Wednesday, 14 December 2011

All The Colours: 2011's Best Albums

1. D - White Denim
Downtown / Cooperative

White Denim's previous two albums saw this gifted and spirited three-piece innovating with limited equipment and whimsically meandering through classic and garage rock. It was brilliant at times, patchy at others. But it turns out everything the Austin band had been doing was leading to this, a most extraordinary, near-flawless LP. When restrained songwriting is called for ('Street Joy' and 'Keys'), they are experts. When ebullient, melodic jamming was the go ('Back At The Farm') they were astonishing. And as ever, their take on the concept of the 'riff' was wonderfully askew and varied. Having employed an extra guitarist to complement James Petralli they have somehow lost none of their primitivism, yet are notably more advanced as musicians and composers. If a better band exists right now they must be performing for the gods, as there is none better down here.

2. Gentle Stream - The Amazing
Subliminal Sounds

Overly accomplished musicians are generally a drag. But The Amazing (two things to remember: don't call them a Dungen side project and don't say anything so nauseating as "with a name like that they'd better back it up" as too many reviews did) have a restraint, taste and lightness of touch that makes their technical prowess more palatable. Gentle Stream is a pastoral, melodic, textured and deeply spiritual second album based around Christopher Gunrup's Romantic perceptions as both singer and songwriter. This is music aiming seriously high, and indeed minute by minute reaches loftier plains.

3. Ashes & Fire - Ryan Adams

Housewives dropped their pots and pans and stood still. Men ceased chopping the wood and listened to the air. Obama asked "can I have the room?" when he heard the news: the first
Ryan Adams album in three years was on the way. Ashes & Fire is his best since 29 (2005) and similar to that album sees him assuming the role of trembling romantic. As heavily pointed out in reviews, this was a throwback to a different period of his life before he started those endless jams with the Cardinals, therefore the emphasis is on the strange poetry of his lyrics as well as some typically beautiful songwriting - case in points being 'Kindness' and 'Rocks'. Time has mellowed him, but not blunted him.

4. WIT'S END - Cass McCombs

The best song from Cass McCombs in 2011 came on his second album of the year (see below) but as a rounded, comprehensive statement, WIT'S END was the superior effort. His theme since 2008 has been defiant misery, with doses of terrifying urban imagery thrown in too, and on here it really was often a case of the rather overused term 'beautiful pain'. Opener 'County Line', 'Memory's Stain' and 'A Knock Upon The Door' revealed his growing awareness of the power of different instrumentation to add to the gravity of his sound, while his lyrical narratives about those depraved characters remain as stark as ever.

5. Humor Risk - Cass McCombs

When a measure of light returned to McCombs' music in November it was a little confusing. The varying degrees of energy and excitement on this album led to some accusing it of being somewhat disjointed and inconsistent, but say what you will, this contains some fascinating songs. None more so than 'The Same Thing' of course, but multiple listens to the strange 'Robin Egg Blue' reveal another brilliantly constructed example of his art and increased the mystery surrounding the man himself. The two albums taken together are, to coin a phrase from 'The Same Thing', 'cut from different sides of the same cloth'.

6. Don't Act Like You Don't Care - Luke Temple
Western Vinyl

Temple, whose Here We Go Magic material never quite hit the heights, referred to this as his 'country' album as it was being recorded. Given that it is not country at all suggests the departure it is from his usual aforementioned band. These are all old songs of his given a new interpretation, with the results being startling. Accessible but slightly odd, Temple reveals depths as a songwriter he has only hinted at before. This is somewhat reminiscent of Phosphorescent's Here's To Taking It Easy (2010), and pleasantly echoes that mix of humor and pathos.

7. Tripper - Fruit Bats
Sub Pop

It's debatable whether Tripper is the best thing Eric D. Johnson has ever done, but it is certainly his most eclectic. Using his familiar folk-rock template as merely a launch pad he explores such things as glam, synth-pop and his really very attractive sense of humour from start to finish. There are many touches of sentimentality amid the grit and glitz, but never does anything obscure the fact that Johnson is at least the creative equal of his pals and collaborators James Mercer of the Shins and Andy Cabic of Vetiver.

