Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Book Review: Everybody Loves Our Town - Mark Yarm

There isn't any shortage of documentation of Rock music history. There is no shortage of books, films, magazine articles or detailed compilation albums of the history of every scene in every town that has ever had a few bands play there. While this is a wonderful thing for the completists, historians and nerds it can leave a casual observer somewhat overwhelmed as each different document has a different take on each story, often influenced by the opinions of the writer. How are you to know what the real story is? Well unless you were there you probably never will know all the details. Mark Yarm's Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History Of Grunge brings you the real story from the mouths of those that were there. Whilst not the first book of its kind (see last year’s Grunge Is Dead by Greg Prato) it is far more detailed than most.
Everybody Loves Our Town is very thorough in its coverage of the punk scene in the northwest of America. Starting with the U-Men, it covers the more influential acts that started in what was a rather desolate corner of the country in the late 1970's and early 80's. When Grunge took over the airwaves in the early 90's it would be easy to think that you couldn't throw a stone without hitting a fan of the music of Seattle but just 10 years earlier, there really were almost no punk-rock bands in that area. If you wanted to be part of any “scene” you would have had have headed south to LA, as some people like Duff McKagan (who had played in various bands, including The Fastbacks) did.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Face - Big Chief

I've heard it argued by people (especially with the recent 20th anniversary of Nevermind) that Grunge was the last big movement in Rock and Roll. Since 1994 when Kurt Cobain chose to remove himself from the equation, there has not been a sub-genre that has equalled the resonance that grunge had with the general populace or even just the music press. And it's true that “the Seattle sound” was one of the last local scenes to make itself known to the world in such a big scale. Like Liverpool and San Francisco in the 1960's or New York In the late 1970's or Manchester in the late 1980's the Northwest scene exploded and then died down a few short years later. Like all of these local scenes that were suddenly popular, bands that didn't sound a whole lot like each other were all pigeonholed together based on their geographical location. For example, Mudhoney and Pearl Jam are a world away from each other in terms of the tone of their sound and their style, yet as they are both Seattle bands from the late 1980's and early 1990's they are “Grunge”. Even bands that were not from the Seattle area were given the label, just because they happened to be loud, indie-rock bands from America. It's a tag that many bands have tried to shrug off but some of them bear more similarities to the genre as a whole than many of the bands who originated in the Pacific Northwest.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Soulforce Revolution - 7 Seconds

Ever since Michael Azerad's wonderful book, Our Band Could Be Your Life changed my listening habits and opened my ears to the history of independent rock and American hardcore punk, I've paid attention to how these bands, the hardcore acts especially, changed their sound as time went on. Most of these acts were short lived but so incredibly intense that they packed more changes, turbulence and development into a few short years than many bands fit into decades. Black Flag slowed down to a darkly sludgy pace on their later records after changing drummers and singers as many times as they changed pants, whilst Husker Du went from the kings of short, lightning quick hardcore to almost single-handedly inventing indie rock. It seems for a lot of hardcore bands, playing that particular style of music loses its appeal after a while and they move on to embrace other, less abrasive genres.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Silhoutte - Shoes

The more I hear the words post-punk used to describe bands and records, the more unsure I become of what the hell it actually means. I know that it technically means “after the punk movement” but that seems really bloody vague even for a musical genre. I've heard it used to describe hardcore punk, electro-rock, grunge and even acts that I'm fairly sure are first wave punk bands. I think to me it best describes bands like Mission Of Burma who took the punk attitude and attack on board but explored different avenues with it in the early 80's. It would be easy for me to lump Shoes into the vast melting pot of genres that seems to compile the collective idea of post-punk, based on some of the strong influences I can hear in their music and the time during which they were at their most prolific. But I won't. Especially since their first album came out in 1975.

Their sixth album Silhouette is one of the more underrated records in their catalogue which may have something to do with the fact that it never got a release in the USA despite the band being based in the somewhat hopefully named, Zion, Illinois. They were dropped by Elektra in 1982 and retreated into their home studio, without one of their original members, to work on this album which was released on Demon Records in Europe in 1984. It's a somewhat mixed bag. Mainly keyboard driven but with a strong hint of jangle-pop guitars and at times (especially on Twist And Bend It) lo-fi, before that was even a genre.

