Monday, 26 November 2007

THE ATTACK OF THE SECOND ALBUM - How To Make The 'Perfect' Second Album

This is an old piece I wrote for a fanzine that never got published. It's a bit out of date, sorry, but it still rings true.

While listening to Sam's Town by The Killers, I suddenly get an amazing image of a rather flustered Brandon Flowers sitting bolt upright at 3am. Sweat forming on his brow, he suddenly realises that he should be more American, give this pansy British act a rest. I can just imagine him exclaiming to his Mormon wife, “Darling, bring me my cowboy boots and a copy of Born In The USA and for gods sake hide that copy of Dare!”.

Ah, second albums, they're ridiculous aren't they. You work on your début album for years, like an over zealous young girl planning her wedding at 10 years old. It's your life's work and then suddenly its done and you have to do it all again, in a year! And a brain overloaded with this kind of pressure and expectation can come up with some ridiculous things. One of these been the sudden impulse to become more organic. This usually manifests itself in either growing a beard, writing ludicrous songs about highways or deciding that recording in a toilet is a good idea. The British usually go for the toilet recording, the American's for the highways but the resounding hit is always, universally, the ceremonial growth of facial hair. A supposed signifier of masculinity and being a serious artist, but it usually just results in the band in question looking like twats, and people like me calling them accordingly. The Killers are an obvious example but I think I've given Brandon et al enough grief for now, and I'd like to concentrate on knuckle dragging faux Mancunian's Kasabian. Yes kids, Kasabian, otherwise known as the revolution in tight trousers, the indie A Team, the saviours of our little indie souls. I think it goes without saying that I have a slight dislike of Kasabian but I don't think this impairs my judgement of how unbelievably dire their second album is, and the accompanying facial hair (making frontman Tom look like a mixture between Grizzly Adams and Adam Ant). And they're also an exponent of the phenomena I like to call 'Overblown Comeback Video Syndrome'. The belief that to be welcomed back into the music industry's cold, cold bosom you must make a bloated, cinematic mess of a video to accompany your new single. That the hype surrounding your new single will somehow multiply because you dressed up and spent gargantuan amounts of money on a 'director' and an elephant. The video for Kasabian's Shoot The Runner, a turd of a song sounding like Marc Bolan shitting on Doctor Who's Tardis, is exactly this. Overly long and self aware, with the band adorned in military jackets and running around in a field getting shot at (now hang on that gives me an idea for an interesting comeback, inviting fans to take pot shots at Serge's crotch with an unpredictable, sawn off shotgun. OK, sounds far fetched but if it meant they'd sell a million albums they'd do it!) with overblown imagery of children blowing dandelion seeds into the air and then getting shot accompanied by long close ups on Tom's agonised, wrinkled expression. As if grief at a child's death in battle is akin to being a bit constipated. Perfect proof that the amount of records sold has no relation to acting talent.

Anyway, I digress, back to second album syndrome. The next pothole on the road to making a good and relevant second album is trying not to make another Is This It, to use The Strokes as an example.

One of the major problems in the psyche of the musician writing their second album is the fumbling insecurity of stopping and thinking, “Am I replicating what I've done before”. This nearly always leads to a far too removed sound from the first album or some kind of cobbled together concept album about cheese. I think this distancing yourself from your sound is idiotic, why abandon the songs you love, and therefore write for yourself, just because some overly analytical and critical reviewer like me might sidle up and say “that sounds just like the first one that”. It doesn't matter if it sounds like the first one, as long as all the songs aren't exactly the same, there's no age old rule that says 'thou shalt not make the same record twice!'. Why do you have to abandon everything and start again? Music is a progression but over a career, just because a record you made a year or two after you made your début sounds a bit like it in places doesn't mean you should be hung drawn and quartered. That should be reserved for those who go for drastic new directions and fall flat on their smug, self important faces. I think a perfect example of someone who has done their second album with no such fear of repetition are The Rakes. Ten New Messages is great and is a progression, but crucially still retains a lot of the motifs, and ultimately the sound, of their first effort Capture/Release. It's bigger and more ambitious in places but still has that same driving bass and prickly guitar, that same charmingly ordinary vocal. Lyrically however the themes have become more diverse and challenging. Post 7/7 paranoia is a constant theme, where on the last record the theme was going out getting pissed and going to work. This still remains but with that underlying tension, the darker side of human nature and the darker side of the Work Work Work (Pub Club Sleep) lifestyle immortalised on Capture/Release. It's as claustrophobic and tense as seminal records like Unknown Pleasures but also maintains that melodic and at times anthemic quality that The Rakes seem to possess.

