Stars Of Cinema
Indie-pop is MASSIVE now, isn't it ? With London Popfest and Indietracks, the UK scene even now has its own Aldeburgh and Glyndebourne. But it wasn't always like this.
Back in day, you had to hunt hard for labels that were true to the game. The amazing Matinée Recordings was one, and the extracts below are some (OK then, thirty) glimpses of our delight on uncovering various Matinée releases, bands and gigs in the early 2000s. Scarily this is by no means complete, but is all we've found so far whilst rummaging around...
Part one: singles
HARPER LEE: Dry Land
Single of the year, this or any other year. [It was 2000!]
Keris is still keeping a tight rein on the mournful picked-out guitar tones, trim 4/4 basslines and lyrics that lurch from sadness to anger and back again whilst the melodies rain down in traditional Brighter style. Musical support now comes from Laura Bridge of Kicker (and ex-Hood/Boyracer apparently) although for the avoidance of doubt "Dry Land" showcases none of Kicker's bushy-tailed bright-eyed joie de vivre nor the more shambolic beauty of Hood's erstwhile lo-fi ramblings.
Brighter are back, with swearing. Memo to all other bands: give up now.
SPORTIQUE: Don't Believe A Word I Say
Lighter and scrummier than most of their debut album last year, "Don't Believe" has Gregory yelping like a man possessed (by his younger self) while Amelia Fletcher lends backing vocals and guitars and keyboards gambol playfully in the fields of indiedom. The sort of record that 7" singles were designed for - one that seems over all too soon and you can just flick the stylus back for another go straightaway.
harper lee - bug
in case the superlative police are in town, i have to be very careful with this review. it's just knowing there are people out there who make such perfect music - for listening to on your headphones as you walk over the bridge at night and the mist descends and you look down the railway line and london seems near perfect - and so it's such a privilege to be able to listen to this unassumingly-packaged 7", which only makes its way to england on import, despite being recorded in brighton.
"bug" is a minimal meander, wreathed in warm, plucked guitar tones and pivoting on a single brighteresque chord change. the lyrics are desolate and wonderful as he ponders the trapped-relationship protagonist - "you've walked away so many times in your mind" - hence it is everything an "a" side shouldn't be according to the sort of people who run the record industry.
"you kill me" picks up the tempo ever-so-slightly by virtue of the trusty drum machine, but the lyrical mood is very similar: "don't bear me", keris pleads - and the handkerchiefs are out by the time he sings "this was never going to work out", the continuing autumnal swirl of faint keyboards and semi-acoustic guitars punctuated by a simple and brittle melody line.
two songs of impossible beauty.
the windmills - drug autumn ep
the latest offering from the unlikely jangle-pop breeding ground of yes, southend, this kicks off with "everything is new each day", a faithful stab at the 'perfect pop song' which falls down on that front by being a little too cloying and a little too clinical. they've selected all the usual items from the "perfect pop song" drop-down menu - "la la la's", lyrical wide eyed wonderment and a soft landing after two minutes; the end result is very palatable but strangely unsatisfying. a neat little tiramisu of a song, then.
"drug autumn" itself swells into four and a half minutes of reminiscence - even though singing about drugs is usually even more boring than talking about drugs, the tone is nicely unspecific and self-conscious. "are we still where we were ? " chimes sweetly to no particular effect, so it falls on closer "want" to provide my favourite slice of the ep: apparently from the last album, it jangles and oozes a warm, laconic charm, much more in the mould of singer roy thirlwall's melodie group project.
the would-be goods "emannuelle béart"
it is probably time to confess that for 12 yrs we have laboured under the perhaps understandable impression that the would-be's and the would-be-goods were the same band, compounded rather by having heard nothing from either group apart from (back in about '89) the former's "i'm hardly ever wrong", a promo 7" of which i remember knocking about in the 'offices' of the fanzine i was attempting to help my mate out with at the time. as great rock misapprehensions go, it is up there with the time i rather optimistically went to the camden monarch to see a band called "cub" in the vain hope that they were the pop-plus canadian power trio, only to find that they were an appalling bunch of more local chancers (indeed, the camden monarch has been an oft-unlucky venue for the in love with these times in spite of these times mafia - remember when we arrived for a monograph gig only to find a sign pinned up saying "gig cancelled... monograph can be found in the lock tavern" ?) it is also up to the sadness i felt in having to explain to our mate si that the band called "witness" who he had spotted in the gig listings were some way off - in every respect - being the near perfect a witness... and, come to think of it, the fact that the utterly ephemeral hal and blueboy who had chart hits with iffy dance records were not the hal and blueboy who ought to have had chart hits with totally precious, intelligent independent pop songs.
anyway. in fact the would-be-goods, aka jessica griffin and - we speculate - various like-minded cappuccino-bar haunting cohorts, had been on the el label most of the intervening time; a label that we have never really been able to get into because of its overweaning foppishness, despite our laboured mike alway appropriation on the "about" page. in fact, my favourite record ever on that label was james dean driving experience's indietastic "sean connery" 12", which i gather from this book (er, p. 296) was regarded by alway et al at the time as a fairly vulgar and downmarket affair compared to the swooning jazziness of el's own "pet" bands. anyway, on the assumption that you might even want some kind of comment on the record, "emmanuelle béart" and "words" are catchy, driven pop numbers, with griffin's cultured vocal lending proceedings a bourgeois, ski-chalet air. we weren't so taken with the other tracks, which shun the drums and bass for a tangle of acoustic whimsy, but that's often the way when the lead track on a single is so bloody addictive... it casts a shadow over the succeeding numbers. but with an album on the way soon, we'll be able to analyse the would-be-goods (especially now the penny has dropped!) more closely in future.
remember fun "train journeys"
continuing our tradition of reviewing things many years after they came out. this was always going to be (once we ambled upon it) an essential purchase, remembering as we did the slick strum of "hey hey hate", so long ago we hardly dare to remember. in the interregnum, they have lost the punctuation mark (i'm sure they used to be called remember fun?) but all else remains thankfully intact.
