Monday, May 28, 2007

Art Brut

What exactly do you want in Pop Music?

There are times when I insist on chunky punky tunes, half spoken half shouted (and never knowingly sung) vocals, funny (but not novelty comedy) lyrics, arty leanings and maximum eyebrows.

Art Brut are just the band for those occasions.

Eddie Argos's luxuriant eyebrow and 'tache combination looks like something from a particularly gruelling bush tucker trial. It's not a Gallagher monobrow....these are free range beauties

There's definitely an arty chancer feel about the band. Now I don't know much about Art, but I know what I like...and what I like about Art's usually to be found in interesting buildings full of arty women.

I also know that the name Art Brut comes from the translation of Raw Art, more commonly known as Outsider Art. One strand of it included art produced by psychiatric patients. It's the theory that Michael Stipe or Jarvis Cocker would use if they were trying to make an unwatchable video.

But would they have come up with a lyric as dumbly profound as Art Brut's song Modern Art. "Modern Art makes me wanna rock out. Wooooh!"

Eddie Argos used to be the singer in a band in his native Bournemouth called the Art Goblins and part of his stage act involved playing the vacuum cleaner and escaping from a sack. Art Brut though were formed in 2003 after he moved to London and pestered everyone he met at a party to form a band.

Debut single Formed A Band came out in 2004 with Argos declaring "Look at us, we formed a band...and yes this is my singing voice, it's not irony and it's not Rock 'n' Roll. We're just talking to The Kids."

Now we've been here before haven't we? Where the song describes what the singer is doing like Gang Of Four's Love Like Anthrax or Mark E Smiths lyric "I don't sing I just shout all on one note aah." And yes I do like that trick. And yes I like Formed A Band a lot too.

It sums up what Art Brut do, entertaining tunes and performances with quotable lyrics. They've also got a fine upstanding drummer (well he plays standing up)

In terms of Argos's vocals, though the closest match is Gerald Langley from Blue Aeroplanes. They had an arty bent and a Polish dancer Wojtek. (Historical note...the dancers were the amongst first wave of Polish migrants, just before the bus drivers and builders).

Their single Tolerance with it's meandering bassline was a DJ staple at The Click Club at Burberries in 86/87 and reason enough for me to go most weeks.

More knowing Pop referencing comes in the form of last years single Nag Nag Nag Nag which goes one Nag better than Cabaret Voltaire's mighty Sheffield industrial punk single Nag Nag Nag.

Art Brut's nagging has hanging chords, slight echoes of Magazine's Shot By Both Sides and there is a comic teenage petulance in Argos's lyrics:

"My record collection reduced to a mix tape/Headphones on I made my escape/I'm in a film with a personal soundtrack/I'm leaving home and I'm never gonna come back".

But when it comes to the lyric "I'm grown up now but refuse to learn that these were just adolescent concerns" there could be a lot of us diving for cover.

The significance and relevance of ideas about never growing up/extended adolescence/holding onto the things you think are important, depends on whether you're the accuser or accused. Guilty as charged M'lud...and I've got another box of records that I'd also like taken into consideration.

Good Weekend is a straight down to business celebration of his brand new girlfriend. It's a twisty shimmy of a song with a ringing snare intro and Gang Of Four crunchy guitars meeting B52's Love Shack. "I've seen her naked twice, I've seen her naked twice".

The video is worth a look just for the Eddie Argos Eyebrow experience

More Brut goodies can be found at

Emily Kane is a plea to a long lost girl friend who may not know it but "If memory serves we're still on a break...Every girl that I've seen since, Looks just like you when I squint".

The debut album Bang Bang Rock 'n' Roll came out in 2005 and it's follow up It's A Bit Complicated is due out next month. They're fresh from touring with Maximo Park and visit Birmingham Academy 2 June 14th.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Cherry Ghost

You do already know “Mathematics” by Cherry Ghost. It sounded equally at home on Radios 1, 2 and 6 but wherever you heard it was usually better than the records on either side if it. And like nothing else you'd heard that day...