OK, so here's a checklist;

1. Beards = Credibility? NO!
2. Don't be afraid to repeat yourself, just don't make the same songs!
3. Concept albums are for Rick Wakeman, men in capes and power metal, not little indie bands.
4. Fancy videos do not make a bad record good, they just show up your non existent acting talent.
5. Don't believe your own hype, if you don't make a good follow up, people won't like you anymore, it's that simple. Worried yet Ricky Wilson?*

*As an update, Kaiser Chiefs did make a follow up, it was shit.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Malcolm Middleton For Christmas #1!

All round genius and former member of one of my favourite bands ever, Arab Strap, Malcolm Middleton is going for Christmas #1 this year. The single 'We're All Going To Die' is out on the 17th December, it's amazing and unintentionally festive. The song is taken from the brilliant 'A Brighter Beat' LP, easily one of the best albums of the year. Malcolm said this of the single;

"Christmas is the best time for a song like this to be released into the mainstream consciousness, especially now in 2007...People don't want to be lied to by Cliff Richard any more. It's maybe time they we're told what's really waiting for them inside their Christmas stockings. Dying is a bit like writing a letter to Santa, unless you've been a good boy or girl, you're fucked."

Bright and breezy as always Malcolm! But don't worry, it's not all bad!

“Although at first seemingly negative, the song is intended to make people think about being alive and making the most of our time here, which to me are your generic ‘Xmas’ themes.”

Please support this cause. If you hate the idea of which ever egotistical toad wins X Factor automatically getting the Christmas #1 spot, buy this record. Make Simon Cowell realise he has lost the plot and can't just release anything. Don't be
an idiot and pre-order a song YOU HAVEN'T EVEN HEARD YET, as happened last year. People were buying the song before it had even been recorded, before the winner of X Factor had even been decided! That is not buying music, that is buying what you're told. In the interests of this not happening to Malcolm, listen to 'We're All Going To Die' on his Myspace here.

If you like it, buy it.

Also join the facebook group "Give Malcolm Middleton The Christmas NUMBER 1!!"‏here

Friday, 23 November 2007

Holler, Wild Rose! - Our Little Hymnal

The album opens with one simple word....


What follows is a bone crunching cacophony of noise. Guitars that sound like whole orchestra's, drums that punch you in the stomach before lifting you back to your feet. This band is a unit, a whole sound, not just the sum of its parts. To pick out any particular sound is a difficult procedure, the instruments are melded together, as if held by an invisible force. And this is all in the first minute of 'Our Little Hymnal', an album of intense highs and beautiful lows, uproarious noise and somber laments. Opener 'Holler, Wild Rose!' is a microcosm of the whole album, a massive cacophony followed by periods of calm. 'Marylawn Hair' is Jeff Buckley's 'Last Goodbye' covered by Loveless period My Bloody Valentine, guitars made to sound like violins and crashing drums hitting the vocal melody like waves caressing the shore. 'Mercy Beat' is a different animal entirely, a bluesy hymnal underpinned by rolling drums and vintage guitars. The quieter moments are beautiful, the range of vocalist John Mosloskie coming to the fore, the melodies permeating even the thickest skin. 'Captive Train' is much the same story, twisted blues with a heady, highly emotional feel.

There are heavy hearts on this record, but not from the usual, and ultimately casual, pain of minor heartbreak or everyday troubles, it's something altogether BIGGER. It's almost a national pain, a shared malaise that trickles through the music inspired by generations of other American musicians. From the communal pain relief of Gospel, to the disenfranchised anger of the Blues right up to the personal inner torment of Buckley and Cobain, music from the US has a shared heartache. Having said all this, don't make me paint this record as a morbid exercise in grief, it takes this feeling and magnifies it until it becomes uplifting, a celebration if you will. As the album rolls on, you get the feeling every note played counts and every word uttered means everything. The epic length of 'Poor In Spirit' should indicate some filler but the song's length only intensifies the tension and irregular structure, giving the song room to breath outside the limitations of the three minute pop song. There's room for experimentation, expression and ultimately beauty.

'Sun Vines' is what Cold War Kids would sound like if they had listened to more shoegaze records and less Robert Johnson. 'Thief In Our Bed' takes the tempo down with ghostly aplomb, creating in my mind a cinematic story of closeness breading contempt, lovers slowly torn apart by themselves and their own flaws. There's something unsettling yet comforting about the choral vocal, an otherworldly almost inhuman voice that glides effortlessly over the tumbling drums. Closer 'Promise Braid' is simply breathtaking, a mix of dub bass and delicate vocal fragments. The moments of near silence serving to highten the impact of the sustained notes that are seemingly eaked out of the band. It's a controlled end after a hectic start.

