Thursday, 30 September 2010

Malcom Mclaren- Fans : Review

As one reviewer on Amazon succinctly puts it, ‘Fans’ is the album that the ‘genre unknown’ option on iTunes was made for. What to call its peculiar mix of rap, r&b, opera and soul? Rapra? Hip-hopera? iTunes itself plumps for electronica but that it only half the story. This is an album that takes all the drama that comes from the best of these genres and slams them against each other to mesmerising and intriguing effect. The result is strangely beautiful whilst at the same time being extremely divisive. Just how Mclaren liked it.

Of course it’s easy to scoff. Mclaren was a shameless profiteer and knew that by piggybacking on two such alien cultures he would create enough of a furore to keep himself in bondage trousers until he hatched his next scheme. To sneer at its motives though, is to forget what a groundbreaking album this was. The year was 1984. Prince Harry had just been born, miners strikes were threatening to derail the country and no one outside of a small group of American graffiti artists and b-boys had ever heard of hip-hop. To take a genre in its infancy and mix it with the well worn and well respected grooves of Puccini and Bizet was an act of genius. As was updating the stories so that Carmen becomes a street smart prostitute and Madame Butterfly a neurotic on the verge of collapse over her failed long distance love affair “Gotta have something to believe in
/ My white honky I do miss him/
Someday soon he'll come around/
Just to stop my nervous breakdown” This kind of clash of musical cultures had not been done since Westside Story (ballet and gang warfare) and would not be repeated so successfully until Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’.

Despite a distinct lack of musical input, Mclaren’s stamp is all over the album. It’s true that the weakest track ‘Boys Chorus’ (featuring a sample from Turandot) is the one where he does most rapping. However, its backstage that he’s working his magic, coaxing performances from the opera singers, choirs and soul mummas and slowing the beats right down to languid trip-hop levels. This allows the operatic vocals the chance to soar through the beats, not be constrained by them and means that the two genres mesh together gorgeously.

It is a testament to his skill as a producer that ‘the most evil man in the world’ never lets the project tip over into camp melodrama. He respects that hip-hop and opera are cross -generational ways of telling stories of love, hope and sadness and allows them to play off against each other subtly. Once again Mclaren had unwittingly landed on his feet. The album that should never have worked was arguably the crowning glory of his solo years. ‘Fans’ is that rarest of achievements- a collection of songs that make you want to get up and dance but that also manage to haunt your soul long after they’ve stopped spinning. Malc may not have always been on the money, but strangely hip-hopera is a beat we can all get on board with.

More hear....

Another day, another dig around on youtube... This time I unearthed a 1984 'Southbank Show' episode featuring Mclaren and the making of 'Fans'. It's all very enlightening, why not have a goggle?

Saturday, 25 September 2010


Whilst foraging around on YouTube the other night, I came across this fantastic video of Donovan and Bob Dylan backstage at a gig in around 1966. Despite Don singing his little heart out and having lyrics that are equally as beautiful as Mr Zimmerman's (When you feel you just can't make it anymore/ With your head bowed down you're staring at the floor/Search out to me with your weary eyes/ I'll sing a song for you), he is thoroughly trumped in the folk off when Bob noncholantly pulls 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" out of the bag. Check out 3 mins 33 secs for the moment he knows the game is up. Anyone else think that Donovan is a bit of a David Miliband figure to Dylan's Ed? So close to glory and yet so far....

Saturday, 11 September 2010

New Releases

Summer Camp- Youth

Those Su-hummer- Niiiigihh-hiiights (tell me more, tell me more)

There's something deliciously English about the idea that the past is somehow superior.

Whether its women desperate to recapture their youth with botox, paunchy old rock stars reforming for stadium tours, or popular films, fashions and TV shows being rehashed and reshaped, the past is constantly becoming integrated into another generation’s identity and cultural narrative. Along with queuing and being casually racist, having a good old wallow in nostalgia is what us Brits do best.

It often seems that English people exist in a state of constant fear that they are living in a world that is worse than their predecessors, that somehow if they could return to the ‘free love’ of the 60’s or the ‘make do and mend’ attitudes of the 30’s or lose themselves in the hedonism of the 80’s they might feel more fulfilled. The sad truth is that most of the time nostalgia is a lie. The past was never that good, and all your reference points are way out of line. This is particularly true when it comes to your childhood. You may remember heady days of climbing trees, blowing huge bubblegum balloons and running until you ran out of park. The truth is that for most of the time you were bored out of your mind and you had nits.

