Posted in SHOFT on Thursday 12th July 2012 at 7:07am
Shambles Miller retains an almost unique claim to fame here, in that he is the only artist ever to write a song with a name so long it consistently made iTunes crash. The limitations on file path lengths in older versions of Microsoft Windows aside, this is just the kind of acute observation which I'm sure would delight Miller who has a habit of turning the tiny, often mundane and minute events of everyday life into a tumble of touchingly humourous lyrics. He has maintained a slow but steady flow of releases over the past couple of years, including a pair of EPs which received a fair amount of very positive attention at the time. This, his first 'single' as such brings together a couple of more recently written songs and showcases Shambles's voice and guitar in two very different approaches to recording his songs. The skiffle-tinged shuffle of "Confessions" bursts with wry wit, David Bowie impressions and buckets of pathos. The almost impossibly catchy song is built around a rousing, sing-along chorus where Miller perhaps correctly observes "the world doesn't really need another break up song". But most songs of heartbreak aren't created quite like this, and lack the sense of self-deprecating but gentle humour which Miller manages to cram into his lyrics in every surprising couplet. I'm not going to quote huge passages of lyrics, because the surprise and delight of each line tumbling in is all part of the charm of this song. Driven by Neil Slorance's slinky double-bass playing, and with perfectly placed touches of backing vocals from Florence McDonald, there is a proper, old-fashioned and irresistible pop song at the core of this one. On "Pieces", the second track here, the instrumentation is stripped back completely leaving Shambles to deliver the song alone over an expertly picked guitar reel, uncannily sounding like a Glaswegian Billy Bragg raised on Ivor Cutler's Peel Sessions. It shares a theme with "Confessions" taking a different tack around the break-up theme, throwing in a deft W.B.Yeats reference and looking inwards for it's explanations. Shambles's vocals are laced with regret and defiance, heartfelt but never descending into schmaltz or self-pity. This is simple and direct, by the end redemptive and echoing with wisdom and experience. Despite his relatively low-key approach to self-promotion, there is much more to Shambles Miller than the average guy-and-a-guitar act. I find myself writing that a lot, but there are a bunch of musicians emanating from Glasgow - not least Randolph's Leap's Adam Ross and Beerjacket who are, along with Miller, redeeming this oft-abused art form. Coupling genuinely inventive songwriting with touches of observational comedy which shame some of the professionals in the field - and most importantly an ear for a naggingly memorable tune - Shambles's new single absolutely demands a listen.
Shambles Miller - Pieces
"Confessions" is available as a download or a physical CD release via Bandcamp. If you purchase the CD version you'll probably get a little note from Shambles along with a drawing. Mine involved a Seinfeld reference, along with a battle with an anatomically incorrect octopus. How can not want in on this kind of deal? You can also purchase Shambles's first two EPs from here for the absurdly tiny price of £1 each.
Posted in SHOFT on Friday 6th July 2012 at 9:07pm
There's no doubt we live in times where it's exceptionally easy to become jaded and cynical. Not least with some aspects of the slowly crumbling music industry as it is dragged reluctantly into a world it's barely tooled-up for. Sometimes then, it's instantly clear why many artists start from an equally bleak position as they face the sometimes impenetrably huge task of getting heard widely. But then there are artists who in the face of all this seem to assume a strangely zen-like serenity whilst the rest of the sorry circus howls around them. Esperi is just such an artist. There is a small clutch of acts who share the dubious honour of having cropped up here on Songs Heard On Fast Trains on more than one occasion, and despite a general policy of trying to mention new things wherever possible this has been entirely justified in the case of Chris Marr, as he has worked through a very public process of growth and reinvention. From singer-songwriter to experimentalist, and then on to string-drenched balladeer - all that work, all that quiet dedication to his cause has paid off and can be found in his debut album "In a Moment, Emotion, Sentiment". There are some comforting, heartwarmingly familiar things here, some which will gently but insistently challenge perceptions, and finally some which will dazzle with moments of quiet and understated beauty. This is a very special record indeed...
