Sunday, July 29, 2007

I closed my eyes and everything changed...

Why? Because "Plus c'est la même chose, plus ça change." would fit this album perfectly.

It is a fourteen-track selection of entirely instrumental music which, with the exception of the final one that also features sparse classical guitar, was entirely made by recording mechanical music boxes live and absolutely nothing else. These recordings were then sampled, over-dubbed and looped (but not otherwise electronically altered) to produce the final effect.

The final result, Colleen et les Boîtes à Musique, was actually commissioned by 'Radio France Culture' in 2005 and is the work of Cécile Schott, better known as the recording artist Colleen.

On the face of it would seem to be a rather outré kind of album and in some ways it is... but that would be to get its premise very wrong overall; it is actually very listenable and even soothing but without ever veering towards trite "musak" territory. It was finally given a full CD release in late 2006 by Manchester-based 'The Leaf Label' that has also released her slightly more conventional, yet still very far from ordinary, albums --- Les Ondes Silencieuses (2007), The Golden Morning Breaks (2005) and Everyone Alive Wants Answers (2003).

Saturday, July 28, 2007

It's classless and crass; it's only the end of the world...

Just yesterday I was saying that I had albums that were mellow and also those that I hadn't really listened to properly. It now seems that they were often in both categories and yet others are not.

Yesterday and today I've unearthed some more and given them a good listening to. I'll soon disclose more of them but, if anything can be predicted, they point to more purchases of music by Sarah Nixey.
"Sarah who?", I can almost hear you say in unison!
Well, if you don't already know it, she was vocalist for thoroughly English trio 'Black Box Recorder' - the all-time experts in hopeful misery - for whom she sung with a perfect diction that only makes the often quite disturbing lyrics seem all the more surprising. It is an effect both creepy and claustrophobic that can either be soothing or scary but, whichever it turns out to be, the choice is always hers and never yours!

England Made Me (1998) was the first of the three 'Black Box Recorder' albums.

The title of this post is a lyric borrowed from track 4 while the single Child Psychology was even banned from the radio, on account of the lyric "Kill yourself or get over it.", as if it would have had much air-play anyway.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Mercury Music Prize 2007

Any regular reader of this blog will know that it first came in to being, in September 2006, as a direct result of my wishing to reply to a post on US-based blog "The Yellow Stereo" that, incidentally, is no longer to be found at the url that they were using back then; it can now be found at

My first actual blog post was also a comment on the very same new UK band - Bat For Lashes - that is both the creation and the performance alter-ego of Natasha Khan.

Their set at Latitude 2007 (during which I took all the pictures in this post) was stymied by equipment malfunction; in particular the sustain pedal for the electric piano, which proved to be utterly unreliable. It shortened their set by two songs and Natasha's understandable disappointment, tinged with embarrassment and annoyance, was quite palpable (at least from the front row).

Bat For Lashes live at Latitude 2007. 'What's A Girl To Do?'
They handled it all so well and, by way of recompense, a few days later the début album 'Fur and Gold' was announced as one of the twelve nominees for the 2007 Mercury Music Prize!
The tracks that they were able to perform were however even better than could possibly be imagined. Even without on-stage malfunctions the album Fur and Gold is not, on the face of it, so very obviously transferable to live performance.

L - R: Abi Fry, Ginger Lee, Lizzy Carey and Natasha Khan. This was taken during the performance of 'Sad Eyes'.

If you haven't been lucky enough to catch Bat For Lashes live yet then I suggest you try and get hold of a copy of their latest 7" 'What's A Girl To Do?'.

The b-side is a very good live version of 'Sarah'.

Soothing music for days that bode ill...

One morning earlier this week, and for some reason not readily apparent even to me, I felt particularly unenthusiastic about the thought of going to work. I got in the car and turned up the CD loud, somewhat forgetful of the fact that the previous morning (when I was feeling rather positive) I had changed the CDs in the auto-changer.
The CD that came on was something that I bought on a whim when it came out but had not really paid much attention to ever since.
The album in question was Ballad of The Broken Seas - Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan - released in early 2006 and garnering a nomination later that year for The Mercury Prize, which was won by 'The Arctic Monkeys'.

