Posted in SHOFT on Friday 6th May 2011 at 11:05pm
As the tribes of bearded, plaid-shirted young men start to assemble around the steps to Anstruther Town Hall, something very unexpected happens. The sun comes out. For the past twenty-four hours, the East Neuk has been shrouded in low, misty clouds. This morning the rain beat down making the bus trip out to St. Andrews a frightening rollercoaster ride as the single decker aquaplaned, slithering close to the margin of the road and sending stones skittering along the underside. But now, blinking in the unexpected light, the crowds begin to assemble to exchange tickets for armbands. Once this administration is complete, most choose to head back out into the sunshine, discussing the merits of their newly obtained event programme whilst lounging in the churchyard or dangling their legs from the high wall at its foot. As we lounge, dangle or chat excitedly something strange is happening. The artists are arriving. In all kinds of haphazard ways - the Toad Van delivers Meursault from Edinburgh, parked awkwardly on a corner whilst arrangements are made, Slow Club appear in a taxi, unload their gear into the street and stand around chatting, before being whisked away to their digs squished into Kate Canaveral's car. Whilst the sense of expectation is strong there is something else at work here - a sense of community and belonging is already beginning to form. Old acquaintances are renewed, new introductions are made. For a bit of a loner like me lurking on the margins - a Homegame virgin so to speak - this is surprisingly not exclusive at all. It feels comfortable and easy.
The programme takes place in a variety of venues around Anstruther and Cellardyke - quite literally of all shapes and sizes, from the civic to the alcoholic in nature. Tonight starts with a plenary session in Anstruther Town Hall, perhaps the only venue for miles capable of taking the massed ranks of Homegamers. In the foyer, local bakers Fisher and Donaldson ply tempting baked goods while the bar, including some excellent local ale, is staffed by HMS Ginafore, Dave Canaveral and Sarah Tanat-Jones latterly of the much missed Come On Gang. The music starts at 6pm sharp as The Pictish Trail takes the stage to welcome everyone. He can't help but be excited and enthusiastic, despite days of frenetic running around organising this, and with that eagleowl kick off proceedings. With both their numbers and volume boosted by a new drummer and an additional cellist, the band sound huge. At the centre of the stage though, Bart still stands slight and uncertain, victim of good natured jibes about a particularly fine sweater he's wearing. Starting with quiet strums of guitar and hushed vocals, they build through a remarkable set towards a thudnerous conclusion. This confirms that on record at least, we've only seen one side of eagleowl. Next up, is Sweet Baboo. Again on the excellent recent record we've perhaps only seen a limited range of what this curious young Welshman is capable of. Starting with a cranking, grinding but quite absurdly named 'The Morse Code for Love is Beep-Beep and Beep-Beep and the Binary Code is One One' he leaps and jerks around the stage. His between song banter is self-concious, old beyond his tender years and refreshingly humble. The set tonight veers towards the louder numbers in the repertoire, and a request to play 'I'm A Dancer' is declined because the band didn't reherse it when they last met up last month. For such an apparently unprepared band they are remarkably tight and deliver a storming set much to the delight of an expectant Homegame audience. This is followed by another band who I've only recently discovered in Monoganon. Veering from slight, acoustic strumming to dizzy prog-folk meanderings, the recent album 'Songs To Swim To' is a strange but infectious creature. Live, Monoganon deliver much the same experience. With weird visuals projected above the stage, they reach a peak of oddness on 'Devil's Finger' which provides a queasy, weird take on folk-rock with a satisfyingly noisy climax.
A brief walk in the damp and humid evening over to the Smugglers Inn next, with the choice of acts upstairs and downstairs. I mull over the decision with a pint in the main bar, among the assembled young folk of Anstruther. In the corner, presiding over a laptop full of dance music is DJ Tigress. The barmaid asks us, with a strange hint of sympathy if 'we're with the Fence?' before letting us through the back of the bar into the foyer to avoid glasses leaving the venue. I opt for downstairs - and just in time because the tiny room is fast filling up. No wonder, as Meursault are here. Almost unable to make their own way to the stage, they joined on guitar by the amazing Debutant as ever a quiet and self-effacing chap, but seemingly much more comfortable performing as part of a band. Mostly consisting of new material, the set is ridiculously good - stomping, grinding drums supporting Neil Pennycook's wonderful, soaring and authoritative vocal. There are some concessions to the past, particularly with a closing 'The Furnace'. This is probably the sweatiest and most uncomfortable I've been at a show for a long time, and it was worth every bit of the personal space invasion. The crowds clear only a little, but the stage gets far more crowded as The Last Battle prepare to play. My entire trip here so far is vindicated when they play "Ward 119" - which becomes an aching, frustrated howl of a song which I've loved since I first heard it, and never imagined I'd get to hear live.