The album opens with a wonderfully sprawling piece of music which begins with shimmering electronics and Esperi's signature toy bells, and builds through the repetition of the strange and unexplained mantra "Silo The Fire" which lends the track it's title. Just when the gentle drums and bleeps have lured you into a calm sense of security, triumphant strings erupt. It's a bold, brassy lead in to a complex and touching record. The equally expansive "Proverb" uses stabs of bright, clear strings to drive its dash from urgent, edgy verses to gently sweeping choruses. There's a point where the strings spiral gorgeously upwards and an uncharacteristically gloomy sounding Chris begins to gently work his way through a series of time-worn clichés, popping bubbles and blowing holes in their fuzzy logic as he goes: "every cloud has a silver lining/but this one's hard to see". On "Home" though, he has recovered the unashamed sense of comfort and optimism which permeates his work, and the brief, rather fragile interlude is conversely all about solidity and security. Built around his trademark toy orchestra of bells, whistles and strange devices this is short enough to possibly be overlooked as a link between tracks, but somewhere in here is the essence of Esperi and perhaps the ultimate expression of the album's title?
Following "Homer" - familiar from the recent "Melancholics Anonymous EP" - is "Lone Wolf". There is a touch of the wild west in its steel guitars and nods to country music. The vocal here is one of the most assured and solid on the album, with Chris' voice leaping dexterously around the instrumentation. The strings conspire to make the song's themes of abandonment and wilderness all the more lonely and mournful, but everything is steadfastly anchored by sonorous string bass notes. At the centre of the record are a pair of tracks "Nevertheless 1 & 2" which melt into each other, but are distinct parts of a whole. The first section is shorter and quieter - guitars twinkle through a drone of keyboards and Chris breathes memories into the microphone. The second part is a brighter, faster paced piece built on a solid foundation of bass and drums, full of spiralling guitar arpeggios and breathtaking time changes. Towards the conclusion the strings return, swooning, soaring and utterly lovely. The now ubiquitous loop pedal is deployed on "Cats and Dogs" but in fairness Esperi is one of few artists - perhaps alongside Adam Stafford - who is creatively using it as an instrument in its own right as opposed to an extraneous embellishment or an expensive gimmick. Again Chris celebrates his view of the animal kingdom here and as ever when he sees the world through the eyes of the creatures he loves, it becomes a charming, soaringly beautiful song full of lyrical twists and tricks which you just couldn't get away with through the half-open, scornful eyes of a human agent.
"Hearts" is another two part effort which initially takes a more traditional tack, but allows Marr to do what he does best - turning relationships inside out and describing their complexities in simple, heartfelt terms. His gentle, half-whispered vocals and picked guitar lines show a dexterity in his songwriting which challenges the usual 'tortured soul' approach to the genre. What promises to be a mere instrumental coda in "Hearts 2" is in fact a miniature Esperi-style symphony which hints at the more experimental side of Marr's work. This takes the central guitar theme of the first section and spins it out across a ten minute long piece of music which I'll lazily describe as a sort of acoustic post-rock anthem. Bells and glockenspiels compete with toy wind instruments, the guitar lines circle and electronics chitter and tweet. The strings return too, and the building wash of incongruous noises is suddenly allied in a final, triumphant vocal return. Despite it's length and it's strangeness, this manages to hold attention to the final note.
If you believe the hype, then all the best music arises from tension, discontent and turmoil. There's a grain of truth in that, in the sense that defiance and adversity have inspired some great art over the years. However, Esperi bucks this trend by weaving a soundtrack predominantly from simplicity, contentment and resolution. And despite the potential for this approach to a record to become over-sweetened or cloying there's certainly nothing twee about this at all. This is a record full of self-examination and personal challenge, but where the hero comes out on top for a welcome change. Full of inventively layered sounds and lyrical brilliance, "In a Motion, Emotion, Sentiment" lives up to it's curious name perfectly. It's an expression of any number of love affairs - with places and people, creatures and experiences - and it reflects the work of someone not afraid to wear his heart very much on his sleeve.
