There was a time in the mid-eighties when the north-west of England, and Liverpool in particular, dominated the music scene. The Crucial Three, Pete Wylie, Ian McCulloch and Julian Cope, were at the top of the pile, bursting with creativity, vision and sheer audacity and never short of an outrageous quote for the press. Fast forward thirty years and Ian McCulloch’s in semi-retirement, Julian Cope’s a scholar and novelist, and Pete Wylie’s still doing what he does best; as the t-shirt says ‘Part-time rock star, full-time legend’. Which is why I was wedged in to a heaving crowd at The Water Rats in Kings Cross, watching him prove it, with the current incarnation of The Mighty Wah. He’s still got it.
The room was packed with fans from the eighties, London-based Scousers and even Liverpool-based Scousers, so he didn’t really have to warm them up. As soon as the stage lights went up, it went, well, chicken oriental, as they say in these parts. Pete Wylie’s gained something that you wouldn’t have expected from his eighties pronouncements; he’s learned to have a bit of a chuckle at his own expense. The chats with the audience between songs are sometimes funny, sometimes political (Thatcher and Trump) and sometimes fond reminiscence (Pete Burns and Wylie’s good friend Josie Jones, who was commemorated with the criminally under-rated “4 11 44”). There was plenty of nostalgia, but some powerful new material as well.
When the band kicked into “Come Back” as the second song in the set, it was an acknowledgement that Pete Wylie has anthems to spare, he didn’t need to save this classic for the end of the set. The rest of the set included “Heart as Big as Liverpool”, “Seven Minutes to Midnight” (record of the week in four music papers), “Story of the Blues” and a version of “Sinful” which morphed into “Heroes” as a Bowie tribute. Just when the audience thought he’d run out of anthems, for the encore the band blazed through “I Still Believe”, a new song from the album that’s as good as anything he’s ever written. The album’s called “Pete Sounds”; now that’s what I meant by audacity.
For ninety minutes, a little corner of Kings Cross turned into mid-eighties Liverpool. Trust the t-shirt; Pete Wylie is an absolute full-time legend.
As far as interviews go, I think I’ve been really lucky. In six years, I’ve never had that experience of the uncooperative, bored, jet-lagged or just plain hostile interviewee. I’ve had to work in cupboards stage-side while rock bands soundchecked, but everyone I’ve met has been interesting and charming. I’m pleased to say that Rachael Sage (singer, songwriter, guitarist, pianist, artist and designer) extended my winning streak when I met up with her before her performance at the Discovery showcase at 229 on Great Portland Street to talk about her new album “Choreographic” and her current UK tour (among other things). I even added a new Yiddish word to my vocabulary. Here’s how it went:
Allan – Hi Rachael.
Rachael – Hello.
Allan – How’s the tour going so far?
Rachael – The tour’s been really great. This tour’s a little bit different because, in addition to the club shows at night, we’re also doing workshops in the daytime along the tour route at various schools, either performing arts schools or the dance and drama departments of general schools along the way and it’s been fascinating. I’ve never really done that before; I’m not a teacher, I’m kind of inexperienced at that, but I seem to have a special relationship with kids between nine and fourteen so we’ve been enjoying and learning a lot.
Allan – And presumably that means that you’re performing at unusual times.
Rachael – Indeed it does. We’ve had some crazy call-times to meet at the tour van in the morning, like seven-thirty in the morning to drive a couple of hours to perform at 10 a.m. Actually, this morning we played at 9:30. But on the upside, our jet-lag is so confused that it’s non-existent; we don’t know what time zone we’re in. When we go home to New York, it’ll probably be easier to re-acclimate.
Allan – When you come to the UK, do you find the audiences very different from American audiences?
Rachael – I suppose it would be more politically correct to say no, that audiences everywhere and every environment around the world are just about the same, because people are people and we have deduced that people around the world love music the same amount and they all want the same things out of life and there is that unifying theme that we experience. But in terms of audience reactions we’ve found UK audiences and European audiences in general to be a lot more open and expressive when they really, really like something and it’s not necessarily loud whistling or heckling. They’ll come up to you after shows and have that familiarity and treat you like you’re their buddy they’ve known forever and talk to you about their own lives and themselves; it’s just an openness and we love that, that’s part of why we keep coming back.
Allan – I’ve spoken to American artists who think when they start the set that they’re dying on stage and suddenly at the end of the song, the audience erupts.
Rachael – I’ve experienced that to an extreme in Japan, where you think you’re not going over at all; they must hate it, and afterwards there’s the most gentle clapping and they come up to the merch table and they want to buy all your CDs when you weren’t even certain they were into it. People have their own way of processing music and there really is no wrong. As long as nobody throws tomatoes, we’re happy.
