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Archive for the ‘Music Reviews’ Category

Gillian Welch – The Harrow and The Harvest (2011)

Issued some eight years after 2003’s Soul Journey, it would be wrong to describe The Harrow and the Harvest as a hotly anticipated release, a phrase usually reserved for the second album of a promising debutant. Instead, I, like many, had largely forgotten that Welch was still out there in the musical ether, battling against writer’s block to compose a new batch of lazy country numbers with long-time partner and collaborator, David Rawlings (both of whom were heavily involved with Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker).

The Harrow makes no attempts at a new musical direction, nor should it when you are widely regarded as one of the finest roots singers of your generation. Instead, it’s business as usual as Rawlings’ fingers scale the steel strings like an enchanted spider on gentle opener Scarlet Town before giving way to the naked beauty of Welch’s soaring voice on Dark Turn of the Mind. Each song is exemplary and without flaw, and I can think of few finer albums to stick on at a generous volume on a Sunday afternoon while reclining, eyes shut, on the sofa while the woozy charm of classic Americana passes over you. It is a cleansing experience.

By all accounts the duo come into their own during live performances, where familiar songs are treated to new meandering arrangements and I must make a point of seeing a show the next time they are in the UK. Check out the gorgeous clips below. Admittedly, Miss Ohio is not from the new album but it is one of my favourite songs – any excuse etc…

Ryan Adams – Ashes and Fire (2011)

The inclusion of Adam’s 13th studio album on this list (not taking into account his Whiskeytown records, Suicide Handbook, bootlegs etc) is more a reflection on my joy at hearing him put out some decent music for the first time since Cold Roses, a two-disc release from 2005, rather than this being a gold-plated must have. For those not familiar with Adams other than his Wonderwall cover (which Noel Gallagher started to use himself afterwards), to many people he was – for a few fleeting years – the finest musician of his generation who proceeded to waste his prodigious talent on liquor, drugs and dubious musical choices. I can still recall the goose bumps on my arms when I saw him for the first time at a sweaty Bristol Academy in January 2004 (Jesse Malin stood a few feet away from me) –a performance that ended with the wasted Adams deserting his band and playing Nobody Girl on the bar while bumming cigarettes off the ever-obliging and rapturous crowd. Despite his inebriation, the show was a blinder. At his next performance in Liverpool, his luck ran out and he feel off the stage, braking his wrist in the process which hampered his playing for many years.

Ashes and Fire is a welcome move away from the guitar-driven sound of the later Cardinal albums to the country soul/stripped-back sound of Whiskeytown and his masterpiece, Heartbreaker. As with all of Adams’ best records, the guitar playing is simple yet thoughtful and tight, with percussion only- if at all –featuring as gentle back-up, rather than a dominant instrument. Not all of the tracks work: Come Home is a pedestrian non-event and Save Me is – to quote Lars Ulrich in Some Kind of a Monster – undoubtedly ‘stock’. However, the rest of the album is solid fare, with Dirty Rain, the title track and Lucky Now welcome additions to the Adams cannon. You get the feeling listening to Ashes and Fire that this is the sober Adams working out how to write decent music without the sauce – a record as therapy, if you like; fingers-crossed the next ones will see him reach the levels of old.

Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne (2011)

Jewellery - Primark-chic, as modeled by Kanye

Kanye and ‘The Jigga’s’ 2011 joint offering is the aural equivalent of going full retard – a brazen homage to fame, excess and bathing in the benjamins carried off with the musical and lyrical panache of two commercial rappers at the top of their game. Much has been made of the similarities to Kanye’s excellent Twisted Fantasy album, and it is true that The Throne takes in the layered vocals and eerie synths that dominated Kanye’s last album, although this is a more polished commercial sound designed to rattle the tills.

The pair are at their best delivering solid crowd pleasers such as the Redding sampling Otis, a strong contender for the Cowboy’s wedding playlist (I’d die a happy man after seeing my grandma shake her booty while mouthing “looking like wealth, I’m about to call the paparrazi on myself”), and the dirty slider Niggas in Paris (“fuck that bitch she don’t wanna dance, excuse my French but I’m in France”). Critics of the album cite the leaps in sound between tracks and indeed they don’t all flow, mixing by-numbers Rhianna-flavoured R n’ B with tight James Brown vocal samples. However this is a minor quam.

Personal favourites are Welcome to the Jungle, which shows off Jay-Z at his best, riffing to a mundane yet hypnotic staccato beat, and opener No Church in the Wild, heavy on strings with a predatory bass grove, while Kanye muses on drugs, threesomes and how Jesus ‘laid beats’. An album built on two guys talking about how great they are will to many be a nauseating affair, but I for one enjoyed shuffling on my sofa, vicariously drinking in their glory. It would be a cold man who would begrudge them their right to brag.

John Smith – Eavesdropping (2011)

Those of you who read my post on my most-listened albums of the past decade (https://shanghaicowboy.wordpress.com/2010/01/05/best-albums/) will be aware of Devonian musician, John Smith, one-time school friend of my missus and unsigned by choice. His second and last album Map or Direction was a beauty and is available to all on Spotify – give it a go.

His latest offering was recorded on a whim at his bassist’s house over a one-week period and is, as the album title suggests, a collection of covers taking in mainstream sources as diverse as The Stone Roses, Elton John and Christina Aguilera, as well as lesser-known bands. Smith is a virtuoso guitar player in the mould of John Martyn who was his mentor and with whom he played for a number of years before his passing. Therefore like Martyn, his songs rely heavily on imaginative fret work, dropped-G tuning and groove riddled guitar-slapping. What stands Smith out from other talented singer-songwriters is the depth of his voice which he showcases to good effect on Eavesdropping, in particular the wonderful Elton John cover, That’s Why they Call it the Blues (see below); a voice that hushes and booms from one moment to the next.

Other highlights are This Killer Wave penned by a local band in Liverpool (where Smith now lives) and Jenny Again by obscure folk-act Tuung. The Aguilera cover is Genie in a Bottle, and I feel truly old realising that this was released by the scantily-clad Glitter-fodder in 1999. Smith’s version is a stripped-down plucking affair and I hear that it has recently gained airtime on BBC Radio6, however for me it’s a bit of a non-event and the same applies to Not Over Yet, formerly a dance anthem (yeh man Ibiza bruv innit etc) by Paul Oakenfold, whose face I always thought bore an uncanny resemblance to a compressed pickled scrotum (or rather my projection of one). Clearly, Smith is the kind of musician who likes a cross-spectrum of styles and will never lose the desire to throw in the odd curveball. But these are minor gripes on what is otherwise an excellent interim album, pending his next proper release.

