| SXSW 2013 | Sound City 2013 | Great Escape 2013
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Seemingly out of nowhere, a bespectacled and impressively-bearded man from Richmond, Virginia, named Matthew E. White has released a rather fine album by the name of ‘Big Inner’. Despite many end-of-year accolades for the work, it has only just been released worldwide on Domino Records, previously having been only available by special import from the USA on the Hometapes/Spacebomb imprint. Thus Mr. White is currently a name unfamiliar to all but the most ardent fans of the American underground scene – though perhaps for not much longer.
The triumph is, of course, that ‘Big Inner’ is thoroughly deserving of wider release. In its seven songs, there’s a superficial sheen of big-band psychedelia, a heartbeat of pure Motown soul, overlaid with White’s zen-like chestnut vocal. Band duties are discharged by Spacebomb, a 35-strong collective of musicians curated by White himself; a house band for the new millenium, for whose talents the songs were specifically written and arranged. This symbiotic relationship has yielded a piece of work which would not be out of place in the oeuvre of many a grizzled practitioner of contemporary Americana.
Whilst comparisons may appear churlish and superficial, for the purposes of description some must be drawn. Prior to their current lengthy miserablist period, Lambchop were making these kind of uplifting, soulful, downtempo yarns, run through with a streak of melancholia. In the thudding drums of ‘Steady Pace’, beautifully-faceted brass and vocal arrangements and dual-tracked lead voice lives the ghost of 10CC. And more recent psychedelic big bands like The Polyphonic Spree and even Spiritualized are in good company here.
The collection climaxes with the 10-minute masterpiece ‘Brazos’ (listen below). From opening brass fanfare, via an enormous massed chorus and all manner of percussive and vocal ephemera, the song builds to a religious fervour worthy of the most enthusiastic Southern Baptist Easter Sunday service – shouts of “Hallelujah!” and fainting in the aisles wouldn’t be out of place. Ladies and gentlemen, follow a star to the East Coast, where a bearded man is here to preach the sin from your tortured souls. The future is all White.
In many ways, the very fact of having something new to write about Suede is the most remarkable aspect of this review. Despite being the genesis of Britpop made form, and releasing some of the most notable singles of the 1990s (and one genuinely classic album), Suede have described a classic ‘long tail’ career pathway; the almost unnoticed style of their exit as they fizzled out in the cold light of a new millenium in stark contrast to the fanfare that greeted the famous Melody Maker cover from which they gazed as unsigned ingenues.
There has been light on the horizon for those hoping for new Suede material since their reformation concerts in 2010. And now ‘Barriers’ has arrived: the calling-card for a full album entitled ‘Bloodsports’, out in March. But it would be an ardent fan indeed who claimed that their output was consistent, especially towards the twilight years of what must now be called their first career, which means ‘Barriers’ carries a high level of expectation on its shoulders; there’s little point in releasing new material if it simply treads old water.
There’s little cause for concern: ‘Barriers’ ticks all the boxes any longstanding Suede fan could reasonably hope for. After a thudding drum intro, Brett Anderson’s voice soars with a distinctively familiar mixture of delicacy and haughtiness. References to “aniseed kisses and lipstick” traces instantly recall familiar Suede songs of yore (it’s impossible for Anderson to write a lyric without at least one reference to lipstick, cigarettes, gasoline, or some seedy sexual act). Richard Oakes’ guitar does one of its finest impressions of Bernard Butler’s razor-sharp trademark ES-355 tone, itself now more than two decades old. Longtime producer Ed Buller is in the studio chair; it’s a fair assumption that he, above anyone else, is responsible for the instantly recognisable Suede sound to be found here. There’s a singalong call-and-response to play us out, just dying to reverberate around packed concert halls up and down the country.
And that’s it, 3 and a half minutes that tell the world the Suede are back, and sounding just as relevant as ever. There’s no point in hoping for a new ‘Dog Man Star’ – that high-point of Suede’s career will surely never be surpassed – but there’s a good chance that Suede Mark II can do themselves justice with the new material, and perhaps bring a swathe of new fans into the fold who were unlucky enough to be too young to experience them first time around. For the rest of us, it’s time to dust off the black T-shirt and artfully distressed leather jacket, and party like it’s 1994 again.