Esperi - Silo The Fire
Esperi's "In a Moment, Emotion, Sentiment" is available now as a pay-what-you-want download or a physical CD from Bandcamp. He will be appearing at Nice'N'Sleazy's in Glasgow on 23rd August with Lovers Turn To Monsters, and Cellar 35 in Aberdeen on 24th August. You can see Esperi performing "Silo The Fire", which gives an amazing insight into just how some of those sounds are created too.
Posted in SHOFT on Monday 2nd July 2012 at 7:07am
Things have been a little quiet hereabouts lately, which is no reflection on the quantity or quality of music which is around. It's more to do with the inevitable intrusions of real life and the ongoing crisis of confidence which besets me when I try to put fingers to keyboard. But then, something comes along which absolutely compels me to write - and this is just such a record. The next in a series of remarkable releases by Gerry Loves Records returns to vinyl after a dalliance with the cassette, and also preserves their approach of splitting a release across two artists. From the moment the record is unpacked that sense of something special begins, with a wonderfully understated old-school folded sleeve with photographs of each artist mounted on their respective side. I've written before about the sense of event which comes with receiving a physical release, particularly one that maybe you've anticipated for a while, and this does the job perfectly. This time around Gerry Loves have chosen to work with two solo talents who might be more familiar from their band related incarnations. Rick Redbeard is the voice behind the mesmerising and complex Phantom Band, but taking a more spartan approach here becomes the acoustic troubadour displaying a side less seen of his vocal talents. Meanwhile, Adam Stafford formerly of Y'All Is Fantasy Island is less of a stranger to releasing his own music - but he too appears to have taken a different approach to the pair of tracks featured here.
"Now We're Dancing" is a gorgeously woozy waltz, shuffling in with delicate guitars and ticking woodblocks Redbeard's voice is arresting from the outset. Redolent of an on-form Bill Callahan or Sean Byrne the delivery is carefully paced, there is a touch of familiarity from the Phantom Band but the slower pace and gentler instrumentation allows the depth, clarity and emotional gravity of his voice to be fully heard for perhaps the first time. As the song rolls along, delicate flecks of electric guitar and a wash of accordion support Rick's rich and emotive vocals. Lyrically, there is openness and simplicity in the storytelling here, laced with a wry humour and the knack of turning in a memorable chorus. The second, downloadable selection here is "All Of My Love" - a similarly paced track where Redbeard adopts a gently gloomy, electric blues which perfectly pairs with his lyrics of aging, regret and frustration. At points where his rich, deep voice echoes around the sparse corners of the song and he spins lyrics such as "I lived a lifetime of burial/before I was called to arise at your feet", there is a strangely ancient, biblical quality to things. As the slow-burning lament develops it gains funereal drums and a gnarled electric guitar line which build towards an emotionally drained, tear-stained ending.
Flipping sides, and on "Vanishing Tanks" a knot of chiming guitars accompanies Stafford's clear, clarion-call vocals and looped beatboxing, providing a remarkably full sound despite it's simplicity and sparsity in terms of instrumentation. As such it provides the bridge between the complex acapella oddness of his self-released "Awnings" project and the more accessible guitar-led songs from last year's "Build A Harbour Immediately" album. Stafford is in fine voice throughout, especially on the almost gospel-like refrain of "won't let you walk your way out of here now" which is eventually left to close the track alone as the guitars shudder to a halt. The lyrics are otherwise impenetrable and strangely intriguing, weaving a narrative of dissociation and discomfort. The download version of the single pairs this with "Russian Glass" which shudders in with a beautifully dizzy mess of new wave guitar noise and chugging bass. Again Stafford's vocal takes centre stage, reaching melodic highs and dipping to meet the hollow, reverb-drenched guitar solo which arrives. It makes for a shimmering, almost spectrally epic tone to proceedings and there's a sense the track could have continued beyond it's three minutes or so, if not constrained by the format. There is a soulful quality to both of these tracks which extends the subversion of musical styles which began on the last album, and if this pair of tracks hint at further new material, seems likely to continue.