Unless you spend your days listening to melancholic but uplifting Country waltzes, drenched in strings and glockenspiels, sung by a 30s something with his heart in Nashville and his boots in Bolton.

Cherry Ghost is actually the alter ego of Simon Aldred, who after years of playing in bands found that both the times and life experience had caught up with him.

"I guess it depends on what kind of music you do as to when you become good at it. I think probably, if you're doing rock n'roll, it requires a lot of youth and enthusiasm so, probably, your chances are better when you're first starting out in music. I'm a big fan of Johnny Cash; kind of the more weather-worn singer-songwriters so it was just, kind of, learning the art of songwriting basically, and it took a while.”

He worked as a book keeper, sold store cards and was a maths tutor. It's not picking cotton or working on the railroad, but that's the thing with Country Music and it's modern spin off, Americana.

The cliche may be that it's all death, divorce and drinking, but because the lyrics have always been so important to Country as a genre, it does give the smart musician some real room to manoeuvre.

And there is the whole history of Country music to work with, where it became The Establishment but still loved its rebels. And you can do it as you get older, and wear great shirts, cowboy boots, open a theme park like Dolly Parton's Dollywood, have your own fast food spin off (Kenny Rodgers Roasters) or your own designer jeans with a shotgun pocket (King Kenny again).

The question is why would anyone want to play anything else?

Aldred cites Bill Callahan, Sparklehorse and Wilco (Cherry Ghost comes from a lyric in “Theologians”) as influences and there is a Vic Chesnutt wooziness to some of the songs. The closest comparison though is Richard Hawley.

Although he'd played in bands for years, schlepping around in vans, knocking on record company doors, the actual breakthrough gig was a 20 minute solo acoustic set at a Glasgow Mexican restaurant after demos of “Mathematics” started to circulate.

“I played for 20 minutes, just me and a guitar. People started putting offers in the next day.It was a matter of three or four months from writing the tune to being offered five record deals"

He signed to Heavenly, which gives it a stamp of quality, having given board and lodgings, or at least a helping hand to artists as excellent and diverse as Manic Street preachers, St Etienne, The Rockingbirds, Beth Orton and The Magic Numbers.

Mathematics is an extraordinary record, the richness of the strings, the melancholy and slightly pinched sound of Aldred's vocal and the lyrical progression from self-awareness to inevitability, as Aldred sings “It's funny how I always seem to alienate the people that I'm trying to impress/Cold mathematics is making it's move on me now”.

I love its opening line “Meet my on the corner by the fire escape and I'll be waiting”. There are not enough songs about fire escapes. (But while it is important to be able to evacuate a burning building in a timely manner it also needs to be remembered that Scott Walker's Big Louise is the ultimate fire escape song).

Cherry Ghost appeared on Jules Holland Later last year playing a stripped down version of forthcoming single “People Help The People”. Piano powered, with a bottleneck guitar swell and the lovely simplicity of the lyric - “And if you're homesick, give me a hand and I'll hold it”.

It's just gone from his My Space site but “4am” was a corker. With it's picked guitar and brushed drums, it's got the sprightly feel of Kenny Rodgers’ “Ruby Don't take Your Love To Town”. It sounds supple and slyly rude. Possibly like the old silver fox himself.

There have been support slots with Amy Winehouse and The Magic Numbers, and he has been known to play 90's dance anthem “Suddenly” by CeCe Peniston (careful how you pronounce it)

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Hold Steady

The Hold Steady and Arctic Monkeys were both on Jools Holland’s Later last week. They both do drinking songs about damaged characters and bad behaviour in clubs and bars, reportage from the front line of the sidelines. But the difference is …different tactics, different ages and different sides of the Atlantic.

The key to the Arctic Monkeys is Alex Turner’s lyrics and the bilious disgust in his voice. That’s what drags you into Monkeyland…. and while there’s a real pleasure in the spiky backing tracks, the instruments are just there to provide a backing to the vocals. That’s it. It’s fast and frantic, but it’s percussive and not melodic. The tunes have no tunes. I can’t see the music inspiring a generation of copycat guitar players, whereas the lyrics will. It’s all in the lyrics and attitude. I’ve also yet to read to read an interesting Arctic Monkeys interview, but apparently you can charge what you like for tiling a bathroom in London.

