• A Blonde Moment

    6. Apr. 2008, 9:37

    This morning, I'm having a swift listen to Someone to Drive You Home, The Long Blondes' first album: as tomorrow sees the official release date for Couples, the new album by the band I am rapidly coming to regard as one of the most exciting bands Yorkshire has produced in years, because, unlike Kid Acne, I'm of the belief that there's more to South Yorks than drizzle and dogging: and I really couldn't give an arse these days for Arctic Monkeys. Well, c'mon…

    Anyway, back to the task in hand. I'm listening to an album that I've held in high regard for a long time. Hell, I had tickets for The Blondes' March gig at Fibbers back in mid-December. I nearly, nearly gave them up (long story, a lot of emotional upset), but the pull of witnessing Dorian Cox's ventriloquism act proved too great in the end. What, of course, colours the mix is the fact that Couples has been part of my playlist for the last two weeks or so.

    So what do I think? Suddenly, it's underwhelming. Odd that: two weeks of the new album has rendered Someone... one-dimensional and shown it up as the relatively minor work it is compared with Couples. Of course, the second album has many of the tics that plague not just The Long Blondes' music, but British indie music in general (guitar hooks in unison with vocals, melodic lines overly wedded to the root of the power chord like sub-Buzzcocks thrash, etc), but whereas the new album has some interesting breaks with style, Someone... now has all the feel of Elvis Costello's production job for The Specials' eponymous first album: charming, but simplistic and underdone, whilst still managing to be ground-breaking at the time.

    What's changed? What's going on? Well, I suppose the change of producer helps. The hiring of Steve Mackey, the former bassist in Pulp, shaped the sound more than many people gave credit: listen to Dorian Cox's backing vocals, and then argue that point with me.

    Actually, don't. I'll just sit there with my arms folded looking smug, like I do. You know that look.

    No: what The Blondes needed, desperately needed was something that would divest them of that "Sound of Swinging Sheffield" tag that subconsciously followed them around due to Mackey's competent-but-flawed production job. Something that would make Someone... feel like Please Please Me sounds once you listen to any other Beatles album.

    Erol Alkan's yer man, people. Seriously in demand right now, having just produced Twenty One for erstwhile prog-rock fetishists Mystery Jets and, having invigorated their sound with fizzy, dirty 80's synths, he grabs The Long Blondes by the scruff of the neck and invigorates their sound with fizzy, dirty 80's synths.

    You spotting a pattern here?

    Here's the thing though: it works. Furthermore, it's not just the synths that belie a greater maturity. "Century", the opening track on both their recent live sets and the new album, has been garnering a lot of attention for its glassy 80's sound (shades of late Siouxsie and the Banshees and Propaganda for me), but it's the sinuous, snaky feel of the instrumentation, what the music is doing harmonically that is the key. It's a million miles away from those awful tics I mentioned up the page: melody plays with countermelody, angular arpeggiators break up the more melodically unified moments. And that's just the first track.

    I'm not going to go through it track-by-track, blow-by-blow. If you didn't like "Century" (and I'm sure there are plenty that don't), the new album manages to draw on more familiar aural territory for The Blondes whilst developing both lyrically and musically. In particular, "The Couples" stands out as beautiful, bitter, heart-breaking, heart-broken pop at its very best. It spoke to me.

    The short recommendation is: BUY IT. Available on iTunes today with bonus tracks, and available in the shops tomorrow. Come round to my place and give me a kicking should you feel let down.
  • Maggie Osterberg

    11. Apr. 2007, 8:53

    A word of advice before I start this one. Remember - your entire taste in music is made up of what you've heard. What you hear is controlled by the music industry almost 100% - or, as cke put it in the blog Chunks, Eggs en Prix:"Think of it--there's only so much music that one person can listen to in a day. Most people seem to prefer to have music playing dimly in the background through virtually every waking minute of their lives (except when they're watching television). Of all those hours of daily music, virtually all of it comes from the commercial music industry. This means that, not only was all that music produced according to some pretty specific and slick-sounding standards, but that it's all owned by those companies as well. In essence, the music industry is meeting virtually 100% of the daily demand for music that people have, and they're doing it with material that they own, and that sounds at least halfway decent. They also have control over virtually all the primary promotional avenues. In other words, the entire musical landscape, from the musicians all the way to the brains of listeners, is almost wholly controlled by the recording industry."
    So. Let me broaden your mind. OK? Just don't get on my back if it sounds a little unfamiliar at first. Uncomfortable is good.