Destroyer – Kaputt (2011)

This was an impulse purchase after a suitably wordy 8.8 Pitchfork review (“the sound casts Bejar’s songs in a very particular light, and reinforces the feeling of the singer as persona” – yup, sure) and therefore I must confess to coming to the record with no prior knowledge of Destroyer or their members’ work.

The most striking thing about the album is the overall tone and sound, which flitters between Roxy Music, Steely Dan and The Pet Shop Boys, with a bit of Talking Heads thrown in (the album’s title track has a similar retro glitchy computer effect to that used in Once in a Lifetime). There is also a sense of film noir to proceedings, and I doubt that the naming of Chinatown and its inclusion as the album’s opener is a coincidence. Songs are cultured out of Casio synth, lazy chord strums, occasional heavy bass hooks and cheesy woodwind; for a moment they catch your ear before drifting off with the breeze.

Indeed, if I was to offer a one-line critique to stick on the front of the album it would probably be “sumptuous porn music by the XX” and I am pretty sure that if you crank up the volume on Blue Eyes and crane your ears to the speakers at 1:58, you can hear the gentle patting of Ron Jeremy’s waist against the buttcheeks of an obliging freshman. Ok, perhaps not but you get the idea.

It is difficult to explain why an album that is so inconsequential and derivative is both fresh and revelatory, but I think it comes down to the simple fact that each song is executed incredibly well. The title track is a good example – a multi-instrument number where deep thought has clearly been given to the timings of the various parts. The result is a rich array of sounds soaring against one another complete with soft male/female harmonies. Closer The Bay of Pigs catches you on the blindside, with a rambling vocal about nothing in particular suddenly brought to life by strings, percussion, harmonies and euphoric hand-clapping. It is a joy. Shit name for a band, though.

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Top 10 Albums of the Decade

Inspired by the perverse choices in the Observer’s top 50 albums of the decade (Franz Ferdinand, Jamie T or Gorrillaz, anyone), I thought I’d have a scratch around my CD collection and see whether I could come up with a more refined and credible alternative. The only consideration for the list was playability, so while Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest is a decent, technically accomplished album, I would struggle to muster the enthusiasm to listen to it all in one sitting and therefore it won’t make the cut. I thought about eliminating any album that Pitchfork has awarded a score of 8 or more to, but realised that would leave me with few entries on the list; nothing against Pitchfork per se as it is still a must-go in terms of new music, but it’s unhealthy pre-occupation with the average-at-best Animal Collective is difficult to tolerate. I have attached some video links to songs by each artist, although not necessarily from the album in question. Honourable mentions for those not on the list include: The Decemberists, Andrew Bird, The Black Keys, Cat Power, Bon Iver, Arctic Monkeys, At The Drive In, Arcade Fire, Okkervil River, Flight of the Conchords, Wilco, Grandaddy, The Hold Steady, Jeffrey Lewis, Sufjan Stevens, Tom Waits,  Vampire Weekend, The Strokes, Rachel Unthank, Feist and Rik Waller (ok, not really).

10. Lil Wayne – Tha Carter III [2008]

On the basis of name-checking former WWF wrestler “Macho Man” Randy Savage in the Jay-Z aided Mr Carter, and seamless rhyming the words “yeast infection” and “geese erection” in Dr Carter, Lil Wayne’s ludicrous, multi –award winning Tha Carter III already deserves a place on this list. However, after a few listens, it is clear that this latest product of Lil Wayne’s surreal imagination is a beast of an album in its own right, a kind-of X-rated Alice in Wonderland where Cheshire cats and Mad Hatters are replaced by guns and bitches, and logic, order and reason devoid of place or purpose. Showy opener 3 Feat is an indicator of what is to follow as the self-proclaimed greatest rapper alive revels in his lyrically absurdity (“abracadabra I’m up like Viagra”) amidst a hypnotic mix of strings and irregular drum loops. As the tracks skip by, future sounds are mashed together with little regard for genre while the lyrical lunacy never lets up (“blind eyes could look at me and see the truth, wonder if Stevie do?”). The results are both laugh-out-loud funny and seriously accomplished. Album stand outs include A Milli and Dr Carter, both of which feature Lil Wayne’s trademark staccato phrasing, while gospel-driven thumper Let The Beat Build does exactly what it says on the tin.

9. Doves – Lost Souls [2000]

Back in 2000 when Lost Souls was released, music resembled a CJD-riddled beast standing in line for the abattoir; the airwaves spewed out nu-metal, the worst musical genre of all time, and people still listened to The Charlatans and Shed Seven (or Shit Seven, as I liked to call them). Just as I was ready to throw in the towel and put on Cigarettes and Alcohol, I heard radio saviours Mark and Lard play The Man Who Told Everything from Doves’ first album Lost Souls, and I almost wept with relief as my faith in music was restored. After buying the album, I was – and still am – amazed at how fresh it sounded, from ethereal slow-burner Firesuite and the folky hypnotism of Sea Song to the rampant celebration of The Cedar Room. The album is also far looser and experimental than its successors, but hints at the layered sound that would become the band’s hallmark in successor albums Last Broadcast and Some Cities. Following the underdog performance of The Seldom Seen Kid last year, many critics are tipping Doves as the next Elbow i.e ready to attain greater mainstream success. Perhaps rather selfishly, I hope they remain favourites of the informed, rather than the masses.

8. John Smith – Map or Direction [2009]

I have a lot of things to thank my girlfriend for; a well-honed loathing for American teen dramas, amateur theatre productions and Radio 1, to name but a few. On the plus side, however, she did introduce me to her old school friend, John Smith. An innovative acoustic guitar player from the buzzing hood of Dartmoor, John marries the virtuoso finger-picking styles of the late John Martyn and the evergreen Bert Jansch with the raspy soul of Ray Lamontagne. Map or Direction is John’s second album and was recorded in weird and wonderful places in Hicksville America, including a forest, the side of a lake and a motel toilet. The locations enhance each song, with sublime opener Invisible Boy underscored by whistling trees and chirping cicadas, the result as beautiful as two kittens wrestling (platonically) on a blanket of morning snow. The draw of John’s music is the sheer range of his ability, from frantic banjo-led lament Watch Her Die (recorded under a Louisiana church) to the percussive, conversational folk of Axe Mountain. Even songs which should have a more mainstream feel, such as A long Way For A Woman, standout with inspired chord progressions and tight fret work. Unsigned by choice, you can buy his CD safe in the knowledge that not a penny goes to the Man. 

