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October 2016 – upcoming London gigs (Independent Country, She Makes War and Zoot Lynam at Daylight Music on the 1st; the debut London shows for Flock Of Dimes on the 4th) – plus Simon Reynolds’ glam tome launch events in Sheffield, London and Manchester (4th to 6th)

24 Sep

At the start of October, the Daylight Music autumn season continues with a splash of country, a clash of cymbal, and just a dash of kohl…

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Daylight Music 234

Arctic Circle presents:
Daylight Music 234: Independent Country + She Makes War + Zoot Lynam
Union Chapel, 19b Compton Terrace, Islington, London, N1 2UN, England
Saturday 1st October 2016, 12.00pm
– free event (suggested donation: £5.00) – information

Blurbs by Daylight Music, with interjections by me…

Independent Country are a six-piece band who play country versions of classic indie hits from the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s. Hear your favourite shoegazing tunes reimagined with pedal steel, lush three-part harmonies and fiddle.” Sounds as if someone’s taking the Mojave 3 idea and yanking it to the logical ludicrous extreme. Their debut album’s called ‘TrailerParkLife’… Well, at least it’s not another sodding rockgrass band; and Independent Country’s version of an old Jesus and Mary Chain tune (originally from the latter’s oft-slated, synth-pop-slanted ‘Automatic’), pulls off the neat trick of sounding as if it’s the original, rather than the cover. Either they’ve genuinely discovered Jim Reid’s inner roadhouse man, or they’re just really good at putting new blue-denim flesh on pallid British songbones.


 
She Makes War is the gloom-pop solo project of multi-instrumentalist, visual artist and all-round polymath Laura Kidd…” whom ‘Misfit City’s covered before, back at the start of August when she did a runaround British tour with Carina Round. Back then I made a few appreciative noises about Laura’s one-woman cottage-industry explorations: dark, brooding song topics sheathed in driven, melodic alt-(but-not-too-alt).rock, and self-directed videos which make the most of her Goth-next-door/folkie looks and still presence. Here’s one of the latter – a semi-animated video for her song Paper Thin, shot in New York and Boston with a comradely guest appearance from Belly’s Tanya Donnelly.


 
Zoot Lynam doesn’t just march to the beat of a different drum; he plays a different drum altogether: Zoot’s instrument of choice is the handpan (or “hang”), which is essentially a sci-fi spaceship of a percussion instrument. This is the first time a handpan’s been played at Daylight Music, so come and see it in action!” Web information on Zoot is a little thin on the ground – frankly, there’s not much more to that homepage than a bold stare and a waxed moustache – but it seems that he started to make his name back in the 1990s as an actor via work in various British theatres and voiceover performances in cartoons (I must have heard him thousands of times while my son watched ‘The Willows in Winter’).

I’m guessing that his move into music ties in with his theatre work, since I’ve tracked down odds and ends about live scoring and workshops, and because he comes to his gigs with a reputation as a raconteur. All of the evidence suggests that he’s one of those perpetually youthful, puckish characters existing on the dividing line between theatre and other arts: a stage polymath with a little bit of the mystic or magician to him. It’s a little early in the season, but here he is with something Christmassy on the handpans (to be honest, it’s all that I could find…)

 
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promo-2016-flockofdimes

Only a few posts ago, I was writing about Jane Siberry and was musing on other, next-generation musicians who seem to be following the trail Jane beat for a female art pop perspective back in the 1980s (some of whom, apparently guided by a mutual sense of community and affinity, are playing support slots on her ongoing British tour). It seems that I missed another one out.

Tickets are still available for the debut London shows for Flock Of Dimes (the solo project from Wye Oak frontwoman and guitarist Jenn Wasner) in early October. She’ll be playing a lunchtime instore show at Rough Trade East, followed by a full evening show up the road at the Hackney in Victoria. Flock Of Dimes has been developing for the last four years alongside Jenn’s decade-long body of work with Wye Oak (and her occasional ventures into dance pop as half of Dungeonesse. It’s taken until now, however, for Jenn to release a full Dimes album (something which perhaps coincides with her departure last year from her longtime Baltimore home to resettle in Durham, North Carolina). That album, ‘If You See Me, Say Yes’, was released yesterday on Partisan Records, and has been trailed in recent months by a pair of singles, Semaphore and Everything Is Happening Today.

Jenn has described her vision for the former single as the “struggle to communicate with each other, over distances literal and figurative, great and small,” and worked with film directors Michael Patrick O’Leary and Ashley North Compton to create a striking animated video for the song. According to Ashley and Patrick, all involved “wanted to present the tension of reaching out and not being able to touch. Fleeting communication with an outside world, felt but not seen, and Jenn’s interaction with her own double, create a hallucinatory sense of limbo. It creates a solitary confinement, wherein no matter how partnered or joined we find ourselves, those selves, our own best and worst companions, are all we have.”