Allan – I understand there’s an interesting event you’re involved in at the end of the tour as well at the Royal Albert Hall.
Rachael – The Dance Prom? That’s an event where we’re running a contest and the school that performs the winning routine to one of my songs will receive a scholarship from my record label Mpress Records and myself. I’m not performing at the event, but it’s very much tied in to the “Choreographic” dance theme of this tour. We’re going to be back in London at the O2 Academy in Islington on October 28th, and The Bedford on November 1st. Looking forward to that.
Allan – For the benefit of the MusicRiot audience, tell me a bit about your background, because it’s been very varied, hasn’t it?
Rachael – It has, and yet everything has had the thread of music really. I started playing piano by ear when I was about two and a half/three years old which the exact same time I was thrust into a pre-ballet where really all you’re doing is running around and spinning around and having fun, somewhere for you to be busy while your Mom gets a break, but it quickly bloomed into a full-blown young ballet career and I ended up becoming quite serious as a ballet dancer and at the same time very serious about being a songwriter. I learned to play by ear pretty much exclusively from sounding out all the music I heard every day in dance class. So I would go home and play all these classical pieces and I have no knowledge of the composers or what they were called because it was an informal education, but it was a very thorough education and I think my sense of melody and dynamics really stemmed from classical music.
Jumping ahead, I kept the songwriting up and I pretty much knew, I wanted to be a professional singer/songwriter and composer well before high school, maybe at thirteen/fourteen. Then for my Bat Mitzvah, my relatives got together and bought me a four-track tape recorder. Once I mastered that, I fancied myself as a budding producer, bouncing vocal tracks and having a good time with that, and by the time I went to college, I was very firm that I wanted to be a recording artist and tour the world doing pretty much what I’m doing now, so I guess I was a planner.
Allan – I’ve spoken to artists who agonise about the genre they’re working in and the way it affects sales of their work…
Rachael – There’s an expression in Yiddish that I have to respond to that; it’s spelt F-E-H. Genre’s a useful tool to help maybe turn people on to your music to be able to describe it in an elevator pitch, as they say. Actually, yesterday another writer asked me ‘How would you describe your music in three words?’, and I said colourful chamber pop. The reason I said that was first of all, I’m in England and I feel like you have a unique appreciation of pop music and also that pop music is a broader genre here. If you say pop in America, people assume you mean Katy Perry and here it could mean The Beatles or Elvis Costello, you know, pop/rock, so it’s broad enough to feel like I’m at home in that category.
Allan – With “Choreographic”, you’ve pretty much invented your own genre, haven’t you?
Rachael – Oh my goodness, thank you. I didn’t invent the word, unfortunately. I guess what I did, what’s interesting is that my music was being used and embraced by the lyrical dance community in America and also over here well before I was aware of it and then a few of my diehard supporters started sending me YouTube links where I would see these full-blown dances to my songs in competitions and winning awards and I didn’t really know about that competitive dance culture because the in dance culture that I grew up with, there were no contests; it was strict ballet and that wouldn’t have been allowed, but it was fascinating to see these young, very prodigious, hard-working kids performing and interpreting the music in a way that that was completely different from how I might have envisioned it and sort of humbling. At the end of the day, you create it and the minute it comes out of you, it’s really not yours anymore; it’s collective ownership and I love that. Eventually when the show ‘Dance Moms’ started using the music, it brought me back to that time in my youth when dance was a huge part of my life and it defined who I was as a person and I hadn’t really thought about that time for a long time. When you’re a former ballerina, you kind of put it behind you because there’s some bitter-sweetness; it was painful and very gratifying, like breaking up with an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend. You move on and you let it go, but this was a good time to revisit it and come at it musically from a more positive angle, I would say.
Allan – With “Choreographic”, there must be certain elements that make it work for that kind of interpretation.
Rachael – Yes, what happened originally was that they were using all these different songs from various albums of mine and of course there were different types of songs on those albums, but the ones they were using were usually very pianistic and very arpeggiated. I guess the average person might say there were hints of classical technique in the piano playing, and then also a lot of stringed instruments, cellos and violins, so I picked up on that. More than anything when I sat down to make this album, I tried to come at it more from a visual perspective of what I thought would work in a multi-media context with dance and music and I could only go by what my imagination was offering. I have done some choreography in my day, it’s not my forte, but I’m such an avid fan of dance and choreography in general that I have a pretty good sense of dynamics and what might be danceable, so that’s really where I was coming from. I also had the visual in my head of perhaps, one day, bringing one dancer or several dancers on tour with me and doing more of a show that’s theatrical as well as pop and that’s still in the works. We’re thinking about mounting something along those lines in New York in January.