I extract myself from the heaving, moist room and despite the official advice in the programme, wander off alone in the dark. Its been raining, and the evening is fresh and thankfully cool after the heat in the Smugglers. I intend to wander back to my home for the weekend, but keep ending up in odd impromptu conversations with fellow Homegamers also wandering - are you on the Beefboard? What's your name on there? What are you planning to see tomorrow? Anywhere else these random conversations would feel odd and intrusive, but here they seem entirely natural and quite unforced. The walk home takes much longer than planned and involves more beer.
I think I'm going to like it here...
The Last Battle - Ward 119
Posted in SHOFT on Tuesday 3rd May 2011 at 5:05am
I had a beer-fuelled pub debate recently about the demise of the 'proper' rock LP. Namely, a record that's about ten songs long, isn't a concept album or some sort of thematic set piece, and just delivers a snapshot of a band's development at a moment in time. The internet has done some great things for music, but alongside the somewhat double-edged swords of convenience and accessibility it also allows appalling self-indulgence to occur - the sort of nonsense which was once available only to the really rich and famous act who had money to throw away. But, in the midst of a market saturated with the over-egged and terribly serious products of fevered, suffering musicianship come Pensioner. Emerging from the churn of musicians which makes Dundee look potentially more incestuous even than Glasgow, Pensioner seemed to rise from the ashes of a number of bands some time last year. They brought with them that most elusive of all things in the music world - a sense of humour. This is evident from the earliest listen to their music, which is infectious and enjoyable in no small part because they're having a blast playing it. There's also a more immediately obvious comic outlet in the absurd song titles which bear virtually no relationship to the contents. After all, why should having grandiose, odd or ludicrously lengthy titles be the preserve of instrumental post-rock acts? But, despite daring to have fun and not being ashamed of raising a smile in public, it's absolutely important not to write-off Pensioner as anything less than one of the most exciting emerging groups in Scotland at the moment, and "Yearlings" is a fitting opening to this career.
For all the simplicity of this concept, Pensioner are a tricky act to pin down. There are moments during "Yearlings" - not least early favourite "Gadgie Weddin'" - where it's possible to close your eyes and imagine that you're listening to something which Dischord Records would relish releasing - tight turns in mid-song, cascades of noise vying with spine-tingling melody, and a vocal range from a downbeat indie-drone to a hardcore howl of rage. In particular, the rhythm section appears capable of technical shifts and time changes which probably shouldn't be possible - and certainly shouldn't attempted by the uninitiated. No-one is doing this kind of thing these days - and those who are trying even parts of this heady mixture of elements aren't doing it nearly as well as Pensioner. The trademark song titles reach a peak of silliness - and a neat musical in-joke - with "Annannannawidecombe". In yet another variation of pace and tone this is nearly jangling indie-pop with a comparatively playful mood dominating. But there is a dark lyrical undercurrent here, indicated not least by the curious line 'on this peninsula the broken bodies lie'. The track builds and grows, finally strengthening into an epic ending. Next, "Sports Science" kicks off with a menacing intro and progresses with slashing guitars and a sinister bassline which support a genuinely unhinged sounding vocal. But even here, where Pensioner appear to be at their darkest and most serious, there are sudden bursts of deft, joyously complex guitar work, the melody ushering in a simple but swooning chorus. The track is coupled to "Daniel O'Dickhead" which marks a distinct change to chiming melodies and a snare-drum shuffle. These are two distinct but interconnected songs, and it's certainly not just a case of having too many bizarre song titles to spare.
Of course there is risk when you're dealing with a pretty straightforward band set up of guitars, bass and drums that things will begin to sound a little similar - but Pensioner pull off a neat touch in the sequencing and variation of this material which many similar bands seem to miss entirely. "Like, Epic" was an early taster for this record, and contains enough time changes and weird shifts of rhythm and volume to keep everyone on their toes. Here, Pensioner are beating those early 90s American acts at their own game, with solid drums and sinuous bass. Then, when you think you've got the measure of things, it all goes quiet and suddenly the band have become a pretty convincing post-rock act - producing a delicate but still driven instrumental coda to the track with neat guitar lines delicately weaving around the energetic rhythm section, before the inevitably noisy ending. This would have been a pretty incredible piece of music in it's own right, but as another aspect of an already fine track it's almost too much. The record closes with the dizzyingly complicated but remarkable "Massive Ferguson" which enters as a slow-burning anthem before switching up a gear to become a jittering, angry rant of a song - then down-shifts again resolving into a chugging indie-rock standard. It's a fittingly diverse and complex closure to an album that is full of clever tricks, neat shifts and surprising turns. This could of course all be just a little showy - a bit too much of a portfolio of the possible for the band. However, it doesn't ultimately work out that way at all, and the whole album hangs together as perfectly crafted collection of songs which have clearly benefited from lots of live performance, and the opportunity to tighten up into their technically precise recorded form.
