Posted in SHOFT on Friday 2nd January 2015 at 9:07am
It's been a long while since I could legitimately refer to myself as a Music Blogger. So long in fact, that a good number of the contacts I made back then have largely forgotten who I am and are focused on getting more active and prolific champions to notice their own next big projects. That's how music works, and in some ways I'm surprised it took such a long time to happen. One way I'm not forgotten though, is by the mailing lists of press people. This produces an endless queue of 'for review' items even now - often wildly badly targeted, almost exclusively pretty dreadful too. But once or twice, this historical status has landed a gem of an anticipated release in my lap - and I've felt almost guilty for eagerly downloading it, knowing the chances of me writing anything on it are vanishingly slim. So this post is as much an apology and a nod to those who've sent me good things during the year as it is a personal end-of-the-year list. This is after all, how my blogging began...
So in a pretty lean year when I've had to be very selective about where my money goes, what has been essential? Have I been more conservative - or still struck out into uncharted waters? Well, the content of my list is unashamedly focused on the Scottish music which has dominated my listening over the past decade for sure - but there are a few blasts from the past creeping in here too.
In no particularly sensible order, here is my list...
Posted in SHOFT on Monday 17th December 2012 at 7:12am
Those with long memories, unaffected by a year or two of musical excess, will recall that Songs Heard On Fast Trains grew out of an unprompted end-of-year favourites list on my not usually music focused personal blog. Well, somewhere in the summer I decided to stop writing here - a decision which weirdly aligned with a whole lot of other changes, which result in a very different set of circumstances right now. At the time, I decided I soon missed my interminably long descriptions of music, and oddly - to me at least - so did a few other people. I thought about casting around to see if there was anywhere I could contribute, perhaps even anonymously to avoid the whole "but you're not Scottish" bullshit which plagued the last few months of Songs Heard On Fast Trains too. In the end, the solution came rather unexpectedly from Mr Peenko himself. Lloyd approached me to write for his excellent, exclusively Scottish blog which tidied away a lot of the issues, and let me ramble on again about music I loved. He has also been incredibly tolerant of my erratic work rate, constant disappearances to the United States and general failure to thrive. I'd promise to improve, but I suspect he knows it won't happen!
So, we approach the end of a year which has been pretty momentous for me personally, and a little strange musically. There have been few really startling albums - but lots of smaller releases by bands I've loved. One thing which has remained constant is how important music has been to me - and how big a part it has played in all the other changes I've seen this year. So, when asked to contribute my favourite albums of the year to Peenko I struggled somewhat - but came up with things which I've listened to a great deal. These are records which have sustaining power above and beyond the norm - and which I'd wholeheartedly recommend.
Posted in SHOFT on Wednesday 18th July 2012 at 8:07am
It seems fitting that what is very likely the last review on Songs Heard on Fast Trains should feature a number of performers who have cropped up throughout the life of the blog in various guises. Like this blog itself, they've marked some changes over the past several years and are probably sounding just a little more world-weary and damaged than when they set out on the journey too. But, that's perhaps no bad thing as it provides the seed for a pair of simply recorded but hugely engaging collections of music. Writing about music is something I've always done - and probably always will do somehow, somewhere - but it's clear that this particular vehicle has run it's course and is now causing irritation and dismay more often than it informs or delights. I know when I'm beat - but thankfully these folks don't have any intention of sloping quietly away while there is music to be made. Thus this split EP, delivered on the defiantly outsider medium of the cassette, presents two distinct views into a music scene which remains healthily challenging and richly inventive.
If there was ever music fit to soothe such tricky moments of departure, Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo probably wrote it. Proceedings open with the lazy, mock self-congratulatory backslapping of "You Are An Excellent Human Being". The delicate construction is built around a swaggering bassline and washes of ghostly steel guitar both courtesy of Robbie Lesiuk, which provide a canvas for the laconic vocals of D.King. Coming on something like a central-belt Will Oldham, King's lyrics veer from cynical irritation to surreally descriptive passages while his vocal switches seamlessly between an Elvis Presley sneer and howls of genuine frustration. It's an odd, unsettling prospect at first but this blend of fragile, blasted country-pop and acidic Scottish wit comes together in a strangely addictive fashion. The stuttering "Let Redemption Sway You" follows, and is oddly like the Rolling Stones at their edgy, enervated late 1960s best, its distant lead guitar playing a respectful second string to a shuffling, urgent rhythm. This swiftly becomes a stripped-back gospel number, a chorus of voices transported directly from the Flying Burrito Brothers back catalogue accompanying D.King in his role as edgelands preacher, living on the margins and barking his message at unsuspecting passers by. Adam Stafford's influence is more apparent on "No Match for the Monster" which spirals around a thunderous, distorted bass and beat-box rhythm. King's vocals here are a mutant megaphone growl, snarling through a confusing, paranoid blues. His lyrical preoccupations tumble over each other, as the apparent after effect of weekend excesses are described as "lying dormant in an ecological cage" before he becomes rightfully enraged at "the atrocities committed by the British Empire". This is a twisted, angry and rather beautiful mess of a song, low in fidelity but high on ideas and bursting with snippets of lyrical brilliance. Somehow too, it reminds me of a rather less uncomfortably nihilistic Royal Trux in it's sprawling, damaged bluesy delivery. Finally, "Indecent Love" is a comparatively clean and shiny thing built around gently strummed acoustic guitars and fervent handclaps. Via a brittle echoing meander of steel guitar, King swaggers through the closest thing he manages to a good old fashioned love song. It's just as warped and uncomfortably deranged as the other songs here, but using a more conventional structure manages to worm its way into the memory.
