I’ve seen a lot of gigs in London pubs this year; in basements, back rooms and upstairs rooms. I’ve seen indie bands, electronic bands and Americana artists, but I haven’t been to a gig that was as much fun as Dean Owens supported by Drumfire Records latest signing, Ags Connolly, at The Cabbage Patch in Twickenham. If you pay any attention at all to MusicRiot (or even Ricky Ross or Bob Harris), you’ll know that we’re all big Dean Owens fans; he’s always a great live performer and The Cabbage Patch is a lovely venue for an intimate acoustic performance.
Ags Connolly’s opening set featured songs from his upcoming country and Americana-tinged debut album (produced by Dean Owens) on Drumfire Records and was well received by the enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience, setting things up very nicely for the headline act. I’ve seen arena gigs and festivals this year, but I haven’t experienced an atmosphere as warm as this one.
Dean’s current mini tour is still under the “Cash Back” banner and is partly in support of his current single from “Cash Back”, “I Still Miss Someone” but, from the beginning of the set, it’s obvious that this is about giving the audience what they want, rather than sticking to a rigid set list. What we actually get is a mix of songs from Dean’s three latest albums, “Cash Back”, “New York Hummingbird” and “Whisky Hearts” (and that’s a pretty impressive set of songs to choose from) and a few surprises. Dean’s a very relaxed and accomplished performer, full of self-deprecatory chat and dry Scottish humour between songs. From the start of the set Dean lets the audience know that requests are very welcome and the audience can play their part in the performance.
At various times during the set we hear “Whisky Hearts”, “Man from Leith” and “Raining in Glasgow” from “Whisky Hearts”, “Lost Time”, “Little Baby Fireworks” and “Desert Star” from “New York Hummingbird” and “I Still Miss Someone”, “Delia’s Gone”, “Cocaine Carolina” and the self-penned “The Night Johnny Cash played San Quentin” from “Cash Back”. They’re all stripped-down versions relying on guitar, vocal, harmonica, whistling and a few other vocal tricks, but it’s a mark of the quality of the songwriting that they all work perfectly with the minimalist approach.
There’s also an interesting selection of other people’s songs including “Teenage Kicks” (which Dean played live and acoustic during an interview on an Australian radio station just as the news of John Peel’s untimely death broke), Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” and the totally unexpected “Heart of Glass” (yes, that “Heart of Glass”). The evening had everything you could ask for from a gig, great songs, great performances (from Ags and Dean) and an audience that actually wanted to see and hear the performers. There’s a lot that’s wrong with the live scene in London at the moment (pay-to-play and play for exposure, for example) but when you see a gig like this, you think there just might be some hope. When everyone plays their part (the performers, the promoters, the venue and the audience) as they did at The Cabbage Patch it can be a truly uplifting experience. Thanks everyone.
I first heard about the Radio (in my) Head project over a year ago when I met up with a couple of the people involved in putting the album together. It’s fair to say that it’s been a fairly long flash-to-bang time, but the end result certainly is a cracker (sorry). We’ve been publishing fairly regular updates on the album’s progress and reviews of the singles released so far (as well as a few unrelated singles from the artists involved), so the final release could have been an anti-climax; it isn’t, because this is a very, very good album. Normally, I’d give you a bit of background on the artists, but there are eleven of them, so you can find all you need to know here. I try to avoid track-by-track reviews as well, but there really isn’t any choice here, so I’ll start at the beginning, leaving out the songs we’ve already reviewed as singles.
The opening track, “The National Anthem” by STRNGRS, which eases the listener into the album doesn’t depart radically from the “Kid A” original but replaces the funk groove with a rockier, heavier feel, a bass sound that wouldn’t be out of place on a Kasabian track and a vocal with more than a nod in the direction of Brian Molko. You just know that Black Casino and the Ghost will put their own very individual stamp on “Packt like Sardines in Crushed Tin Box” with an incredibly heavy bassline and Elisa Zoot’s breathy but powerful vocals driving the song along; it doesn’t disappoint.
Stoneface Travellers are the first band to really make a song their own with a version of “My Iron Lung” that replaces the original’s “Dear Prudence/ Lucy in the Sky…” guitar sounds with straight ahead blues riffing. Where the original breaks down into a noisy middle section, this becomes quieter ahead of an extended solo from Emile Gerber. It’s the first radically different version on the album. Yoya’s take on “Wolf at the Door” replaces the mainly acoustic instrumentation of the original with samples played backwards and forwards, loads of electronic sounds and a vocal which goes from pure to fractured in the space of one line; it took Marianne Faithfull twenty-five years to do that.