Suede’s new single ‘Barriers’ is available now – for free – via this former MP3 of the Day post.
After a 10-year hiatus, the very release of new David Bowie material is an event in itself, spreading tendrils of anticipation across disparate media, almost regardless of the qualities of the song which heralds such keenly-felt anticipation. But what of ‘Where Are We Now’, in and of itself? What does it tell us about Bowie in 2013, and more to the point, is it any good?
It’s too tempting not to poke some gentle, if sacreligious, fun. The world-weary vocal performance, the deadpan video, and the confused song title bring to mind a favourite uncle or grandfather, suddenly waking in a temporary confusion from the back seat, perhaps when the car stops at Watford Gap services to take on Ginsters pasties and sticky sweets. This is not Bowie at his most assertive – the tempo is glacial, the instrumentation bland, the voice cracked and mournful. Indeed, one could go as far as to use the word dull. But the song does have its subtle beauty. It’s not clear what key it’s in – the chorus starts on the root note and ends on the root note, it’s just that those two notes happen to be different; chord changes are obscure yet work beautifully, and even though the voice is morose, it still carries all the distinctive hallmarks of that which has enchanted popular music for decades. Welcome back, David.
Lyrically, the theme is death and Berlin. Until the last minute, when things pick up, and it’s almost about love. And Berlin. The video shamelessly misspells some of the German capital’s name-checked landmarks and inexplicably casts Bowie as a double-headed soft toy, but hey, it’s all in the name of art. The most fascinating detail is the weary blow of the lips at 3:26 – the universal sign for “I’ve had enough now”. And perhaps he has – after years ensconced in New York domestic bliss, now it’s time for the carefully-choreographed comeback (together with an exhibition at the V&A and accompanying stratospherically-priced limited-edition catalogue, for goodness’ sake!).
But what if he just can’t be bothered? Why not just leave the legacy and be done with it? Time will tell, but I have my doubts whether Bowie’s heart is really in it. Compare his mood here with the activity of his contemporaries – Neil Young is still trashing guitars in squalls of feedback at age 67, and his old playmate Lou Reed is trading riffs with Metallica aged 70. The hope is high that the full album will treat a wider gamut of Bowie’s talents: at least he might do a little dance.
This is a deeply schizophrenic track. Superficially dull, but with exciting details. Plenty of talk of death, but with an uplifting finish. Daft-as-a-brush video that hints at Bowie’s fascinating and still relevant Berlin-period backstory. I don’t want to listen to it anymore, but still can’t wait for the new material. So, then: a dismal, error-laden piece of work from a recalcitrant, overrated pensioner, or a blinding opening salvo for the next chapter in the career of one of the most important practitioners of popular music of the last five decades? In fact, in keeping with the theme: it’s both. And it really makes me want to visit Berlin again.
Somewhere between a 6 and a 9/10
David Bowie’s long-awaited new single ‘Where Are We Now?’ is out now on Columbia.
Is there any point to the BRITs? Granted, it gives a certain demographic of London teenager the opportunity to sting Daddy for the eye-watering £70 ticket price, no doubt getting stuffed with half-term pizza and fructose syrup before spending three hours squealing loudly at microscopic effigies of their latest tabloid-endorsed musical crushes. But beyond that, does any vestige of musical credibility remain within the unhallowed, chart-obsessed recesses of the BRIT Award psyche?
A swift perusal of the nominations, released yesterday, would indicate: maybe, actually. The usual mega-selling suspects are there: Emeli Sandé, Mumford and Sons, Robbie Williams, Olly Murs. But look a little deeper and could there just be enough respect for the breakthrough, even the underground, so that beyond the face paint and lasers, there’s a bedrock of credibility?
Step forward Richard Hawley, the most unlikely of the entire nomination list, proving that the BRITs aren’t immune to a decent bit of ‘70s-throwback guitar action and heart-on-the-sleeve balladry from a bequiffed Yorkshireman. Plan B also deserves a shout for his unflinching portrayal of council estate life in ‘Ill Manors’, which still deserves to make more of an impact than it has.