While country music doesn't seem any closer to resolving its intractable image problems, Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo manage to smuggle its soul out of the bloated excesses of the Grand Old Opry and install it somewhere in downtown Falkirk. The resulting tumble of blasted ballads, twisted spirituals and good-time rock and roll are proud to come from the wreckage of that once proud genre but are delivered with a cynical sneer which all those emerging hipster rock bands can only dream of perfecting. Ultimately, the "Control Horses" EP is self-assured, grimly humourous and dangerously addictive listening.
Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo - Let Redemption Sway You
Adam Stafford is no stranger to writing experimental and challenging music which deviates from the usual structure of the rock song, as evidenced on the entirely acappella "Awnings" project. Here on "Slam Your Doors in Golden Silence" he takes on the challenge of writing four pieces for film, dispensing entirely with his distinctive vocals. In distinct contrast to the Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo side, these accompanying tracks are a more restrained affair, but remain surprisingly accessible. "Where Cuckoos Will Spend The Winter (Will Soon Be Revealed)" is essentially built around a trio of guitar lines - a pensively plucked rhythm which plays host to a delicately pretty repeated motif and a wandering, echo-laden solo. These intertwining themes enter and leave the piece with the spaces filled by a shifting buzz of feedback which is never allowed to get out of control. "Working Hard to Breathe" centres on two jangling, nagging guitar notes while a glacially slow bassline shores up the piece. Perhaps the most distinctive link to Adam Stafford's more familiar solo material is the twisting lead guitar lines which dance around these elements. The sinister hum which shifts around the reverberating bass and guitar of "Vessels Shifted" has something of a David Lynch quality to it. An unsettling soundscape, with snatches of indecipherable speech in the background which have the uncomfortable air of a fevered, long-forgotten Reichsparteitag speech. Finally "Temperatures Will Respond" twinkles into being - a cascade of glassy, high-register guitar notes accompanied by plangent and sinister bass. The elements of the piece coalesce around the simple melody, additional guitar parts joining to shore things up as they build towards a cliff-edge, heart-in-mouth ending.
There is an overly simplistic view that instrumental music - and especially music written for film - is as simple as removing the words from a traditional composition. Of course it's not, and the discipline and restraint shown throughout these four pieces betrays Stafford's skill as a film-maker as much as his musicianship. The best soundtracks are able to augment and support what occurs on-screen without dominating or distracting the emotional focus. These pieces manage that ably, but also stand up as beautiful, intricate and often delicately celebratory pieces in their own right. It's a side to Adam Stafford that his songs and lyrics often obscure, and if it moves you to look at some of his filmmaking too then it's work is done.
Adam Stafford - Vessels Shifted
"Control Horses" and "Slam Your Doors in Golden Silence" will be issued as a split EP on limited edition orange cassette with an aqua case on August 23rd via Wiseblood Industries.
Posted in SHOFT on Thursday 12th July 2012 at 7:07am
Shambles Miller retains an almost unique claim to fame here, in that he is the only artist ever to write a song with a name so long it consistently made iTunes crash. The limitations on file path lengths in older versions of Microsoft Windows aside, this is just the kind of acute observation which I'm sure would delight Miller who has a habit of turning the tiny, often mundane and minute events of everyday life into a tumble of touchingly humourous lyrics. He has maintained a slow but steady flow of releases over the past couple of years, including a pair of EPs which received a fair amount of very positive attention at the time. This, his first 'single' as such brings together a couple of more recently written songs and showcases Shambles's voice and guitar in two very different approaches to recording his songs. The skiffle-tinged shuffle of "Confessions" bursts with wry wit, David Bowie impressions and buckets of pathos. The almost impossibly catchy song is built around a rousing, sing-along chorus where Miller perhaps correctly observes "the world doesn't really need another break up song". But most songs of heartbreak aren't created quite like this, and lack the sense of self-deprecating but gentle humour which Miller manages to cram into his lyrics in every surprising couplet. I'm not going to quote huge passages of lyrics, because the surprise and delight of each line tumbling in is all part of the charm of this song. Driven by Neil Slorance's slinky double-bass playing, and with perfectly placed touches of backing vocals from Florence McDonald, there is a proper, old-fashioned and irresistible pop song at the core of this one. On "Pieces", the second track here, the instrumentation is stripped back completely leaving Shambles to deliver the song alone over an expertly picked guitar reel, uncannily sounding like a Glaswegian Billy Bragg raised on Ivor Cutler's Peel Sessions. It shares a theme with "Confessions" taking a different tack around the break-up theme, throwing in a deft W.B.Yeats reference and looking inwards for it's explanations. Shambles's vocals are laced with regret and defiance, heartfelt but never descending into schmaltz or self-pity. This is simple and direct, by the end redemptive and echoing with wisdom and experience. Despite his relatively low-key approach to self-promotion, there is much more to Shambles Miller than the average guy-and-a-guitar act. I find myself writing that a lot, but there are a bunch of musicians emanating from Glasgow - not least Randolph's Leap's Adam Ross and Beerjacket who are, along with Miller, redeeming this oft-abused art form. Coupling genuinely inventive songwriting with touches of observational comedy which shame some of the professionals in the field - and most importantly an ear for a naggingly memorable tune - Shambles's new single absolutely demands a listen.
Shambles Miller - Pieces
"Confessions" is available as a download or a physical CD release via Bandcamp. If you purchase the CD version you'll probably get a little note from Shambles along with a drawing. Mine involved a Seinfeld reference, along with a battle with an anatomically incorrect octopus. How can not want in on this kind of deal? You can also purchase Shambles's first two EPs from here for the absurdly tiny price of £1 each.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.