"train journeys" is, i think, the killer track, attacking from the start. perhaps unsurprisingly, it reminds me of the awe i felt when i first uncovered new groups on demos and flexis back in the (c.1987) day - or when harvesting the wheat that was hidden away on every compilation tape amongst all the chaff. it's more conventionally jangly than "hey hey hate", recalling early hellfire sermons, and yes, the church grims (who were always the june brides doing the close lobsters) but without the brass. like second song "doze off them", which is musically slightly more pedestrian, it seeks to rail (sorry) against the monotony of daily commuterdom, but without sacrificing any of the de rigeur capricious wit ("time on my hands, i'll dig myself a moat") in describing the singer's attempts to escape "this routine life".
after "three chers" (sic), a morrissey-style paean of hate (i'm guessing to the ever-deserving target of mrs. t) the closing "car" also doesn't do badly - again, revelling in the jangle of the smiths but with a more sardonic vocal and (i trust) the tongue-in-cheek exhortation "convenience is my number one concern... it's better killing the earth than killing myself": again, the mix of black humour in the lyrics helps raise the song above many of the po-faced indie bands of yore.
sadly, it appears that remember fun(?) are indeed no more - this sparkling cd-s being a one-off exhumation of the kind of talent that once seemed two-a-penny, and in doing so serving to remind us of the state we're in now.
singles round-up: lovejoy "plays biff bang pow!": melodie group "summerness": slipslide "sleeptalk": pipas "troublesome"
Reporter: "but i don't FEEL what you guys are doing"
Ice-T: "ok dude. feel this"... [gunshot]
unflappable and perverse romantics that we are, we savour not just the crackle of the needle on plastic but also every warp, scratch or whimsical stylus - it's all part of the listening experience. good music is tactile and textured - and why shouldn't that apply to the medium as well as the message ?
lovejoy!'s "play biff bang pow!" does what it says on the tin and blueboys-up those hardy alan mcgee perennials "hug me honey" and "the beat hotel", oddly two of the lesser tracks from two of the better bbp! lps: it's a tender tribute, but hardly groundbreaking. better is the latest offering from windmills splinter, the melodie group, which proudly parades the songwriting skillz of roy thirlwall - "summerness" is a nervous petal of a tune, which wraps itself invitingly around a single drum machine pattern. completing this particular matinée triumvirate, slipslide chart vaguely darker waters with the studied cool of "sleeptalk"..
but the winners of this particular singles round-up are... pipas! "a short form about sleeping" is a... modern sound, which manages to be both subtle and bloody brilliant - a bit like michel platini circa 1982 - maybe it's how dubstar would play if they'd been forced to rough it with sarah-types before being rescued by matinée (which does, incidentally, rather appear to be where all the top tunes are coming from this year). and "troublesome", while not quite living up to its title, is certainly endearingly pesky.
the guild league "jet-set... go!": the liberty ship "i guess you didn't see her"
the guild league are a bold and beautiful aggregation of talents led by the lucksmiths' tali white. "jet-set... go!" just does enough to distinguish itself from the sunny strum of his other band, and is all the better for it; a kooky travelogue, or a polo-playing contemporary of beaumont's recent recorded endeavours, perhaps, that combines a slightly off-kilter bass with a great jangling guitar. if it's true there are only 1,000 copies, then it's worth hurrying back from yorkshire, andalucia, londres or any other of the jet-set locations mentioned within these super-suave grooves to secure your copy.
the liberty ship's much anticipated début on the same label, meanwhile, is a natural and endearing pop folk song - daring to travel at medium pace so as not to sacrifice the melody. we've now established that the liberty ship suit both the bleak chill of january and the heady flavour of summer - rich and laid-back, this is pop for all seasons. and armed with the knowledge that marc elston has been recently extolling the virtues of gems like the rain parade, east village and the railway children, it all seems tremendously natural. (postscript, for 'frozen tundra' lyric fans - we acknowledge that our original review of "i guess..." was factually inaccurate, as slumber's "wasteland" should of course have been joined by ice cube's "pushin' weight" in the list of top-qual songs featuring said metaphor. we apologise to ya for any inconvenience caused.)
the windmills "walking around the world" ep
imagine it - an early promenade in south east england, the mists seamlessly rising over the sludge of the shoeburyness shoreline, the first trace of a timid sun on the horizon. md player at the ready, you press "play" in search of the perfect soundtrack, and as your muddy trainers strike out on the pavement, roy thirlwall begins to croon into your ears - "i walk a line / of my own design"...
"walking around the world" is the title, and closing track on the new ep from the southenders, and it's ample demonstration, as if more were required, that progression need not be dramatic, or sudden, or seismic: instead, like the great evolvers hood, it's the refinement of the traits and talents that a band have already hinted at, a constant reassessment of musical goals. after those opening lines, a statement of independence, the song unfolds precisely, with taut guitars and drums at the culmination of each verse skilfully counterpointing the eloquent, minimalist lyrics - as songs from their second album "sunlight" showed, it's all in the delivery, and mr. thirlwall has craft and panache enough to get away with knowing lines like "all the roads seem to lead to me... what a funny place to be". by the end, the guitar sound is the sort of timeless, imperial spiral that ties you in little knots, and yes, there is something of the house of love's first album in the clarity and intensity wrung from such simple words and song structures while rob clarke's brisk drumming pilots the music through the wash. the proof that these manifold ingredients gel is that despite being five minutes long, it all seems over too quickly...
of course, the first song of the three, "what was it for ?" ain't half bad either - east village with a spring in their step - and it's already been scientifically proven that you can hardly go wrong with any lyric of "i tried a thousand times..." the ep is completed by "amelia", a rare composition of bassist dan pankhurst that treads its way via two recurring notes towards some of pop's more leafy glades, in the tradition of those percussively-weighted weather prophets ballads like "sleep" and "frankie lymon".
but as the sun finally peeps up beyond the breakwaters and we spin the cd again, just enough time to tell you that the package is also accompanied by a video cut of "what was it for ?", which along with the more fire crew and mark b and blade edits, is a favourite spot of office viewing on the PC right now. god bless technology.
harper lee "train not stopping"
the press release from matinee was disturbing: "introducing a new soulful influence" it said. no need to fear, though - that was a blatant lie and we are still talking brighter rather than berry gordy. keris howard's genius is a consistent, stable comfort and it is exhibited to usual stunning effect on the title track, which interpolates a winningly hummable chorus into another delicious vehicle of melancholy and regret. "this is the last song, because I'm bored of being ignored", sighs keris, as the failure of the world outside to recognise the class of this kind of tune moves into its second decade. underpinned by a brisk strumming pattern, then decorated with precise picked-out guitars, "train not stopping" moves harper lee further ahead of the chasing pack. and in such an effortless way.