Allan – Presumably, as well as the musical side, it has to have a fairly strong narrative as well. Your songs tell stories.
Rachael – Well, the genre of dance which has embraced my music most has indeed been lyrical dance, which is this term I had no familiarity with and I see these young girls, sometimes boys, but not as often, interpreting the music, usually very literally. I have a song called “Barbed Wire”, which was performed on ‘Dance Moms’ and the song itself is about someone in your life who can’t make up their mind and they’re very ambivalent, and how frustrating that is for you when you are certain how you feel. I think adults or maybe contemporary professional dancers might have interpreted it with more of an abstract approach, where you felt the emotion but it wasn’t quite so literal and of course the ten/eleven/twelve year olds literally had a backdrop of a barbed wire fence and were climbing it and interacting with it, and that was so interesting because it hints at the idea of doing a live show where the average person sometimes does need those very accessible touch zones to identify with a new art form.
Allan – Is it true that you actually wrote the album here in London as well?
Rachael – I did, yes. I wrote it in Camden. I had two festivals pretty far apart for me. I like to fill every single day, because I’m a busy OCD kind of an artist and I don’t like days off; they make me nervous. We were coming up on those shows and we had choice between trying to pick up some radio in between or just leave that gap and I said ‘You know what, it’s time for me to write a record.’ I’ve never quite set that deadline for myself before. I usually just let it happen organically; over the course of a year, I write twelve songs and then I have an album and then I’m ready to go record, but I had recently reunited socially with my co-producer from many, many years ago, Andy Zulla, who did my first few records with me, and we hit it off again so beautifully and we got all excited to collaborate again. He said to me ‘When you come back from England, if you have a batch of tunes ready, I can record with you in August and then I’ll be busy again after that, but keep me posted.’ That was a driver as well; I wanted to come back armed, like a fashion designer would feel: ‘I want that fall line all ready to go’. I had five days in Camden, so I holed myself up in a hotel, ditched the car and the tour van and stayed at a Holiday Inn Express. I’d go walking every day and just take in the energy of the city and then I wouldn’t let myself go to sleep unless I’d written at least one song. So that’s the story of how this record was written. It was during Glastonbury Festival too so that was what I watched if anything on the television and it kind of inspired me as well.
Allan – Apart from music and dancing, you have other artistic interests as well, haven’t you?
Rachael – I do, and that’s also why I was drawn to the word choreographic, because I’m a visual artist and I’m a graphic designer, but it evolved more out of necessity than anything else because I run my own record label and when you do that you have to wear a lot of hats, so there have been times when I felt I would just do better designing my own artwork because I had a specific vision. I just figured it all out and so there’s that graphic, visual aspect to my work and there are many artists I admire who have that as well like David Bowie, Kate Bush and David Byrne, so many artists, even John Mellencamp, Tony Bennett, who I admire and I’ve become very interested in their artwork as well and that helps me to have a window into another side of them. I hope that people explore that aspect of my work as well and I have a section on my website, ’Visuals’, where you can see my paintings and collage, and just recently I developed some wearable art; I’ve been painting on jackets and dresses and things like that and it’s just another fun outlet for me creatively.
Allan – I’m always fascinated that most of the very gifted musicians I know have various other artistic interests, like photography, as well…
Rachael – Probably keeps them sane…
Allan – One last question, is there any particular song that always make you cry?
Rachael – My favourite contemporary folk artist is Glen Hansard. I was recently at his concert at Carnegie Hall and I was weeping like a little baby. It’s on his new record. He composed the music for the movie “Once”, which was such an incredible music film and the song’s called “My Little Ruin”. He’s an Irish songwriter who was with The Frames with and there was a Broadway show created from “Once”, which won the Oscar for best song and it ran in the UK and Ireland as well. He’s in the vein of Damien Rice, that kind of vibe, beautiful string section, acoustic guitar and I’m a big Irish music fan. Anything Irish makes me cry.
Allan – Many, many thanks Rachael.
Rachael’s album “Choreographic” is released in the UK on November 11 on MPress Records. You can also see photos from Rachael’s performance at 229 here.
Another Saturday, another venue to tick off the list. The Unicorn on Camden Road seems incongruous in this area; you think it should maybe be a mile down the road with all the vibey places in Camden Town. But maybe it works because of the distance. Anyway, the reason for this excursion from the well-travelled path is to check out a pub that’s daring to put on live music six nights a week; tonight’s offering was the “Somewhat Damaged” night offering four very different live sets. It wasn’t packed to the rafters, but it was reasonably busy, with an enthusiastic audience.