Jessie Ware gathers two nods, a fine result for her this early in her career, single-handedly making 2011’s Critic’s Choice Award for her namesake Jessie J look ever more ridiculous. The more listeners turned on to her coolly urban soul, the better. Paloma Faith is also up for two gongs – British Female Solo is fair enough, but British Album of the Year for ‘Fall to Grace’, for a collection significantly worse than her début, is deeply suspect. British Group unoriginally throws up two previous Mercury Prize winners: unlikely media darlings alt-J, and minimalist electro-songsters the xx; Muse are nominated for the ninth (and tenth) time, with Mumford and One Direction predictably making up the numbers. A rum collection, if ever there was one, and despite the disparate yet singular talents of each, hardly a state-of-the-nation statement.
The British Single category is too depressing to analyse deeply. Suffice to say a more turgid collection of middle-of-the-road dross it’s difficult to conceive. Any list containing the execrable ‘Mama Do the Hump’ by Rizzle Kicks deserves to be encased in concrete and dropped into a very deep hole. Thankfully each of the British Breakthrough nominees have something to commend them, though surely Jake Bugg is the most extraordinary of the lot; his compellingly grizzled, world-weary, yet uplifting take on vintage blues in his debut album means he should have no problem in lifting the spotted statue next month.
Ironically, there’s far less to complain about the International (read: American) nominees. Perhaps it’s because we expect the USA to do bigness well, it’s difficult to complain about someone like Bruce Springsteen being nominated, although one wonders just how much pride of place a BRIT award would take on the dashboard of his pickup truck.
As always, it’s good to see producers, the guys behind the desk who really make the music, getting their opportunity to shine, although it seems somewhat unfair that Damon Albarn should be sharing their limelight – hasn’t he had enough of it by now? If the Albarn effect can be resisted, Paul Epworth should walk away with this one, although personally I prefer listening to his sister’s output to his. And what of Amy Winehouse and The Rolling Stones, both nominated, neither deservedly? Stop it, BRITs! Pick people who are more alive!
The 2013 BRITs take place on Wednesday the 20th of February at London’s O2 Arena. TGTF will be reporting, either from the event itself, or from somewhere else in London more interesting. Watch this space.
Who should win the British Brits, I reckon?
Male Solo: Richard Hawley
Female Solo: Jessie Ware
Breakthrough: Jake Bugg
Group: One Direction
Single: Alex Clare – ‘Too Close’
Album: Plan B – ‘Ill Manors’
Producer: Paul Epworth
Full list of nominees after the jump.
Continue reading The 2013 BRIT Awards – The Nominees
Since their first single release, 2011’s ‘No Rest’, Dry the River’s profile has steadily risen, culminating in last year’s album release and triumphant accompanying tour. Unwavering support from the likes of Amazing Radio is no less credit than they deserve for a punishing live schedule which has seen not a single month pass since 2011 when they haven’t played a gig.
Even more impressive then, is that they have found the time to return to the studio and completely re-record their debut album, ‘Shallow Bed’. For those who missed ‘Shallow Bed’ the first time, here follows the executive summary: a thing of both delicacy and power, ‘Shallow Bed’ channelled the burgeoning folk-rock revival whilst still maintaining an air of credibility, probably thanks to the dual virtues of well-honed material, and notable virtuoso performances from the band, in particular singer Peter Liddle’s distinctively keening vocal.
Fast forward 9 months later, and ‘Shallow Bed’ the acoustic version is upon us. The casual observer would be forgiven for imagining that this is a simple stop-gap, a melange of previously released acoustic versions and even (shock, horror!) demos, but all the evidence points to this being a full re-recording of the entire album. As such, even though the basic material is the same, this release warrants reviewing as a new piece.