"i could be there for you" is nearly as good: there are unconscious hints, i think, of the smiths in some of the phrasing, aswell as conscious ones, probably, of the sentiment of the field mice's "if you need someone", which keris did after all play bass on at the spitz last month. the final track, "the sea gently lifting", has a very hood-like title, but despite being the most atmospheric of the bunch, it lacks the irresistibility of the other songs. still, it seems so simple right now. i could happily do nothing but listen to these songs til christmas, and harper lee are still in charge.
Part two: albums (and minis)
MELODIE GROUP: Seven Songs
So, by comparison [to Napalm Death, one suspects], this is an epic album - a good twenty minutes long - but an unexpected and delicious treat as the bloke out of the Windmills decamps to a Clapham studio and regales us with six (sic) indie/pop nuggets delivered in dulcet, low and oh-so-wry tones. This is, I can't help thinking, the sort of quality that Shinkansen should be coming up with rather more regularly than "occasionally", but I'd better not put that in writing. Ook.
LOVEJOY: Songs In The Key Of Lovejoy
Once there was a band called Blueboy. They were destined, surely, to be stars. In the event they settled for having punctured the mediocrity of the 90s with some fantastic singles and albums - as they immodestly sang themselves, they were "positive, political and too good to be true" - before signing off with the unimpeachable "Bank Of England" album a couple of years back.
Blueboy's main men have come up this year with a concept album on the Spanish Siesta label: an acoustic indie/jazz aberration about the campus jet set mixing with viscounts and dilettantes at society fetes. This being (almost) Blueboy, there are amidst all this some tender and wonderful songs; my favourite is closer "Cross-Country", delicate and glistening until it slowly fades away. But really, it seems a little bit of a waste.
Hang on though - Keith and Paul are also involved with Lovejoy, labelmates to such supernovae as Sportique and Harper Lee. And Lovejoy's album is much more in the Blueboy template, although the vocals from Dick Preece - which recall the half-punky, half-wimpy mould of Dan Treacy - work best on "Thank Your Lucky Stars" and "Butter Wouldn't Melt", where the guitars are turned up and the immaculate pop sensibilities are allowed to subside briefly. Mind you, in the crystal sheen of "Live Alone Forever" and the majestic "Radio" Lovejoy have two soundscapes that would have graced any Blueboy album.
ego "la main devant la bouche"
this is rather wonderful. ego, so you know, are from montpellier, france (as opposed to montpelier, bristol). the history of french smiths-type pop is not littered with famous names, and i would only pick out chelsea (the mid-90s indiesters rather than the comedy blokes who gave us "right to work") before this. but ego have the craft.
throughout, the playing and production are polished without being merely a sheen - and where the volume goes up, or the rhythm changes, or the strings gently intrude, it is to enhance the song, rather than pointless illumination. "drew barrymore" is a cute number which epitomises europop indie-style with its pace, guitars and dark lyrics; and "under a tree" is one of those songs that you don't want to finish, finding the perfect formula where the wedding present meet sarah records. i could have done with a couple more songs sung in french to counter the nagging worry that when they sing in english they're somehow having to labour the words, or fear phrases lost in the translation. those songs in francais work really well, including jaunty opener "oriane", which is propelled by an accordionish two-note keyboard, and two excellent songs to finish, too.
harper lee "go back to bed"
"brighter are back, with swearing. Memo to all other bands - give up now" - tryhappiness, last year.
that still applies. after crawling around london for some weeks we have finally managed to get our hands on the holy grail - the debut album by keris and laura, in its graffiti sleeve headed with the words "urban guerrilla tactic". who do they think they are ? comet gain ?
no, becomes evident from the opening moments of the effortlessly perfect "seem so right", which after a few seconds of teasing breaks out into the trademark brighter guitar picking we so know and love, two and a half minutes on a single four-bar axis. fey pop in a sparkling new order-stlyee, and, like the violin-driven "doing nothing" which follows it, over far too quickly. while "deep dark ocean" (a happy marriage of two brighter songs' guitarlines, namely "christmas" and "around the world in 80 days"), is straight outta the old-skool keris howard textbook.
the singles "dry land" and "bug" are both here too: prime slices of self-sorrow and (of course) amongst the highlights. the studied pop of "only connect", which at one time i seem to remember was destined to be the title track, is the obvious (so far) missed single opportunity, with its repeated, optimistic-sounding guitar motif over a strumming pattern reminiscent of the likes of the post-"laurel" era cuts "poppy day" and "hope springs eternal". glorious.
the other tunes i would isolate are the fantastic, bitter "brooklyn bridge" - this time resplendent in a guitar line less than a million miles from the mary chain's "darklands" - and "your life", which consists of a single repeated four bar musical phrase, overlaid by prominent bass and tranches of guitar. in these moments "go back to bed" more closely echoes the final brighter EP and their subsequent Hal incarnation; elsewhere, the plucked chords and keyboard bells are closer in tone to some of the stuff on sarah. lyrically, there are (apart from the swearing) few progressions from days of yore... although the dual meanings in songs (political / emotional, sexual / political) continue the fantastic tradition of sweetly poisonous polemics "tinsel heart", "hope springs" and "election day".
the closing song is "low", which surrounds keris' voice with the drum rhythm off the mary chain's "just like honey" and, more disturbingly, a very cheap, overpowering synth line which recalls the cure, "pornography" era, or perhaps new order's fledgling "movement". enough guitars come in at the end to rescue affairs, but it's a close run thing. i'm also not too sure about "clifton street passage" which sounds a bit like it should be a cover of an american grunge-folk song, except for the fact it has brighter guitar on it.
really, there's not too much more i can say save that this record is everything you would expect, and in this context that is the atlantic away from being a criticism. keris is older and a little unhappier, but the songs are still a perfect escape from the blur of the city and a perfect tonic for those cosy romantic evenings, one on one with your sound system. there is an "eighties" subtext throughout - those of us who have seen brighter's live take on depeche mode's "i just can't get enough" will understand this - but this album is a long way from the kitsch post-80s stylings of left-field luminaries like figurine, laptop, barcelona or my favorite. this is one of the few remotely recent albums that might just find its way into my all time list, only challenged in the last decade by the more coherent wholes of "her handwriting" and perhaps east river pipe's "mel".