7. The National – Alligator [2005]

I first listened to this record driving across the Hover Damn en route to Vegas, readying myself for a feverish night of irresponsible gambling, overpriced bourbon and crystal meth. From memory, we crashed at midnight, stone-cold sober although we lived the dream in a tenuously vicarious manner, after seeing Vince from Entourage bungling three top-heavy blondes into a taxi outside the Bellagio, and some guy who may or may not have been Kanye West leading a ho-train through the MGM Grand. Anyway, back to the music. At first, I refused to take the band seriously in view of their terrible name, however one full listen and I swiftly back-tracked on my original thoughts. Key to the band’s appeal is the hang-dog baritone of vocalist Matt Berninger, a man with a voice so deep, he makes the late Barry White sound like a ruddy-faced pre-pubescent. While Berninger’s monotone but emotional delivery is a constant, the music is a lush feast of varying styles, with preppy indie-rock (Lit Up) rubbing shoulders with understated acoustic (Daughters of the Soho Riots), all exquisitely produced and arranged. The big surprise of the album is the raucous closer and stand-out, Mr November, driven by furious off-beat drumming and gorgeous scaling guitars, while Berninger finally cuts loose with his vocals, proclaiming in desperation to be “the great white hope” who “used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders”. It’s at once affecting and uplifting, and the sound of a band at the top of their game.   

6. M Ward – Post-War [2006]

Finger-picking solo artist and member of the decade’s latest supergroup, Monsters of Folk, M Ward has spent the past decade honing his languid country sound to the point of legal patent. Listening to Monsters of Folks eponymous album, for example, it doesn’t take much more than a few seconds to identify M Ward creations such as Baby Boomer and Slow Down Jo, which feature his trademark top-string shuffles and bluesy chord changes. For his fifth studio album, Post-War, M Ward decided to broaden his sound by using a full-time backing band, and inviting cameos from alt-country stalwarts Jim James and Neko Case. The resultant record is tighter and more musically diverse than its predecessors, but no less celebratory. Opener Poison Cup is classic M Ward, a gorgeous slow-burning love song showcasing his cracked vocals amidst swirling strings, while later offerings such as Chinese Translation and the beautifully lazy Rollercoaster prove that easy-listening doesn’t necessarily mean Radio 2-friendly cack. However, the most fun is to be had in the up-tempo band numbers, such as To Go Home, a thumping celebration of life and love’s limitations with M Ward promising “to be true to you forever, or until I go home”, and the almost childish joy of Magic Trick, a short, throw-away ditty about a woman who disappears. Arguably, The Transfiguration of Vincent is a finer technical album, but Post-War shades it for sheer optimism and energy.

5. The Streets – Original Pirate Material [2000]

“Brace yourself, ‘cos this goes deep; I’ll show you the secrets to Sky and the birds, actions speak louder than words; stand by me my apprentice.” Original Pirate Material is probably the only album on this list that sounded unlike anything I had heard previously; a bizarre mix of chav philosophies and observations, lo-fi music samples, garage/rap/jungle influences and soaring ambition, which – bizarrely – come together to produce an intelligent, innovative and endlessly enjoyable record. Laughs are aplenty, from fights in kebab shops (Geezers Need Excitement) and the perils of over-reliance on spirits (Too Much Brandy) to crucial social questions, such as the appropriate time to send a text message to a bird you’ve shagged the night before (Don’t Mug Yourself). When taking these tracks in isolation, it would be easy to dismiss the album as one dimensional lad-speak, however the beauty of OPM is Mike Skinner’s ability to thoughtfully address pertinent issues, such as the futility of ecstasy addiction (Weak Become Heroes) and the illogical restrictions on cannabis use when judged against the adverse effects of alcohol abuse (The Irony of it All), without losing any musical impact. The unfortunate irony of it all as far as Mike Skinner (aka The Streets) is concerned, is the swift decline in the quality of his musical output since OPM, which leaves his boast, “give me a jungle or garage beat and admit defeat” somewhat hollow; however, it is testament to his talents that I still get a shiver down my spine and feel a wave of euphoria when walking with my Ipod at full volume, and Turn the Page reaches it’s climax. As Skinner himself would say, tune’s heavy.

4. Bonnie Prince Billy – Summer in the Southeast [2005]

Bonnie Prince Billy aka Will Oldham has spent his near twenty-year career as a self-imposed alt. folk pariah, fearful of interviews, happiest when depressed and only ever dabbling with the mainstream through artist acknowledgment and cover versions of his songs, most notably by Johnny Cash (I See A Darkness) and Rachel Unthank (an odd yet beautiful use of the chorus from Minor Place as a lullaby in her debut album). Picking a favourite Oldham album is a bit like asking a fifteen year-old which member of Girls Aloud he’d like to fornicate with i.e. any, but preferably all and so the obvious choice has to be live album, Summer In The Southeast, which captures early Oldham songs released under his Palace aliases, as well as his later BPB offerings. Where most live performances are plod-along rehashes of existing material, most of the songs on Summer in the Southeast are unrecognisable from their studio counterparts, which is perhaps a reflection on Oldham’s restlessness. Opener Master and Everyone, for example, is transformed from a whispered lament on lost love to a raucous celebration of freedom, while Oldham standard I See A Darkness has an intensity and a level of emotion lacking from the album version, Oldham’s voice cracking as he bellows the refrain “Oh no I see a darkness, did you know how much I loved you” at the final chorus. The whole album feels like a long and loose jamming session in front of a handful of friends, with each whoop and “yeh” from the audience contributing to the atmosphere, and Oldham as weird as ever (“I’ve got clown in my eye!”). Anyone who doesn’t own this is missing out. Big time.

3. Belle & Sebastian – Dear Catastrophe Waitress [2003]

Many years ago, my friend and I decided that a sound indicator of whether or not a girl/woman was suitable for courting (yeh, COURTING, we’re old school here) was her attitude to B & S; if she was a fan and also a bona fide female then it could be a goer; if, on the otherhand, Take That was more her speed, it was time to select the appropriate cut-off line and make the difficult call. Shallow? Surely a more inclusive test than looks, I would counter. The reason for the test boils down to the simple fact that B & S are cool, in everyway that society would deem them un-cool: a collection of curduroy-wearing, wussy indie kids who write bookish lyrics set to pop songs (“I’m not as sad as Dostoevsky, I’m not as clever as Mark Twain; I only buy a book for the way it looks, then I put it on the shelf again”). While arguably not as great as career-high If You’re Feeling Sinister, Dear Catastrophe Waitress is as perfect a pop record as you could wish for, and still as satisfying now as it was on first listen. All styles are here: catchy 70s drum-stomping (Step Into My Office, Baby), imperious acoustic fare (Piazza,New York Catcher), beautiful harmonies (Asleep on a Sunbeam) and the best pop record of the decade – I’m A Cuckoo. This album marked a new change of direction for the band, from the subtler, more acoustic/piano-led sounds of Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister to bolder guitar hooks and dominating harmonies, a theme carried through into the most recent The Life Pursuit album. When talking about the best modern songwriters in Britain, it’s hard to look past the reluctant Stuart Murdoch, although I get the impression that he’s not that interested in being talked about: “this is just a modern rock song, this is just a sorry lament; we’re four boys in our curduroys, we’re not terrific but we’re competent.” Lovely.

2. Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning [2005]

Each Bright Eyes album begins with a deliberately frustrating, long introduction designed to ward of the fair-weather listener, an odd tactic, you might think, for someone who presumably wants to sell a lot of records, and I’d agree. However unlike all albums preceding I’m Wide Awake… the start of rollicking opener At the Bottom of Everything is a minute long rambling, yet captivating, narrative delivered by Oberst (while sporadically sucking on a milkshake) about a man trying to comfort a delusional woman before they die in a plane crash. Just as you’re about to press “next”, Oberst slaps his guitar, counts to 3 and plays what must be one of the most beautiful, up-tempo songs about the end of the world ever made, featuring beautiful work on the mandolin by long-time cohort Mike Mogis, and inspired backing vocals from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James (also see M Ward, above). From then on, the album rattles by while the quality of the writing never relents; We are Nowhere And It’s Now is an epic slow-burner, quietly addressing Oberst’s reputation as a booze hound (“where the waitress looks concerned, but she never says a word”) with Emylou Harris’ husky vocals the perfect compliment to Oberst’s higher pitch; First Day of My Life recalls Dylan and early Ryan Adams in terms of simple playing and confessional lyrics – a tender, almost childish plea for love (“yours is the first face that I saw; think I was blind before I met you”); Land Locked Blues is a remarkable, world-weary ode to past times and the futility of war; and album standout Lua perfectly captures our inability to infuse beauty with permanence. It’s hard to believe that Oberst wrote an album of this quality when he was just twenty five, and it is an album that genuinely stands up alongside anything else that goes before it and will go after it. With the success that he’s enjoying with Monsters of Folk, here’s hoping Oberst’s best is yet to come, and not already in the past.   

1. Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker [2000]

It’s hard to belief how swiftly Ryan Adams has fallen. Back in 2000 with the release of Heartbreaker and its successor, Gold, he was a hard-drinking romantic and musical prodigy, rightly being talked about as the natural heir to Dylan and Young and enjoying recreational time with some of the finest woman Hollywood had to offer (Winona Ryder – check the credits in Gold). However recent years have seen his reputation plummet following the weak and horribly named Easy Tiger and the much-maligned Cardinology, the only Adams’ album I haven’t bought because of the savage reviews. However no matter what else follows in the future, Adams can always lay claim to writing the definitive break-up album, Heartbreaker, and for my money the finest album of this and any other decade. Perhaps what makes it stand out from other records – musical and writing ability aside – is its honesty, the sound of someone’s tears, joy, dreams, fights, macabre thoughts and long goodbyes all laid out in their naked truth, putting the listener directly into Adams’ world with nowhere to hide; with the end of haunting closer Sweet Lil Gal heralding the departure of a troubled yet talented friend. Each song is exceptional but picks include opener To Be Young (is to be Sad, is to be High), a rampantly upbeat musing on the simplicities of teenage years (being sad then getting high) which still excites ten years on; Oh My Sweet Carolina, an affecting and sparse song about Adams’ longing for his hometown, and featuring the always magnificent vocals of country queen Emmylou Harris (see Bright Eyes, above); Come Pick Me Up, possibly Adams’ finest, being a good humoured yet moving tale about a relationship ruined by a cheating girlfriend (“I wish you would,  come pick me up, take me out, fuck me up, steal my records, screw all my friends, they’re all full of shit, with a smile on your face, and then do it again, I wish you would”);  and the desperately bleak Call Me On Your Way Back Home, the sound of a broken man calling out to a woman he left long ago (“but you love me and I love you, call me on the way back home dear, cause I miss you, and I just wanna die without you”). If you have any money and don’t have this album, buy it; if you’re poor and don’t have enough money, rob your granny, it’s worth it, and when you feel guilty while listening to the CD late at night with the curtains drawn, you can have a little cry and Ryan will too.

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Inspired by the perverse choices in the Observer’s top 50 albums of the decade (Franz Ferdinand, Jamie T or Gorrillaz, anyone), I thought I’d have a scratch around my CD collection and see whether I could come up with a more refined and credible alternative. The only consideration for the list was playability, so while Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest is a decent, technically accomplished album, I would struggle to muster the enthusiasm to listen to it all in one sitting and therefore it won’t make the cut. I thought about eliminating any album that Pitchfork has awarded a score of 8 or more to, but realised that would leave me with few entries on the list; nothing against Pitchfork per se as it is still capable of uncovering good new music, but it’s unhealthy pre-occupation with the average-at-best Animal Collective is difficult to tolerate. I have attached some video links to songs by each artist, although not necessarily from the album in question. Honourable mentions for those not on the list include: The Decemberists, Andrew Bird, The Black Keys, Cat Power, Bon Iver, Arctic Monkeys, At The Drive In, Arcade Fire, Flight of the Conchords, Wilco, Grandaddy, The Hold Steady, Jeffrey Lewis, Sufjan Stevens, Tom Waits, Vampire Weekend, The Strokes, Rachel Unthank, Feist and Rik Waller (ok, not really). 

10. Lil Wayne – Tha Carter III

On the basis of name-checking former WWF wrestler “Macho Man” Randy Savage in the Jay-Z aided Mr Carter, and seamless rhyming the words “yeast infection” and “geese erection” in Dr Carter, Lil Wayne’s ludicrous, multi –award winning Tha Carter III already deserves a place on this list. However, after a few listens, it is clear that this latest product of Lil Wayne’s surreal imagination is a beast of an album in its own right, a kind-of X-rated Alice in Wonderland where Cheshire cats and Mad Hatters are replaced by guns and bitches, and logic, order and reason devoid of place or purpose. Showy opener 3 Feat is an indicator of what is to follow as the self-proclaimed greatest rapper alive revels in his lyrically absurdity (“abracadabra I’m up like Viagra”) amidst a hypnotic mix of strings and irregular drum loops. As the tracks skip by, future sounds are mashed together with little regard for genre while the lyrical lunacy never lets up (“blind eyes could look at me and see the truth, wonder if Stevie do?”). The results are both laugh-out-loud funny and seriously accomplished. Album stand outs include A Milli and Dr Carter, both of which feature Lil Wayne’s trademark staccato phrasing, while gospel-driven thumper Let The Beat Build does exactly what it says on the tin. 

