Archive | October, 2012

October 2012 – album reviews – Jorge Arana Trio’s ‘Mapache’ (“a lean, strutting pirouette along a jagged line”)

28 Oct
Jorge Arana Trio: 'Mapache'

Jorge Arana Trio: ‘Mapache’

Until fairly recently, Jorge Arana played guitar and hit keys in Pixel Panda; a precocious, musically omnivorous bunch of Kansas City skronk-punkers. Local heroes, hotly-tipped for the best part of a decade, they quietly called it a day in 2011 but wasted little time in moving on. Jorge’s bass-playing brother Luis stepped up a commercial notch via rising alt.rockers Beautiful Bodies, while other former Pandas can be found mingling psychedelia and hip-hop in Spidermums. As for Jorge, he’s pulled in the final Pandas drummer, Josh Enyart, added bass guitarist Jason Nash to make up a brotherhood of “J”s and stepped over into jazz. Someone in the band had to do it. This is Kansas City, after all – they’ve been shipping jazzmen out and up the river for nearly a century.

Punk roots or not, the Jorge Arana Trio’s serious jazz intent stretches beyond leaving behind quirky band names. Not that this apparent sobriety is absolute. Their debut album title, ‘Mapache’, is Spanish for raccoon, suggesting that the Trio see themselves as determined and adaptable omnivores, thriving on trash where necessary, and prepared to spread mischief around the suburbs if they have to. Some of the immigrant-son, take-no-prisoners fierceness of Pixel Panda has made its way into the new band. The glam racket might have disappeared, but not the stop-start emphasis or the punky crunch. Lester Bangs would have been proud of them.

That said, despite the band’s fierce electric energy there’s less outright skronk here than you might have expected. In fact, there’s less than there was in the Pandas. Instead, the Trio lead a lean, strutting pirouette along a jagged line between lean discipline and a scrawl of energised chaos. If there’s any self-indulgence here, it’s the kind you’d find in freerunning; a rebellious athletic liveliness, bodies pitted against the push-back from concrete mass and city obstacles.

There’s also something of the static, wound-up aura of the very early jazz-fusion bands, huddling among the fragments of busted rules as the ’70s arrived. Free like knife-fighters, trying to save their energies and moments for the right move at the right time but seething with excitement over the open field of opportunities. This latter is mainly in terms of musical tension. Skilled as the Trio are, they retain (for the most part) a clipped-back tyro technique closer to bullish avant-rock playing than to the broader subtler dynamic of jazz. However, their taste for driving syncopations and their bodily hunger for explosions of rhythm make it plain where their musical hearts lie now. Occasional bursts of wordless vocalising – combative, gladiatorial, almost like gang chants – break up or complement the instrumentals. Most of their pieces are short, interrupted, to the point – a quick flare of ideas followed by a watchful silence.

The places which the Trio explore are generally shaped by Jorge’s choice of instrument. Working with Jason’s cement-mixer bass churn and Joshua’s vigorous, spattering drumming, he alternates between electric guitar and electric piano (occasionally swapping mid-tune). Those pieces driven by his hardened, stony chimes of electric piano are more staccato, more turreted. On Bitter Era, Jason devises a ferocious distracted wrap of bass around Jorge – in broken unisons, the Trio thrash out a harsh and excited tattoo around the keyboard clunk. In contrast, I’m An Omnivore could almost be lounge jazz, tootling along happily even as all three musicians wrong-foot us. Each follows a slightly different rhythm, de-synchronising with each other and buckling the sidewalk under the strut.

When the compositions are driven by Jorge’s snaggled-up guitar, the trio work in a looser style: more elasticity, more smudging. Ether gradually whittles a brain-damaged marching riff out of Jorge’s demented squiggles. Peanut Butter works around a tight loop-and-discharge impetus, finally tottering into a wounded wind-down, bleeding off its abandoned velocity as if it were dumping fuel. Thieves Among Us sounds like the aftermath of a car chase. Stuttering away, the band could be clambering out of a canyon, away from the burning wreck of a car, to the accompaniment of headache pulses, dissonant auto-spring sounds and abrupt scrabbles as dazed opponents grab at their feet.

