Posted in SHOFT on Monday 7th March 2011 at 9:03pm
Even the curious and rather melancholy sepia toned sleeve is mysterious... a moment in an unknown subject's life captured in time. Welcome to the odd world of The Son(s), a strange, shadowy presence - much vaunted by knowing bloggers with a interest in Scottish music, yet detached and distant from any sense of a scene or network. It remains to be seen if this publicity-shunning behaviour will pay off - I detect a minor backlash from some of the more serious-minded types already in fact. But whether or not we know who is involved or indeed how many Son(s) there really are, the simple truth is that they have delivered a remarkable and accomplished debut album which appears to have satisfied and rewarded the massive curiousity around the band.
The album kicks off with the slick but spiky soul of "Dogs Boys & Men", the track building through layers of joyous sound before jittering into a chunky, noisy guitar outro. Impossibly catchy hooks tumble from the song, and this sets the tone for much of the album. Drenched in harmonies which would make a Beach Boy smile and full of clever instrumental twists and tricks, the sound is polished, clean and carefully arranged. In fact, if it's possible, things might just be a little too perfect in places. Somewhere prior to the middle of the record the pace slackens and the songs begin to blur a little into a sheen of sweet harmonies and washes of strings. It's a little like eating too much ice cream - it hurts the teeth just a little, but you don't want to stop. Things tighten up though in the form a trio or particularly strong songs - starting with "Sold Down The River", ushered in by a shimmering wash of sounds, driven by a relentless piano and acoustic guitars and with a little judiciously applied cello, not for the first time the vocals have a strange but not displeasing hint of a young and still giving-a-shit Elvis Costello about them here. As the track swoons out of view, the sound of the sea heralds the arrival of "There's a Hole In The Middle of The Sea". A modern day shanty, plucked gently on a guitar while the now familiar chorus of voices twist around a central, simple vocal. For me this is perhaps the album's highlight - and the best expression of the fusion of polished modern production and warm organic acoustic tunes. The triad ends with "Count Your Feet (Version)" which appears initially to built around the bassline of the theme from gritty seventies cop series The Sweeney. Cracked and pained vocals soar about the distorted crash of percussion until a choir of baritone voices join. There are careful and light touches of Americana here, but they're never allowed to dominate the mood.
Album closer "Mars Just Plied Her With Gin..." is perhaps the most straightforward composition here, but it still impresses hugely with its woozy, bluesy harmonies and dizzy swoon into a proper, grown-up guitar solo alongside a chorus of "It's only when you get this drunk that you can feel the world spin...". And drunk is pretty much where we end up, intoxicated by the slick harmonies and beautifully constructed layers of instrumentation. Like all the best episodes of drunkenness there are things you'll forget and perhaps wince at tomorrow when the memory returns - but mostly this album is the perfect antidote - spectacular, complex stuff which pays off repeated listening.
The Son(s) is out now via Olive Grove Records.
The Son(s) - Mars Just Plied Her With Gin...
Posted in London on Sunday 6th March 2011 at 10:31pm
It's a rare privilege nowadays to wake up in London with time to spare. In fact it's been years since I've stayed with no pressing engagement early on, or a mad dash homewards to contemplate. So this felt a bit special. More so because I was in that liminal zone between Clerkenwell and Bloomsbury, the City Widened Lines rumbling just feet beneath me - and by definition the Fleet River not far away in it's anonymous culvert. It was also shaping up to be a bright cold day - the best kind for wandering around the city. I started by retracing my steps to Exmouth Market to survey the devastation I'd witness briefly on Friday night. Regeneration has wreaked a selective kind of havoc here - some buildings remain much as I remember them, shopfronts re-used by new sushi bars and boutique bakeries. Others have developed new, modern frontages with wide doors opening onto the cafe culture outside. There was much less sunday morning detritus than I recall too. However the great loss, the Sandwich Bar wedged into the awkward angle of Tysoe Street had definitely gone. Disappeared behind a hoarding advertising the very regenerative efforts which had swept it away. A union flag still draped in the upper window defiantly. I remember writing about the imagined tribulations of the attractive but always frowning foreign owner as I watched her from across the street in Starbucks, feeling guilty I wasn't spending my money in her establishment. Perhaps too many of us did that?