If anyone is guilty of over romanticising youth it’s ‘Summer Camp’. A band more twee than a Belle and Sebastian convention or the lovechild of Michael Cera and Zooey Deschanel, their lyrics paint a picture of the kind of adolescence you only see in John Hughes movies. We’re talking Polaroid photos, unrequited crushes that make you feel like you want to die, boys dressed as teen wolf barfing on the carpet, fumbles in the upstairs bedroom “on a dirty blue duvet” and burning your first love letter. Behind the dreamy boy-girl harmonising come punchy synths, squelchy at first and then languid and lazy like a day spent lying on your back on the grass, squinting at the sun. The backing track to opener ‘Round the Moon’ sounds like it’s being played backwards and has the feel of an 80’s detective show theme tune being fed through a mangle. If you’re not sure what that would sound like, it’s pretty rad.

The fact is, while it shouldn’t be, the whole album is pretty rad. The lyrics never feel cloying, perhaps because singers Jeremy Warmsley (yes, him) and Elizabeth Sankey deliver their message of a never-ending summer with a typically British curl of the lip. As Sankey intones on ‘Veronica Sawyer’:  “I’ll never be young again but that’s ok/ I’ve got so much more than this”

Perhaps it’s because Jez and Liz are a real life couple. Maybe its because it was recorded in their bedroom (at times you practically feel as if you’re snuggled in bed with them watching T4) Whatever the reason, the collection of songs never seem artificial. The sentiments always feel sincere. It also never becomes a pastiche, despite the lyrics being ones you’ve heard a million and one times before (“Think back to the summer/ Days went on forever”) Instead, you realise that ‘Young’ is an album created by people who are genuinely passionate about the kind of lo-fi tunes that ‘zines are written about. People who are living in the kind of artistic world where these kind of sentiments are not fantasy. Nostalgic and unrealistic it may be, but it’s delivered with a lot of heart and soul. Music needs shades of dark and light, and ‘Summer Camp’ with their NHS specs and their reliance on cardigans are keeping the lights on in the darkness of winter. Here’s betting their first child is called either Emilio or Molly. 

Brandon Flowers- Flamingo

The Killers frontman attempts to distance himself from the Mafia’s playground, and is largely unsuccessful.

It’s half past two in the afternoon and Brandon Flowers has woken up in a seedy motel. His money has been wasted on cheap whisky and expensive games of blackjack. His head pounding, he sits up and notices the ropey looking call girl lying next to him; the call girl who has given him the clap. Outside the wind rolls across the arid Nevadan desert and in the distance the lights of Las Vegas shine brightly. The same lights that cause Flowers to “stumble down the boulevard with neon encrusted temples” ‘Flamingo’ is the sound of Flowers coming round from the mother of all hangovers and looking for salvation from the excesses of sin city.

Billed as the languid front man’s ‘debut’, in truth this is a Killers album by another name. All of the band’s calling cards are present. Behold, if you will, the synths, eyeliner, juggernaut-sized choruses and well-observed slices of Americana. A witch-house album it aint. But this is perhaps not surprising. The songs had originally been written for the whole band to perform but when they fancied a break, Flowers thought he’d go it alone. The fact that he is the only one of the Killers anyone actually knows probably helped. The result however, is an album that is never quite as potent as it should be.

It’s not for want of trying. Flowers apes U2 and Neil Young and all but covers Born in the U.S.A in an attempt to pack a suitably road-trippin’, state of the nationish punch. It’s just not enough and by track 6, ‘Valentina’ his Springsteen karaoke shtick has begun to grate somewhat. What else is the line “I got a job at the nugget and I saved $1000 for a brand new start” but a poor man’s ‘Atlantic City’ rip off? -“I drew what I had from the central trust and I bought us two tickets on that Grove City bus”

The motif of a man’s desire to escape the confines of his hometown is not new, and while Flowers does it well, his pleas to the Lord and images of sin and forgiveness are never strong enough to provide a new perspective. When he begs “Redemption keep my sheets clean tonight” you almost believe, until you realise that Flowers is as much Las Vegas as Morrissey is Manchester. Despite his attempts to prove otherwise, and for all his rosary bed rubbing and talk of salvation from its evils, he needs the city. This album, his attempt at redemption, doesn’t work purely because it seems like a death- bed conversion. Flowers never truly believes and therefore neither can we.

