Posted in SHOFT on Sunday 4th March 2012 at 10:03am
This is by my reckoning, the one hundredth post on Songs Heard on Fast Trains. I still sometimes wonder if I'm not completely barking up the wrong tree here, scribbling away about music I love, and somewhat randomly hitting and missing releases depending on how the blog fits in with real life. Still, it keeps me busy and it organises my thoughts - two incredibly important things just now, so it's likely you're stuck with me for a little longer. It also seems fitting that this landmark posting should go to The Douglas Firs - a band I've not written about before, but which has lingered in the background of my listening for sometime. Last year's "Happy As a Windless Flag" slipped by unremarked here, really only because of my own bad time-management - but had it made these pages i'd have written about dark, sometimes impenetrable and confusing music which is oddly, almost perversely addictive. This EP, while essentially a collection of field recordings and fragments recorded since the album, continues in that curiously compelling vein - and at the same time documents the metamorphosis of The Douglas Firs from one-man bedroom recording project to a full live band.
Available as a download, or a austerely packaged cassette or CD, this EP gives away few secrets from the outside. Even my normally astute mail thief neighbours failed to steal this one which perhaps hints at just how oblique and anonymous the release is. Beginning with "30.11.10", an echoing drone of background noises and feedback which surrounds a distant bass melody, it's clear that this isn't going to present lots of hit pop tunes. "What Remains" continues in a similar musical vein, but adds Neil Insh's plaintive, high vocals along with cascades of guitar and washes of percussion. I'm struck here, as on the debut album, that what sets The Douglas Firs apart from most other acts is that events in the background of songs are often far more important that the immediate foreground. Despite being quite noisy and fairly sonically challenging in places, this is never in your face - never overblown. The skill in building these cinematic scenes becomes increasingly apparent on "Ghost Wardrobe" which takes a simple bass guitar and violin coupling, and turns it into a sinister but beautiful sheen, which has an oddly perfect fit with the theme of spectral bedroom furnishings!
On "Something There" we're faced with a curious chorus of voices, sometimes sweetly harmonic and sometimes insistent and imploring - but always over a weird, industrial background of wind and traffic. It's unsettling and confusing - is this the sound of the Highlands where The Douglas Firs began their journey, or the urban edgelands of Edinburgh? In either case, there is a journey at the heart of this song - a strategy which always appeals to me. There are more conventional songs here too, and "Frameworks" is a example in its gentle acoustic interlude. Possibly the most upbeat composition here and driven by an undertow of bass guitar, Insh uses his high voice to struggle with structures and forms here - vocally and lyrically. Meanwhile "Church Hill" centres on a wavering, uncertain vocal and spartan piano notes which cluster around an echoing drumbeat. Like most of the vocal pieces here the mood is reflective and distant, with an obscure and pervasive sense of melancholy. Despite the simplicity of the instrumentation, it's a surprisingly warm and engaging piece. The droning opening of "The Dream, September" mocks the 'pipes and shortbread tin' stereotypes which scupper Scottish music all too often in the eyes of the world outside. This glitchy, atmospheric shimmer slips from channel to channel in the headphones, providing an interlude before we're transported once again via "South-Folk in Cold Country". This has more than a hint of the sounds of the early New Zealand DIY scene in its sparse instrumentation, military drums and stentorian vocals. There are familiar hints of impending discomfort with the troubled observation that "the indication that all is not fine". Taking advantage of the expanded line-up of the band, distant brass and piano accompaniment add depth and somehow this starts to pull together and make sense of the widely varied sounds which have preceded it.
The pieces which make up this release, whilst not designed to belong together in any sense, have conspired to become a whole which is sometimes shadowy and indistinct, but at others incredibly direct and accessible. The simple recording technology and experimental nature of "ep1" don't always make for easy or comfortable listening, but they document the processes of a band developing and changing, providing some beautiful sound pictures along the way. If the developments here are the future of The Douglas Firs it's going to be a very interesting one to watch unfolding. This is the soundtrack to a movie which will never be made...don't let it become a lost gem.
The Douglas Firs - Frameworks
This release is available from 5th March as a simply packaged CD or Cassette, along with a digital download from Armellodie Records. Proceeds from this release contribute to the recording and release of the band's forthcoming second album. You can read more about The Douglas Firs here.
