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Tramlines 2013: The Bands Speak

 
By on Wednesday, 24th July 2013 at 11:00 am
 

Not counting the varying levels of success in 2006 to 2008 at a Baltimore racetrack and since 2009 when Richard Branson brought in the Virgin Mobile FreeFest to Merriweather Post Pavilion (the venue, not the Animal Collective album), Washington DC doesn’t have a major music festival. And the FreeFest doesn’t even attempt to cater to people who might not be mainstream music listeners, such as myself. I wouldn’t drive anywhere to go see the Black Keys or Jack White, just two examples of previous FreeFest headliners. Most other American festivals suffer from the same problem. They focus on getting huge names that the MTV watching public would enjoy. Coachella and Lollapalooza, anyone? Despite John and Martin’s urging that I need to do one at least once, I don’t think I could survive the massive camping festivals, so city festivals, with their many venues dotted across one given place while also allowing me to sleep in a real bed for the night, are very appealing to me.

This year I decided to pay more attention to a local UK city festival that has been going on for a couple years and seem to be doing it right: while they bring in big names to headline the main stages, there is a whole wealth of bands, big and small, playing traditional venues to the town cathedral. I am, of course, speaking of Sheffield’s Tramlines, which I had understood from the get-go had been an idea borne by local Sheffielders such as Arctic Monkeys’ Matt Helders, Jon McClure of Reverend and the Makers and Toddla T.

Even the name of the festival, inspired by the friendly-looking tram transit network I admired when visiting the city in the spring, seems to indicate the pride the festival organisers have just by being from the city and wanting it to remain something very special to the people that live there, yet all the while being entirely welcoming to those who choose to come into town to enjoy it with them. It’s hard not to have your heart warmed when you hear things such as Festival Director Sarah Nulty talking about this year’s event, “A huge thank you to everyone who attended and made it a truly wonderful event. The fantastic weather on Friday set everyone in a great mood which lasted across the site all weekend. Musically it was a great year for Tramlines with so many talented artists on the bill. Through Tramlines we get to showcase exactly what Sheffield has to offer and we’re very proud of it.”

John and I have been in discussion that next year we might just join forces and go finally, having looked jealously as this year’s line-up and whinged that we weren’t there. Who was there were the bands, of course. We’ve asked several of them to weigh on their Tramlines 2013 experience, so here we go…

Andrew Parry, keyboardist, Story Books:
Tramlines 2013 was our first band trip to Sheffield, and what a pleasant one it was. Tramlines is one of those inner city festivals that takes over an area of a city, encouraging sprawling crowds on streets and music coming out of its ear holes. Situated a few yards away from the aforementioned tramlines, our venue of battle was The Bowery, a cosy bar with a stage the precise dimensions to squeeze us and our gear on. This made for a real fun set. Nice and close in, we forgot any inhibitions and had a ruddy good time. The crowd were attentive and appreciative, with many a complimentary post-gig word. Which is all you can ask for isn’t it? That, and chips and gravy. And ‘scraps’. We’ll be back, Sheffield. Cheers.

Fran O’Hanlon, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, Ajimal:
The cathedral might have been the most beautiful construction site I’ve ever played! Unfortunately, the body of the cathedral is being renovated, but the sound was pretty incredible none the less, such a beautiful and massive space. There was a bigger crowd there for me than I expected, which was lovely to come out to, and really attentive – those kind of venues always seem to inspire pin drop silence.

It was nice to wander round and get a sense of everything going on in Sheffield at Tramlines. I also managed to catch Dutch Uncles who I’d been meaning to see since their last album came out. Brilliant band.

James Leesley, vocalist and guitarist, High Hazels (read my Bands to Watch on them here):
To collectively summarise the weekend in two words, hectically pleasant would probably be accurate. Saturday was a day where we had three shows to play, the first being inside the Sheffield Cathedral. I think we were all particularly excited about playing in the cathedral, it’s quite a rare place to play and sonically speaking, it has a natural sound that we strive for within a lot of our music. The gig surpassed all our expectations and went really well – the audience sounded like they enjoyed it which is always a good sign. Along with the Cathedral, we played at Weston Park and later at Shakespeare’s, which was our highlight. There was a great atmosphere and it was a fitting ending to a very good day.