9. Doves – Lost Souls

Back in 2000 when Lost Souls was released, music resembled a CJD-riddled beast standing in line for the abattoir; the airwaves spewed out nu-metal, the worst musical genre of all time, and people still listened to The Charlatans and Shed Seven (or Shit Seven, as I liked to call them). Just as I was ready to throw in the towel and put on Cigarettes and Alcohol, I heard radio saviours Mark and Lard play The Man Who Told Everything from Doves’ first album Lost Souls, and I almost wept with relief as my faith in music was restored. After buying the album, I was – and still am – amazed at how fresh it sounded, from ethereal slow-burner Firesuite and the folky hypnotism of Sea Song to the rampant celebration of The Cedar Room. The album is also far looser and experimental than its successors, but hints at the layered sound that would become the band’s hallmark in successor albums Last Broadcast and Some Cities. Following the underdog success of The Seldom Seen Kid last year, many critics are tipping Doves as the next Elbow i.e. ready to attain greater mainstream success. Perhaps rather selfishly, I hope they remain favourites of the informed, rather than the masses.

8. John Smith – Map or Direction

I have a lot of things to thank my girlfriend for; a well-honed loathing for American teen dramas, amateur theatre productions and Radio 1, to name but a few. On the plus side, however, she did introduce me to her old school friend, John Smith. An innovative acoustic guitar player from the buzzing hood of Dartmoor, John marries the virtuoso finger-picking styles of the late John Martyn and the evergreen Bert Jansch with the raspy soul of Ray Lamontagne. Map or Direction is John’s second album and was recorded in weird and wonderful places in Hicksville America, including a forest, the side of a lake and a motel toilet. The locations enhance each song, with sublime opener Invisible Boy underscored by whistling trees and chirping cicadas, the result as beautiful as two kittens wrestling (platonically) on a blanket of morning snow. The draw of John’s music is the sheer range of his ability, from frantic banjo-led lament Watch Her Die (recorded under a Louisiana church), to the conversational, percussive folk of Axe Mountain. Even songs which should have a more mainstream feel, such as A long Way For A Woman, standout with inspired chord progressions and tight fret work. Unsigned by choice, you can buy his CD safe in the knowledge that not a penny goes to the Man.

7. The National – Alligator

I first listened to this record driving across the Hover Damn en route to Vegas, readying myself for a feverish night of irresponsible gambling, overpriced bourbon and crystal meth. From memory, we crashed at midnight, stone-cold sober although we lived the dream in a tenuously vicarious manner, after seeing Vince from Entourage bungling three top-heavy blondes into a taxi outside the Bellagio, and some guy who may or may not have been Kanye West leading a ho-train through the MGM Grand. Anyway, back to the music. At first, I refused to take the band seriously in view of their terrible name, however one full listen and I swiftly back-tracked on my original thoughts. Key to the band’s appeal is the hang-dog baritone of vocalist Matt Berninger, a man with a voice so deep, he makes the late Barry White sound like a ruddy-faced pre-pubescent. While Berninger’s monotone but emotional delivery is a constant, the music is a lush feast of varying styles, with preppy indie-rock (Lit Up) rubbing shoulders with understated acoustic (Daughters of the Soho Riots), all exquisitely produced and arranged. The big surprise of the album is the raucous closer and stand-out, Mr November, driven by furious off-beat drumming and gorgeous scaling guitars, while Berninger finally cuts loose with his vocals, proclaiming in desperation to be “the great white hope” who “used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders”. It’s at once affecting and uplifting, and the sound of a band at the top of their game.

6. M Ward – Post-War

Finger-picking solo artist and member of the latest supergroup, Monsters of Folk, M Ward has spent the past decade honing his languid country sound to the point of legal patent. Listening to Monsters of Folks eponymous album, for example, it doesn’t take much more than a few seconds to identify M Ward creations such as Baby Boomer and Slow Down Jo, which feature his trademark top-string shuffles and bluesy chord changes. For his fifth studio album, Post-War, M Ward decided to broaden his sound by using a full-time backing band, and inviting cameos from alt-country stalwarts Jim James and Neko Case. The resultant record is tighter and more musically diverse than its predecessors, but no less celebratory. Opener Poison Cup is classic M Ward, a gorgeous slow-burning love song showcasing his cracked vocals amidst swirling strings, while later offerings such as Chinese Translation and the beautifully lazy Rollercoaster prove that easy-listening doesn’t necessarily mean Radio 2-friendly cack. However, the most fun is to be had in the up-tempo band numbers, such as To Go Home, a thumping celebration of life and love’s limitations with M Ward promising “to be true to you forever, or until I go home”, and the almost childish joy of Magic Trick, a short, throw-away ditty about a woman who disappears. Arguably, The Transfiguration of Vincent is a finer technical album, but Post-War shades it for sheer optimism and energy.

To be continued…

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Smash Hits used to be cutting edge, including a free condom for each reader.

Let me take you back to your childhood (cue horrendous memories of shellsuits, Michael Barrymore, novelty board games and – if you’re lucky – images of the twins from Pat Sharp’s Fun House). Chances are that Sunday nights meant sitting in your room with a shitty tape recorder listening to the top 40, index finger cocked, ready to punch record when your favourite song was played. If not, you must have been one of those losers who watched Heartbeart, which attracts an even greater level of social stigma. While sounding easy enough, taping tracks from the radio was a tricky business and the success or otherwise of each Sunday night depended on a keen appreciation of timing, and a good element of chance. More often than not, panic would set in and I would press record too early, thereby taping ten seconds of jingles and high octane introductions, before getting to the goods. If done while the countdown was still in the thirties, the pressure would build for the rest of the show and by the time I was in the top five, I’d be a nervous wreck, pressing multiple buttons every few seconds with no concept or understanding of what the hell I was trying to achieve.

This nostalgic trip down memory lane was prompted by Sting’s recent verbal barrage against reality TV juggernaut, The X Factor. In some shameless PR rant to coincide with the release of yet another piss-poor album, the tantric shagger branded The X Factor “a preposterous show” that has “put music back decades.” While he was right on many levels (and simply repeating what any half-intelligent being already knew), Sting’s claim that The X Factor has put music back decades was intriguing, as it implied that popular music was once in rude health. My gut reaction was to think that the charts in my time were pretty good; however a sustained period of recollection allied with some research informed me otherwise.

Below is a list with video links to some of the most shameful singles of all time, largely derived from my youth, and also from more recent times. I’ve deliberately stayed away from some of the more obvious choices, for example La Macarena, the Crazy Frog, anything by Meatloaf/Bryan Adams, as mere references to those songs/”artists” bring me out in a cold sweat.