 

Fantasies of isolation aside, the current form of Flock Of Dimes sounds liberating and upbeat, with less of the noisy indie mumble of Wye Oak. The project brings her pop melancholy into focus. Wye Oak might have become a poppier proposition in the last few years – 2011’s Spiral single definitely had a touch of the funk – but even Spiral left Jenn echoing in the distance like a mermaid dream, while the same year’s Civilian had more of an indie mumble. In contrast (and maybe on account of Jenn’s earlier dry runs at R&B with Dungeonesse), Semaphore is percolating electronic commercial art-pop in a 1986 Jane Siberry/Peter Gabriel vein, with a dash of country and bursts of beefy funk-roll bassline: qualities shared by Everything Is Happening Today, even if the latter has a more contemporary-sounding, speaker-busting alt.rock distortion halo wrapped around the chorus.

As you’ll gather from the names I’m dropping here, Dimes also has 1980s art pop written all over it – the stadium-scale reverb in which the guitars float and jostle like belfry runaways; the slick electronic technology which sounds as if it’s on the verge of cracking and hatching into a giant ungainly chick; and most of all the sense of an empowered, expressive perspective using all of this sonic trickery to blow open the windows and release the songs. I hate to sound as if I’m trying to ring a band’s death-knell (and I suspect that Jenn’s personal loyalties inform, inspire and justify her musical work as much as anything else) but on record, at least, Flock Of Dimes suggests ways forward for Jenn which Wye Oak simply doesn’t.

  • Rough Trade East, Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane, Spitalfields, London, E1 6QL, England, Tuesday 4th October 2016, 12:45pminformation
  • The Victoria, 451 Queensbridge Road, Hackney, London, E8 3AS, England, Tuesday 4th October 2016, 7.30pminformation

Flock Of Dimes: 'If You See Me' (promotional flyer)

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Simon Reynolds: 'Shock And Awe'

Simon Reynolds: ‘Shock And Awe’

Finally, legendary music writer Simon Reynolds – the man who defined post-rock and re-canonised post-punk, and has striven to contextualise and illuminate every ingredient in contemporary pop (from the most challenging Afro-American sub-bass growl’n’gurgle to the flossiest bit of floating white vanity-froth) has most recently been focussing on glam rock.

He’ll be launching his new book ‘Shock And Awe: Glam Rock & Its Legacy‘ via a short English book tour in early October. Dates and summary below:

“In ‘Shock And Awe…’, Simon Reynolds explores this most decadent of genres on both sides of the Atlantic. Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Alice Cooper, The Sweet, Gary Glitter, New York Dolls, Sparks, Slade, Suzi Quatro, Cockney Rebel, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Mott The Hoople — all are represented here. Reynolds charts the retro-future sounds, outrageous styles and gender-fluid sexual politics that came to define the first half of the seventies and brings it right up to date with a final chapter on glam in hip hop, Lady Gaga, and the aftershocks of David Bowie’s death.”

All events will also feature a glam rock film screening: there’s no information on what’s playing at Sheffield, but for Manchester it’ll be Ringo Starr’s 1972 T-Rex rockumentary ‘Born To Boogie’ and for London it’ll be a “special curated series” of glam rock videos.

Again, there’s no mention of a sparring partner at Sheffield: but in Manchester Simon will be talking with a fellow ‘Melody Maker’ polymath (journalist, curator, pop historian, film director and St Etienne member Bob Stanley) and in London with ‘Guardian’ pop music critic Alexis Petridis from ‘The Guardian’. Simon Price (a Reynolds friend and contemporary who knows more than a little about the glamour chase and how to spin a polemic on it) will be joining in at London with a guest DJ set.
 

June 2016 – upcoming London gigs – four for Saturday 18th (Glass, Matthew Bourne, Darren Morris, and The Leaf Library at Daylight Music; Tanya Tagaq soundtracks ‘Nanook of the North’ at the Forge; Rock Candy Girlz & Malcolm Bruce at MAP Studio Café; the Pussywarmers at Wilton’s)

16 Jun

An interesting London Saturday is coming up, with music ranging from shattering electronic jazz to faintly worrying lounge music and psychedelic pop; pipe organ explorations to Inuit vocalese; transfigured electropop to sing-alongs and drone-strumentals… with the odd dancing gorilla and shocking pink hairpiece showing up too.

More below…

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Daylight Music 228, 18th June 2016

Arctic Circle presents:
Daylight Music 228 (‘Electric Dreams’): Glass + Matthew Bourne + Darren Morris + The Leaf Library
Union Chapel, 19b Compton Terrace, Islington, London, N1 2UN, England
Saturday 18th June 2016, 12.00pm
– free event (suggested donation – £5.00) – information

“Daylight Music goes electronic this week with three superb acts.

