Posted in SHOFT on Tuesday 12th July 2011 at 10:07pm
Summer isn't a great time for music in lots of ways. As the entire industry appears to decamp to the ever growing list of festivals and new releases dry up, somehow the general public enters a strange, collective stupor where only the most inane rubbish seems to be played as loudly as possible through open car windows. So to combat my seasonal prejudice, The Japanese War Effort had to produce something pretty special, and in conjunction with the sterling efforts of Song, By Toad records they've pulled off something of a triumph here. Firstly, I've got to mention how great this record looks. Sliding the disc out of it's sleeve reveals a marbled ten-inch record, pressed on opaque vinyl shot through with an explosion of colour not unlike a Damien Hirst splatter painting. The sleeve itself is a bold and rather stunning, a close-up colourful picture of tooth-breaking seaside rock - a packet of which accompanies each order. Once again I'm struck by how the physical artefact is increasingly important at this end of the market. The opportunity to own something that has thought, care and inventiveness at it's heart supplanting the immediacy of the 'having it first' iTunes culture which sadly guides pop music nowadays, losing the sense of anticipation of hearing new music in the process. To clarify the personnel here, The Japanese War Effort is effectively the solo vehicle for Jamie Scott - half of Conquering Animal Sound. Whilst on this record he takes a very different approach to that of his other project, there are threads of similarity which bind them together. However on "Surrender to Summer" there is a sense of experimentation and playfulness which makes it feel more like a low fidelity garage band than the crystalline otherworldliness of his work with Conquering Animal Sound. That's not to suggest anything sloppy or unfinished about this EP where every track threatens to develop into a miniature pop anthem. Some of them indeed do - while others meander delightfully off on their own terms.
Opener "Summer Sun Skateboard" is an air-punching call to arms - because, after all summer is for the geeks too. It's full of the pasty pre-sunburnt optimism you hear in airport departure lounges, with some strange lyrical twists and an almost absurd amount of things happening. But it sounds wonderful - constructed cleverly from a patchwork of throbbing bass, jittery effects and skilful flecks of guitar. Throughout, Jamie Scott's vocals vary from a distant distorted megaphone rant to a strange uncomfortably-close-to-the-microphone chant. By contrast "Beach Buddies" fades in with a shoegazey screed of guitars and reverb shrouded vocals. Swiftly joined by the trademark metallic percussion and organ drone, the song mutates into a rather melancholy lament before it finally finds it's anthemic sweep of an ending. This is possibly my current favourite on the EP if only because it's neighbour-irritatingly loud - certainly enough to drown out the distant thud from the car stereos in the traffic jam outside.
"Pool attendant" is the EP's risquÃ© seaside postcard, beginning with a damaged Blackpool Tower Wurlitzer noise, which is soon buried in an stirring electronics. A squall of analogue synthesiser noise bounces around one of the more involved compositions here. After a flourish of keyboards, it ends with subsonic bass and Jamie menacingly whispering "I shouldn't be kicking kerbs over you quite so early". The low rumbling bass sticks around into the next track, and is joined by what sounds remarkably like an original Rolf Harris Stylophone on "Bucket and Spade". Embellished with a shimmer of electronics as Jamie intones quietly above the noise, I'm curiously reminded of "Drums and Guns" era Low with it's sparse, spacious menace. Finally "Yr Tanlines" closes the record with its swooping, gorgeous pop melodies dotted with disturbing squalls of noise and stabs of static. This is perhaps as close to Conquering Animal Sound as the EP becomes in terms of both sound and the construction of the track, but it's still worlds away from their more restrained other-worldliness. Discordant vocals repeatedly asking "ever felt so small?" over the layered sheen of noise and all too soon this oddly captivating record is stuttering to a close.
This EP is a loose collection around a theme, owing more perhaps to the humid, drunken British summer than any slick continental variant. It's always tricky when someone already known for their work elsewhere releases something on their own terms, and despite the day job of its protagonist, The Japanese War Effort material has a clear identify of it's own - strangely but ultimately successfully leaning more towards shoegazing, lo-fi noisy pop than straight-down-the line electronica in many ways. It's rare to find musicians who can live comfortably in several worlds at once without suffering a crisis of confidence, but Jamie Scott appears to be one of these. Coupling this playful, exuberant and inventive music to the beautifully conceived packaging and design, this becomes both a must have artefact and the soundtrack to the more discerning listener's fleeting British Summertime.
The Japanese War Effort's "Surrender To Summer" EP is available from Song, By Toad Records on resplendent coloured vinyl including a digital download code. Alternatively, it can be purchased via iTunes or Amazon - but in doing so you would largely miss the point, and indeed miss out on free sweets.