10. Blazin’ Squad – Flip Reverse

For those unfamiliar with this seminal UK band, Blazin’ Squad (we’re dropping the ‘g’ ‘cos we’re FUCKING hard) were a collection of ugly, horny chavs who sung about shagging. Key to their appeal was hair product, derivative crutch-grabbing and over-sized T-shirts. Against all odds and despite widespread derision, they sold some records including the horrific Flip Reverse, before one of them appeared on Big Brother and lived out his life’s ambition – shagging Jodie Marsh.

9. Scatman John – Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop)

Imagine a world where the only things that exist are you, Scatman John, a desert island, a CD player and a copy of the Scatman. To make things worse, let’s assume that you accidentally killed Scatman John’s wife in a fishing accident, so he doesn’t like you very much. Overtaken by rage, Scatman John decides that he’s going to torture you. Rather than conventional torture, the wily Scatman adopts a long game and ties you to the only tree on the island, puts the Scatman on loop and leaves it tantalisingly close, but ultimately away from your feet, forcing you to listen to this utter cack until you draw your last breath.

8 Lisa Maffia – All Over

The self-named “First Lady of garage” and So Solid Crew member managed to creep into the top 15 with this tale of Crystal popping club action, featuring the extraordinary lyrics “if you no cook you get no dinner” (what about restaurants?) and “ladies in the club shake your booty like dice” (is it possible to dislocate your own buttocks?). The video remains one of the most amusing things I’ve ever seen, largely because of the joker with the Burberry visor who screams “tiiiiiight!” and “diiiiiiice!” at the chorus, and the little kid at 3:58 who dances like an out-of-control epileptic. Gold.

7. The Rednex – Cotton Eye Joe

Words fail to do justice to this musical aberration, where a bunch of pissed hicks bang some drums, massacre a violin and sing the same two lines over and over again. It transpires from a bit of internet research that “The Rednex” were in fact a Swedish techno band (featuring a member called “Ace Ratclaw”), which makes one wonder how such a racist piece of work ever got into production. This view is compounded by the video, which features long-haired peasants with no teeth, a bird in a bikini riding a motorised bull and a wooden sign saying “horses outside”. Most alarmingly, the band is still going, with an eagerly anticipated new album – Saturday Night Beaver – due for imminent release in no stores near you. If you’re blind deaf and dumb and like Cotton Eye Joe, have a listen to their follow-up, Old Pop In An Oak, which doesn’t feature drums or a violin and definitely doesn’t sound anything like Cotton Eye Joe. Honest.

6. Romeo Dunn feat. Christina Milian – Its All Gravy

The second UK garage sensaaaaaation on the list. Like Ms Maffia, Romeo Dunn is So Solid Crew alumni, spitting one of my favourite comedy lyrics (“two multiplied by ten plus one, Romeo Dunn”) in breakthrough song 21 Seconds. While 21 Seconds was fresh and not unpleasurable, this duet with American grinder Christiana Milian is unadulterated toilet; the kind of depressing by-numbers R&B fodder that populated MTV and the airwaves at the start of the millennium. When I first heard the title, I thought the song was a ripping yarn about Romeo’s failure to buy chicken for a Sunday roast. Having read the nonsensical lyrics, it still could be. The video sees Romeo wearing a ghastly array of jackets before resorting to type and getting his six pack out. According to Wiki, Romeo’s second album, announced for release in 2008 “has not materialised”. Shame.

5. Outhere Brothers – Don’t Stop (Wiggle Wiggle)

I remember buying the “explicit lyrics” version of this song from Woolworths (wipe away nostalgic tear) and listening in my room, with rampant disappointment, as my mother baked cakes in the kitchen, unknowing of the filth – lyrical and musical – that was corrupting my eardrums. The song starts off promisingly, but then goes dramatically downhill when you realise that there is no discernable difference between the beginning, middle and end, however the bit when the singer hurriedly says, “wiggle wiggle”, as if he’s overdosed on helium and being sexually assaulted by Dawn French , moderately amuses. Subsequent releases included the ludicrously titled and equally horrific, “Pass The Toilet Paper ’98”. Needless to say, it didn’t trouble the charts.

4. Whigfield – Saturday Night

I love the comments posted on YouTube videos. One of my favourites can be found on the link to this barrel-scraping slice of Euro-trash, which simply says, “I’d fuck Whigfield.” No musical appraisal, just a primal cry from a lone wolf surfing the net for semi-attractive nineties idols to add to the wank bank. Bleak. My loathing for this song dates back to a school trip to Spain where we were forced to perform “the Whigfield dance” for no reason other than our teachers’ sadistic sense of humour. The dance itself was a routine number involving much thigh-slapping, a few hand claps and some pelvic thrusts. Such was the trauma caused by this event, even the passing of a wig shop fifteen years later is enough to trigger an involuntarily bout of air shagging.

3. Michael Jackson – Earth Song

“What about elephants, have we lost their trust?” posses philosopher Wacko in this tawdry, never-ending eco-ballad, singularly responsible for the ubiquity of the key change in modern pop music. Personally, I struggle to recall the good old days when my elephant friend used to come up to me in the pub, gently rest his trunk on my shoulder and say, “thanks for babysitting last night, it’s great to have someone in the neighbourhood whom we can trust; fancy a leg of darts?” but then again neither did I have a pet monkey called Bubbles and a snake called Muscles. Check out the HOO HOO extravaganza at 5:34.

2. Snow Patrol – Chasing Cars

Previously unheard extract from “the making of the X-Factor” – “Ok, guys, we’ve hit the jackpot here. Check out the working class family in the lobby sat behind Dermot. I’ve just spoken with the father and his wife died last week after being eaten by a badger. He was just about ready to blub but I told him to save it until the cameras were rolling.” Everyone leans forward while the researcher looks smug. “But it gets better. The youngest son has one leg, masturbates to Countryfile and thinks he’s Barry Chuckle, while the singing daughter is a mute who only ever speaks when she sings.” “This is gold, people, fucking gold,” says the head producer, “Lisa, get the Snow Patrol CD out of the car; this is gonna last three ad breaks.”

1. Black Eyed Peas – My Humps

After staring at the screen for nigh-on half an hour, unable to articulate the bowel-retching horror of this piece of musical leprosy, I’ve devised the below formula to do the job for me. Simply pick one option from Sections A and B and insert in the gap which appears in following sentence, “I’d rather [A+B] than be forced to listen to this shit.”