8. Smother - Wild Beasts

I am one of the few who believes Wild Beasts' first album, Limbo, Panto, to be their masterpiece. That record was full of the joys of bounding young men finding their musical feet and was an audible testament to their friendship. Smother is the logical next step from Two Dancers in establishing them as bona fide artists, demanding they be taken very seriously, and taken seriously they must be. This is their first slow-burning album that will take a few listens to sink in, yet it will eventually reveal itself to any listener to be triumphant. Since they started out, there is not much more they could have done to achieve perfection.

9. Sun & Shade - Woods

When a band is as marvelously consistent as Woods it is sometimes difficult to examine an album in isolation and assess it on its own merits. But Sun & Shade genuinely is probably a class above the rest of Jeremy Earl's output, forcing together all of his influences - from Fairport-like folk-rock to the drone of the Velvets to their most obvious debt this time around, early Neil Young and Buffalo Springfield. Earl is a beautiful, if derivative, songwriter whose maturity never gets in the way of playfulness. Woods may not have released their Sgt Pepper yet, but this may be their best album to date. And give me them over Fleet Foxes any day.

10. Konkylie - When Saints Go Machine

When Saints Go Machine have equal reverence for sugary house, out-and-out pop, hip hop, trip hop and by the sounds of Konkylie, lush orchestral music. This is not an album to listen to in the background, because every note and nuance from the Danes must be heard and its puzzle worked out. The title track sounds like a strange medieval piece played out on synths, while other tracks, such a 'Kelly' are superbly crafted pop tunes. There's Scott Walker in here, as there is The Human League, Grace Jones and Beck. It's that confused, and that good.

11. The Errant Charm - Vetiver
Sub Pop

Of course, The Errant Charm is not even close to being as good as To Find Me Gone (2006), but Andy Cabic deserves credit for allowing Vetiver to recover from the really very boring Tight Knit (2009). Granted, there are several hangovers here from that album that prove he is not quite over his 50s rock and roll fetish quite yet, but there are enough gems on here to suggest that something incendiary still lurks inside the San Franciscan. Opener 'It's Beyond Me' and 'Can't You Tell' are among his most interesting tracks - he is has not succumbed to the pitfalls of being too nice just yet, then.

12. No Witch - The Cave Singers

In the four years since they formed, The Cave Singers' profile has remained surprisingly stagnant, mainly, despite the fact they have released three excellent albums of passionate, sometimes nearly hysterical, devil's music. Like many on this list, the trio have made repetition and sparseness the source of their emotional energy, with the voice of Pete Quirk consistently astonishing in its nasal beauty. This was slightly better that Welcome Joy (2009) and is deserving of considerably more attention than it got. One of the year's understated folk gems.

13. Zeroes QC - Suuns
Secretly Canadian

To many, this is the standout album of the year, and it is certainly one of the most original. Like When Saints Go Machine, they have taken all the most accessible and infectious elements of several other painfully modern styles (in Suuns' case, more on the side of industrial, indie, drone and dance) and constructed a mesmerising tribute to their own tastes. This is nothing less than a triumph of studio production and craft, and that it trumps even the latest Battles album suggest just how excellent Suuns' debut truly is.

14. Pajama Club - Pajama Club

It's true that Neil Finn's devotion to having his wife so closely involved may be on the verge of stretching too far, and it's also true that there are some uncharacteristic lyrical disasters here, but there was a lot to love about this idiosyncratic little morsel from the great man. 'Can't Put It Down Until It Ends' is everything that is good about weird Neil (hear below), while 'Go Kart' felt like a regression back to his pre-Split Enz teenage attempts at songwriting, and is all the better for it. And when the inevitable sentiment comes ('Diamonds In Her Eyes', 'Golden Child), it's not out of place. A super trick.

15. The People's Key - Bright Eyes
Saddle Creek

The emotion surrounding the fact this may well be the last Bright Eyes album should not get in the way of the fact that on its own merits, this latest instalment was certainly worthy of Conor Oberst and his band, and indeed is probably the best album he's done of any kind since 2005. The easy route would have been to tone down the ideology, but if anything he has ramped it up a notch, with his familiar cryptic take on it still adding a mystique to his darkly-lit folk rock that none can match. The enigma and charisma of the (still) young man ensures this is a fitting farewell, if farewell it must be.