Posted in SHOFT on Friday 2nd March 2012 at 8:03am
What French Wives manage better almost than any band operating in this area just now, is the sense of event and spectacle. Building songs into layered, complex, life-affirming swells without turning them into those overblown 'anthems' destined for Masterchef vote-offs isn't easy. Here it's achieved by centring the track on one of those nagging, epic guitar lines which lifts your heart instantly and just keeps growing as the song develops. Coupled to the insistent winding violins and vocal harmonies which support Stuart Dougan's distinctive croon, "Younger" becomes a hymn to ageing and regret which belies the relative youth of the band. Things build up to the simple but stark declaration that "I wish I had found my marker/I wish I had started younger" before the track spirals off into a crescendo of defiance and determination. The album isn't far away now, and will represent just the marker French Wives are seeking - and it will represent the culmination of a whole lot of effort, frustration and persistence. It's no accident perhaps then, that these themes come to the fore here. I'm fairly certain that French Wives are going to be a far more widely known name by the next time I'm wittering about them here.
French Wives - Younger
You can get your hands on "Younger" from Bandcamp as a free download.
"Cosplay The Hard Way" emerged as an early taster for this EP, and despite it's gentle and delicate opening passages the lyric contains more than a hint of menace and implications of troubled sexual politics which, taken alongside the innocence and sweetness of the music become genuinely uncomfortable. Mid way through the song takes a dramatic flip, with a serrated guitar line entering - before a beautifully constructed cascade of vocal harmonies and strings sees things through to the end. The ending is unresolved - and there is a sense that whatever dark happenings the song hints at are bound to be repeated. This is wonderfully crafted, detailed pop music used to explore the corners of your mind where perhaps you'd least expect to find it heading. In that sense, it's just about perfect. Finally "Back In A Liquid Minute" showcases some wonderfully slinky, undulating bass playing as an incongruously funky counterpoint to crunchy guitar riffs and soaring choruses. Once again the lyrics seem to tackle personal boundaries and themes of threat and submission when Lauren sings "my body is your battleground".
In the space of around ten minutes of music, Blue Sky Archives manage to cover an emotional and musical range which seems almost impossible. Crossing more genre-boundaries than it might at first appear, their tactic of post-rock colliding with folk-rock in three-minute pop songs sounds implausible and contrived on paper, but it works insanely well in practice. This is a concise, compelling bunch of songs which hint at future greatness for this hardworking bunch. I just hope I get to be in the same place as them soon.
Blue Sky Archives - Cosplay The Hard Way
Posted in SHOFT on Friday 24th February 2012 at 8:02pm
I can distinctly remember my first encounter with Randolph's Leap - tipped off that there was a band I might just like I stumbled across a bandcamp page packed with tunes, all illustrated with strange doodles apparently courtesy of Microsoft Paint. However, a brief listen confirmed that there was something special here - not least that rare realisation that taking everything too seriously isn't always the best option. After an excellent EP on Olive Grove Records and a single to coincide with an appearance at last years' Homegame, Adam Ross and his motley band of co-conspirators have been a little quiet of late. So this release, a limited edition of just thirty cassettes on Peenko Records - and happily a less unobtainable digital counterpart - collects together a bunch of recent recordings. There are some familiar tunes, lots of new favourites, and even a couple of demented computer game soundtrack pieces thrown in. Mostly, it's the work of songwriter, vocalist and guitarist Ross which appears here, supported by some selected guests and occasional bandmates. But drenched in the hiss of analogue reproduction, the clicks and crackles of home recording and the comfortingly old-school need to flip the tape half way, this is far more important than a mere stop-gap in the Randolph's Leap story.
Despite the relatively low-tech premise of this release, moments of genuine, poignant reflection abound which in typical style are swiftly flipped on their heads, coming face to face with sometimes slightly uncomfortable observations of the everyday. The whole thing is delivered via a stream of wordplay, punning and rhyming which ranges from the dazzling to the beautifully absurd. Opening gambit "Sunday Morning" is a distant cousin of the Velvet Underground track of the same name - an understated and gentle strum, a quietly pretty keyboard counter-melody and our first hearing of Adam Ross' affecting vocal. Stretching for impossible notes here, Ross sounds to be at the edge of his range which lends a strange and likeable vulnerability which complements the sometimes self-deprecating humour. There is an echo of gentle desperation too in "I Can't Dance To This Music Anymore" which tempers it's apparent finality with "I'll give it one last chance then I'm walking out the door". Ross manages to capture that difficult moment of knowing the right thing to do, but being utterly afraid of change. Set against a quietly lovely melody and with a choir of supporting voices joining later in the track, it becomes the perfect rallying cry for the silently frustrated among us.