Sunday, we were on at The Bowery in the afternoon which was another full house and a great show. It was a good way to draw the curtains on our playing for the weekend and we were all really pleased with the response and quite humbled by the way we were received.The rest of the day was the first real chance we had to catch some of the other bands and join the traffic of the festival, which is always nice.

We thoroughly enjoyed it and are looking forward to next year.

Eddie Dullaway, guitarist, Van Susans:
After a 4-hour drive and two festival gigs in Kent on Saturday, we arrived in Sheffield’s Weston Park for the first of two performances. As we were setting up there was an apparent air of anticipation. A crowd, not on their feet, but sitting waiting for the next eargasm. We made for a musical fixation, drawing in with technical interludes and catchy hooks; our set time was halved but it kept us short and sweet and the crowd eager for more!

Our second show was at The Forum at 10.30 PM so with a little time to spare we engaged ourselves in frisbee, interviews, football, eating and more interviews. It was also Olly’s birthday, so a small amount of alcohol was consumed! The second show came bringing much of the crowd from the first into The Forum for an acoustic show which equally entertained the listeners. Overall, it was a brief, hectic but energetic day. We left Sheffield at around 12 AM to return to base (Bromley, Kent) and arrived home at 4.30 AM just in time to see the sunrise.

Ben Duffy, vocalist, Fenech-Soler:
Sheffield, for me, felt like it all clicked from a live perspective. It takes some shows and some experiences to fully get to grips with new material, especially the way we make our music. On the first record we had hundreds of shows testing things out but Tramlines felt like we were fully comfortable. We hadn’t actually slept in few days as we’d come straight from Switzerland so that just added to the mental state on stage. It’s nice getting totally lost in a performance. It’s also always hard at festivals playing songs that no one knows but the reaction has really made the last 12 months worth it. We’re just looking forward to releasing ‘Rituals’ (their second album out on the 2nd of September) now.

Dave Fendick, multi-instrumentalist, Fossil Collective:
Tramlines was pretty cool. We love playing in Sheffield, and it’s always good to be so close to home (as we can sleep in our own beds!) Although the weather forecast predicted rain, it held out and it was nice to arrive and see everyone lounging about, drinking beer and soaking up the vibe.

Playing on a bandstand instead of a normal stage was a nice touch. It made a change from the normal festival stages that we play. The crowd were very receptive too. (The cheap beer helped!) It was a nice family vibe, with lots of little stalls selling a variety of food and drink. We stayed on for a bit after the gig, talking to various people who’d seen us by chance and who were very glad that they did.

We left having made some new friends, and hoping that we get another invitation next year.

Tom Sanders, vocalist and guitarist, Teleman:
We played in the afternoon on Sunday, the weather was calm and temperate and everything seemed nice and relaxed. I don’t think many people knew our songs, or who we were, but that didn’t seem to stop people from enjoying it. I always think these kinds of festivals are about just wandering round and discovering new music anyway. Some of the best shows I’ve seen have been entirely by accident. Sheffield seemed a perfect setting for the festival and I can only see it going from strength to strength!

Bridie Jackson, vocalist and piano and guitar player, Bridie Jackson and the Arbour:
We played two gigs at Tramlines on Sunday, starting off with The Folk Forest, where we enjoyed some great music and our first Pimm’s of the season! The atmosphere was fantastic and the audience were great – we even managed to get them to join in with our rather whimsical Justin Timberlake cover.

Our second gig was at The Riverside, which boasted the highest ratio of cellos on one stage that we have ever seen! All the music was excellent, but particular highlights were The Early Cartographers, The Pocket Satellites and Joe Banfi. Again, the crowd were great and fun was had by all.

Matthew Whitehouse, vocalist and guitarist, The Heartbreaks:
Arrived in Sheffield at about 8 PM. Sat in the van outside the Harley mixing vodka and tonic in the bottle until Russ and Tom from the Crookes walked past and Russ gave us some promotional Red Bull cups. Tom was eating a margarita pizza. Saw the singer from Grammatics (who we went on our first UK tour with) and met the singer from Komokino, who our tour manager Mark used to drum for. Charlie Bone was there too. At about 5 past 10, we walked out to Sharpe’s ending theme as sung by Rifleman Daniel Hagman and played seven songs, including ‘Polly’ for the first time since February. Joe did a nice new drum bit at the end. Dedicated a song to Richard Sharpe and no one laughed. Ate an entire packet of custard creams.

