Monday, March 26, 2007

Maximo Park

Hands up who thinks we need another gawky angular guitar band, all flailing limbs, skinny ties and tunes that elbow you in the ribs?

Maximo Park are a 5 piece Newcastle band with a spiky, urgent sound and in Paul Smith they have a charismatic singer with a Jarvis Cocker/Morrissey persona, and a combover. Form a queue ladies!

His voice jumps out of the undergrowth and gleefully and proudly opens it's coat. Songs about alcoholic amorous adventures and the desire to escape, all sung in his own North East accent. "When you write these songs you know what kind of person will like them....because you are that person."

He grew up in Billingham and dreamed of running away to the bright lights and fleshpots of Newcastle....40 miles up the road. Eventually he escaped to study Art History and Linguistics and teach pensioners to paint.

The original band members had also arrived in Newcastle for academic purposes and had been rehearsing for several years without a singer, without playing gigs and were on the verge of splitting up. The girlfriend of Drummer Tom English (he used to play with Field Music who are a top tip for anyone interested in XTC meets 10cc band.....that'll be everybody then?) spotted Smith singing along to Stevie Wonder's Superstition in a pub.

With his Oxfam suits, combover and jerky dancing, scissor kicking and Ian Curtis shaking, the gangly front man (careful how you Google that!) gave the band an immediate focus and personality injection. Debut single Graffiti was released on red vinyl as 300 copies, paid for by a friend. Within the year they had signed to Warp, the Sheffield techno label, toured with The Kaiser Chiefs and had their debut album A Certain Trigger nominated for a Mercury Prize. Phew!

The name Maximo Park comes from Maximo Gomez Park in Havana which, depending on how you look it, was either a hotbed for Cuban revolutionaries or a hotbed of old guys playing dominos.

Bassist Archis Tiku is one of those rare things in music, a genuine qualified, practising doctor of medicine. Dr Dre doesn't count as he qualified in Da Hood rather than at a recognised teaching hospital. Dr Fox isn't a real doctor (although I think the world is gradually waking up to that) and my own surgical skills are mainly tree based. Which leaves only Hank Wangford the singing Country and Western gynaecologist....there is something about that sentence that just trips off the tongue, but I can't quite put my finger on it..

Signal And Sign is the debut albums opening track and it pretty much nails the whole Maximo Park ethic. The drums fade in with the delicacy of Cybermen on a fun run and then we're off. The guitar riff has echoes of Don't fear The Reaper and the quick change of descending chords of Here Comes The Sun. He sings "Well I've been waiting here for hours....You left your hometown, where you grew up, I hadn't noticed how your accent had changed". It's familiar musical elements and familiar themes of escape from small towns. So far so Billy Liar...which is fine by me.

Apply Some Pressure has a frantic call and response guitar line and Smith vocally gurning with his look at me lyrics and here I am flasher's yelp. It's got another of Maximo Parks special moves, the mid song gear change. The song shifts from jerky chicken twitch to smooth upwardly mobile chords with a hint of keyboard. It just sounds really good as he sings "What happens when you lose everything, you start all over again."

Graffiti swirls around with a Doors/Stranglers/Inspiral Carpets feel. It's got a none more north easterly bellowed "That's enough I can't take anymore" refrain and an awkward step up that sounds messy...but right. It's a bit like on The Doors Touch Me which still sounds great even though you know the song is a sprawling mess, with sections just bolted together like a project in somebody's shed. It also enjoys the benefits of a gear change and a section that sounds like Broken Social Scene's 7/4 (Shoreline).

The Coast Is Always Changing has got the busy high bass sound and picked guitars of the classic Postcard era singles and Losing More Than I'll Ever Have (which is the title of the original Primal Scream song that Loaded was based on) has got a This Charming Man type riff. Acrobat has evidence of poetry (Stop! Police! Step away from the notebook!) and a bit of an atmosphere of Atmosphere.