The sheer pomp and general epic size of this album could put the casual listener off, for those who like a touch of pomposity however it truly is a wonderful piece of work. 'Our Little Hymnal' takes a million different influences and condenses them into an hour long masterpiece, said influences only part of a tapestry not the whole story. If you love music with a touch of the epic this is the record for you. An album that is simple and elegant, yet powerful and primal at the same time.

You can buy 'Our Little Hymnal' here
Visit Holler, Wild Rose on myspace

Monday, 19 November 2007

The Lost Band : Life Without Buildings

I was driven to write this post by hearing Thomas Tantrum on the radio. They were AWFUL, symptomatic of the problems with the current music scene, all faux cockney speech and over peppy music. Despite their faults there was something that made them stick in my mind, something i recognised and loved. It was then I decided to dig out my old copy of Life Without Buildings' only LP 'Any Other City'. It was beautiful and simple but made me angry, I'd realised the jokers I heard on the radio were just recreating it almost word for word. It really annoys me that Thomas Tantrum are all over the radio and the N*E yet Life Without Buildings disappeared without a trace, this is why I'm giving their only album this long overdue re-appraisal.

A re-appraisal of 'Any Other City' by Life Without Buildings

Listening to 'Any Other City' makes me wish Life Without Buildings had hung on longer, long enough to hit this current burst of music they have inspired. It's honest music, heartfelt and to the point. Realistic love stories woven poetically over stark, bass driven grooves. Singer Sue Tompkins' beautiful, half spoken vocals lift the spirit and ease you in to her world of architecture, lost love and obsession. At times childlike, her lyrics display great compassion and humanism, she is a voyeur who deeply understands the inner thoughts of the average person, whilst keeping her own under wraps behind some clever imagery. The words are fractured, half stories that you have to listen to over and over again to truly understand. On 'The Leanover' Sue yelps and whispers, anguish and acceptance together in one song. 'If I lose you, If I lose you' she mutters as the song takes shape, followed by a stream of disjointed words expressing her love. It's a charming way of constructing a song, bursting out those words that express your situation, not necessarily a coherent story but a stream of words that represent you emotions. It's the musical equivalent of abstract expressionism, paintings constructed quickly and forcefully to express feeling and emotion rather than a recognisable picture, just as Sue's lyrics create feelings and emotions but not a lucid sentence. Elsewhere on the album lay pop gems, much more concise and together compositions like 'Philip' and '14 Days'. Beautiful little pop songs, emotive, punchy and musically reminiscent of early Bloc Party. These tracks veer between strumming and stabbing guitars, with the drums light yet fast and tight bass hooks popping up and down throughout. The album's more downbeat and gorgeously morose moments come in the last two tracks, 'New Town' and 'Sorrow'. Two exercises in all the best parts of Life Without Buildings. There are chopped up bursts of lyrical expressionism, slow drum grooves and prickly guitar lines weaving and darting over. It all comes together in 'Sorrow' to massive emotional effect. A downbeat drum and guitar open the song in a rather innocuous manner and the song builds and builds in this way, the vocals going from indifference to agitation. Extremely beautiful statements stick out of the stream of consciousness; 'eyes like lotus leaves, no, not even LIKE...'. It's the sound of our heads when we're in love, questions and worries mixed with those little bits of the person we adore, all cluttered and full of bits of past conversations.

Quite simply, Life Without Buildings were timeless. When I first heard them on Rough Trade's wonderful Post Punk compilation (buy it here) I was hooked yet confused, unaware of who this amazing band were or when they had graced us with this fantastic record (the record in question being 'The Leanover'). I scrabbled through the sleevenotes to find they were to be found languishing in 2001, a weird year for British music. A time of fictional cartoon characters, guitar bores and the arse end of boybands. It was the year blonde pop nightmares A1 won Best Newcomer at the Brit Awards, but also the year PJ Harvey released 'Stories From The City...', a very strange year. It was a weird place for Life Without Buildings to inhabit, their contemporaries really should have been bands like Essential Logic and The Slits, yet they were stuck in 2001 with Bob The Builder, Travis and Coldplay!

You can buy 'Any Other City' here

Download their track 'Sorrow'...

Friday, 9 November 2007

Deal Or No Deal aka Noel Edmonds' Cosmic Ordering Recruitment Video

Noel; the letcherous face of evil!!!