Section A Section B
   
Play twister with Fred West
Stick my genitals in Pat Butcher
Tell a bed time story to Mr Motivator
Go to work dressed as Louis Walsh
Stroke and cuddle Keith Chegwin
Go out on the piss with The Krankies

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5 Outhere Brothers – Don’t Stop (Wiggle Wiggle)

I remember buying the “explicit lyrics” version of this song from Woolworths (wipe away nostalgic tear) and listening in my room, with rampant disappointment, as my mother baked cakes in the kitchen, unknowing of the filth – lyrical and musical – that was corrupting my eardrums. The song starts off promisingly, but then goes dramatically downhill when you realise that there is no discernable difference between the beginning, middle and end, however the bit when the singer hurriedly says, “wiggle wiggle”, as if he’s overdosed on helium and being sexually assaulted by Dawn French , moderately amuses. Subsequent releases included the ludicrously titled and equally horrific, “Pass The Toilet Paper ’98”. Needless to say, it didn’t trouble the charts.

4 Whigfield – Saturday Night

I love the comments posted on YouTube videos. One of my favourites can be found on the link to this barrel-scraping slice of Euro-trash, which simply says, “I’d fuck Whigfield.” No musical appraisal, just a primal cry from a lone wolf surfing the net for semi-attractive nineties idols to add to the wank bank. Bleak. My loathing for this song dates back to a school trip to Spain where we were forced to perform “the Whigfield dance” for no reason other than our teachers’ sadistic sense of humour. The dance itself was a routine number involving much thigh-slapping, a few hand claps and some pelvic thrusts. Such was the trauma caused by this event, even the passing of a wig shop fifteen years later is enough to trigger an involuntarily bout of air shagging.

3 Michael Jackson – Earth Song

“What about elephants, have we lost their trust?” posses philosopher Wacko in this tawdry, never-ending eco-ballad, singularly responsible for the ubiquity of the key change in modern pop music. Personally, I struggle to recall the good old days when my elephant friend used to come up to me in the pub, gently rest his trunk on my shoulder and say, “thanks for babysitting last night, it’s great to have someone in the neighbourhood whom we can trust; fancy a leg of darts?” but then again neither did I have a pet monkey called Bubbles and a snake called Muscles. Check out the HOO HOO extravaganza at 5:34.

2 Snow Patrol – Chasing Cars

Previously unheard extract from “the making of the X-Factor” – “Ok, guys, we’ve hit the jackpot here. Check out the working class family in the lobby sat behind Dermot. I’ve just spoken with the father and his wife died last week after being eaten by a badger. He was just about ready to blub but I told him to save it until the cameras were rolling.” Everyone leans forward while the researcher looks smug. “But it gets better. The youngest son has one leg, masturbates to Countryfile and thinks he’s Barry Chuckle, while the singing daughter is a mute who only ever speaks when she sings.” “This is gold, people, fucking gold,” says the head producer, “Lisa, get the Snow Patrol CD out of the car; this is gonna last three ad breaks.”

1 Black Eyed Peas – My Humps

After staring at the screen for nigh-on half an hour, unable to articulate the bowel-retching horror of this piece of musical leprosy, I’ve devised the below formula to do the job for me. Simply pick one option from Sections A and B and insert in the gap which appears in following sentence, “I’d rather [A+B] than be forced to listen to this shit.”

Section A Section B
   
Play twister with Fred West
Stick my genitals in Pat Butcher
Tell a bed time story to Mr Motivator
Go to work dressed as Louis Walsh
Stroke and cuddle Keith Chegwin
Go out on the piss with The Krankies

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Smash Hits

Smash Hits used to be cutting-edge, including a free condom with each edition

Let me take you back to your childhood (cue horrendous memories of shellsuits, Michael Barrymore, novelty board games and – if you’re lucky – images of the twins from Pat Sharp’s Fun House). Chances are that Sunday nights meant sitting in your room with a shitty tape recorder listening to the top 40, index finger cocked, ready to punch record when your favourite song was played. If not, you must have been one of those losers who watched Heartbeart, which attracts an even greater level of social stigma. While sounding easy enough, taping tracks from the radio was a tricky business and the success or otherwise of each Sunday night depended on a keen appreciation of timing, and a good element of chance. More often than not, panic would set in and I would press record too early, thereby taping ten seconds of jingles and high octane introductions, before getting to the goods. If done while the countdown was still in the thirties, the pressure would build for the rest of the show and by the time I was in the top five, I’d be a nervous wreck, pressing multiple buttons every few seconds with no concept or understanding of what the hell I was trying to achieve.

This nostalgic trip down memory lane was prompted by Sting’s recent verbal barrage against reality TV juggernaut, The X Factor. In some shameless PR rant to coincide with the release of yet another piss-poor album, the tantric shagger branded The X Factor “a preposterous show” that has “put music back decades.” While he was right on many levels (and simply repeating what any half-intelligent being already knew), Sting’s claim that The X Factor has put music back decades was intriguing, as it implied that popular music was once in rude health. My gut reaction was to think that the charts in my time were pretty good; however a sustained period of recollection allied with some research informed me otherwise.

Below is a list with video links to some of the most shameful singles of all time, largely derived from my youth, and also from more recent times. I’ve deliberately stayed away from some of the more obvious choices, for example La Macarena, the Crazy Frog, anything by Meatloaf/Bryan Adams, as mere references to those songs/”artists” bring me out in a cold sweat.

10. Blazin’ Squad – Flip Reverse

For those unfamiliar with this seminal UK band, Blazin’ Squad (we’re dropping the ‘g’ ‘cos we’re FUCKING hard) were a collection of ugly, horny chavs who sung about shagging. Key to their appeal was hair product, derivative crutch-grabbing and over-sized T-shirts. Against all odds and despite widespread derision, they sold some records including the horrific Flip Reverse, before one of them appeared on Big Brother and lived out his life’s ambition – shagging Jodie Marsh.

9. Scatman John – Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop)

Imagine a world where the only things that exist are you, Scatman John, a desert island, a CD player and a copy of the Scatman. To make things worse, let’s assume that you accidentally killed Scatman John’s wife in a fishing accident, so he doesn’t like you very much. Overtaken by rage, Scatman John decides that he’s going to torture you. Rather than conventional torture, the wily Scatman adopts a long game and ties you to the only tree on the island, puts the Scatman on loop and leaves it tantalisingly close, but ultimately away from your feet, forcing you to listen to this utter cack until you draw your last breath.

