Friday, January 14, 2011

The Future Crayon
director's cut, Observer Music Monthly, August 13, 2006

by Simon Reynolds

There’s an invented word in Alfie that fits the music of Broadcast like a glove: “ghostified”. Remember the scene where Michael Caine's character complains about how Jane Asher's northern runaway turned live-in lover gets this faraway, 'ghostified' look, indicating she's thinking mournfully of the lover who dumped her even when flesh-and-blood Alfie's between her legs? Not only does Trish Keenan’s voice sounds as cool and pale as a ghost, but she and Broadcast partner James Cargill are haunted by a never-never vision of Sixties pop and have chased that will o’ the wisp for nigh on a decade now.

The Birmingham duo’s touchstone is the obscure psychedelic outfit United States of America, who pioneered of the use of synthesizers and whose singer, Dorothy Moskowitz, had one of those classic Sixties female voices: emotive but devoid of R&B grit and fire, “white” without being overtly folky. Channeling this purity and poise, Keenan gives songs like “Illumination” and “Unchanging Window” the characteristic Broadcast mood-blend of blithe and ominous; Cargill frames her songs with crisply detailed orchestrations and jazzily swinging beats that betray deep immersion in movie scores, library music and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Along with proper pop tunes, there’s a bunch of splendid mood-piece instrumentals, like “Minus Two”, a bleepy idyll that’s like nap-time muzak for a crèche full of robot tots.

Broadcast avoid the pitfall of retro-pastiche, of coming across either scholarly or campy, because there’s real emotion in these songs: “Distant Call”, for instance, is a lovely and loving song of pained empathy addressed to a friend mired in sorrow.

Not so much a “best of” as a miscellany that shuns their three full-lengths in favour of early EP tracks and rarities from other compilations, The Future Crayon isn’t the “new Broadcast album”, but it might actually be their best record, if you get me.

RIP Trish Keenan

Monday, January 3, 2011

Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
Blender, 2006

by Simon Reynolds

Late last year, Arctic Monkeys rode internet buzz to become the biggest UK guitar-band since Oasis. There are plenty of parallels--cocky-as-hell lads
from the industrial North of England instantly embraced as saviours of Brit-rock--but Arctic Monkey are actually by far the superior band. Their melodies are indelible without inducing Beatles flashbacks, the lyrics actually make sense and are about something, and, crucially, they've got a rhythm section that actually makes the music move. For all of Jamie Cook's abrasive, jagged guitar riffs, the Monkeys don't really sound "indie," and that's got everything to do with the agility of drummer Matt Helders and bassist Andy Nicholson, who can switch from punk relentlessness to Sabbath-style "heavy" dynamics to zippy punk-funk in the blink of a hi-hat. Showcasing this nimbleness to the max, Monkeys songs are crammed with thrilling swerves, jolts, and false endings.

What really elevates the Monkeys into a class of their own, though, is frontman Alex Turner. His insolent rasp sweetly tinged with plaintiveness and poignancy, Turner is shaping up to be one of the all-time great English singers. His delivery is full of delicious moments where his classic rock'n'roll snarl slips into a thick regional accent: "alright" becomes "al-reet," "up" becomes "oop", and you simply have to hear the twangy lasciviousness with which Turner sings lines like "you sexy little swine" or "dreams of naughtiness." Spiced with regional slang ("you've got the face on" = "in a bad mood"), his lyrics couple the invincible confidence of youth with a sense of pathos and fatalism of someone older, wiser, and sadder.

The band's hometown Sheffield is a famously bleak city once synonomous with the steel industry, and accordingly Turner's prime terrain is young people grabbing for fun and sparkle in the face of all the forces that would crush their spirit, whether it's psycho bouncers, limited funds, or simply England's wet winters and grey summer skies. Turner's observational flair is at its most acute and original on "Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured," probably the first song ever about getting a cab home after a drunken night out. Turner sketches it all with keen-eyed economy: the driver who refuses to let six in the cab ("especially with the food"), watching the meter anxiously while contemplating doing a runner, and reliving the night's highlights, like the fight that broke out in the taxi line and the "beyond belief" babe in the pub that evaded his clutches.

