Posted in SHOFT on Friday 12th August 2011 at 11:08pm

Mazes - The Mad Ferret, PrestonThe reasons I ended up in Preston today are complicated - suffice to say it was never my intention to be at a loose end in Lancashire, and searching for something to do on a Friday night. Having wandered around town a little earlier, and experienced the usual sense of menace and desperation that the weekend in reasonably sized towns seems to bring I almost wasn't looking forward to heading out this evening. But taking the break in the almost week-long shower of rain as a sign, I decided to shuffle out into the humid evening in search of tonight's venue. True to form on this odd evening, The Mad Ferret is indeed a curious spot. On a corner opposite the University sits an old fashioned boozer, a single awkwardly shaped room with a fairly spacious stage tucked away at the back. In a neat touch each window blind has a classic album cover screen printed onto it - so as the room switches from pub to venue, with a bunch of punters complaining bitterly at being asked to part with the fairly reasonable sum of four pounds to remain in their seats, the 'Screamadelica' and 'Unknown Pleasures' blinds nearest to me are drawn down and things get underway.

Events begin with Newspaper Joe - also known as Andrew Lewis - a songwriter with a guitar, in what could easily be a noisy room. He starts to play gentle, strummed chords and begins to sing in a voice with plenty of rough, Lancashire charm. To be fair, some of the lyrics feel a little overworked, but it's evident that the guy is sincere. Amazingly, the audience are rapt - he clearly has a few friends in tonight, but there is a degree of respect here just for getting up and hammering out his tunes like this. Place seems to be important to Newspaper Joe, as strong geographical threads link their way through the lyrics, and to a soft southerner like me there's a little amusing local colour in songs which coin sayings like "there's more than one way to skin a cat". It's of course more than possible with his voice and acoustic guitar that comparisons could be drawn with those Oasis b-sides which always bored me to apoplexy. But just to ensure his influences are clearly laid out he turns in a surprising and very neatly managed cover of the epic "Opus 40" by Mercury Rev. As cover choices go, this one shows a breadth of influence and awareness that takes Newspaper Joe way beyond local comparisons, and sits comfortably alongside the other reference points he touches on. Andrew has a humble and often amusing stage presence too, which keeps the audience hooked during the between song silences. All in all, this is a fine set from a clearly popular local gent. I'd love to hear more, particularly as I understand he plays with a band too on occasion.

I'd heard whispers about Manchester's Brown Brogues before this evening, and having had no time to even grab a swift listen on the web today, wasn't entirely sure what I was getting - except that it was likely to be pretty noisy. As purveyors of sonic terror go, the self-effacing pair who took the stage didn't look the part at all. Terrifyingly young and a little nervous maybe, they launched directly into their first song. It was a swampy mess of distorted guitar and vocals swallowed almost entirely by reverb, all delivered over a primal, thunderous drumbeat. The audience, who'd drifted away a little after the remarkably polite attention they'd showed Newspaper Joe were suddenly back in front of the stage. This felt very much like the strain of punk rock which tumbled out of Olympia and Seattle in the late 1980s, largely inspiring the advent of grunge. At times it was perhaps a little too relentless, and for me there was an inevitable comparison with noisy duo Bronto Skylift, but without the tricksy jazz rhythms and solidly embedded tunes they provide. However, on the whole this was rough, filthy and excellent stuff. The Sub Pop and K Records back catalogues were unconsciously plundered and reinvigorated for an audience too young to remember - let alone the band, who introduced songs by yelping incoherently into the wildly distorting microphone. The short but packed set was full of sometimes incomplete, often vicious bursts of noise, occasional blasts of impromptu blues and lots of whooping and howling. Incredibly good fun, and a band who are going to do just fine among the current slew of bands who are making an unexpected splash by playing low-fidelity, noisy pop.

