveal itself with the most immediately evocative title this side of Snakes on a Plane. You hear it and just know, y’know? The languorous, reverb-heavy intro, complete with far-away, dolphin-esque yelping, bears all the aquatic qualities, whilst the final addition of booming drums and eddying guitar line to the ever-growing mix of noise recalls a sandstorm – abrasive, overwhelming.

They’re both late, they’re both brilliant and they both come courtesy of my idiot mind and a clunky playback service. Love you, iTunes!

Bridge Underwater – BeLoved

Spirit Spine – Ocean of Sand

Sometimes you just want to tell people an album’s great and leave it at that. This is not one of those times. This was originally written for For Folk’s Sake, which is a nice place full of fun.

There has never been a worse time for an ‘80s synth-pop album to come out than now. Even the ‘80s. As Simon Reynolds’ derisive term (and book) “Retromania” gets bandied about more and more, so too does the popularity of the practice – an unsettling prophecy that edges closer to becoming not only widely true, but perhaps ubiquitous. Rock bands are plagiarising the ‘90s, pop acts lazily lift from the chemically-enhanced dance scene of the same decade, and any artist with tendencies towards the more electronic side of things, well they copy the ‘80s – keytars and all.

Which is why it’s a little odd that The Twilight Sad, a band who have traditionally attempted to make so much guitar noise that ears worldwide have desperately pleaded to swap senses with any other body part that would synaptically listen (but couldn’t, because the guitar noise had destroyed their hosts’ central nervous systems), would decide to release No One Can Ever Know; a record that seems to amount to their own, customarily downbeat, tribute to the more recognisable acts of that inorganic decade.

That said, the Scottish three-piece’s third album isn’t so much a reinvention as an evolution – albeit one that may have baffled Darwin. The imperious, lengthy tracks, impenetrable gloom and pervasive sense of drama remain, just sliced open by something entirely new – the sound of analogue synths. It’s not immediately obvious what line of thought could have brought the band to this conclusion, but that thought has clearly been had.

Opener ‘Alphabet’ is the perfect introduction, a seasick sway of bassy electronics backed by sparse percussion and appended by an airy line of keys hanging over James Graham’s characteristic howls of emotional discontent. It’s a formula that, with the substitution of synths for squalling string feedback, wouldn’t have seemed out of place on previous albums and, consequently, that very change becomes the central point of interest. The cold, perfect tunefulness of the synths provides a cutting clarity to the track – and the album – a fluorescent beam of light that shines through the fog of the band’s sound and paradoxically reveals far more of their true darkness than sheer noise ever did.

This use of sounds that might previously have been associated with a more vapid genre throws the subject matter into relief – after all, hearing Graham’s repeated, half-screamed intonations of ‘I still watch you’ against a backing that in other circumstances could be distinctly stadium-oriented makes for uneasy, compelling listening. They re-use those sounds in other ways too – ‘Another Bed’s slight pitch bends make fist-pumping anthemics sound distinctly woozy and the electronic pulse of ‘Sick’, coupled with a gently circular guitar pattern, recall another band’s electronic reinvention, in the form of Kid A.

In fact, despite the more immediate sonic touchstones, it is Kid A’s mountainous influence that looms largest over much of No One Can Ever Know. Radiohead’s invocation of millennial doom was similarly unexpected, similarly electronic and, similarly, their darkest work to date. ‘Sick’, and to a lesser extent ‘Not Sleeping’, seem self-conscious in their adoption of that particular sound – a purposeful reminiscence designed not only to capitalise on the source’s brilliance, but to bring to mind the same associations.

What results is that No One Can Ever Know is an album that pays homage to The Twilight Sad’s history as individuals and a band. In its adoption of ‘80s sonics it highlights its own subject matter, in its calling upon Kid A it links its existence to a significant part of recent musical history, and in its twisting of the band’s own established style it signals both a growth and a stylistic link. Yet, despite every chain’s potential to hold them back against what they’ve linked themselves to, the band have instead strengthened their proposition, making a record that invokes much but never feels stolid. This album not only improves on much of what the band has stood for, but provides a potentially significant marker for how to combat the stupefying effects of Reynolds’ Retromania – in taking on the tropes of the past, The Twilight Sad have still come out with an album that sounds importantly original.

There’s something awfully odd about coming across an artist who you would guess is very new and finding out they have a 23-song album sitting there, waiting to be downloaded. Internet age, bedroom recording, all the tools needed blah blah blah – it would be easy to explain away, but (and this is taking into account that I know nothing of the artist beyond the songs he’s posted and am most definitely jumping to a conclusion) there’s something just brilliant about finding a treasure trove of tracks from someone you’d expect to be announcing themselves with the customary single track Soundcloud placeholder or somesuch (in fact, the artist in question’s Soundcloud appears to have another 10 tracks not on the album).

Sean Armstrong is who I’m referring to, whose Generation Scum is available, for free, now, on the Bandcamp page of youthful, dickpunching Glasgow funpunknoise band PAWS’ new label CATH Records (and will seemingly be out as a cassette release in March). It reminds me most of those Atlas Sound Bedroom Databank releases from 2010 (and holy shit that was nearly two years ago and I am getting old) in that it flits from idea to idea, sometimes literally cutting out mid-thought, without ever choosing to settle into one mode. That’s not to say there isn’t cohesion – there’s a sense of slyly grinning melancholy that hangs over everything, making even the most out-there experimental parts sound part of a greater whole (stand up ‘Hawaiian Shirt Club’, which sounds like the nightmares of Peter Serafinowicz as he composed the music for Look Around You (which, by the way, is now 10 years old oh god I’m so very old)) and the more straightforward, somewhat folky songs feel just that little bit twisted out of shape.

It would be disingenuous of me to suggest standout tracks here, because you really should go and listen to the whole thing (and I will be choosing the tracks I accompany the post with based on Soundcloud availability and strength of waveform shape) so what I will say is that Generation Scum is not only exciting for the sheer prolific and wideranging talent it represents, but the fact that it shows an artist who’s not quite ready to commit to a style and, quite obviously, doesn’t give a shit about that fact. Go listen.

Sean Armstrong – Greasers

Sean Armstrong – Hello Shadow

Vodpod videos no longer available.

This week’s show marked the 24th hour of The Folk Bloke. If I had been in any way prepared, I would have marked the situation with features, interviews, competitions and general reverie. As it was I just talked about how I had psychic powers and played some excellent music.

Father John Misty – Hollywood Forever Cemetry Sings

Next Page »