It's pleasantly challenging to be writing about a good rock record in a year which has so far been the preserve of the quieter, more reflective artist....and please be in no doubt, this is a great rock record - noisy, energetic and dynamic in equal parts and with a sense of the bands now legendary live performances captured and preserved in the recording. A huge amount of respect is due to Olive Grove Records too, for daring to buck the trend and for getting behind an act which falls well outside the at present rather restricted comfort zone of Scottish music. This is a powerful, slow-burning album which is packed with enough surprises to keep you coming back to Pensioner. It's easy to forget in fact that this is a debut - and the fact that this band may have even more, yet to be revealed tricks up their sleeve is both daunting and exciting in equal measure.
Pensioner - Gadgie Weddin'
Posted in SHOFT on Tuesday 19th April 2011 at 7:04am
Living pretty remotely from where most of the music I enjoy emanates is no new thing for me. Having spent the early 1990s voraciously collecting North American 7" singles, the few trips I could make to the USA and Canada became very precious indeed. Even though I find myself in Scotland far, far more often these days, any attempt to time my visit to coincide with shows by bands I've appreciated from afar is usually pretty futile. One act I've desperately wanted to see for a long time now is Panda Su, not least because despite the lure of near-instant delivery of music to listeners which the internet offers, Su has been sparing in her releases - apparently preferring quality over quantity. The self released "Sticks and Bricks EP" providing a tantalisingly tiny glimpse into just what was possible in the world of Panda Su.
This new EP moves things on dramatically - and just as it's always easier to spot the new haircut of a friend you don't see everyday, the changes are at first very obvious. Firstly the songs appear to have grown in scope and stature - where the first EP seemed all about uncomfortable claustrophobia with just Su Shaw's haunting and laconic vocals to keep the listener from the ever encroaching edge, this record is about spaces and the wider world. But enough remains familiar to draw you deep into these four new songs, not least that wonderfully exotic, half-spoken and half-sung delivery which seems to allow sometimes dark, often challenging lyrics to be presented in a disarmingly simple and innocent way.
Opener "The Bee Song" perfectly illustrates this strange interplay of innocence and violence, with a lyric which is much more complex than the surface initially betrays. With a simple picked guitar melody and clockwork percussion, the song develops it's own lazy shuffle which creates an appropriately summery atmosphere. Droning organ notes and occasional multi-tracked vocal interludes change the atmosphere of the song, bringing it back onto a more personal scale as Su sings "I am lost in a world that fits inside the palm of your hand". Next up, "I Begin" marks a different approach to songcraft from Panda Su with a much more organised narrative form than previous efforts, which often feel like collected snippets of observation or thought. In its construction and phrasing it is strongly reminiscent of the work of I Build Collapsible Mountains which is absolutely no bad thing. However, the traditional singer-songwriter approach is augmented by skittering beats and a shimmer of keyboard sounds which lift the song from it's melancholy melody. Su's vocal here is defiant and strong - particularly on the half-chanted refrain of "I should try to remember, I should try to forget" - but still retains its effortlessly intoxicating quality - not unlike a luxurious yawn on first waking up.
The EP closes with a pair of songs which have been part of the Panda Su live set for some time, finally captured for posterity. "The Alphabet Song" sees Su reciting the alphabet and counting over a fragile guitar melody, against a building electronic backdrop. Letters are associated with apparently random thoughts and events, and often return later in new forms or orders. As she intones the letters - including a curiously alluring pronunciation of "J" which I find myself trying to mimic and utterly failing - the beats and bleeps shimmer and stutter. This simple concept shouldn't produce such an intriguing and enduringly fascinating song. "Facts and Figures" starts with a crunching static track and the now familiar drone of organ under the chiming guitar and glockenspiel. On this track in particular, Su's vocal soars above the music and shows what a remarkable instrument it is in itself - showing it's strength and purity while incongruously stating "...I'm finding out why I'm so weak". By far the loudest and the most overtly complex of the tracks here, this remains a highlight for me after endless listens.
The title of this EP suggests a reinvention of Panda Su and to an extent that's what it represents, however the links with the past - not least in some of the long-performed songs here - are strong. Throughout, Su's highly individual, but infectious delivery remains the trademark, and two EPs in I still feel like I'll never hear enough of this - and I remain desperate to see Panda Su perform. What is certain is that these four deceptively simple and utterly rewarding compositions show a remarkable ability to hit emotional highs and lows, and a truly incredibly talent for songwriting.