Some of the best moments come when Jorge is juggling instruments. Short & Evil, for example, in which he begins by spotting out ringing, sullen shapes on piano while the bass prowls: later, he’ll rub in crashing cascades of guitar like dislocated banjo-frails. Similarly, Baptize Your Dinner (by some distance the softest song on the record) begins as a passing, minimal sketch on piano, a pail of air and autumnal chordings. Purring like a forest, the drums work around this and transform it to a tolling crescendo, as Jorge steps back in with dabbing slides of tongue-like guitar.

Josh Enyart’s contribution to the Trio shouldn’t be undervalued. While his bandmates’ repertoire of rumble, scramble and tone-slur provide plenty of vocabulary, it’s his drums that give the Trio the fullness of its jazz spirit. He paces the brushes around his snare; adds brief powerful steam-hisses of concerted cymbal; hides polyrhythms in air-pockets for when they’ll be needed, and keeps one hand on the clutch for those quick surges of collective intensity. On Death Mask, he even leads the band: while the bass circles in locked math-rock arpeggios, and the guitar wanders off to dab at colouring chords, Josh’s drums talk in an insistent, assertive jazz language, eventually pulling the other instruments along with them.

Echoes of earlier bands flit distractedly through the music. There are hints of Prime Time and Naked City (in the blaring spirit, at least) while on Nightly Stroll, it’s the junior John McLaughlin of ‘Extrapolation’ (thanks to the dense fierceness of Jorge’s splinter-rough guitar chording and the rock-tattoo drumming, while Jason’s bass slithers after the guitar in search of unisons to stamp down on). Confrontation! briefly offers something of the discomfiting volcanic grooves of the electric Miles Davis band, when Chick Corea ring-modulated his Rhodes piano into dissonant smudges. For Snake In The Grass or Catching Bullets With Your Teeth, it’s the Teutonic jazz-rock of Magma as the trio roar out harsh choral parts over the swinging shifts and over the stuck, angry riffs of the instruments.

In the end, though, the Jorge Arana Trio are very much themselves: tightly wound but loose enough to splatter, viewing their hometown’s jazz through punkish eyes and casting a cartoon mottling across it.

Jorge Arana Trio: ‘Mapache’
Jorge Arana Trio (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Cassette/download album
Released: 26th October 2012

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Jorge Arana Trio online:
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REVIEW – Dutch Uncles: ‘Fester’ single, 2012 (“a butter-toffee in a world of cheap smokes”)

26 Oct

Dutch Uncles: 'Fester'

Dutch Uncles: ‘Fester’


That’s a repulsive title for a single. Then again, Dutch Uncles have always been something of an irritant. I mean that in a good way, as it happens. Some of my favourite bands are irritants. Too many bands just want to be stimulants – crude and obvious, they roar in with a snort and a thump, hammering hard on the most obvious buttons. After a while, you just need more and more of it to elicit even a small buzz, and you end up bored and bloated.

An irritant, on the other hand – that does its job of stirring up a reaction in a different way. You can’t ignore it. It focuses the attention, often by making you aware of sensitivities that you didn’t even know you had. Dutch Uncles have always been happy to spike the necessary nerve and keep feeding a pulse into it. If you’re familiar with those dancing, sidestepping cycles of guitar riff which festooned and hiccuped all over their earlier singles (Fragrant, The Ink, Face In) then Fester will sound halfway familiar. If you persuaded Steve Reich to write around eleven Disco Phases, then stacked them up on top of each other, you’d have the basic bones already. It rotates like a carousel full of drunk mathematicians, with Duncan Wallis’ warm alto hoot (still a butter-toffee in a world of cheap smokes) muttering and musing atop the pile.

What’s new for Dutch Uncles is a delightful infusion of art-rock colourings – that bass guitar which thunks like a piano; that bony clink of marimba hook; the guitar which blows and bloozes like a sleepy horn solo. There’s a delicious feeling of confusion and clothes-swapping wrapped into the song: it’s reminiscent of early Roxy Music and their upsetting of texture, of the otherworldly kink of Associates. With Duncan’s tone of repressed and airy hysteria, there’s also got something of the closeted wildness of Sparks (albeit in one of their mellower moods). Dutch Uncles have that nervy theatrical cleverness to them, as if they’re delicately stepping along a rail with ideas dropping out of their pockets and with tell-tales twitching at the corners of their eyes.