Yet again there is a sense that Gerry Loves Records have captured a snapshot of the moment with a release which manages to be both reassuringly earthbound and edgily experimental all at once. These two artists, while plotting very different courses through the current musical landscape, seem to share a determination to do things pretty much how they want to with little sense of being like anything else happening just now. Across the four tracks here you'll find blues, gospel, spirituals and scratchy punk rock, all tumbling over each other to allow Stafford and Redbeard to express their musical ideas. Releases this packed with innovation don't come along very often, and when they do they're rarely this accessible and well-crafted.
Rick Redbeard - Now We're Dancing
The split single is available now from Gerry Loves Records and comes complete with a download code which allows you to obtain all four tracks. You can also see live videos of both Adam Stafford and Rick Redbeard's tracks.
Posted in SHOFT on Friday 22nd June 2012 at 9:06am
When the man of many pseudonyms, Heinz Junkins pressed a hand-decorated copy of this album into my hand in a dark corner of The Fleece, he was perhaps a little reluctant to let go of this precious cargo. "I think it's finished..." he trailed off, before disappearing once again into the crowd on a mission to distribute more copies of the disc. It was unclear at this point how, when or in what strange form the album - which delights in the enigmatic title "Yard Is Open" - would surface, so I decided on the idea of a preview so that the few readers who endure my ramblings could get some sense of what was to come. However, after living with the OLO Worms debut album for a good few months now, I'm not sure I'm any the wiser. But the good news is that very soon indeed, you will be able to hear this curious, shifting beast of a record for yourselves, in it's near almost impossible to pin down glory. So I'm certainly not nearly ready to produce my usual screed of glib pronouncements and platitudes about it. Instead I thought I'd present the notes I made on the very first listen to the record. That way, you can perhaps experience with me the sounds, the sights and perhaps even the strange barnyard smells which herald this important milestone in the OLO Worms career... But firstly, the challenge is to figure out what's real and what's a product of your overworked and fanciful imagination. From the very opening seconds, this is a multi-layered, dense recording. Samples of conversation, strange sound effects and unexpected instrumental blarts appear then are gone as swiftly as they arrive. Did you really just hear that - or is it your excited synapses independently filling in the gaps? The OLO Worms inhabit a sort of post-media world, where all of the streams - television, music, and the endless babble of social networks - have melded into a single torrent of semi-consciousness. From this dreamlike tumble of images, snippets and soundbites they manage to extract the most absurd, and sometimes the least consequential - but then they reassemble them into something improbable, often hilarious, and almost always rather beautiful. I've long held that laughter is as relevant a means of appreciating music as any chin-stroking, aridly academic approach - and there are many laughs to be had as this surprising record spins out - from huge belly-laughs to more nervous, uncomfortable tittering at things which are only just in the realms of sanity, there is a sense of humour and genuine delight at the core of this album which shines strongly through. Some may find this difficult - because music has to be serious right? Well, no - you're wrong.
On the opening track "Barnyard", the narrator from Jeff Wayne's "War of the Worlds" seems to have fallen on hard times, and finds himself describing strange post-apocalyptic scenes in a world closely approximating our own. However, he is quick to point out that these were "old times/a wooden time". The shocking dystopian vision of post-modern society inhabiting a farmyard spins out over a swooningly lovely backdrop. Blasts of brass and an angelic chorus of voices fill out the spaces created by a shuffling, baggy beat. It's like Primal Scream meeting J.G Ballard in a shopping centre - probably during 1991-2 when both were enjoying something of a renaissance. Something more