Posted in SHOFT on Monday 18th June 2012 at 11:06pm

Refugee Week Scotland Opening ConcertThe Old Fruitmarket is a bit of a revelation. Entry is through the overbearing civic frontage of the City Halls, and then via a fairly anodyne, typically minimalist 'arts centre' type space. But buried within is an impressively cavernous, high-vaulted hall. There is a sense of the old times here - all uneven flagstone floors and curious dark corners, with fading names of fruit traders around the walls. A balcony runs high around the building, and weirdly my first thought is of the secret synagogue buried behind 19 Princelet Street. Tonight, the hall is laid out cabaret style - an odd touch perhaps but I always get the sense that organisers don't quite know what to make of Fence events - beard-stroking folkniks, or spirited outbursts of dancing? In the event tonight we were going to get a little of both. But it's important to remember that tonight had a purpose - namely in kicking off Scottish Refugee Week - and to this end the show was interspersed with short films on the themes of 'Spirit' and 'Courage'. These were understated and affecting, and managed to convey the reason that we were all, in fact, here without damaging the celebratory atmosphere. Aside from the unusual surroundings and these more down-to-earth concerns, this was a rare chance to see some of the gems of the East Neuk here in the city, alongside one of Glasgow's own finest exports. It promised to be an interesting night...

It's going to be very difficult to add to the almost fawningly fulsome praise I've already heaped on Randolph's Leap in these pages, but once again they pulled off that difficult trick of opening the show while still stamping an impression on all those present. They appear to do this by launching full tilt into a set of riotous, stomping gleeful pop which gets better with every chance to see them. Airing a number of tracks from "The Curse of the Haunted Headphones" along with some welcome new pieces, perhaps the winning bit of the formula for me tonight is their two-piece brass section, which given the space and opportunity to really belt out their accompaniment to Adam Ross' compositions has transformed the band the last couple of times I've seen them. As ever, the sporadic outbursts of irrepressible on-stage dancing and collective sing-alongs get the audience irresistibly involved in the tiny but affecting dramas at the heart of Ross' songs. During the set Adam announces that there will be a Randolph's Leap EP on Fence soon, which makes a sizeable contingent in the audience sigh with relief that they snapped up their subscription to the forthcoming "Buff Tracks" series. The band leave the stage all too soon, to a warm reaction from the audience. From the closing notes of the now traditional final tune "Crisps", it's clear some hearts have been won here tonight.

It's my first opportunity to see The Pictish Trail performing with his band tonight, and it's something of a surprise to hear how they manage to mutate Johnny Lynch's often plaintive and fragile solo efforts into hulking rock anthems. Some of the new material which will form an EP and album release later in the year is aired, not least "The Handstand Crowd" which has turned from a wistful stream of memories in St. Andrews to a chugging pop-rock epic here tonight. There's a brief electronic interlude where Johnny presses buttons and operates machinery through a cloud of dry-ice while live drums are expertly combined with the beats remarkably effectively. But ultimately there's no shying away from the big solos and crashing powerchords here as Alex Supergun and Bart Eagleowl hammer away on guitar and bass respectively on the closing pair of tracks - a punky storm through personal favourite "Ribbon" and a soaring, stop-start grind through the previously delicate "Words Fail Me Now". Overall the set feels like a success, and the band appear to have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Johnny's stage chit-chat didn't quite land right tonight - and what would have been a two-way conversation between performer and audience in Anstruther Town Hall felt a bit more one-sided here in The Old Fruitmarket. But, musically at least, The Pictish Trail unmistakably connected with the audience via their punished eardrums and plucked heartstrings.