There are good, and very good vocal performances on the first half of the album, but the first truly outstanding vocal is on Amy Hannam’s version of “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”. The song builds gradually from a chiming guitar intro with the piano providing the bass and a very close-miked vocal which demonstrates the quality and power of Amy’s voice, particularly when joined by the perfect harmonies in the chorus. It has a very 70s prog feel at times; there’s a passage where the vocal is reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky” and the piano is straight out of “Tubular Bells”. And, yes, it does fade out. Skeye’s version of “Karma Police” again has a retro feel using traditional rock band instrumentation and adding organ to the mix in traditional 70s style. The vocal is pure and clear until pushed hard when it becomes more raw and rocky and it’s another song stamped with the style of the performer.
Malin Andersson’s version of “Exit Music (For a Film)” has electric and acoustic guitars providing the backing for Malin’s breathy vocal (close-miked again) before adding a violin, in contrast to the original’s drums and synths in the final third of the song ; it’s another excellent version. Alexey Zelensky tackles the only non-album track of the project, “Staircase”, which was released on “The Daily Mail” single. Many of the elements of the arrangement are similar to the original, including the UK garage/drum ‘n’ bass drum patterns and chiming guitars but Alexey adds some powerful multi-tracked lead and backing vocals and guitar. And I think you can guess what’s coming at the end of the album.
The closer is Bethan Mills’ version of “Creep” and it’s a classic. I must admit to hearing a demo version of this a few months ago and it’s been really difficult to keep this one secret; it’s a powerful and original take on the song that Thom Yorke seems to hate so much now. The song opens with understated piano before Bethan’s (close-miked again), intimate vocal comes in. Drums and bass kick in after the first chorus, but the vocal still punches through the arrangement. There’s a breakdown back to the opening arrangement on the “Whatever makes you happy…” verse before an epic finish featuring a big guitar solo with squalls of controlled feedback drop out to leave a plaintive vocal to end the song. I’m a huge fan of the Chrissie Hynde unplugged version of “Creep”, but I think this version just shades it in a straight fight.
So, it could have easily been a bunch of tired retreads of Radiohead songs but it’s much, much more than that. Project curator John O’Sullivan has pulled together a bunch of people from all over the world to put their own stamp on their favourite Radiohead songs. Listening to the album for the first time, you have no idea of what’s coming next and the surprises are all pleasant. There aren’t any average tracks here; they’re all well thought-out and very well performed. My personal highlights are Amy Hannam’s version of “Street Spirit” and Bethan Mills’ version of “Creep”, but I’ll happily listen to any song on this album.
The good news is that from October 29, you can hear the album in all its glory by downloading it on iTunes here.
What are the odds on Portis(in my)Head next?
My experience over the last couple of years has taught me that when something turns up for review from Dean Owens it’s always worth a listen and the single, “I Still Miss Someone”, is no exception. The song is taken from Dean’s classic album of Johnny Cash covers “Cash Back: Songs I Learned from Johnny” and is released to tie in with his current mini tour with his Drumfire labelmate, Ags Connolly. I’ve already said in the review of “Cash Back…”that there isn’t a bad song on the album, so you know that the lead track is a good version of a Johnny Cash and Roy Cash Jr. Song which is well arranged and tastefully played. It’s a great album track, but I’m not really sure that it’s a single.
However, it’s not the only track on the single; there are three more songs here. “Virginia North” is a Dean Owens original which is interesting, but wouldn’t feature on a “Best Of…” and the two remaining tracks move progressively towards the basic elements of the songs. On “Folsom Prison Blues”, it’s just Dean and an acoustic guitar, and it works perfectly; there aren’t any unnecessary distractions from a powerful song and vocal performance (including Dean’s version of the trucker’s gear change, where he jumps an octave instead of the usual tone or semitone). The final track on the single, Rod McKuen’s “”Love’s Been Good to Me”, is a real surprise; it’s an a cappella version. There’s nowhere to hide here and Dean absolutely nails it; you can’t strip it back any more than that and it’s a beautiful song sung by a great voice. Whether you already have the album or not, this single’s worth having on the strength of the last two tracks.
“I Still Miss Someone” is out October 28 on Drumfire Records (DRMFR013).
One of the benefits of being a member of the Riot Squad is that you get to visit all sorts of weird and wonderful venues and (mostly) hear great new bands; sometimes you even get both at the same time. So this time it’s Buffalo in Islington, a cellar bar with enough PA to ensure the bands are loud and a room that you could probably cram 150 people into if you had a big shoe-horn. We were invited to go and have a look at Civil Protection, who were first on the bill but thought it was only polite to check out the other three bands on the bill.
Sound Off played a set that was musically solid but not particularly strong vocally, while Punch and Judy featured original material plus a couple of covers including the song you couldn’t get away from this summer, “Get Lucky” which they rocked up a bit at the expense of its funky feel and it sounded pretty good. Of the three, Vera Lynch impressed most. They describe themselves as dark alt-surf-garage rock with a sprinkling of psychedelia; the musicianship is very high quality, the songs are strong and they have a very charismatic frontman and I’m sure they’ll be featuring here in the near future.