16. Who's Breathing? - Ryan Driver
Fire Records

The Silt's 2009 debut Cat's Peak was a wonderfully interesting thing - equally indebted to the rough folk of Will Oldham or Iron and Wine as well as the meandering soul of Marvin Gaye or a host of other Motown artists. Ryan Driver's voice rose above the sophisticated arrangements of this uncategorisable group to take centre-stage then, and his second solo album is even more imaginative. Anything rustic has been binned as Driver seeks out a musical domain somewhere between exemplary singer-songwriter (Ron Sexsmith, Tom Brosseau) and indeed a distinct jazz-club, after-hours sense of romance.

Bachelorette - Bachelorette
Drag City

Annabel Alpers did not find a huge number of friends among reviewers when she released this, but it is nevertheless an extremely satisfying, indulgent and syrupy work of electronica that genuinely does explore its own themes and ideas. It's not hard work, this, but it is instantly gratifying - a tricky thing to pull of. Alpers' vocals tie the thing together, those tremulous tones a stark and beautiful assertion of humanity amid all the artificial noise. She has made better songs in the past, without everything coming together as nicely as this.

Country Ways - Carlton Melton

Perhaps for the first time, Carlton Melton settled down in 2010 and put their minds to making an album, rather than a slew of unfocused jams that they released without a whole lot of thought. The result of that new-found structure is an album of pounding psychedelic, improvised rock and roll that was both a fascinating headphone listen as well as a good example of their legendary live show. This was also better mixed, arranged and produced than their previous material. That said, their fearless pursuit of the loud and messy remains their most attractive feature. Their ultimate statement.

19. Starry Mind - P.G Six
Drag City

If only for that sumptuous opener, 'January' (below). For all the talk of the 60s folk-rock-revival revival, there are few who have been able to capture the essence of Fairport Convention, The Youngbloods and perhaps snatches of Neil Young quite as brilliantly as this. Of course, P.G Six, an exceptional guitarist, has been around for ages so this is no blistering opening statement, but it is the latest in a career that has plodded along with no fanfare but with a great deal of soul. Derivative as hell (add the Jayhawks and some Britpop in there too), he truly tapped into the spirit of the Paisley Underground, and a whole lot more besides.

20. Violent Hearts - Shimmering Stars
Hardly Art

It's never a very good idea to name your band after the way you sound, but these Canadians can be excused, I suppose. 'Shimmering' or 'glimmering' describes their shameless take on the Everly Brothers, with their deliberately shabby recordings ensuring we are in no doubt as to who they are aping. That is going to infuriate many, but the trio do seem very sincere and frankly obsessed with the Phil Spector approach - plus the songs are excellent. Another pretty disposable listen but one that is as warm and emotive as anything else this year.

Highly Commended

Two-Way Mirror - Crystal Antlers
The Whole Love - Wilco
Napa Asylum - Sic Alps

Reissues Of The Year

1. Time Capsule - Lone Pigeon
2. Love Has Made Me Stronger - Carol Kleyn
3. Smile - The Beach Boys
4. Tomorrow The Green Grass - The Jayhawks
5. The Sophtware Slump - Grandaddy

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Interview: A Letter From Cass McCombs

To many, Cass McCombs went to his darkest place yet on new album WIT’S END. Here was a collection of morose and rather archaic-sounding ballads that told helpless tales of lost love, grief and existential angst. One almost wondered what demons had befall Cass in the two years since his distinctly more witty and varied previous LP, Catacombs, such was the elastic emotional range on show on WIT’S END.

The thing to remember with this artist though, is that ever since his first album A, his songs have always been ‘story’ songs. The ‘Lionkiller’ of Dropping The Writ is not him, Catacombs’ ‘The Executioner’s Song’ is not his personal paean to job satisfaction and the miserable figure at the centre of WIT’S END’s epic closing track, ‘A Knock Upon The Door’, is not him either. It all begs the question of how he is able to call upon these reserves of apparent despair… maybe it’s the mood he finds in the American air these days (because if there is one artist peculiarly obsessed with being American, it is McCombs).