Panda Su - Facts and Figures
Posted in SHOFT on Monday 18th April 2011 at 6:04am
Early on in my appreciation of music, I developed a bit of a mistrust of electronic instruments. I remember owning an early Queen LP which proudly stated "No Synthesizers" as a sort of trademark of quality. I'm not sure quite how I squared this with them becoming one of the most over-produced studio acts of the last century as their career developed. There was however, something somehow less authentic about the synthesised sounds which were bouncing around the charts in the 80s, and some sort of half-inherited and half-affected punk ethic convinced me that only things you strummed or banged vigorously were really proper musical instruments. Years later, after my own rather tawdry experiments in musicianship my view has changed somewhat - but the art of the remixer or producer is still a bit of an arcane one to me. What trickery goes on behind those vast, complicated mixing desks? What dark arts are deployed to turn something familiar and loved into something which is sometimes unrecognisable?
Starting with a very familiar track from Panda Su is brave indeed. Su Shaw's near deadpan, carefully enunciated vocal is right at the front and demands attention. Meanwhile a delicately plucked banjo and swells of contextual noise weave around a decidedly baggy, 1990s beat. Common's recording of the track, despite filling out the spaces with texture, feels a little more raw and close to the nerve. It's a remarkable start to a record full of surprises in fact. One of those surprises is the artists which Jonnie has chosen to work with on DESKJOB - Adam Beattie is only vaguely familiar to me, but on the basis of his track here deserves my attention. A slight, fragile almost-country ballad is delivered in a disarmingly untouched recording - however, it becomes apparent as the track progresses that Jonnie's recording seems to foreground the squeak of strings, the tap of fingers on fretboard. Indeed all of the sounds which modern production values seems to screen out of the mix are here, adding depth and colour. As the track resolves into a chorus of sorts, there is a more traditional swell of electronica - but this too is entirely in context and doesn't overwhelm the sense of a live, intimate recording.
Meursault's contribution "And Butter Wouldn't Melt" is oddly sweetened by the Common treatment. A distant shimmer of noise and synthetic beats makes for a drunken, woozy backdrop in contrast to Meursault's usually spare and distinctly wintry arrangements. Neil Pennycook's trademark cracked vocal soars as a flourish of keyboards spirals into the proceedings. One verse in and a more robust clatter sets up, the song urged forward by a pulsing bass rhythm. As with most things which Meursault do this has the power to stop you in your tracks, and as Pennycook howls "...and god help you if you get lost" it becomes perhaps a little clearer how Jonnie Common has approached this project - as a collaboration and not a post-production exercise. This is particularly evident on "Nae Luck" contributed by Edinburgh DIY stalwart The Oates Field. From the outset found sounds chatter and skitter around the background, leaving ample space for Alan Oates affecting, damaged vocal. When Common's shimmering touches of organ arrive it bolsters the fragile composition. Never overwhelming what's essentially a slight, aching effort. Short and simple but perhaps the highlight of the record for me, because it sums up fairly completely the agenda of both the musician and the producer - and indicates how they fuse successfully.
It's important of course to remember that Jonnie Common is a musician himself, and has spent a fair bit of time on the other side of the mixing desk - often working alongside the artists featured here. As far as this compilation goes, this is represented by an alternate version of Inspector Tapehead's "Pherenzik Tear". Pared back to the organic instrumental sounds, we're treated to a deceptively simplified version of the track. Ingenious flicks of electronica underpin the beautiful interplay of piano and acoustic guitar. The eastern influences seemingly more apparent in this version with tabla style drums and percussion taking centre stage in the mix. Pulsing across the speakers, the vocal is more than ever a surreal rap, chanted over warbling electronics. It's both immense fun in it's own right, and an intriguing view into the development of the song as it later appeared on last year's "Duress Code" album. It also highlights the fact that Jonnie Common as composer and musician is as much part of this album as his persona of producer or remixer.
Indeed, Jonnie Common is keen to distance himself from the term 'remix' and that's an entirely fair comment. This collection of songs represent him working organically with a crop of remarkably talented musicians, often from the very conception of the song forwards. While these reworkings never strip away the core of the performer and their art like many remixes seem to, the recordings and the atmospheres in which the songs are captured are undeniably Jonnie's. The songs take on a new, revised life of their own which is more than the simple sum of these parts. But is it an album in it's own right? Ultimately yes - it certainly hangs together as an immensely enjoyable compilation, with Common's individual approach enough of a theme but never the dominant factor. Ultimately the remarkable roster of artists selected here is the key to this record, and we can add 'quality control' to Jonnie Common's already embarrassingly complete skill-set.
The Oates Field - Nae Luck
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.