Monday, July 09, 2007

Badly Drawn Boy

You could describe Damon Gough AKA Badly Drawn Boy as a woolly faced, woolly-hatted Manc guitar strummer. But you could also describe him as a singer who manages to walk that fine line between sentimentality and whimsical humour, between easy pop and wilful awkwardness.

Pop Music is a difficult and dangerous business, (although Test Pilots and North Sea Divers may disagree) and songs can go disastrously wrong. For the aspiring singer songwriter, James Blunt is always round the corner.

Badly Drawn Boy’s live shows were once famously chaotic, with well written, rehearsed songs often losing out to half written fragments that he’d knocked together in the soundcheck, acoustic strolls through the audience, extended monologues, story telling and impromptu knock about covers.

After a series of hard to find e.p.’s his first album The Hour Of Bewilderbeast won the Mercury music prize in 2000. It goes from the Nick Drake, acoustic pickings and orchestral flourishes of tracks like The Shining or Stone On The Water to the shambling Fall sound of Everybody’s Stalking. (Mark E Smith once mistook Gough’s car for a taxi and jumped in demanding to be taken home...and Gough obliged. Don’t know much he usually paid. However Gough later co wrote and appeared on Fall b side Calendar).

Another Pearl has an intro riff that sounds like Cornershop’s Brimful Of Asha while This Song includes the lyrics “This song will heal your soul/Rest by this song and the peace that it brings/This beautiful song has wings.” Perversely, though, the stereo effect switches from speaker to speaker so rapidly and is so disorientating that it is actually unlistenable. And there we go – that’s the Badly Drawn Boy conundrum. Just as he’s created something lovely, he’s scared of the result and decides to mess with our heads instead.

He wrote the soundtrack for About A Boy, which works really well, and it’s key song Silent Sigh manages to be both melancholic and uplifting at the same time. (You’d also want to describe it as haunting but there is a strict quota on combining the words”haunting” and “melancholic”. It’s a bit like the Hay diet.

What Silent Sigh does have though is a really good example of why Gough’s vocals work so well. He never over sings, his voice is warm and conversational, it strains a little as he steps up with the melody but he is definitely not Mariah Carey in a hat. Glad we’ve settled that!

While Bewilderbeast is still seen as his defining work, I actually prefer Have You Fed the Fish from 2002, for the simple reason that that the songs are better. It’s not as eclectic and there’s less deliberate awkwardness (still enough to keep an edge, mind), but like I said - the songs are better.

Gough is a self confessed Springsteen nut, and was playing Thunder Road at early gigs. The opening moments of Have You Fed The Fish’s title track is the closest he’d come so far to the boss Sound of The Boss. Except that Bruce would never sing “I need a new eiderdown, I want some binoculars”. Odds are he also wouldn’t sing “I’ve killed all the mockingbirds, I’ve wrestled the octopus, I came out with extra arms, to carry your baggage”.

The Further I slide has got the rhythm of Sexual Healing, whilst Using Our Feet has got the sinuous stretchiness of Got To Give It Up. It’s mind boggling to think of Badly Drawn Boy morphing into Marvin Gaye’s bedroom soul. Bet he keeps his hat on!

Best track though is You Were Right, it’s straight ahead pop. Nothing straightforward about the domestic nightmare of a dream he had though. “I was married to the Queen, And Madonna lived next door, I think she took a shine to me, And the kids were all grown up, But I had to turn her down, ‘cos I was still in love with you”.

The song is supremely catchy, but thankfully he still can’t shake that awkward spirit though. There is a clumsy rhythmic hiccup where the guitars and drums sound like they’re falling over each other. Well they may have done the first time, but he’s kept it in and kept playing it the same way for subsequent years.

All Possibilities has been used in an advert for Comet. Hopefully he made some money out of it because in the video for the single itself he spent 90 minutes busking outside Waterloo Station for the grand sum of £1.60.

2004’s album One Plus One Is One is a lower key return to folky Nick Drake guitar pickings. And flutes ahoy! The sleeve notes include refer to the death of his grandfather in WW2 and the sudden death of a close friend The latest album Born In The UK has had the promotional might of EMI behind it, including free chipforks given away with the single and a tour that included 3 gigs in chip shops.

The actual song Born In The UK is 30 years of recent British history. “You wanna be a rebel then turn your hose pipe on/With two years to wait for the sound of Jilted John.”

Born In The UK

If the title track is the punslinger's nod to Bruce Springsteen there is more of Bruce’s influence on Welcome To The Underground and also on Journey From A To B. The Way Things Used To Be is country tinged and Long Way Round has a keyboard and trumpet sounds that recalls The Pale Fountains.