Elsewhere "The Nonsense In My Head" picks up the threads abandoned by Belle and Sebastian somewhere around their third record when they finally made the leap to becoming a fully paid-up seventies cover band. Now accompanied by the full band, this sets off at a spirited shuffling pace, with plenty of twee-as-it-gets recorder accompaniment and a fiendishly addictive tune which lodges deep in the back of your skull, the addition of some solid drums and a skiffle-influenced mid section just make this all the more joyous a listen. "On That Fateful Day" seems to be performed almost entirely on woodblocks and those aforementioned recorders, giving it the strange flavour of a school music lesson until the euphoric burst of a chorus. Here we find an interesting twist in Ross's rhyming skills, in his habit of using place names. During the course of the cassette, firstly "Crossmyloof" and then "Cowdenbeath" feature in audaciously odd couplets which I won't reveal for fear of spoiling the surprise and delight when they land. Just prior to the release of "The Curse of the Haunted Headphones", a seemingly gloomy sounding tune called "Dying In My Sleep" surfaced as a taster. In fact the tune is an irrepressibly happy ode to complete irresponsibility, which had a chorus which sounds like Noel Coward, reincarnated to haunt the central belt. And just to ensure every niche is catered for, those who express concern at the preponderance of beards in Scottish music will be delighted by "The Will To Shave", a brief ditty in which the - admittedly smooth-chinned - Ross relates the tale of a character whose friends become increasingly concerned when an ungoverned growth of facial hair seems to signal some sort of moral decline. As he queries with the utmost sincerity "How could one find such a darkened state of mind/to let it grow so long?", it's hard not to laugh along with a tale which has just a hint of genuine pathos hidden in it's tangled beard.
Thinking back to those early impressions of Randolph's Leap and the ever present sense of playfulness around these tunes, it's surprising to detect a darker edge to the set of songs here - more than once Ross hints at reaching the edges of reason and sanity, of the fear of losing control or the exhausting nature of existing just on the edge of things. If you're one of those people who has found themselves feeling distinctly uncomfortable in a club you never wanted to enter in the first place, has realised that everyone else seems to have a proper adult life while you've not grown up a bit, or who perhaps wonders if laughing aloud is sometimes just the right response to music you love - then this tape is almost certainly perfect for you.
The limited edition cassette release of "The Curse of the Haunted Headphones" on Peenko Records is already sold out, but you can purchase the download from Bandcamp alongside a variety of other, previous Randolph's Leap releases.
Randolph's Leap - I Can't Dance To This Music Anymore
Posted in SHOFT on Saturday 18th February 2012 at 11:02pm
Having had a bit of an impatient and fractured week of wandering, and having also spent the previous evening at one of the single most depressingly bad shows I'd ever witnessed, one of the few fixed points in the week was tonight's entertainment. Having never been to the O2 before and hearing it was an early show, I arrived stupidly early and enjoyed the delights of a freezing Sauchiehall Street just waking up for the evening, which was at worst educational and at best fairly entertaining in some ways! It's a curious venue, a collision of an old art-deco cinema exterior and, after negotiating a maze of stairs and corridors, a strange padded 1990s vintage nightclub interior. Thankfully though, it had a warm corner for me to sit nursing a pint and regaining sensation in my fingers and toes while waiting for the entertainment to begin.
I'd last seen Lonely Tourist in Bristol, now his adopted home and as detailed here previously I'd been thoroughly impressed by his urgent, wordy compositions which he delivered in an unassuming and self-effacing way. Tonight though, having made almost the same journey I'd taken to get here, he was back in his native Glasgow and having had a long association with members of Viva Stereo found himself on tonight's bill. Taking to the stage in the same slightly apologetic manner as always, Paul Tierney launched directly into the urgent guitar strumming which begins "Watch For The Sharks". There's something particularly special about hearing these songs which detail the challenges faced by a grassroots musician in the context of a venue and a show like this one, and it was really fantastic to hear the response of the crowd which - whilst people were still drifting into the venue - was respectably large and had at least come forward to the stage to listen. As ever, Tierney conversed relatively little during his set, managing instead to pack as many songs as possible into his allotted half hour. After briefly thanking everyone for coming down early some local chancer shot back "I had to miss Harry Hill for this", to which the ever self-deprecating Lonely Tourist responded "aye, and now you've got some other joker up here". The songs came thick and fast, managing to fit nine tunes into the short set with the majority coming from 2011's "Sir, I Am A Good Man" album which made a respectable showing in our favourite records of the year. Things culminating with a triumphant take on "Patron Saint Procrastinate" which remains a rallying call for those of us who manage to find diversionary activity for virtually everything creative or important. The audience responded warmly, and Paul was clearly pleased with how things had gone. It was great to see Lonely Tourist on home turf, and a bit of a contrast to the usually reticent Bristol audiences.