Civil Protection are a five-piece from Yorkshire (bass, drums, three guitars and occasional vocals) and they released their debut album, “Stolen Fire” earlier this month. They’ve been compared to post-rock bands like Mogwai and This Will Destroy You, but there’s probably a bit of Sigur Ros in there as well. It’s impossible to describe what they do as songs, because there aren’t a lot of vocals; soundscapes is probably better or, if I’m feeling really pretentious, tone poems.
The set opens with the quietly haunting “Monedula” and, as on the album, eases gently into the opening of “Stolen Fire” which builds layer on layer, guitar on guitar using all of the band’s dynamic range. “My Memories will be Part of the Sky” starts like a piledriver before easing back into a build-up starting with a melodic bass line. “Many Moons Ago” and “Redrawn” have similar structures, starting slowly and gradually adding textures (although “Redrawn” does it twice) before hitting a peak and releasing the tension with a gentle coda. And that’s it; thirty minutes and five pieces.
Civil Protection live are a collage of textures and layers of guitar (and bass) parts with a huge dynamic range. The band move effortlessly up through the gears from one clean, quiet guitar to the whole band playing at full power in a live setting with as much confidence as on the album and somehow convey emotional states without using lyrical content. The changes of pace and levels throughout the short set ensure that the audience is always attentive, waiting for the next move. You should make the effort to get out and see Civil Protection live as soon as you can but if you can’t do that, then get yourself a copy of “Stolen Fire”.
Well, this is certainly very different from most of the albums I’ve reviewed recently, apart from the Tess of the Circle album, “Thorns”. Kinver are Ian Parker (guitars and vocals), Beth Porter (cello and backing vocals), Alex Thomas (drums and percussion), Steve Amadeo (bass) and Morg Morgan (piano and Hammond) and they play the gentle, melodic and sometimes haunting songs of Ian Parker. If you’re after banging rhythms and loads of digital effects, then you’re in the wrong place; the arrangements of the songs on their debut, “The Stone House” are tasteful and subtle, demonstrating great technique without any hint of overplaying.
The songs are introspective, confessional folk/rock of the type that was incredibly popular in the early 70s. The opening track,” The Lights” sets the tone for the album with a cello riff (there’s a phrase I never thought I’d use) played over some clipped guitar chords as an intro before the song unfolds into a story of loss and redemption, common themes throughout the album. The gentle “The Will to Dance” leads into what is musically the bounciest track on the album, the almost-jaunty “From the Start”. “Ten Thousand” is a twenty-first century protest song wrapped up in a very gentle, laid-back style while “Silent Void” has a folky start and is probably the most confessional song on the album, but more about that later. “Turning to Light” starts with a military drum pattern, but soon drops into the familiar low-tempo band groove while “Waste in Chains” features a nice finger-picked guitar accompanied by cello, before dropping into a country-feel middle section, then back to guitar and cello. The gloomy “Lonelier Souls” acts as a contrast with the uptempo and lyrically upbeat “Basket” and with “Halfway Home”, the album closes as it opened with guitar, cello and viola.
Musically the album is pretty easy on the ear; the performances are very good throughout and the band move through a variety of styles with ease and Ian Parker has a very good voice, reminiscent at times of another West Midlander, Stephen Duffy. Lyrically, it isn’t such an easy listen. Ian Parker, as a lyricist, pulls out some interesting metaphors including this in “From the Start”: ‘It occurred to me you see that I’d never really be quite round enough for many of life’s holes’, but it’s the content overall that I’m less sure about.
I’m quite partial to a bit of melancholy, even misery, in my music but on “The Stone House” it’s almost inescapable. There’s an air of fragility which runs through each track on the album, in the music as well as the lyrics and a sense of alienation in the lyric above, but also in several references to misfits and addiction. The songs could have been sequenced to create a narrative of redemption (or the opposite) but we’re left guessing how the story actually ends. It’s difficult to tell if a song is confessional and based on biographical events, or a complete work of fiction but if “The Stone House” is based on reality, then I really hope that making the album has helped Ian Parker through a difficult time. If it’s a creation and not a confession, then it’s a very convincing portrait of a desperately difficult existence.
CD release Monday October 21
Ready or not, here it comes. It’s the second single from the Radio (in my) Head project and this time it’s the turn of Sullivn putting their highly individual stamp on “The Bends”. The band are John O’Sullivan (all vocals), Layla MK Kim (piano), Simon Goudarzi (guitars), Sjur Opsal (bass) and Jon Mar Ossurarson (drums). Now, I have to be completely honest here and admit that despite loving Radiohead, I can take or leave the original of that particular song. In fact, I’d rather leave it; if you can imagine Tom Verlaine singing alternately stoned and constipated, that’s how I hear Thom Yorke’s vocal on “The Bends”.