I mentioned a song, didn’t I? It’s built into the jittery mosaic of instruments; and it’s a protest, of sorts. “There’s a time to hide everything – the way that you are; where you’ve been. / And the feeling I’ve tried to fight, / pieces I’m left in inside.” In a genteel way, Duncan’s pissed off; chanting “takes me to the bone” as he swats, distractedly, at a lingering pain. Fractured syntax dribbling in his wake, he argues his position and tells his story like a hungover man struggling with a jigsaw. “And the times you cry at everything / for reasons we don’t mean anything. / And the times I hide behind a smile / that says you were right, you were always right.” By the end of his efforts, he’s trying to strip-mine his way into sense by plunging headlong into tongue-twisters (“The worst is hardly, hardly known, / I trust the worst is hard to know. / The worst is hardly, hardly known, / I know the worst is hard to know,”) as the band pound delicately around him. Irritation confuses, scatters against structure: but few things are better at making you feel.

Dutch Uncles: ‘Fester’
Memphis Industries, MI0250D/MI0250S
vinyl 7″/download single
released: 20th September (download) & 12th November (vinyl) 2012

Buy it from:
Memphis Industries (vinyl); Dutch Uncles homepage
or Memphis Industries news page (download)

Dutch Uncles online:
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October 2012 – EP reviews – Leah Banks’s ‘Sincerely’ (“devotion makes us vulnerable”)

18 Oct

Leah Banks: 'Sincerely'

Leah Banks: ‘Sincerely’

Someone you love. Just the thought of them gives you a little catch, right there, under the chest; like a hard kiss or a light blow, reminding you that even when it’s going right, love is never entirely safe.

Devotion makes us vulnerable. You’re never more than a moment from the topple or the stumble, from the interrupted step to the full-force sprawl. That’s what Leah Banks’ songs are like. They don’t need much amplification beyond their feather-soft country-folk shapes and the superb, subtle brush-drum work that stokes them (more like the breath and sinews of a jazz master than the shed-whack of honky-tonk). They’ve got their own transporting power, their own risk, wrapped up in the hush.

Riverside, the first song on Leah’s ’Sincerely’ EP, has the panting pitch of the Song of Solomon. A coil of eroticism rises up like a sacrament via a thudflutter rush of muted acoustic guitar, heartbeat bass and swimming cello. The words are breathless and obsessive – “I can’t wait to see you, to look upon your face / I’ll dive into your adoring eyes and hang on every word you say. / And I can’t wait to feel you, to be held in your arms – / one hand resting on the small of my back, and the other round my neck.”

Leah’s delivery is a tense urgent moan, stretching and bending phrases, pushing against the metre as if it were clothes that suddenly felt too hot and too tight. There’s a touch of Sinead O’Connor in her fervour as she rides the buried complexities of female desire, poised between a caress and a snap, between devotion and greedy hunger. “Lover, please hurry, / I’m not sure how long I’ll last, / waiting here by the riverside, / my breath is wasted on the wind and waves, / when it should be dwelling in a kiss… / I’ll press into your chest as the wind blows my dress / and steal warmth from your presence.” Towards the end, there’s a little lacuna of drop-away. The song vanishes for a second, then gusts back into place. “The water is rushing, and without you here / I think I might fall in,” Leah warns. There’s been a change in the climate. Ignore it at your own risk.

That hint of the Song of Solomon lingers in the mind: while Leah’s own spiritual beliefs are never stated, all three of the songs on ‘Sincerely’ could have a religious cast. The grit and carnality in them don’t have to be a barrier. If we’re following this line of thought, consider the steamy metaphor in the ecstacy of Saint Theresa, or, closer to now, Al Green singing “Belle – oh, it’s you I want, but it’s Him I need.” The blend of the holy and the earthbound-but-urgent is no new thing – it’s what lets gospel tug at the hearts of secular people, and what lends that numinous shiver to country, to blues and indeed to anything which reaches out of the mess in the hope of finding something higher. Leah herself is telling without telling, although ambiguous clues flicker through the songs.