It did the trick for me though - the day passed quickly as the few tracks I heard on the journey to work spent the day going rounded in my head and they reminded me of why I had taken a chance on this album in the first place; that was because I already owned a 2003 release called Amorino, also by Isobel Campbell. As soon as I got home that evening I listened to both in full and was blown away (again).
Ballad of The Broken Seas features an as seemingly unlikely pairing of vocalists as ever there were; her dreamy soprano voice is of the almost-not-there kind (Amorino showcases this beautifully), while his previous output - on solo albums, with Seattle' s 'Screaming Trees' or when collaborating with 'Queens of the Stone Age' - is a full and gritty roar and, at least on his solo albums, also depressingly down-beat.

It was to prove an inspired collaboration; as well as providing contrasting but also amazingly complementary vocals there is a real spark there. It, and the Mercury nomination, allowed Campbell to incorporate influences from Americana in her music and finally get away from the tag "twee-pop" that her detractors have tended to pin to her music thus far.

I bought Amorino before Ballad of The Broken Seas was released but if you are new to her music, whether the post 'Belle and Sebastian' work (she left that band in 2002) or B&S pre-2002, then I suggest you might do better to start with Ballad of The Broken Seas as it is probably more easily accessible. Amorino can be rather "strange" at times and no more so than the wonderfully weird track 'The Cat's Pyjamas'.

All this led me on a hunt for other items in my music collection that were both of a calming "chill-out" nature and that I hadn't listened to much for some time.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Strange Death of Liberal England.

I've been hearing whispers about this Portsmouth-based band for some time now and most of them have been as intriguing as they have been favourable. This could however cut both ways; I was thus glad to have the opportunity to check them out live on the Uncut stage at Latitude where they were playing the opening gig at lunch time on Sunday.

It was timely as their first eight-track mini-album Forward March! had been released the previous Monday on Fantastic Plastic Records, which ensured a sizable and enthusiastic turn out.

It was quite clear, even before the set started, that they have a loyal following and it was soon very clear to me why that is. In a set that could only last 40 minutes, why waste time talking? They didn't say a word, other than the sung lyrics, introducing themselves and the songs using hand-written and hand-held placards.

It was very effective and reminded me rather of the occasional frames, conveying plot details, that appeared flickeringly in the days of silent movies. What is more, if you look carefully at the these pictures, you will notice that this is a band very flexible when it comes to who plays which instrument on any particular song.

It all suits their ambitions and circumstances well, I have to say.

This may well be quite deliberate because as the band's name suggests (it is taken from a book of the same title and I'll let you find it and what it was about) they quite wilfully hark back to earlier days in their lyrical content but without any discernible influence from traditional music. The real issue is that they do it incredibly well and had they gone on for two hours longer I'd have happily missed whatever other acts I had planned to go and see!

In some ways, while less obviously obsessed with historical narrative, they reminded me of iLiKETRAiNS and that is another band I very much want to see live.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Lily for the Spectre

While 'New Young Pony Club' was clearly an act far too metropolitan for the Sunrise Arena at Latitude 2007 it is actually also difficult to imagine an act for whom it could be a setting so absolutely perfect...

Her nu-folk songs - a genre I rather like anyway - are mostly trans-Atlantic rather than obviously British or American so that they are largely without place or time. Add to this the fact she is an artist who also has the folk-tradition of 'patter' between songs - it veered randomly but effortlessly between musings concerning disturbing the owls in the woods and the various hazards of festival toilets - down to a fine art and you can imagine this gig had all the potential to be a memorable one.

While she had swapped the sylvan glades of her native Wisconsin for those of rural Suffolk on a sunny Saturday lunchtime she clearly seemed quite at home there. The other thing is that I had never even heard of Stephanie Dosen until I bought my 'Festival Programme' when I arrived on the Thursday evening.

She is now signed to UK label Bella Union and her début UK album A Lily For The Spectre is available now from all good independent music stores.

While this is her UK début she has previously released an album, Ghosts, Mice and Vagabonds, in the US that is not currently available on or seemingly even from the usually ever so dependable independent UK establishments. I have found four copies available from Amazon Marketplace sellers but the cheapest of these is GBP 25 and all are sent from the US anyway., for what it is worth, is little better either.

