Posted in SHOFT on Saturday 4th June 2011 at 11:06pm
I have a habit of ending up here at the wrong times - and this hastily arranged trip was no exception as I'd arranged to head back tomorrow missing a Fence show which had an almost dream line-up for me. However, I've also had a fair share of happy accidents which have led to me crossing paths with some interesting new music. This time though, my timing had worked out perfectly in terms of catching up with the progress made by some of my previous exciting discoveries, as under the auspices of the West End Festival, Electric Honey records were curating an evening at Òran Mór which would also serve as the launch for White Heath's album. So, once a large wedding party had been negotiated and everyone had found the right location within the sprawling and beautiful building despite the efforts of security staff to direct us otherwise, the stage was set for a varied and interesting evening of music.
First up were Stirling's Minature Dinosaurs who may yet represent the future of Electric Honey following a single release early this year. I'd not stumbled across this band before, and found them a bit of a strange proposition at first. They appeared on the surface to deliver pretty standard, anthemic indie-pop - albeit with reference points which were as impeccable as their heavily sponsored attire - showing from the outset that they had a clear understanding of the Scottish pop pantheon from Franz Ferdinand right back to touches of Orange Juice. Try as I might though, I just couldn't get used to the curious yelping vocal delivery. Throughout a pretty frantic and busy set, there were touches of promise - lots of driving beats and infectious choruses, and where the space and time was allowed in their short snappy songs, some rather lovely swoons of guitar. When they played slower numbers, there was time to enjoy the potential here, but when they cranked up the pace and rattled through faster songs it became a little bit formulaic. I found myself willing vocalist Barry Maclean to sing in his own voice, which seemed melodic and strong at times, but veered into the affected whooping as things picked up pace. Its fair to say though, that a lot of people clearly enjoyed Miniature Dinosaurs set, and with time and space to develop - which Electric Honey have always seemed adept at providing for bands - they may yet deliver some interesting work.
I've been openly airing my near desperation to see French Wives for some time, and could hardly disguise my joy when they appeared on this bill - along with the news that Electric Honey will release their debut album sometime next year. Sadly, it really wasn't to be French Wives' night, and from the outset they were dogged with sound problems which left things a little muddy and drowned the quieter parts of their set in a hum of feedback. Add to this an over-excited bar area full of Stow College students and their families, all gleefully but inconsiderately chatting - and it wasn't going to be an easy gig. Proceedings began with "Covered in Grace" which promised to burst through the less than perfect conditions with it's soaring violin and vocals. The band played all of their recently released EP on Red Hat Records, including a surprisingly toughened sounding "Big Brave Boy" which seemed bigger and bolder than on record, with chunkier guitars and rather fine bass playing - an element of French Wives I'd perhaps not picked up on until tonight. Despite their clear irritation at the sound situation on stage, French Wives managed to sound nothing less than huge in the hall, and thankfully the wonderful harmonies and Siobhan Anderson's soaring violin work managed to pierce the wall of low-level interference. Throughout the set, it was fascinating to watch the comic interplay of bizarre gurning and odd gestures between guitarist and bass player, who seemed to make the best of a bad lot and were determined to enjoy the experience. "Halloween" from the band's debut single was sadly frustrated almost entirely by the ongoing poor sound and growing audience chatter, but still managed to deliver it's thunderous ending which led swiftly into "Me vs. Me". The angry edge to the performance actually served this tune well, with Stuart Dougan fairly snarling the line "I'm not having fun anymore". I know the band didn't, but most of the audience did. True professionals, one and all - and I'm pleased to have finally managed to see them play.