The Arctic Monkeys album was released last month, while The Hold Steady’s break through third album Boys And Girls In America came out in the US last year.

The Hold Steady bring you something you didn’t know you wanted. They’re still story songs but it’s Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC and Mott The Hoople played by a bunch of beardy 30 somethings with the musical skills and confidence so that it sounds like they could really do this all night. The lyrics are sharp, intelligent and literate and Craig Finn’s thick gargling holler of a voice rolls over the music, bouncing off the riffs or just getting on with the business of getting the stories out. Both the vocals and the music beneath stand up in their own right (unlike the characters that both Arctic Monkeys and The Hold Steady sing about).

The Hold Steady look like they’ve escaped the Stylist. Craig Finn sports the kind of full regular guy beard last seen on Discovery Home and Leisure features on master carpenters and fishing documentaries. The keyboard player’s curly waxed ‘tache looks it came off a mime artist…and it really should come off. There are also hats. Not good hats either.

Stuck Between Stations is the most Springsteen esque track, mainly for the Thunder Road type breakdown and piano. The ascending riff under the chorus though is like the mighty riff that underpins U2’s A Beautiful Day. You know, when the plane is coming down low enough for the pilot to see the pattern on the carpet but not quite low enough to take Bono’s head off. (I know Bono’s an easy target, but I never feel bad about taking the piss…after all it takes the pressure off Sting!)

The opening line of Stuck Between Stations is the Kerouac quoting “There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right, Boys and Girls in America have such a sad time together”

The chorus just made me sit up though.

“She was a real cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian, She was damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend.” It’s just an excellent line from an unlikely looking band. Sung with utter conviction over righteous riffing.

Finn grew w up in Minneapolis and his favourite band was The Replacements. As a kid he was impressed by the way that they used local references like the street names in Run It which is a song about jumping red lights. “Lyndale, Garfield Run it”

“I loved the Descendents. They sang about getting no chicks, and that's something I knew a whole lot about.” One of the dirtier Descendents asked Finn and his friends if they knew any girls who would…ahem…help him out. “If we knew that, what would we be doing at a Descendents show?”
On the second album Separation Sunday, he uses the characters of Hallelujah and Charlemagne to tell the tale of the “A real sweet girl who made some not sweet friends” but comes back from the brink/dead on How A Resurrection Really Feels. It’s all very growing up suburban and Catholic.

“I moved to New York when I was 29 years old, so maybe you’re hanging out with a better quality of person. When you’re 18, there’s some idiots who are like, “We’re gonna go drink this under a bridge, you wanna come?” And you’re like, “Yeah. Absolutely. How would we not want to drink under a bridge?” I think Minneapolis is pretty unique. The delinquents out there are pretty delinquent. And everyone’s got a car, so there’s like, a lot of mobility. A lot of bad ideas can be put into action quickly. ‘Cause you can like, haul stuff”

The Chillout Tent from the 3rd album tells the romantic tale of a boy (“Tennyson in denim and sheepskin, He looked a lot like Izzy Stradlin”) and a girl who have separate chemical calamities at a festival and regain consciousness in the Chillout Tent and start kissing as the nurses take them off their drips. It’s sung as a duet with Elizabeth Elmore. (Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum, another Minneapolis resident, is also on there.) It’s one of the standout tracks from the album, but scarily the boy girl vocals on the chorus end up sounding like Meatloaf. Also scarily …I like it.

The Hold Steady’s current label is Vagrant which is also the home of Paul Westerberg (The Replacements) and The Lemonheads. They’re playing in Portsmouth, London and Manchester in July. They feel like a band where you need to suspend your cynicism and possibly even consider using phrases like “The redemptive power of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The Hold Steady sound like other bands…but better. The Arctic Monkeys don’t really sound like anyone else. And certainly would never talk about Rock ‘n’ Roll (except maybe in connection with a sadder, older, more desperate character in one of their songs)…. But do they sound better?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Julian Cope

Is Julian Cope the Greatest Living Englishmen? Well he's more convincing in the stack heels and pointy hat department than Stephen Fry.