so. no hype, no remixes, no capital letters. but if you can find it, please buy it.
sportique "modern museums"
"it's been a long time" - eric b and rakim
it's been bloody ages, in fact. but the so-long trailed second sportique album has finally arrived.
after saturn v, authors of the sadly underrated "skycycle" album, had seemingly imploded, sportique emerged from the relative slumber of gregory webster's solo album with popsongs so endearing and beautiful that "early razorcuts" was really the only soubriquet you could throw at them. and so we loved and enjoyed epoch-defining, timeless songs like "the kids are solid gold" and the glistening "don't believe a word i say".
but now, gregory and his bands' choice of headgear having gone all the way from bowl haircuts in razorcuts days to bowler hats today (strangely via the early 90s baseball caps of saturn v), sportique have carried on developing. and we know - because we can hear them chattering away now in oh-so trendy north londinium - there will be murmurs of discontent from disaffected indie snobs as to the fact that on the evidence of "modern museums", sportique are rocking a bit, shouting a lot, they even sound like they're enjoying it, and how dare they do an album that's only 24 minutes long, and has no ballads on it ? it's not worth dignifying them with an answer.
the tate-tastic title track "modern museums" combines (warning: here comes the obligatory mention in a sportique review of the w-word) a very, yes, wire-like one-chord rumble with the driving guitars of magazine... and then the bass which kicks off and then propels second song "cerebral vortex" is so insistent it reminds me of the buzzcocks' sparkling peel session take of "fast cars", before the song prangs itself into a passing organ sound that could have been played by john rivers back at wsrs leamington spa in the late 80s... yes that good.
"let's try some cultural respite" - art & shopping
and cultural references abound throughout. much has been said about gregory's ability to wring inspiration from every decade in which he has lived, but it's all true - "i want to be totally wired" he tells us (remember the fall-esque "sport for all" ?) on the utterly flawless live favourite "definition seventy-nine" in which he so-rightly laments "it's just like '74 again... were we wasting our time ?" (before a guitar break which so-cheekily recalls magazine's "shot by both sides"), while the spirit of '76 / '77 is further invoked by the first bars of "the dying fly" (more top wire-lite) that faithfully reconstruct the opening rumble to the sex pistols' greatest recorded moment. we've said before that the chrysalis of punk is part of the whole raison d'etre of this site, and you can't tell me that the razorcuts at their "sad kaleidoscope" best - the enthusiasm, the shamble, the infectiousness - weren't somehow rooted in punk... you can't, it would break my heart.... meanwhile, tuneless yelling hasn't really been in vogue since the days of the shrubs, but in the marvellous "how many times ?" it works perfectly over the staccato guitars, until the whole song lifts off into a blinding last 30. and on the title track, gregory screams "I AM A REAL ARTIST!" before the song really snowballs into an echo chamber of guitars while he hollers the cruel rejoinder "IN YOUR HEAD!"... and all in estuary english, although i could swear that last time i looked his native luton was not quite on the thames-side...
as you'll have guessed, despite the acquisition of amelia fletcher as fourth member - though it appears from the inner sleeve that she is at least excused from having to sport the aforesaid bowler hats - there are no real concessions to the patented marine research brand of hook-laden "pure" pop: indeed, not even any obvious evidence of her backing vocals that helped cement the fabulousness of "don't believe a word" (and, of course "anyone can make a mistake", but that's giving my age away)... although there is a faintly-discernible, disembodied voice on "icestorm" that may be her, or it may just be the voice of a passing angel... instead, amelia (we imagine at least from the last gig we saw) is supplying the keyboard lines. and there's a real a hint of the stranglers where the keyboard "gets a grip" (sorry) - on the brilliant "suture". on other tracks, the effect of the keyboards varies from jaunty ("obsessive") to spooky early-80s ("how many times...") through to earnest (that'll be "cerebral vortex"). fans of sportique's "early stuff" will have their cockles most cheered, we suspect, by the shamblier "art & shopping" and "icestorm", which both would have fitted snugly onto "black is a very popular colour". while it is the playfully acerbic lyrics, rather than the music, to the "the dying fly" (the fact that wire's "i am the fly" is irresistibly brought to mind can be no coincidence) that imbue it with "new" sportique's punky irreverence. the last track is the re-working of "obsessive", which i think last surfaced on the flip to the amazing "love & remains": its pace and power (think emile heskey) bringing the album to a suitably positive conclusion.
it's obvious from many of the lyrics that these 9 cuts continue to indulge gregory's own obsession - with art (in the tradition of the "appropriations" on their record sleeves). the songs pinprick the pomposity of the contemporary auteur ("if i was an artist, i'd collaborate in group shows / i'd eschew creating the object") or indeed the modern (riverbank) museum - "stick in the [B]ourgeois: fill that space"): in essence, "modern museums" is, ultimately, a concept album about art. but, believe us, it's much more challenging and enjoyable than that might sound. did u know that more people go to art galleries and museums every week than football matches ? god, you'd hardly guess it from the tabloids.
anyway. south londoners we may be. we don't know much about art, but we know what we like. record of the month.
the windmills "sunlight"
the windmills are from southend. that might not mean that much to you (as the groove farm once sang) but trust me (as the flatmates sang), as a kid i used to go and visit the relatives there all the time, freeze on the pier (when it was the world's longest and all that), paddle in the sludge, dodge jellyfish on the beach, and when i got a bit older we'd drive out there and fail to get into any pubs (in retrospect, probably just as well as we would have got pulped). and when i'm 60 i'm going to retire there, with my beer on the sideboard, knocking out chas n' dave classics on the old joanna. fact.