Woodenbox took to the stage looking fairly relaxed about proceedings. After all, they had a plan to deal with the sound issues - and it seems that was to simply blast on through it at full tilt. Indeed from the moment the mariachi brass and energetic harmonies first slammed through the muddy mix, the plan worked perfectly. The amazing and animated crowd response to "Life From Above" was surprising, after all this is in essence country music delivered with a degree of authenticity, and there was something incongruous about a crowd of young hip students and their folks reacting like this in the curious celebratory atmosphere which was developing in Òran Mór as the night wore on. Woodenbox had the advantage of a huge range of genres to choose from in their sweep across the vast continent of Americana, and things moved swiftly and effortlessly between swampy, southern darkness through whistling spaghetti western themes into moments of off-kilter skiffle and jazz. Vocalist Ali Downer looking every inch the archetypical southern man, but revealed his origins with a strange inter-city accent that could be from anywhere in the Central Belt, as he introduced the fantastic "Draw A Line" as their first ever single. It was delivered triumphantly with a joyous and blaring brass ending which managed to persuade sections of the partying audience onto their feet at last. Finally, a roaring take on "Hang The Noose" defeats the chatterers and the muddy sound once and for all with it's unstoppable howl. They made it look easy tonight, and weirdly the thorough blasting which they gave the PA seemed to have finally cured it of it's frustrating issues!
It was a big night for White Heath as their genuinely stunning debut album was launched at last, marking the culmination of their work with Electric Honey and Stow College. There was a sense that this was a graduation, and the gents from the band were dressed for a formal occasion tonight - making me feel just a little guilty for my description in an earlier live review! They took to the stage at Òran Mór to a remarkable reception, their ranks now including bass guitarist Craig Salter. As a low rumble of noise emerged, for one awful minute it seems the sound issues were back before it became clear that this was the brooding introduction to "Maker". Soon the piano twined its jazzy improvisation around the emerging melody, and the sound began to build via the medium of Sean Watson's soaring vocal, eventually erupting into a tremendous noise. This collapsed directly into the sublime "Election Day" which shuddered and lurched beautifully with the addition of bass. I was struck by how White Heath have developed and changed in the short time since I last saw them play, and how the process of working over these songs in the studio has given them the confidence to experiment and play with their sound. As a perfect example, "GG" tonight becames a punky, joyful thrash with weird electronics jittering and dancing around it's dark pop core. It's utterly exhilarating to watch a band so clearly excited to be playing and comfortable enough with their material to turn some of it on it's head entirely - not least the most reinvented song in White Heath's arsenal, "7:38am". Tonight this adopted a strangely clipped, almost funky and tense edge which sent me back to the recording at the first opportunity to look for the clues that this was hidden in the track all along. The evening's highlight for me arrived with "Past The Satellites, Into the Fray" which sets out tense and controlled but finally and joyously exploded with Shoub's vocal outburst and energetic tom-tom solo, provoking incidents of sudden and spontaneous dancing in front of me - and a bit of keyboard trashing rock'n'roll activity on stage too! With the album played in its entirety and thus well and truly launched, the most exciting aspect of tonight for me was watching these songs continue to evolve beyond their recorded form - and I sense that White Heath are not going to stand still for long.
As a truly wonderful audience reaction echoed around Òran Mór, I left the rather stunned and genuinely delighted looking band to the family and students who were keen to shake hands, hug and congratulate them. It had surely been White Heath's night, and despite a pretty remarkable line-up of bands it seems only right it should have been. It's still early, when I emerge into a chilly but bright evening - and hopping onto a bus which takes the ski-ramp of the A82 and soars by the hulking Stow College building, I wonder not only what's next for the bands I've seen tonight - but what amazing futures are already being dreamed up inside?