As an artist and songwriter, McCombs wants to feel everything and be everything – to tell the tales of kings and of paupers alike from the inside. And perhaps this is why he is so reticent with media coverage and interviews to the point that his ostensible reclusiveness is as well known as his music. To talk about his songs is to reduce them to one thing, to frame them when they should be allowed to sprawl and expand, both in the minds of listeners and more importantly, himself. So he simply doesn’t talk about them, or at least, is incredibly careful of whom he communicates with, how he communicates and the language he uses.

When his third album Dropping The Writ was released in 2007, he was still willing to do the odd telephone interview, albeit providing many one-word answers and leaving endless journalists enduring his trademark excruciating silence. Then when Catacombs came out, it was email questionnaires only, so he could pick and choose which questions he answered and to what extent of detail. Replies were invariably pretty laconic, to say the least.

Then finally, when it came to doing press for WIT’S END, McCombs chose to communicate with the media by post. Journalists were expected to write a letter of questions to his manager in Los Angeles, who would forward them on. As well as embracing the romance of epistolary communication, McCombs was ensuring he only heard from those who cared enough to go through this unusual rigmarole.

I sent him 15 handwritten questions, never for a second expecting he would answer each one in turn, or even one directly. Naturally, I received a straightforward one-page letter in return… typed out using Word, by the looks of it – so much for the romance of us men of letters.

However, the questions that took his fancy, that he seemed to be addressing in the letter, were:

1. What has your life entailed over the last year?

2. WIT’S END is a beautiful record. How did you approach the songwriting and recording process as distinct to Catacombs?

3. WIT’S END and Catacombs seem less directly autobiographical than Dropping The Writ. Is that the case from your point of view also?

4. What is your relationship with the idea of ‘tradition’, do you see yourself as part of one?

And that was about it. Here’s the letter:


Thank you for taking the time to write to me. I’ll try and answer your questions best I can.

This past year… after spending a lifetime of trying not to get my hopes up, I’m not concerned bout convincing anything to anyone, it’ll just be taken the wrong way. There’s no different approach to any of my records, I just write and record continuously and release the songs that seem the most complete. I have a sketchbook approach to making records, they’re drafts for a better version somewhere down the line, maybe a better live version, or maybe someone who can really sing will find my songs. Recordings give a general layout of songs so you can see what’s possible. The greatest possibilities are non-recordable, they are transient. I’m after a pure feeling through music, which anything could trigger if you’re open to it, mainly I’m talking about the feeling that comes across through performance, the feeling that is passed back and forth from the audience to the stage, the most thrilling and surprising feeling, pure spirit.

In my old age I’m interested in songs with a good story, with characters that carry my imagination. I think through storytelling the true spirit of the songwriter comes through far more than if they were writing in the first person, spilling their guts out. I’ve learned this the hard way. Nobody wants to hear your feelings or your opinions. Nobody can relate to your innermost thoughts, the best we can do is trade stories, speak in parables, and be good listeners.

I’m sure we’re all part of a tradition, though beats me where it’s taking us. Perhaps under the Vatican is hidden a scroll that explains the sacred bloodline of songwriters, right next to the family tree of the first person who mated with a ghost, causing the bloodline of the white race, a half-breed race of half-human and half-ghost. I don’t know and don’t care about tradition except to carry the old time songs into the future. It’s bad news that so few people care about the old songs, but what can you do. I’m talking about the really, really old songs. The kind that return us to our primordial essence.

My music has nothing to do with my factual life, it never has. The songs are told through characters that are totems for feelings that I get from friends and people I meet. Songs are masks.

I saw a snake yesterday.

I hope this finds you well.

Rest in peace, live in love.


Thursday, 23 June 2011

Live Review: Pajama Club @ Oxford Art Factory, 13/6/11

When Neil Finn reformed Crowded House in 2007 it put a firm stop to the interesting things the 53-year-old was doing on his own. While it would be a stretch to call his solo work experimental, 2001’s One Nil, as well as his dalliances with film soundtracks and the like, saw him embracing synthesisers, reverb, effects pedals and other strange noises of the future.

