Wednesday, March 28, 2007

I Am Murdered.... Music and Politics

Music and politics have an extremely long and very close association.
When print medium of even the most basic sort was solely the preserve of the rich, and almost all of the populace would have been unable to read it even if it were available to them, songs and the travelling singers that sung them were both a way of spreading political information and also of fomenting dissent. Music was also an ideal medium for disguising, often by allegory,
messages that might have been treasonable if spoken in public and many examples survive in the canon of folk music.
In general three circumstances, which often occur together, seem to lead to a rich legacy of songs of a socio-political nature:
repression, resentment and hardship. This is why there is such an extensive collection of songs, particularly from Ireland and Wales, dealing with these themes and also a large collection of songs documenting workplace hardship and catastrophe. Not all songs however: Lilli Bulero is probably a good case in point as it seems to have started life as exactly the opposite!

Not that much has changed: forty years ago the Vietnam War spawned a resurgence in the genre - though obviously particularly in the US - and they generally became known as 'Protest Songs' but if George W. Bush
(a self-confessed fan of Country music - a penchant to which he is of course quite entitled) leaves a musical legacy of his Presidency then it is the huge upsurge in the depth and breadth of political song writing worldwide.
I'm sure that, for the truly cutting edge music sociologists, there are plenty of folk collections to be made in Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. ...
It is almost enough to make the original London 'punk scene' look quite feeble by comparison but all things need foundations and quoting Sir Isaac Newton, when explaining the basis of his achievements in a letter to
Robert Hooke on 5th. February 1676, and not the rather later Oasis lyric:

"... it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

Modern (UK) folk and traditional music often get slated, rather unfairly I think, for their tendency to focus on bucolic themes to accompany the largely traditional sounds. I happen to like much of this too, but I don't see why the particular sounds and the lyrics should be so closely tied together.

Very occasionally they are not.

Spencer Perceval (1762-1812) is the only British Prime Minister to have been murdered. His assassin was John Bellingham whose grievance was the UK trade policy instigated by the above (Bellingham had lost his fortune in trade with Russia) that he believed was ruining him and which, eventually, drove him to the deed. He did the job himself; on 11th May 1812 in the lobby of the House of Commons, when Perceval was on his way to attend an inquiry into Luddite Riots.
Bellingham was apprehended at the scene, confessed and was hanged within a week. No contemporary account of the incident seems to have survived in song but it is however
a very unusual theme for a 2007 single!

Spencer Perceval c/w I Am Murdered is a single at that bears little resemblance to anything ever normally found on the format. The 'A' side is an account of the lead up to and execution of the murder itself from the perspective of the murderer, while the 'B' side is the response of the murdered to the crime. Only one band I can think of at the moment would even attempt it and that, of course, is iLiKETRAiNS.
It is not a topic to take lightly, and certainly not one to try and cram into a four-minute 7" single, so they simply didn't bother with convention
and of course one advantage of the CD single format is that this is no problem. So no vinyl then?

Fear not - there is a full-length 10", 45 rpm, heavy-weight vinyl version that could be a murder weapon in its own right. The quality is great, from the music and the pressing right down to the packaging, but as it is all dark a picture would hardly do it justice. The two tracks together run for over fifteen minutes and echo each other - the first being 'angry' the second 'reflective'.
It is brooding and dark but there is nothing folk about it whatsoever. In fact the "accusation" - "reply" format of the two songs even has faint echoes of the hip-hop duelling of a few years ago!

The murdered Perceval reflects on his lot which, even before he was murdered, was not
a politically happy one. At the time of his assassination he was, as well as holding the post of Prime Minister:
  • First Lord of the Treasury
  • Leader of the House of Commons
  • Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
  • Chancellor of the Exchequer (he asked six colleagues and they all turned the post down!)
As the song lyric [I Am Murdered] goes:

If truth be told I've had a lot to contend with.
I've kept the French at bay
In Portugal and Spain
As our King went insane.

Not the run of the mill (don't even mention the Luddites) but quite typical of iLiKETRAiNS

Perceval himself was a master of the sound bite and during a
debate on electoral corruption he came up with the following memorable rejoinder when asked for his comment on the forgoing speaker:

"I have nothing to say to the nothing that has been said."