In contrast to the feverish pulse of longing in Riverside, The Only One is a confessional. “I wish I could stop my eyes from wandering / and keep my mind from its hungering,” Leah sings, in a regretful insomniac sigh. “Listen, the struggle makes me weak – / now I can hardly stand on my feet.” A tattoo of snare and acoustic guitar sets the reflective pace, while a mandolin (and an occasional brush of banjo) draws slow, colourful paper hoops around the chorus. At the kernel, the song might be about keeping faith, and the sometime bitterness of submitting to it: “How long will I drink from this cup? / Maybe I should just give up, / give up trying to fight it out, / give up trying to live without doubt.”

At one point Leah craves to return to a time “before our hearts were involved”, suggesting a lovers wrangle; yet throughout the song’s soft bourbon haze she leaves the surface meaning blurred. It could be about straying from religious devotion; it could just be a lonely kitchen-table song as Leah tries to scrape herself up off the floor one wretched and heart-sore night. There’s reproach in here, and somewhere there’s a reckoning to be had; but it’s never quite clear who’s to blame, or even if she’s blaming anyone. “And how does it feel to be the only one standing? / and how does it feel to be the only one left?” she sings, with a touch of asperity, before settling on a conclusion which weaves not through what’s happened, but through what’s going to happen next. “Lets go back to the beginning, / bring it back to the start. / I won’t do it again now – / this time I’ll do it right.”

Blame is easier to pin down in the final song on ‘Sincerely’: its title track. Carried along on a light and rolling road-pulse of guitar (which, along with the restless jazzy jabs of vocal, echoes Joni Mitchell’s reflective road-burned floats on ‘Hejira’), Leah holds her own hands up in admission. “I know I said I would, but what if I can’t?” she asks. “Sometimes I say things without even thinking, / sometimes I jump the gun.” In flight from somewhere, in flight to something, honesty is being pressed out of her with every roll of the wheels; although she doesn’t claim to have cured her failings. In her apology, there’s a blunt statement of self-knowledge. “There’s a sinking in my heart, / I know that I have failed you. / I just didn’t see it coming / and you never warned me, / so, / well, I could say I’m sorry, and I would be sincere. / I could try harder next time, but I would still be here.”

Even with guilt admitted and delivered, and even hoping to be saved and forgiven by love, there’s still grit in Leah; enough for her to throw her own challenge out into the confession. Once again, the lines blur in the song – lover, saviour, self. “I know that you love me – so where are you now? she “Make yourself known – / no, make yourself heard.” Perhaps she’s hoping, like Jacob, to encounter her angel on the road and to wrestle some meaning out of him. I suspect that she won’t settle for less. A woman of heart and mind, by any measure.

Leah Banks: ‘Sincerely’
Inus Records (no catalogue or barcode)
Download-only EP
Released: 16th October 2012

Get it from:
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Leah Banks (Leah Freeman) online:
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October 2012 – album reviews – Lee Fletcher’s ‘Faith in Worthless Things’ (“rich and delicate”)

7 Oct
Lee Fletcher: 'Faith In Worthless Things'

Lee Fletcher: ‘Faith In Worthless Things’

And he came out from behind the console, and he spread out his dreams.

If you know Lee Fletcher already, it’s probably only in passing: maybe for the handful of mannered electro-pop tracks he and his wife Lisa have put out over the past decade as [halo]. More likely, you’ll know him for his extensive work as producer/engineer with centrozoon, Markus Reuter and with assorted King Crimson spin-offs including Tuner and Stick Men: well-established as a producer and engineer out at the more technical end of art-rock, you’d expect his own current music to be stark, or detached, or both.

It’s not just the question of his choice of colleague: it’s more that people in his position are generally there to get a job done, massaging and harassing slack musicians or their work into proper performance. If they’re of the more creative ilk, they might get to tweak their charges’ output into more original shapes. If they get around to putting out albums, these are likely to be back-to-basics vanity projects or all-star galleries of guest singers and studio flair – bought by fans for the tricks and the rarities, but then left to gather dust. Generally speaking, producers’ own records aren’t supposed to be romantic, aren’t supposed to be involved. Most especially, they’re not supposed to be revealing.

Lee Fletcher clearly has other ideas, and he won’t be doing quite what you expect of him.

