Saturday, September 01, 2007


Nostalgia just keeps getting better and better.

With the Punk Rock nostalgia circuit you can see bands that you may not have seen at the time and bands who've spent the intervening years learning how to play.

You can see bands who've realised that maybe that 3rd album that they insisted on playing in it's excruciating entirety the last time you saw them was in actual fact, a waste of studio time, gig time and your time. So this time round they'll just play the good stuff.

It does get complicated though because there are bands you don't want to see because they were ropey old toss 30 years ago and now they're just ageing ropey old toss. Then there are bands who you loved so much that you don't want to run the risk of seeing them again and having the memory spoilt. Decisions decisions.

The Undertones were my favourite band for years, so any reunion runs the risk of crushing disappointment. It could be like finding your first love has had a sex change and your place of birth is marked by a skip rather than a commemorative plaque.

So what about the Undertones? On the face of it doesn't sound promising, as they've reformed without their distinctive, original singer, Feargal Sharkey. They split in ‘83, but have been playing sporadically since 1999, with new singer Paul McLoone.

His vocals have a bit of the Sharkey quavery quality and the rest of the band are still belting out punchy pop punk as if their lives depended on it.... or at least because they're having so much fun that they don't want to stop. And that's the key to it really.

Many people go to a reunion gig as a celebration of the band, or of a period of their own lives. Inevitably it's the bands earliest songs that matter most to the audience and it's the bands attitude to the knowledge that in the public eye (even if not in their own heads) they've done their best work that makes the difference.

If a band still look like they've got a genuine excitement about playing live, then it's not just nostalgia. …It's a great gig with songs you like.

I saw them at the 3 years ago at the Academy. They were excellent and I probably enjoyed the gig more than any of the times I'd seen them first time round. (Review here)

Their debut single "Teenage Kicks" was such a pivotal pop moment and their first 2 albums delivered more unstoppable Pop thrills, Ramones and romance.

With "Positive Touch" and the final album "Sin Of Pride" they attempted to broaden their sound and musical influences...while actually leading to a narrower audience and increasing tensions between the rest of the band and Sharkey. They always delivered as a live band though. And still do.

"Get What You Need" was released in 2003 and is a zesty romp through a bunch of songs that have some of the same fizz and crackle of the first 2 albums. There are demos for material for the forthcoming album Dig Yourself Deep at

The live show is based round all the songs you want to hear, ie the singles, the first 2 albums and a smattering of songs from the new one that sound like it could have been on the old one. Expect joyous enthusiasm from both band and audience.

Polyphonic Spree

I've always liked big bands and I've never feared the gimmick. Polyphonic Spree score on all counts.

They've recently slimmed down to a compact 24 members (from a stage busting 28) including orchestra and choir. They had tap dancers on stage at their recent Lollaplooza appearance in Chicago.

They've got husband and wife bandleaders in Tim DeLaughter and Julie Doyle (although statistically speaking, with all those people involved, you're bound to find you are married to at least one of them).

More gimmicks? Oooh yes please. How about robes?

And then just in case the robes were overshadowing the band they've replaced them....with tunics. Is this a band or a cult? Would Sir care for another tiny piece of gimmick? Ok cut me a large slice.

How about 3 albums worth of bouncily scary "Happy". That's arm waving, stranger hugging, life affirming. A laughing Labrador of positivity and happiness. None of your bedsit Indie gloom in the Spree camp.

Tim DeLaughter formed the band in 2000 as a positive response to the breakup of his former band Tripping Daisy and death of his bandmate Wes Berggren.

There are other big bands around of course. I'm From Barcelona have the numbers, Arcade Fire have that same weird cult feel and Broken Social Scene have that collective arrangement, dipping in and out of a pool of musicians.

They call themselves a choral symphonic Pop band but in terms of the sound, it's a bonkers Flaming Lips or Mercury Rev, cooked up with ELO, musicals like Godspell or Hair and The Beatles brass fanfares from the songs like Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (which funnily enough Spree have covered)....and then the whole rich pudding is over-egged some more.

Bring on the choirs, wheel on the harp and don't be frugal with the flugal horn.