It’s all good stuff though and well worth a look at the Mac next month. You might see him in a chippie afterwards, or some other scruffy bloke singing.

The Stills - Destroyer

It starts with an electric piano, and Hammond riff, two of my favourite sounds in Pop, so I'm instantly doubly hooked.

The song itself is one those American Alt rock sound meets late period James (eg “Laid”). Big and warm sounding with a bit of a feel of “You're So Good To Me” by the Beach Boys and it's got great big parping slabs of burbling brass.

So that's pretty much everything I'd look for in a record.

You've got to worry about the keyboard players beard though...that kind of hairy chin shelf was last seen on a character living in Greendale and having letters delivered by Postman Pat.

Destroyer video

I like the fact that the record is called “Destroyer” and doesn't actually have the word "destroyer" in the song.

You can't beat using album titles by Kiss...especially when you are a bunch of pullover rocking Montreal art students. And I would count Kiss as one of my favourite bands, despite and also because of the fact that I never listen to them and have no interest in their music.

I just like the idea of the whole ludicrous thing they created. Revolving drum kits, rocket launching guitars, the merchandising…Gene Simmons. And who wouldn't want to be buried in a Kiss coffin?

I really like the sound of the Stills single and the way that singer Dave Hamelim has a good drawling delivery that manages to be both clear and earnest. And it does remind me of Tim Booth. But dear, oh dear... the lyrics.

"I will destroy you, Your soul impedes on mine, let go my free will, I can't stand compromise.....And the arrows are pointed and the archers delighted, the thrill the smell, The shit I've been put through.....I'm coming to your town "

Now there's always room in pop for a good vengeance song but I don't think The Stills lyrics have delivered.

Not only are they competing against the entire works of Nick Cave (either his vengeance or someone else's) or Morrissey's grumblings but there is also the absolute daddy of all song titles which pretty much explains the situation in real time. Just in the title alone!

I give you Melvin Van Peebles epic from the soundtrack of Sweet Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song (generally reckoned to be the first Blaxploitation film, the film also has a running time shorter than the song title I'm talking about).

Get ready, deep breath.... and... “The Man Tries Running His Usual Game but Sweetback Jones Is So Strong He Wastes the Hounds (Yeah! Yeah! And Besides That He Will Be Comin' Back Takin' Names And Collecting Dues)”.

But back to The Stills...”Destroyer” is a terrific song but sadly it's streets ahead of anything else on their just released second album, “Without Feathers”. The rest of the album is a bit pedestrian, and never really goes anywhere.

I'm still intrigued by their story though.

They formed in 2000 in Montreal. The first album “Logic Will Break Your Heart” came out in 2003 and they toured with the likes of Interpol and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

They certainly had that Joy Division, Bunnymen sound that the likes of Interpol and The Editors have been reviving. But then founder member and singer Greg Parquet left the band to go back University to finish his degree.

In a full and frank interview bassist Olivier Corbeil has said "For us, we were heading in a different direction for the record, I think Greg kind of felt like leaving. Not that we wanted him to leave, but we kind of felt that it wasn't a bad idea either.

“It wasn't a big deal. We hung out, had some beers, and he said, 'Yeah, I think I'm going to go finish this.' And I was like, 'Ah, that's cool' ". Beans comprehensively spilt!

So that's the singer and songwriter leaving after releasing a well received debut. Hmm. That can present a problem. So drummer Dave Hamelim steps forward.

Now this should be about as welcome as Phil Collins telling the rest of Genesis "Go on, lads I'll have a go" or indeed the (possibly apocryphal) homemade by Elvis porn movie where Elvis gets tired of filming and steps out from behind the camera to join in. A shaky leg indeed.

With Hamelim upfront on vocals and guitar, the band's sound changed from an English Post Punk to American Rock sound, closer to bands like Soul Asylum.

Although the album “Without Feathers” was originally released in the States last year, it's only just been released over here on Drowned In Sound. (Their site is always worth a look for new bands, reviews and scabrous comment) and they supported Kings Of Leon on their UK tour earlier this year.

Whether the radical change in style will pay off for the band though is debateable because there does seem to be a bit of a scramble for bands trying to nail that Joy Division Post Punk sound.

I proved this scientifically by watching the Glastonbury coverage this weekend, (from my sofa, getting into the spirit of the event by wearing wellies, avoiding the toilets and undercooking and overcharging myself for a veggie burger).

The Editors were paying their debts to Joy Division, and Bloc Party were doing their Joy Divison/Cure cut and shunt job.

When The Killers did their adventurous cover of Shadowplay. I was tickled by the way that the guitarist was punching the air. You wouldn't see Peter Hook doing that... unless there was actually someone in that particular airspace.