So, first up was a solo set from Adam Lightspeed playing acoustic versions of some new songs and some from his band Starscream’s debut album. It was a valiant attempt, but the album versions lean heavily on big productions and the songs weren’t the same in the stripped-down format. Full marks for effort; it can be a lonely place on stage solo when the room’s nowhere near full. The album “Sexploitation” is definitely worth a listen though.
Next up, Loose Joints were from the badlands of south-east Essex, mashing up funky rhythms with riff-driven rockers and generally getting the audience off their seats on their feet. They even threw in their own take on the James Bond theme. Great tunes, inventive arrangements and loads of fun. I’m sure I’ll be seeing Loose Joints again.
So, what about Sister Witch? The songs are the work of David Ryder Prangley and Lux Lyall, guitarist and singer respectively and they were joined on stage by Belle Star and Anna Christina (drums and bass) from Lilygun and another two guitarists to create a very seventies-style line-up; three guitars, indeed. There’s more than a nod to seventies iconography as well, with DRP’s low-slung guitar and the routine of sharing Lux’s vocal mic à la Bowie and Ronson. And the glam references don’t stop there, some of the riffs could be T Rex at their noisiest and they’re interspersed some classic Stones-style interwoven guitars. And that’s before we get on to the studied ennui of Lux, sitting down to read a Zelda Fitzgerald biography mid-song. A bit theatrical maybe, but it’s all part of the show, and she really can sing, so it’s not just a distraction; it never harmed Bowie or the New York Dolls to introduce a bit of performance art. On a crowded stage there was always something interesting to watch; no way you’re going to ignore Sister Witch. Style yes: substance definitely.
As for Black Sixteen, well, not for me really. Two guitars, bass and drums knocking out muscular riffs and a singer who didn’t quite have the voice to compete. Maybe not helped by the minimal soundcheck, but they just weren’t doing it for me. Nice venue, but one little whinge on behalf of the photographers. Red stage lighting; just say no.
Once you get beyond all of the ‘man of mystery’ smoke and mirrors surrounding Jupiter in Velvet, the single “The World Didn’t Start with U” is actually pretty good. It’s a bit of a glam stomper that opens with programmed drums, a big, distorted guitar riff and a fairly simple guitar melody before leading in to a vocal with elements of Bowie, Bolan and maybe even Brett Anderson in the raucous chorus. It’s big and bold, and not too subtle, the hooks are effective and the voice has that suggestion of camp and androgyny that worked so well for the glamsters in the seventies (and nineties). The video combines a bit of mime performance with a suitably enigmatic storyline built around the viewer becoming part of the story. But here, have a look for yourself:
“The World Didn’t Start with U” is out on October 16th.
Grace Jones’ 1981 “Nightclubbing” album had nine tracks and so does La Roux’s second album, five years in the making and named “Trouble in Paradise”. Besides the stingy number of songs – and don’t try looking for bonus tracks anywhere because you won’t find them -- Grace Jones seems to have made a substantial impact on Brixton local Elly Jackson, aka La Roux. Apart from the image (androgynous female, indeterminate but presumed sexual orientation, bit scary), Jackson has quite dramatically amended her musical outlook since the Grammy-nominated, metallic synth-pop of her 2009 debut and opted instead for a sweltering and more organic and sensual soundscape a la Jones’ infamous Compass Point sessions. This shift in vision has not been without consequences and has subsequently resulted in the departure of La Roux’s partner in crime Ben Langmaid. If anything quality control has improved since their earlier and hugely successful collaborative work and any fears of Jackson faltering without her presumed contemporary are unfounded here.
“Uptight Downtown” is a pretty opaque chronicle on the Brixton riots, a song that may have sounded more topical if had been released when it was written some three years ago. Not exactly a social comment of any real substance, although you sense this wasn’t the point, it is a mid-tempo and juddering pop monster that acknowledges its musical heritage as well as moving straight through any on-trend sounds to form its own unique and modern sound. It fades in on a big bass beat before post-Chic Nile Rodgers guitars echo his production on David Bowie’s “Let Dance” and has a horn refrain which is similar to that of Grace Jones’ “I’m Not Perfect”, again a Rodgers production. “Tropical Chancer”, maybe the most fully realised moment here and the track that squarely apes Jones with a rhythm track that is the identical twin of “My Jamaican Guy”, it’s the stuff of summer anthems. There is tremendous delight to be had hearing Jackson lamenting the introduction of her tropical chancer via a dancer in that she doesn’t slip into an American accent as many would and is lyrically inventive and oddly British in its underwhelmed way of story-telling.