One thing he should believe in is the power of his Killers band mates. Without his brothers in arms behind him, Flowers has lost much of his razzmatazz. ‘Flamingo’, like the city that spawned it, is style over substance and leaves us exhausted, with more questions than answers. Flowers needs to get himself to confession pronto because the salvation he is waiting for is not going to come with this album. 


Hurts- Happiness

A passion for fashion but not necessarily the tunes to match

Every fool knows that being in a successful band is 40% actual musical talent and 60% style.

Think for a moment of the coolest bands you know. The Ramones. Roxy Music. The Strokes. All of them have got a certain sartorial je ne sais quoi to match their banging tunes.  Give Hurts a quick once over and you know they’re a band who’ve got the image thing down. The brylcreamed hair, the slightly oversized Miami Vice jackets, the collarless button down shirts, the single gold hoop earring, and most of all the monochrome cover of their album, are all knowing nods to the decade that taste forgot. These look like the kind of lads who seduce girls by slow dancing them to ‘Smooth Operator’ over a campari and soda. And why the hell not? With a Tory government shitting on the poor, rising unemployment, weekly industrial action, ‘The A-Team’ and ‘The Karate Kid’ raking it in at the box office, and double denim sales through the roof, Hurts are striking at a time when the iron of 80’s revival has reached maximum heat. Stylish and strangely attractive (one of them even looks like those blokes from Bros-swoon!) they’re 60% of the way there. So, what of the other 40%? 

As you’d expect this is the artier, more sophisticated end of the 80’s spectrum. Whilst the album is partially dedicated to Kylie Minogue, there is little of her frothiness here (even on her collaboration with the band ‘Devotion’) Instead we’re firmly setting up pitch in the Pet Shop Boys-Tears For Fears-Spandau Ballet encampment of cerebral power pop. Not that it’s an especially sunny vacation spot. Only a few tracks in and you realise that ‘Happiness’ is an ironic title. The songs, awash with strings, heartfelt declarations of love, handclap drums and big, brassy choirs all topped off with the emotion laden blips and blops of the synthesisers leave little to smile about. Take ‘Sunday’ with its morose refrain “The loverless nights they seem so long/ I know that I’ll hold you someday/ But until you come back where you belong/ It’s just another lonely Sunday” The sorrow never lets up throughout the album, building to near hysteria by the end. While on some tracks it’s magnificent, on others it ends up being the 80’s at its worst- bloated and tedious. Many tracks become so fist clenchingly ballady that they threaten to tip into Eurovision territory. Yikes.

The strongest ditties on the album are undoubtedly singles ‘Wonderful Life’ and ‘Better Than Love’ although this is partly because they sound like you’ve heard them before. The latter especially is such an effective pastiche that it could be a lost ABC album track. Listen to hidden song ‘Verona’ and it takes a while to remember that you’re not listening to Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’.

A mixed bag then. When it’s good it’s good and when it’s bad it sounds like Michael Bolton. The album is somewhat like the 80’s itself- a lot of brilliance and moments of sheer lunacy that sometimes pay off but more often than not leave you feeling like you’ve done too much coke and you want to cry. If you’re really yearning for a slice of 80’s nostalgia pie then flick your telly box over to This Is England ’86, a programme that captures the spirit of the 80’s far more effectively than this album can ever hope to. Good try lads but you’ve got a long way to go for that extra 40%. 

Dispatches from the Hop Farm -2010

Written in my notebook are two words I never thought I’d attribute to Pete ‘call me Peter’ Doherty- sober and coherent. The troubled Babyshambles front man doesn’t fall off stage once during his early afternoon set, a mix of solo material and old Libs classics that even sees him lead the crowd in a hop-picking themed sing along. Whilst his attempts to reinvent himself as a Byronic troubadour are at times unintentionally hilarious (Ballet dancers? During ‘What A Waster’?), he gives a lot of heart. That’s more than can be said for The Magic Numbers whose performance is decidedly vanilla. The most pertinent adjective to describe them is hairy, and whilst their sunshine pop should be perfect for the cider fuelled festival atmosphere, it somehow falls flat.

