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It’s summer 2011 – the Summertyne Americana Festival at the Sage, Gateshead. David Macias, the then president of the Americana Music Association, is due to make a presentation that addresses the thorny issue of: what is Americana? Those of us keener on actually watching some music in the beery sunshine rather than talking about it indoors, missed the official conclusion. But surely the answer then, and ever since, is: rather a broad church of American rock, blues, and gospel-based music, overlaid with a tang of country. Banjos feature prominently. But why stop there? Why can’t an album of grunge-tinged rock, featuring tracks which could fit straight into the great contemporary American rock songbook, qualify? Because if it could, what Afghan Whigs have delivered with ‘Do to the Beast’ would fit right in.
In their first career, Cincinnati’s Afghan Whigs were active for 15 years from 1986, releasing six albums on a number of independent and major labels, notably Sub Pop, home to grunge contemporaries Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney. But despite fraternal connections, The Afghan Whigs have always shown influences more left-field than most of their contemporaries, with an evident enthusiasm for classic soul (cf 1992’s album of soul and R ‘n’ B covers ‘Uptown Avondale’), utilising avant-garde mutations of classic songwriting technique.
In contrast to the 16 years we’ve waited for a new release from The Afghan Whigs, now the record has arrived, it wastes no time in getting down to business. ‘Do to the Beast’ opens with ‘Parked Outside’, a swaggering, uncompromising, riff-laden dirge heavy with fuzzed guitars and Greg Dulli’s guttural roar. It’s the sound of grunge, made contemporary for 2014, by men who survived it the first time around. ‘Matamoros’ mixes an electronica-inspired insistent groove, a darkly intense chorus and some strings more Moroccan than Mexican. ‘It Kills’ reveals a delicate underbelly to the band’s sound – “It kills to watch you love another” a self-explanatory confessional matched in tenderness by the understated arrangement and Dulli’s cracked baritone. ‘Algiers’ (video below) is a great American road song, all passionately-strummed acoustic guitar and mid-tempo angst. The sort of thing that Cherry Ghost can knock off in their sleep, but no less evocative for that. ‘Lost in the Woods’ converts a maudlin intro into a unashamedly chart-bothering melodic chorus, one which could easily have come from the pen of soul-era Detroit song-factory luminaries, if they arranged for electric guitar. A curiously schizophrenic arrangement, and one which mirrors the personality of the record as a whole.
The second half kicks off with ‘The Lottery’, a riffy, noisy thing, similar to their very earliest work. More interesting is what follows. ‘Can Rova’ is a great example of where Afghan Whigs differ from their contemporaries – the ability to execute a delicate ballad of tender beauty. This is rock in name only, the Americana label writ large – there’s even some banjo. And then there’s the final duplet. ‘I Am Fire’ is a world-weary dirge arranged for handclaps and despairing vocal. And as triumphant endings go, ‘These Sticks’ is itself a triumph. Attempting the seemingly impossible task of weaving all the disparate threads of the album into one coherent whole, it succeeds. The electric guitars are back, the drums are real, there’s a horn section for good measure.
Don’t ask about the lyrical content. Dulli is famed for his hard-hitting autobiographical style, and there’s no reason to think that ‘Do to the Beast’ disappoints in that regard. There’s simply not enough time or room in a review to properly plumb the depths of his psyche, to do justice to the self-loathing and corruption bubbling within. Suffice to say, the title itself is enough of an indication of what to expect – presumably a corrupted reference to the ancient ethic of reciprocity: “Do unto the Beast as you would have the Beast do unto you.” It could take several years of therapy to unravel what he’s on about here, and that’s just the album title. Approach with caution.
So there we have it. This is the sound of band that have no time for creative boundaries – if it sounds good, it’s in, genre be damned. So there’s the heavy guitar riffs as expected, mixed in with widescreen road songs, acoustic interludes, all given coherence by Dulli’s distinctive voice, at times reminiscent of Billy Corgan and even Rod Stewart. It’s a remarkable achievement for a band that have been away for a decade and a half – to seamlessly carry on where they left off. And ‘Do to the Beast’, in both its sound and its content, is as good as anything Afghan Whigs have ever recorded. Old fans will be delighted, and there’s doubtless a whole new generation just waiting to be inculcated as to the ways of Dulli. Poor dears.
The Afghan Whigs’ newest album ‘Do to the Beast’, the American band’s first in 16 years, is out now on Sub Pop.