The new album our Earthly Pleasures is due out next month and is produced by Gil Norton. The current single is Our Velocity. It's a careering, headlong rush through all their best moves from the last album and is easily my favourite thing they've done.

Even better it's on red vinyl. I've never been able to or wanted to resist the call of the coloured vinyl. Despite that I was disappointed to see that the Paul Smith's combover has been replaced by a Bowler Hat. It needs to be brought back. It was a hairdressing triumph and one of the best haircuts in Rock....Mercury Nominated album?.... pah! The haircut matters more!

The Shins

The unique Special Relationship between Britain and the US works like this. We say "Yes Sir" to everything The US Military asks for. Then we get to send our boxers over the Atlantic to be painfully found out by their superior American fighters and in exchange they send us their geeky alt rock bands. Weezer, Ween, They Might Be Giants and now The Shins.

Thing is though, I do like The I'm not going to slap them around too much. I first heard the single Phantom Limb last December and it was one of those songs that I instantly fell in love with.

I loved its mix of Jesus and Mary Chain fuzziness, Morrisseyesque phrasing, Beach Boys clear vocals and intriguing lyrics. I got there a bit late though. The Shins love in had already started and I was still wearing my coat. They'd already released two albums and the third was imminent. Now they're here amongst us, on all their Beardo US Alternative Geekery.

The band formed in 1997 in Albuquerque as a side project for vocalist and songwriter James Mercer who was playing in Flake.

The debut Oh Inverted World came out in 2001 followed by Chutes Too Narrow in 2003. Both albums were well received but the band band’s debut was given a massive boost by the line in the film Garden State when Natalie Portman's character says that The Shins song New Slang "Will change your life".

It also crops up in a Sopranos episode. It's a great tune that fades in as an acoustic picking Simon and Gunfuklesome slice of small town American Pie. It's beardy and Byrdsy with a low key crooned vocal style and some really good lyrics

"Gold teeth and a curse for this town were all in my mouth" and "God speed all the bakers at dawn, May they all cut their thumbs, And bleed into their buns"

Melodically it's one of their most straightforward songs without their usual tricky twists and turns. The atmosphere comes from the vocal style itself and the warm sound of the lo fi production.

God Inform Me has a Beach Boys type melody, while Pressed In A Book has a Small Faces type sound that contrasts with the high clear vocals. Your Algebra is the albums token bit of weirdness.

The Shins approach to song writing then is to mix up a lot of quite different and often quite English styles. You can hear the influence of The Smiths, or The Cure's poppier singles. The melody lines get complicated and even when it's still verse chorus/verse chorus, there are often so many vocal twists that it takes a few listens before you know where the song is going to go. So you've got to put a bit of effort into it.

2003's Chutes Too Narrow starts tremendously with the splendidly titled Kissing The Lipless. It's got that fuzzy guitar squeal like Buffalo Springfield's Mr Soul or The Flying Burritos Christine's Tune. Which is good...unlike the synth sound on Mines Not A High Horse which verges on the Ultravox and The Full Midge Ure horror. (great crossword clues of our time for a 5 letter word beginning with M. Something small and annoying about Ultravox?) The other elements of the song with its acoustic guitar and tumbling drums sound fine though.

Turn A Square is a lusty song about lust. It's got a great circular riff, coiling round the song like a leery Weezer "Just a glimpse of an ankle and I React like it's 1805".

So Says I is another really convoluted but impossibly catchy may need a map to see where it's going but it does sound great. It starts like AC/DC but has chiming guitars and that fuzzy Mr Soul sound again.

Wincing The Night Away came out this year and of all the three albums it is the most successful blend yet of their characteristic mix of the tuneful and contrary. Much of the recording was done at Mercer's house.

Opening track Sleeping Lessons starts with the treated keyboard arpeggios that sound like a doo wop Mr Sandman before it goes all a bit Keane/Snow Patrol.

Australia has a fine Pretenders style twangy guitar break, and then with the bass scampering excitedly round Mercer's ankles he goes for the full Morrissey lyrical treatment.