The Pajama Club, where Finn is joined by his wife and erstwhile wallflower Sharon along with New Zealand ‘music personality’ Sean Donnelly and Brisbane indie jewel Alana Skyring, allow this side of him to be fully indulged. It’s been rather too long since the world saw Finn’s freak flag fly.

Playing their fourth show ever tonight, they made the promotional push of playing their forthcoming album in its entirety, a record that from tonight’s showing promises to be full of dramatic space-rock flourishes, touches of Talking Heads-style keyboard from Donnelly and a meandering ‘jam’ quality as to call to mind the work of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. There is even enough of a sprite within Finn on this project to take one back to 1980 and Split Enz’s suitably eccentric True Colours album.

The only song available to be heard by fans prior to the show was ‘From A Friend To A Friend’ (released online), actually far from being the strongest song in their set, that honour falling to their propulsive (and unknown) opener, Sharon maintaining a one-note bassline for its entirety while her husband brought the track to a shuddering climax on his good old red Gretsch Firebird.

That richness was heard again on ‘Diamonds In Her Eyes’, while some more familiar melancholic chord changes could be found on the comparatively sedate ‘TNT For Two’. Mention must also go to a strangely awful duet between the married couple about carnal etiquette featuring Neil on drums, and a quite spectacular mid-set medley that saw ‘Suffer Never’ (from the first Finn Brothers album) mutate into Tubeway Army’s ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’ That was the only nod to Finn’s past all night, ensuring that this project has a special energy of its own.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Track-By-Track Review: WIT'S END by Cass McCombs

The new album comes out April 11 in the UK and April 26 in the US. It's Cass's fifth record and sees him as reclusive as ever, and continuing the rather browbeaten poetic melancholy of his previous LP, Catacombs. While on first dozen or so listens this does not seem like his best album, each song is a universe on its own, making WIT"S END deserving of a piece-by-piece breakdown. Because what else is there do to.

'County Line'

With soft organ, slow tempo and shivery guitar lines, this opener immediately signifies WIT'S END as carrying on where Catacombs left off. This one was shunted around the internet as a pre-release taster of the new stuff, for good reason. Melodically this is probably the most satisfying song on the record, complete with a nifty refrain reminiscent of Pink Floyd's 'Echoes' and, by association, Phantom Of The Opera. The overall impression, however, is of a cross between 10cc and The Band. Have you ever considered the vague vocal similarities between Cass and Richard Manuel?

'The Lonely Doll'

For all his originality, Cass McCombs has a few songs in his back catalogue where, probably not deliberately, he has sounded exactly like another artist. Look at 'Full Moon Or Infinity' (Elliott Smith) or 'Subtraction' (Morrissey). This is Cass doing early Leonard Cohen. It's all there, the slow ups and downs of the vocal line, the absurd repetition of the title line and the cutesy xylophone. Cass's touch is to throw in some swelling Hammond organ, and to do his usual trick of coming up with a short and tuneful vocal refrain, and repeating it throughout the song without aberration. Magical.

'Buried Alive'

Backing vocals make their debut on WIT's END on this one, even if they are fleeting. Soon we meet the most mysteriously arresting line of the album in 'If I'm alive or dead I don't really care/Just as long as my soul's intact', and indeed in this one it seems that unlike the previous two songs, he is making a point of articulating the words. Of course, they offer expressive little vignettes rather than a coherent message. The organ/harpsichord line in this one is very lovely, with that same Baroque quality as the Beatles' 'In My Life'. The song peaks with a delicious mantra of 'Maybe I'm wrong/Maybe I'm waking for the dead'.

'Saturday Song'

This piano-led number is probably the bleakest song on the album. At no point does it snap out of its state of ominousness, with McCombs unusually exploring the lower end of his vocal range, and indeed after a couple of albums steering clear of the Morrissey influence, this sees him paying his respects once more. A little over-long maybe, 'Saturday Song' will not be the one most listeners skip to.