You could however try buying it direct from her website: It is currently available on CD for US$ 12.00 (about GBP 6.00) but do check whether you will incur shipping and also customs charges as these may well be very significant extra costs. [This information is provided in good faith but I can offer no warranties or guarantees - it is solely your responsibility to ensure that you are confident in the supply of the goods offered and of the security of the services provided by this seller.]

Next up for review - New Young Pony Club

Now in this case I had heard good things about NYPC but almost nothing of their material (except for the single 'Ice Cream') before Latitude and so, as they were headlining the Sunrise Arena on Friday evening, they were high on my list of "must see acts". In fact I was so confident that I would like it I actually ordered their album Fantastic Playroom, which was released on 9th July on Australian label 'Modular Recordings' even though they are a London band and on vinyl as it is available thus, the evening before departing. It actually arrived the day I returned and it was to prove a "good thing" - it instantly transported me back to the previous Friday evening and reminded me why a few bruised ribs were sustained in a wholly good cause.

The Sunset Arena was a venue too small for them and I can well see them performing on the Uncut Stage, or even the main stage, at this (or other similar events) next summer. I suspect that they might follow a trajectory similar to that which CSS have enjoyed in the last year.
The album Fastastic Playroom isn't as good as I expected it to be - it is, in a surprisingly measured and amazingly controlled sort of way, far better than I imagined it would be; perhaps I find it this way because it was a bit unusual to have heard them live before hearing the album? On the other hand it is very largely by playing live that they have secured their current enviable reputation. Go figure - as yet I can't - but no complaints!
Their live performance, whipped to a frenzy by icon-in-waiting Tahita Bulmer, really was quite special and certainly not rambling or self-indulgent. It was stopped once, fairly early on, when the barrier at the front of the stage collapsed and also terminated five minutes early; in both cases the reason given was "Health & Safety" and for once in this dangerously over-regulated world it actually seemed plausible!

This was the moment they launched the set with single 'Ice Cream'.

Photograpy was by this time getting rather difficult and by the time they performed 'The Bomb' it was impossible at the front of the boisterous crowd; not helped by an extremely uneven surface that, while the crowd was entirely good-natured, threatened to cause everyone to collapse in a huge heap. The Sunset Arena is a tent set up in what is really no more than a clearing in the woods and as such it is rather better suited to more earthy music...

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Lattitude 2007, just go listen!

As well as the big names the fascinating variety of other acts was, for me perhaps, the greatest attraction of the line up. From pop to nu-folk to rock there was always something interesting to go and hear.
First I'll start with two of the catchiest pure UK pop songs of 2007:

The Hoosiers perform Worried About Ray while opening the main stage on Sunday.

The three of them looked a bit surprised by the space they had to occupy to be quite honest, as this was their first festival gig, but they soon grew in confidence and were actually quite impressive in sound if not in presence. It is, I suspect, going to be a very difficult single to follow and their début album does not appear until late August (Sony BMG).

As for Bolton band Cherry Ghost I was only able to catch the last track of their set on the Uncut Stage, which was the recent single 'People Help The People'. They looked really quite comfortable on a stage this size - arguably it would have suited 'The Hoosiers' better too - and the live version of the single bettered the recorded version in a number of ways. In retrospect I wish I had caught the whole of their live set but here they are...

Cherry Ghost's début album 'Thirst For Romance' was released (Heavenly Records) the previous Monday, 9th July. It is my suspicion that, one way or another, Cherry Ghost may turn out to be with us for longer than The Hoosiers.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

CSS Roxxx

A great deal has been written about Brazilian band CSS (Cansei de Ser Sexy) in the last nine months and much of it, it has to be said, sounds rather like hyperbole. The first track on their 2006 début album is even rather self-deprecatingly entitled 'CSS Suxxx'.
See them live and
you'll probably discover that it isn't the case. You could well argue that the music itself isn't particularly ground breaking - you would be right too - but that is to miss the point altogether. This album is good enough to hold its own on CD - it is ultimately feel-good music - but CSS live is a quite different experience.

This is a band that is not only clearly loving the limelight but also making it shine brighter and, in Lovefoxxx (aka Luisá Matsushita), they also happen to have one of the most charismatic
lead singers of the moment.

She came on stage at Latitude wearing a long grey shawl as they launched the set with 'Patins'...