"Been alone since you were twenty-one, You haven't laughed since January. You try and make like this is so much fun, But we know it to be quite contrary".

Sea Legs has a Morrissey yodel and Red Rabbits has another wandering melody with a Teardrop Explodes/Lori and the Chameleons keyboard sound and a mix of slide and pedal steel guitar.

Turn On Me is terrific guitar pop, with understated keyboards and something of the feel of Steve Harley's Come Up And See Me.

But for all the other reference points that you can spot, and for all the Pop that they've evidently soaked up and then tried to squeeze out as something new, the Shins still have that American college band feel. Part of that feel is due to the vocals; that high, American singing style. Is it a whine or a plea? The Shins are cleverer than the last lot they sent us...and it's still a sound we like. I may have been late arrival at the Shins love in, but I'm here now...and I'm down to my socks.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Spiritualized make Drug Music. There’s no getting away from it. It’s not really that surprising though, as the bands driving force and only consistent member is Jason Pierce who was originally in Spaceman 3 who famously “Took drugs to make music to take drugs to”

The sounds and approaches used to make the albums have changed over the years and over the albums but the key to their sound is stoned slothful vocals, guitar drones and repetition (I’m with the Fall and Mark E Smith on the importance of the 3 R’s….Repetition, Repetition , Repetition). They also use the garage rock blasts of the Stooges or MC5 and gospel choirs, brass, strings and sometimes the full blown orchestra.

But it’s still drug music, written with the big themes of despair, release, heartbreak, and inertia. Love songs written with the language of drug use and an awareness of the history of Pop. Medication, Electric Mainline or She Kissed Me And It Felt Like A Hit (itself a top Pop pun. He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss was written by Goffin and King, sung by the Crystals and produced by the entirely hands free and cuddly Phil Spector). The packaging for Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space is based on a prescription drug blister pack and the cover for Amazing Grace is simply an outstretched arm…that’s probably a hitch hiking reference.

While playing with Patti Smith in 2005 he ended up in intensive care with pneumonia and his heart had stopped twice. One of his first visitors was Bobby Gillespie. Now there is a definite link between the narcotic and rock interests of Pierce and Gillespie and also in the broad musical sweep of what their bands do…but if I was in Pierce’s flat out position hooked up to a heart monitor, I’d have been happier to see a doctor than a careers adviser.

Without getting too What Hi Fi /Tales Of Topographic Oceans blah blah song cycle blah blah spiritual and musical journey blah blah in a sonic cathedral, about it, all the albums really do feel as if they have been written to be listened in one sitting.

1992’s Laser Guided Melodies starts off simply, delicately and gorgeously with You Know It’s True and moves into If I Were With Her Now, which has a bass line that sounds like it was at the same resort as Blur’s Girls And Boys.

Pure Phase came out in 1995 and uses a lot more strings and orchestral arrangements. Sometimes it’s nerve jangling and Day In The Life discordant, sometimes lush as on the dreamy Spread Your Wings. The albums a bit of a headphone challenge as the sounds move between channels leaving a baffled space between the ears…probably just what the Prankster Pierce intended.

1997’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space was written after girlfriend and early Spiritualized member Kate Radley left and secretly married Richard Ashcroft. It’s the definitive Spiritualized album with it’s staggering arrangements of strings and horns and songs of loss and heartbreak.

By contrast 2003’s Amazing Grace is a much more Stooges affair fused with the country Gospel Soul of an Exile On Main Street era Stones.

Pierce has previously said “I’d sooner have 20 flugelhorns on stage than money in the bank. The forthcoming tour is billed as acoustic however it will feature strings and a choir so it’s not going to be a busking ruse to save money.

Kings Of Leon

Just imagine if you’d dreamed up your perfect band, perfectly placed for the times....and then they turn out to be real.

It’s the early 2000’s and on the one hand you’ve got New York New Wave skinny sounding Strokes with their nervous tics and Swiss Finishing School of Rock. Kings of Leon are their fairground mirror image.

