Friday, April 27, 2007

Bill Callahan

Bill Callahan is part of that American Alt Country/Folk thing, but definitely at the darker, more bitter end of the bile pile, like Will Oldham or the Handsome Family.

He serves up dark twisted tales of despair, death and a black humour with the vocal style of Lou Reed and the richness of Leonard Cohen. The songs tend to be stripped down, with a minimum of chords and a chord conserving attitude of "what's good enough for the verse is good enough for the chorus.

It's good stuff though and definitely suits those times when you find Prairie dust in your slippers.

Following a teenage interest in the SST bands and The Minutemen, he released bedroom recorded and bedroom quality cassettes on his own label but since 1990's debut album proper, Sewn To The Sky he has maintained a prolific output as Smog and also (Smog).

The forthcoming album Woke On A Whale Heart is the first album released under his own name. There are musical arrangements by Former Royal Trux man Neil Hagerty and it promises to be a more upbeat affair than his previous offerings.

So after having set the scene for an artist specialising in melancholic introspection, the first song up for grabs is dress Sexy At My Funeral from 2001's Dongs Of Sevotion album. The dearly departed's final request would certainly distract the mourners from the ham sandwiches.

"Oh Dress sexy at my funeral my good wife,

Wink at the minister, Blow kisses to my grieving brothers

Also tell them about how I gave to charity,

And tried to love my fellow man as best I could

But most of all don't forget about the time on the beach"

'Neath The Puke Tree was an ep released in 2000 containing re-recorded material and new songs. The best track is I Was A Stranger which pushes all the right Cowboy Junkies buttons for me.

With a warm steel guitar sound and a hesitant semi spoken vocal delivery, it feels like it should be a careworn and bruised but ultimately uplifting and comforting song. It's actually a haunting, potential serial killer serenade.

"In the last town, You should have seen what I was

I was worse than a stranger, I was well known"

The song fades out on a getting down to business solo like the Cowboys Junkies peerless Cheap Is How I Feel.

I Feel Like The Mother Of The World is from 2005's A River Ain't Too much Land.

The video with Chloe Sevigny is as bleak as it gets. The eye patched/black eyed chambermaid works her way round the hotel rooms while Bill Callahan is the TV newsreader on each telly in every room delivering the lyrics with intercut shots of disaster and turmoil.

Callahan has said it's about War or Peace. Israel, Palestine. The US and Iraq. The chorus is "I feel like the mother of the world, With two children fighting"

I like it's opening line "Whether or not there is any type of God, I'm not supposed to say". It echoes Nick Cave's song Into My Arms and that most unexpected opening line on religion in a pop song when Cave sings "I don't believe in an interventionist God".

I Break Horses is a subtle song worth a not so subtle metaphor...Guess what's not really about horses.

"I break horses. Doesn't take me long. Just a few well-placed words. And their wandering hearts are gone"

He's currently in a stable (ouch!) relationship with squeaky Folk elf Joanna Newsome and sings on her Ys album. Newsome also played piano on his song Rock Bottom Riser. He also had a farmer (Ouch! Ouch!) relationship with Chan Marshall (Cat Power) who recorded his song Red Apples.

The ultimate horse/woman metaphor song is The Byrds Chestnut Mare. Roger McGuinn's breathless croon never sounded better. The line "I'm gonna catch that horse if I can, And when I do I'll give her my brand" sounds more like the Rebecca Loos aspect of animal husbandry rather than a time honoured permanent method of identifying livestock.

But the real surprise for me was finding out that McGuinn's co writer was Jacques Levy: theatre director, song writer (later co wrote much of Dylan's Desire album) and clinical psychologist.

He met McGuinn after directing Oh! Calcutta! They were going to collaborate on a musical based on Peer Gynt, but the only song actually produced was Chestnut Mare. So let's get this straight then. Psychologist directs nudey 60s musical then goes on to write a song about chasing a horse that is actually a woman. And people wondered about Equus and Harry Potter in the chuddy nuddy?

Sycamore from the new album Woke On A Whale Heart is positively life affirming. Gorgeous Go Betweens guitar trills, a little less Lou Reedy and more of a Luna feel. Stop sniggering at the back. Researchers (some of them wearing white coats) have proved there is a difference. It's the feelgood end of Alt Country with dads teaching sons to box and "You won't get hurt if you just keep your hands up and stand tall like a sycamore"

Follow the link for as good a summer song as you'll hear this summer.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Frank Turner

So what would you do when your Hardcore band splits up? Would you take your Black Flag tattoos, stage diving and go off and be a guitar strumming Folk a great big girl? Well, ex Million Dead singer Frank Turner is more of a Billy Bragg. He's got the personable personality, go anywhere, busk anywhere gig mentality, a bit of politics and a few love songs. He's also picked up on the Woody Guthrie slogan "This machine kills fascists" and subverted it to "This machine kills Hippies". The original was good enough for the guitars of Guthrie, Bragg and Strummer. I suppose you could also put a "This guitar kills fascists" sticker on a cappuccino maker or a vacuum cleaner....but it wouldn't feel quite right.