Posted in SHOFT on Friday 3rd June 2011 at 11:06pm
It had been a hot day in Glasgow and walking around the city I noticed how quickly the population here adapts to the weather. Around the city centre, Friday night after-work crowds hogged the pavements, usually the preserve of the freezing smokers exiled from the bars. Coats left at the office and umbrellas long since discarded, the city seemed intent on enjoying the rare splash of sunshine. In the midst of all this I'd initially wondered how I'd keep myself out of trouble tonight, but once again, there had ended up being almost too many options for musical entertainment here. However, on the basis that I'd loved Over The Wall's strange but infectious 'Treacherous' album, I finally decided on a trip to Sleazy's for this show. So, after a quiet pint and a bit of people watching upstairs, I was soon installed in a comfortable corner of the dungeon which forms the venue in this near legendary establishment. The enigmatic John Knox Sex Club took the stage unannounced and begin to play almost provisionally - with quiet, uncluttered sounds gently building before a sweeping violin slipped in. Then, as if to dispel any doubts about the band's presence, Sean Cumming arrives. A bearded poet - like a strange genetic hybrid of John Darnielle and Josh T. Pearson, he begins to stalk around the tiny stage while ranting and pointing - into the air, into the audience, indeed at a point in the far distance somewhere under Sauciehall Street. He's almost too tall for the stage, dancing uncomfortably like Ian Curtis, frequently punching the air and occasionally inadvertently boxing with the ceiling beams. Despite how intimidating this could all be, it appears to have the opposite effect on the growing audience, who cluster close around the stage in varying degrees of delight and fascination.
But it would be unfair to cast the rest of this rather special band like some sort of vanity vehicle for their admittedly unique vocalist. They manage to weave a complex sound, from what sometimes appear to be the slightest and gentlest of elements and using fairly traditional instrumentation aside from the violin. But over the course of this short set, John Knox Sex Club show they are capable of a surprising range of approaches - veering from near-traditional and sparsely accompanied folk like arrangements, via a deranged blues swagger to huge noisy epics which sometimes evoke The Twilight Sad at full tilt. All of these are anchored around the complex and often introspective lyrics which show a flair for acute observation and an attraction to the melancholy. A brave accappela opening follows - just Cumming's fragile broken voice in the noisy venue, before it soars above the crowd and descends again to commence a relentless rant. Finally he is sighted briefly standing on the stack of speakers like they're his makeshift pulpit, and suddenly he's gone - out into the audience once again, gratefully and sincerely hugging those around him - and surprisingly getting a fairly warm response from an initially uncertain and somewhat reticent crowd.
It strikes me that it's going to be pretty tricky to follow the theatrics which John Knox Sex Club have just provided, but Over The Wall are in a celebratory mood tonight. It's Day 78 of their eighty day long tour of the British Isles, and after tonight there's just an Edinburgh date before a special live streamed living room gig to be broadcast by Glasgow PodcArt on Sunday. So, tonight feels like something of a homecoming - and there are lots of old friends and family in attendance, to the point I feel like I've gatecrashed someone's wedding reception at one point. To celebrate that it's also the anniversary of five years of Over The Wall, prior to the band taking to the stage, there is a surreal spoken introduction provided by a friend of the band. The detail of this is lost in my bewilderment and surprise, but it involved a mythical third member of Over The Wall who had a head like a spatula. Ultimately we were urged to boo and heckle the band onto the stage to reflect the poor treatment this utensil-headed urchin had recieved. This was duly done, to Gav and Ben's clear amusement and approval.
Live, Over The Wall are a simple proposition - a guitar, a couple of voices and a whole mess of electronica, occasionally supplemented by trumpet or harmonica when the mood demands. Amazingly, this allows a pretty faithful representation of the depth and complexity of 'Treacherous' - and some of it's finest moments are aired tonight. It was always going to be a winner for me, but "A History of British Welfarism 1945-1984" is just as impressive here as it is in recorded form, moving directly from plaintive regret to frustration and anger. The guitar sounds shred through the blips and burbles, before the trumpet drifts in like a the ghost of a distant colliery band recalling the old days. For all the celebratory atmosphere, these are simple heartfelt and crafted songs. It's probably fair to say that "The Crucible" remains likely the only song ever written about an aging snooker professional, but this doesn't detract from it being a strangely emotional and affecting song too. Somehow tonight, everything is becoming a sing-a-long anthem for a delighted crowd, and the band beam back from the stage, clearly very happy to be here. Gav and Ben are briefly joined by Ross and Davy of Three Blind Wolves to provide a chorus line for "Settle Down", which sets off all default Casio sounds, but ends up an urgent plea to "go break free/it's not your responsibility". Of course it all comes to a head with "Thurso" just as you'd expect. I think it was Jim from Aye Tunes who once wrote about the mysterious power this song has to make you hug people. There was lots of hugging, lots of singing and ultimately as this gentle and melancholy folk tune finally erupted into it's epic and life-affirming ending, lots of pretty unhinged dancing too. I'll confess I was part of this merriment - it was almost impossible not to be in the circumstances - despite the fact I've been to Thurso, and it was never like this!