The original album found itself rocking out at times, which is not the case here. Instead, drama is generated from subtle instrumentation and savoured, drawn-out lyrical delivery. This all lends itself to careful absorption and analysis of the material – which stands up ably to such scrutiny. ‘Bible Belt’, always a piece which relied more on emotional rather than instrumental impact, is slowed down even further, the guitars exiled, and simple strings and piano take their place. The ensuing tension is palpable.
In ‘History Book’, swathes of delicate harmony vocals take centre stage, with just the minutest of guitar embellishments for company, setting the lead melody free to become, if anything, even more beautiful. <a href="Emmy the Great pops up on ‘Shaker Hymns’: the female voice such a rarity on Dry the River material, it shines like a gold nugget nestling at the bottom of the eponymous dessicated bedrock, in comparison with Liddle’s unctuous delivery, where each vowel eases its way out with the gentle effort of a birthing monotreme.
Overall, the mood is misty, mournful, righteous. This album sounds wonderful, a true pleasure to listen to on a good sound system, the acoustic instruments breathing clearly in a well-constructed ambience. Its gentle sound may suit background listening, and is superb for easing children off to sleep, but it deserves just as much foreground attention as its louder forebear. There’s nothing shallow here but the name.
Dry the River’s acoustic version of ‘Shallow Bed’ is available now from RCA Victor.
Listening companions: Ryan Adams – ‘Love Is Hell’ (parts 1 and 2)
The tail end of 2012 sees London’s BRIT award-winning minimalist three-piece the xx take on a handful of UK dates in promotion of sophomore long-player ‘Coexist’, before moving on to a far more substantial tour with the unspoken objective of cracking the notoriously fickle US market. TGTF caught their show in Newcastle upon Tyne, with the agenda of assessing how their darkly atmospheric sound would be received across the pond.
Support for the UK dates comes from Ireland’s Mmoths. Jack Colleran generates ethereal swathes of synths and found sounds, unnamed voices drifting with nary a care through his delicately spun melodies. Reminiscent of Baths at his somnambulent best, tonight he is occasionally backed by a live drummer and bassist; the weight which this adds to the sound is sorely needed live, the restless crowd silently pleading for something solid to alleviate their anticipation. Mmoths’ debut EP ‘Diaries’ is out next year.
The xx are a stylish band. Clad all in black, a complex white light show enhancing their studied, aloof manner, they carefully recreate much of ‘Coexist’, with selected pickings from lauded debut xx. Immediately it’s obvious that the live show brings a sense of soul and involvement that the records can sometimes lack. Romy Madley-Croft’s soft yet assertive vocal is entirely engaging, the delicacy of ‘Angels’ allowing her voice to gently whisper sweet somethings across the hushed audience. When the band are at their best, things soar majestically, but there’s always a metaphorical distance, an unseen foot on the brake. Their considerable appeal – bear in mind this is a big venue, fully sold out – is difficult to define. Such slow-burning subtlety isn’t usually a guarantor of mainstream appeal. Whether the Mercury nod, or the fashionable Bauhaus bleakness, there is something afoot here.
Despite the knowing stylings, and the adult themes, there’s something childlike about the simplicity on show tonight. Guitar chords are eschewed for singly-plucked notes, bass is straight as a die, rarely, if ever, wandering from root. There is more space than sound. The entirety of ‘VCR’ could be a child’s TV theme tune. But absent is the glee of childhood: this is the music of care; of thinking; of the architecture of love; of autism. Only Jamie Smith reveals and revels in anything resembling the conventional transcendentiality of music: only in his superb live drum machine work and real-time mangling of the entire band’s sound does anything approaching a release of emotion occur. But just when it seems that might inspire the entire band to shift to another gear of engagement, the song draws to a close, and the stage is shrouded in darkness once again.
The xx live experience is quite unique. It is elegant, distinctive, soulful and heartfelt. Yet at the same time aloof, knowing, and, at times, hollow. Rather a mixed bag then – more for thinking than dancing, more for savouring than devouring. Whether this suits the US taste in music is an impossible quandary – they’ve chosen mostly southern states, which one might lazily think not the perfect match. However, The xx have conquered all with their subtle charms – and it seems likely the US will be the next to succumb.