While Bragg worked to 77 style Punk Principles and took The Clash as inspiration, Frank Turner used the work ethic and discipline of 80's inspirational and confrontational California Punks Black Flag. He told Radio 1 that his version of Folk "Took the things that people in Punk talked about and actually did it instead of just talking about it"

My favourite Frank track has to be Thatcher Fucked The Kids. Music and swearing is just a timeless and classic combination. This song is making the perceptive (and screamingly obvious point) that if you spend 10 years denying there's such as thing as society then you end up with the society you deserve....but with swearing and a bit of humorous misanthropy.

"Whatever happened to childhood?
We're all scared of the kids in our neighbourhood;
They're not small, charming and harmless,
They're a violent bunch of bastard little shits.
And anyone who looks younger than me
Makes me check for my wallet, my phone and my keys,

YouTube clip Frank Turner - Thatcher Fucked the Kids

Million Dead split up in 2005 after 2 albums and non musical differences, but Frank had already been playing some solo shows as a sideline. He released the Campfire Punk Rock 4 track on Xtra Mile recordings in 2006, followed by a shared 12 inch vinyl release with Jonah Matranga where the artists did 2 covers each. Turner did The Outdoor Type by The Lemonheads and You Are My Sunshine, while Matranga, tellingly, did Billy Bragg's A New England

The album Sleep Is For The Week was released in January this year.

On Nashville Tennessee he makes the (fair) point that he's not pretending to be something that he's not. "I was raised in middle England, not in Nashville Tennessee...A simple scale on an old guitar and a Punk Rock sense of honesty"

Again it's the Bragg/Busker mentality that you have to engage with an audience, to entertain them but you also need them to trust you. Oh yes...And you've got to entertain them....again! You can do songs that are reflective and soul searching. Songs that are brutally honest about the state of your naval....but you've got to handle all the fluff and stuff carefully.

In an interview in DrownedInSound he said "Songs, and people, are thoroughly fucking dull if they can't laugh at themselves. That's the whole problem with Damien Rice - it's so fucking doe-eyed and self-serious, it just makes me want to vomit. Honestly, if you met someone with the personality of a James Blunt song, you'd fucking punch them in the throat at the first available opportunity, right? If you want to make a point, showing you're human before doing so is a good plan"

Black Flag would spend 200 days a year touring, often playing 2 shows a day to cater for both under 21's and legal US beer drinkers., as documented in Henry Rollins Book about his days in the band Get In The Van. As a solo artist Turner has notched up a fair few gigs. "Sometimes people offer me "beer, probably" to come play a houseparty in Cumbria or something. No. I'm getting a little pickier in my old age... I think I've paid my dues as it were. I have played some insane places in my time. As I enter the second half of my twenties I'm hoping to leave behind playing house shows in the middle of nowhere"

As a performer he is engaging, and the Hardcore/folk switch doesn't sound so strange when you think of the likes of Seth Lakeman trying to make a great big racket out of a small sound. But here's the thing.....on this video for Million Dead's 2003 I Am The Party ....Is this the worlds happiest Hardcore frontman?

YouTube clip Million Dead - I Am The Party

The band Rock mightily and Turner's vocals sound great but he doesn't look like the typical Hardcore frontman. Where's the screwey faced rage? Where are the big shorts? Will there be a stewards inquiry and a leg tattoo inspection? So maybe folky Levellers troubadour isn't such a giant leap for him. Anyway in the buskers tradition, if he's doing a show, he'll do it right here...and probably for The Kids. But not for the one's who are trying to nick his wallet

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Only Ones

There are not many records better than Another Girl Another Planet. And we shouldn’t really hold it against them that The Only Ones never came close to matching it.

According to Peter Kay, “You only get half a bucketful” and Another Girl Another Planet delivers Pop Punk Perfection by the sack load.

Released in 1978, after the initial rush of mission statement and era defining singles, by the likes of The Damned, Pistols and Clash, the Only Ones straddled the pre and post punk era. Too muso for Punk yet they could not have happened without it.

Another Girl Another Planet has one of the best intros ever. A proper what’s this? Oh this sounds good...and it’s just got better. A scratchy guitar chug turns into a guitar twiddle and then takes off like the Tardis. All wheezing groans, building drums and a guitar line that starts off in the teddy Boy 50’s before heading off into orbit in silver shorts.

The song was used in a Vodafone ad last year which gave it a new lease of life, but really for many of us distinguished Gentlemen Of A Certain Age, it had never really gone away.