'Memory's Stain'

Much better. The 'verse' melody is in his typical high croon, but unlike so many of his songs, this one has distinct sections - perhaps four. Even a chorus. Its diverse nature is further proven by the ups and downs of his voice, and there are the familiar phonetically impressive lines as 'I have a confession/In the form of a question'. Dare I say this has a certain air of Sufjan Stevens to it? Again, he ends the song on a startling note, with a beautiful meandering section that sees the most wonderful use of bass clarinet this side of Rufus Wainwright. A real highlight.

'Hermit's Cave'

In some ways, you could say that WIT'S END and Catacombs come as one project, with the former being the sequel to the latter. This is another sparse one, driven by a riff reminiscent of Bryter Layter, which is interesting given that for all McCombs' singer-songwriterly credentials, Nick Drake is not an obvious influence. Interesting here is this song's emotional energy.'Hermit's Cave' begins with a kind of buoyant youthful expressiveness before it comes to an existential crash in its chorus. The juxtaposition is depressing, and beautiful.

'Pleasant Shadow Song'

The penultimate track has the least accessible melody, but also some of the most attractive chord changes and instrumental arrangements. Unlike the rest of the album, this one will take a few listens to grasp. A previous song along these lines must be Catacombs' 'The Executioner's Song'. A full album of this looser style of songwriting might be too much, but this proves McCombs as capable of expressing more than one melodic idea in a song.

'A Knock Upon The Door'

The return of the bass clarinet, and a banjo and even a saxophone for this final slog. This is a perfect encapsulation of Cass McCombs' songwriting style. A single phrase is composed and then repeated for nine minutes, yet the song passes through countless landscapes due to its changing instrumentation and arrangements and the different vocal intonations allowed by the words. Cass doesn't repeat himself once, apart from always returning to the title line. The essence of this song, and indeed a large part of his art, is this: to see how far he can get from his point of departure before returning again. It's often not very far, but he certainly makes the journey worthwhile.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Ted Lucas

One mailing list I hope never to be unsubscribed from is that of the Drag City label. The latest missive from them brought tales of the new album from Six Organs of Admittance and single from Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and the Cairo Gang. Let's not forget also that it is this imprint that supports many Alasdair Roberts' releases.

But it is their reissues that have been causing me the most frissons of excitement. Of course, it was Drag City (and indirectly, Six Organs Of Admittance) who allowed the world to hear Gary Higgins' Red Hash, when they oversaw its re-release in 2005. That album's dazzling magnificence has seen it become relevant to the constant inner dialogue that is the tumultuous and fatuous debate over the best album I have ever heard. Red Hash is up there.

Anyway, the latest Drag City email contained details not of one of their own reissues, but pointed in the direction of the Sebastian Speaks label (run by former Silver Jews guitarist William Tyler). They have put out a curious thing from 1975 by Ted Lucas. Lucas was a meandering soul who drifted between a few nondescript bands in the 60s to become quite a big deal as a sessioner in the 70s, according to a his tribute website, working with Frank Zappa, Yes, Ravi Shankar and a few others. Here, for starters, is a song:

His 1975 eponymous album, apparently known as The OM Album among many, is a delightful thing. Sebastian Speaks put out the album earlier this year, and it hits a vaguely similar spot to Higgins, if a little less spacey and textured. The LP is full of short examples of woozy songwriting by a man for whom life must have been one long stretch of calm, with quite a lot of weed thrown in too. On that note, Lucas even managed the difficult trick of coming up with a song extolling drug use that isn't wretched:

Some other interesting reissues in recent times from Drag City include that from Vernon Wray:

along with that from good old Mickey Newbury:

and a wonderful load of nonsense from Ed Askew, the prototype for Daniel Johnstone:

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Live Review: De La Soul, Enmore Theatre, Feb 10

I've been to some concerts recently. And even had a good time at a couple, proving there is still life in the old dog yet. Writing about them, however, is another matter, but I did have to ease out the following as a favour to someone.