familiar but no less remarkable arrives next, in the form of "Back From England" release on a Fence 7" single from 2010. This, I can state almost certainly, remains the only record ever to claim "Dino Freak" as it's primary genre. Whilst no agreed definition for this is recorded, in practice this seems to mean insistently throbbing bass, shuffling woodblock-heavy percussion and sinister, haunted vocals which descend into a distinctly home-counties accented rap at the end. Seemingly random crys of "Mexico 1986!" carbon date these boys and give a hint to some of the formative experiences which underpin the OLO aesthetic. I'm sensing almost-complete Panini sticker albums somewhere in the OLO Worms collective past? I bet they always swapped to get the metallic silver team badges though. Onwards into the unknown once again, and I've found myself scouring social media for the evidence to support the next track - as I distinctly recalled seeing a picture of a sheet of paper with the lyrics of this odd little song scrawled on them - some business about actors who steal tractors? And sure enough, buried deep on Facebook is a lyric sheet for "Ol' Boozy's Chug Thump". The name of this short, demented hoedown has survived the long gestation period of this record, along with the curious lyrical preoccupations. Taking almost as long to complete its fade out to silence as the entirety of the frantic rant lasts, this is a torrent of sometimes painful but wonderfully silly rhymes which dance around the country-lite rhythm playfully. Meanwhile odd sounds rebound around the mix, creating a cartoon-like strangeness. With "Ol' Boozy" safely back in the barn, a tinkling cascade of metallic noise, like the heartsinking moment that house keys fall down a concrete staircase begins the next track entitled "Strays", before a slightly off-kilter falsetto vocal kicks in with a refrain of "if you cut it right off/it starts the slippery slope". Benefiting from the attentions of fellow Fence artist Rozi Plain, this is again rather beautiful. A mildly warped guitar joins along with a shudder of electronic undertow while things develop into something of an OLO anthem. Don't be fooled though, this isn't Coldplay or anything - not unless you played them at the wrong speed and in a different room at least. Then again, it's pleasing to imagine this soundtracking "goal of the month" at some future point perhaps?
Following swiftly, "Barbershop" visits further uncharted - and perhaps advisedly so - waters. It begins with a interview which rivals in significance the Frost/Nixon encounter as Junkins stages a Skype summit with Rebecca Taylor of Slow Club fame. Their meandering chatter spans topics serious and bizarre, Taylor's honest and open northern vowels lulling us into a sense of false security as the music slowly winds into life. Then, with little warning of what is about to occur, a change of pace is signalled by a strange mockenspiel sound and suddenly a slinky, Barry White style groove sets up. This is accompanied by frankly some of the sleaziest vocals I've ever heard. The voice starts shrill then dips furtively and rather lewdly low, before resurfacing as an unhinged bark later in the track. It's mostly all about sexy hairdressing it seems - which is certainly largely untouched territory for pop music. The last words are left for Rebecca, with an animalistic groan of "Hubba Hubba!". I feel a bit grimy after this, to be honest. Cleansing is supplied by the sixth track, "Whacked By Pillow" which is a comparatively downbeat and pensive affair. It skitters in with the sound of a plague of insects, and centres on a delicate acoustic guitar melody which, along with the tinkling of wooden percussion and some tribal beats, provides a backdrop to sinister half-whispered vocals. There is a certain cinematic quality to this, but it would be one of those foreign films - probably impenetrably complex, likely black and white, and certainly with subtitles. Though in what strange language I'd not presume to guess. Stabs of metallic noise and gnarled twists of crunchy guitar add to the atmosphere as the moody bassline climbs towards the song's climax and the OLO's provide a weird collective choral accompaniment. This all coalesces into something pretty spectacular - a slow-burning, dark knot of loveliness in the eye of a sometimes unsettling storm of an album.