“Rising pop duo Glass are set for big things in 2016. Their spectacularly roaring body of work and captivating live shows have seen them hotly tipped as ‘ones to watch’ by The Maccabees, Huw Stephens and Tom Robinson. Jessica Winter’s haunting, enunciated vocals and Scott Rimington’s other-worldly guitar break-outs meet to create a language all of its own, underpinned with pummeling grooves, meticulous synth lines and addictive ear-worm hooks. Today they’ll be playing an acoustic set.

“With a reputation as a fearlessly unpredictable pianist and composer, multi-award-winning musician Matthew Bourne is a passionate explorer of sound, possessed of a burning desire to make music on anything old, broken or infirm. Renowned for his intensely personal and sometimes confrontational solo work, his uncanny ability to balance delicacy and virtuosity – while establishing a close affinity with his audience – have become hallmarks of his concert performances. He has his fingerprints on a huge number of projects, having worked with artists as diverse as John Zorn, Annette Peacock, Nils Frahm, Nostalgia 77, Broadway Project, and Amon Tobin.

In the last year, Matthew set up a studio in his rural West Yorkshire home in order to capture the spontaneous moments of inspiration his concerts have become famed for. With a nod to the pioneering work of Annette Peacock and Paul Bley, he has turned his considerable talents to the world of analogue synthesisers; arming himself with an arsenal of vintage electronics, tape delays and a creaky harmonium alongside his trusty piano and cello, and preparing for a period of intense and varied activity in his own name after many years of collaboration. Growing from improvised live performances, new compositions have taken shape in the studio as Bourne explored and moulded the vast sonic possibilities of voltage-controlled oscillators.

“The seed for this project was planted when Matthew acquired an uncooperative 1982 Memorymoog, having it painstakingly modified and upgraded by Rudi Linhard in Germany. Created without the use of computers or sequencers, ‘moogmemory’ is the first album to be recorded using only the Lintronics Advanced Memorymoog. This process also served as a pathway to another of his current projects, ‘Radioland: Radio-Activity Revisited’, a visceral live audio/visual experience created to mark the 40th anniversary of Kraftwerk’s seminal Radio-Activity album. In collaboration with electronic composer Franck Vigroux and installation artist Antoine Schmitt, ‘Radioland…’ sees him pushing his work with synthesisers into uncompromising new territory, as earth-shattering bass frequencies are contrasted with moments of eerie near-silence.

“The intriguing Darren Morris worked as a producer and musician for twenty years (with the likes of David Holmes, Tim Goldsworthy, Ashley Beedle) and he’s currently touring with former Beta Band-er Steve Mason. He’s been performing live as a professional musician for over fifteen years, playing keyboards, synths, and bass with a variety of artists including Gabrielle, Sugardaddy (side project of Groove Armada’s Tom Findlay), and Robin Hitchcock. He has a background in improvisation, working alongside many well-respected and influential players on the London improv scene such as Veryan Weston, Hugh Metcalfe, Sibyl Madrigal, Lol Coxhill, Gail Brand, Jon Edwards and Mark Sanders. Today, Darren will be playing the Chapel’s glorious 125-year old Henry Willis organ.”

Just noting that Darren isn’t a stranger to this particular instrument… Here’s the outcome of one of his previous encounters, plus an explanation:


 

“(This) started out as a ninety-minute improvisation, performed on the amazing organ that lives in the Union Chapel Islington. I was just zoning into the instrument and the building it breathes in, traveling through various pockets of 20th century western concert music, modal ’50s jazz, glimpses of Sun Ra, Terry Riley, daydreaming of space and psychedelic films here and there. The recording wasn’t anything special but it was easy to get sucked back in on listening back. I haven’t been able to leave it alone. For a few weeks I’ve been chipping away at it, adding a sort of electronic orchestra of synthesizers and string machines. I hope this album can make you believe it was all there at that moment, being recorded and witnessed. Maybe I’ll get this space orchestra together one day and return to the Union Chapel for a rather extraordinary gig. Hope you can be there!”

Back to the press release:

“There’ll also be improvised electronics from The Leaf Library, whose drone-pop love songs are particular Daylight favourites. If that wasn’t enough watch out for a special appearance by The Action Men who will bring their EU-topian roboto dance vision to our stage.”



 

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Tanya Tagaq @ The Forge, 18th June 2016

Tigmus and The Nest Collective present:
Tanya Tagaq in concert with ‘Nanook of the North’
The Forge, 3-7 Delancey Street, Camden Town, London, NW1 7NL, England
Saturday 18th June 2016, 7.30pm
– information here and here

“Award-winning Inuit vocalist Tanya Tagaq, known for her intense, evocative style based on traditional throat singing, performs a live accompaniment to Robert Flaherty’s controversial 1922 silent film Nanook of the North. Joined by percussionist Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot, Tagaq reclaims the film’s images of life in an early twentieth-century Inuit community in Northern Quebec. This is not an experimental performance to be missed.