Starting with the surface and working in… ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ certainly has the striking richness of sound you’d expect from someone of Lee’s experience. Live strings, wind instruments and solo cameos merge seamlessly with his own intricate programming and panoramic instrumentation in a fine blend of console wizardry and warm acoustic work. Rich and delicate arrangements encompass stirring contributions by guest players from right across the musical spectrum. Among others making their marks, the album boasts broad strokes and fine detail from art-rock guitarists Tim Motzer and Robert Fripp, jazz drift (from trumpeter Luca Calabrese, double bass player Oliver Klemp and drummer Matthias Macht), and sky-curve pedal steel playing from B. J. Cole. Equally memorable moments come when Uillean pipes (courtesy of Baka Beyond’s Alan Burton) and, to particular moving effect, Jacqueline Kershaw’s French horn are woven subtly into the mix, set against sonic glitch and pillowy atmospherics.

If any of this orchestrated, cross-disciplinary lushness suggests other precedents to you, you’re right. Anyone familiar with David Sylvian’s electro-acoustic songscapes in the 1980s (or who subsequently took on the likes of Jane Siberry, Caroline Lavelle or no-man, whose violinist Steve Bingham plays a prominent role here) will recognise the wellsprings and traditions from which ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ draws. Miracles On Trees (a nimble quiltwork canon of touch-guitar, pipes and vocal harmonies suggesting Kate Bush fronting King Crimson) brings in additional strands of clean New Age-y folktronica, while more neurotic, Crimsonic arpeggios are stitched through A Life On Loan. Elsewhere, you’ll find fleeting, delicately organised touches from industrial electronica and dancehall reggae (as if bled in from a wobbling radio dial) and ingredients from Lee’s recent forays into torch song (via David Lynch’s protégée Christa Bell).  There’s certainly a strong debt to Scott Walker’s luxuriant orchestral pop work, made explicit via an enthusiastically dreamy cover of Long About Now.

However, much of the sonic recipe is Lee’s own spin on things – a developing and broadening sonic signature which began to unveil itself earlier in the year on GRICE’s Fletcher-produced  ‘Propeller’ (which featured many of the same players and a similar production ethos). ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ is also shaped by two featured players in particular – historically, the other two beats of Lee’s musical heart. On touch guitar, Markus Reuter adds a broad catalogue of supporting instrumental parts: textured or clean, rhythmic or melodic, banked-up or solo. While integral to the album’s fabric, his playing  also fades skilfully out of the foreground – although he’s constantly present, it’s as if he’s seen only in brief flashes, running through the trees, keeping pace with the sound. Meanwhile, Lisa Fletcher takes centre-stage (as she did with [halo]) to provide almost all of the album’s vocals as well as acting as Lee’s muse and interpreter. She sings even the most painstaking lyric with the cool, classical, adult sensuality of a pop diva who might at any moment slide off her long black concert dress and walk, naked and magnificent, out into the sea.

In spite of all of this sterling support, if you drill down through the music (past all of the tasteful production stylings, the guest players and the ornamentation) you’ll find a songwriter’s album underneath. While his physical voice is present only as a few murmured harmonies-cum-guide vocals dropped across a handful of tracks, Lee Fletcher’s songwriting voice entirely dominates the album. It even has its own particular hallmarks – a sophisticated way with compositional patterns which takes as much from chanson and European music as it does from Anglo-American pop; plus a yen for long, looping melodic journeys across an extended succession of chords. Lyrically he follows the earnest, philosophical musings of prog song-poets such as Peter Hammill; immersing himself in concepts or thoughts and writing his way through them with shades of classic verse, occasionally knocking frictional sparks against the constraints of the surrounding pop music.

There’s an interesting pull-and-push between this ever-so-slightly awkward lyrical grain and Lisa’s glossy-smooth vocals, just enough of a catch and grind to put a polish on the one and a depth on the other. When both Fletchers team up as writers on The Inner Voice, there’s an extra lift, bringing in the kind of hi-concept soul soar you’d have expected from Minnie Riperton or Commodores, or indeed from Janelle Monáe (if the latter’s leant over from a soul background to look into art-pop, the Fletchers seem to be leaning the other way.) The cruising, creamy melody hides some sharp barbs : the song’s partly an elegant kiss-off to a past lover or collaborator, partly a “won’t-get-fooled-again” statement of intent and new faith and intent. “You did me a great favour, in a melancholic way,” sings Lisa, in cool and assured tones. “The lesson learned and actioned for today / is to listen to the inner voice and serve that impulse well./ Have courage in conviction, break the shell.” Gracious in retreat, but along the way a polite yet lethal line of stilettos are being inserted into a turned and oblivious back (like some kind of vengeful acupuncture).