Whatever People Say is front-loaded with hell-for-leather instant classics about chatting up and copping off, like "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" and "Still Take You Home." Even better, though, are the slower songs, which allow the tenderness in Turner's voice to bloom and encourage
empathy to triumph over sarcasm in the lyrics. In 'Mardy Bum," Turner struggles to smooth things over with his pissed-off girlfriend (her scowl as fearsome as "looking down the barrel of a gun"), evoking memories of "cuddles in the kitchen" in a desperate attempt to dissipate the sour mood.

"Riot Van" is a wry ballad about watching bored youth expertly bait the town police but avoid actually getting arrested--most of the time, anyway. At 20, Turner is close enough to these lads to remember feeling that same mix of restlessness and cheek, but he also knows they're gonna get burned sooner rather than later. This delicate poise of intimacy and distance permeates the album, making the Monkeys vignettes of teenage wildlife resonate far beyond the local world they so vividly and vigorously document.
Coming On Strong
Blender, 2005

By Simon Reynolds

The title Coming On Strong is ironic. This music can barely look you in the eye. Imagine a bunch of Brits striving for the sass 'n' sheen of modern R&B and rap, but just too diffident to match the swaggering ebullience of Beyonce and 50 Cent. N.E.R.D., by real nerds, in other words. The Hot Chip vibe is distilled in “Playboy”, which sees the song’s lovelorn protagonist cheering himself up by cruising London with the top down, gangsta-style: “Driving in my Peugeot/20-inch rims with the chrome now/Blazin’ out Yo La Tengo” But the group’s two singer/songwriters, Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard, aren’t mocking black music
so much as conveying the pathos of the unbridgeable gap between pop’s fantasy world and the hum-drum reality most of us must inhabit. Bling on a budget, Hot Chip’s music is woven from the sort of burbling ‘n’ twinkling analog synth sounds you’d associate with a group like Stereolab, but the reference points are all from the last thirty years of black pop: Stevie Wonder, S.O.S. Band, Prince, Dr. Dre. Tracks like “You Ride, We Ride, In My Ride” and “Shining Escalade” have a translucent faintness, as if they’re diagrams of R&B songs that have yet to be colored in. Insidiously melodic and, in its subdued way, genuinely soulful, Coming On Strong is the best record of its ilk since The Streets’ debut.
You Could Have It So Much Better… with Franz Ferdinand
directors' cut, Blender, 2005

by Simon Reynolds

In an early short story by Ian McEwan, a female novelist struggles to follow up her acclaimed, best-selling debut. The psychologically macabre twist in the tale comes when it’s revealed that the manuscript she’s been toiling over for months is actually a painstakingly typed-out, word-for-word reiteration of the first book. Now, You Could Have It So Much Better is far from a note-for-note duplicate of Franz Ferdinand. Still, for a band dedicated to the resurrection of arty pop, there are surprisingly few risks taken on their sophomore album. It used to be a matter of honor for art-rockers to make giant leaps with each successive record. But on You Could Have, the attitude seems to have been “let’s not mess with a winning formula, lads, shall we?”

As formulas go, it’s a winsome one: brittle white-boy funk topped by Alex Kapranos’ suavely crooned vocals and witty, sexually piquant lyrics. Franz are master exponents of that distinctly British forte for using abrasive guitars in a way that feels pop rather than rock. And they’re equally adept at that other Britpop ploy whereby fey young men seduce the girls in the audience by acting like they’re really more interested in boys. Last time, it was the bisexual epiphany of “Michael”; this time, it’s the homo-erotic ardor of “This Boy” and the saucy boast “your famous friend/well I blew him before you” in “Do You Want To.” A glorious, gleeful romp jam-packed with quotables, that song is the album’s strongest stab in Franz’s main mode of oddly fussy, flustered discopunk, closely followed by “The Fallen” and “I’m Your Villain” (one section of which actually recycles the riff from “Take Me Out”).