“Commissioned by the Toronto Film Festival, Tagaq’s work with Nanook began with a sonic exploration of the film’s imagery. With her own sense of the sounds of places shown in the film, she transforms its images, adding feeling and depth to what is a complex mix of poignant representations and racially charged clichés. The film, one of the world’s first major works of non-fiction filmmaking, is rife with contradictions. Flaherty lived and worked with Inuit communities for many years, and yet he included staged scenes of buffoonery and feigned Inuit ignorance of modern technology and accoutrements.”

Tanya’s own comments on the project:

“Everyone will take what they want from it. I have no intention of spoon feeding people what they need to know. Yet, hopefully, via coaxing and innuendo and emotion, I can elevate people’s consciousness of Inuit culture, and of culture in general. I can take a small bite out of the underground racism against Inuit and Aboriginal people. I have faith that if people are educated about what’s actually happening, and if people believe, it can be fixed. But you have to acknowledge the bad to sprout the good.”

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MAP Live Lounge, 18th June 2016Rock Candy Management present:
MAP Live Lounge: Rock Candy Girlz + Malcolm Bruce
MAP Studio Café, 46 Grafton Road, Kentish Town, London, NW5 3DU, England
Saturday 18th June 2016, 7.30pm

Saturday Live Lounge at MAP Café is a regular night of eclectic live music. It’s hosted by Rock Candy Girlz, a three-piece West London band featuring members of ‘90s charting band Amazulu who do “quirky interpretations of classic songs” in a lively glammed-up fashion. I’m usually left cold by this kind of Scissor Sisters thing – the crowd-pleasing cover versions, the high-camp glow, the pink wigs etc (although I’m a secret slut for dressing up) – but the Girlz’ wit and roguery win me over. Here they are doing a Kylie Minogue cover. Underneath that is a trailer for the first Live Lounge, sans glad rags, which shows that some people aren’t remotely slowed, subdued or suppressed by middle age. Good on them. If I could muster half of this kind of charisma, people would be falling over themselves to read the blog.


Their special guest this week is multi-instrumentalist and classic rock scion Malcolm Bruce, son of Cream’s Jack Bruce and grafter in a number of different musical zones (rock, jazz-rock, folk) since his mid-teens. It’s hard not to talk about Malcolm without reference to his dad, since Malcolm’s musicality reveals some of the genetic and cultural debt he owes to Jack. They share a similar singing voice (a forceful high-rise tenor which ranges from pugnacious to yearning), and Malcolm paid some of his dues as the guitarist in Jack’s band. Also, he can – and sometimes does – work some of the same musical seams that his father did.

However, Malcolm’s Soundcloud page reveals him as a softer, more intimate songwriter and interpreter than Jack was – touched by a more lucent strand of Celtic romanticism (as with Brian Kennedy, Van Morrison, Paul Buchanan), annealed by a touch of the sensibilities of another great ’60s white rhythm-and-blues star (Steve Winwood) and counterbalanced with judicious dashes of technical smarts and abilities (an accomplished acoustic folk guitarist, he’s also a lyrical, Satriani-esque electric hard rock player with arena sensibilities). Here are a couple of tracks from an EP he’s putting together for a Pledge Music crowdfunder goodie, as an enticement to help record his forthcoming album. One’s a straight folk lovesong, another’s a version of Purcell’s ‘Dido’s Lament’.



 

Regarding the latter, it’s tough to go up against some of the existing pop versions which this beautiful tune has spawned over the years (including grand, soaring counter-tenor renditions from Klaus Nomi and Jeff Buckley, and the heart-melting voice-and-piano folk version Barbara Dickson and Troy Donockley performed on ‘Full Circle’) but Malcolm approaches his own arrangement with pluck and honesty. It’s also a tricky task to switch between baroque lute elegance and full-blooded pomp rock – let alone fold a brand new anti-war song into the second half – without resulting in a hamfisted mess. Yet somehow Malcolm manages to pull it off and cover all of the necessary bases.

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Babel Festival of Literature & Translation presents:
The Pussywarmers
Wilton’s Music Hall, 1 Graces Alley, Whitechapel, London, E1 8JB, England
Saturday 18th June 2016, 9.00pm
information

This in from Wilton’s:

The Pussywarmers bring you a lively mixture of music from the dope’n’glory jazz era of the mid-1920s. With horns, upright bass banjo and many more acoustic instruments, they have a wild and dusty character… plus trumpets. Cosmically bound to their Hungarian ladyfriend Réka, spasmodically accompanied on their travels by unpredictable trumpeters, The Pussywarmers – originally from the Mediterranean district of Switzerland – have spread their credo all over the continent. Indeed, audiences of all ages have fallen under their spell – a charming and obscure concoction of melodies that stubbornly eludes all attempts at a definition but which is leaving ever more gig-goers indefinably warmhearted.”