Get My Message, the albums opener is a track that sounds undeniably eighties, with all the hallmarks of a catchy Pop/Rock song from the early part of that decade. The intro could easily be a song by Rick Springfield or Dave Edmunds with its pumping guitar and bass lines. Then the jangly lead guitar line comes in but is soon replaced with another, more distorted lead line. All in all I think there are 3 different riffs in the intro before the vocal come in. Later on in the song the typical pop/rock sound starts to slip away with the introduction of reversed vocals in the bridge section, hinting at the synthesised sound that seems to dominate this album.

Just in-case you didn’t get the hint though, the next track hits you full force with the sound of synth pop. Will You Spin For Me, has an almost Devo-esque intro to it. A simple riff played on synth over a sparse drum beat that occasionally explodes in a reverberant hand clap and a staccato guitar riff inserted every few bars. However the vocals soon make Devo comparisons irrelevant as the vocal line is somewhat smoother and far more pop orientated than Mark Mothersbaugh's trade mark squawk. This is quite obviously meant to be a fairly mainstream sounding pop song but it's relatively left-field influences give it a strange edge that I personally think does the track a world of good!

Some of the other tracks don’t fair so well though. When Push Comes To Shove for example is a rather weak song that to me sounds like an instantly forgettable pop song that suffers greatly from being placed immediately after the very strong tracks at the start of the album.

Side two kicks off with the bizarrely aggressive sounding I Wanna Give It To You. The vocals are fast, almost undecipherable and slightly distorted and delivered with a growl that, after listening to the relatively pop sounding first side of the record, is pretty surprising. The song itself is rather un-astounding but the production is so strange in comparaison to the rest of the record that it makes for a rather interesting listen.

The Jangle Pop influences make a welcome return on Turnaround with a 12 string guitar taking over from the synths to drive the song with layered harmonies over the top. Running Wild carries this on with very pleasant results but the synth is already starting to creep back in underneath the ringing 12 string. By the next track the keyboards are back in full force. Personally I think that Oh Angeline would have been better as a guitar driven song as the dated synth sounds now make it sound cheap and somewhat throwaway. Although the song is cheery and catchy the production lets it down and leaves it somewhat lacking.

If I had to define this record as one genre I'd call it Power Pop. A very late 70's, early 80's genre that relied on both 12 string jangle and synth power, basically used to describe the more underground and interesting elements of Pop-Rock. Though there is a lot more going on here than that. There are prevalent Devo influences on some of these tracks (I'm fairly sure that the drum track from Bound To Fade is almost identical to Whip It) that are mixed in with a strong pop sensibility. That sensibility is the one thing that connects all these songs on an album that swings quite quickly from guitar driven rock to synth pop to almost lo-fi pop. The sound changes from song to song but it seems to be an album without any defined roles as all the band members are credited with having played a little bit of everything. Each one takes it in turn to play bass, guitar, drums and keys. An interesting approach that wields some really nice results but possibly not the most coherent record I’ve ever heard, which is by no means a bad thing!

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Fire Theft - The Fire Theft

Reunions seem to be quite a popular thing now. Bands that long ago broke up are re-uniting to play shows, make albums and dig up the past. It’s generally thought of as a crappy thing to do. Cashing in on their former glory and trampling what’s left of their legacy into the dirt. They’re not always a bad thing though. I’ve been to about 5 Dinosaur Jr shows since they got back together and I genuinely like the last two records they’ve put out (though neither hold a candle to “Bug”). My point is, sometimes it works, some bands just make better music together than they ever would apart.

Not all reunions are as blatant as that though. Bands reform under other names and go off in whole new directions. Same members, different music. The Fire Theft is the product of one of those kinds of rejuvenations. The band started off as Sunny Day Real Estate, a pioneering emo/indie act from Seattle. They were one of the few bands from that city in the early 1990’s that weren’t a grunge act, despite being signed to Sub Pop. Frontman Jeremy Enigk’s high pitched and somewhat strained voice was miles away from the guttural growl of the likes of Eddie Vedder. This and the bands emotionally charged lyrics and less riff heavy music separated them, regardless of geography, from a genre that, by the time their first album Diary was released, was in its dying days. After just two albums the band split and bass player Nate Mendel and drummer Will Goldsmith went off to join the Foo Fighters. Sunny Day reformed without Mendel in 1997 and released another two albums before separating again after their label Time Bomb Recordings fell apart.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Eyes Adrift - Eyes Adrift