“Kiss and Not Tell” skips and clicks and sounds more than anything like the eighties pop-funk boy band Haircut One Hundred with its scratching guitar and staccato energy and boundless joy. It is one of the few instant pleasures here; it’s infectious and naggingly melodic and bowls over on first listen. Other tracks such as the, by turns urgent, and then spacey “Cruel Sexuality”, which will only generate further speculation surrounding the singer’s own sexuality, and the sharp, xylophone and horn-punctured, “Sexotheque” take a bit longer to love but when they hit, they hit hard. This trio of songs are all about sex but they are not at all explicit in their descriptions of lives which are led by carnal cravings; their sensuality is to be found elsewhere. All of these tracks are so lovingly and beautifully crafted and incorporate subtle musical and sonic detours sometimes lasting no more than ten seconds and never sounding like mass-produced, producer-dictated music which is a large part of its engaging and seductive nature.
“Silent Partner”, one of only three tracks here that would have also sounded at home on La Roux’s debut, is an attempt at an urgent, episodic dance track. The most uptempo song on “Trouble in Paradise”sounds instantly familiar in that it channels 1977 disco classic “Black is Black”, builds to an “I Feel Love” synth pile-up and, in the last minute or so, eventually turns into The Three Degrees hysterically phrased hit “Givin’ Up, Givin’ In”, another Moroder production. As thrilling as this may sound, it doesn’t quite come together in the way it should and La Roux does not introduce either enough vocal or melodic diversity or intensity to keep the full seven minutes completely interesting and on-track for its duration. A very good four minute song however, which, when stretched out, confirms that there are still some areas which Jackson needs to fully master.
“Let Me Down Gently”, another track which in its second half revisits that steely sound from the earlier La Roux signature, does a far more effective job at building tension and momentum and is the album’s real centrepiece – a mournful synth ballad that teases itself slowly with a real majesty. The other ballad “Paradise is You” alludes to the album’s tropical themes and is a hazy, romantic and piano stroked comedown. The sound is fully fleshed out by swirling synths and building harmonies and it’s only on the final track, “The Feeling”, which is the oldest and only weak song here, with its jarringly thin and hollow electronics and return to Jackson’s notably absent falsetto, that the magic comes to an abruptly premature end.
Current prevailing musical styles or trends including trap, EDM or r’n’b pop don’t get a look in here and La Roux’s musical cues end at around 1986 but never once does this result in parody or nostalgic navel-gazing . With not quite every track here being essential it only just misses out on classic status, unlike her heroine Jones’ seminal “Nightclubbing”, which from the get-go contained not one ounce of fat, there is some filler congesting the brief playing time of “Trouble in Paradise”. Possessed and determinedly individual, however, this is still one of the most delightfully uncynical and smart pop albums for some time. La Roux is proving that although she is clearly serious about the potential aims of modern music, she is also having tremendous fun making it – without a doubt the definitive summer release of 2014.
Billie Ray Martin has been very busy of late and finally the fruits of her musical labour are beginning to materialise. A forthcoming duet with Hercules and Love Affair resident Aerea Negrot and a new Jon Tiven-produced country and soul album are pencilled in for some time later this year as well as a re-release of her back catalogue including, perhaps, the mythical follow-up to 1990’s ‘Electribal Memories’. Preceding all of these though, is this intriguing and deeply satisfying cover version of an early seventies David Bowie album-track, “After All”.
A quintessential Billie Ray Martin track in many ways, this new single does hark back to a sound that can be equated to Martin’s old band Electribe 101. A constantly evolving and innovative artist, it is unusual to hear the star reference her own sound in this way and that’s not to say that this is in any way a nostalgic or indulgent recording; it is in fact one of her most vibrant and possessed for some time. Haunting and lusty vocals that are very high in the mix and sound as though they are being whispered directly into your ear, pitched backing vocals that sound likes crazed infants (and true to Bowie’s original in that respect) all set to a throbbing bass-line that was first established in the late eighties. It’s a little freaky and you can dance to it, a perfect combination and Martin has never sounded better – a truly virtuoso performer.
With remixes by Miijk Van Dijk and Caesar Gergess (Van Dijk gets my vote with its hyperactive disco cowbell), there is something to please everyone here. However the original can’t be beaten and this is much more than just a stop gap between other releases. One of the best things I’ve heard this year, Billie Ray Martin continues to shine.
As a special treat, here’s a link to the video as well:
So it’s time to move on to the second half of the seventies and the early eighties and we start off with the P-word.
AM – How did you react when punk came along then?