When De La Soul Is Dead was released in 1991, it was a strident deconstruction of everything that had defined the trio three years earlier on their debut 3 Feet High and Rising. That album saw them at the forefront of a strange new age for hip hop, one that involved fluorescent colours, advocated peace and compassion and had a surreal sense of humour. The daisy age phenomenon allowed De La Soul commercial success, yet some in the rap community deemed them lightweight, hippies, or worst of all, hip hop for white people.

De La Soul Is Dead was a cutting, ironic and relatively dark riposte to all that. It distanced them from the acts who followed their lead and returned them to the less exuberant, more profound territory of the pre-daisy years, with a sound more like Eric B & Rakim than the Jungle Brothers. Twenty years later, they are playing Enmore to pay tribute to this landmark release. The enthusiasm and the heart are all there, but they failed to honour De La Soul Is Dead, preferring instead to tread their well-worn path of dance-happy party music.

These days, De La Soul cruise around the world like the Harlem Globetrotters, performing shows that are more exhibitions of hip hop than anything original. Naturally, there is nothing wrong with that, aside from them being a little one-dimensional in their hell-bent desire to entertain, negating the changes of pace and overlapping samples that make their music so extraordinary. This was one of those typical shows, apart from the absence of Maseo, whose flight was cancelled from the US. Long-time producer Prince Paul filled in on decks.

True, they did play a number of De La Soul Is Dead’s best tracks, with Trugoy and Posdnous careering through ‘A Roller-Skating Jam Named ‘Saturday’’ and ‘Ring Ring Ring’, while 3 Feet High was honoured with ‘Potholes In My Lawn’ and ‘Buddy’. It was a good show, but anyone who came expecting something in the spirit of their fine second album would have seen its message swamped by the deafening sound of a good time.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Goodbye Pen Pusher

Around this time of year about five years ago I was still in the middle of what is increasingly turning out to have been a fruitless waste of time and money. In other words, my Masters in Journalism from London College of Communication. In the midst of this, I was offered the chance to contribute to a new London-based literary journal that had been set up by a pair of bright-eyed and pro-active young women working in publishing. The journal's title was Pen Pusher and back in 2006 its design was only a few cuts above your average campus lit-journal. Almost a chapbook (although it managed to achieve some degree of notoriety on the back of its front design being straight from the imagination of one Ricky Wilson of indie morons Kaiser Chiefs).

I contributed a few things to them in their early days. All of it the ignorant dribblings of a half-ambitious, sycophantic idealist enthralled by the premise of this new magazine. So the poor editors got lightweight and ill-informed opinion pieces on both Norman Mailer and JD Salinger, and then a little something on PJ O'Rourke. That was Pen Pusher's first year, and they have come a long way since then as you can see from their website.

Anyway, the other day they announced they were packing it in. Here is the email:

Pen Pusher was hoping to take the magazine kicking and screaming into the digital age as we informed you all last year... But sadly finance – our continuing lack of a grant or funding of any kind – and an ill-advised lack of interest in the digital world means we have taken the very difficult decision to cease publication.

We're older, no wiser, but yet feel it is time to move on to other projects.

Many thanks to everyone and anyone who has ever submitted, been selected as a contributor, been interviewed by us, supported, read, or even bought the magazine since we began as a free and modest wee thirty-two-page saddle stitch number we gave to our friends in 2006.

Apologies to anyone who has sent a submission – if you have provided postage we will return your work – otherwise there will not be a response; and apologies to those of you with subscriptions – we are unable to refund any remaining monies or provide old issues in lieu of those you were expecting to receive. Hate us for this if you like… or don't!

Once again many, many thanks to all who have been involved or supported us in any way. Best of luck to all aspiring writers and poets, and very best wishes,

Pen Pusher.

This is obviously a real shame
, as Pen Pusher filled a vital hole on the literary landscape, in its own small way. This was a publication accessible to both readers and possible contributors, worlds away from the stuffiness of the established journals and more inclusive than those that exist entirely within academia. It managed to be credible, approachable and it looked good, eventually. The other thing was that it actually managed to get read: its list of stockists was impressive and the launch nights of each issue were always well-attended. Over five years it built up a firm identity and a loyal readership.