The Japanese War Effort - Beach Buddies
Posted in SHOFT on Monday 4th July 2011 at 10:07pm
Before I started writing here in earnest, there were a number of things which seemed to urge me to shout about how great they were in the hope of convincing others, just like old times. In some ways, you can probably blame several of those records for making me want to express my thoughts enough to start Songs Heard On Fast Trains, which may or may not be a good thing depending on your viewpoint. Not least of these was this very record, the release of which somewhere in the middle of 2010 heralded something of an indie-pop awakening for me after a number of years in the wilderness. Now, with the album being re-released on Fence I have a perfect excuse to wax lyrical about it here at last. Looking back, I initially struggled a little with "SHOUTING at Wildlife" partly because a fair number of the songs were familiar before the album arrived which made it feel like something of a 'greatest hits' collection at first listen. However, seeing Kid Canaveral play these songs in a variety of places, and growing steadily more familiar with the rest of the record as a result made me appreciate just what a varied collection it was, and pretty soon every week produced a new favourite. Fast forward to Homegame, and an incendiary performance in Anstruther Town Hall, and it all made perfect sense.
But what gave this record it's coveted placing on Songs Heard on Fast Trains's 2010 list - and indeed what merits this mention of the reissue? Well, for starters its pretty near the most perfect collection of fuzzy, regret-tinged pop music that last year produced. The scratchy, urgent call-to-arms of "Good Morning" launches the album, piling layer after layer of chiming guitars and thunderous drums onto a breathless, vocal. It's clear from the off that this is going to be an interesting journey as an impromptu choir and stabs of keyboard usher in "You Only Went Out To Get Drunk Last Night" - in some ways a strange proposition of a song with it's choral breakdowns and cowbells - but ultimately a slinky pop number is thinly disguised here. Little slashes of guitar underscore David MacGregor's exasperated vocal as it winds things up towards an epic ending, duetting with the choir and slinging responses back to their insistent refrain. Indeed Kid Canaveral delight in several fine vocalists, and the charming but uncompromising "Left and Right" with it fuzzy dash through confusing city streets allows Kate Lazda to showcase her own knack of switching seamlessly between a rapid-fire punky delivery and soaring pop choruses while guitars keen around her. It was an early favourite and remains one now.
But its not all about noise and bluster - as "Quiet Things Are Quiet Now" lives up to its name, as a gentle acoustic tune embellished with warbling keyboards. A simple but surprisingly frank lyric about absence and change takes the foreground, Kate almost whispering the final verses. Things become more complex with current single "And Another Thing!" which adds layers of carefully constructed guitar over a simple and wonderfully jangly pop tune, building it into something much, much bigger. By the end, with the insistent chorus echoing around, the sweep of a violin through the song takes things swirling off to another level. Here, if they haven't already done so, Kid Canaveral manage to tap into that rich vein of somewhat emotionally bruised but triumphant Scottish pop music which has inspired so many fine acts down the years. Along the way David sings "I'm busy doing nothing/there's no skill and no knack to it" - which can't possibly apply to something as carefully constructed and damn near perfect as "SHOUTING at Wildlife". Ultimately, there are just too many highlights to work through without beginning to sound even more sycophantic, so I'll settle for a final mention of "Her Hair Hangs Down". This was always a curious moment on the record - but it all fell into place when it was used to soundtrack an exquisitely filmed video of Fence's Awaygame on The Isle of Eigg. A subdued, folk-tinged lament with domestic-scale lyrics. MacGregor intoning the words painstakingly and with restraint, trilling on the 'r' sound in "three long weeks". It's brief, beautiful and incredibly touching. I'm never sure quite why it's so affecting - perhaps its the curious documentary quality of the lyrics, with their brief window into a relationship at what might or might not be a pivotal moment?
Reappraising "SHOUTING at Wildlife" now reminds me just what a fine record it is and how much it deserves to be heard by lots of people. It's good to see Kid Canaveral finding their spiritual home at Fence, and whilst the uncompromising DIY ethic in the East Neuk won't perhaps result in immediate widespread exposure of the kind which they will undoubtedly eventually achieve, the music will certainly be allowed to speak for itself there in a way it perhaps couldn't elsewhere. Most importantly this release ensures that a whole new audience get to hear this fantastic record, fall in love with it and share the next step of the band's journey. I can't help but feel this is the beginning of something big...
"Shouting At Wildlife" is re-relased on 25th July, via Fence Records who are offering a fantastic pre-release package based around the vinyl LP, which is just about the only way to get hold of their splendid cover of King Creosote's "Missionary". Meanwhile the band feature in a BBC2 Scotland documentary on SXSW to be screened on Tuesday 5th July (Sky Channel 990/Freesat 970) and no doubt on YouTube soon after.
Kid Canaveral - And Another Thing!