"you're secret, first of all, and secondly, you're beautiful" - unkiss
southend is therefore one of the last places - much as i love it - that you expect witty, wry, cultured indie-pop songs to be born. so three cheers for the windmills then. "sunlight" is an album of intelligent, breathy half-jangle which in any tolerable universe would be gleefully outstaying its welcome in the top 5 album charts. in our own, however, it just shrugs knowingly and gets on with the job, a bit like the ice cream vans that have to traipse up and down the front at southend for the 10 months of the year that it's winter in essex. it's a shame that half the songs are not new; versions of the respectful east village tribute "when it was winter", the previous single "drug autumn" (and its flip "pounds, shillings and pence") we have all heard before - while the decidedly great "unkiss" featured on "the wedding cd" compilation (and "untouch" is merely, grrr, a "reprise" of the same song - an abominable tactic, sirs). this does however enable us to turn our attention to some of the unheard numbers, as they are undoubtedly wonderful (nearly as much so as southend united and that legendary "roots hall roar". ahem).
"boxing glove" is a remarkable hymn, subverting the traditional pop twang a la the field mice's "coach station reunion" and pivoting on a lovely change of pace when old drummer rob clarke, assisted by some fieldmicey bass, just ups the tempo into each verse. its lyrics follow an ill-disguised theme on this album of submitting to a female protagonist's (i hope) metaphorical punches. "cloud five" on the other hand, is lighter and airier, an unprepossessing 2 1/2 minutes of trad-indie cirrocumulus. while the fabulous "taxi fare" kicks off with a perfect, tremulous guitar line before roy thirlwall's deep soothing tones are belatedly coaxed out to marshal things - in such mellifluous company, even the harmonica that seeps in towards the end is forgivable. "be groovy or leave" (how many times have we heard that sentiment....) is also a fine song, again relying on subtlety and understatement to just hit home that bit harder: it also acts as the perfect showcase for the guy's resigned, sardonic intonation as he repeats the title in amongst the closing bars. the other previously unheard number is "she's so hard", a mildly sugary concoction the chorus to which ("[her] bare fists punching") unfortunately grates rather. and for those of you (to be fair, the entire population of the world, minus a pressing of 1,000) who hadn't heard it before, "unkiss" is another song that envelops you in its warmth, with the drums and bass combining in the chorus in a way reminiscent of the brilliant corners' "anticipation". as such, it does make a great lead track.
peace out to the windmills, then: evidence that southend is more than just the place at the end of billy bragg's "A13". they'll succeed without our patronage, but at least we can say we were there.
the would-be goods "brief lives"
after the digression masquerading as a review that we supplied last month, it seems only fair to concentrate on the music this time round. we will allow ourselves merely the observation that all the analogies you will hear to parisian cafes when describing the would-be-goods' appealing european whimsy seem to us be flawed - in our happily not-unextensive experieence of parisienne cafe society, the key ingredients are omelettes, café americain, bière blanche and virtua striker machines - none of which truly exude the elegance of jessica griffin's writing.
despite what you have heard, the musical journey, if any, is often back in time, rather than across la manche - being transported to different epochs by the ageless delicacy of the near-acoustic. so while, admittedly, tunes like "butterfly kiss" would perfectly soundtrack a stroll across the seine to la rive gauche, songs like "esperanza" - musically, at least - or "whitsun bride", with its plucked mandolin, could equally have been b-sides to henry viii's alleged debut single "greensleeves". the arrangements and the chord progressions through this album are often so simple, strums softly beating like the wings of angels, that many a familiar song from history's more recent popular canon is also brought to mind. so "bad lord byron" (another period effortlessly recalled) disturbingly apes "magical mystery tour", while "a season in hell" reminds us, at least, of a regency-era "she's not there"...
though there's nothing maybe quite as instant as "emmanuelle béart" or even the delightful "sugar mummy", the guitars do get turned up on numbers like "vivre sa vie" and "dilettante", while the six strings deployed with more restraint on "fancy man" etch melodies tellement sympa in the honeyed style of those chilled shop assistants songs like "somewhere in china". (yes, the sleigh-bells help). "elegant rascal" is a brattishly decanted spoken word punk prayer set in the eternal ugliness of the elephant and castle - one of many songs set in and depicting our home city - with the coolly-pseudonymed "orson presence" on organ clearly particularly enjoying proceedings. the fine "1999" - a graceful nursery rhyme which sounds like the softies singing a thesaurus - ensures things end with a flourish (remember when that title was so moderne, even futuristic ?) in fact the only downside is that "flashman", seemingly, isn't actually about stan.
we caught the WBGs live in highbury last month and they shook off a nervous start to charm us all rather. coming from someone who, it seems, became a pop star almost by accident, "brief lives", being both romantic with a capital R, and tender to a T, is pretty impressive stuff. the sound of serendipity at work.
simpático "the difference between alone and lonely"
this lush artwork surrounds the first full-length release from now-melburnian former sweet william singer jason sweeney, refining his romantic half-pop vision following on from the strong début "postal museum". simpático conceive careful, studied, post-sarah pop: a mesh of 4/4, throughout which a house-trained drum machine acts as an anchor, the guitars able to sketch a cat's cradle around the lovelorn lyrics. this combination gives the music a strange kind of elasticity, echoing the understated yet immensely moving plainness of late lamented bands like romford's own catapult...
in constructs like "drove it down", "street talk" or "preciously inside" jason sweeney is, indeed, more lonely than merely alone. in the way he sings lines like "trying my best... and i'm trying too hard", or "no-one said you had to be happy", there is much of the longing of the sweetest ache, and the cool welsh mists which surrounded their sarah album "jaguar". jason keeps saying "and i feel fine because i see him", and the more he says it, the less you believe him - this is the hallmark of affecting music. in "school life", on the other hand, though we are aware mr. sweeney wouldn't relish the comparison, there is something of the smiths in there.... admittedly we see something of the smiths in every thing of beauty, from the clouds to the stars, but the recanting of playground cruelty in "school life" and its "drive me anywhere" outro - "don't stop the car" are so s.p.m. (the cascading chord cadences as jason sings "sometimes children can be so cruel" are even a bit johnny m.) indeed, there are many references to driving on this rich, sensuous album: like east river pipe, with their endless tales of lonely motoring, simpático have the luxury of coming from a nation of wide open spaces and endless vistas - not like our own "stinking little country"...