I'd been excited about seeing King Creosote playing something other than "Diamond Mine" for a while - despite an enduring love for that forlorn paean to East Fife. Mostly, its the thought that Kenny Anderson's vast, untapped back catalogue and the stash of new songs which surfaced on "That Might Be It, Darling" hadn't had a fair crack of the whip for a long time. Tonight, the band numbers eight - including stalwarts like Gummi Bako on guitar, Uncle Beesley on bass and rakish headgear, and Captain Geeko The Dead Aviator thumping frantically on his djembe mid stage. Add to this the additional vocals provided by the almost impossibly lovely Bam Bam and as he surveys the stage it's clear the King is in his element. The set spans his recent career, from the very recent big band reworking of "Doubles Underneath" - an irresistibly catchy, stomping affair which gets the audience shuffling in their chairs, to a spirited and acid-tongued "You've No Clue Do You?" - a much darker affair than the polished recorded version.

Somewhere in the middle of Kenny's set, something strange happens. Up to now there have been sporadic outbursts of dancing, not least from the now dangerously inebriated Edinburgh Bill who gesticulates and throws wine over himself in evident awestruck delight in the bands. But suddenly, a couple of youngsters who are hear with the Refugee Council break through the shyness barrier and start to career wildly in front of the stage. The floodgates open, and suddenly there is a miniature moshpit. True, these kids don't seem to know all the words like some of us old stalwarts do, and they haven't quite grasped the rhythm of the much more delicate "John Taylor's Month Away" as they clap along, but they're loving every single second of this. And so is the band - smiles are exchanged, lyrics are subtly changed to pay tribute to the dancers, and now even Bill is somewhere in the mess of bodies swaying dangerously around and incurring the interest of the security guy who thought he was up for a quiet night until a few minutes ago. We're treated to energetic versions of the defiant "Coast On By" and a gleeful dash through "Single Cheep" with its reportedly "unforgivable" guitar solo delivered intact. Finally, the reins are handed to Gummi Bako as the sprawling, rocking "Little Man" is given a thunderous and triumphant airing.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about King Creosote and friends is how they can take that atmosphere and spirit which starts in a tiny hall in a coastal town or around a beach bonfire, and transport it here to the middle of Glasgow on a Tuesday night. The warm, open-hearted and conspiratorial nature of the Fence Collective is a welcome opposite to the usual closed-shops of music scenes and arts movements. If there is one theme which runs through tonight's proceedings and ties it to the underlying purpose of this event it's perhaps exactly that - no matter where you end up, how you got there or why you made the journey, there's a welcome in this music which is hard to resist.


Posted in SHOFT on Monday 18th June 2012 at 10:06am

Scottish Fiction Presents - PosterRegular readers will know that I make this trip on a near regular basis, which accounts for the disproportionate amount of Scottish music featured here. However, this time around things felt a little different - with the switch from England to Scotland much more marked as we crossed the border. No trace of the Olympics, of the Jubilee, no tattered bunting flapping from the buildings or grubby flags attached to car-bonnets. Nationalism here is a much more serious business, in the face of which the cartoon image of face-painting and "God Save The Queen" is just a bit silly really! In the midst of this the vibrant cultural scene continues to churn out surprising amounts of new, interesting music which is ably chronicled by the likes of Scottish Fiction - a blog and podcast which displays far tighter quality control and dedication than this one, and which is branching out here into promoting gigs with the first Scottish Fiction Presents... night, sitting neatly in the middle of the West End Festival and dovetailing perfectly with the Gibson Street Gala earlier today.