Tom Dakin, guitarist, The Crookes (photograph below from the stage by drummer Russell Bates):
Tramlines is comfortably the highlight of the musical year in Sheffield, and will always have a place in our hearts. We’ve played at every year of the festival and it has been thrilling seeing it grow from its smaller roots into the city-wide, all encompassing event it now is. Every day on our route to our practice room in town we cross the green where the main stage is (Devonshire Green) during the festival, and it’s hard to believe it’s the same place when we’re stood onstage looking out at all the people.

This year has been particularly special for Sheffield music, which really is the lifeblood of our city. Bands such as Hey Sholay, Seize the Chair and High Hazels are just a few of the brilliant new wave of Sheffielders breaking through, and 65daysofstatic created a stunning combination of three-dimensional music and visual effects which left us wondering if our minds would ever be the same again as we wandered in a daze from their installation at the Millennium Galleries.

Needless to say, as the dust settles on this year’s Tramlines, all we can do is try to shake off our hangovers and begin the countdown to next year’s festival. May there be many more.

Crookes Tramlines 2013 sm

And that’s it from the bands of Tramlines 2013. Funds and time off from work willing, we’ll be in the thick of next year’s festivities so we can experience first-hand what always sounds like one of the best UK city festivals of the summer. See you soon, Sheffield!

 

(Deer Shed Festival 2013 flavoured!) The House of Love – A Retrospective

 
By on Thursday, 18th July 2013 at 1:00 pm
 

One of the great mysteries of popular music is exactly why fate chooses a particular band to become legendary – treated with holy reverence by great swathes of the listening public – when the vast majority either tread the boards for years to an enthusiastic but small fanbase, or disappear completely after a promising start, to the notice of, well, nobody. The example that springs to mind is The Stone Roses – only one-and-a-bit decent albums, a singer that couldn’t really sing, but they are quite justifiably worshipped by those whose lives they entered and changed forever, generating countless spin-off books, photography exhibitions, and finally a feature-length documentary.

It has to do with timing, of course, and geographic location – if you wanted to become a legendary band in the mid-‘80s, Manchester was where you had to be from. The story of The Stone Roses is inextricably intertwined with that of James, The Smiths, New Order, The Hacienda – the Manchester musical family tree can be extended almost without end. So were The Stone Roses great and just happened to be Mancunian, or were they Mancunian and therefore automatically revered as part of that zeitgeist-defining scene? Would they have become the legend they have had they been from Swansea?

All of which rumination brings us to The House of Love. By any reading they are contemporaries of The Stone Roses, having formed in 1986 and released their debut album just a year earlier than them in 1988. The Stone Roses even supported them at an early gig. But in comparison with the Roses, their legend has been largely overlooked. Chiefly comprising singer and songwriter Guy Chambers and guitarist Terry Bickers, the story of The House of Love contains all the essential elements for a classic rock ‘n’ roll narrative arc including a promising start with a signing to Creation Records with Alan McGee proclaiming, “One of the great Creation bands… they could have taken on anybody live.”

But then they began to shed peripheral band members like confetti. Heavy drug use was rife, particularly during the mixing of the first album – with everyone high on LSD, band members and friends alike all had a go on the mixing desk, with predictably disastrous (and no doubt expensive) results. The better-than-fiction endgame came with Bickers ranting in the back of the tour bus, setting fire to banknotes (the KLF would later take this incendiary protest to its logical conclusion and burn a million quid). He was unceremoniously dumped at the nearest railway station, and one of the two personalities which made up the marrow of The House of Love was out of the band for the next decade.

