Posted in SHOFT on Thursday 22nd December 2011 at 8:12am
For the second time in less than a month I find myself reviewing a cassette release, which as I look back on 2011 is something I didn't expect to find myself saying. As this recent revival of the retro format continues, I find echoes of my own past - not least in the inventive packaging and the attempts to elevate this once ubiquitous format into an artefact. Untying the golden thread and unravelling the heavy paper sleeve featuring truly beautiful and wintry art, reveals a bright blue professionally dubbed cassette with inserts allowing access to secret songs and featuring snippets of information to peruse while you listen. This sense of experience makes the purchase of music so much more exciting than just clicking and waiting for the download to complete, and takes me right back to the thrill of ordering unknown music and the anxious wait for the postman. The debate about how relevant and useful cassettes are in the 21st century will rumble on I'm sure, but it's absolutely important not to let this overshadow the contents of the media - which in this case is magnetic in every sense of the word.
Once again this is a Gerry Loves Records release, and this time around it's a split between Field Mouse and The Japanese War Effort both of which have previously graced these pages. Despite not being a first mention here, Jay Kural - the driving force behind Field Mouse - remains a rather mysterious and reclusive character. His side of this split tape is ushered in by a shuffling of insistent synthetic beats and a cavalcade of glockenspiel sounds on "Toy". Later in the track, the strange chittering laughter of children is part fitting, and part rather creepy. From the outset though, it's clear that Field Mouse have pulled an ace in terms of making machine-manufactured music sound organic and yet still mechanically hypnotic, and this is in no small part due to the way that analogue instruments and sounds are threaded through the electronics. "Cloth Pattern" sees a rare intrusion of vocals, courtesy in this case of Conquering Animal Sound's Anneke Kampman. Fractured beats, an undertow of melodic bass and shards of spine-tingling, glassy noise weave a curiously warm atmosphere, while Anneke half sings and half raps her vocal. In common with Conquering Animal Sound, Jay Kural's work at the edge of the human-machine interface is compelling and unusually personal - and while this music is satisfying and engaging in it's own terms, the inclusion of vocals brings a new depth. There are more vocal moments too, as Yahweh, otherwise known as Lewis Cook, guests on "Lonely Her" providing a tumble of uncharacteristically euphoric vocals to top a skittering, sampled harpsichord melody with a sinuous chorus. As he promises faithfully to write lyrics for the track, Cook self-deprecatingly suggests "I'll meaninglessly self-disect" as his upbeat delivery belies a darker edge. Finally "Slowflow" is as gorgeously unctuous and blissed-out as its title implies. A ululating bassline, eerie samples and a liquid cascade of sounds brings this side of the tape to a close, with the formerly commonplace task of having to walk to the tape-deck to flip the cassette over now an odd novelty.
Field Mouse - Lonely Her
With the tape turned over and the reassuring hiss shivering the speakers The Japanese War Effort side shimmers in with a drone of electronic noise and a throb of bass. "Everlasting Sun" kicks off with psuedo-religious, hymn-like qualities before Jamie Scott returns us to earth with a line about "steaming cups of tea". As the track builds through a series of layered, blaring organ sounds it's hard not to get carried away on it's strange, giddy optimism. I remember hearing "Dream of a New Labour" appear on the web earlier in the year, and it's succinct observations on the gradual slide of the British left into comfortable, middle-aged conservatism is set alongside a queasy, warped musical backdrop. Scott just about nails the uncomfortable truth about modern British culture when he intones "the moment becomes the monument" - there's a government-funded research project just waiting to escape from that statement already. Jamie remains in a reflective mood on "Our Land Could Be Your Life" as he explores post-industrial Rutherglen in a surprisingly straightforward and tender song, with a minimal pulse of a tune burbling away underneath. This tendency towards the personal and political feels like a distinct shift from the comparatively playful "Surrender to Summer" EP which arrived earlier in the year, but it's not an unwelcome one as Scott's swipes at bankers and fallen politicians are gentler, cleverly observed and far wittier than most in an era of otherwise pretty ham-fisted attempts at protest singing. Finally the mood is lifted out of reverie by the gently insistent, upbeat "Daddy Says" with it's almost choral closing refrain of "squint at the sun". I continue to find myself surprised and amazed by The Japanese War Effort in the strange ability to turn a style of music which I've previously found fairly disengaging and perhaps even confusing, into something vital and personal.
The Japanese War Effort - Our Land Could Be Your Life
Wherever you stand in the debate, the cassette feels like just about the perfect way to deliver both The Japanese War Effort and Field Mouse, with their shared love of analogue clicks, pops and glitches, washes of water-colour electronica and warped retro beats. Taken alongside the beautiful packaging there is a sense of a masterpiece in DIY miniature here, and a real feeling of craftsmanship and industry. Both sides feature sometimes slightly downbeat, but mesmerizing soundtracks to what promises to be a rather gloomy winter, with just the hint of humour and warmth necessary to make it all worthwhile. If you're going to treat yourself to a Christmas present which has the potential to last beyond the empty bottles and discarded carcasses of the festive season, you could do far, far worse than investing in this cassette.