The all-to-brief set closes with "Keyboard Heaven" - an old song which harks back to the band's earliest days, and is essentially a heartfelt but pretty bizarre love song to one of Ben's much missed but now irretrievably broken keyboard. And with that Over The Wall are gone, leaving a spellbound and sweaty audience eager for more. I stumble upstairs into the thankfully cool fresh air and notice to that there is still a surprising amount of light in the sky even at this late hour. I slalom home, through the crowds of sunburned and now totally inebriated revellers. Two very different bands, with two entirely variant approaches to music - but both capable of sweeping up the audience and taking them along for an always surprising ride. It promised to be a special weekend...
Posted in SHOFT on Wednesday 1st June 2011 at 7:06am
Along with most of the rest of the world of music, I've been confidently and rather pompously predicting the death of the single format long while. For me, this is a great shame as I look back on a misspent youth chasing handfuls of vinyl singles imported from the USA at ridiculous cost in the hope of finding some rare and perfect gem. There were home grown efforts too, not least the likes of Bristol's Sarah Records which despite shouldering a fairly hefty stereotype of anorak-pop for misty-eyed loners, actually managed nearly a century of mostly interesting releases. I can't complete my reminiscing without a mention for Seminal Twang too, without which I probably wouldn't be listening to much of the music I write about here at all. Recently though, I've heard a few singles - in the sense of a couple of carefully chosen songs which fit together as a release, rather than individual tracks for download - which have got me just as excited as I used to be when I heard a new band for the first time. Singles were always, after all, about a brief window into a band's world. So I thought perhaps it was time to attempt to share this excitement, and this occasional series of posts will be all about the curious survival of the single - and the delicious risk of making a judgement on just a couple of short songs. Of course it could go wrong and I could end up with copious quantities of egg on my face, but isn't that all part of the fun?
Poor Things - 18
You can purchase a physical copy of Poor Things single, or a digital download here at Bandcamp.
Edinburgh School for the Deaf - Orpheus Descending
You can download Edinburgh School For The Deaf's single from Bubblegum Records. Their album will be released on 13th June.
Posted in SHOFT on Thursday 26th May 2011 at 6:05am
I spend quite a bit of time trying to convince myself - and indeed the small group of people who read this - that this isn't a Scottish music blog. It certainly didn't set out to be - after all there are plenty already, and some of them are very good indeed - and it's only my tastes and habits which have allowed it to become so imbalanced. So, imagine how excited I was to have the opportunity to enthuse about something different, something which had come to me via a circuitous route through uncertain geography. I first heard of the Kitchen Cynics many years ago when I was involved in putting out DIY music myself. A correspondent from North Yorkshire raved about their home recorded sort-of-folk music, already then spanning a good number of cassettes released from around 1988 onwards. Fast forward almost twenty years and a chance email conversation with an old friend from Italy reveals that he is about to release a pretty special vinyl LP by the very same Kitchen Cynics. He is hand painting each and every sleeve - and not just random dabs of paint here, these are tiny masterpieces, lovingly and carefully executed. I knew on hearing the songs and seeing the sleeves that I wanted to write about it here. But remarkably, despite my protestations about the nature of this blog, and despite this release coming to me via a twenty-year journey through time from North Yorkshire to Southern Italy, the Kitchen Cynics are in fact from Aberdeen. As Missed Connections go, this one is a pretty extreme example - and once again I fail to shake off the tag of Scottish hanger-on!