The essence of The House of Love’s achievements are crystallised in their first two albums, neither of which has an official title. Both albums are strong in songwriting terms, the debut coming wrapped in a charmingly naive period production style, which is just as well – the effects and recording flaws are part of its charm. ‘Salome’ is an enormous, anthemic thing, with a sneering, supercilious vocal (“I love the way she cries”), ubiquitous driving guitar work and an enormous solo. ‘Love in a Car’ is a mysteriously circular, quiet-loud affair with a whispered, oblique lyric. ‘Man to Child’ proves they were equally as at ease with balladry, delicate acoustic guitar fluttering around a lyric so poignant you can just about taste the tears. And not forgetting ‘Christine’, the song that kicked the whole affair into gear: an anthemic slice of post-punk, proving that the guitar drones of shoegaze could be put to good use in the context of proper songwriting.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHwjxpkGdck[/youtube]

A couple of years later came what has become known as The Butterfly Album, featuring a significant bump in production values whilst keeping the trademark effects-heavy guitars, and a more coherent running order with a proper beginning, middle and end. In the opinion of this writer it represents the pinnacle of THoL’s output. From the moment a couple of minutes in when ‘Hannah’ shifts up from being a wash of slow-burning guitars into its keening vocal refrain, it’s clear that the band have progressed in every area since their first record. ‘Shine On’ should live in the pantheon of perfect pop songs forever – the enormous chorus that emerges before the one minute point yet doesn’t outstay its welcome, the lyric manages to reference the band name yet still make sense, the song itself ends just after three minutes but the band stretch it out into a stunning downtempo outro: unforgettable from the very first listen. ‘Beatles and Stones’ is a beautiful major-chord reminisce about the power of heroes to give one’s life meaning and succour, and even dares to evoke a little Beatles-esque nostalgia with a string-laden middle eight. But before the pastoralism gets too much, there’s a trio of upbeat ditties, including ‘Hedonist’, which neatly summarises Oasis’ whole career in its 3 and a half minutes, down to their penchant for mid-tempo riffing, guitar feedback, and even Liam’s vocal sneer. If Noel Gallagher had realised that someone had released a song that had already set out every decent thing that Oasis would achieve, he could have saved himself a lot of bother. Twelve tracks, and not a duffer amongst them.

Two fine albums then, at a time when the world was eager for a decent British guitar band. So why aren’t they revered for their achievements like their contemporaries? Part of the answer is the band’s implosion into drug use, depression, and personality clashes. But something else pertains: they simply didn’t fit the media narrative of Manchester, or, more accurately, “Madchester”. They were perhaps too good, too competent as musicians and songwriters, too focused on what made good music, to realise, or even care, that what the world and its press wanted was the propagation of a particular scene. Without doubt they must take a great deal of the responsibility for their drawn-out downfall upon themselves. But one cannot escape the conclusion that, despite the internal disagreements, The House of Love still deserve greater credit than that which history has deemed theirs to claim. So there we have it. The House of Love – the best pre-Britpop era band not to come from Manchester.

The House of Love’s latest album ‘She Paints Words In Red’ is available now on Cherry Red Records. The only place to see the band live this summer is at Deer Shed Festival this weekend in North Yorkshire, for which a handful of tickets are still available. The House of Love performs on Saturday.

 

Glastonbury 2013 – The Worst Ever?

 
By on Wednesday, 3rd July 2013 at 5:45 pm
 

Header photo of the Rolling Stones at Glastonbury 2013 from Rolling Stone (that’s weird…)

Everyone knows Glastonbury Festival is the biggest and most important musical festival in the world. Don’t they? Certainly the BBC and The Guardian appear to think so given their blanket coverage. But observing the broadcasts of this year’s event, one could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. Certainly if one wishes to spend 4 days in the company of career crusties, minor celebrity poseurs, home counties yahs, London investment bankers and industry liggers in varying states of intoxication, Glastonbury is just the ticket. But if one actually wants to see and hear some decent music, is it the correct choice for the discerning music fan? Let’s break things down a bit to find out.

Too big, too expensive, too overcrowded
The event has a capacity larger than the city of Oxford. It costs over £200 for a ticket. It takes ages to transit between stages. Over 100,000 people turned out to see the Rolling Stones (of whom more later), more than the field could comfortably hold. The chances of actually seeing the acts on the Pyramid Stage are slim to none, except if one turns up very early in the morning to bag a spot near the front, and is prepared to forgo dignified toilet arrangements throughout the day. Even hearing them might be a bit of a struggle if you turn up late and end up near the back. The smaller stages offer a better view, but then again…

Headliners
The raison d’etre of Glastonbury is the Pyramid Stage and big headliners. Many of the undercard bands can be seen at any number of alternative events, for far less cash and inconvenience. So the success of Glastonbury stands or falls on its big acts. And in recent years there have been several rum choices of headliner, with 2013 really taking the biscuit. Of which more later.