The first album The Beginning Stages came out in 2002, while the lusher sounding Together We Are Heavy was released in 2004. They've even managed to add a gimmick to the song titles.

The first track on the first album is called Section 1 (Have a Day/Celebratory) continuing up to it's final track Section 10 (A Long day). While the first track on the second album is Section 11 (A long day Continues). The last track on the second album is Section 20 (Together We're Heavy) while the first track on the third album is polyphonic Section 21 (Together We're Heavy).

David Bowie was an early fan, and put them on at the Meltdown festival he compiled in 2002.

The Bowie connection becomes deeper with the appearance of Bowie's legendary pianist (careful how you read that!) on The Spree's new album The Fragile Army.

Mike Garson played the certifiable piano solo on the title track of Bowie's 70's classic Aladdin Sane, with it's a jaw dropping pop moment, where Glam Rock met Jazz. It's undoubtedly the strangest piano part on a Pop record....and it's the kind of thing that causes non Jazz fans to wonder. "Aren't they just making it up as they go along?"

On the video for current single Running Away the band are performing in front of a banner that reads "Hope" and the video itself is composed of thousands of still photos rather than moving video image.

It's classic Polyphonic Spree, joyous, with dippy lyrics. "I'm projecting and reflecting desire. For you to come into my life."

With it's pop rush and the emphasis of the opening syllable, it reminds me of Blondie's Dreamin' and it's "When I met you in the restaurant" line.

But obviously with extra choral swing, harps, cellos, a rousing gear change up for the final straight (this band only do up!) and a breakdown at the end where you could almost be getting ready to do The Timewarp.

Oh yes Musicals are never far away from The Spree.

The opening to Guaranteed Nightlife does sound like it should have come straight from a musical, you can almost hear the sound of hands being raised to the skies to set free the lyrics "Remember the night you said you had a vision of all of these wonderful feelings going by".

Then it takes an alarming turn as the song picks up and all I can think of is Patsy Gallant's 1977 hit New York to LA. I say it's alarming....but I do find myself strangely drawn back to Guaranteed Nightlife.

Get Up And Go has a catchy stop start drum pattern and I was especially pleased to see that they couldn't resist accompanying the line "We're marching to the left and right" with the sound of marching feet. The obvious can be good and the obvious can be fun!

One of the key things to the sound of both Arcade Fire and The Polyphonic Spree is the drums. The bands may approach the other instruments differently but for both, bands the drums are more important for driving the music forward than may at first appear.

And it is surprising given that the drums are just one instrument in many. Especially as both bands have so much going on in terms of sounds and layering...or just sheer numbers of people involved.

With the Arcade Fire the drums and vocals are shifting round the verses and choruses. While the other instruments are playing drones, the drums keep it moving. With the Polyphonic Spree, the vocals and other instruments are definitely providing melody but the drums are still really motoring.

The best track on the album though is The Championship. It's got bells and an opening "Wooh!" which as might as well say "C'mon kids lets do the show right here". Well if it was a Musical it would do.....but being the positively Polyphonic Spree, the key line is actually "If we try, somehow we will keep it alive".

Now this part of the song and it's swirling yet stately backing inhabits that strange and unexplored world somewhere between Prince and The Waterboys. I could always hear echoes of the pervy purple imp's When Doves Cry in the overblown Whole of the Moon.

The song really takes off with more piano hammering, a coronation's worth of trumpet fanfares and a low flying harp. And plenty of singing too!

To complete the Bowie links it actually sounds like Brian Eno circa Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy. Which is not just a good thing, it's one of the best things!

Just how many of the band are going to fit in the Glee Club though?


After an evening of fine dining, post cheeseboard but pre brandy and cigars the talk often turns to things Alt Country and Americana.The name of Wilco will come up. They formed from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo who pretty much invented the whole Alt Country genre by taking as much from the Minutemen as they did from Hank Williams.

Over the course of six very different albums frontman Jeff Tweedy has navigated a course through Country Rock and electronics, shed band members with the regularity (if not the sheer numbers) of The Fall and after a classic David and Goliath tussle with their record company become one of the first established bands to actively embrace the internet.

They've recorded 2 albums of Woody Guthrie songs with Billy Bragg released as Mermaid Avenue" Vols 1 and 2.