PB – Loved it; I actually loved it and weirdly I wanted it to do what it wanted to do because up to that point my heroes were not punk at all and the very antithesis of punk. I wanted it, because I would have been about seventeen then, leaving school, and just starting to think about playing music in pubs and got a band together; well, actually, I got a duet together with Martin Gore (yes, that Martin Gore) and we were trying to write songs. He liked, I don’t know who he liked, I think it was Simon and Garfunkel at the time and he did like Sparks and David Bowie. I liked David Bowie but I wasn’t sure, I didn’t trust him which now, I think, was probably wrong, but I didn’t get the idea that superficial and chameleon-like was his theme. At the time I thought ‘I don’t believe he really means this’ and at that time it had to mean it and that meant a lot to me and I was probably wrong and Gore was probably way ahead of me on that. So we wrote songs which I tried to make melodic and soulful and he wanted to make strange and weird. I taught him how to play guitar and he was a better guitar player than he is, well, what he’s ended up as. We were writing some interesting songs at the time and we went out as this strange band and the punk happened, halfway through this band.
I had hair like Marc Bolan at the time and he had a bubble-cut but we found ourselves on these punk bills. I’d started writing a few songs as well, so I found myself as a solo person on these punk bills for no reason whatsoever because I had nothing to do with punk musically but I liked the fact you could play somewhere and there was energy there and I started listening to other people who were playing and I thought I’ll have a listen to this, so I went along to see some bands. I saw The Buzzcocks, The Ramones and The Talking Heads when they first came over, I saw The Clash once and there was a big fight so I didn’t hear much of The Clash, but that wasn’t the point in a way. I tended to like a what went on afterwards in the post-punk era; I got really well into that because there seemed to be room for bands like Television and The Fall with some of their lyrics which, at that point, were suddenly taking over for me and I went from trying to write songs like James Taylor with three words in them to two chords and “War and Peace” over the top of them; “Ulysses” or something like that, but then there were bands that that was feeding into at the time like The Fall. I certainly got heavily into The Fall and the more experimental bands but I would still listen to “The Modern Dance” by Pere Ubu and then go home and listen to “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon” by James Taylor because I think that’s what it’s about; they’re not dissimilar in the sense that the person who’s responsible for the music does what he wants it to do. There’s too many categories, in a way.
AM – I know Television, “Marquee Moon”, everybody claims now that it’s always been their favourite album and at the time…
PB – They’re fucking lying; I tried to get everyone into that and a couple of people got it, but for once the rabid NME press was right about this.
AM – For me it’s still one that I’m happy to get the vinyl copy out and stick it on the turntable.
PB – It is actually an album I can listen to at any time and that’s a rare thing. Sometimes, even your favourite albums you think ‘I’m not in the mood for that’, but I can be depressed, I can be happy, I can be whatever, but when Television comes on, that’s it.
AM – So, that was punk, what about what came after that.
PB – Punk was exciting and I was involved in the energy of it; everywhere you went there were gigs. I sounded like Leonard Cohen at that time but anything went and that was the beauty of it. I wore flares and had long hair at the punk gigs I did and it was, sort of, ok. You’d get comments, but that was sort of the point; wait until Dexys Midnight Runners sing about ‘you’re so anti-fashion, wear flares”. You could do anything you liked, it was sort of Dadaist spirit. It was very early on when the fashion thing kicked in, the Kings Road punks, and it was weird because I felt like I’d transcended that because I hadn’t changed. I didn’t even cut my hair so I was like David Crosby amongst the punks.
AM – So presumably when the synthesisers kicked in that wouldn’t really have been your thing.
PB – When the post-punk thing happened, I used to like some of the bands that became known as Krautrock, Can, Neu and the newer ones as well, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft and Einsturzende Neubauten who were pure noise and distortion and the English versions of that like Cabaret Voltaire; I loved all of that. I thought there’s a synth thing going on and Martin got into it, so he buggered off and did Depeche Mode. Suddenly it turned into this really twee pop with no substance. I don’t hate pop music but I thought, with everything he knew, and the stuff he liked, I thought he would have gone towards Throbbing Gristle rather than this thing that happened, which seemed like it was going to be over in five minutes. For all I know he’s now a multi-millionaire and I’m sitting in a pub in Leigh.
AM – It’s a general thing that innovations like that come along, people make really good music and then somebody grabs bits of it for the mainstream and just dilutes it.
PB – That’s always happened. Bob Dylan wouldn’t have been anywhere if it wasn’t for The Byrds; fabulous as that was, I’d rather hear Dylan. I’m probably alone in the world in preferring “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan to the Hendrix version, even though I like Jimi Hendrix. I’m alone, even Bob Dylan said it’s a better version.
AM – Dylan’s songs have been interpreted by a lot of people; are they better versions or are they different versions?
PB – They’re different versions. Sometimes you can say they’re better versions but the thing I always try to get away from is ‘Dylan’s a fabulous songwriter and an icon of the twentieth century but he can’t sing’. So that means that if Judy Collins or some such does a version of “Idiot Wind”, it will be better, de facto, because she can sing. I could not disagree with anything, outside of UKIP, more vehemently than that. Bob Dylan and Sinatra are probably the best vocal stylists of this millennium. The reason I say that is because you try to play a Bob Dylan song and sing it and not sing a bit like Bob Dylan, not phrase it like him. The same with Sinatra, once you’ve heard “You Make me Feel So Young”, you try and sing that differently. Put your own slant on that; you can’t.