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Help She Can't Swim...

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water along comes the return of Brighton-based Help She Can't Swim (HSCS) with 'Hospital Drama', the first single to be taken from their forthcoming second album The Death of Nightlife.
Released like the first, Fashionista Super Dance Troupe (2004) of which there were just 200 vinyl copies, by label 'Fantastic Plastic' it means a further feast of limited vinyl! Since the first album, and several 7" singles c/w non-album tracks, they have released two vinyl-only EPs:

  • Committing Social Suicide (2005)
  • Secret Garden (2006)
There are two 7" versions of 'Hospital Drama' available:

A picture disc c/w 'Wake Up' and a black 7" (and also CD) c/w 'Wretched'.

A five-piece for their first LP outing, their second LP sees them return as a four-piece and with their sound still evolving naturally. The current line up is:

Tom Denney - voice, guitar, keys
Leesey Frances - voice, keys
Tim Palmer - bass, keys
Lewis Baker - drums

The album Fashionista Super Dance Troupe is mostly fast, furious and often quite angry. It is where indie-pop with clever lyrics meets shouty-punk; that would be a conveniently lazy way to describe it.
In slightly less than 25 minutes Fashionista Super Dance Troupe romps its wilful way through eleven quite varied tracks, often with biting lyrics. Only the last one exceeds three minutes and that is 'Apples', which hints at something rather different. This nascent diversity becomes ever more obvious on the EPs mentioned above and it is certainly not something of which to be ashamed for a band that has never really fitted comfortably in any particular genre.

The latest single 'Hospital Drama' is still recognisably the HSCS of old, only better. The really surprising track of these three is 'Wretched' - a song that puts many similar attempts at the territory, including many by far better known artists, to shame by its sheer simplicity.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Canada returns...

It has been clear for several years that the music coming from Canada - and particularly Toronto and Montreal - has to be taken very seriously indeed. When Roughtrade Records released 'Funeral', the début album from Montreal seven-piece Arcade Fire, in the UK in the spring of 2005 things happened very fast indeed.
Within weeks every newspaper and magazine that you picked up would have a review of it and the tickets to their tour dates, mostly taking place at small venues as when they were arranged nobody had heard of them, suddenly became rarer than golden eggs.
Then the reviews of these live performances appeared and the frenzy moved up a gear - here was a band that not only make a completely new style involving many classical instruments put to the ends of rather apocalyptic indie rock, but were so good at doing it that they swap their instruments among themselves while performing. The only thing rarer than live tickets, even after two years in which Funeral has continued to sell strongly, is a review that dares say a bad thing about it or their live performances!

What everyone wondered was what would they follow it up with? It is a rock on which many artists have foundered, hence the often heard phrase "difficult second album". Some bands do it by taking a huge sideways step, which is hard to pull off convincingly, others by progressing with the sound of the first album. Given the acclaim that their first was accorded and were they even minded to attempt such a thing, could it be anything other than a hollow shell in comparison to Funeral?

If this bothered the band they were not telling anyone, and certainly not giving any clues as to what the sequel would sound like, while touring in the summer of 2006. Then all of a sudden, about a two months ago, they revealed that Neon Bible would be released on their own SonoVox label and the fact that it was largely recorded in a number of churches in Québec, not least for their acoustics and a requirement for real organ. This hinted that Neon Bible would follow on where Funeral left off, which it does.

Did they pull it off? A couple of listens will soon give only one impression - that they did and with quite a lot of room to spare. If you liked Funeral then you'll will almost certainly love Neon Bible. It has everything that was good about its predecessor - only done with more scope and ambition and, well basically, done better. Win Butler's voice has less of the tortured half-scream it once had (but when it matters it still has just enough) and, while still only infrequently employed, the vocals of Régine Chassagne appear just when most they are devastatingly effective (remember 'Haiti' on Funeral). The instruments - and there are a great number and variety of them - pile up in complex and dizzying layers that somehow miraculously never collapse in to chaos.
It is largely in this skill in composing and then arranging the many improbable threads that the secret lies - it is what makes Arcade Fire sound like they do and not very much like anyone else!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Not big, quite clever? --- Despot Chic.