This all begs the question of why exactly they could never get funding. It's not as if their profile wasn't high enough (more than once I read about Pen Pusher in national newspapers, and one time it was even featured on Radio 4, with the editors interviewed) or that the quality was inferior. Of course, anyone seeking arts funding might expect to be disappointed what with the economic panic of the last two years, but even before then Pen Pusher failed to secure funding. The Arts Council will have its reasons but the message it sends out to anyone wishing to launch a similar enterprise is stark: even if you support it yourself for five years and achieve a success you never envisaged when you started, we still won't help you out. Pen Pusher was not the sort of magazine that could have been bought by a publisher and, say, had a marketing team installed and gone for free distribution. So Arts Council funding was really its only chance.

It must be said that such brutal disregard doesn't seem to be the case here in Australia. Here I find half a dozen or so journals doing pretty well, such as Overland, Southerly, Meanjin, Mascara and others, and they get funding. It's true there's an awful lot less competition for arts funding over here, but I'd rather be in a landscape where you can breathe and look around than one that as so crowded as to be stifling.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

A Final Word On The Year That Was...

I have a friend who is a list maniac. He loves to make lists. His lists are his children. He recently made a list of the top live shows from 2010, and given that 2010 was a year that saw me visiting many countries in the name of music, I thought I would do the same. Such an exercise seems to be more worthwhile than the humdrum live review, as this can act as a pointer towards who is good, rather than account of something that has already happened. So...

1. Nils Bech - Slottsfjell Festival, Norway
Disco-opera boy prancing in tight denim as the sun sets.

2. Rufus Wainwright - Kaufleuten, Zurich
'Song-cycle' show, in beautiful theatre, complete with belly-ups during 'The Dream'.

3. John Grant - Green Man Festival
Included an acappella version of 'Chicken Bones', in the rain.

4.The Brian Jonestown Massacre - Abart, Zurich
They didn't seem like they could care less, which made them just too attractive.

5. Yeasayer - Exil, Zurich
The first time I saw the new album live, and was happy.

6. Pavement, Primavera Festival
Finally saw a comeback show, splendid it was.

7. Mayer Hawthorne, Abart, Zurich
He said he had eaten the best meal of his life at Abart.

8.The Black Angels, The Borderline
Too hot to breathe, soulful nonetheless.

9. Field Music, Great Scott, Allston, Mass
Tiny audience but the Brewis brothers on special form.

10. Sleepy Sun, Green Man Festival
One of the last shows before Rachel left.

11.Tame Impala, Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Biggest ever show in Sydney. They slowed everything down, still sounded okay.

12. Crowded House, New Theatre, Oxford
Blissful, including cover of Bowie's 'Moonage Daydream'

13. Built To Spill, Dynamo, Zurich
Second on the bill to Dinosaur Jr, which seemed unholy.

14. The Besnard Lakes, Green Man Festival
One of the best sets of this year's Green Man

15. Scout Niblett, Primavera
Utterly flabbergasted to find I like her.

16. Little Feat, Cropredy Festival
Dayglo t-shirts and all.

17. The Dixie Bee Liners - Cropredy Festival
Very pleasant surprise on a miserable day, with a largely miserable line-up.

18. MV + EE, La Case a Chocs, Neuchatel
Perfect tiny space for the woozed-out couple.

19. Dr Dog, Primavera
New material is good, but it was the Fate stuff that did the job.

20. Monotonix, Primavera
It's Monotonix, which should offer an explanation of this set.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Repairs to the Mothership

I have finally managed to give my website a thorough updating, adding a number of features and reviews I managed to do over the last 12 months for the likes of The Stool Pigeon, The Quietus and R2.

Among these morsels are interviews with songwriter fellows John Grant and Kevin Barker, fantastic Canadians The Besnard Lakes, dirge-psych band Carlton Melton, and rather more leftfield artisans Surf City and Giana Factory.

I can offer reviews of albums by The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, Phosphorescent, Faun Fables, The Black Angels, Alasdair Roberts and two from Elliott Smith - the Introduction To... and the reissue of Roman Candle.

And finally, flying in the face of the ongoing pointlessness of live reviews, a write-up of two festivals - Green Man 2010 and Slottsfjell 2010, and The Black Angels' Borderline show last year.