Descending into the bowels of Great Western Road once again, Barrhead six-piece Saint Death cram three guitarists on the Captains' tiny stage, standing at a diagonal tilt to the audience, rather like a modern day Shadows, just to squeeze in. But that's where any comparison with sixties instrumental groups most definitely ends. Initially discordant and brittle, the opening and somewhat epic piece ramps up into a sort of spaghetti-western-meets-horror film soundtrack. The doom-laden drums and portentous bass are overlaid with a rather lovely twanging solo. Its almost unclear if there is a break here, or whether this is a second coming of the initial song, but the punishingly loud piece throbs and pounds dangerously. There are vocals here but they're buried, like a distant howl. Submerged melodies and ear-splitting layers of noise are piled onto each other. It's full of false crescendos and heart-in-mouth crashes. Next up is a more traditionally constructed post-rock track which benefits from melodic keyboard interludes and which spirals into something beautifully noisy and shamelessly indulgent. It eventually collapses into itself gracefully enough, the keyboard returning to see it off with dignity. Finally "100 Times" shimmers in, an initially shoegazey drift with confident, if rather sombre vocals. There's a final, truly sinister vocal interlude before an apocalyptically chugging sludge-rock ending. Saint Death have been something of an eye- and ear-opener tonight and remain a highlight for me. Surely no band needs three guitars? But if you've got them, this is very clearly how to use them.

I've heard quite a bit of praise for Queen Jane in recent times, and exactly as predicted they managed to take up the baton of good, old fashioned Glasgow guitar pop and carry it forward into a new generation. It's angular, gleefully urgent stuff which explodes with melodies and ideas. Scratchy, complex guitar work and an almost furtively slick rhythm section keep everything tight - when the band pauses, they stop on a sixpence and the dramatic tempo changes kick in effortlessly. Meanwhile the staccato vocal delivery harks back three decades to another era of Scottish music entirely. The lyrics though are wistful, and seem to ache for a not-so-distant past where things were just, well....better somehow. Within the space of just their first track Queen Jane are brave enough to throw in a drum solo, a little calypso interlude then a searing burst of noise to end things. "Romance" sets off on a post-Postcard jangle, jittering and careering through frenetic choruses towards an all-hands-on-deck chanted break in the onslaught. When they set their minds to it, these four unassuming gents can make a heck of a noise, but it's always controlled and delivered as an integral part of the absurdly infectious pop tunes. Next up, "Confession" packs all this together with regret-laced vocals, reverb drenched shimmers of guitar and deftly delivered and dizzily complicated rhythms. Recent EP lead track "Denver" is propelled in by a clamour of keyboards before a stomping, pop anthem kicks off. It works through chorus after chorus of stirringly energetic yelping before a choppy, helicopter-blade bass brings in the closing assault. Saving something of their best for last "Fighting Man" is a wistful closer. Altogether gentler, the vocals take a more central role and showcases James McGarragle's talents in reaching for the emotive high notes. The drummer slips back behind his kit for a frenzied close with military beats and bugle-call guitars which befit the title of the track. I can see exactly why people are tipping Queen Jane for bigger things on the strength of tonight.

Decked out in oversized football strips provided by hyperactive drummer and surrogate frontman Niall McCamley, Edinburgh's much vaunted The Spook School bound on stage and rip directly into their urgent, layered punk pop. It's scrappy, gloriously unkempt and delights in its sharp edges, stupidly catchy hooks and sudden off-kilter interludes - in fact I'm pretty sure I just heard them sing "Would you ever trust a band who think Matt Damon's really cool?" to which the correct answer was an emphatic and unanimous "No!". The rhythm section is solid and pounds relentlessly away while duel guitars skitter and scratch, before emitting swathes of feedback and eardrum bursting noise. There's just a hint of The Only Ones in the jagged but soaring guitar melodies and chugging rhythms. A ukelele is broken out for a brief and strangely woozy sea shanty, then an acoustic guitar arrives for the intelligent, clever pop of "Devil Of Mine'. Benefiting from multiple vocalists, The Spook School create a sort of twee-with-bared-teeth call-and-response dynamic which is infectious and probably as much fun to play as it is to watch. During a discussion of their attire, the band explained that one shirt was a Barcelona strip, another a rare Team Canada jersey - but Niall sported a white shirt with "I am footballer" crudely scribed on in permanent marker. With razor sharp wit an audience member asked "Is that not Rangers new top?" to a riotous reception. They close things triumphantly with their recent single "History" in all its urgent, tangled and discordant glory with its perfectly choreographed 'lalala' ending and guitar-hurling exit. It's been a good night for The Spook School and to celebrate Niall is off into the audience, taps aff and wanting to swap shirts or to exchange CDs for sweaty hugs. Somehow he's like the older kid who led the young 'uns astray. But if this is what it leads to, long may it continue.