AM – I play and sing badly but I try Dylan songs like “I Shall be Released” and it’s always going to sound like Dylan.
PB – The Band did that; they’ve got some great singers in that band, and it sounded like Dylan; they couldn’t change the phrasing at all. You can sing it in a bland way or you can over-sing it; my worst nightmare is that I’ll wake up and “Positively Fourth Street” is covered by Mariah Carey. She would do it and you can guarantee you would have a queue of people saying ‘Oh, at last this song has been realised by a true singer’, but I would hunt her down and you’d see me on the Six O’Clock News if that happened.
Old people who used to watch the satirical comedy show ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ hundreds of years ago (me) may remember that they spoofed the idea of the grandiose eighties music video accompanying the limp, underwhelming song. ‘Nice Video, Shame about The Song’ is still very much applicable in 2013 too but in the case of London based Cash + David and their debut single “Funn” they both carry very much equal weight. An arresting visual that includes drag king caricatures of David Bowie and Johnny Cash duelling it out in an empty studio which is set to a razor sharp, liquid cool hybrid of electronics and guitars. The vocals, presumably female, are pitched to confuse like a more accessible Planningtorock, no bad thing, but will Cash + David change identity with each record? If the music maintains the quality and panache demonstrated here, who cares?
Released on March 10 2014. Available to pre-order on iTunes.
St. Vincent’s star has been steadily rising for almost eight years. Each one of her three albums has surpassed the other for originality, songwriting ability and scorching self-possession. This, her fourth and the first to be self-titled (and appropriately at that), continues with that trend. Although it may not actually be better than some of 2011’s seductive and quietly threatening “Strange Mercy”, it is a more human and bolder work and marks the introduction of an unfiltered honesty that previous albums kept closer to their chest. She has taken both musical and physical elements of the biggest and most successful pop stars of the mid-eighties and early nineties -- Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson- and compressed them into an art rock template where David Bowie continues to dominate Annie Clark’s pop-cultured psyche. But then again the eponymous naming of the album adds credence and a confidence to the idea that this could only be a St Vincent album, every second of it could have only come from Annie Clark’s own pen, her lips and guitar.
A lot of the songs on “St. Vincent” are uncoded, straightforward story-telling songs relating to Clark’s own experiences. Some of the songs are harder to decipher and are more abstract and, on occasion, surreal. If there is an underlying theme here then it is how life is now for someone who has known what it is to be online for the majority of their adulthood but who has also experienced at the start of their childhood, pre-internet life. It is the outlook of someone who has therefore placed some (healthy?) distance to the option of only living a life continually attached to a screen of some size.
The opening track “Rattlesnake” and cloudily synthetic ballad “I Prefer Your Love”, which sits in the centre of the album and quite sensibly between two of the most frenzied and odd tracks, both fall into the first category of this vivid storytelling. The metallic and brittle shake of “Rattlesnake” recounts Clark’s walk through a seemingly deserted desert, how she removes all of her clothes due to the heat and a desire to be free and connect with both the moment and the surrounding nature. The sound and then appearance of a rattlesnake provokes a fight or flight sprint back to safety. This is a very loaded image or course, phallic maybe and certainly mythical and the raise in Clark’s vocal inflection towards the end -- ‘I’m not the only one!’ -- and the dryness of the rhythm helps bring to life both the thrill and the fear.
“I Prefer Your Love” really does wear its heart firmly on its sleeve. Annie Clark recently very nearly lost her mother to illness and with lines like ‘wipe the blush and smudge from my cheek and wonder what will be become of your little one’, this is a last lullaby for a child whose parent means more to them than any spiritual or religious figurehead could. There is no trickery with this track, it’s a beautiful song and although the rhythm and melody of the verses sound a little like the verses of “Ashes to Ashes” and it could easily be the missing song in a quartet of Patrick Leonard-written Madonna ballads, compared to Clark’s discography thus far it is surprising for its truthfulness and sincerity.