The split tape can be purchased from Gerry Loves Records for Â£5, complete with a digital download of all of the tracks and more for the casette-challenged. The label is also offering a two-for-one deal with their split 12" also featuring The Japanese War Effort for just Â£10.
Posted in SHOFT on Wednesday 7th December 2011 at 9:31am
Around this time of year, it's going to be hard to peruse any blog without bumping into an 'end of year list'. I'm undecided on their value in some ways - they are naturally pretty subjective and limited by individual bloggers' tastes and attitudes. It's also going to end up a summary of the content of the blog over the past twelve months if, like me, you write fairly exclusively about music you find interesting or inspiring. Then there are the rules - what qualifies, what doesn't - a veritable trainspotter's delight of technicalities, sub-clauses and exceptions to twist their favourite releases into the framework. In short, it's a complicated and confusing time of year for the christmas party gig-addled blogger. But since the mainstream press will be full of their own backslapping efforts to appear to be defining the zeitgeist, I'm a little less concerned about this happening on blogs and podcasts. It redresses the balance a little, and reading these lists on sites with which I generally find I'm musically compatible provides an opportunity to check what I've missed. It was this sort of thing which led me to Timber Timbre and Aidan Knight in the past. If nothing else I hope that this list points someone to something they've missed and they give it a spin too. I've said it before, but this blog is after all the internet expression of yelling at your pals that you "just heard something amazing!" So what are the rules for the Songs Heard on Fast Trains list for 2011? Pretty simple, this is a list of full-length releases which I've listened to most, returned to most often and which I'll carry forward as essential listening into the new year. It's a very personal, highly skewed list I have to admit. There are some very honourable omissions, and because for the sake of my sanity the list has only twenty places, because as an arguably fairly normal human being there are things I love more than others - but this doesn't stop me loving them too. The order of the list is based on nothing more than the impact the releases have had on me - there is no science here, aside from a cursory glance at last.fm to see if my suspicions on what I've listened to most are founded in fact or fantasy. There could equally be a list for singles and EPs, gigs or other stuff - but there are still interesting records being released in 2011, so I might get distracted and write about those instead. So, without further rambling or self-justification here is the list. It's been a strange and interesting year for me, and the music below has been the soundtrack. Here's to the next one!
Posted in SHOFT on Tuesday 29th November 2011 at 5:11pm
I first heard The Renderers about twenty years ago, which is a fairly terrifying realisation. My first contact with them was via the blissful, chaotic melodrama of the "Million Lights" 7" on Merge Records, which remains one of my all-time favourite singles to this day. Then I discovered a surprisingly straight-faced country pop debut album on Flying Nun called "Trail of Tears" which despite being incredibly enjoyable, rather surprised me in its clean production. A few years later they were back to their uncompromising Dunedin roots with the scorching, harrowingly fuzzed up Americana of "That Dogs Head In The Gutter Gives Off Vibrations" - but throughout these recordings Maryrose Crook's damaged, soulfully ghostly vocals remained the focal point in the storm of noise created by husband Brian. At this point I lose the scent somewhat - bored with music closer to home, I found myself listening to old things more and new things much, much less. Strange, sorry times indeed. Equally the band became a little more remote and harder to pin down, with releases scattered over a host of tiny labels all over the world. However the story has a happier ending than I might be suggesting here. I got to thinking about The Renderers again on hearing the wonderful Edinburgh School for the Deaf album earlier this year, which shares some of that insistently noisy but resolutely tuneful sensibility somehow. Memory pricked, a bit of judicious searching got me to this very recent release, the first Renderers record for a number of years - but one which manages to sound just as fresh and exciting as those first recordings from Port Chalmers did.
So, for the uninitiated, Brian and Maryrose Crook are the core of The Renderers, with a history which links them individually or collectively to a whole host of other notable acts. As the band has developed over the past two decades or so, the line-up has mutated too - in the process involving a cavalcade of some of the finest musicians in New Zealand. A physical move north to Christchurch preceded this release, as did a work-related wander around the globe, but this doesn't seem to have had a major effect on their sound which remains anchored in the noise and melody which they've explored over six albums or so now. "Down River" signals this continuity, ushered in by a shudder of feedback and a rumble of drums before Maryrose takes the song out of the swamps and into the hot, dry desert air. Brian's layering of guitar - both delicate melodies and a sheen of atmospheric noise - gently begins to conjures the mood for the rest of the record. "Shadow and It's Shadow" ups the pace somewhat, a warped sixties garage pop hit heard through damaged speakers with scouring sweeps of noise which mutate into odd, middle-eastern sounding riffs. Maryrose's voice takes on an equally sinister tone to utter the lyric - a curious collision of occult references and spiritual disconnection. The shuffling, insistent noise never quite lets up, the track fading out with Brian still cranking out white noise and screeching from his guitar. It'll probably come as no surprise that there are no obvious big hit singles in evidence, but if there is anything even remotely close here it's "This Shining Life". By far the most accessible entry point for the newcomer, Maryrose's gorgeously cracked vocal accompanies one of Brian's trademark off-kilter solos perfectly. The lyrics drip reflection and regret, and are visited by the cast of itinerant losers, angels and demons which frequently find their way into The Renderers songbook. This isn't so far from the territory covered on earlier work such as the superb "Million Lights", but it's far from a tired formula.