getting back to the music, another pinnacle for us is the quite brilliant "urgency", which joins a very strong field mice / wake influence with segments of spoken word that again bring to mind the narrations of early sweetest ache songs like "climbing". the song brutally depicts the sexual exigencies of a relationship and how love can hurt so much. perhaps because of this authenticity, when listened to on the inter-city the other week, the wiltshire fields flashing by, this and subsequent track "his goodbye echoes" (let's just say it resembles something trembling and blue, albeit decorated with lyrical go-betweenisms like "a letter only half-completed, i never signed my name") made for such formidable listening - maybe, as the train hurtled westwards and dissected the cotswold countryside, at last we were getting a flavour of the effect of distance, and those journeys long enough to give you time to think, to reflect... to worry.
over the twelve songs constituting "the difference between..." jason certainly does all of these things, and in virtually every song, his partner in crime is the dr. rhythm, faithfully chronicling every outpouring of his soul (when in "carrying photographs", the drum machine is removed, suddenly all is as quiet and static as a sleepy sunday afternoon in a sunny surrey suburb). indeed, even aside from the percussion, simpático trademarks start to emerge across the album: the echoey guitars throw aberdeen and blueboy into the "influences" mix, whilst jason has a distinctive way of drawing out his vowel sounds - usually upping the angst and adding to the er, urgency (it helps songs like the more triffids-inspired opener "let him go" carry that little more punch): though on "spin", helped by the boy/boy spiral of words like "he'd still sit around, and i'd still spin around", his vocals evince a real brighter vibe.
by the time last track "cold season" has dissipated into the evening sky with its slow fade, you are in no doubt. we believe the phrase is "all killer, no filler". and if you're still not sure whether to invest in this album, please buy the excellent ep. because we guarantee that if that shakes your tree, this will reverberate yr whole forest.
the lucksmiths "where were we ?"
"where were we ?" is a compilation of "non-album" lucksmiths moments from the past year or two - there have been a few. for the uninitiated (like us, we're ashamed to say) the 'smiths are a melbourne trio who adhere to the australian tradition of melding impeccable musicianship with arch lyricism, cramming songs full of one-liners yet still somehow maintaining an affecting outlook over the three minute heroics in which they specialise.
we can but dwell on our own favourites - "the cassingle revival", a killer a-side on the bristling fortuna pop!: "can't believe my eyes" - a spanking pop journey powered by the briskest of strums: and of course "even stevens", the ladybug transistor collaboration, from the superb east timor benefit cd put together by library and drive-in. but the top tunes don't end there: both sides of that super matinée 7" "t-shirt weather" are here, as well as the kooky "i prefer the twentieth century", the first tune to really encapsulate new-aeon ennui. and in the same way that we've never heard a bad song on which mark e. smith provides vocals, we've never heard a bad song on which vocals were provided down a phone line (admittedly, we've only heard two: daniel johnston and yo la tengo, and now "mars", a beautiful song to close in which tali white's voice just sounds perfect).
this summary is cursory merely because most of u will already be aware of the artistry of this band, and preaching to the converted has always seemed a relative waste of energy in these environmentally conscious times. for us, the lucksmiths could yet claim the sugargliders' crown: we know that some of you think they have already, but hey! let's not argue, especially as we were introduced so recently...
harper lee "everything's going to be ok"
the only time you ever doubt harper lee, even subconsciously, is when the disc starts to turn for the first time; the musty air heavy with expectation and the sudden panic - what if the drug doesn't work this time ? what if the effects have worn off and you are left clutching at past memories of their melancholy excellence ? "everything's going to be ok" starts with a drum machine-only intro. the suspense therefore lingers for all of... ooh, 20 seconds. "miserable town" then ushers us into an un-named municipality, painting a scene of darkness and precipitation, laced in the cold that edges through a town's streets and glazes the bus shelters, lets lamplight throw shadows over its roads, frames silhouettes in its windows and whispers sweet rainsoaked nothings through the elements. when the first sparkling chorus arrives, its sadness offset by absurdly joyful sounding keyboard layers which really rub the sentiments in, you know everything really is going to be ok.
"thought that maybe things will work out fine ... given time"
we are not going to lie and say that this album is spectacularly innovative. one of our ilwtt mottos, as we've said before, "is if you can't be good, be different"; but equally dear to us is its corollary, "if you can be good, don't ever change". so much of the record seems familiar - not just gentle reminders of past harper lee or even brighter guitar lines, but melodies lifted wholesale from "power corruption and lies" or unintended echoes of moments of greatness like "darklands" or "disintegration". this record is an organic development in terms of the shape of laura and keris' overall sound: although "go back to bed" shone with some wonderful and deserving, heartrending songs, not least its gorgeous singles, with the sophomore album it's harder to see any breach to the pattern.
elsewhere on side one (yeah, we know, but in our world, ok ?) "unreciprocated" skilfully updates brighter's "never ever" into the new century, detailing the sting of indifference through the hypnosis of keris' maudlin vocalising, aided and abetted by a beautiful keyboard trumpet part. hot on its heels, the next song that dutifully arrives (perhaps the early evening special from miserable town central, though that's speculation) is the taster single "train not stopping", one of the three best songs ever released on matinée recordings (that's not to rank it third, it's just that trying to play it off against "walking around the world" and "modern museums" is such a récipe for bloodletting.) and then there's the majestic centrepiece "the thought of you and him", in which all hell breaks loose - not musically, of course, but emotionally. the whole song is built on an undertow that sounds like xmal deutschland trading melodies with long weekend, but keris' "little boy lost" vocal, and the echo on his voice, perfectly frame the longing and uncertainty betrayed by the barbs of lyrics like "the thought of what is best for you / i think i was capable of it / of liking him". but as with so much of the cd, it's really made by those baby guitar lines that run over the top of everything, recalling great bands like ooh... early brighter, and late brighter, and hal, and mid-period brighter... it's like being a chocaholic locked in a cadbury's factory.
the fifth of the nine tracks, "a forest alone", with its quiet mood, is almost an interlude between two halves of the album - its title, prominent keyboards and sparse percussion reminding us tentatively, (not least given keris' own recent pronouncements about the greatness of joy division) of jd's "atmosphere" and its bleak, brilliant sleeve. and then, to our delight, it's back to the train references, with "city station"'s trim guitar motifs, which apart from troubling new order's lawyers, will be messing with your head in splendid ways all day, before "fine bones" picks up the theme of "unreciprocated" and "you and him", again hovering thematically around a passion unrequited, unambiguous in its depiction of human jealousy. after "i can bear this no longer" turns the feyness to max - taking off when keris' plaintive "i want things back / to when they weren't so complicated" dovetails into another of those snaking little guitar curves sweeping blissfully skyward, it all ends with "this better life", which effortlessly melds a vortex of keyboard swoons with guitars that sound close to brighter's sublime "disney" ep and as such rounds things off perfectly - ending the album, like trembling blue stars' "little gunshots", with unexpected abruptness, almost in mid-vocal: cut dead.