Opening with a foot-stomping Spanish-influenced number, Michael Cassidy might seem a little out of place at the head of a noisy bill like tonight's, but his cosmopolitan and wide-angle take on the singer songwriter gig lifts him head and shoulders above similar acts. His strength lies in the sheer range of approaches to his material, which veers from scuzzy delta blues to more formal ballads. These switches of style are effortless - Cassidy's guitar playing creating a sparse but atmospheric web on which his heartfelt vocal gently rests. Another of Cassidy's strengths is his inter-song engagement with the spirited audience. He's not afraid to engage, to rib us a little and to draw people into his songs. The audience, annoyingly young and fresh-faced and hyped up by three noisy acts remain surprisingly quiet and respectful, and when they do break into a fit of giggles, Cassidy is on it straight away with wit and charm. It makes for a celebratory atmosphere which fits the sense of occasion perfectly. His closing tune "Fifteen Years" is plaintive, lyrical and strangely upbeat given the unrequited ache at its core - and it garners a rapturous reaction from the audience too, who are calling for another tune the second he takes his guitar off. Initially, I questioned the wisdom of putting the 'acoustic singer-songwriter' guy on last, but having seen Michael Cassidy's way with an audience, it made a good deal more sense.

So it's out into the night for the wander home, with a little light still evident in the western sky. It's nights like this that reaffirm my faith in music and remind me that however dull and uniform things can seem sometimes, there's always a crop of new and interesting bands about to appear from left-field to surprise me and confound my expectations. It'll be a sad day when I'm too old and jaded to appreciate that. Long may Neil of Scottish Fiction keep flagging these artists for attention too. I know from personal experience it can be a thankless and sometimes frustrating game - but tonight is testament to exactly why it's important.


Posted in SHOFT on Wednesday 6th June 2012 at 8:06am

Naming your band is clearly an important and formative bit of the music-making process - not least because quite often it signifies a great deal about how a band sees itself, its influences and aspirations. Having written about music for a while now, I've come to realise just how swiftly a name impacts on me too. How I can be switched off quickly by a name which just sounds like 'something I wouldn't like' and despite my best efforts to remain open-minded about music, how fickle and easily influenced I can be. So this edition of Single Tickets is dedicated to a couple of bands where at first the names have stopped me in my tracks, but where persisting beyond my own silly prejudices has led to hearing really exciting things. I'm not for a moment saying these names are wholly bad - but for me, with my musical history and influences they don't work so well. But the music does work well, very well indeed...

His Name Is Codeine - Before The Apple Fell

His Name Is Codeine - Before The Apple FellOne of the worrying things about creating music can be that sense that it's all been said and done before. Thankfully, bands in their first flush of enthusiasm have the remarkable ability to batter through this barrier, and to carve their own new niches. But those accumulated layers of music history can be dangerous for other reasons - for one thing it leads to the unholy horror which is Q magazine. It also means that quite often words, snippets of music and even band names can carry heavy associations. That's just what could have happened here, as Codeine for me signifies that early 90s outfit which produced "Frigid Stars" - a record so close to perfect you wouldn't dare mess with it. So when this band popped up on someone's social network feed - and indeed someone who's tastes I generally find I agree with - I gave this a listen despite these early, and frankly baseless, concerns.