Was watching the evil Noel Edmonds whilst writing my Shins review and it put me off my writing. Not due to any entertainment value, but because of the downright creepiness of the whole ghastly spectacle. The weird closeness of the contestants, lecherous uncle Noel perving over the younger women and the overall feeling you're watching the televisual equivalent of a religious sect's recruitment pamphlet. It's all vague notions of 'positivity' and crying, lots and lots of crying. You get the feeling the commercial breaks are spent pummeling the contestants into submission and making them peel onions. Far from being harmless viewing for the residents of hell's waiting room, it's 70's game show humour injected with that extra bit of PURE EVIL! At one point Noel refers to a female contestants breasts as been 'magnificent', she responds by giggling and acting coy. She should've punched him in his rotting face.

Deal Or No Deal is backward, cheap and downright weird. Please don't watch it, even for kitch value, it'll turn you into one of Noel's unholy army of the night! Edmonds calls it the 'Dream Factory',in reality it's the 'Theatre Of Nightmares', the graveyard of working class dreams and the general public's inflated sense of importance and notions of fame.

The Shins / Vampire Weekend - Manchester Academy 1 - 8/11/07

It's absolutely freezing. I've just got off the train from Leeds and I'm wondering why I bothered, Manchester is too cold! It's at this moment that I realise why I'm suffering in my hoodie and braving train travel, I'm here to see The Shins. I don't usually travel much for gigs as Leeds seems to have a constant supply of great bands coming here to play, the only thing we lack is a venue big enough for those slightly bigger bands. The Shins are one of these bands, stuck somewhere between Arenas and Universities. Anyway I waffle, let's get to the gig...

When Vampire Weekend take to the stage I have to say I'm very excited, one listen to their beautifully simple first album and I'm smitten. Live, however, I'm left a little cold. I couldn't quite put my finger on it until coming back home on the train, when I realised why I couldn't warm to them; they just didn't NEED it enough. They seemed like posh boys having a go at being in a band, it seemed a bit easy. Having said that the songs are great, (if not a little static and jarring live) a mix of Paul Simon's Graceland with the college pop sensiblities of the band they share the bill with. The crowd seem a little non-plus but by the time they wheel out 'One', the catchy refrain 'Blake's got a new face!' is being coaxed out of them, and people look like they're actually having fun. But we all know what they really want.

Stand out tracks; 'Mansard Roof', 'One', 'A-Punk'

As soon as the lights go down and the tape loop of 'Sleeping Lessons' begins, there is a massive communal spine tingle, excited yelps popping up around the room. As soon as James Mercer croons the opening line I'm sold, a big voice but somehow still naive. As the song reaches its euphoric climax the back curtain is dropped to reveal their beautiful backdrop, a giant version of their Wincing The Night Away artwork. This opening song lets the crowd know exactly what they're in for, a mix of the quiet and loud, massive crashing highs and beautifully intricate lows. 'Turn On Me' is a basic run through but the next song 'Girl Inform Me' is where tonight gets interesting, we are witnessing the reinvention of their first album. 'Girl Inform Me' really benefits from The Shins' development as a band over the last few years, it is brighter, tighter and infinately bigger than the version commited to record in 2001. This trend continues with the other first album tracks, there's a new rather more concise retelling of 'Caring Is Creepy', a slower, slide guitar heavy 'New Slang', and a delicate and basic 'Past And Pending'.

Of the new songs 'Sea Legs' surprises me most as it takes on a rather more aggressive side and really fills the room with trashy guitars and crunchy beats, all underpinned by that ever present slide guitar, to form a quintessentially Shins sound, but with an edge not apparent on the album version. 'Girl Sailor' feels a little wet and underdone, and serves as a little breather on this relentless barage of great songs, bringing everyone down a little bit from the cloud we've been perched on. 'Phantom Limb' is gorgeous, a heady mix of sing-a-long moments alongside inverted emotion expressed through opaque lyrics, serving as a wonderful abridged summary of The Shins' sound. A truly beautiful moment amongst the new songs is 'A Comet Appears', a bare, thoughtful lament on loneliness and faith. Simple finger picked guitar and James' powerful, emotive voice weave between each other to create a truly touching moment

'We can blow on our thumbs and posture, but the lonely are such delicate things. The wind from a wasp could blow them into the sea, with stones on their feet, lost to the light and loving we need' The Shins - 'A Comet Appears'

Other highlights of the set were a stark yet bouncy interpretation of 'When I Goosestep', a wonderfully uplifting 'Mine's Not A High Horse' and the Bloc Party meets Bluegrass guitars on 'Turn A Square'. 'Kissing The Lipless' slips into the set un-announced without the customery 'clap off' that usually signalls it's arrival, and this only serves to make it even more wonderful as you settle into it, you jump rather than been pushed. It has really developed into an amazing song since it opened 2003's Chutes Too Narrow, taking on a new forthright sound. Set closer 'Australia' is one big sing-a-long and retains its title as 'the smash hit that never was', it's pop music in its purest form and a great way to end. But there was more, as the band skipped out for a short encore encompassing a simple acoustic run through of 'The Past And Pending'and a fantastic enahanced version of 'So Says I', complete with a massive synthy build up! Full of crashing cymbals and twirling guitar lines, its an ideal end to a spectacular night.