This was soon removed to reveal the sparkling rainbow number that stunned Glastonbury...

... and it lasted the next four songs - this one is 'Alala'.

"I'm much too hot!" she announced as she kicked off her trainers, and then went on to peel the sparkly outfit off while still singing and dancing, part way through 'Art Bitch'!
She is the ultimate nightmare for Security too, liking nothing better than to abandon the stage proper to either sing in the pit, talk to the crowd or even indulge in a bit of crowd-surfing! (Indeed she did all of these things last Saturday and also announced that their second album will be released in December 2007, if SubPop didn't know it already!)

Off-stage again: Music Is My Hot, Hot Sex... was 'unplugged',
with the crowd providing the lead vocals!

Kate Nash - Latitude 2007 and the blue teapot...

I had such a great time at 'Latitude 2007', overdosing on live music, that it has taken this long to get my head around it all. Well almost a week has gone by and I've finally come to some conclusions! There were so many highlights that my choice of starting place is quite arbitrary...

I've decided to start with Kate Nash who performed in the far too small, and also stiflingly hot, 'Film and Music Tent' on Friday afternoon. Partly because I'd made damn sure I got to see this as I've being enjoying her so-called first single Foundations, and the 'b-sides' - which are all different on the three versions: a CD and two 7" vinyl singles - so much that I already intended to post a comment.

Of course it is not really her first single, that was a double a-side Caroline's A Victim/Birds released by MoshiMoshi Records earlier this year (and I reviewed it - see here) but that was in physical terms only available as a very limited 7" release.

The only question that I still had is can she really cut it as a live performer?

Kate Nash performing Birds live @ Latitude 2007. There was soon no doubt whatsoever that she is every bit as good live as when recorded.

Foundations live with stunning keyboard antics and the blue teapot.

The release of her eponymous début album has now been bought forward from late September to 6th August 2007.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Latitude Festival 2007 - live....

'Latitude 2007' was blessed with weather far better than could reasonably have been imagined. It was the 2007 festival to die for - because it had everything that you live for!

It did include headline acts, such as the awesome
Arcade Fire, but also plenty of lesser known ones and that is what makes it special; it has taken me all this week to look at all the pictures I took and to ponder and eventually realise what really made 'Latitude 2007' special, which for me at least it most certainly was.

From start to finish it was simply so friendly an event, and one so well organised, that the fact that it was also, as regards artists, a totally awesome event from start to end was almost just a huge bonus.

The main performance area is entered by a bridge constructed across the lake...

The Obelisk stage was a strange, bleak and silent place just an hour after Arcade Fire finished their headline performance Sunday evening.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

2007 so far, and my "want to listen to" list (Part 4)

Lots of new items on my list - so no change there - and they are roughly divided into two categories:

  • Those that are not new but I want to listen to.
  • Those that are simply new.
Amongst the second category are:
  • New Young Pony Club - Fantastic Playroom. This is the début album from the London 5-piece, fronted by Tahita Bulmer, who are signed to the Australian indie label Modular. They are playing at Latitude next weekend, so lucky me. They are not really new-rave, as some of the reviews say, just new pop and all the better for it. It is available on vinyl too!
The album is out tomorrow, 9th July.
  • Stars - In Our Bedroom After The War. The new album from one of Canada's finest bands and the follow up to their 2005 album 'Set Yourself On Fire'. Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan are something of a gold-standard when it comes to boy-girl vocals in my opinion.
It is due to be released in Canada, by Arts & Crafts, on 27th September.

You can download the track "The Night Starts Here" from the Arts & Crafts website. Click here to go straight to the link.