I pressed on into Clerkenwell Close. Here little has changed, and only the lingering afterburn of last night's chargrilling reminded me just how much this place has transformed into a destination for an evening out. When I last padded the streets, this was beginning - Clerkenwell had undergone its most recent shift from abandoned commercial zone into loft-living and media industry offices. Now it's shifting again it seems. This bothered me less, because this has always been a centre of change - a swirling eddy of people coming into the city and others being thrown out to the suburbs. I wanted to see how the reworking of Farringdon Station was affecting the landscape too, and I was perhaps unprepared for the extent of this. The western side of Turnmill Street was an endless hoarding behind which TfL were working their magic, a new entrance to the railway taking shape slowly. Turning into Cowcross Street, I noticed the entire beautifully tiled building which mirrored the station had disappeared. A new, oddly nude view across the gulf of the track had appeared. The station building remained, dwarfed by the portacabins and temporary structures around the new buildings. There was an access, but it was clogged with builders starting work for the day. I headed for more coffee to contemplate this odd rip in my memory of the area.
Further retracing my steps I decided to head for Euston via Theobalds Road and a walk across Bloomsbury's strange boundary lands. Along Lambs Conduit Street I negotiated clumps of tourists, unceremoniously turfed out of their accommodation at check-out time and wandering with their luggage, attempting sight-seeing where there are few sights of note in their guidebooks. For my part, the walk beside the Foundling Hospital and into Marchmont Street was full of familiar and unchanged sights. The street awake and busy on a Sunday morning in all its multicultural strangeness and incongruous comfort. Passing the inexplicably plush new UNISON building I entered a flustered and busy Euston Station concourse. I had a pleasurable afternoon spin up the West Coast to look forward too, but these downtrodden travellers appeared to want to be anywhere but here. Once again I felt a little guilty to be at ease against the tide.
Posted in Railways on Saturday 5th March 2011 at 11:27pm
So far it had been a very civilised weekend. It started a day early, with an early Friday morning dash to Crewe in order to meet the positioning move. There was a little frustration as a lack of reserved seating and some fairly anti-social railtour passengers meant that things got a little fractious. However, it was soon sorted, and I was able to enjoy the run down the West Coast Main Line into Euston. The weather was fine, and I broke my walk to the hotel to enjoy coffee in an old haunt near Kings Cross. The walk to my digs for the weekend took me to the heart of Clerkenwell and the edge of Bloomsbury - and it was both good to be back and frightening to grasp the pace of change here on the edge of the City. I retraced my steps early this morning - the tour didn't in fact leave until 08:18 - a very civilised hour for such things - but there is something special about wandering around London on a chilly but bright spring morning which I've missed. Lots more coffee too, before assembling with the usual crowd inside a chaotic Kings Cross. The renewal work here has made the place confusing and difficult to use - but it still functions, and soon after having managed breakfast and coffee, 57601 hummed into view with the stock. A piper - a genuine Royal Scots Grey I'm told - struck up, and things were underway. This was going to be a little bit special...
The premise was a simple but emotionally charged one: its fifty years since Deltics were introduced, and thirty since they were retired from service on the East Coast Main Line with HSTs taking on their duties. This still seems to cause some chagrin among the older enthusiasts - but there's always a question for me about whether the HST would even exist without the Deltic - a proving ground for the concept of sustained high speed diesel running. In any case, 55022 had been spruced up for her 50th - a fresh coat of paint, bringing her into the livery she was sporting on her last runs on special trains. The job had been done beautifully, with grills and pipework picked out in silver, and the engine sparkling. Things began as they were due to continue - a fast departure and some thunderous running north. Then the sun appeared too, even the weather seeming to sense the occasion!