“I always flirt with death, I look ill but I don’t care about it" - the weary vocal whine, the sci fi lyrics that (sorry kids) are actually about Perrett's real life love affair with heroin and the way that the vocals slide into the guitar solo with a heartbreaking, resigned oh oagh!

I mean you just can’t beat vocal lines that that sing along to guitar solos. Think of Radiohead's Iron Lung, or Lump by Presidents Of The United States Of America. Think of them and then be glad they exist!

The guitar solo itself is concise, neat and perfectly formed. Near the end of the song as Perrett sings “Another girl is loving you now” the guitars play triplets as they slide down the scale, like brawling cowboys falling down the saloon steps and still punching each other.

That vocal whine though.... I still don’t understand how such grizzling can work with such an exhilarating song. I might have to listen to it again, purely in the name of research, obviously.

Like The Clash, they were signed to CBS. But while the Clash kept tight control of their image and used their tussles with the CBS and the corporate culture to bolster their Punk credentials, The Only ones presented a different set of problems for the company.

Like many of the bands signed in the great Punk Rock closing down sale The Only Ones were skilful musicians, with musical backgrounds that included the less than Punk Rock.

In The Only Ones case it was Brummie drummer Mike Kellie’s time in Spooky Tooth and veteran bass player Alan Mair who had been in Scotland’s top 60’s boy band The Beatstalkers.

No, the real problem that CBS faced was Perrett’s addiction, and resulting unpredictable behaviour, squandered talent and the fact that for me as teenager reading the music press, Only Ones interviews were always a depressing peek into an unattractive place. Even if they could come up with more songs of the calibre of Another Girl Another Planet, just how could the company market them?

American tours would be problematic as there was an outstanding warrant for attempted murder after Perrett had tried to run over a parking attendant and Alan Mair has described a gig in Amsterdam where Perrett was scoring drugs in the dressing room from the Baader Meinhof Gang. "I was like, 'Bloody hell Peter. You’re dealing with the Baader Meinhof Gang, what's wrong with you?

If the band’s musical abilities marked them out from Punk, then Perrett’s addiction gave them a way right back in. The Speakeasy became the club of choice for the London Punk crowd, snatched from the previous Rock generation in a musical land grab. It was owned Chris Spedding, Sex Pistols demo producer, Flying V wielding Womble and ex husband of Nora Forster who was John Lydon’s girlfriend.

By 1978 it had became the home from home for a generation of Punk and junk casualties who in turn became the assorted musicians associated with Johnny Thunders So Alone album and his sporadic gigs.

They included Peter Perrett and Mike Kellie, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Sid Vicious. They even called themselves The Living Dead. When you think that Phil Lynott and the dead ones from The Pretenders were also regulars, there’s a part of me that keeps thinking.... why didn’t they go to a pub quiz instead or get an allotment. At least that would have spared the world the full horror of The Greedies A Merry Jingle

The Only Ones eponymous debut album in 78 has a New York sound to some of the tracks. Language Problem has the rickety feel and descending chords of Richard Hell’s Blank Generation. The Beast has got a Tom Verlaine type solo.

Even Serpents Shine, released in 79, is their best album although some of the keyboard and backing vocals give a slickness to some of the tracks that I could do without. Miles From Nowhere has got the excellent line “I want to die in the same place I was born, miles from nowhere, I used to reach for the stars but now I’ve reformed”

The last studio album Baby’s Got A Gun came out the following year with the band splitting in 1982. Perrett spent the intervening years doing very little except an enormous amount of drugs, although he did attempt a comeback in the mid 90’s as The One and released an album called Woke Up Sticky on Demon.

It’s all got a bit doomed Punk poet/Pete Doherty. So how about this for a connection…. Perrett appeared on stage with the Libertines in 2004 and his sons Jamie and Peter were in an early line up of Babyshambles.

There’s still a large amount of goodwill towards the band and the likes of The Replacements, Blink 182 and Belle and Sebastian have all covered Another Girl Another Planet. It’s great to think that the band are playing again. Although I can confirm 2 cases of star spotting to show what 2 of the band were doing while waiting for the reunion

Mike Kellie was spotted working at Rover a couple of years ago and Peter Perrett played football (Phil Daniels was also a regular) on my mate’s team. Apparently he’s a “Strange little pixie man…but very good at football”

Brett Anderson

The long running Suede/Britpop/Bernard Butler soap opera has taken another twist as Brett Anderson releases his first solo album starts an accompanying tour.

He may keep turning up like yesterday’s pants in today’s trouser leg of pop, but the impact of Suede's breakthrough year, their first 2 albums and the whole intrigue of the Anderson/Blur/Elastica threesome makes it an interesting story.... and then you've got that whole will they/won't they reunion story for Anderson and Bernard Butler.

So far, so Morrisey and Marr.