In a rockier vein, “Evil And A Heathen” stomps like Iggy Pop circa Lust For Life. But You Could Have’s only real departure is “Fade Together,” a piano ballad whose ebbing waltz-time rhythm gorgeously matches the langorous nihilism of the lyric, which could be about a suicide pact, or sharing a needle, but either way is alluring and disturbing in equal measure.

“Fade” is far and away the best thing on the record, in large part because it’s the least Franz Ferdinand-like. The song makes you wonder what this group could achieve if they actually pushed themselves, and the envelope, a wee bit, in the spirit of the art-rock ancestors--Roxy, Bowie, Wire, Gang of Four, Josef K--they either invoke or echo sonically. Art-into-pop should be about vision and ambition, over-reach and the possibility of falling flat on your face. So here’s hoping for a torturously difficult third album.
Bang Bang Rock & Roll
Banana Recordings/Fierce Panda import
Blender, 2005

by Simon Reynolds

In 2005, few things could be less “rock’n’roll” than playing rock’n’roll. Real estate speculation, starting a restaurant, modern art--all have stronger claims to the cutting edge. Yet rock groups infest the land, fresh droves of them arriving each month bearing ever stupider names. “Formed A Band,” the opening track on the debut album by London’s Art Brut (not actually a stupid name, always a good sign), hilariously skewers the presumptuousness of taking the stage and demanding attention like it’s a birth right. Yet tangled up inside the self-mocking chorus--“look at us, we formed a band!”--there’s a primal yelp of idiot-glee. Almost despite itself, the song exalts the exuberance and cameraderie of ganging up with your mates to make noise.

Dark droning punk with a twist of Wiry weirdness, “Formed” also recalls Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild”, in the sense that this is the group’s defining, all-too-perfect song, the immaculate mission statement Art Brut may have problems surpassing. Hitting the listener with your best shot straightaway is a strategic blunder in terms of album sequencing, but there’s plenty of further excitements within Bang Bang. “My Little Brother” is shouty ‘n’ jumpy New Wave with another funny lyric, about being embarrassed by a younger sibling who’s only “just discovered rock’n’roll” and throws spazzy shapes on the dancefloor. On the title track, singer Eddie Argos demands “no more songs about sex and drugs and rock’n’roll/It’s boring,” while “Bad Weekend” mournfully confesses “popular/culture/no longer/applies to me.” But Bang Bang isn’t wall-to-wall meta. “Emily Kane” pines for a long-lost girlfriend (although Argos does imagine the song being such a hit that “kids on buses” will be “singing your name”) and “Rusted Guns of Milan” is an oblique account of erectile dysfunction, suffused with a hangdog seediness faintly reminiscent of Pulp.

On the downside, Argos’ half-spoken delivery means he sometimes seems to operate “outside” the music, in the mode of punk poets such as Jim Carroll and John Cooper Clarke, rather than in the thick of it, while the Art Brut sound occasionally verges on merely mundane liveliness. At their slightest, Art Brut come over like indie-rock’s equivalent to The Darkness (in “Good Weekend” Argos even eggs on Chris Chinchilla’s solo with a “go guitar!,” just like Justin Hawkins on “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”). But at their most thrilling, Art Brut fuse the spiky cool of Elastica with the witty self-consciousness of an LCD Soundsystem. They mean it, sort of, maaaaan.
They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top
Blast First/Mute
Uncut, 2002

by Simon Reynolds

On the face of it, there’s no reason why LIARS’s brand of retro is superior to, say, The Hives’s. The former echo Gang of Four and The Fall; the latter are the latest in a long lineage of garage punk rehash that includes Fleshtones, Scientists, Billy Childish, and countless others. 1979 versus 1966: is there really a difference? Well, I’d argue that the post-punk template LIARS draw on is way more open-ended and possibility-rich than the narrow set of archival resources that fuel The Hives. And that those 1979-82 reference points are simply fresher: this is the first time post-punk has been rediscovered, whereas with the garage punk re-re-revival, pop has eaten these portions of itself several times already, the cud is thrice-chewed and flavourless.