With the stock off to Craigentinny for a run around, grabbed some lunch and wandered around the always busy and interesting Waverley station. Chatted to folks from the tour a little and met a fellow blogger. Before long the stock was heading back into platform 19, and we were ready for departure southwards. If anything, the return run was even more impressive than the outward. Long periods of sustained very high speed running, despite a switch to the slow lines south of Peterborough. We were consistently early, and it seems who ever was playing trains in East Coast control today was a Deltic fan, as we were allowed to depart swiftly. Thus we ended up keeping pace with the 'real railway' admirably, and it was tempting to imagine what would have happened if perhaps the Deltic's hadn't been taken out of service thirty years ago?
Arrival back at the Cross was an impressive fifteen minutes early, on admittedly the usually slack railtour timings. The sense of occasion in the crowds milling around the engine was palpable. Even the notoriously impassive and enthusiast-unfriendly staff were sneaking out their 'phones for a picture of the gleaming workhorse which had just marked a bittersweet anniversary. As for 55022, well she'd done what she used to do every day - and made it look like it was still an every day occurrence.
A very special day on the railway - which reminds me why I got involved in the first place.
Posted in SHOFT on Friday 4th March 2011 at 10:03pm
As last month's performance indicated, Debutant is in no sense a dedicated seeker of rock star glory. So, it perhaps shouldn't be a surprise that this album sneaked out quietly - indeed it's more of an unexpected release than anything creeping out of Radiohead's stable this month! Preferring to let his music speak for itself and throwing in perhaps the ultimate self-deprecating barb, it's important to point out that this album is entirely free. As ever it's easy to dismiss or overlook something you get for nothing - but to overlook this work of surprising breadth and clarity would be criminal. In part the album collects some of the Debutant music which has been circulating around the web for some time - not least the tracks which appeared on the split 7" with Conquering Animal Sound on Gerry Loves Records. Indeed, "Thirst" opens the proceedings with a gently strummed guitar and whispered, reverb drenched vocals which hark back to Galaxie 500 - particularly when the keening guitar melody sneaks into the mix. Debutant's voice doesn't feature hugely on the tracks collected here, which is perhaps a shame because where he does add vocals to the intricate layers of guitar work the music is lifted and spins in new directions. When he sings, his lyrics are obscure, guarded and indirect - tiny tales, of which we only get to see a small part. The simple acoustic backing on "Silencing The Guns" belies a bitter, whispered lyric which seems to reflect on the horror and pointlessness of fighting a war - but again, Debutant is careful not to give too much away. He seems much more comfortable to deliver the atmospheric beauty of instrumentals like "Yeah! Currahee!" which slides quietly in before ascending via layers of almost choral guitars. It ends with the shimmering chords dancing around like voices in the roof of a cathedral. On good headphones, the effect is blissful and transporting.
The centrepiece of the album is the epic "King of Doublespeak", clocking in at near six minutes in length and as ambitious and remarkable in its scope here as when performed live. Opening with the almost painfully understated couplet "Excuse me while I think out loud/but my heart is on my sleeve", the track climbs through a gently picked opening before layers of blissed-out feedback wind around the melody - just occasionally drifting out of control before being gently coaxed back into the current. Its hard not to completely love this song, which perfectly sums up the Debutant experience. "Thirst" also makes two further, very different appearances as Parts 2 and 3 take a more traditional song structure based around precisely picked acoustic guitars as Debutant whispers "brightness fades and voices echo" effectively describing his own delivery as the album closes on a quiet and reflective note.
It's been easy to get frustrated watching Debutant play down the release of this album via social media. His quiet lack of confidence and air of self-deprecation hides a remarkable ability to build layers of whispered vocal and twists of intricate guitar melody into something quite considerably more than the sum of these simple parts. It's simply not right to let this release go unremarked - this first collection of Debutant's music signals a triumph of the simple DIY spirit over the tendency to over-produce which seems to be creeping into all kinds of music just now. Download and enjoy, but send your encouragement because we need more of this stuff!
Debutant's 'We Stand Alone Together' can be downloaded from bandcamp for free.
Debutant - King of Doublespeak
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.