While Lee’s other lyrical concerns occasionally stretch to brooding worksong (“marching up the hill all day, fetching pails of water for the crown / Until the playtime whistle sounds, and blows your hallowed dreams away”) and wide-eyed nature worship (“the seasons are aligning/ Shedding Mother Nature’s silver skin /bringing balance to the timing”) he’s at his best when he’s drifting into the hazy realm of the personal. Part of this touches on the mutability and contradictions of love – its ability, in any given moment, to contain frailty and fears alongside strength, devotion and enrapturement. On The Number, he and collaborator SiRenée set up a picture of the start of intimacy as a phone call into the unknown: “Hello, you’ve reached the number of my secret voice / And though I asked you not to call / Your instinct made the choice… / I knew you’d call, I knew you’d love me… Stranger on the line, I’ve known you always.” Dusted by Luca Calabrese’s  sprays of muted Jon Hassell-ish trumpet, SiRenée sings the words in a misty bank of close and teasing harmonies – an enigmatic telephone nymph, she spins a spell of reflected longing as if at any moment she could either become flesh or simply vanish.

At the other end of the scale, where love is sealed and secure (with spouse, friends, family or perhaps all together), there is Life’s A Long Time Short; a Markus Reuter co-write in which an encroaching chill of the knowledge of ageing and death begins to gnaw at that security. “Our time is fleeting – / a love so true is truly painful. / A hurt that’s so divine – / at once the symptom and remedy.” Against a mournful ominous French horn line and a decaying fall of twinkling, dying Reuter touch-guitar chords, the song gradually passes from innocence (“there is no end, all time descends – / the trick is not to care”) to a warning (“there is an end. / Make all amends”) while Lisa sings with a subtle and breathless sense of disquiet, like a flickering ghost. All along, Lee watches with a poignantly shifting mixture of love, devotion and horror. Caught up within the current of time, all he can do is celebrate and confirm the life and value he shares in the now, while watching the inevitable washing-away and mourning coming closer and closer: “And as you grow, /  I watch in rhapsody / the miracle you are…/Inside I’m screaming.” 

On other occasions, Lee looks further outside, though it’s not always a comfort. Peering at the rapacious dazzle of television and pop media on Is It Me (Or Is It You?) he gets burned for his pains, then frets and growls out a proggy sermon about the callousness of the wider world: “Such a passion for freedom and brutality… / we pillage the living, ever seeking, kiss and telling morality / besieging all senses with apathy.” It’s the album’s title track that provides him with the still point which he needs. Out at the railway station café from dawn till dusk, notepad in hand, he’s watching the universe go about its business. Rails lead away to both possibility and obscurity; travellers move from place to place, passing through crowds while wrapping themselves in solitude; and Lee is “dreaming of the perfect future /  tall on tales, and short on truth.”

Here, out in the flow, he plays observer to small, everyday aggravations and hints at family disappointments spawning both small aches and broken-up little personal worlds: “children crying, mothers braying / Fathers absent once again.” Here, too, he finds his sympathy renewed, his understanding broadened: “all at one with situation – / Circumstance breeds condemnation / of our fellow man.” Encompassed by the lives and voyages of others,  surrounded by the signs and signifiers of both possibility and stagnation, he comes to a quiet acceptance of human fallibility and connection – “we’re bound by time, though here alone – / many rivers run as one. / Faith to heal the cracks within, / praying for life’s worthless things.” A small and modest epiphany, it’s the heart of the album and the song that binds everything together – including Lee’s divided impulses as skilled producer, exploring songwriter and man with a heart. Affection and anger, dislocation and commonality, families and strangers, nature and the grind, all linked under a lovingly gilded arch of strings, soft voices and soundscapes.

Lee Fletcher: ‘Faith In Worthless Things’
Unsung Records, UR019CD (4260139121021)
CD/download album
Released: 1st October 2012

Buy it from:
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Lee Fletcher online:
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October 2012 – EP reviews – Alex’s Hand’s ‘Madame Psychosis’ (“art-rockers deliberately braining themselves with a tin tray”)

5 Oct
Alex's Hand: 'Madame Psychosis' EP

Alex’s Hand: ‘Madame Psychosis’ EP

As they totter and lurch through the four songs on their debut EP, Alex’s Hand are almost pure Halloween. It’s not just their affinity for macabre subjects, but their larger-than-life, cartoonish demeanour. They don’t just bring weird to the table – they slap it down on top, like an oversized pair of dirty boots, and then stare you out until you say something about it.