With my ears ringing and the crowd now filling the awkwardly shaped Mad Ferret almost completely, what followed was an odd bit of scheduling, as the hyped throng tried to adjust to Rae Morris's much quieter and more considered set. A simple enough proposition, just a girl and her keyboard - albeit someone with an incredibly powerful and character filled voice which occasionally hinted at the strange vocal antics of Rickie Lee Jones. Through a short but assured set of original material, Rae stunned an excitable room full of people into respectful, hushed appreciation of just what she could achieve with her vocals and piano playing. It's a terrible cliche in one sense to describe the quality of a voice by it's range, but Rae manages to shift from alluring whisper to outright howl within the space of a note or two, whilst producing intricate accompaniment on the piano. She clearly had a lot of fans in the audience too, hailing from nearby Blackpool and playing regularly in the area seeming to have built something of a following, alongside various recent radio and festival appearances over the summer. Between songs and cutting a slight figure on the stage, Rae was quiet, enthusiastic and somewhat humbled by the turnout and the warm reception - she also seemed somewhat impressed by the racket Brown Brogues had just made too, and I couldn't help but imagine what fun a collaboration might be! I still think it was an odd choice to put Rae Morris on between two noisy, more energetic bands - but despite the disadvantage this put her at in some senses, she was a consummate professional and turned in a very well received set which hugely pleased the local audience.

So much appreciated was the local talent tonight, along with the clock ticking past club opening time, that the room seemed to be emptying a little when Mazes finally took to the stage. A geeky looking three-piece which some wag compared to "three quarters of a University Challenge team", Mazes origins include London, New Zealand and Lancashire - making this as much of a hometown gig as any other might be for them I suppose. There's something appealing about the format of the trio too - guitar, bass and drums are pretty much the least you can get away with - though Brown Brogues might argue otherwise of course. Mazes use this basic set up to startlingly good effect, ripping directly into a set of hazy, summery pop tunes drenched in distortion and fuzz. Showcasing material from the recent album "A Thousand Heys" and just back from a US tour, the band were pretty slick and rattled out the songs, one after another in tight, choppy bursts with a minimum of banter. I'd almost shied away from Mazes and a number of other bands of their ilk because of the inevitable Pavement comparisons - and while I can hear them in there somewhere, there is certainly something more going on here - brusque blasts of noisy pop are shot through with sinuous, eastern sounding, wheedling melodies - recalling Pond or maybe Polvo if we're going to insist on "p" bands from the 90s here. Yes, it's all very lo-fi but it's almost stupidly catchy, linking good old fashioned 1950s pop songs to the fuzzy indie-pop of the 1990s - missing out all that unnecessary psychadelia and prog nonsense along the way. Sometimes Mazes sound like Dinosaur Jr but at other times they become a distorted skiffle band. It's a shame that more of the Mad Ferret audience didn't stick around for this because it turned out to be a set full of unashamedly noisy, distinctly unpolished pop gems which sometimes threatened to disintegrate before changing tack entirely and heading off in different directions.

Shuffling out of the sweaty atmosphere of The Mad Ferret into the chilly, damp evening I was struck by how quiet this part of the city was at night. It felt like quite a long walk back to town too, despite hearing the screaming, yelling and thudding beats from some local club in the distance. Nursing my foolish prejudices, I confess I thought Preston was the last place I expected to find much of a local music scene, and certainly I was surprised just how strong the support for the local acts was tonight. A strange venue, a strange town and a strange mixture of acts - but ultimately a night of interesting revelations.

Mazes debut album "A Thousand Heys" is available now on Fat Cat. You can read more about Rae Morris at her website. Brown Brogues are a little more elusive, but have a Myspace page and will be appearing at The Electric Circus in Edinburgh on 26th August courtesy of Song, by Toad.