Demographic
There’s no easy way to say this – people at Glastonbury with frightening regularity display a particularly irritating combination of smugness, vacuosity and infantilism rarely found anywhere else. Need evidence?

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgKDb5V3ilE[/youtube]

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpQPlcui6YQ[/youtube]

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zN9Guov3TY[/youtube]

The phenomenon is difficult to explain but may have something to do with the lottery-style nature of the ticket-buying process. By simple virtue of successfully negotiating the rigours of purchasing a ticket, one can be drawn into a false sense of superiority; that one has been specially chosen by the Gods of festivaldom to pass through the sacred gates of Worthy. This is, of course, an illusion – even with a Glastonbury ticket, you are not more attractive, and after several hot ciders, your wit, like everyone else’s, has descended to protoplasmic level.

The Irritants – Flags, Fancy Dress, Poi
Even if one is lucky enough to bag a spot at the Pyramid Stage from which one can identify the performers without the aid of a telescope, there are the bloody flags to content with, which will conspire to block your view at every critical moment. Multiplying in number every year, these pointless appendages are surely nothing more than vanity poles. (“You won’t see me in the crowd on TV mum, but you might see my flag, complete with inane scribble!”) If flags at festivals have any point, it’s to identify the location of one’s tent. Which is where they should be left. If you need to find your mates, use a phone. (David Quantick summed it up best here with the Tweet “The giant flags you see at Glastonbury are intended as an easy way to identify a wanker with a giant flag.”) Fancy dress (men in tutus, gorilla suits, that sort of thing, not just a bit of face glitter) means you’re there for further attention seeking. Practitioners of poi, listen up: if bimbling around twirling a Swingball is the summit of your ambition, have a lifestyle rethink. Learn an instrument, maybe. And not the ukulele.

Glastonbury – the festival for people who don’t like music
This is a controversial one, but bear with me. As previously discussed, headliners play a significant part in Glastonbury’s success. And by definition, headliners are big artists, with broad, often mainstream appeal. The charge is that one can have a CD collection that fits into a small corner of the living room (and most of those are Coldplay’s back catalogue), and still feel the desperate urge to drive down to Glastonbury and check out the headline acts. There’s no need to have any depth to one’s musical ambition, any desire to experience challenging performances, any need to wander away from the safety of the top of the charts, to enjoy Glastonbury. And there’s no doubt a great swathe of a certain type of Londoner who would rather stay at home than go to a festival that wasn’t ‘Glasto’ – if it’s not swarming with TV cameras and minor celebs, then what’s the point? And somewhere between those lines of thinking is the fatal flaw in its character.

The Rolling Stones
Check out the comments to Alex Petridis’ fawning excusefest and Dorian Lynskey’s sycophantic five-star review of the Rolling Stones’ Saturday headline set to fully understand two things: firstly, the extent to which otherwise well-respected music journalists are prepared to bend reality in order to remain the “media partner” of choice of Glastonbury (did anyone mention payola?), and secondly to understand the actual public ridicule that the ageing rockers garnered for their piss-weak performance. It’s all been said before, but for posterity, let’s restate things – Jagger was a tuneless pub singer (guess the song: “uh ca uh wa gi wa uwow”), Richards present in body but certainly not in mind or spirit, and the stage looked enormous, shrinking their already slight figures to feeble automata, a husky caricature of a band that was last decent a few decades ago. Nothing sums up the celebration of reputation over substance, of promise over delivery, of shallow posturing over actual hard graft that Glastonbury at its worst represents, so much as the ridiculous hype preceding the Stones’ limp, limping appearance, and the ass-kissing mainstream reviews that have followed. The yawning gap between rhetoric and reality at the heart of the event calls into question Glastonbury’s very credibility.

Mumford and Sons
It couldn’t have been scripted any better. As Marcus Mumford unleashed his porcine gaze upon the Worthy multitudes, the final nail in the Glastonbury coffin could just be heard being driven in over the clang of a piezoelectric pickup. For the man himself is a pale imitation of a musician, who doesn’t sing so much as strain at stool; and as his shill, shrill partners in music crime made a vain attempt to appear to be a credible choice for a 90-minute set at the closing of an event which is supposedly the epitome of live music, there was nothing but a stark light shining on a gaping posterior of a stage which should have been full of the best musicians the planet can offer. (Hint: Prince, Beck, Bjork.)