8 Lisa Maffia – All Over

The self-named “First Lady of garage” and So Solid Crew member managed to creep into the top 15 with this tale of Crystal popping club action, featuring the extraordinary lyrics “if you no cook you get no dinner” (what about restaurants?) and “ladies in the club shake your booty like dice” (is it possible to dislocate your own buttocks?). The video remains one of the most amusing things I’ve ever seen, largely because of the joker with the Burberry visor who screams “tiiiiiight!” and “diiiiiiice!” at the chorus, and the little kid at 3:58 who dances like an out-of-control epileptic. Gold.

7. The Rednex – Cotton Eye Joe

Words fail to do justice to this musical aberration, where a bunch of pissed hicks bang some drums, massacre a violin and sing the same two lines over and over again. It transpires from a bit of internet research that “The Rednex” were in fact a Swedish techno band (featuring a member called “Ace Ratclaw”), which makes one wonder how such a racist piece of work ever got into production. This view is compounded by the video, which features long-haired peasants with no teeth, a bird in a bikini riding a motorised bull and a wooden sign saying “horses outside”. Most alarmingly, the band is still going, with an eagerly anticipated new album – Saturday Night Beaver – due for imminent release in no stores near you. If you’re blind deaf and dumb and like Cotton Eye Joe, have a listen to their follow-up, Old Pop In An Oak, which doesn’t feature drums or a violin and definitely doesn’t sound anything like Cotton Eye Joe. Honest.

6. Romeo Dunn feat. Christina Milian – Its All Gravy

The second UK garage sensaaaaaation on the list. Like Ms Maffia, Romeo Dunn is So Solid Crew alumni, spitting one of my favourite comedy lyrics (“two multiplied by ten plus one, Romeo Dunn”) in breakthrough song 21 Seconds. While 21 Seconds was fresh and not unpleasurable, this duet with American grinder Christiana Milian is unadulterated toilet; the kind of depressing by-numbers R&B fodder that populated MTV and the airwaves at the start of the millennium. When I first heard the title, I thought the song was a ripping yarn about Romeo’s failure to buy chicken for a Sunday roast. Having read the nonsensical lyrics, it still could be. The video sees Romeo wearing a ghastly array of jackets before resorting to type and getting his six pack out. According to Wiki, Romeo’s second album, announced for release in 2008 “has not materialised”. Shame.

Part II to follow…

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Music Reviews

Welcome to a new feature of the magazine, where I report on the good, the bad and the downright ugly of recent live music in Exeter, with an eye on lesser known artists, rather than household names. Thankfully, there was little of the “ugly” in the performances reviewed below, and – with upcoming gigs by The Acorn and Art Brut to name but a few – I’m optimistic for the months ahead.

Kid Canaveral & Ono Palindromes

Exeter Cavern Club, 8th March 2009

Kid Canaveral

Having opened for cult-folk hero King Creosote and current indie darlings Glasvegas since forming in 2004, Scottish pop quartet Kid Canaveral clearly know the merits of keeping good company. Seemingly oblivious to the small Sunday evening crowd, the two boy/two girl combination cheerfully delivered a faultless one hour set of joyful, catchy, guitar-driven indie-pop to suggest – luck permitting – that it won’t be long before they reach a wider audience.

Much of the night’s focus was on Canaveral’s permanent smile-wearing front man, David MacGregor. Singing in a rich Scottish accent, MacGregor’s vocals infused Canaveral’s songs with honest warmth and led the many pitch perfect male/female vocal harmonies that dominated the evening. Comparisons with The Magic Numbers are obvious yet unavoidable, but the clever lyrics of Smash Hits and pounding drums on Couldn’t Dance suggest that Kid Canaveral have more strings to their bow than their bearded counterparts, while the influences of fellow Scots Belle and Sebastian and The Delgados are thankfully noticeable.

This is a band which deserves to be heard. With the release of their debut LP this summer, they might not have much longer to wait.

A word on Totnes art rockers Ono Palindromes (formerly Young Sensations) who offered support. Attired in red and blue trousers and sounding like a moody Art Brut covering The Arcade Fire, they are certainly an acquired taste but not devoid of a good tune, with Beautiful Noise a fine example of playful, leftfield pop. With greater quality control and a less knowingly-kooky band name, they could do very well indeed.

Joscho Stephan Trio

Exeter Phoenix, 12th March 2009

Joscho Stephan

Pick up a venue’s listings guide and you will invariably find a batch of over-hyped musicians assigned the labels “genius” or “maestro” (the woeful Nick Harper, for example) in the hope of luring us – Joe Public – into flittering away our hard-earned cash. With German Gipsy Jazz guitarist Joscho Stephan, however, such superlatives are not only fully merited, they probably don’t go far enough, and the privileged few who turned out to see Stephan, his father (Gunter – rhythm guitar) and Max Schaaf (bass) were treated to a genuine musical master class.

As the title of his third album (Django Forever) confirms, Stephan’s music is steeped in the style pioneered by legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt; a style that combines faultless chord rhythms with complex and innovative single note fret work, all delivered at breakneck speed with assured brilliance. Having opened with the magnificent Django’s Tiger, other highlights of the hour and half long set included a playful yet complex interpretation of Mozart’s Ronda (alla Turca) during which his left hand danced manically like a drug-addled spider along the fret board.

While Stephan’s playing was the fulcrum of the performance, mention must also go to Max Schaaf who oozed class on the bass.

In view of my comment about labels above, I’m loathed to call Stephan the world’s greatest acoustic guitar player. However, what can be said is that he is part of an elite group – Clive Carroll among them – who are capable of taking your breath away.

For the diary

A brief list of highlights for the coming months:

Jonah Matranga, Exeter Cavern Club, 1 April 2009 – Talented American singer-songwriter. Check out the fabulous Not About A Girl Or A Place on his myspace page, which borrows the hook from Ryan Adams’ Someday, Somehow. If you like what you hear, try the album musicforthemorningafter by Pete Yorn.

Art Brut, Exeter Phoenix, 5 April 2009 – Hilarious art rockers specialising in sharp lyrics and minimalist but infectious riffs who, against all odds, have gained critical acclaim (5 star reviews in the Guardian, no less). A captivating live band, front man Eddie Argos is a natural comedian and worth the admission price alone.

The Quails, Exeter Phoenix, 25 April 2009 – Teignmouth based band specialising in generic indie fare. After a few drinks, you’ll forget the terrible name and the fact that they sound like the Kooks, and find yourself bouncing along with a smile on your face.

The Acorn, Exeter Phoenix, 10 May 2009 – Evidently, the credit crunch is having an adverse impact on band names, but don’t let this put you off. Currently touring with Elbow and the Fleet Foxes, this Canadian outfit play wistful alt-folk with the emphasis very much on the alt: think the rebel child of the Fleet Foxes, Wilco and My Morning Jacket; a little too self-indulgent in places, but otherwise brilliant.

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