Movebook Link

Posted in SHOFT on Sunday 7th August 2011 at 3:08pm

OLO Worms - Poloroids #3I'm sometimes rebuked for overlooking what's happening in my local music scene in favour of things further afield. It's probably a fair comment, but the mind-numbingly steady diet of tribute and covers bands here, and a disappointing lack of ingenuity in those playing their own compositions (with some notable exceptions of course) doesn't really inspire me hugely. However, there is one local act which came to my attention a while back via their Fence connections - but who I've hardly dared to write about. However, perhaps now it's time to consider the perennially complicated, often bewildering but never dull world of OLO Worms? The basic premise is four gents from Bristol who individually appear to have a wealth of talent including music, painting and cinematography among a great deal else. Alone they could all probably be fairly interesting artists in their own right, but together this creates a multimedia cultural behemoth which simply refuses to take itself seriously long enough to cement its form. Patched together with a love-hate relationship with popular celebrity culture - and particularly British TV - this creates a curiously dizzy, mildly disturbing world view which is somewhere on the spectrum between psychedelia and psychosis.

This release is part of "Poloroids" - a series of three snapshots of as yet incomplete projects. Each has been delivered in a very limited physical release numbering just a handful - the first buried in pots of earth and the second hidden in the stock of a local second-hand music shop on Record Store Day. The third however is a little bit special - three lucky winners will have their portrait painted by the band, with the music concealed on memory stick and embedded within the papier-máché proboscis of the resulting painting. Thus, these chosen few, should they wish to play the music they've acquired, will need to very much literally cut off their noses to spite their face.

This is all of course a refreshingly clever and entertaining take on the complexities of the post-digital music industry - but what is the music like? I confess I'd assumed until fairly recently that this would be equally bizarre in nature, very much a part of the extended artistic statement. However, tempting though it would be to dismiss this entire project as a novelty or a stunt, this is actually pretty incredible and weirdly compelling stuff. Firstly "Badge" is introduced by odd sub-sonic bass tones before distubring and disembodied voices begin to echo around the mix. A strange melody forms, built from what could easily be the screeching of a dental drill, warped and twisted through the OLO Worms' compendium of bizarre electronic trickery. A glacially paced beat supports things, as more yammering voices join the fray and a quietly unnerving misanthropic rant is uttered. This is genuinely disturbing stuff - and definitely not to be listened to in the dark. In strange ways it has more in common with the sluggish grind of some of the darkest metal than it does with other forms of electronic music. As the track shimmers away into silence, it's impossible not to reflect on the odd but compelling nature of what you've just heard. Meanwhile "Neutral Zones" is a quieter proposition, but what it lacks in volume is entirely exceeded in its sinister presence. A brooding rumble with strange flecks of inverted percussion provides a cinematic backdrop to a surprisingly straightforward and appealing vocal. There are hints here of Silver Columns on a serious opiate-induced comedown, more "pissed-off" than blissed-out, but still strangely resilient and defiant in the face of utter miserableness. Then the entire track starts to mutate before ones ears - a low, warbling drone sets in to replace the vocals while curious jittering electronic pulses and synthesised voices dance their way to the end of the piece. This is a dark and claustrophobic release which leaves you questioning your own sanity, let alone that of its clearly unhinged but highly talented creators.

I'd urge you to listen to this complex, unsettling but weirdly satisfying music, and indeed to experience the videos which feature the trademark off-kilter, zero budget OLO Worms dressing-up fun to accompany the sounds. I can't promise you'll find more of the same out there - because almost everything which this bunch of odd but entertaining folks get involved in seems to end up sounding different to anything else I've ever heard. That is, in itself, an excellent reason to join the bandwagon.

You can find all kinds of bizarre, confusing and ultimately entertaining OLO Worms related media on their website and via their blog on Tumblr. I've yet to determine a way of actually purchasing or otherwise obtaining "Poloroid #3" aside from being one of the three recipients of the physical release, however you can enjoy the tracks in audio and video form at the sites above.

Various OLO Worms will DJ at FOUND's upcoming show with Rozi Plain and SJ Esau at the Louisiana in Bristol on 6th September. This also serves as the opening night of OLO member Heinz Junkins's art exhibition in the Louisiana basement.