Few bands have been as hyped and yet also welcomed with such an expectancy from a waiting audience who just knew they were going to like them. Melody Maker had put them on the front cover as the best new band in Britain. It had been 5 years since The Smiths had split up and here comes this generation’s Morrissey and Marr.

Anderson was Morrissey with his teenaged estranged lyrics, ambiguous sexuality ("I'm a bisexual man who hasn't had a homosexual experience") and Butler was Marr. The most exhilarating guitarist in town, with a swinging fringe that could take the heads off the front row of an audience.

Debut single the Drowners was a Ziggy style stomper with guitar thwackery and stampeding drums. Fresh yet familiar.

Anderson was the Haywards Heath escapee who'd been dreaming of London sleaze and glamour, he had the Bowie fixation, the make up, and some fine individual dance moves. Something like a cross between an angle poise lamp and a pantomime horse...while slapping his own arse.

The Mercury prize winning debut album Suede was released in 1993, and was the UK's fastest selling debut album. I didn't really like the clunky sounding production by Ed Buller but I did like doing the comedy yodelling pronunciation of the name Suede.

Think of David Bowie's most Anthony Newley style bray.....Swaaaayyyyyyed! Bet you did it too? The Good Ship Britpop had been's just we didn't know it yet.

That's the thing with Suede; there were lot of Britpop connections. They were also briefly managed by Ricky Gervais.

Elastica's Justine Frischmann was in the original Suede line-up and she and Anderson were lovers after meeting at University where she was doing an Architecture course and he was doing Planning.

I have seen some footage of that early Suede line up with the future Britpop queen in trackie bottoms. Brett may well be in hairnet and curlers, or I may have made that bit up.

She left Anderson for Damon Albarn from the then struggling Blur. In 2002 she described leaving Suede as "I just thought it was better to be Pete Best than Linda McCartney. I couldn't deal with being the second guitarist and having this strange, Lady Macbeth role in it, along with being general mother to four blokes."

Animal Lover from the first Suede album is reputedly about Frischmann/Anderson/Albarn. Tender is Albarn's version of his own split with Frischmann and Beetlebum is his song about her heroin use.

The tensions that surfaced during Suede's second album Dog Man Star lead to Bernard Butler leaving in 1994 and gaining his reputation as one of the most difficult men in pop.

It's a an excellent album, wildly ambitious and it moves from the Glitter Band squall of New Generation to the bleakness of Black Or Blue and Asphaltworld to the downright morose Scott Walker feel of Still Life.

Collaboration with All About Eve singer Julianne Regan was aborted with Regan accusing the guitarist of possessing "Diabolical tendencies" and Butler pleading "I'm not the anti-Christ. I'm Bernard."

He spent a week in The Verve after Nick McCabe temporarily left and recorded a batch of songs with David McAlmont. This also ended acrimoniously, but the album was released as The Sound Of McAlmont and Butler and is a really good plastic soul album. Like Bowie's Young Americans with added Glam and Bolan.

After running out of people to fall out with Butler released 2 solo albums with Alan Magee trying to promote him as a Neil Young figure moving from the sidelines to centre stage. What he really needed though was a collaborator.

Suede meanwhile had released Head Music and also Coming Up with teenage guitar prodigy Richard Oakes stepping into Butler's shoes. As a teenage prodigy Oakes is not allowed to age and is still officially 15 ½.

He fitted Suede duties in between paper rounds and happy slapping...just like those other teenage prodigies AC/DC's Angus Young and Jimmy Krankie.

Suede ground to a halt in 2003 under the weight of the underwhelming New Morning album and Anderson’s addictions. Almost too fittingly Anderson had sung the "You're going to reap just what you sow" line on the Perfect Day Children In Need single in 1997.

Astonishingly after years of not talking either to each other, or even about each other, Anderson and Butler reconciled enough to form a new band The Tears. Here Come The Tears was released in 2005.

It's a good album with some tracks that can stand alongside vintage Suede. And then as if one reconciliation wasn't enough Butler went and recorded another album Bring It Back with David McAlmont in 2006.

So where can the soap opera go next? Well obviously to Brett Anderson’s solo record. He's gone and found himself a new collaborator in the shape of Norwegian Fred Ball and the live shows have featured Suede bassist Mat Osman.

The single Love Is Dead is melodic, melancholic and actually rather good. It's back to his old concerns "Nothing ever goes right, nothing ever flows". It's Morrissey misery with the song’s title sung in Andersons best Bowie voice with the full kitchen sink production and the orchestra in the utility room.

The album Brett Anderson is released this week and the tour is in full swing. Of course where the Soap Opera goes next is anybody's guess.

Anderson has described the Suede story as like " Machiavelli rewriting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It involves a cast of thousands. It should star Charlton Heston ...It's like a pram that's just been pushed down a hill. It's always been fiery and tempestuous and really on the edge and it never stops. I don't think it ever will."