Never mind, for before you can say ‘barn dance!’ folk rock’s nouveau elite are bounding onto the stage. All hail the princess of folk Laura Marling. Last time we saw her she was a shuffling spectre of a girl, hiding her pretty face behind an enormous fringe and looking as if she wanted the ground to swallow her every time she was forced to interact with the audience. My, hasn’t she grown? Now she is all smiley and confident, projecting her haunting voice on stand out track ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ in a way that hints she knows far more about life than she should at her age. Swooping across the field, her pipes truly won our hearts. The same hearts that had been ruthlessly snatched by her predecessor, the matinee idol of folk pop Johnny Flynn. Laura Marling’s BFF is the kind of man you long to snuggle with in a log cabin. His beautiful floppy hair and huge pouty lips got pulses racing but Flynn proved he’s not just a pretty face, playing the guitar, banjo and trumpet and storming through his beautifully crafted ditties with a voice that could melt a polar bear at twenty paces. Bless.

Messrs Mumford, next on the bill, are in a celebratory mood. “Hands up who thinks this is the line up of any festival this summer?” They may have a point. Regardless, it’s certainly been greatly enhanced by their presence and it’s clear from the reaction of the crowd that they’re one of the day’s biggest draws. No mean feat for a band with only one album under their belts competing against such rock behemoths as Robby Zimmerman. The secret to their success? Nobody can make you want to stomp your feet like Mumford and Sons. The gig, a homecoming of sorts, is surely the icing on the cake for the lads whose year has been a whirlwind of critical acclaim, radio airplay and platinum selling records. Even new songs, showcasing a rawer, less banjo reliant sound are well received. Clearly they can do no wrong.

The stage is set for Seasick Steve, the first of tonight’s old guard. Seasick, as his friends undoubtedly call him never fails to raise a smile with his tales of freight train hoppin’ and choke pickin’. The music aint half bad either, the grizzled howl of Steve’s vocals being magnified by his crazed Animal like drummer who manages to elevate the lo-fi sound to field filling volume. Seasick is still keeping it real though, plucking a variety of instruments with ever decreasing numbers of strings until he’s essentially just thwacking away at a flimsy bit of wood. He may not have Johnny Flynn’s looks but when he drags a beautiful female audience member from the crowd and serenades her with ‘Walkin’ Man’ (“You say walk and I will walk to the end of the line and back to you”) you can’t help but feel he’s a bit of a catch, even if his dungarees could do with a service wash. What a shame his success came so late in life or else he would have been tonight’s headliner.

And so, to the big guns. Playing second fiddle tonight is Ray Davies who seems to be increasingly resembling Fabio Capello. North London’s finest tries his best to get the crowd excited about his solo material but things are pretty lukewarm until he gets going with some Kinks classics. ‘Lola’, ‘You Really Got Me’, ‘Apeman’ and ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ are perfect and, just for a moment, it seems as if ‘Sunny Afternoon’ had been written for this very day. Less promising is Ray’s dancing which brought back horrible Vietnam style flashbacks of your Dad ‘grooving’ to Dire Straits at your Uncle’s 50th. Grizzly. Overrunning his time, Ray refuses to leave and practically has to be dragged off stage during his encore of ‘20th Century Man’. National treasure status is surely long overdue.  

If Ray Davies is the relative that always puts a smile on your face then Bob Dylan is that cantankerous third cousin who no one wants to invite for Christmas. Whilst 40+ years at the top of his game has earned him the right to be a bit of an arsehole (Liam Gallagher has made a career out of it, on the back of only two decent albums), Dylan is bloody hard work. Even the die hard Dylan heads, well represented in tonight’s audience, wear the rictus grins of a wife who realises that her marriage has gone stale. Dylan is just so unlikeable. His boredom and frustration are evident as he plays with all the exuberance of a bear that has been woken from a deep sleep. It’s the songs that suffer. Well worn classics are rendered impenetrable by his sludgy whine of a delivery that strips all the lyrical nuance from such gems as ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ 

It’s a criticism that has long been levelled at Bob but one that somehow, irritatingly, doesn’t diminish his greatness. As impersonal as his performance is (his only words to the crowd a mumbled “thank you” as he departs the stage) you still feel as if you’ve been in the presence of greatness and, for a brief moment, as the lyrics to ‘Forever Young’ escape across the field and you see people wrapped in blankets against the chill of the retreating sun singing along, you understand why Dylan is worth missing the last train home for. Mumford and Sons might have youth, Pete Doherty might have discovered a new talent for standing upright and singing, but only Bob Dylan can write songs that articulate the things you want to say but can never get down in words, songs that live with you, and in you, in your home and your heart, like part of your furniture. Love, divorce, death, youth, nobody says it better than Bob. He may be a letdown but he’s also the greatest songwriter of the last century and that’s why nobody present can ever really bring themselves to hate him. The bastard.