Posted in SHOFT on Friday 5th August 2011 at 10:08pm

Rachel Sermanni - The Bothy SessionsIt's always great - not least for people attempting to write about music - when a record has a story behind it. And this debut EP has an incredible one - Rachel Sermanni invites her musical colleagues to a tin-roofed Highland bothy she recalls from her childhood to record some of her songs. She's not really sure who will show up, what instruments they will bring, or quite what they'll record when they get there - but somehow, through a chance assembly of people and place, these songs emerge. Listening to Rachel speak on stage about her songs, about writing and about what inspires her it's pretty clear that she's unlikely ever to take the simple or straightforward path when there is a more interesting one to investigate.

The EP opens with "Waltz", just Rachel's voice and guitar to begin - a simple, almost gentle approach as the unhurried accompaniment seems to drift self-effacingly into the song around the second chorus. Every click of the strings, every swish of a brush over a cymbal is audible in what sounds like an entirely live take. Soon, there is a lot happening - all kinds of instruments vying for time and entering and leaving the song, including what a bit of research indicates is a Chinese flute known as a hulusi. But, above all of this, that impossibly fine voice swoops and dives around the instrumentation - occasionally almost dropping to a whisper before rising again to clear, strong high notes in the chorus. A similar pattern of guitar and vocals starts "Pablo's City", and I'm suddenly struck by an echo of Iris DeMent in the sparse, honest vocal delivery and phrasing. But then things change completely - an unexpected swoon of slide guitar and some nifty jazz drumming send the song spiralling back to the era of the Charleston. However, under the bursts of musical exuberance the lyrics are dark and uneasy - "I have broken the arch in my soul/I keep pacing these streets like a hungry animal". A scrape of well-placed, achingly sad fiddle, and suddenly things transform again with a blaring trumpet solo and a ridiculously joyful tempo-shift. This is a sprawling, sometimes confusing song - but it's also utterly compelling and demands attention as it switches back and forth between a gentle ballad and a swing tune. In total contrast, "Little Prayer" is a tiny, perfect and precise minute of just a picked guitar and vocals. This is perhaps closest to how I remember the momentous performance at Homegame which held the Erskine Hall utterly spellbound as these small-scale but curiously literary stories were spun in front of us all. From the tiny to the epic, as "In The Hollow" closes the record with a return to the theme of dancing which opened the record - but now the dancer, uncertain and somewhat hopeless in "Waltz" has become a fiercer, headstrong creature. Perhaps the most traditional composition on the record, it's a final chance for the singer's voice to take centre stage with a remarkable and affecting performance. It closes with a strange cacophony of instruments, and you can almost hear the rattling tin roof of the makeshift bothy studio.

This is perhaps far from the perfect or polished debut record which might have been expected from Rachel Sermanni given the huge grassroots interest and media exposure she's seen over course of the past year. It is in fact a melancholy, often pitch-dark set of songs with few happy endings and a surprising undercurrent of frustration and discontent. Musically too, it wears it's imperfections openly - as instruments reverberate loudly in the uneven spaces of the bothy. Scrapes and shuffles usher in the accompanying instruments, which sometimes start quietly, almost provisionally before finding their feet. The building and it's atmosphere seem to be in the very bones of this music. But perhaps that's just how it should be - the EP documents a special night, a step along the road for an incredible talent who is still exploring possibilities. Seeing where Rachel takes this next is going to be an intriguing, and I suspect far from straightforward journey.

"The Bothy Sessions" is available on a limited edition of 750 signed CDs via Blue Apple Music.

Rachel Sermanni - Pablo's City

Movebook Link

Posted in SHOFT on Friday 29th July 2011 at 6:07am

Esperi - The EPThere is a school of thought, not entirely unsupported I've noticed, that there are far too many bearded young acoustic musicians around the place just now. As a bearded, not-so-young failed musician, I'm pretty careful how far I agree with this sentiment. But while there certainly are a lot of singer-songwriters plying their trade just now who probably aren't going to break the mould, there are some truly talented individuals among them who deserve to be heard. One such musician is Esperi, a name applied to the largely solo efforts of Chris Lee-Marr. Chris is likely one of the hardest working musicians in Scotland too, playing virtually non-stop in any venue he can find - often with equally remarkable compatriots such as RM Hubbert - and apparently just as happy to turn up and play in your living room if it means he's getting heard. As reported here, I caught his live show in Glasgow last year, and was instantly snared by his mix of thoughtful acoustic songs and more expansive, experimental efforts. This EP puts this endless live work in context by collecting virtually all of Esperi's recorded output to date in a neat package alongside a couple of newer pieces.