This doesn’t actually cover the half of it. What it doesn’t mention is this band’s teasing, wayward unknowability; their honey-sliding psychedelic atmospheres (like a half-cut Mamas & The Papas if they’d been woozily rebounding from the Haight); their playful lack of embarrassment and their apparent attachment to the Dada of their hometown. All of this can be seen in the video for their song ‘Young Men Living’, which blends Freud, Godard and Melanie Klein into three minutes and forty-three second of messy-play picnic.

If you’d prefer something less psychosexual, the video for Sunrise sees the band dancing blankly across Swiss hilltops in colour-bleached film stock; which, to a Brit, is going to look like a teasing ’70s memory from childhood forays onto BBC2. (Then again, if you’re not wanting something psychosexual, perhaps you shouldn’t be checking out a group called The Pussywarmers…)

The band is appearing as part of the tenth Babel Festival of Literature & Translation, described as “(a) unique border-crossing event (with) its own special brand of linguistic hospitality… a celebration of voices, rhythms, linguistic diversity, creolisation and hybridisation.” Usually based in Switzerland, it’s celebrating its decennial in London and at Wilton’s instead, bringing a day of “readings from writers and translators spanning China, Mexico, Poland, Bosnia, Switzerland and the USA.” . Full info on the whole event is here if you fancy making a fuller day of it.
 

July 2015 – upcoming weekend gigs – Daylight Music in London on Saturday (Piney Gir/Rodney Branigan/Player Piano with Gemma Champ); William D. Drake/Crayola Lectern/Heavy Lamb in Brighton on Sunday

1 Jul

This weekend you could choose some unorthodox transplanted Americana, or some equally unorthodox English nooks and crannies. Or (as long as you were somewhere around London or Brighton) you could feasibly enjoy both of them, given that you’ve got more than twenty-four hours to cover the fifty miles between the options. (It’s bright. It’s hot. Enjoy the weekend out. Go on…)

First, the Saturday show in London…

Daylight Music, July 4th 2015

Daylight Music 196: Piney Gir + Rodney Branigan + Player Piano, with Gemma Champ (Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, Islington, London, N1 2UN – Saturday 4th July, 12pm to 2pm)

Blurb follows…

July brings an American Independence day special to Daylight Music.

Piney Gir hails from the American Midwest, home of wide-open plains with sunflowers that go on as far as the Earth curves. The “you’re not in Kansas anymore” jokes never wear thin, because Piney embraces her heritage bringing it with her to the UK, where she’s lived in London for over a decade now (yes, she does have a sparkly red shoe collection and yes, she wears a lot of gingham). She is celebrating the recent launch of her sixth album ‘mR hYDE’S wILD rIDE’, released on Damaged Goods Records on June 8th.

Texan guitar virtuoso Rodney Branigan is a multi-intrumentalist who learned to play in Austin, perform in Los Angeles, craft songs in Nashville and put it all together in London. His current album ‘Sketches.’ (written on the road in China, India, Europe, the US and the UK) reflects this diversity, combining laid-back blues and acoustic folk with undertones of rock, flamenco, classical, bluegrass and jazz. His lyrics have an abundance of imaginative substance to them that eclipse many of his songwriting peers. With vocals compared to Jeff Buckley and playing compared to Rodrigo Y Gabriela, the album has been written, arranged and recorded around his renowned ambidextrous live performance.

Player Piano is the musical vessel of Jeremy Radway, a refugee from Indianapolis, USA (home of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., after whose first published book the group was named). On his previous EP ‘Into The Dark’ (released on the Fife-based Fence Records label), there was a mix of rich strings and glam-pop pomp, inspiring the ‘Sunday Times’ to write “evoking solo-Lennon string arrangements, the unfettered creativity of early Bowie and the Walker Brothers, and the vocal plangency of Chris Martin and Rufus Wainwright, it tugs at the heartstrings and ensnares you with the scope of its ambition.” Radway continues to explore new sounds and forms, trading strings for synths and moving in a more upbeat progressive direction, still staying grounded in melody and harmony. He’ll be releasing his new album ‘Radio Love’ this summer on State51 Records (home to gUiLLeMoTs and Psapp),

In between, Gemma Champ will play melodies jammed full of stars and stripes; and yes, there will be cookies!

There’s a Soundcloud preview here.

Free entry, but donations are (as ever) encouraged.