One would be forgiven for not understanding the subtle difference between School of Language, in which David Brewis sings and Peter Brewis plays the drums, and the Mercury-nominated Field Music, in which David Brewis sings and Peter Brewis plays the drums. Well, School of Language is ostensibly David’s solo operation, so despite the live presence of Pete (and the bassist looks somehow familiar too), pretty much everything on the album was written and recorded by David. So tonight there’s no Field Music-style instrument swapping: David takes full frontman responsibility throughout.
And he’s rather good at it, clad in ‘70s-dad chic complete with slacks and linen jacket, displaying an awkward cool which reflects the mindset of the music. He helpfully points out that this is the first School of Language gig since September 2008, a fact which surely does nothing to calm first-night anxiety – nervous fiddling with guitar controls and an in-and-out-of pocket plectrum are telling giveaways. Perhaps the knowledge that bro isn’t going to step out from behind the drum kit tonight adds an extra frisson of tension. But as the photos attest, when initial nerves give way to concentration and growing confidence, Brewis certainly looks the part, sharp of cheekbone and jawline, even throwing some modest guitar-hero moves.
The songs are as precise and efficient as the workings of a Swiss watch. ‘A Smile Cracks’ has two electric guitar solos and a drum solo, which in another context could be a byword for excess, but in fact both are the very model of restraint. There’s acres of space in the arrangements, allowing exact placement of the various melodic components. As the album cover art suggests, this is the motion of an architect’s pencil made music: line, form, and placement are elegant, specific and unambiguous – as if played on a set square and recorded in thin graphite strokes.
One shouldn’t assume that such methods preclude the portrayal of emotion, or that the end result must be soulless. Far from it: the whole SoL experience is one of restrained white funk. Mary has already mentioned Talking Heads in her review of ‘Old Fears’, and the comparison is apt indeed. Self-described “kinda the single” ‘Between the Suburbs’ hints at Nile Rodgers-era Bowie in its stop-start rhythm and chorused Stratocaster work. ‘Dress Up’ is so retro it hurts, heavy with FM synth, tremendous auto-wah guitar, and drums that again refuse to play anything even vaguely resembling a conventional beat. ‘Suits Us Better’ is a dreamy interlude of ethereal backing vocals and reverbed guitar, and a groove conjured from looped beatboxing: at once ethereal and lo-fi.
The introspective-on-record ‘So Much Time’ is slightly faster and certainly more intense live, and works well as a full-stop to an evening of fine virgin music. It’s the sort of gig one wishes to experience again – not because of any particular mind-blowing spectacle, more because of the nagging certainty that with music as subtle and charming as this, the first reading cannot reveal the true depth of everything that’s on offer. Oh well – that’s what records are for.
Jordan Gatesmith is an unlikely frontman – all gangly limbs and sharp features, mostly hidden by a mop of floppy blonde hair. He keeps banter to a minimum, letting the songs take precedence over personality in his band’s short, sharp, 45-minute set. The Cluny is half-full, a fact that the band seem nonplussed about, casually working out set lists on the stage floor way past their start time. They’re in no hurry, because between their two albums (2012’s ‘America Give Up’, and now the one-week-old ‘World Of Joy’), they’ve no more than a single hour of recorded music to their name. Even if they played every track of both albums (they won’t – of which more later), they’d be tucked up in the Travelodge with a cup of cocoa before the witching hour.
Howler are exactly what one could wish for from a U.S. garage band. Casual onstage, unconcerned with niceties, they knock out one deafening energy bolt after another. In case anyone was concerned that Howler might have overnight turned into a lounge band, the first few seconds of the performance assuage such doubts: ‘Drip’ is fast, furious, ramshackle. ‘Yacht Boys’, Gatesmith’s blunderbuss critique of the boat shoe-wearing American upper middle class, complete with spiked guitar work and roared vocal refrains, is perfectly suited to live delivery. However, subtlety is in inverse proportion to energy levels tonight – more down tempo pieces like ‘Don’t Wanna’ (“you don’t have to be a punk / date girls / listen to the Smiths if you don’t want to”) are given the same whirlwind treatment – introspection is dropped in favour of immediacy.
Also missing in action is the psychedelic tinge that infuses parts of the new album, most notably the title track. Notably penned by guitarist Ian Nygaard rather than Gatesmith, it hints at a potential brave new world where high-speed observational punk-rock coexists and even combines with spaced-out psychedelia. A Howler 2.1 that investigated these possibilities would add another dimension to the band’s sound. However, tonight it is the drum insanity of Rory MacMurdo is the powerhouse that drives Howler. The rest of the band are urged to play faster and louder by MacMurdo’s kit, transforming the whole into greater than the sum of its parts. There are moments when one can see through the artifice: a quartet of teenagers rehearsing in a parent’s garage, striving to stand out from the Graham’s number of other similarly housebound aspirants. But it’s their genuinely melodic, meaningful songs, paired with a delivery with just the right mixture of careless virtuosity and attitude, which confirm Howler’s membership of the big league.