Maybe it is just a UK thing, maybe it is not, but "shouty-punk" is still something of a phenomenon and it comes in various guises - it can be angry, cajoling, or even surprisingly dispassionate - but all are still quite recognisable as "shouty-punk"...

This 2006, six-track, CD-R by South Wales band King Alexander remains one of my favourites in the genre and not only for the wonderfully un-punk sentiment of the lyric near the end of track 2, We Are A Good Egg:

Do you respect us?
Will you buy our T-shirts?

It smacks of capitalism but as King Alexander is still unsigned the band can hardly be said to have sold out and it might better be regarded as cheerful optimism, something they seem to have aplenty. It would also be easy (and very lazy indeed) to say that their music is not in fact particularly original but, even if that were true, it still manages to be surprisingly addictive listening as it is lyrically nothing if not tongue in cheek! The vocals are nominally shared between the somewhat laconic lads and Laura Bryon, who thus actually sings most of them.
She did the EP artwork too and is clearly something of a dilettante, in the older and strictly non-pejorative sense, and a busy one at that. A quick search shows that she has variously contributed songwriting, vocals and also guitar to a surprising variety of musical projects in South Wales in the last couple of years.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Regina Spektor - 'Songs'

She is a classically trained pianist, of Russian background and New York sensibility, who might prove a surprise hit in 2007. UK radio (not least the once unmentionable BBC Radio 2) has been playing, mostly by popular request, her new single 'Fidelity'. Released on 5th March 2007, both on 7" vinyl and CD, it is taken from the album Begin To Hope (2006) on the cover of which she appears kittenish.

She was not so coy on the cover of her first studio album. Soviet Kitsch was released in 2004.

This was not her first CD release either!

In the 1980s the US was the source of many a female singer songwriter, and they made a big impact on the UK charts as well, but almost all of them primarily wrote on guitar.
More recently they have rather been few and far between, but some have written on piano and still reached the UK charts. The track 'A Thousand Miles', a huge hit in the US and UK from her 2003 début album Be Not Nobody, makes
Vanessa Carlton a good case in point. Some songs on Songs have a resonance with those but equally fellow New Yorker Vanessa Carlton's second album, the hugely under-rated Harmonium (2005), indicates that the influences might actually cut both ways.

The tracks on Songs are not accompanied by complex orchestrations...
On Christmas Day 2001, in New York and with Joe Mendelson as recording engineer, Regina Spektor recorded seventeen tracks. Every one was done in a single live take and they were originally intended to be an archive session but in 2002 she was persuaded to release many of them, exactly as they were recorded, on a CD that was however only available at her live shows in 2003/4...

... Songs (2002) is amazing - it is well worth any effort it takes to find.

It consists of twelve tracks; about half of them are piano led and most of the others are largely constructed around judicious overdubs and in that respect she is quite reminiscent of Camille Dalmais - and neither of them suffers one bit from the comparison.

There is a very diffuse genre of music currently known as 'anti-folk' and these two artists both seem to represent it. So does Rose Kemp and I can see that this is indeed true as she, while largely guitar led, is also a user of self-made overdubs. On the other hand, while quite obviously related in her use of vocal overdubs, KT Tunstall never seems to mentioned in this respect but both Lily Allen (who doesn't for the most part) and Kate Nash (who very often does) both seem to be included as a matter of right! Some reviewers say that Regina Spektor has abandoned her anti-folk past on this album, but I don't hear it.
'Samson', the third track on Begin To Hope, is also the first on Songs and while she has certainly moved on it would be hard to claim that she has sold out. She is now signed to WEA, and yes the production is rather less lo-fi, but I'd say that her new (major) label have made most of the compromises because the new 'Samson' is still quite recognizably the same song.
If anything at all defines 'anti-folk' as a distinct category - and I have no problem with any of it - its subtle derivation from punk, mostly in terms of lyrical narrative rather than the music itself, is perhaps the key.

KT Tunstall applied many of the same ideas and tools to the modern folk-influenced scene, which was a different achievement entirely, and her début album Eye To The Telescope released in December 2004 sold over a million copies in the UK alone in 2005!