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On Sunday, down in Brighton, there’s this…

William D. Drake/Crayola Lectern/Ham Legion, Komedia Brighton, July 3rd 2015

William D. Drake/Crayola Lectern/Heavy Lamb (Komedia Studio Bar, 44-47 Gardner Street, Brighton, BN1 1UN, UK, Sunday 5th July 2015, 7.30pm – £7.00)

Bill Drake (the onetime Cardiacs keyboard player turned baroque-solo singer-songwriter) celebrates the mid-June release of his new album ‘Revere Reach’ with what promises to be a typically joyous concert, unfolding new/old sounding original songs both complex and sweet, rampant keyboarding, hurdy-gurdys and assorted friends. A couple of examples are below.

In support is Crayola Lectern – Chris Anderson’s songwriting project which sweeps from solemn cellar melancholia to a flickering psychedelic noon via piano, trumpet and shimmering electronics. See these…

Also playing support are Heavy Lamb, a self-styled “loud demented pop” band. See below for a demo track and for a video of them playing a joyfully received Spratleys Japs cover at the Alphabet Business Convention earlier this year.

Tickets for Drake and co. are available here.

January 2001 – mini-album reviews – The Servant’s ‘With the Invisible’ (“art gets made, covertly, in rush-hour”)

24 Jan

The Servant: 'With the Invisible'

The Servant: ‘With the Invisible’

On last year’s ‘Mathematics‘, Dan Black (the voice, face and most of the limbs of The Servant) lifted the lid on a peculiar pop world, fascinated by the chasms between reality and imagination and between formal order and animal madness. ‘Mathematics’ was a dance of numbers, monkeys and peculiar people-watching, jamming in suspicions of murder, deranged Bunuel-ish aristocrats and shopping mall alienation. Unusually, its sonic palette was just as wild as its subject matter. It was as chopped-up and mercurial as it was catchy and danceable, emphasising Dan’s omnivorous sampler as much as his peculiar sneer (thin and venomous, but in its way the wildest and most devil-may-care British pop vocal this side of Billy Mackenzie).

With Chris Burrows now recruited to the project to beef up the guitars, ‘With the Invisible’ hints at being a more conventional follow-up to ‘Mathematics’. In many ways, it is. It’s less extreme, more aligned towards the needs of a guitar band: the sounds are much less wild and varied, with less cunningness required to ensure the gelling of the musical ingredients. Hell, it could almost be Britpop; albeit at the Pulp end as opposed to the Shed Seven end. But I’m not convinced that this means Dan Black has shot his artistic wad. In fact, I’ve a suspicion that where ‘Mathematics’ rattled the cage of the fantastical, ‘With the Invisible’ (right down to the title) documents Dan’s interaction with the everyday – the office jobs, adverts, commuter rushes, conspicuous consumption and car ownership that most of us take on continually and take for granted.


 
Certainly Biro is about sulking in an office, your mind scrabbling desperately for escape either in desk-based sculpture, the limited options of the office party (“wet-look in my hair?”) or violent fantasies – “I just killed my new boss / shut that cock up, with a rock, / non-stop in his face, / and what a smug face.” Inevitably, it concludes “it’s plain to you and it’s plain to me, / there’s nothing for you and there’s nothing for me,” but it has a colourful time getting there.


 
With that admitted, the next question is how to live under those circumstances, if at all. The brass-pumping Milk Chocolate is a rebellion, which finds Dan capering under the motorway next to a blazing bonfire. Systematically, he’s burning all of his possessions from hi-fi to furniture right down to his clothes, trying to shake off the packaging of the modern world. But with “milk chocolate pumping through my heart” the contamination of consumption has already reached to the core of him, leaving him with the logical conclusion of joining his own trash on the fire.


 
Or not. The bodypopping, Prince-like bubblegum funk of In a Public Place suggests an accommodation, even a brainwave to slake that thirst for stimulation. Art gets made, covertly, in rush-hour. “Among stumbling commuters / I think about each step, / not where I’m trying to get.. / In a limited space, / I try to find a cube for me. / With suble changes of pace, / I move through various densities.” There’s even peace to be found – “watching people move, / they appear to groove / with the invisible.”


 
For a while, our man seems happy in a formal suit and in step with this world. By the time the White Town-ish synth pop of Driving At Night shows up – deliberately tidy – he’s possibly taken it too far. “I try hard to be like I’m in an advert / as we descend upon upon the M1.” Before long, though, The Servant are back to poking holes in the fabric of the world again, trying to expose the workings. In the Jam-versus-hip-hop bust of The Entire Universe, this happens via rampant, tongue-in-cheek paranoia. “How can I trust my own memory? / Did what I thought I saw before occur?” yammers Dan, almost with relief, as flute shrieks and silvery Indian strings zing off the barking guitars. “How can I trust my own family? / Maybe they’ve lied for years to me.”