New York’s LIARS are just one of a small swarm of American bands inspired by 1979-and-all-that. Others of note include The Rapture (check the "At Home He Feels Like A Tourist" disco-punk of their ace "House of Jealous Lovers" 12 inch), Erase Errata (steeped in untypical girl groups like Slits, Delta 5, Ut), and Radio 4 (named after a Metal Box tune, but sadly sounding nothing like that Satie-esque anomaly in PiL’s oeuvre). As for LIARS, they’re a bit like Gang of Four’s Entertainment played with a Birthday Party-like looseness (or "Loose"-ness, given the Aussie group’s debts to Funhouse-era Stooges). The fractious, backfiring rhythm guitar and the punk-funking pummel of the bass ‘n’ drums are sourced in Entertainment songs like "Natural’s Not In It". But the feel is less anally clenched than Go4, more Butthole-surfing: live, this band really kick out the jams.

"Mr Your On Fire Mr" is the stand-out here, with its stop-start groove, cowbell clatter and funky flurry of mechanical handclaps. "Tumbling Walls Buried Me in the Debris With ESG" (the title presumably nodding to legendary New York mutant disco outfit ESG, once hailed as PiL meets The Supremes), is close behind, its brittle fatback drum circling a doomstruck bassline that could be off Junkyard or Unknown Pleasures. And just as the Andy Gill homage starts to get a little stale, final track "This Dust Makes That Mud" showcases a whole other dimension to the band, its hypnotic, drug-hazy drone redolent of Queens of the Stone Age at their most motorik and Can-like. Eight minutes into its life, the song devolves into a locked groove riff that takes up the entire remainder of the CD (quite a lot because Trench is a short and punchy LP) and whose stuporous effect is so potent this reviewer woke up glazed and groggy with his forehead all qwerty-ed with the imprint of the computer keyboard.

Tranced-out narcosis is not what LIARS are really about, though: they’re a jolt of hyper-alert tension, a real anxiety-rush. Angus Andrew’s vocals, Anglo-accented (he’s actually Australian) and frequently distorted as if declaimed through a loudhailer, are hectoring yet opaque, M.E. Smith-stylee. Which brings up the big difference between ‘79 and ‘02: the original post-punk groups, operating in a highly politicized context, coming fresh from punk and burdened with its imperatives to change and confrontation, were much more upfront and direct about their critique. There’s a sense in which today’s wave of post-punk influenced groups are totally wired and fired by the idea of agit-prop and dissidence, but it’s not nearly so clear what inspires their ire, or whether they’ll ever find a context that lends their struggle any resonance. For now, though, LIARS transmit a powerful aura of commitment and militancy: mission implacable, if impenetrable. And They Threw Us All In A Trench is one of the most adrenalizing albums you’ll hear this year.


by Simon Reynolds

Easily the most impressive of the recent swarm of postpunk-inspired groups, Liars have always strived to make music in that era’s adventurous spirit, rather simply replicating the sound of vintage futurism from 25 years ago. Unfortunately that made their last two albums easier to admire than enjoy. Now the Brooklyn-exiled-to-Berlin band have dropped their (avant) guard a bit and conquered their retrophobia with an album that risks reminding you of things from rock history you already like. So the big bashy drums and war-whoops of “Plaster Casts of Everything” recall Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” while the Gothtronica of “Houseclouds” resemble Love and Rockets remodeled for Generation Ecstasy. “Pure Unevil” even doubles the retro effect, harking back to Jesus and Mary Chain’s circa 1985’s Psychocandy ploy of submerging perfect Sixties melody in a murky crypt of dank reverb. Liars’s trademark experimental touches--the crunchily processed beats and glass-splinter textures--are still present, but they’re now put in service of songs and grooves. The result is their most straight-up entertaining record, riddled with moody hooks that lodge in your memory like brain-worms.