Brian takes the lead vocal on more of the tracks here than perhaps he has in the past, including the drunken swamp-jazz of "Restraint of Beasts" and the remarkable "Assassin", a gorgeously warped ballad which shows incredible restraint in not imploding into noisy chaos right away but working itself up to several false crescendos, each more intense than the last. His vocal, an understated, almost Dylanesque nasal drawl, suits the laconic screed of noise and the building urgency of this longer piece perfectly. "Typhoid Mary" with its churn of feedback and keening guitar solos gets perhaps closer to an anthemic chorus than The Renderers have come since their first, far more traditionally structured album. The chorus here though remains fuzzy, distant and a little off-centre, with a rare vocal duel between the Crooks before returning to the grinding noise. Then the ear-splitting entry of "Vanishing Point" chugs in with thundering bass and speaker-tearing guitar noise and maybe even a hint of distant organ as Brian rattles through an alienated, dystopian rant against an increasingly epic backdrop. The album closes with the clamouring sea shanty of "Hypnotised", which sets up a jangle of acoustic strums behind a backdrop of grumbling amps and chaotic percussion as Maryrose intones the lyric. Then, shards of jagged guitar kick in, before the whole thing fades to an uncharacteristically quiet ending,
In some respects, The Renderers are a simple enough proposition - lots of beautifully ungoverned noise, some exquisitely buried melodies and two distinct, unique voices. But its one of those 'more than the sum of the parts' moments when this all comes together at the right time, and thankfully there are plenty of those moments on "A Rocket Into Nothing". Moments where, when you don't think things can get any noisier or more chaotic, somehow Brian and Maryrose manage to take a song spinning off to new, previously unforeseen heights or stuttering, growling lows. Just now there seem to be a surprising amount of bands from my youth coming back from obscurity with, it's fair to say, some fairly variable results and a few precious memories tarnished along the way. In the midst of this it's good to reconnect with a band that's never really been away and is still capable of producing moving, vital and visceral music.
The Renderers - This Shining Life
Posted in SHOFT on Friday 25th November 2011 at 11:11pm
Pop music - it's probably what got us all here, where we're likely listening to music we almost certainly regard as very different to those first, embarrassing purchases we made. But pop music in the sense of 'what's in the charts' is becoming a decreasingly relevant, advertising-led tie-in to the latest film or TV franchise, while the more 'adult' focused end of the music industry disappears into a gloomy zone where soundtracking 'goal of the month' or the winning moment in Masterchef is a bands crowning glory. Here then are a brace of EPs which have recently appeared which provide two different takes on intelligent, carefully built pop songs - pretty different in approach, but both making an effort to squeeze as much thought and as many ideas into the songs as possible. Mercifully for all concerned, I don't either will claim the "as seen on TV" badge any time soon, but both are worthy of your attention.
Some swish, 1950s arpeggios tinkle among the neatly tapped rhythms of "Seymour Grove", supporting a heartfelt, openly emotive cry of a vocal. as a lyricist Harrison clearly has the ability to tell a story in little tightly-packed snippets of lyrical cleverness. These songs hark back to a time when popstars were heroes, and it wears it's own icons on its sleeve clearly - with little references to The Smiths, The Go-Betweens or even maybe The Violent Femmes evident too. We're back in familiar territory as Harrison intones "My mind is worried about what my age is" on "Youth In My Heart", which is otherwise an effervescent track brimming with redemptive enthusiasm and vitality.
"Itchy Blanket" is a curious EP of likeably timeless pop which seem obsessed by the passing of time and it's effects. With it's simple but perfectly executed tunes and thoughtful songs, it suggests that Morris Major could have a huge amount more to offer before long. It's a free download from Bandcamp too, so there's really no excuse not to have a listen to this.
Morris Major - In Amongst My Ideas
Next, "Move On" is a shuffling, reverb heavy slice of gorgeously shifting pop - and thus becomes perhaps my current favourite on the EP, with it's little hints at a Galaxie 500 sound buried in there somewhere. The rumble of fuzzy bass, the chiming lead guitar and the whisper of multi-tracked vocals all adding up to a delicate soundscape. Finally - and by complete contrast - "Collider" kicks off as a triumphantly fuzzed up surf instrumental, which mutates into proper old-school metal soloing. It's absurd twists, turns and shifts of tempo as it rocks out are hilarious but enjoyably well-executed. It just serves to illustrate the fact that these guys are incredibly talented musicians, who have found in this set-up the freedom to explore and enjoy their craft.
"Inside Looking Out" is a little more focused and maybe a little less consciously ambient and electronic than their self-titled debut LP which I've gone back to with a vengeance after hearing this. This EP manages to cover more ground, and touch on more potential future directions than most bands manage in a full-length recording. It can be downloaded from Bandcamp for as little as Â£2.
Bottle of Evil - Move On
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.