Posted in SHOFT on Tuesday 28th June 2011 at 11:06pm
It's a rare luxury to get out to see music locally nowadays, and especially rare that something comes along which grabs my attention quite like this did. Picked up via a brief mention on the Fence Records beefboard, this show was billed "A Night of the New Old Time". Beautiful letterpressed posters and a curious venue which I must have walked past thousands of times cemented the deal - I had to be at this one. So, I found myself wandering around central Bristol on a humid night with a threat of storms in the air. The Benjamin Perry Scout Hut is a fairly anonymous brown wooden shack, right by the riverside. It's still an active Sea Scout meeting place, and as I arrived there was a buzz around the downstairs section as kayaks were returned to the boathouse. Upstairs was a tiny room, decked out in maritime and scouting memorabilia. The only concession to electricity tonight, a string of fairy lights wrapped around the low beams of the roof. From my vantage point at the far end of the room I had a view of the City Centre through the window, and I was struck again just how strange a proposition all this was.
After a bizarre and eclectic DJ set played on a pair of ageing wind-up gramophones, Boxcar Aldous Huxley took to the stage. They certainly looked the part - their solid looking drummer squashed into a corner and the odd, mildly unhinged beauty of Zuleika Zigfield in her 1920s garb, playing the saw. Amidst all this, Liam Kirby stalked the tiny area which constituted a stage - wild haired and enthusiastic to convey the inspiration behind the songs. Kicking off with a track which was about "the electrocution of an elephant and the last days of Nikolai Tesla" it was clear that the music was about as strange as Boxcar Aldous Huxley's appearance. Gently brushed drums supported banjo, clarinet and saw. Dabs of judiciously applied harmonium traded with Kirby's sometimes indistinguishably quiet vocals. Things were a little more robust when the rest of the band joined the choir - and particularly when Zuleika Ziegfield added her tremulous high voice to the mix. A couple of songs in I was sold, tangled up in the strange storytelling, and genuinely pleased to find my own reference points in the tales. "Cable Street" linked the legendary battle of locals and Moseley's fascists with an unlikely love story and the burial of John Williams, supposed perpetrator of the Ratcliff Highway Murders in 1812. This kind of linking with place was always going to work for me, and coupled to the woozy, oddly Eastern European sounds which the strange mix of instruments produced, I was hooked.
As another track began with "when the last train rolls out of Brookwood..." and went on to weave a strange macabre tale around the mysteries of the Necropolis Railway, I was beginning to think someone had raided my record collection and my library and somehow built a band out of all of the illogical, disconnected bits. The strange thing was it worked - and as the odd, Balkan reggae morphed into a sort of charleston-meets-ramshackle-punk sound, Kirby produced a trombone and led the band into a further transformation - emerging as a an ad-hoc northern miners brass band. The band were perhaps at their most accessible on "A Song For Thomas Scott", where their voices merged to form a trombone and harmonium driven ballad dedicated to historical Canadian politician Louis Riel. The audience loved it, the band seemed to be having a great time, and the coupling of unamplified, stomping acoustic music and the strange old venue was perfect. All over far too quickly, and certainly on the list to see again.
Hailing from Brooklyn, NY and playing their first UK show The Dust Busters again visually fitted the bill exactly. Three young men, looking like they'd tumbled out of a Greenwich Village folk club directly into this Scout Hut, starting their set with fiddle, guitar and banjo. Anyone expecting more of the same brand of eccentric neo-traditionalism that Boxcar Aldous Huxley had provided was going to be disappointed. This was serious stuff - and with an attention to detail and tradition which seems to have disappeared from much of the American folk scene, The Dust Busters set about plundering the rich vein of ballads, rags and dance tunes which the continent has provided over the last century or so. Songs were interspersed with knowledgeable and engaging talk about their origins, the band determinedly keen to persuade the audience to check out the century-old original music as much as their own album! Throughout the set Walker Shepard, Craig Judelman and Eli Smith shared vocal duties and switched instruments regularly - showing an almost embarrassing ability to play virtually anything. The audience loved it, with a couple who had been twitching restlessly in front of me finally pushing out of the door onto the balcony above the river, and starting to dance wildly. It was that kind of night.
At one point, a curious frisson shivered through the room - as The Dust Busters played "Casey Jones" as reworked by union man Joe Hill, a bunch of teachers and civil servants at the back of the room began singing along earnestly. Their own strike was unlikely to involve train wrecks or dead scabs, but all the same there was something a little inspirational about the way they connected with a tune from long ago, in an age where the battles were very different indeed. The Dust Busters, whilst steering clear of political comment, managed the mood of the audience perfectly. Seemingly they knew just what to play and when, and as more sombre tunes like "Two Soldiers" faded, they'd break into a frenetic ragtime fiddle-driven jig. As the skies darkened, with the lights of the city and the tiny strand of fairy lights in the hut the only illumination, the atmosphere was magical and it was clear we were witnessing something pretty special. The band were called back for encore after encore, and eventually I had to discreetly slip away leaving the spellbound audience to the next tune.