Three Southern sons of a travelling Pentecostal Preacher form a band with their cousin. Caleb, Jared and Nathan Followill and their cousin Matthew Followill. They even get to share the same last names...just like The Ramones. And The Nolans

Their Dad preached in tents and revival meetings and their childhoods were spent touring the Southern States in an Oldsmobile. Now any car that’s good enough for both Public Enemy (“Suckers to the side I know you’ll hate my 98”) and Jonathan Richman (“The Oldsmobile’s got the top down on it”) is just fine by me.

The boys grew up on strict gospel only musical diet, with the Devil’s music sneaked in through a radio under the pillow like a Jamie Oliver school dinner busting mum. When their parents divorced and their dad left the church, the good ole boys were ready to go right off the rails. And to Nashville.

"We realized that our dad, the greatest man we ever knew, in our eyes, was only human. And so are we. People are gonna fuck up. They're gonna want to experiment with drugs, have premarital sex. This whole new world was open to us."

Between bouts of debauchery they sang at Rodeos and were in the West Tennessee Mass Choir.

With the southern accents, long hair and full range of facial hair, early reviews always seemed to mention Lynrd Skynrd and The Allman Brothers although Kings Of Leon were a long way from that kind of stadium boogie band. They were actually closer to a hillbilly grunge Pixies.

Two guitars, a thick sound and Caleb's tight throat slurred vocal drawl. He sounds like his beard was on the inside of his face.

After signing to RCA in 2002 they bought a house on the same lake as Johnny Cash in Mt Juliet Tennessee. I'm just really impressed by that. Not the same town, not the same street, but the same lake.

In a Rolling Stone interview, Caleb talked about the lyrics. “Why should we be held to our own experiences? Why not do like our dad did as a preacher: Every day, he saw something that inspired him and told a story about someone different. I had to put myself in other people's shoes." Which must be why their two albums are predominantly about shagging.

“Red Morning Light” was an early single and is “Youth and Young Manhood's” opening track. It's a corker. A descending sequence of filthy overblown guitars run down the stairs to answer the door...and then collapses in a heap as a jaunty, almost ska like rhythm, with loads of cowbell takes over.

The lyrics are baffling “Hey Hey, Nah Nah, you're giving all your cinammon away” (I still think it's about sex though.)

“California Waiting” has the same epic sweep as Blondie's “Union City Blue. “ Obviously that's an epic sweep in a good way rather than a U2 way. “Molly's Chambers” has got a similar feel to Rocket From The Crypts excellent single “On A Rope.”

“Trani” is a Velvet Underground type song both in terms of its mix of delicately played chords (like the end of “Ocean”) and it's subject matter...sleaze, violence, the transvestite and the transistor radio. When Kings of Leon toured with Bob Dylan, the band claim he told them it was a hell of a song. What he actually said though was “Pha eshe war agnong”.

The second album “Aha Shake Heartbreak” is actually better. “Slow Night So Long” has got a Strokes type feel, Caleb's vocal is more of a yelp and there's a section where the guitars hammer along like a Wedding Present banjo strumathon.

“The Bucket's” recurring drum motif puts me in mind of an inbred 6 fingered(well it makes it easier to play the chiming chords) bastard son of Altered Images “Happy Birthday” and the chorus is cleverly written. Everything stops for it as the instruments drop out to accentuate the vocals before piling back into the riff.

“Soft” is certainly no let down. Even if it's subject matter is about exactly that. It's angular bass and guitars are rampant.

The new album, “Because Of The Times” is due out next month. The title comes from the huge Pentecostal conventions in Louisiana that the brothers used to go to.

The band have been better received and sold more records outside of the States. Part of that must be due to the fact that to British fans, this is a band playing fine fine music, with excellent lady scaring beards and the whole mix of religon and brotherhood just gives it that extra irresitible appeal.

Whereas to vast swathes of America the back ground story will either feel uncomfortable or irrelevant.

Just how would a British version of The Kings Of Leon work? Would it be like The Wicker Man? Ok...I'll have some of that too then.