    It's no great secret that I'm an admirer of the work of Maggie Osterberg. Her work has a lo-fi precious quality about it that sets it apart from so much of the mass-produced crap that passes for music these days. She sounds real. And that's what I love about her. So let me take you through a bit of a sampler - some stuff that you can get for free, and if you like that, well: there's stuff for sale too.

    Right. First things first. It's an unusual singing voice. In a world of American Idols and Cowell-made monsters, this voice wouldn't get past audition 1. That's no criticism. I'd love to see what they'd have made of Neil Young, too. But the critics like her. Milo Miles described her music as

    "Garage-prog with a passion for melody sprinkled over everyday scenes of despair and contentment."
    So you begin to get the idea. A little rough around the edges, but knowingly so. She knows what she's doing.

    I can't think of a better way of describing the first track of hers I'd like to introduce - The Last Two Drops (Download here). Actually, I can - because when I first heard it I went a little bonkers. Click the download link, and while you listen, read the review I dashed off at the time.

    "Jeeze: somebody stop the room swaying.

    It's Fear And Loathing On The Stamen Island Ferry.

    Cuts right to the intuitive, does mosterberg's latest. Back in the recesses of my mind, it actually has a sense of menace that I've only experienced once in my life when I entered a benighted store just off Interstate 10 in Kent, TX (sorry, make the benighted store the whole of Kent, as it really was that deserted) and got the chilling phrase "You ain't from round here; are you boy?" as I perused the dust-covered Wrigley's in a somewhat disoriented travel-addled state of mind.

    I told him no, I'd come from Eugene, OR and left in a colossal hurry. Scary shit.

    Like when you get too drunk, and it stops making sense.

    Like this fractured little gem. Wow."

    Yeah, you see? Do me a favour: listen to it twice. The first time is acclimatisation. The second time is appreciation. I love the way the Marc Ribot-influenced guitars spider around each other, and her spacious use of reverb - which isn't very trendy right now. People are taught to like their music bright and dry by the music industry these days: Maggie Osterberg likes space and swamp. It's different, that's all - and different is good. Those voices too. It's quite an intoxicating, spooky little package. All in all, I'm a fan of Maggie's judgement, to be honest - and this song shows off her judgement in shovelfuls.

    So - on to song #2 in this little article. This one was written as a birthday gift for little old me. An Appointment (Download here). And what a birthday gift it was. Again: my thoughts from when I first heard it. Click the download link and read on.

    "The town that I originally come from is a fairly sleepy, but fair and moderately liberal-minded town called Grantham in Lincolnshire. Although surrounded by tracts of arable land, it had a fair concentration of heavy engineering for a town of its size.

    Ingenuity in war production had always been one of Grantham's strengths. Eight years prior to the Great War, a local company had demonstrated to the War Office a novel form of vehicle propulsion where the wheels were encased in a metal band, allowing the vehicle to traverse obstacles in the field that would stop conventional vehicles. The War Office had written the invention off as having "no significant military application". A decade later, the battle of Cambrai would see the tank make its terrible entry into modern warfare.

    Lessons had been learned - as soon as war became probable in the late 1930's, all Grantham's factories were converted to war production and RAF Bomber Command No. 5 Group was set up there - where Barnes Wallace was later to perfect the "bouncing bomb". Of course the lessons had been learnt on the other side too, as Nazi tactics made liberal use of the caterpillar track to shock countries into submission in 1940.

    Grantham has always had a degree of importance in the greater scheme of things, having been a stop on the stagecoach route from London to York and Edinburgh (the A1 used to run right through the town centre), and at that stage it was a major marshalling yard for the London and North-Eastern Railway.

    All this meant that, on German maps, there was a great big cross-hair over Grantham.