so though the title might suggest the optimism absent from harper lee's past outings, you'll have sussed that this is actually no happyfest. most truly rewarding things aren't, if you think about it. each song is like a slide show of pictures shot from a train window, reproduced in grainy black and white, the passing fields and branches beautifully pixellated. we hate ourselves for even saying that if you like the trembling blue stars and aberdeen albums, you'll love this - "yes it's true", but for us harper lee have something more. we would no more contemplate switching our ultimate allegiance from them to another band than keris would dream of switching his predilection away from brighton & hove albion... we guess harper lee are just our home team.
lovejoy "who wants to be a millionaire ?"
this is lovejoy's follow-up to their "songs in the key of lovejoy". richard preece fronts the south coast band, who also house (ex) members of blueboy / beaumont.
what we seem to have here is a soundtrack to lives that have become lost and confused, an elegy from outside and above. the more or less instrumental title track sets up the theme with its single flatlining refrain "who wants to be a millionaire...". this record seems to scan the yawning miles between birth and death, where all the distance travelled appears nothing compared to the distance yet to go. in "nothing happens here", "weeks roll into years". it is a slow-motion of life as shot from a cannon; its trajectory false, and now fired, doomed; not even brought down by events, but simply as the fulfilment of its given destiny.
"you fell from grace", probably the best song on the album, is the strongest expression of the mood. it watches a struggle, not to stay the course but to change tack, to change back, putting desperate faith in mere props; "a glass of wine", "a sunday magazine". the chorus is lovely, tracing a line of tears on the face of a fading friend. you can ask for little more.
"night on earth" seeks to pull pathos from the painful gulf between human potential and human reality, much as blueboy's "meet johnny rave" did before it, but this time with a soft sequencer undertow. when the night fades, the dawn reveals "broken glass, lipstick stains on shirts ... camouflage for years of pain and hurt" in the crepuscular half-light. "there must be more to life than this". as we've seen, their label kindred harper lee still express similar sentiments.
what else is there? what could save a body in motion from its destiny, if not another body? "the beat hotel" provides probably the warmest moment of the album; a fuller cover of the biff bang pow! song than premiered on their earlier bbp! tribute single. whilst still far from upbeat, with ally board's vocal high in the mix and in the chorus, it nonetheless contains the implicit subtext of all duets - the shy and slender hope that a problem shared is one that could be dealt with.
"who wants to be a millionaire?" hardly pretends to be a celebration, and the pace often drags. (and as a public service announcement we should clarify that "plastic flowers" is no more a wake cover than the new sugababes album "angels with dirty faces" is a tribute to sham 69...) it is however a coherent record, and not merely a compilation of colliding unreleased tracks. taken for its best, it achieves the grace of sympathy, not undermined but carried by the so-dan treacy vocals (though there appears to be a lawrence-from-felt impression in the spoken word break on "nothing happens here"), and this sympathy is perhaps the key to the album, and arguably differentiates it from the work of others such as the trembling blue stars. indeed, one wonders, who, if anyone, was the muse? perhaps you should listen for yourselves.
Part three: live
live review: sportique / airport girl @ notting hill arts centre, 31 march 2001
word to the dj on a saturday afternoon - he's spinning smudge, pencil tin, girls at our best, and james dean driving experience - if i'd paid any admission fee, it would have been worth it just to have heard j.d.d.e. hang on though, there's some bands on, too.
airport girl, then. several of them on the stage, as far as i can make out from behind one of the NHAC's conspicuous pillars, and they look beatifically young. mumbled acknowledgements between songs, which are pleasantly feral (the tunes, not the mumbled acknowledgements). early in the set, tunes like wiaiwya single "power yr trip" are almost spraydog, as the singer strains above the guitar amplifiers to shout the lyrics through. mid-set, though, they perform an incongruous number called "love runs clean" which sticks out as a beautifully crafted, go-betweensesque song, pitched somewhere in the clouds and certainly some way up from the hurly-burly of indie pop in 2001. its reflective lyrics and mournful delivery give it the ring of a soon-to-be-cherished pop standard. they also end with a pretty fine song, called "the foolishness that we create through love is the closest we come to greatness" (although the title comes pretty close itself) which trundles a long at a happy velocity on that chord sequence which is known as "romeo and juliet" or "next summer" depending on whether your chosen poison is respectively dire straits, or brighter. i've not been too enamoured with airport girl on record to now, but on this evidence i'll at least keep the door open for them.
"you found the on switch, then", remarks gregory webster laconically two songs into sportique's rockin' set, as former marine researchster amelia fletcher manages to spark the previously unemployed keyboard into life. to be fair, the keyboard has little role tonight as sportique are playing hard, fast and guitarry, like saturn 5 facing off against black sabbath, with rob pursey's upfront bass playing shepherding each dynamic newie along. there's little in this set - i presume mostly tasters from the forthcoming second full-length - which suggests a return to the power pop of songs like "if you ever change your mind": even the super syrupy pop whirl of last matinee single "don't believe a word i say", also insensitively unplayed tonight, seems half a world away. only "P58" and a fairly awful version of "anatomy of a fool" pop up from their "black is a popular colour" cd, although the latter is sweetly improved by gregory playing the middle eight guitar line in a razorcutsy type of way, an emotional contrast to the "riffs" and "licks" sprouting up everywhere else in the set. indeed, one song is introduced as "cerebral vortex". enough!
sportique, live at the betsey trotwood, 17 february 2002
it was a good day - didn't even have to use the AK
the indie glitterati help themselves to cookies and cakes as sportique kick off their set with "suture", "definition 79", "modern museums" and "cerebral vortex": four songs from the minimum opus "modern museums" (which this blitzkrieg "intimate" gig is celebrating the launch of) that would make an excellent hardcore ep if matinée ever wanted to go that way. in the surreal setting of london's square mile on a sunday lunchtime in winter, sportique rock the house in a room so small that there is no p.a. and the amps do all the work.