I've got to say, I'm very I glad I did too because Elgin based His Name Is Codeine spin some of the most enigmatic, beautifully dark noises I've heard in quite a while. From the outset of "Before The Apple Fell" there is drama and tension in the pulsing bass and churning guitars which hint at unseen threats and potential. The band also benefit from multiple vocalists, centred the powerful lead provided by Lyn Ralph with her heart-squeezingly gloomy delivery. She possesses the uncanny and sometimes unsettling ability to leap genre from a regret-laced country drawl to a howl of frustration or vengeance. When all three voices join in, the vocals become a sort of mesmerising chant. Meanwhile the guitars work gradually up to a shimmering, shuddering screed of echo-laden noise and the drums thunder urgent, distant warnings. The raw, seemingly untamed power of this sprawling, wayward music reminds me of the much-missed Thin White Rope at times as it manages to get louder and more intense with every passing moment. Eventually it reaches a point of no return where layers of noise and melody tumble over each other, guitars solo wildly and that solid rhythm section which has just a hint of the swampy tension of The Bad Seeds just keeps thundering on apparently untouched by the storm raging around it. Clocking in at well over five minutes, this isn't a throwaway pop tune by any means, but it's a very direct and specific statement of intent. This is turblent, insistent and cinematic music which leaves me breathless - it's well worth a moment of your time and little of your cash.

His Name Is Codeine - Before The Apple Fell

It's probably clear from my ramblings that I know little else about this His Name Is Codeine, and while I could pull my usual stunt of inferring and speculating from snippets of their social networking presence, I think perhaps this time preserving the mystery is much more appropriate. You can download "Before The Apple Fell" for the curious sum of US $1 from Bandcamp - which, unless the economy has collapsed even further by the time you read this, is less than a quid and worth every single penny. There are also a few videos and demos on their YouTube channel which are well worth a watch.

Thank You So Nice - Let's Make Money

Thank You So Nice - Let's Make MoneyMy objection to this band's name was not so reasoned - it's just odd and hugely non-descriptive of what's in the tin somehow. I know I'm not the first person to alight on the band's name as an issue, but there is something evocative of garden parties, weak tea and triangular cucumber sandwiches implicit in the name Thank You So Nice which makes it utterly incongruous for an Edinburgh-based power-pop outfit. That said, it is perhaps memorable in its strangeness and reflects a sort of uncomfortable sense of not quite fitting easily into the any particular scene or sound which Thank You So Nice could very easily fall victim to.

There was a period in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the more intelligent fringes of the punk movement which was otherwise busy oafishly destroying itself, edged into a more accessible but equally challenging niche. Bands like Alternative TV and The Only Ones managed to combine smart lyrics and thoughtful songwriting with some of the edge and energy which spun out from the rapidly imploding revolution. Somehow Thank You So Nice hark back to that same combination of elements, delivering short but intelligent blasts of angular pop which are very hard not to be snared by. Having said that lead track "Let's Make Money" is perhaps my least favourite of the three here, but that's not to detract from its accomplishments. With its stuttering, theatrical chorus and complicated rhythms providing a backdrop for some bitterly twisted lyrics. It's a little too petulantly twee and directly mocking for my tastes, but there's no doubting the commitment to getting the point across here. A little rougher around the edges - and for me perhaps the stand-out among the three tracks - "Out of Time" is a fuzzy, urgent pop anthem with an appealing vulnerability and desperation in the lyrics and a stupidly catchy chorus which I've caught myself singing in several unguarded moments - anything which I manage to retain for more than a few minutes in my advancing years being a good indication of its infectious charms. Finally "You Were The One" melds a frantic bassline with fuzzed-up megaphone vocals and scratchy guitars to produce an unexpectedly effective amalgam of indie-pop and garage rock. Its a short, sharp blast which knowingly and a little teasingly leaves you wanting to hear a little more.

Given what seems to be a growing resurgence of guitar music on the east coast, Thank You So Nice fit neatly with the likes of Morris Major and The Spook School in delivering clever pop music, big on melodies and bursting with enthusiasm. But the real acid test of Thank You So Nice will be sustaining the interest contained in these three, brief but sure-footed tracks across an entire album. One is due in the Autumn and if there's one thing which can can make it stand out in a year of pretty remarkable releases to date, it's channelling the tumble of musical and lyrical ideas evident here.