Underneath their gurning and silly pseudonyms there’s some fine musicianship – you’d expect no less from Seattle art-rockers who revere Zappa, The Melvins and The Residents. Yet the band’s prime fuel is atavistic spasms of prehistoric zombie jazz; trainwreck rock-and-roll; jarring faux-boondocks punk. They sound like a wrecked stovepipe hat, or an outgrown tuxedo with the elbows worn shiny: or like a quick rimshot played off the jutting, grimy wrist of a backwoods murderer. The tensions between their darkness, their outright goonery and their twists of clever, carny campery give them their particular flavour. Often, Alex’s Hand come across like a leering, anarchic ‘Muppet Show’ parody of Nick Cave: telling tales of blood and chaos, crawling on all fours, but winking hard as they do so.

As the band roll their parodic, chaotic, travelling-show style along, geek bones sometimes gleam through. On Laura (a spooky, corny ‘Twin Peaks’ tribute) they jog and jerk through a whistle-stop tour of the show’s soap-noir tropes (“stop-light flashing on and off – / ‘there’s a darkness in the woods!’ / A town with so many secrets – / what lies beyond?”). A double-jointed ‘South Park’ scratchalong full of silly voices and 1950s slapback, it chucks the lush narcotic memories of Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtracking unceremoniously out of the side door in favour of a more pointed strangeness. Feedback scrunches around the drum-clatter. Horn-playing guitarist Slurrp blurts out wrecked soul riffs with mottled old bloodstains dried onto the edges. Meanwhile, frontman Doctor Shark stumbles through the song like a disturbed conscience. When he isn’t looning along with the melodrama he’s pulling curtains off the rail, moaning with a barely-tranquillized despair as the tune plays tug-of-war between rock’n’roll perkiness and a wandering moping tonality (all lynchpinned by Slurrp’s startling, randomised guitar solo).

Similarly, the two-and-a-half crash-punk minutes of Robot ply a drunken line between cartwheel, pratfall and purposeful brain damage. Trapped in a tiny shack, the band charge their foreshortened Jesus Lizard riffs back and forth like sore-headed bears. Smacking into walls and roaring out resentful scatterbrained lyrics, they never get further than a ball of confusion. Eventually they crouch and sulk in the middle, smouldering like a burning trashcan and emitting a bastardized King Crimson growl of muttering bass and smeared, squealing guitar.

On the surface this is awkward lunkheadery, but the frustration and dismay is deliberate, self-inflicted – and clearly staged. Imagine an art-rock trio deliberately braining themselves with a tin tray to keep their audience happy. Whether this is all about avoiding straightforward expressiveness or whether Alex’s Hand are on some kind of echt-Brecht trip… that’s less clear. The theatricality certainly allows them to skim some pretty sordid areas, while hiding their sharper songwriting brains in their shoes.

With Stalker, Shark and co. rewrite a ugly tale of abduction and sex-murder as a lachrymose tragedy… but from the murderer’s corner. Drummer Tub skitters away on skeleton percussion; a campfire guitar limps through the chords. While his bass yawps away like cardboard thunder on a travelling-show wagon, Shark blurts out his words like a strangulated Nick Cave. The melody is sweet, lovelorn and memorable, but the jet-black humour is borderline repulsive – “stabbed alone in a room / Crying out, no-one hears you. / You look so lost and afeared – / to him, it’s been a really good year.” Yet a sombre, Lynchian aura of romance hangs over the song. During that moment before the horrible twist, everything seems so much more vivid and alive. “Exit the car, but you look back / and see those trees in the cul-de-sac, / and feel safe on those tracks – / but love has come for you…” The song doesn’t survive its own story either. Disturbing scraping noises and a brief twisted guest guitar solo (from Step Daddy’s Ben Reece) build to a sudden crushing derailment as the dream of love and death violently collapses.