Any good bits?
Of course with over fifty stages running, one couldn’t fail to make some good choices here and there. Chic, Portishead, Smashing Pumpkins, amongst many others, made some fine music. And the peripheral paraphernalia of Glastonbury never fails to remind one of the essential extrovert eccentricity of the British middle classes.

Where now from here?
Glastonbury needs to rid itself of fawning media coverage, where everything is “superb”, “iconic”, or simply “absolutely brilliant”. Streaming each stage certainly is the future, just lose the sycophantic punditry. The headliners need to be proper world-class musicians in their prime, not sell-out oldtimers or fly-by-night populist counterfeiters. And finally, the public need to wean themselves off Glastonbury as the only festival going. It’s ridiculously crowded and pretentious, and smaller events can offer just as much listening pleasure (there’s only so many hours in the day, after all). Take a look at Beat-Herder, Kendal Calling, Standon Calling, Deer Shed, Beacons, Festival No. 6, End Of The Road, and it’s pretty clear that all the fun can be had for half the cost elsewhere, and in some considerably more pleasant locales. Was Glastonbury 2013 the worst Glasto ever? Arguments can be made one way or another. But it certainly marked the point where the legend overtook reality, and that’s never a healthy state for any entity to exist within. So if you get a ticket for next year’s festival, kindly pass it to me to dispose of.

 

A Retrospective on Suede (Part 2)

 
By on Tuesday, 9th April 2013 at 11:00 am
 

Missed part 1 of this amazing retrospective on Suede by our Martin? Right this way, folks.

Sixteen months after their gloriously successful debut, and by way of a taster for the second album, Suede released their career pinnacle: the faultless trifecta of ‘We Are the Pigs’, ‘Killing of a Flash Boy’ and ‘Whipsnade’. The portentiously-tolling minor-chord intro of ‘We Are The Pigs’ gives way to Brett Anderson in full, finely-fettled flow: flouncing around the soundscape, a figurehead for the dispossessed, disenchanted victims of urban decay, empathising, encouraging, exhorting a beautiful flash of direct action against the oppressors before the attraction of the crack pipe becomes once again irresistible.

Bernard Butler has by this point found the electric guitar incapable of fully expressing his musical ambitions: sections of the orchestra are called on one by one to amplify his concepts: strings sweep through the chorus, brass adds sandpaper edge to the breakdowns, neither of which can compete with Butler’s enormous wall-of-sound guitars – like being trapped in a lift with mirrors on all three sides, he manages to conjure a seemingly infinite number of guitar parts from one source, each in turn a little further away, distant but distinct. The rational brain knows there must be some end to it, but no matter how hard you listen, there’s still something else in the background. The B-sides are just as exhilarating: ‘Killing of A Flash Boy’ is simultaneously ribald and genuinely threatening: a seedy provincial holiday resort imagined, or perhaps documented, descending into vicious jealousy and violence:

Shake your fake tan through aerosol land and you’ll know
That you’ll suffer for your sex by the caravanettes, oh no!
That shitter with a pout won’t be putting it about no more
Oh shaking obscene like a killing machine here we go

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXxOT5h5-xg[/youtube]

This is the zenith of Anderson’s obsession with the twisted side of the humdrum British way of life: like a Martin Parr photograph with the lights out, familiar white working-class settings become arenas of disease and violence. Even though it’s caricatured and embellished, there’s a truth to Anderson’s lyrics that shift them into the realm of genuine social commentary: he’s saying, “this is what happens, this is how people feel and behave when there’s nothing better to do.” And there’s a glamour in the revulsion, an attraction in the dirt that he sees, and he wants us to see it, too.

A month later, in October 1994, ‘Dog Man Star’ was released. From the very first seconds, and perhaps to the slight disappointment of those hoping for ‘Suede’ mark II, it becomes apparent that the short, sharp, three minute arrangements of its predecessor are almost entirely absent: this is very much an orchestrated album, almost conceptual in its execution. There is a proper introduction, a rousing orchestral finale, and arguably a coherent narrative of love, sex, drugs and loss. The atmosphere is one of faded autumnal grandeur, of end-of-the-pier desolation; the soundtrack to a black-and-white film yet to be made. The film might take as its theme that of breakup, and breakdown, given the emotional strain and animosity running through the band at the time of recording.