Stand out tracks;

'A Comet Appears', 'Turn A Square'(wins for best lyric 'Just a glimpse of an ankle and I, react like it's 1805'!), 'Australia', 'Sea Legs' and 'Kissing The Lipless'

Thursday, 1 November 2007

A study into the possibility that Panda Bear has made the best album of 2007

This rather unassuming chap is Noah Lennox, aka Panda Bear, a founding member of Animal Collective and the genius behind the best album you will hear all year, Person Pitch. A masterpiece of looped samples, sweet lilting vocals and hypnotic melodies, Person Pitch sounds like Pet Sounds if The Beach Boys had ditched their guitars and picked up two sampling units instead.

Opener 'Comfy In Nautica' is simply beautiful. The opening chants roll and crash, lulling the listener into a hypnotic trance. It's, at the same time, both a humbling and uplifting experience. The crashing drums and gregorian chanting hit you round the face while Noah's sweet, tender and naive vocals caress your cheek to make it better. Its this mix of the grand and the simple that runs throughout the whole album, the granduer of the music is contradicted by the simplicity and all round pop sensibility of the vocal patterns. As an instrumental piece this album would be an extremely experimental and rather avant garde, but nontheless beautiful, prospect. The vocals give it that push over the edge into populist territory, a sweetener in a sour cup of coffee. This is not to say, however, that this record is going to find its way onto the Christmas list of your average 'shop for music at Tesco' listener. The 10 minute long plus tracks ('Bros', 'Good Girl/Carrots') and constant time changes put pay to that, but thats what I love about this album, it constantly suprises you. 'Take Pills' begins as a melancholic dreamscape, a tale of a building reliance on prescription medication, and builds in this vein until suddenly switching to a joyous dance around the maypole, complete with hand claps and giddy vocals. On 'Good Girl / Carrots' you have a song in three sections. The first a tabla driven, distinctly tribal experience, with rolling drums and posessed stacatto vocals that eventually give way to a more gentle second piece which is possibly the most pop moment on the album (by pop you have to understand I mean the section that more closely resembles music not made by Panda Bear, you know music made by HUMANS!), a mix of a looped piano and beats that sound like they came of Thom Yorke's equally visionary The Eraser, with a vocal that's clear and easily understood. It's at this point that Noah begins to sound a lot like Brian Wilson, the sweet naivety mixed with an obvious knowledge of his genius, the simple echo and doubled studio tracks. After this second passage a stomping soul riff drifts in for the third and final section, a mix of northern soul and 60's surf. I know I keep mentioning it but this section especially could have been taken straight off Pet Sounds.

When you hear the thick, full sound of the record it's hard to believe that it was made with just Lennox's voice, two BOSS Dr Sample 303's and a bunch of old records. The samples used have been the source of much debate, diehard Animal Collective fans studying and disecting the record like it was a piece of historical evidence. It is believed that a majority of the album is constructed from a selection of Joe Meek produced Tornados songs, 'Red Roses And A Sky Of Blue' contains the main riff that runs throughout the majority of 'Bros' and 'Popeye Twist' is used for the second, more upbeat half of 'Take Pills'.*

Overall the album is a dual purpose product, you can either give your full concentration and study every nook and cranny, or you can just let it drift straight over you. It really is bliss to just sit and listen to this record and be taken away from life for 45 minutes and 36 seconds. It never gets old and this blissful feeling never dwindles, beleive me I've listened to it through three times while writing this blog and I still feel it the same as the first time.

Put simply, it's a modern symphony. If there's any justice, Panda Bear will be looked at in a centuries time as a visionary and a genius. He is our generations shining light, our own little genius.

Here's the new video for 'Comfy In Nautica':

And an old one for 'Bros':

And a live version of 'Bros' @ Upset The Rhythm, Spitz in London:

Click on the titles of the tracks in the review for an mp3. These mp3's are strictly for sampling purposes only and will be removed in 30 days. If you like them, go buy the record. I suggest you get the vinyl, it has amazing fold out artwork.

Person Pitch is out now on Paw Tracks

Buy it here