during the snappy, throbbing set, which also includes a high-tensile, gleeful bashing out of "how many times...?" and a sprightly prance through "the dying fly", amelia fletcher (smiles are infectious) has ample opportunity to display her keyboard technique, which consists seemingly of permanently crossed hands, while despite the handicap of no mics, both her and rob shout along to every chorus. the couple of new songs (one intriguingly titled "the edgware kickback" which suggests perhaps a low-rent gangster movie soundtrack ?) seem happily in step with sportique's patented new punk formula. the cosy set ends with both sides of the great "p58" / "tiny clues", both of which also turned up on the first sportique full-length.
we'll leave it there, partly because they did, but also because we didn't learn anything new about sportique today. sportique are not so much on the verge of greatness as having already ploughed a ten-ton truck across that verge; having left their tyremarks on greatness, "modern museums" is heading them full speed towards alt-pop sainthood.
the would-be-goods / the windmills / pipas / lovejoy, notting hill arts centre, 24 august 2002
you may think of this as a subterranean warm-up act to the notting hill carnival (but without the police presence). richard preece kicked off for us with a solo acoustic set to represent brighton's lovejoy (q.v), plucking sorrow from the dark, dark room with interpretations of songs from the new record. pipas followed, lupe and mark playing the cute couple and the cats that got the cream, with the occasional and able assistance of the backing track. no fear, lupe rattling shy and sly lines all the while. as delicacies like "cruel and unusual" amply demonstrate, we do not know enough.
the windmills gave us the sweeping early dawn vista of "walking around the world", a song which is frankly slumming it in the environment of a dark basement and yet not incongruous; sparse, economical drums peppering like the first spattering drops of long-needed rain. that, two of the highlights from "sunlight" ("when it was the winter" and "unkiss"), and above all the wonderful single "360ª", were part of a seamless performance. we could do with more of the windmills. and their double-encore demanding friends.
the would-be-goods followed with an expanded though makeshift four-piece line-up, the nucleus of jessica and pete supported (more than ably we might add) by lupe pipas on bass and debbie on drums. this was the would-be-goods playing their way back into the limelight, swift, smart and poised, and better than when we last saw them as a three piece. if we have just one motto at ilwtt.org (and we have several, as you'll have read already this month, not just "i'll do it tomorrow") it must surely be something along the lines of "hating the obvious" and it's as good to know that this band can play great pop ("vivre sa vie") in their own image and not ours. this is one of those bands that leave you wanting to know much more. WBGs gave us a tour of the "brief lives" album ("vivre", "dilettante"), recent singles ("sugar mummy", "emmanuelle béart"), and "dream lover" from 1993's "mondo" album. liked them before. love them now.
the fades / slipslide, the dublin castle, camden, 27 august 2002
ok. compare and contrast.
the fades are the new strokes, in the same way that iwan roberts is the new john charles. they've got most of the right moves and they shake it right down now for the girls up front. their bass player is one of those that holds his guitar somewhere between diagonal and vertical throughout. and they give themselves a most healthy cardiovascular workout, and us a mild but insistent headache.
slipslide, on the other hand, are the new eva luna / pure / love parade, the latest chapter in graeme elston's expanding volume of indie pop history. the four-piece - two guitars, no keyboards - cranked through not enough songs including tracks from their last coupla matinée singles "unlucky charm" and "sleeptalk", a decidely non-heretic version of bob forster's "rock n' roll friend" and culminating in a newer delicacy, an energetic "x supplies the answer". it will be interesting to see how their promised first album, when it comes, reflects their intended move away to a rawer, more guitar-based sound: at least on the evidence of tonight that seems like the natural progression.
the would-be-goods at the spitz, 29 august 2002
... as for the mighty would-be-goods, we draw a modest veil over their slot only because the equatorial temperature, lackadaisical soundman and me being very nervous about a meeting the next morning slightly overshadowed their set... jessica did not seem to be exuding happiness, and with "emmanuelle béart" also being absent, there was less chance to appreciate the artistry that lights up their "brief lives" lp.
there seem to be quite a few gigs now where there's more chatter than music - fosca upstairs at the garage, hood at the ocean, and the geezer whose banter largely drowned out pipas at RoTa (yep, we did identify him but have decided to hold fire from describing him because he's bound to be in a band or run a label or something or be best mates with someone who does)... we're not sure whether you can blame the venues for the fact that there are lots of people choosing to socialise loudly at trendy gigs. however what you can blame the spitz for is being hotter than a sauna in the sahara and having such a tiny bar - neither on their own would be fatal flaws, but it's the combination of them which is unbearable.
sportique, live at the spitz, east london, 7 september 2002
"don't believe a word i say / 'cos i'll say anything to make you stay"
and just like otis redding or jackie wilson or the lord high morrissey (above) it's the way he sings it...
oh yes oh yes. sportique are on fire tonight in the feebly air-cooled spitz. the rhythm section alone, sir mark flunder on drums and bass god rob pursey, are thrashing away with enough energy to power several generators, while stage left amelia fletcher is as energetic as ever behind the keyboards that power sportique's super-duper new wave melodies. and then there's gregory webster, in cool black shirt and tie, raining chords from his guitar whilst shouting out sportique's irony-laden art-fi manifesto to a more appreciative crowd than usual (apparently the "maidenhead" lot were in). the four of them choose to regale us with a shockingly good set list that encompasses each of those classic A sides from their early days, as well as barnstorming tracks from the current "modern museums" set. how could a set list including "if you ever change your mind", "cerebral vortex", "love & remains", "don't believe a word i say", "modern museums", "P58", "tiny clues" and all-time ilwtt anthem "the kids are solid gold" be anything other than, er, solid gold ?
this time, only a couple of newies trespassed on a rounded ten song set, but as our previous reviews suggest, there is no obvious evidence from the fresh crop of webster compositions that sportique's indie pre-eminence is likely to be threatened in the nearish future. one of the tunes, which inquiringly asked "why are all my best friends other people's girlfriends", was two minutes of prime bristling, bustling melody; the other, apparently to be the next single, at least ensured that the sportique hit parade show came to a tidily forward-looking conclusion.
sometimes sportique are just the colour of our dreams.