Jaunty and gloomy, Reception picks over homelier horrors – a mire of despondency and addictions – but with Steve Barnes’s beautiful ripples of piano and organ soothing the murk, it’s also the band’s finest hour. With its spectrally pulsing bass and its nighthawk atmosphere, the song comes across like a wrecked and blasted take on Morphine. “Hauling yourself from the reception, / blame it all on depression,” moans Shark, still mooching around mournfully in a shabby coat with his hair in a Robert Smith tousle, clutching a suspicious bottle. “Carted off and then forgotten. / The others refuse that we have a problem. / Drink up – / drugs, self medicate…/ small twist of fate.” A superbly mock-melodramatic, fall-down-drunk guitar solo follows, as if someone had slurred out its name. This is one of those songs that realise that defeat doesn’t usually just drop to rock-bottom and fizzle out, but bumps along on a plateau halfway there, fuelled mostly by bathos. “Like a snail trying to build a home, / the roots don’t last and they end up all alone…” There’s more to Alex’s Hand than big boots, geek jokes and horse-laughs.

Alex’s Hand: ‘Madame Psychosis’ EP
Alex’s Hand (self-released), (no catalogue number)
CD/download EP
Released: 1st October 2012

Buy it from:
CD Baby, iTunes or Bandcamp

Alex’s Hand online:
Facebook Twitter Bandcamp LastFM

REVIEW – Atona: ‘Disabling The NHS’ single, 2012 (“talk about rude health”)

1 Oct
Atona: 'Disabling The NHS'

Atona: ‘Disabling The NHS’

First MC NxtGen’s Andrew Lansley Rap, and now this – the oncoming carve-up of the NHS is certainly pulling the British protest song out of its ghetto. Talk about rude health…

Everyone in Britain needs healthcare, but who is healthcare for? Is it for the people who need it in order to stay alive, mobile or relatively sane on a day to day basis? Or is it for private concerns who use it as an avenue for extending business plans and for pulling in another income stream – and who are now circling the choice plum of public healthcare? Keith Lindsay-Cameron (a.k.a. “Keith Ordinary Guy”, retired youth worker turned protest-letter writer) has needed healthcare more than most. By his own admission, Keith has had a long-term struggle with mental health issues. His are of that particular kind which leave you eminently sane, but also painfully shorn of the thicker skin required to make headway in an increasingly brutal and predatory society.

This sensitivity might have driven the superbly dignified orator’s vitriol of Keith’s “A Letter a Day to Number 10” campaign (a one-sided public correspondence with David Cameron, holding him and his government to account for the increasing wreck of social support). It’s also left him profoundly grateful to a National Health Service for keeping him intact when his own problems were just too much. While few of us in Britain actively share Keith’s dogged social commitment and sharp sense of a general justice – and fewer still either share or are brave enough to admit to sharing his medical difficulties), most of us have various reason to thank the NHS (regardless of snarl-ups and corner-cutting) in its rickety benevolence. Certainly few issues seem as good for pulling us together and waking us up a little.

Hence Atona, a rapid coalescing of musicians, poets and general protesters around Keith’s ire-tipped missives. Disabling The NHS is their first salvo, a blend of tried-and-tested agit-prop methods slung out into the world for free. There’s a list of government ministers recited over a Gothic toll; a stolen-and-pasted-in sample of one of Cameron’s egregious, deceptive pronouncements on the NHS; a drive into plank-battering punk accusations and warnings – and at the heart of it, Keith himself reading his own cool and scathing denunciations (a stern people’s judge with a soft West Country accent).

With its gruff bang-and-shout, the anvil drumbeat, the framings of text and the clear love of plunderphonic razzing, this is all very much in the spirit of Crass, albeit pulled into the gentler, politer mainstream. Not a bad thing at all. After all, Keith doesn’t just channel crusty old memories of affronted people writing to the Times. He also channels those of seventeenth-century pamphleteers, who (much as Crass did) strived to nail down moral and workable verities for the future while the world turned upside-down around them. In any age, some people have got to work to keep the rest of us awake, and to keep twitching the clothes away from the naked emperors and pirates.

Atona: ‘Disabling The NHS’
Atona (self-released)
Download-only single
Released: 1st October 2012

Buy it from:
Free download from Soundcloud.

Atona online:
Facebook Sooundcloud

Keith Ordinary Guy online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Youtube

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