Given the tight timescales, the turn around between bands was swift and FOUND were soon on the stage. The venue was now filling up and the noise from the excited Saturday night crowd was getting louder. The frustrating part though was that when faced with FOUND ripping into a rather fine rendition of "I Will Wake With A Seismic Head No More" they just talked louder to counter the music. Using a similar strategy to that which they'd deployed at Hooops! in Bristol, FOUND went for a short, tight set mostly constructed of "Factorycraft" songs, which lend themselves to this kind of show. A superbly choppy "Anti Climb Paint" followed, with the gloriously bleepy, wibbling electronics supplied by Kev Sim getting cranked up to counter the racket from the bar. It struck me around now that I was right in front of a speaker and just feet from the stage, but the chatter was overpowering the music even here. I don't think I was alone in getting irritated with this, and I began to wonder if the band weren't getting just a little frustrated on stage too. "Machine Age Dancing" followed with an amended introduction - slowed to a crawl and with it's pseudo-Motown, sparse opening beats echoing around the room very satisfyingly. Given the challenging conditions the band settled for the strategy of ripping through the set with minimal punctuation, building up to a splendid vicious take on "Blackette" before Ziggy Campbell announced "We're FOUND and we're done" before leaving the stage. Once again, FOUND played a blinder here in pretty difficult circumstances.
For Viva Stereo tonight was something of a triumphant homecoming. Having not played in Glasgow for three years, and with most recent album "Endure The Dark To See The Stars" having slipped out rather quietly in 2011 it was amazing to see the loyalty this band commanded in a usually fickle field. For me, having loved the weirdly incongruous collisions of classic pop, folk and dance music on the fantastically varied "Roar Lion Roar" album, the follow-up felt a bit straightforward - a competent rock record with tiny dashes of brilliance - and it was those more intricate songs which were selected to form the backbone of tonight's set. Kicking off with mesmerising drums and drones which would befit the most indulgent prog rock act, frontman Stuart Gray exuded an easy confidence as he stalked the stage, tambourine in hand while "Vultures" burst out of the churning noise with it's sharp-edged guitars and thundering beat completely intact. Seeing the full line-up of the band ranged across the stage of the O2 was impressive, and none of the potential was wasted as dashes of hammond and violin brightened the playful melody of "New Life" which leads the recent "Wanderlust EP". Now rapt, crowding the stage and in some cases dancing furiously, it's pretty clear what the audience were here for tonight. Challenged to recall if they'd been at an early but significant Viva Stereo gig across the street in Nice'n'Sleazy's a decade ago, a frankly improbable number claim attendance - but this heralds an older song given a new lease of life on the recent EP in the form of "Jesus Son". Tonight it's a spitting, stomping and swirling clash of old fashioned rock'n'roll and electronics. Throughout this, drummer and De-Fence Records main man Gav 'OnTheFly' Broon thunders out some remarkably solid beats which keep everything in check. As Viva Stereo shudder and rock their way towards the end of a short set with the venue's early curfew approaching, Gray remarks that "It's Saturday night, you should be dancing", and remarkably enough plenty are. If Viva Stereo set out to suggest that they're still here and indeed never really went away, then tonight represents a mission accomplished.
Tonight presented a set of challenges which could have made it a pretty frustrating event overall - not least a very early start, and a crowd so focused on the return of the headliners that they didn't afford the other acts a great deal of respect. However, with the dedication of Lonely Tourist, the persistence of FOUND and the strutting rockstar qualities of Viva Stereo as they proudly announced their return to playing live in Glasgow it was, in the event an amazing night of music. I'm pretty sure that the ABC isn't my favourite venue though, as I'm pretty sure it's weird layout and acoustics played a part in the frustrating racket from the bar during the bands. With Viva Stereo having invited the entire audience to an after party, I would be interested to see the wreckage on Sunday morning, but I had an early morning train to catch and used the opportunity to shuffle off home well before the usual hour. Perhaps, with this and my tetchy response to the talkers, I'm getting too old to rock'n'roll?
You can find Lonely Tourist's debut album on CD and as a download at Bandcamp. FOUND are signed to Chemikal Underground. Finally, the entire Viva Stereo back catalogue - along with the new EP which features a Lonely Tourist vocal and a FOUND remix are also at Bandcamp.
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.