  • The Go! Team - Proof Of Youth. The second album by the London & Brighton sextet is to be released in the UK by Memphis Industries (MI) on 10th September, and in America the following day by Seattle's Sub Pop Records. Their first LP, Thunder, Lightning, Strike (2005) was also released by MI in the UK but by Columbia in the US. If anyone could make the sun shine then The Go! Team would be my bet, with CSS (another SubPop signing and a Latitude Festival act) a very close second! The sleeve will probably look a bit like this and the CD will be MI099CD, but we can hope for a vinyl version too as MI are pretty sound in this regard.
  • Ash - Twilight Of The Innocents. This is to be the last Ash album as they have decided that, with the advent of downloading, the return of the singles band is beckoning once again. That is how they feel and you can't fault them for their integrity - throughout vinyl's darkest hour they always released everything they did on vinyl - and there is no reason to think that they will not continue to do so. What they got in recognition is to become, arguably, one of the most under-rated bands of the last decade! During the writing of this album Charlotte Hatherley (the fourth member of Ash, as both a lead guitarist and vocalist, from 1997 -2006) left for a solo career. She released her début solo album Grey Will Fade (Double Dragon, 2005) , while still with Ash. In 2006 she quit and has since released her second solo album The Deep Blue (2007) on her own Little Sister Records label, including vinyl of course. She plays Latitude Festival next weekend, and also the Reading/Leeds Festival in late August, which also features Ash.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Don't just talk about it... go!!!

Yes, it is true!

The better part of twenty years after I last went to a proper festival I've decided to take my own advice and go to one again. A week on Thursday I will be heading to the far eastern edge of England - the 'Sunrise Coast' - and what I'm reliably told was the best kept festival secret of last year, which returns for its sophomore event this year bigger, and if all goes well, even better.
Click the image above to see the list of bands performing.

Updated: Sunday 8th July:

It is almost exactly a week since I decided, absolutely on the spur of the moment, to take myself off to Latitude. I had concluded that there would be no tickets left, but went to look at the website anyway and to be disappointed. There were still tickets available however (and even still some yesterday too it seems) and, without a further thought for the practicalities, the die was cast when I entered my credit card number and clicked.

A funny week it has been too...
On Monday morning I did wonder for a moment what I had let myself in for; I was suddenly thinking "Am I too old for this now?" . I got over it and ever since I've been feeling ever younger as each day goes by.
It is excitement and I have suddenly rediscovered that childlike feeling of really looking forward to something while simultaneously not knowing quite what to expect - and actually I like it as much now as I did then!

Yesterday I went shopping (in Argos) for cheap camping kit and this was an odd experience too because I already have a collection of camping kit that can keep me warm and snug in the Scottish mountains in winter. The problem is that it is too costly to be worth risking at a summer festival!

To see if the weather will be any better that at Glastonbury you can click on the the image below. No warranties included except to say that I'll be there, on the ground or perhaps sinking in the mud, to report on both the music and the weather!

Monday, July 02, 2007

Woe On the High Street (Part 1.1)

This is merely a continuation of yesterday's ramblings on the state of music retailing. Firstly, thank you those who sent me e-mails on the subject today - they have been read and noted.

I didn't mention independent music retailers (on/off-line) and most of you did! I agree entirely and that is why I focussed on the long established chain-retailers. I suspect that HMV will survive the changes in the medium term and probably return bigger and better - in many ways it is the Marks & Spencer of the music retailing industry and that is an example of a UK retailer that has very successfully pulled itself back together, after a few really rocky years, by a combination of good marketing and re-invention.
Nipper is an old dog who needs to learn some new tricks.

HMV can sometimes already be considerably cheaper than, and free delivery is included (it takes a GBP 15 order with to qualify).

If I can get the new toy available in "blogger-in-draft" to work then I intend to conduct an entirely anonymous poll to try and find out where my readers buy their music now (by 'now' let's take it to mean 2007 so far).
If that works (and I think the current poll is up and running now) then I'd like to repeat the same survey and, if applicable, ask where you bought your music ten years ago.

If you think I have should have included any other answers, or you want to say anything else about this topic, then please post a comment to this post or e-mail me.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Woe On the High Street (Part 1.0)

I have already mentioned, several times in this blog, the problems that the 'Major Labels' have had and also continue to face. The recent change of ownership of EMI is only the latest in a long line of changes here.
The High Street retail music stores have also been feeling the pressure too - at least in the UK.
Last week HMV announced its profits had halved this year to £50 million. That still sounds a tidy sum, but given it was the return on sales of £2 billion it represents a margin of just 2.5% on sales. For a major High Street retail chain that is a dismal return and it shows just how competitive the market currently is. The smaller chain MVC , and a competitor of HMV, collapsed just before the end of 2006 although 67 of its stores were then acquired by another rival Fopp; a reprieve that has proved short lived as it too went into administration Friday last. It is possible parts of the business might be saved, but it is not clear who might be a buyer.