    Grantham suffered over 270 alerts, but the night that sticks out in many people's memories was the night of 30th September 1940.

    More about that later, but a bit of background first.

    My grandma on my mother's side was a singular character. Fiercely loyal and oddly independent, she took virtually no domestic skills to her marriage. She'd not so much wooed as cornered her husband - but that's a different story. Anyway, she was chatty, lively, the worst cook ever, had an outrageously cheeky sense of humour and had a predilection for dying her hair on a whim. My grandad (a shy, reserved type of bloke) was a postman, and he did the nightshift working out of the railway station. My mother has plenty of stories of my grandad waking up ready to go to work, to be faced with near inedible food and a wife with a new, almost offensively vibrant hair colour. After a while, he'd just sigh.

    Grandma had an active mind, and no skills to occupy it with. She had three kids - a boy in the army, a girl quite able to look after herself, and a quiet, reserved daddy's girl who was just starting piano lessons. That was my mum, and she'd just turned seven. Grandma was bored most of the time, so used to take every opportunity to see a film. She viewed babysitting expenses as a frippery, so dragged my mother out to the pictures most nights. My mother remembers her schooldays mainly as a battle to stay awake.

    On the 30th September, as usual, they went to the pictures. On this instance it was the pictures at the other, south side of the town that they chose to go to. If an air raid took place during a film, the sirens couldn't be heard at all clearly inside; so the custom was to show a slide informing patrons of the situation, and assuring them that if they wanted to stay, the film would continue.

    The same tired old phrase would be trotted out. "We may as well stay. If you're going to bloody die, you may as well die watchin' a film," was my Grandma's reasoning.

    At about 8:30, the slide appeared - and although a few people left, most people stayed and the film played to an almost-packed house.

    At 8:45 the cinema shook and my mother remembers hearing a most tremendous sound. For a few seconds, it was dark. People began to panic. There were a few servicemen in there who had seen active service in France earlier that year and their calming influence was instrumental in stopping what could have been a lethal rush for the doors. The noises carried on for a while and then died down.

    The target had been the very factory where those caterpillar tracks had been made before. Some of the largest bombs deployable at the time, 1,000kg and 1,800kg monsters (appropriately codenamed "Satan" by the Luftwaffe), had ripped through the factory, destroying the area assembling depth charges - and no doubt exploding a few in the process. The blasts had taken out the electricity, gas and water simultaneously, and the factory was less than 200 yards from the cinema.

    Once the terrible noise had died down, Grandma realised that there was probably not much chance of catching the rest of the film (duh!) and decided to make her way home.

    My mother's description of what she saw as she left the cinema still chills me.

    "It was like day - everything was lit up - and there was fire everywhere. The picture house was the only building on London Road not on fire. I've never been so scared. There was stuff falling all around us." There were fire crews strung down the street, battling hopelessly as fires raged out of control, destroying buildings.

    The only thing to do was dodge the falling debris and run home across town.

    They ran up High Street until they were met by an ARP Warden, who sternly rebuked Grandma for being out with a young child and sent them into the shelter at Lipton's. They cowered there, petrified - my mum told me she wasn't sure she'd see daylight again: as far as she was concerned, this was it.

    My granddad had heard the news, and, knowing his wife and daughter were out in the middle of the conflagration, was excused his duties for the night. He went looking for his family.

    My mother had almost given up when she heard a Cockney accent at the doors of the shelter.

    "I'm looking for a woman with a little girl..."

    "It was when I heard Dad's voice," she said, "that I knew we were going to be OK." He joined them in the shelter, and they sat the rest of the raid out, waiting for the all-clear. The toll was terrible - my mother remembers stories of the local open-air swimming pool being used as an emergency casualty centre and mortuary.

    Many years later, my mother was diagnosed with a carcinoma of the kidney. By all rights, she shouldn't have survived that, but 18 years later she's still here. I was talking about that with her only yesterday, and I reminded her of what a friend had said.