 
By the finale, She Cursed Me, the music is heading back towards the heady mix of sounds that characterised ‘Mathematics’: ironic tinges mixing with intimate pastiche, music box interludes, bright dreamy shifts of mood and texture with a sharp mind manipulating them. And Dan’s narration has moved well clear of city rules, looking backwards to villagey beginnings, the first stirrings of curiosity (“she cursed me with impatience / and I need to follow clouds,”) and the repercussions of actions (“our conversations by the pond / I wonder if they’re still going on – / swimming on the gluey pool, / around the church and up to the school.”)


 
The Servant are still marching to their own inner promptings; still bouncing on the shock of impulse. Still the colourful alien probe that’s embedded in the mundane. Keep watching.

The Servant: ‘With the Invisible’
Splinter Recordings, SP003CD (5 038622 102326)
CD-only mini-album
Released:
22nd January 2001
Get it from: (2020 update) CD best obtained second-hand; stream from last.fm.
The Servant online:
Homepage Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Amazon Music
Additional notes: (2020 update) The Servant split up in 2007. Dan Black moved on to a solo career; Trevor Sharpe has played in Deadcuts.
 

April 2000 – mini-album reviews – The Servant’s ‘Mathematics’ (“cleverly constructed songs which nonetheless loll open like burgled cupboards, disarranged and pried into”)

25 Apr

The Servant: 'Mathematics'

The Servant: ‘Mathematics’

To realise just how good The Servant are, you have to look back a few years and see just how bad they could have been. Back to 1990s Swinging London and the age of the Young British Artists: paint, press and garbage flying everywhere while Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin and co. latched onto the multi-media cow and deliriously milked it for all it was worth. Restaurant tie-ins, TV shows, crappy crazy-golf designs… Anything which took the piss, got attention, built the empire.

British pop – siamese-twinned to art-school anyway – didn’t escape this cross-media surge. A slew of appalling artist/band tie-ins tumbled into the world. Big Bottom, Fat Les (or anything else in which Alex James cosied up to fellow Goldsmiths’ alumni). Various one-of/fuck-offs with conceptual artists barging onstage, messing around or just singing badly in the name of deconstruction or situationism. The original spark for this was Minty, the performance-art-cum-pop band assembled by the late Leigh Bowery – a genius costumier, an infamous artist’s model, an indispensable link between conceptual art and gay clubbing, portraiture and pop trash.

Minty, though, was his one ignominious failure, remaining better known for Nicola Chapman’s transparent dresses (and for Bowery literally shitting on his audience at one fateful concert) than for music or vision. Noisomely cheesy in their calculated obscenity, their attention-grabbing stunts and their sherbety gargling squeak-pop, they left a couple of singles (the childish shock-pop stream of sneering abuse on Useless Man and the paper-thin, bored-with-it-all drone of That’s Nice) which still sometimes pop up in arty DJ sets to remind us all of what was putrid even before it was dead and buried. Two fatal errors doomed Minty. One was their assumption that calling themselves “artists” ensured that art (rather than amplified fads) would come through them; and the other was attempting to plaster conceptual art’s whims onto the surface of pop, like cheap multicoloured cladding.

Servant leader Dan Black – who, like his bandmates Matt Fisher and Trevor Sharpe, was once part of the Minty circus – has obviously learnt from this. With The Servant, Black is smart enough to work from the other way around this time: writing scratchy, catchy songs which actually work, and then twisting their vision from within. Certainly The Servant avoids Minty’s sub-Wildean, cripplingly trashy desire to celebrate the trivial and superficial. Instead of sloppy art-to-pop, ‘Mathematics’ is full of shrewd Bowie’n’Devo-esque pop-to-art. Cleverly constructed songs which nonetheless loll open like burgled cupboards, disarranged and pried into.

It’s constructive criminality, though. Vandalising pop with creative intent, layering it with pop-up samples, buggering about with the implications, enjoying the theatrical interplay of sounds. It’s also the truest British parallel to Beck yet. Dan slithers in and out of sketchy transparent personas; paralleling Beck’s American easiness with his own Home Counties fussiness, Beck’s quirky patchwork of ideas and soul-revue showmanship with a violent jarring of public and private universes and with arch music-hall wit.


 
Dan himself seems to be constantly hovering, saturnine, above the songs. He’s just that little bit smarter than the music – involved in it but not quite of it. Although his thin nasal sneer of a voice recalls his previous band, this time he’s made sure that his irony has something substantial to grip onto. Teased for his eccentric dancing skills (“an orang-outan body-popping… a monkey who is rocking”), he gleefully makes himself the butt of an old Darwinian joke. “Look darling, it’s our cousins. / Come in and meet the family. / We are eating. / Well, you must join us. / Come on dear, lay another place for the apes and the chimpanzees,” he sings, to the accompaniment of brittle white soul-funk as monkeys cackle feverishly behind him, and broken pianos spin into the breaks.