It's fair to say that the Kitchen Cynics - more accurately Alan Davidson - have not been quiet over the time I've been away. The volume of his output is remarkable, with a collection of cassettes, CD-Rs and occasional vinyl releases which feel almost overwhelming. But "Wooden Bird" pretty quickly dispels any concerns about knowing where to start with this dauntingly wide-ranging back catalogue by being almost instantly accessible. While much of the rest of his nation's DIY music scene appears to be debating the contested terms around modern acoustic music, Alan dodges any genre-bound controversy around "new folk", "psyche folk" or "anti folk" by happily peddling good old fashioned tunes in the way he's done it for longer that he probably dares to remember. The record opens with atmospheric, reverberating guitar chimes on "Deep In The Wee Hours" before Davidson's soft and melodious but strangely cracked and broken sounding voice enters. While the phrasings and melodies seem to come directly from the folk tradition, the distorted guitar which weaves in and out of the verses definitely isn't. It's fairly common to see the overused and contested term "psychadelic" applied to Kitchen Cynics output it seems - but this feels a bit lazy, and doesn't do justice to the strangely claustrophobic atmosphere which Davidson creates in these affecting compositions. The brief "Dawn" follows a similar pattern, but treads a more formal and traditional path perhaps, showing that this music is founded on an understanding of the territory, and of the principle that to reconstruct things, you need to truly know them. Again though, with minimal instrumentation the sum becomes much greater than the parts and the interwoven guitar parts echo and skitter around the track. At times, I'm reminded of Gordon Anderson's work as Lone Pigeon - which similarly manages to take an essentially solo performance far beyond it's usually simple possibilities.
Surprisingly, one of the most delicate and successful pieces here is an instrumental descriptively entitled "Improv Early Birds, 26th May". This is a joyous tumble of multi-tracked guitar, building over an undercurrent of birdsong. At first an almost inconsequential interlude, this has all of the tension and sweeping structure of a post-rock anthem, scaled down into a home-recorded woozy folk tune. There is always a possibility that some solo guitar work like that featured here can risk self-indulgence, but as part of a magical soundscape like this it makes perfect sense. Another personal highlight is "Scales" where a sinister multi-tracked vocal is part spoken and part quietly sung over more of the atmospheric reverb-drenched guitar picking. Occasionally here, Davidson's voice soars unexpectedly, and it's difficult not to share what appears to be his ache of frustration as he intones "I'm listening to all of those songs/and a new lot of pinches of salt". The quiet, reflective "Surface Noise" is lyrical but simple, allowing Davidson to describe scenes with an artist's eye over a gentle and rather melancholy backdrop. The songs on this record are often rather short, and appear to expire suddenly, like incomplete but detailed sketches rather than overworked finished paintings - and perhaps this gives a sense of Davidson's creative process - a man with a vast library of ideas, who needs to commit them to record urgently to prevent them from being lost forever. The record closes with "Now Westlin' Winds" which delights in it's Caledonian origins. Stripped bare of the reverb and guitar trickery, this is an unashamed and traditionally delivered take on this Burn's poem as arranged and set to music by Dick Gaughan. The composition is delivered in a broad Aberdonian brogue which draws out the lyrical nuances of the poem neatly. It sounds like Davidson is at home here, allowing his voice to expand to fill the space created by the gently plucked guitar.
Despite rarely straying into territory which is overtly lyrically or sonically challenging, there are still times when this collection of songs becomes a surprisingly personal and almost uncomfortable listen. The strange atmosphere it creates provides little to distract the listener from Davidson's sometimes eerily breathy voice, which is always in the foreground. It's like watching someone performing at close quarters - and being acutely aware of their tiniest movements and intonations. However, over the span of ten outwardly simple but often surprisingly multi-faceted and complex songs, the Kitchen Cynics have managed snare me into expanding my knowledge once again. As a late returner to this remarkable body of work, I've got some catching up to do.
You can buy the very special hand-painted vinyl album online from Almost Halloween Time Records. Luigi also maintains an attempt at a full Kitchen Cynics discography alongside a site documenting much of the 1990s DIY music scene and beyond. A range of Kitchen Cynics music can be downloaded at reasonable prices at The Folk Police, including a low-priced introductory sampler. There's really no excuse not to investigate further.
Kitchen Cynics - Deep In The Wee Hours
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.