The thing about Cope is that he's pursued all the things that interested him, wants to others to share that interest and completely understands the importance of the grand gesture. From music to stone circles, he's a 21st century renaissance man with his heart in the Neolithic and his head in Haight Ashbury. Ok maybe he's not he's Psychedelic Da Vinci but his precarious balancing act between Pre historic Professor, dribbling loon, dogged music ferret, Shaman and shambles, Idiot Savant and idiot idiot is all done with such enthusiasm and charm.

There's a huge Cope back catalogue to work through from the Teardrop Explodes brief pop career through his mixed bag of solo albums. Since the late 90s he has withdrawn from the mainstream Record Industry, releasing material through his own labels and website. Although there is a lot to love about the man and his music, part of the real value of Copey is the interviews, his persona and the books. His monthly address to the nation is always worth a read and is always a good pointer to unusual music. ( His two autobiographies are both essential reading; well written, musically literate and chock full of some scary/funny drug stories from a man whose head was either in the clouds or up his arse.

Head On covers Copey's Tamworth childhood, escape to Liverpool Punk scene, the Teardrop Explodes brief brush with Pop Stardom in all it's Smash Hits glory and Cope’s transformation from resolutely drug free to determinedly drug filled.

It's really good at capturing the intensity of the desire in the early Liverpool days to make the band work. All the characters involved were out of control. Drummer Gary Dwyer spent one tour with a cassette of Frank Sinatra in his unchanged pants. Anyone unfortunate enough to fall asleep was likely to wake up to the sight of Dwyer "Getting the Frank out". People it’s bad…. but not as disgusting as Sacky Bill. This was Dwyer’s ability to stretch his bag over his bell and up to his belly until his genitals "Looked like a turtle covered in a tarpaulin."

Even as Reward was a hit, with its video of searchlights, the careering jeep (they bought it) and Copey in his now established uniform of leather flying jacket and jodhpurs, The Public were turning on him. Now I think an opening line of "Bless my cotton socks I'm in the news" the brass fanfare and swirling bass and keyboards is unbeatable. Some other people do not. Cope quotes 1981's best joke as

"What's the difference between a Cow and The Teardrop Explodes?"

"A Cow has got a twat at the back and horns at the front"

The first album was recorded with Cope dressed as Lawrence of Arabia and each morning Cope and Dwyer would take acid and ride down to the studio on imaginary horses. “I called mine Dobbin, Gary called his Bumhead”. By the sessions for the aborted third album they were playing a game called Brick where 2 people stood 15 feet apart and threw a brick at each other. Cope had the (Acid) advantage and he could see the vapour trails coming off the brick…. others were not so lucky.

I saw The Teardrops in Manchester during the Wilder tour. During a climactic final moment Cope ran towards a monitor looking as if he was going to do something dramatic.... as he tried to move it he realised that he couldn’t.... so he slunk off stage instead. It got worse. At one of their final gigs they, incongruously, supported Queen at Milton Keynes Bowl and were upstaged by Queen’s helicopter touching down mid gig. At their final Manchester gig at The University the tape machine broke and Copey stripped off. Milli Vanilli to Willy Vanilli

The second book Repossessed covers the period after the Teardrops split, as Cope retreated to Tamworth and started to revisit his childhood and rebuild his own myths about the landscape. In 1984 he sneaked 2 solo albums out past the record company (who’d only kept him on because he shared management with Tears For Fears) including Fried where he's naked under a tortoiseshell. I’ve always liked the albums but from a professional point of view, the industry had written him off, he’d become a byword for underachieving loon and he was underperforming at key gigs. He describes watching the support band The Woodentops as they used all his tricks and made it work. While the craziness of the first book is laugh out loud funny, it gets bleaker for the Tamworth years.

He started collecting toy cars, keeping them in a room in the attic. But he blocked up the door so that the only way to reach the sanctuary of the toy room was to crawl through a tunnel running the full length of the house. In 1985 his new obsession was speed walking round Drayton Bassett. Obviously he had a special outfit for it…. long johns and a hat made form his wife Dorian’s fake fur collars.