The tension between Butler and Anderson was so high, neither of them could stand to be in the studio as the same time as the other. Bernard Butler’s increasingly erratic and demanding behaviour culminated in his departure before the album was even finished, giving rise to curious situations like the guitar part of ‘The Power’ being recreated note-for-note from the demo by a session guitarist. Despite, or perhaps because of its problematic gestation, ‘Dog Man Star’ contains many astonishing moments amongst its crumbling artifice: the peerless guitar solo in ‘We Are the Pigs’; the literal car crash of ‘Daddy’s Speeding’; the intertwining banshee howl of vocal and guitar in ‘This Hollywood Life’; Anderson’s falsetto crescendo in ‘The 2 of Us’: defining moments worthy of the high-concept glam-rock pantheon.

One surviving marker of Butler’s increasingly dominating personality is his insistence on length. Latterly-released long versions and demos reveal exactly the scope of Butler’s ambition – if it had been given free rein. The unedited version of ‘The Wild Ones’ is a case in point – the piece considered by the band themselves as the pinnacle of the Butler/Anderson partnership, would, if one of its co-writers had had his way, be no less than 7 minutes long with a tour-de-force instrumental at its heart. The truth is, the extended version is for completists only: the edit works better as a song. No matter how good Butler’s guitar shredding is, the song as a whole is too strong to be distracted by such fripperies. More suited to ego-driven over-indulgence is the extended version of ‘The Asphalt World’, which clocks in at an eye-watering 11-and-a-half minutes. This song represents every excess Suede had partaken of in the previous half-decade, made music. The 5 minutes of song proper serves as just an introduction; the almost-silent breakdown section seethes with threatened violence, sparks of filtered sound and rumblings of sub-bass stalk the background, looking for an excuse to jump from the shadows and reveal themselves in their vulgar glory. And an excuse arrives in Butler’s most audacious guitar solo yet put to tape. The unedited version reveals a scope of ambition cut from the initial release – hard-panned squalls of guitar pour forth from both sides, while a filthy, tremoloed lead part builds to a guilty, orgiastic climax. “Who does she love?”, indeed.

The truth is, if they had disbanded after the release of ‘The Wild Ones’, their last release of the Butler era, Suede would have had as unblemished a career as it’s possible to achieve in pop music – two albums and seven singles, and all arguably perfect. In a pleasingly circular way, their story would have been the perfect subject for a Suede song – a brief glimpse into an intense love affair, stubbed out in a whirlwind of drugs and bitter recrimination, with an absolutely superb soundtrack. But, astonishingly, their most successful years were still ahead of them.

Suede’s newest album ‘Bloodsports’ is available now.

 

A Retrospective on Suede (Part 1)

 
By on Friday, 22nd March 2013 at 11:00 am
 

On the 11th of May this year, anyone born on the day Suede released their debut single will be celebrating their 21st birthday. Widely credited as being one of the earliest and most influential practitioners of Britpop, in truth the Suede story is more complex and enigmatic than that, and the eve of adulthood of their debut release seems as good a time as any to revisit the Suede story. In this retrospective we reassess Suede’s catalogue, critically assessing how their music stands up to the cold light of hindsight, and how latest release ‘Bloodsports’ fits with the rest of their oeuvre.

In chronological debut single order: Blur (27/10/1990), Suede (23/05/1992), Pulp (27/11/1993), Oasis (23/04/1994). That quadruplet, give or take an Echobelly here or a Menswear there, made up the bands who brought to life the monster that was Britpop. Shaking the audience out of their shoegaze stupor, Britpop proved that guitars and songwriting could be sexy in a way that neither the loping stonerism of baggy, the chiming watercolour of shoegaze, nor the neanderthal bludgeoning of grunge could. Before long, it grew into a zeitgeist-defining cultural movement with its own fashions, haircuts, and even art, all soundtracked by a certain type of band.