Following last year’s sometimes successful collaboration with David Byrne, the brass funk that dominated “Love This Giant” makes a brief reappearance on the exhilarating “Digital Witness”, a better and more memorable track than any that appeared on “Giant”. Along with the eccentric and genre shifting “Huey Newton”, this song explicitly questions the point of some social media and specially that of sharing information that really requires no further spectators and the reasons why such validation is required for just about everything. Liking another person’s status when that status tells you that they are in their garden? ‘If I you can’t show it, you can’t see me; what’s the point in doing anything?’ echoes Clark. “Digital Witness” is an example of the move, albeit subtle, to songs that are as catchy as can be, subversive lyrically still but brighter and bolder than before. In another lifetime it could have been a Kid Creole and The Coconuts track. The astounding “Huey Newton” which follows a sedated lo-if r’n’b first half suddenly breaks down irreconcilably into a guitar-led psychosis-fuelled second half, initiated by nights of winter time loneliness with only Google Search for company.
“Bring Me Your Loves” is probably the most outwardly and bracingly strange moment on “St. Vincent”. It has an addled and fevered sweat and atmosphere with marching drums, multi-tracked and obnoxious harmonies frustrated by the ‘I took you off your leash but I can’t make you heel’ predicament it finds itself in. The gradually building “Regret” is a throwback in some ways to the woozy and unstable 1960s Disney soundtrack style that dominated the “Actor” album and “Birth in Reverse”, although bold in its lyrical gaucheness (‘it just an ordinary day, take out the garbage, masturbate’) and fluid and spontaneous guitar playing is a good St Vincent song but certainly not a brilliant one.
Later on, “Psychopath” delivers a taut electro-pop number which has some lovely and riveting sonic touches around the ‘ahh, ahh,ahh-ahh ahh’ refrain with everything bar the beat dropping out immediately and unexpectedly after the song’s chorus and “Prince Johnny” swoons sarcastically with divine lyrical bite. Album closer “Severed Crossed Fingers” is quite probably Clark’s best song so far, certainly featuring her most soulful performance to date. 60s girl group swells, chiming bells and guts, spleens and missing fingers. It’s interesting that the silly, noodling introduction to the track almost tries to undermine the weightiness of the sentiment, as though it’s embarrassed by its power. But its double bluff only really goes to show that St Vincent also acknowledges the absurdity that can accompany such grand gestures, that it is all still just an act and that sometimes there really is no hope left.
This is not the album with disco sounds and influences that many claim it to be (partly fuelled by St. Vincent’s description of the material herself before its release). You can dance to it, yes, but probably in the same robo-mannequin moonwalk style that Clarke herself has adopted during recent live shows. The full but still sometimes disconcertingly skeletal sound that is so intrinsically hers remains and has been honed to perfection here and the on-going production by John Congleton (previous collaborations tellingly include both Anna Calvi and Erykah Badu) is typically sharp and flawless. It seems unrealistic to expect her to stay in this role which is her most defined and confident thus far for long but for now St. Vincent has delivered her most accessible, easy to relate to, and consistently engaging and sparky album to date; if you haven’t experienced her yet then “St Vincent” is an excellent place to start.
229, The Venue? It’s easy to get to because it’s part of the International Students’ House complex just across the street from Great Portland Street tube station. Venue 2 is a basement room with a stage at one end and a bar on one side. The acoustics are reasonable so it’s not a bad place to watch up-and-coming bands. My mission tonight, if I choose to accept it, is to have a look at London alt-indie (let’s leave the description at that for the moment) band, Vera Lynch. In keeping with their highly eclectic sound, the band has a multinational line-up with members from the UK, USA, Hungary and the Far East. They are: Sándor Sztankovics (drums), Ted Barker (bass), Keisuke Nishikawa (guitar), Brian Pistolesi (guitar) and Guy Harries (vocals).
If you could splice the musical DNA of Dick Dale, Ennio Morricone and English ‘80s post-punk, you might come close to defining the Vera Lynch sound; you might even want to throw a bit of early Bowie and INXS in there. The band has an EP out at the moment, “Evil Cowboy Surfer Songs” (to be reviewed here soon), and you might expect to hear all four songs from the EP as part of a short live set, but it doesn’t work out that way because, well, this is Vera Lynch. In fact, only two songs from the EP, “Fire” and “”Evil Cowboy Surfer Song”, make the live set. The band opens with “Dog in the Club” and then “Lost Property”, “Horror Doctor”, “Child of Jago” and the anthemic closer, “The End of the World”, follow the two songs from the EP.
It’s quite a spectacle; the band look great and they play together as a very tight unit, moving through varying musical moods with style and panache and providing a bedrock for the lead vocals. Guy Harries is mesmeric and messianic, a twenty-first century Ian Curtis (but with a sense of rhythm) who transfixes the audience with his scary, stary-eyed delivery and a voice that might just have a hint of Freddie Mercury in there as well. Musically and visually, they are impossible to ignore and you really should make the effort to go out and see them.
If you want to see Vera Lynch live in the next few weeks, you can see them at The Dolphin in Hackney on Friday February 28 or Underbelly in Hoxton on Friday April 18.