What has gone wrong?
Not as easy a question as one might expect. It is without doubt a combination of factors, some of which apply far beyond the music/video retailing industry (think travel agents - Thomas Cook announced a raft of store closures this week - and holiday store chains have been merging for several years, etc.)

Here are a list of the problems they face (in no particular order):

  • Competition from downloading (legal or otherwise).
  • Competition from supermarkets (who discount the current best sellers while not stocking anything else).
  • Competition from web-based retailers (Amazon and the rest)
  • Out-dated/unappealing retailing space and rapidly rising rentals for new retail space.
Any one would not have been a crisis but the combination of all four is proving near crippling. One thing that links all four factors, as they impact the High Street retailers, can be summed up in a single word - OVERHEADS. High overheads lead to low market competitivness - and that is a fact that it hard to dispute.
Is the current situation the result of an inevitable process with the High Street retailers as mere victims? My answer, given without hesitation, is... NO! NO! NO!

Accuse me of 20/20 hindsight if you like, (I don't work in retail management), but that is actually not a defence option for the afflicted chains: the retail environment is intrinsically fashion-prone and it is all about looking for future trends and therefore involves a high degree of risk-taking.
Had they done that, but somehow missed the mark, I'd have rather more sympathy than I can currently muster. If the retail chains had invested in on-line sales of physical music and of downloads before the market was proven they could have used their then cash-generative businesses to push those "new" markets forward as a logical extension of their existing markets. If they had used their retail advantage, even six years ago, they could have challenged the likes Amazon head-on and it would have made it much more difficult, maybe even impossible, for investor-funded e-businesses to get into the music market in the first place, let alone capture a dominant share of it.
In fact they made no particular concerted attempt to do either. One might well presume that sheer arrogance led them to presume that these developments were simply short-term trendy distractions.
That they failed to take full advantage of on-line sales of physical music might just be regarded as misfortune. That, having missed one huge opportunity, they then also surrendered the next one almost without so much as a whimper, is quite incomprehensible.
'Downloads' came came fairly soon after and to provide them does not require huge investment. The potential was surely obvious and the risk fairly small.
That they also missed the opportunity to take the lead with downloads beggars belief: it and could have rescued the situation to a fair degree - so why they didn't latch on to it quicker?

Why has it come to this?
For thirty years, maybe even more, they simply couldn't believe that the gravy-train that they were travelling on would ever hit the buffers. In this way they have fallen into the same trap as the major labels - COMFORT breeds COMPLACENCY.
Complacency has a strange tendency that rather goes against the grain of capitalist greed: young entrepreneurs set things up, and young (or young-at-heart) investors put up the money to do so and both are not risk-averse. If it works out well then, naturally, they get older, richer and more risk-averse as shareholders.
Companies that look solid and risk-averse tend to attract other shareholders of the same persuasion. The senior management they then directly, or indirectly, choose match those ideals and they naturally tend appoint middle management, etc., and from there down employees with new ideas and grand plans either leave for other (probably newer) companies that match their ambition or to set up their own.
That is not necessarily a problem until a large organization is suddenly confronted with a sea-change in its traditional market and competition which, as likely as not will be provided by the sort of companies mentioned above. It is a fair bet that the main rôles in sales and marketing will be run and staffed by people who know exactly the potential weaknesses and strengths of the companies they chose to leave five or even ten years ago.

I'd be very interested to hear anyone's thoughts on this whole topic?
  • Have you been/are you an employee in retail music? What do you think?
  • Is this just a UK phenomenon? What is the situation in Europe and/or the USA?
  • What kind of music stores will there be in 5 or 10 years time?
Or anything else on this subject or the wider implications that is raises. Woe On the High Street (Part 2) will, hopefully, be largely based on your feedback!

Rest assured I'm not going to make any money out of any of this. Google keeps telling my that I should include 'AdSense' on my blog, mentioning the fact that it could earn me money, (10¢/month probably!), but I'm generally inclined against that. If I choose to advertise/promote anything on my blog then I'll be the one who decides what that will be and how and it will be done (and done for free), not least so I can decide exactly where, when and for how long it will appear.
That is my view - do you agree with it?