"Let's Make Money" is available as a free download from Bandcamp. An album "Make Love Not Money" will follow in the Autumn.

Movebook Link

Posted in SHOFT on Wednesday 30th May 2012 at 10:05am

North American War - Ivory And/Geraniums on a Spit 7I'll be honest, I've been itching to write about North American War for a long time now, and with this new release they've finally given me the excuse I needed. Since hearing their debut EP - which is still available free from Winning Sperm Party - I've been trying to contrive a reason to feature them here. However, having not managed to make it north of the border to any of their sporadic and often short notice live appearances, it's only now with the release of this 7" single that I get to talk about this intriguing and - for me at least - rather mysterious band. It's going to become painfully clear in the next couple of paragraphs that I know woefully little about them, so readers will have to indulge me and take this at face value - because it's a damn fine record you really ought to hear.

The really unfair thing to do here would be to pull in a few reference points, make some lazy comparisons and leave it at that - and it's inevitable that reviewers with good record collections, long memories or (like me) a few years on the clock will resort to mentions of Sonic Youth. This is no bad thing, because if North American War have picked up the thread from that behemoth of US alternative rock, they've selected that brief moment when they balanced bubblegum pop and experimental guitar destruction almost perfectly. But there is far more to North American War than a set of, albeit very well chosen, influences. Not least in the laconic and brutally disinterested vocals provided by Anna Schneider which set them apart from other bands ploughing similar furrows. She carefully half-speaks the fragmented, paranoid lyrics of "Ivory And" while scratchy, urgent guitars duel for attention. Occasionally, they burst free into a squall of ungoverned white noise. But Anna never breaks her stride, carefully pacing her distant, disconnected utterances. After a brief respite, there is a storm of irrepressible, beautifully discordant guitar noise with at least three distinct melodies vying for dominance at the track's conclusion. These few moments of blissfully tinnitus-inducing racket make me want very badly to see North American War play live as soon as possible.

Meanwhile "Geraniums On A Spit" is a different proposition, opening with a delicate and almost pretty guitar melody and just slightly ominous sounding backing vocals. The vocal drifts between German and English while the bass and drums drive things forward with a little more form and pace this time. The guitars shift between their melodic, slightly off-centre drift and a satisfyingly gruff, edgy note which maintains the tension. It's never as simple as loud/quiet/loud here, with the track collapsing and reforming several times while the vocals are wound up towards the concluding - and oddly sinister refrain of "if you don't come now/I'll never get out of bed again". There are points here where they drift into that dark, uncharted territory inhabited by The Dead C and their New Zealand brethren - where the squalls of noise fuel the imagination into hearing things which aren't really there. It's unsettling, enervating and dangerously addictive stuff. While it's easy, as I hinted, to parcel off North American War in terms of bands who have done similar things historically, in pieces like this they display an acute understanding of songcraft and dynamics which is often absent in some of the more waywardly experimental guitar music out there.

It's a huge relief when a band gets me as excited about music as North American War have managed to over the course of their debut EP and this single. I started this blog to record and relate music I loved, and whilst it might seem because of that policy that there is never a shortage of things for me to get fired up about, it does sometimes spook me that not nearly enough of it is genuinely new and coming up from the grass roots. This record, and the band which made it restores enough of that faith to make me want to keep listening. I get the sense here that this is the start of a very interesting journey for North American War.

North American War - Ivory And

North American War's "Ivory And"/"Geraniums On A Spit" 7" is released today. You can purchase it in a limited, hand-painted sleeve including a digital download from Bandcamp. The debut EP is available as a free download from Winning Sperm Party, or as a cassette featuring additional tracks here on Bandcamp. They can be seen at Doune The Rabbit Hole on August 24th-26th.



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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