The word supergroup, to me at least, has always had negative connotations. I always thought they were made up of musicians whose ego's have outgrown their current bands and have decided to go and make records with people more worthy of them. Plus the music is rarely as good as anything any of the musicians have done before. I once heard someone comparing it to food. Taking various aspects of your favourite foods and combining them isn't necessarily going to make something amazing. Music is not just about good musicianship, which is something that supergroups tend to overlook.
After turning my nose up at all of this, it may seem contrary of me to then extol the virtues of a band who are essentially a 90's alt rock supergroup. You would be right. But I'm going to do it anyway.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Pumpkin - Wwax

With the advent of the DIY punk movement in the 80's tiny bands were releasing 7 inch singles on their own labels in small numbers more often than not only to a handful of stores in one city. It was a great way of getting your name out there without the hassle of getting signed to a “proper” label. You could record it yourself, get it mastered cheaply and then get them printed up yourself. A large number of these releases will be forever forgotten except by a few die hard local scensters and the band members themselves. On the other side of the coin, some of these tiny releases were the launching pads for some big names. Hüsker Dü for example started off releasing their own singles on their own, tiny, Reflex Records imprint before moving to New Alliance, then SST and finally Warner Bros. Wwax's single Pumpkin kind of falls in between the two. Wwax never made it big but one of its descendents, Superchunk, became a pretty huge name in the 1990's indie rock scene.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

World Without End - Bob Frank And John Murry

Hands down this is the most maudlin album I own. I own records by Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Nick Drake and nearly everything Mark Kozelek has ever released but this is the darkest of the lot. It's not subtle about it either. Not the most ringing endorsement, but depressing, sad music is not a bad thing. There have been sad songs since the dawn of music. Sadness is an emotion and what is music but a way of expressing emotions? Just because something is upsetting doesn't make it any less valid than something uplifting and happy.

The albums premise is a simple but grisly one. Each track recounts a murder, most of them based on true stories. The tracks take their name from the victim or perpetrator of each killing (with the exception of Tupelo, Mississippi) along with the year of the death in question. Murder ballads are nothing new to country music. The genre has a long tradition of songs about death in its many forms. The thing that makes this album so special is that not only are they new songs, instead of ones culled from the big book of murder ballads, but they are genuinely eerie.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Tell Me A Tale - Michael Kiwanuka

Today I take a break from my usual remit of bringing you lost and forgotten albums and try something a bit different, but still mining a similar vein. If you are anything like I am, music is very strongly connected to emotions, people, places and certain times. Usually these connections happen by chance and it’s not really a conscious decision. I’ve decided to change that. I don’t like the fact that my subconscious is making these links for me. I don’t trust it not to link some of my favourite songs with painful memories or to soundtrack the happier times with a third rate Britney Spears single. So I have made a conscious decision to have emerging British singer/songwriter, Michael Kiwanuka’s soon to be released song “Tell Me A Tale” as my soundtrack to this summer. Now I know I usually write about stuff that no one has paid attention to for a while and it may seem like I’m unfairly saying that this song will just disappear. I’m not. In fact I’m pretty confident that this is solid gold hit material. But, Michael is a new artist and the track isn’t out until later this year so technically it still counts as something you haven’t heard….yet. Also this is my self indulgent music blog and I’ll write about what I want thank you very much!

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Get Saved - Pilot To Gunner

The second (and possibly last) album by Pilot To Gunner is one of the unheard gems of the early 2000's indie rock scene. Because they were a fairly new band from New York, that wore black t-shirts they were often unfairly lumped in with a lot of Emo bands that were becoming popular at the same time. The combination of loud guitars, shouted lyrics and angst got them tarred with the same brush as quite a few, lets just say “lesser” bands. The album's artwork doesn't really help them to ditch the tag though. That swirly font and the bright pink contrasting with the black and white photo of the band bound and gagged, is pretty typical of the vast number of commercial Emo albums that were appearing around the time. But Pilot To Gunner's lyrical content was rather more socially and politically orientated than most Emo bands. Very few of these songs seem to be introspective. The vast majority in fact are all about knowing what’s going on around you.