The defining moment of Howler’s sophomore release, ‘World of Joy’, is its title track. The passenger door opens, and still at top speed, any memory of youthful, throwaway ditties about girls and under-age drinking are unceremoniously ejected, forever to languish by the side of the road. What replaces them is an enormous, uncompromising Phrygian riff, some insane, atonal organ, countless layers of distorted guitar – and the song title repeated over and over again. It’s like being assaulted by The Joker’s teeth – a sickly sweet psychedelic smile of a song, determined to make you submit to its groove by sheer force of personality alone.
Not that the rest of the album is exactly easy listening. Ten tracks in 28 minutes shows an admirable attention to brevity – less than half of the tracks here broach the 3-minute mark. ‘World of Joy’ is a collection of brief jolts of energy, like sticking a fork in an electrical socket. There’s no clever production techniques – indeed, on more than one track a point is made of retaining the studio ambience: talking in the background, amp hum, mise en scène artifice at once clichéd yet effective. ‘Al’s Corral’ sets out the stall – cowbell, a guitar 101 riff, and a story which presumably makes sense to teenage American males. ‘Drip’ is the first hint of how psych Howler are prepared to go: 50s B-movie sound effects adorn a 2-minute noisefest of threatening intensity. ‘Don’t Wanna’ comes over all relatively melodic, the clean guitar arpeggios reminiscent of The Lemonheads’ ‘Ray’ period, and could even be the stroppy cousin of early R.E.M., comparisons which recur throughout the album.
This is American garage rock, wildly updated for 2014 – of course the U.K. has had its fair share of ramshackle indie revivalists, from the millennial soap opera posturing of The Libertines, who with hindsight sound tame and overblown, to the recent noisy bromance of Palma Violets, whose promise still remains tragically unfulfilled. Thus Howler have a neat vacuum into which to step. They are faster, louder, crazier – simply better – than the competition. After a long period of the Brits showing the Americans how to do garage rock, here’s the payback. Rock and roll is alive, and it lives in Minneapolis.
Howler’s second album ‘World of Joy’ is out now on Rough Trade. The band just began a UK tour with support group Broken Hands on Monday; all the details are here.
Think of an annual music festival that takes place in verdant countryside, set amongst rolling hills and centuries-old oak trees, featuring a populist main stage, a superbly-programmed and forward-looking new music stage, with jazz, world, dance, and even hidden woodland stages, an exclusive lakeside VIP performance area, and an arts strand curated by a bona fide rock star. Which was voted best medium-sized festival of 2013 (which TGTF can confirm from personal experience – it was). Sound good? You’re thinking of Kendal Calling.
With a heady mix of Mancunians, Glaswegians, and Geordies in the audience, the atmosphere at Kendal is rarely far from party central, but this year’s lineup is shaping up to be the finest yet seen at Lowther Deer Park. The big headline news is that London’s finest flop-haired, council-estate glamourists continue their epic rebirth with their first full summer of festival performances – the first of which is Kendal. Anyone who just a few years ago put money on Suede being the one of the hottest live properties of 2014 would be singing all the way to the bank right now, but it’s true: a new generation of so young beautiful ones are going to be driven star-crazy by the chemistry between us – Europe is our playground and we have the power to stay together. Or something.
Frank Turner (pictured at top) brings his Sleeping Souls to headline Saturday at the Calling Out stage – as Kendal’s most-requested artist, he’ll surely have no trouble in filling the tent, or struggle to exhort a capacious crowd to sing along to his punky, Americana-influenced ditties. A slice of true American chaos arrives in the shape of Reel Big Fish, replete with parping horn section, lots of jumping around, and huge helpings of tongue-in-cheek-and-down-throat ska-punk. Here’s hoping for their cover of A-ha’s ‘Take On Me’ – surely the cue for the Kendal crowd to go pogoing mental.
Those for whom festivals simply aren’t fulfilling experiences without not one but two helpings of Johnny Borrell need look no further. He’s there with old band Razorlight, or what’s left of it, presumably with a “performance as history lesson” ethos, given the band haven’t released a record since 2008’s ‘Slipway Fires’. Perhaps this will please the of-a-certain-age Saturday afternoon main stage crowd, but overall seems a Noughties revival too far. Potentially far more interesting is Borrell’s new project, Zazou: heavy with sultry saxophone and avant-garde arrangements, this is the sound of a former rock star going just that little bit off the rails. ‘Cyrano Masochiste’, anyone? Well worth popping one’s head in for.