The current line up have come closer than anyone else I can think of to capturing that searing, unflashy virtuoso guitar style of Tom Verlaine and Television. It's mixed in with Beatles and Country moves though, and some really unflustered, confident playing.

The definitive Wilco album was always Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" from 2002.

The first few seconds of opening track I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" gives a clue to what they're trying to do.

It actually sounds like a roomful of electronics has just been switched on.The hums and bleeps circle round each other as the drums and keyboards shuffle in before snapping into focus with the opening line "I'm an American aquarium drinker. I assassin down the avenue."I'm still baffled after 7 minutes of it, but the ghost of Eels is definitely present.

It's in the half spoken /sung delivery and the dislocation in Tweedy's voice.

No confusion with next track Kamera" though.It's just a terrific, melodic pop song that could work in any style. You could speed it up and fuzzify it for Weezer/Blink 182 powerpop, play it Country style or like Simon and Garfunkel.How clever is that!

And the reason that's possible is that it started off as really good song.Which is also a clever thing to be able to do.

I like the lyric "Phone my family.Tell them I'm lost on the sidewalk. No it's not Ok."Now you can look for genius in different places (personally I find it easier to do my research in pop music than quantum physics) but I do really like the way Tweedy squeezes the line "No it's not Ok" into the melody and makes the phrase itself sound like pop genius.

What Wilco did with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" was to really play with the sounds.One minute the drums sound natural and untreated, the next there's a fuzzy edge to them, guitar lines merge into keyboards.

It's tricksy but for the most part it's not getting in the way of the songs themselves.

Heavy Metal Drummer" has the great opening line "I sincerely miss those heavy metal bands we used to see on the landing in the sun....I miss the innocence I've known, playing Kiss covers beautiful and stoned."

It's another great mixture of carefully crafted pop, warm and woody, mixed with the artificial.Shuffling drums and the Georgio Moroder chug. The opening line "I sincerely wish" is either going to entrance or infuriate you. Like Morrissey or Marmite.

Radio Cure" has the desolate feel of the 3rd big Star album, while War On War" is ghostly synth pop.

Pot Kettle Black" is the Country Pop relative of The Cure's Inbetween Days", with electric piano, turning into acoustic guitar strummer time before the cheap cheese synthesiser ending that sounds a bit like Telstar. Which sells it to me!

The killer track though is I'm The Man Who Loves You".

They manage to squeeze so many different influences and changes into the song, without actually detracting from the song itself. From a sliding, guitar intro, it takes in Beatles/Scritti Politti melody, a fuzzy Mr Soul guitar mutates into brass, throws in a funk chord sequence, some "Whoo Whoo" backing vocals and then ends it with a Tom Verlaine guitar pile up.

And of course the song title itself sounds like Pop songs should.Broken hearted and braggadocios.There's a live version at =

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" may be revered now, but at the time their label Reprise had no confidence in it.As part of the shake out when Time and Warners merged, Wilco left the label and instead started streaming the album from their own website until they signed to Nonesuch.....which is ironically a Warners subsidiary.

The process of making the album was legendarily fraught and saw the departure of multi instrumentalist Jay Bennett. The albums follow up A Ghost Is Born" saw the departure of Leroy Bach and Tweedy going into rehab for painkiller addiction.

With Sky Blue Sky" released earlier this year (but streamed though the band's site before it's official release) the emphasis is squarely on the songs rather than the production values.

You Are My Face" has hints of Leonard Cohen or Paul Simon type phrasing.The vocals on Side With Seeds" have some of that Steely Dan smooth yelp quality, while What Light" is Dylanesque.

The key track though is "Impossible Germany".

Even though Tweedy has spoken in recent interviews about feeling that this time round he wanted to make the lyrics more direct, he has still managed to use the phrase "Impossible Germany Unlikely Japan".

It's a beautiful song though, full of longing and very long.The band stretch out quite literally, utilising lots of Television moves and then moving onto the Thin Lizzy trick of both guitars playing the same line.

Wilco mix the usual musical influences with the experimental, abstract lyrics with the traditional Country concerns of drinking and gambling, but it's the incendiary guitar playing that's really got my interest at the moment. Live, I think it'll be a treat.