They became reclusive, unable to deal with the overflowing toilet and stockpiling food for an unspecified but imminent disaster. Eventually though they needed to go to the shop. He didn’t know how to get to the supermarket but couldn’t face calling a taxi. So he set off walking until eventually his path was blocked by a river.which he tried and failed to jump over. He eventually got to the supermarket but left a trail of silt along the aisles.

1987’s St Julian album and the accompanying tour saw him rejuvenated though, with a clanging “2 car garage band” sound and the Cosmic Asshole mike stand that that was equal parts mike stand, scaffolding and pulpit. The follow up, My Nation Underground was not the album that the record company, Cope or I wanted though. Cue another dispute and Copey sulk, and cue his sneaky recordings Skellington and Droolian. They go the full range from whimsical to silly, from acid casualty mumblings to Jelly Pop Jerky Jean’s pop perfection about Japanese hair spray. Unlikely to win new fans, but sure to remind the old ones exactly why they liked him.

The career highs are the Peggy Suicide and Jehovah Kill albums. Both sprawling, sweeping epics, with elements of Prog rock, Funkadelic, eco themes, Paganism and Goddess Worship and big-hearted Pop tunes like Beautiful Love or Try Try Try.

He’s now acknowledged as an expert on Neolithic sites and his books The Modern Antiquarian and The Megalithic European are huge labours of love based on visits to hundreds of sites across Europe. Part travelogue, part prehistoric guidebook.

“I'm past the stage of trying to theorize about these places. I know what I believe, but I'm more interested in getting other people to see for themselves. Yes, the book is heavyweight and archaeologically thorough, but, better still, it's full of amazingly photogenic sites across Europe that would make anyone travel”

Last time Cope was at The Glee Club, he delivered an entertaining talk that spanned uptight druid control freaks and Neolithic rock n rollers. This time round he promises old songs, lots of new songs from the new album You Gotta Problem With Me imminent and old Teardrop Explodes songs to celebrate 25 years since the split.

The Lemonheads

Evan Dando's band The Lemonheads went from Boston schoolboy Husker Du sound alikes to a major label brush with early 90's global hugeness. With his girl friendly surfer looks, ear friendly hooks and some cleverly written songs about dumb subjects Evan Dando had it all...And friends like Oasis, Michael Hutchence and Helena Christiansen.

Boys wanted to be him, girls wanted to be with him and drug dealers wanted to be a phone call away. Scientists are still pondering why The Lemonheads never became bigger, but some of the brighter boffins have proposed the theory that it was Dando himself who blew it

Evan Dando is the only original and constant member of The Lemonheads, and even he got so sick of his own band that that he put out a solo album in 1993 and sang with the reformed MC5 in 1994. He's back as Lemonhead now though and I'm definitely ready for some stoner Punky Country slackness.

The original line up with Dando and Ben Deily recorded their debut ep, Laughing All The Way To The Cleaners, the day after their High School Graduation and then released it on their own Huh-Bag label. Subsequent recordings Hate Your friends, Creator and Lick on were all released on local Boston label Taang! The records show a gradual shifting away from the Punky beginnings but also show a power struggle within the band with Deily eventually leaving. Deily's final album Lick has a Power Pop version of Suzanne Vega's Luka. - The first of many quirky cover version which Dando would perform.

Things were getting more interesting though as The Lemonheads (now effectively Dando) signed to Atlantic and released Lovey. It's got the Gram Parson's cover Brass Buttons and Stove which is a song about preferring the old stove to the new one. Great song but honestly it's not as deep as it sounds.

The thing with Dando is that he could never sustain the song writing himself, he always needed people around him...hanging on to them was a different matter though, as The Lemonheads was a revolving door for musicians. Drummer Mark "Budola" Newman was sacked and then unwittingly answered an advert for his old job

A 1991 tour brought Evan to Australia, where he met Tom Morgan and Nic Dalton who would all contribute songs up to the present day.