Everyone’s favourite postmodern diva Findlay will be there, the ever-underrated Athlete will no doubt remind everyone why they were the sound of 2003 (because they’re very good), and Happy Mondays will no doubt manage that combination of inspired madness and total car-crash that they’ve been known for, well, pretty much forever. Other highlights: Breton will be defining the actual sound of 2014, TGTF favourites Catfish and the Bottlemen will be again proving why they are the future of British pop-rock, and the North-East of England is strongly represented by the beautiful, fragile pastoralism of Lanterns on the Lake, and the beautiful ginger hair of the identical, and identically noisy twins of Gallery Circus, the North-East’s answer to Drenge. Except better. Oh, and Goldie’s DJing.
If you’re within walking, cycling, or hitching distance of Westmorland, Kendal is a summer essential, like a rain cape and warm lager. Except it never rains at Kendal, and the beer is always cold. Honest.
Also headlining the festival will be Brett Anderson and Suede. For more information on Kendal Calling including finding out how to book tickets, visit their official Web site.
In a small part of Kettering, it is forever 1969. Specifically, James Bagshaw’s home studio in the box-room of his parents’ end terrace house. Whether or not the strictures of this home-brewed recording facility have contributed to the distinctive sound of ‘Sun Structures’, there’s no doubt that the work stands as testament to the potential of a brave new world of self-production: a few microphones, a cheap computer, lots of patience and the odd spoonful of talent, and you too could create a work worthy of release on Heavenly Recordings. There’s no limit but your imagination.
Bagshaw has worked out how to recreate the sound of what are no doubt some of his favourite records from the very climax of the 1960s, when psychedelia bumped into hard rock in a beat-pop nightclub and they all decided to head home for several glasses of rough red wine, to inhale some heady incense, and pull off a through-the-night recording session. Pink Floyd’s ‘Saucerful Of Secrets’ set the bar for far-out experimentalism, combining an ear for Lear’s absurd mind-pictures with The Kinks’ pastoral songwriting. Their sound is familiar, but searching for the archives for a band that Temples have actually plagiarised proves fruitless: even though there are several stylistic touchstones, Temples are their own band.
All four of 2013’s singles are collected here. In chronological order: début ‘Shelter Song’ is as good an introduction to Temples as any: massive 12-string guitar riff, classic analogue(-sounding) ’70s-style drum production, dreamily overlaid vocal parts with cavernous reverb… and is that a tape-reverse interlude? ‘Colours to Life’ is a wider, smoother production, akin to floating gently in a giant lava lamp’s convective drift. The chorus is a veritable choir of retro fantasy. ‘Keep in the Dark’ (video below) stomps along merrily, whilst ‘Mesmerise’ builds its whole around an evocative descending riff and even manages some twinkly harp. Throughout, there’s so much 12-string guitar, one suspects Bagshaw has bought shares in a guitar string manufacturer.
Of course with so much production one often can’t really hear what’s being sung, which encapsulates the biggest flaw of ‘Sun Structures’: the album is defined by its distinctive production. The wall-of-sound is the main course: in the manner of a catwalk model, the underlying bone structure of chord, melody and lyric are demeaned into subservience as garnish, a vector for glamourous frippery. And whilst it is clear that Bagshaw has created something distinctive and powerful in his band’s voice, the all-encompassing sameness of the sound means that there is too much album to eat in one sitting – there will be a vinyl release, and there’s little doubt that it deserves to be a proper gatefold, four-side affair. Thought of as two discs, as a brace of mini-albums, the whole becomes much more manageable – playing both discs back-to-back will be strictly a connoisseur’s treat.
For almost a year now, Noel Gallagher has been telling everyone within earshot that the future of human civilisation rests on the success of the Jagwar Ma and Temples albums. Whilst it’s open to debate as to whether the endorsement of a man whose defining musical characteristic being his magpie tendencies towards the Beatles is particularly useful to a band who take so much influence from the past themselves – the approval of a true visionary would carry far more weight – in a way Gallagher does have a point. Temples are a fine live band and they are creating complex, cerebral recorded music in a classic style that clearly deserves longevity, and in the process exposing a new generation to the sounds of the heady, optimistic days in which their parents (or indeed grandparents) grew up. In contrast to the cynical, manufactured side of the modern music business, Temples are a reminder of more innocent days, where people made music for love rather than money, and an album was a thing of beauty, to be savoured over time, rather than a quick, sugary fix. ‘Sun Structures’ is proof that music can still be made and consumed in the same way today, and for that it should be applauded.
The debut album from Temples ‘Sun Structures’ is out now on Heavenly Recordings. The band will be heading out to their first SXSW in March.