This version is a very different beast, opening quietly and intimately with close-up solo vocal and piano before the guitars, bass and drums come thundering in at the end of the verse. The song, at different times, features funk elements, big distorted guitars, twin guitar parts, hints of late Beatles production and some subtle piano touches throughout. There is a tremendous attention to detail as the vocal sound moves from full and resonant to thin and distant and the guitars play power chords followed by atonal fills. You need to do two things to get the most out of this; play loud and repeatedly. Your neighbours won’t mind.
The B-side is a remix of Sullivn’s first single “Come Back”, taking the song down a very different route from the fairly straightforward ballad treatment of the original with a very trip-hop dubby feel of Massive Attack and Portishead and very heavy bass. It’s not quite full on Lee Perry dub, but there’s a lot on interesting things going on there. Possibly even better than the original single mix.
So what you get here is a Radiohead cover that’s packed with invention and great performances along with a cracking B-side. I only wish I liked the original more so I could really emphasise how much more I like this version . It’s available from Tuesday October 8 on iTunes.
Just in case anyone hadn’t realised, I’ve loved the Manics almost from day one. From the first time I heard “Slash ‘n’ Burn”, I was hooked and I’ve never heard anything since that came remotely close to unhooking me. I loved the Richey-period Manics because of Richey’s lyrics and James’s voice, playing and ability to write a memorable tune and I didn’t skip a beat when Nicky Wire took over as main lyricist for the band. He’s a gifted writer and he has an opinion or two; I like that.
So, in 2006, when James Dean Bradfield released his solo album “The Great Western”, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. I loved it the album the first time I listened to it and I still love it every time I listen to it. The highest chart position it reached (with minimal promotion) was 22, and that puts it firmly in Closet Classic territory. Oh, and my favourite mondegreen is on this album, but I’ll tell you about that later.
So why would a songwriter in a commercially successfully and critically-acclaimed band want to release a solo album? Well, the Manics have always been big on the manifesto songs but, with a few exceptions (including “Life Becoming a Landslide” and “Ocean Spray”), they’ve not really done the personal, apolitical and introspective thing. If you’re a songwriter as prolific as James, you’re always going to have a bunch of great songs that just won’t work on any band album. When you listen to “The Great Western”, you realise that it would be criminal not to get these songs out there.
I love an album that opens with a big guitar riff and “The Great Western” certainly ticks that box; throw in some handclaps as well on the intro to “That’s No Way to Tell a Lie” and you’ve got my attention from the first four bars (it was even used on “Match of the Day”, so full marks to that BBC researcher). The production on the album is generally Spectoresque wall-of-sound, with the exception of the beautiful minimalist acoustic Jacques Brel cover “To See a Friend in Tears” and the final song “Which Way to Kyffin” which references Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”, and James has great fun with all of the melodic invention, layers of acoustic and electric guitars and completely over-the-top backing vocals that you would never hear on a Manics record (ok, maybe on “Everything Must Go”).
Lyrically, the album generally looks backwards to the early days of the Manics, life in the valleys in the 1980s and moving away from that life. “An English Gentleman” is a tribute to the band’s first publicist, Philip Hall, “Say Hello to The Pope” and “Bad Boys and Painkillers” (the only song on the album co-written with Nicky Wire) look back to life in Blackwood, and “Emigré” deals with the conflict created by leaving your roots to pursue your dreams. “Still a Long Way to Go” sounds a lot like a prequel to the highly personal “Ocean Spray” and “Run Romeo Run” has a chorus to rival anything that made it on to a Manics record.
Anyone with a pair of ears knows that James Dean Bradfield can write a great tune (and you can ask Shirley Bassey about that) but “The Great Western” proves that he’s a gifted lyricist and a talented producer as well. Seven years after I bought this album, I still love to listen to it and I’m convinced that James had a huge amount of fun putting the whole thing together. I suspect it was bought almost exclusively by Manics fans and that’s a bit of a shame really because this is a superb bunch of songs and it’s eclectic, well-crafted, well-performed and well-produced.
And what about that mondegreen? After hearing “On Saturday Morning We will Rule the World” many, many times I was still confused by a line that I heard as “A book of Brie and a telephone” until I finally realised that it was “A Ford Capri and a telephone”, which is ironic given that I’ve spent the last ten years living as an emigré a couple of miles from the old Ford complex in Dagenham.
Even if you’re not a fan of the Manic Street Preachers, put your prejudices to one side and listen to an album that absolutely fizzes with emotion and musical and lyrical invention. What more could you possibly want?