Familiar from the recent "Image EP" and previously one of the groundbreaking "Polaroid" projects, the always welcome "Snake" explodes into life via a 16-bit computer sound - probably swiped from the part of the game when you defeat the level boss. Then a waspish, dub bassline stutters and shudders into life with what I can only describe as queer electronic biting and rending sounds punctuating the mix. Meanwhile a choir of voices coincidentally intones the melody from "Stepping Stone" by the Monkees, giving the whole thing a triumphant and anthemic air. Nagging electric guitar shards add to the complicated and heady brew, before the retro computer sounds drift back in while a distant voice states that "There's a circle forming inside of my head..." before asking that age old, but ever important question "Are you a girl?". I can see this one provoking lots of interesting remixes and potentially getting lots of dance-savvy people excited - and if it can get an old duffer like me shuffling around the living room its powers may know no limits. A marine influence permeates the next, very strange song entitled "Flipper". A bleepy, electronic affair which sets its stall out early with "dolphins with laser guns" and the most remarkable chain of rhymes I've heard in some years involving alsatians, crustaceans, mutations, lubrication, fumigation and a host of other concerns too unsettling to mention. Beneath this is another of the absurdly addictive dub grooves which pop up throughout this record, shot through with melodic tumbles of guitar and earwax-loosening buzzing sounds. While thus far it's clear we can attribute many unique attributes to the OLO Worms, I'm moved to wonder if they in fact possess the power to reanimate the dearly departed, because for their next trick on "Curves" they appear to have raised the shade of George Harrison and introduced him to in passing to Galaxie 500 for a shimmery, acoustic drift with military drums and gently melodic vocals provided by Gareth Jones. This is, by OLO standards, a ballad - focused on rockets and relationships. It's a strangely formal musical interlude in a record which is generally unpredictable, but it ably demonstrates that this band is capable of expressing many moods and making really conventionally beautiful things alongside their more avant garde artistic endeavours.
As the album approaches its conclusion there are a couple of very odd, short, discordant interludes - the first of which extols the virtues of a varied diet as it suggests "Eating Every Living Thing" while clanging Beefheart-like guitars echo around the voices and pizza is consumed loudly and gluttonously. The second very short piece delights in the incongruously grand title of "Sometimes I Like To Take The Long Route Home" and introduces a muted trumpet - the sort of thing which signals a pratfall in an Ealing Comedy. It parps oddly for just around a minute or so - its hard to say exactly why of course, but it introduces a sort of nostalgic note to proceedings by evoking black and white films on wet Sunday afternoons. The end of the album proper comes with the pulsing, epic and complex beast which is "Sphinx". The jungle sound effects, twittering electronic noises and almost sub-sonic bassline are merely an introduction to a truly unhinged rap. This song mutates several times during it's course, and is often many things at the same time. I'd urge listening on headphones, perhaps with an another adult in the house - just in case, you understand - you can never be too careful with these things. The next twist brings in echoing, hollow stadium-rock guitars and a police siren which build to sonically uncomfortable levels. When it has reached its almost unbearable zenith it rather unexpectedly becomes a slice of tinny 1980s hair-metal, complete with screamy rock vocals, before ending it's tortured existance with a single stroke on a triangle. In common with much of this record, there is so much going on here, layered in such challenging and unusual ways that it's near impossible to describe in any coherent sense.
It's taken a long time for this collection of songs to come together in the form of an album - and it's fairly certain that before it finally reaches you, the listener, there will be all kinds of strange happenings to ensure it becomes a multimedia event in it's own right. It's important to remember here that the last OLO Worms EP was realised in the form of both a tiny vinyl USB-equipped coffin and a large, cumbersome vinyl cube. And that perhaps is part of the sense of balance the OLO Worms set up - tapping into the torrent of signals which showers all of us, every second of the day, they make damn sure they give something back which is greater than the sum of what they've misappropriated. They are always listening to the weird background chittering which most of us manage to tune out, and whether it takes the form of innovative music or just a picture of lots of cats considering some fishermen, they're tapping into its latent artistic possibilities. In some ways, "Yard Is Open" has benefited from this long, slow public birth via social media - a concept which suits the OLO Worms perfectly with its endless stream of ideas, incongruities and absurdities. And quite apart from the initial oddness of this music and the deliberate attempts to abstract things away from the idea of a traditional 'band', this is a damn good record. There are moments of buttock-clenchingly tight art-pop, absurd rock-outs, perverse raps and lots of curious insights into the strange world of the OLO Worms.
OLO Worms - Curves
The OLO Worms will release "Yard Is Open" on 13th August, and will launch this via live appearance at the Louisiana in Bristol on 10th August and The Old Police Station, Deptford on 11th August. The unsettling but hugely entertaining video for "Strays" can be seen here to give you just a hint of what to expect. In the meantime you can still obtain the digital release of the "Image EP" from Bandcamp, which provides an introductory glimpse into the world of the OLO Worms. The 7" single release of "Back From England" is also still available via Fence Records.
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.