    Eleanor (an ex-girlfriend's mother) is a doctor and a devout Catholic. I'd described the cancer and my mother's almost inexplicable survival. She concurred with the medical opinion I reported and she'd said "obviously your mother has things to do... She hasn't finished yet."

    "Damn right!" Mum said when I passed this on. "The doctor told me my chances and I got so... so... God, angry! I remember thinking, sod that! I'm not qualified as a piano teacher yet! You're not beating me!"

    It wasn't the first time she'd cheated death to see the future, was it?

    Listening to that incident retold in song, with the image of a seven-year-old girl running for her life to make it to her son's birthday party in the future, was really very special. Maggie had no idea my mother's such a fighter, and her interpretation was prescient to say the least.

    It's probably the best birthday present I've ever had."

    The layered voices, the angry guitar chops and that bass make for a very special song indeed. Listen to the combination of space and muscular presence, and the way a seemingly disorganised song coalesceses around the "baby's birthday party" hook before slowly unravelling again. This woman really knows what she's doing. And the lead voice - heartfelt, unselfconscious, full-blooded: singing with conviction and passion

    I have goosebumps.

    Now a "compare and contrast" moment. One of the marks of a good songwriter is whether a song survives the transition from one artist to another. Writing for your own voice is one thing, but once someone else gets hold of a song...

    Not much comment here:

    stupid rain (Download here)

    Stupid Rain (Download here)

    One song, two very different treatments. Very interesting.

    Now for the final song in this set. Goodnight (download here). I consider this to be her masterpiece. If The Last Two Drops was fractured, then this is shattered, in every sense of the word. Written one late night after a hospital visit, Maggie's sigh at the beginning sets the tone for a toned-down howl of anguish that expresses in music everything it struggles to say in words. Again, my thoughts at the time.

    "I know that sigh. I have a similar one.

    There's something that about dark times that brings out the best in an artist. It really sucks that we have to go through it, but the payoff for us listeners is potentially fantastic.

    This is one of those "tick all the boxes" numbers. Unselfconscious, raw and melancholy: Maggie's back and she's flying in on one engine emotionally. She's got a habit of producing late-night nuggets of lo-fi precious, but there's a sense of humour behind most of them. Granted, it's concealed behind a scary facade, but it's there.

    Not this time. She's tired, ground down and someone should give her a hug.

    But he can't move. What can we do?

    This is broken. This is sparse. This is heartbreakingly triumphant.

    Oddly, iTunes gave me Johnny Cash's cover of We'll Meet Again straight after and - I am aware this may sound heretical - it came across as callow and lightweight by comparison. The comparison shocked me.

    No: you want Americana at its most raw? This is the real deal.

    We are lucky, lucky people."

    We are, you know.

    Should you want to own more of her work, her album Bent, Not Broken is available online - emusic, iTunes, the usual places. I utterly recommend you check it out.

  • A hidden gem

    6. Apr. 2007, 12:32

    I've been listening to the album that Matt Duane Griffin made for the RPM Challenge this year, Fuyu Persimmon.

    It's a revelation. I was trying to find an artist to liken it to and I was, to be honest, really struggling. Then it hit me - it's probably like an version of Jonathan Richman that's had the child-like wonder replaced with a tetchiness bordering on anger. It has a feel to it that I would best describe as garage folk-punk. What I really like about it is his usage of lap dulcimer - a terrible instrument to tune, and it shows in the songs.

    Don't get me wrong - I don't mean that as a criticism in any way except the most positive: in this era of locked-in tuning, Matt's sound is thick, loaded with a sense of reality.

    I was recently involved in a discussion at Matt's blog, No Marsupial Equivalent about the contribution of Glen Matlock to the Sex Pistols - the conbtribution of actual songwriting, pop sensibility and all that.

    I'm pleased to relate that all the points both he and I raised seem to reflect in his songwriting. It's simple, direct and each song comes in, makes its point and leaves. Wham, bam, etc, etc.

    The album is short - ten songs that come and go in under 24 minutes - but that's where it derives a lot of its power: the way it hits reminds me in some respects of Please Please Me. Songs without pretence, and with plenty of impact.

    And sure, he's angry: but Everything Turns Out OK. And I like that.