Of course it wasn’t long before Britpop was disappearing into its own navel; the proliferation of Union Flag guitars and headline news rivalries turned what was once the saviour of British music into a tabloid-fuelled parody of itself. But there have rarely been finer places for a music fan to be than a small British record shop on a Saturday morning in summer 1994: an embarrassment of riches practically jumping off the shelves at you, each from a fresh, exciting British band.

Which Suede undoubtedly were. Although their first couple of efforts at the cusp of the decade were mediocre affairs – ‘Wonderful Sometimes’ is baggy nonsense, ‘Be My God’ a bit better, showing glimpses of Bernard Butler’s future guitarscapes – by 1992 the chrysalis had split open and Suede as we know them emerged with ‘The Drowners’. Which neatly summarised the band’s virtues, but, cleverly, was in no hurry to reveal them. It takes four bars before the floor toms finally give way to several layered, fizzy guitars; the band love the intro so much they repeat it again, finally unleashing Brett Anderson’s teasingly camp vocal well over half a minute in. The chorus is simultaneously dreamy and aggressive, and it all crescendos with a mountain of guitars and a singalong handclap as catchy as any pantomime finale. As debut singles go, there’s few finer examples.

Four months later, the more assertive ‘Metal Mickey’ was thrust upon an unsuspecting public, proving that the first single wasn’t just a fluke. Again, there’s loads of fuzzy guitars, all tonally different but with a unifying underlying backbone – my guess is that of a Gibson ES-335. The tempo is quicker, Anderson revealing for the first time lyrical themes he would return to again and again – that of night-lurkers out for mischief and sin, femme fatales more than eager to lead one astray, and curious, telling references to a shadowy father figure. The first chorus winds up around the minute mark, and more handclaps signal the whole sordid affair is over in three. This is perfect pop arrangement.

By the time ‘Animal Nitrate’ hit the shelves, it was becoming apparent that Suede were a superb singles band. And not just because they were good at picking the best songs from their albums. The B-sides were famously as good as anything they released on an album, and in some cases the equal of the A-sides. In any case, single purchasers were treated to great value throughout, and not just because of the two extra songs. The first four singles hang together as a collection of art objects, with thematically consistent artwork and typography, proudly proclaiming their allegiance to the sadly defunct Nude records. The four artifacts demonstrate an admirable sense of direction, of a band who aspired to express themselves in something more than just their music; that their physical output looks and feels intuitively “Suede” is testament to their attention to detail and ability to define their sense of self, attributes which would never leave them.

Whichever way one looks at it, ‘Suede’ by Suede is an astonishing album. Commercially, it debuted at the top of the UK charts as the fastest-selling debut album in history, won the Mercury music prize, and remains the band’s biggest selling album in America. Artistically, it’s the sound of two room-size egos finding succour, trusting the other to deliver the bombast they themselves aspire to, safe in the knowledge that neither could overstep – there are no boundaries. Both Anderson and Butler deliver their most concise work, Anderson particularly excelling in the depth of his lyrics, delivering a consistency which was to elude him at times in the future. Single lines such as “In the car he couldn’t afford they found his made up name on her ankle chain” from ‘She’s Not Dead’ perfectly express the mood he was attempting to capture – details of lives lived perpetually on the periphery; of fleeting pleasures snatched between grey skies and the dole queue. Whether or not Anderson truly lived the life he strived so hard to reproduce in song is debatable – 1980s Haywards Heath appears the very epitome of middle class suburban banality – although his subsequent move to London qualifies him at the very least as a first-hand observer. There’s proper poetry here too, in the skewed feminism of ‘Breakdown’:

Where still life bleeds the concrete white
Where the tame star limps an endless mile
Where the canine in the A-line stole your time
You can only go so far
For womankind

Although such eloquence is somewhat brought back down to Earth by the punchline “does he only come in a Volvo?”. Final single ‘So Young’ serves as a perfect summary of the previous three singles with its ambiguous drug references and tireless electric guitars; tantalisingly, its more considered arrangement featuring acoustic guitar, piano and organ hints at the wider sound which was to come.

 

The 2013 BRIT Awards – The Nominees

 
By on Friday, 11th January 2013 at 4:37 pm
 

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’
Live: Coldplay
Producer: Paul Epworth

Full list of nominees after the jump.
Continue reading The 2013 BRIT Awards – The Nominees

 
 
 

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like no-one's watching.

TGTF was edited by Mary Chang, based in Washington, DC.

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