From the very first notes of the record it's clear that Esperi isn't just going to be content to sling a few chords together and whine about how bad things are. Each of these songs is a miniature and considered epic - consciously designed, carefully crafted and given just the right amount of embellishment to shine. "Dialled" has a winding, almost jazz-influenced rhythm section which twists and turns through the song while light touches of the drums are barely audible under the delicate acoustic guitar playing. Chris' voice is clear, soft and engaging - delivering the sometimes homely and often surreal lyrics in a warm, Scottish burr. It's a simple enough tune but it's far from fragile, as it builds towards an epic finale - a swift change of timing and the gentle patter of drums gains a little force to support a huge swell of keyboards. As a Christmas single last year, Esperi released a brace of winter themed tracks in an absurdly limited and rather fantastic knitted cover. The first of these, "Made for Life" echoes Esperi live shows by introducing a range of other instruments including his trademark coloured plastic handbells. It includes one of those wonderful but all too rare heart-swelling moments too, when a sudden spiral of strings rise from the simple, quiet guitar backdrop and transport the song. But there is nothing over-egged or pompous here - it all fits into the warm, human world of Esperi's lyrics comfortably. This is likely my favourite song ever about knitwear - with apologies of course to Aidan Knight - and certainly the best song mentioning armpits currently in my collection. The companion piece is "Snowman" - a remarkably simple acoustic guitar tune, made truly wonderful mostly by the vocals, including a quiet but effective supporting voice from wife Cat too. It's a tiny, sad lament for an impassive and ultimately melting snowman - but manages to avoid being twee or silly by having a genuinely affecting air and a tune which just won't shift from your head.

An Esperi live performance has to be seen to be believed - but "Takkat" is possibly the closest you're likely to get on record, as all kinds of toy instruments, loops, gentle beats and disconnected voice samples float in and out of a soundscape which is constructed around an organ drone and tinkling bells. If it sounds busy and complicated on record, it's even more bewildering to watch in person as Chris dashes from instrument to instrument, programming and reprogramming as he moves around the stage, burrowing into his bag to seek all manner of odd things to make music with. "Takkat" is oddly addictive, complicated and clever - but threatens to be eclipsed by the EP's awe-inspiring closing track "My Tear Dissolved The View". When this appeared as a video earlier in the year it garnered all kinds of unexpected attention for Esperi. Taking it's cues from post-rock but far from sticking to the formula, a simple and glacially slow melody underscores all kinds of shuffling, competing shattered sounds. An almost imperceptible guitar line hides at the back, keeping everything together as the piece shimmers and twists around itself. As Chris and Cat's disembodied and unstable voices appear, so the tune starts to disappear slowly into silence. This is wonderful, genuinely moving music which is full character and impact despite - indeed perhaps because - it doesn't feature any recognisable vocal.

This EP is far from just being a collection of pre-released and now hard to find gems - it's a little beacon of light in dark times. An honest, positive record which makes huge statements about hard work and craftsmanship - and which manages to be sometimes heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking too. Esperi's music might appear simple on the surface, the attention to the tiniest details of the sounds he is creating reveal an uncompromising creativity. While this might seem too, like a record in two parts with the more experimental pieces grouped together, it genuinely does seem to form a coherent collection despite the sonic and chronological distance between the songs. This is a perfect soundtrack for the languid end-of-summer humidity, which will last long into the winter. And wherever you are, Esperi is almost certainly going to be playing near you pretty soon!

Olive Grove Records release "The EP" on 4th August as a download, CD or as a limited edition felt-covered CD. Esperi appears next at The Lexington, London on 2nd August.

Esperi - Made For Life

Movebook Link


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.

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