 
It’s not just the supercilious servility of the band’s name that’s suspicious. Messing around with perceptions is The Servant’s stock-in-trade. Tuneful and catchy the songs may be, but each one is a mass of elaborately layered confusion in sound and text. Instruments and sounds appear in the wrong places, or squeezed into unusual forms by hip-hop-era sonic tinkering; and airy lyrics are jostled by intrusive sounds. It seems right that Dripping On Your Maths (popper-fuelled disco rhythms mixed up with a particularly wilful string quartet) makes jumpy little attacks on correctness and rationality. “Hunched up poring over graphs – / don’t blink, / just think / of all things and their link,” sings Dan sardonically, like a rebel maths tutor watching his sweating pupil’s tidy equations succumb to chaos. “Is this what you studied for? / A kind of mime, from nought to nine…”

The Servant’s music is a colourful, disturbingly surreal puppet show, in Dan plays the role of head marionette as well as that of chief string- puller. At the same time, he’s violently shaking the scenery with whichever limb is free, in order to reveal the workings of this enclosed world. The masterstroke in this approach is Conversation. It rips off and flips over the infamous Kashmir riff as a starter, but that isn’t all that it flips over. Initially, a kitchen-sink drama (illicit love, a girl making secret trips to a payphone, the delaying of a promised call) promises to develop into a classic little story. Then Dan starts to dismantle it with a cool, sadistic science. “The girl from verse one / Does not exist / Sure, you can feel her hands, but she’s just an idea.”


 
Toying with both our impatience and that of the luckless, fictional heroine (“Don’t you find the waiting tough / Even when occupied by love / and all that kind of stuff?”), he’s also dropping heavy hints to us that he’s not only the narrator, but the feckless love interest. “The tragedy is that Gary’s me / and it’s 7.40…” When he brazenly admits “If you feel any pain, / well, I’m to blame,” it’s a multiple confession. It’s also a superbly heartless one, with the air of a man pushing models around on a strategy board, or an author invading his own story for reasons of control or revenge. Yet it also pokes hard at our own complicity in the tale, as readers; while helping everything along via a smashing, seductively slithery tune.


 
More authorial meddling comes free with the supermarket voyeurism of Tangled Up in Headphone Lead. Lazily people-watching from a mall cafe, Dan attempts to divine the personalities of strangers from disconnected clues and cues (rubber marks left by hot shoes, hands running pinlike across tins, peculiar walks). The result’s a distracted, disassociated love song in which the lovers never even meet, and in which affection, confusion and atmospherics become hopelessly intermingled. There’s romantic, summery acoustic guitar, yes; but there’s also alien booms of Scuba breath. Heavenly swells of synth jab jaggedly as Dan’s latest persona meanders from thought to dysfunctional thought: “I wonder how you feel. / I struggle with complex food.” Obviously, he’s a stranger here himself.


 
The other thrust in ‘Mathematics’ is the creation of artfully sinister images of England. This makes Dan Black the evil quad to the three other recent self-conscious bards of Blighty: Neil Hannon, Richard Larcombe and (the pre-’13’) Damon Albarn. Too Late is an effete-yet-violent English nightmare. It drowses in cello sounds and summery meanders, but it’s also encircled by thunderstorms and by Miranda Sex Garden’s gently menacing backing vocals. “I imported horses from Dubai,” drones the aristocratic narrator. “Like great white sharks, we rode around the local park.. / Like spraying paint we flew across pedestrians…” It’s a decorous rampage with a sticky end; a final fall that’s heralded by a genteel waltz.


 
If that’s macabre, Walking Through Gardens is positively disturbing. Any song that claims “when my wife died I was happy” (and which talks about a corpse buried in the backyard with the same concern that it shows regarding the installation of a barbeque) is never going to make it onto Our Tune. Blending with echoes of Fred West’s psychotic house-proud callousness and with the pomp of English gardening culture, chaos and horror break through the herbaceous borders. “We’re finally going to get a patio!” announces our hero. Triumphally sweet orchestras and brave trumpet greet the joyful news, but other music is also worming up to meet it: violent surges of drum’n’bass, claustrophobically oppressive bass synths, metallic dripping noises and a meat-mincer of a mix. It’s ‘Ground Force’ versus ‘Blue Velvet’, with Foetus as referee. Guess who’s winning.

Life’s what you make it, and The Servant make it decidedly strange. But it’s been a long time since we’ve had anyone in British pop toying with the paper moons, mining the flutters and lunges of the subconscious, with such wit and danger or with such cunning artfulness.

The Servant: ‘Mathematics’
Splinter Recordings, SP001CD (5 038622 101626)
CD-only mini-album
Released:
24th April 2000
Get it from: (2020 update) CD best obtained second-hand; stream from last.fm.
The Servant online:
Homepage Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Amazon Music
Additional notes: (2020 update) The Servant split up in 2007. Dan Black moved on to a solo career; Trevor Sharpe has played in Deadcuts.
 

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