The quality of the songs from this period, the distinctive sound and the interplay between Dando's languid drawl and Juliana Hatfield's wide eyed teen movie girl backing vocals make 1992's It's A Shame About Ray the definitive Lemonheads album. If Nirvana were the bad drugs, self loathing and bellyaching sound of the discontented suburbs, then It'A Shame About Ray was the amiably stoned goofy dreamboat singing songs like Ceiling Fan In My Spoon and My Drug Buddy. It's about the minutiae of the suburbs. The comfortably off and the comfortably numb and it steers a path from the gleeful Alison's Starting To Happen (Alison's getting a mohawk, Alison's getting her tits pierced") to the lethargy of My Drug Buddy ("Is this the same stuff we got yesterday?"). Lets face it Kids, his records were great but, you wouldn't want to live in Kurt Cobain's house...and actually I don't want to listen to Nirvana records that often either. I play It's A Shame about Ray a lot though

I like the actual sound of the album. It's just bass, guitar and drums with the occasional keyboards, but the chords sound unusual and the bass lines often use 2 or 3 note chords for a fat bottomed sound. (Right Sir Fred?)

Rockin' Stroll is a great opener with a flurry of guitar notes bouncing off big square chords like a downhill skier who can't stop hitting the poles.

The album is ludicrously short, 10 tracks including the cover of Frank Mills from the musical Hair. Later it got reissued with additional track Mrs Robinson, which is still a bit of a comedy cover but I do like the guitar thwacks in the middle and Dando's pronunciation of "cupcakes"

So everything was geared up then for The Lemonheads to become massive with the release of Come On Feel The Lemonheads in 1993...well in one sense they did. Dando became a staple of gossip columns with increasingly erratic behaviour, and the inevitable combination of drink, drugs and Courtney Love. Although there are some good songs on the album, there's more filler and some dubious/infuriating/down right ropey old toss like Jello Fund. As an opening track it's hard to beat the sweet and brief power pop of The Great Big No and the single Into Your Arms but tracks like Being Around end up sounding too lightweight. "If I was a booger would you blow your nose?"

Big Gay Heart was Dando's acoustic Country Pop strum-a-long single. During 93 and 94 He'd turn up every where to sing it....which was part of the problem. He was usually trolleyed and in a PR masterstroke he announced that he couldn't sing for 2 weeks because of the amount of crack he'd smoked. He was booed off stage at Glastonbury after turning up hours late...with his acoustic.

Atlantic dropped him after the 1996 album Car Button Cloth. I'd already lost interest. I think he missed their money more than mine though.

The solo album (although lets face it ...all his records are solo albums with additional musicians and songs from various sources) Baby I'm Bored came out in 1993 and was a definite return to form. More country pop flavoured than previous material but with some strong songs and strong vocal performances, if that's not a contradiction in terms for Stoner Pop

The standout track is It Looks Like You which is acoustic driven bruised Country Pop with the excellent line

"I can't for the love of Jehovah, Comprehend why you knock at my door"

I also can't fail to like a song that calls itself The Same Thing You Thought Hard About Is The Same Part I Can Live Without

After the bizarre spectacle of him fronting the MC5 he released an album last year simply called The Lemonheads. The single Become The Enemy is a really good song. The album was produced by Bill Stevenson (Descendents, Black Flag) who also contributed some songs, with others coming from Tom Morgan (Dando's Australian gold mine). The thoroughly back on form J Mascis plays on 2 tracks. It's not all old American Punk players though as Garth Hudson from The Band also crops up on one track. They met at a Halloween reading of Edgar Allen Poe poems. Well that's one way of avoiding Oasis and Courtney Love

I'm glad he's back; and it sounds like he's interested again. However as the famously Pretty and Vacant Dando struggled simultaneously to walk, talk and hold onto his ipod during a phone interview with the radiofreecanuckistan blog he revealed he's got a reason to be back

"I took 2 long breaks. One from 94 to 96 and then another from 97 to 2000. I was basically spending tons of money and living it up. Then I got close enough to the bottom of my bank account again to be motivated. It's weird, money is bad for me. I'm by nature a lazy person. If I have tons of money in the bank, I just want to go skiing or bird watching or take a nap. It's good when you need to work again"