Carefully negotiating the cobbles of the boatyard on my walk to the station, and with the distant sound of The Dust Busters fading in the twinkling scout hut, I was stuck by how this felt like a really special event. Sam of Shieldshaped who had put tonight together had done a fantastic job - from selecting a perfect venue, down to the beautifully conceived posters for the event. Like all the best shows, I came away inspired with new things to check out. Here's to the next Shieldshaped production!
More information on Boxcar Aldous Huxley can be found here, and their five-track album "The Initial Proceedings of the Boxcar Aldous Huxley Historiographical Society" is available on a beautiful 10" vinyl and download package from Bandcamp.
Posted in SHOFT on Friday 24th June 2011 at 7:06am
Folk music. Love it or otherwise, it's everywhere lately. With even the biggest acts keen to break out the banjo and brush up their authenticity by referencing traditional music of various strains, it would be easy to get cynical about the way it's become so marketable in recent times. However, there are beacons of genuine commitment and inventiveness still, and Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou shine out in dark times on this uplifting and inspiring album. I've said before that it's been a strange year for me and Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou, with frequent crossings of path. Starting with their "Tin Tabernacle" tour and ending up at Homegame, I've listened to many of these songs developing and changing in a variety of live environments. So, their inclusion here, often with little more embellishment than they received in their live, acoustic setting feels like a chapter completed.
"Spin Me A Rhyme" was always a playful, rousing call to arms even when it was just Trevor and Hannah-Lou and their guitars. Here it is transformed into a stomping, pop gem with big drums and a beautifully brassy ending. While this opens proceedings with the clear message that this isn't going to be another attempt at dour traditionalism, there are clear links back to the canon of protest songs with Spanish Civil War era references to "joining the brigades". The politics are rarely overt in Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou's work - but there is a thread of communalism and a sense of pride in being British which seems terribly unfashionable now, even in these post-Big Society times. On the frenzied "Making It Count" this full band sound returns, with all kinds of joyous clattering percussion, bayou accordion and a lyrical tale of runaways which brings Brotherhood of Man's "Angelo" right up to date. It's audacious, ridiculously enthusiastic and impossible not to dance around the room to. A raucous folk-pop storm delivered with glee.
A spellbinding feature of recent live sets and captured perfectly here, "A Hill Far Away" is just two voices, two picked guitars and a slinky cello line winding around them. The voices entwine beautifully on lyrics which return things to a more prosaic everyday level, wistfully asking "have you ever had a day/when you wish the time would just slip away?". It's a quiet plea amongst the stomping celebrations and spirited clarion calls elsewhere on this album. One of the more positive forces at work in modern folk music is a willingness to blur tradition in order to convey a message, and "Big Water" exemplifies this perfectly. The landscape of picked guitars feels expansive and owes plenty to Americana, but here it meets some very traditional English balladry. This is beautifully played and touchingly sung, the traditional instrumentation supported by respectfully distant drums and organ. Over the course of their two records to date, it's clear that Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou's songs are often connected to our times - with a focus on the late 20th and 21st century which is perhaps a little unfashionable in this kind of fayre? Bringing things right up to 2011, "Stargazer's Gutter" is a thoughtful take on the widening effects of the economic downturn, with a dramatic chorus urging Presidents and paupers to "come lie down next to me" in Wilde's universal gutter. Bankers and lawyers take a not undeserved swipe here, but ultimately the democracy of the gutter is preserved. We're all in it together it seems, and if this is the soundtrack then perhaps it really is going to be OK?
And as if to soothingly confirm this, it's time for "Feel At Ease". An eerily echoing introduction gives way to an understated guitar introduction, but then Trevor and Hannah-Lou's voices soar in, and the catalogue of painful everyday experiences racks up. But this is all about shoring fragments up against those ruins, rather than wallowing in self pity - and I'll confess that the part of this song which implores "when your blood and your sweat go unsung, hold your tongue" has had some personal application this past week! Coupled with hammond organ flourishes and a wonderfully retro guitar solo grafted from a Johnny Cash record, the truly transporting chorus anchors this as a personal favourite.
Whether they're being performed near a blustery Fife harbour, or in a tiny tin church these songs have a strong universal appeal - the sometimes sparse delivery provokes a sense of the familiar, but this record is packed with new ideas. It's also exploding with enthusiasm, defiance and a peculiarly English sense of workmanship. The roots of this album spread deep into a variety of traditions, but the curious blend of the personal, the political and an unashamed urge to write genuinely democratic popular songs make this much more accessible than any academic collection of traditional songs. Bursting with joy, tenderness, righteous indignation and ridiculously great tunes - what more could you ask for?
Trevor Moss & Hannah-Lou - Feel At Ease
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.