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December 2002 – album reviews – Various Artists: ‘House of Stairs Volume 1: Useless in Bed’ compilation (“happily balanced on the rougher brinks and fringes”)

4 Dec

Various Artists: 'House of Stairs Vol. 1 - Useless in Bed'

Various Artists: ‘House of Stairs Vol. 1 – Useless in Bed’

Placing yourself on faultlines, rather than easily marketable turf, brings risks but inspiration – ask a San Franciscan. That the three London art-rock bands who originally set up the House of Stairs label (The Monsoon Bassoon, Geiger Counter, and Ursa) have all now split or mutated into something else is perhaps proof of both.

Regardless, ‘Useless In Bed’ – the first House of Stairs release – is a declaration of brotherhood. Compiling the work of musicians dwelling on various faultlines (though still mostly centred on London art-rock, it also takes in music from Chicago, Atlanta and Bordeaux), it both defines the edges of prog, jazz, art-rock, hardcore, electronica, folk, improv and noise rock, or encourages people to spill across them.

Hard-rocking math-proggers Foe – sprung from the wreckage of Geiger Counter – offer the most urgent track. ‘Triangulator’ is full of furious refracting guitar lines over Crawford Blair’s piano-growl of bass. For six minutes it swings, chops, drops down trapdoors, executes perverse King Crimson leaps between mordantly grim chords, and savages minor keys like The 5uu’s on far too much coffee. Geiger Counter’s posthumous statement is ‘Drink Your Milk’ – less obviously wired than ‘Triangulator’, it still carves up its grunge-y math riffs with heavy enthusiasm, embracing sweeter interludes of short-lived luminous peace as it does so. Nouveau Metal is spreading…

The Monsoon Bassoon‘s own posthumous offering is a explosive and complicated song from when their mingling of Henry Cow and gamelan-Crimson art-rock ran full tilt into their love of American alt.rockers like Shudder To Think. The psychedelic squeal of guitars on ‘Stag’ marches from plateau to jagged plateau in a skirl of trippy flute and meshing riffs, held together by the band’s tight discipline.

These days various Bassooners have regrouped in Miss Helsinki, who deliver a sparkling piece of progressive pop called ‘I Felt Your Arms Around Me’. Less surreal than most Bassoon confections, it’s still an acid-flavoured love song whose rattling good XTC jangle and tootling clarinets don’t stop it hurtling delightedly into a complex, storm-tossed middle section in which they see just how much you can rock the train without slinging it off the rails.

If you’d prefer to stick with the Bassoon’s skronkier legacy, Chicago’s Sweep the Leg Johnny are still juggling that torch. With the superb ‘Only in a Rerun’, they’re obviously on a roll – it’s a rich mixture of harsh Schizoid Man tones and flamboyant jazz-metal attack from the raw husky wail of Steve Sostak’s alto sax and Chris Daly’s bloodthirsty roar of guitar, tossing Sostak’s airy vocal like a bull tossing a skinny matador. Slewing between dEUS busyness and violent post-Slint minimalism, this is a rough bareback ride to put a wicked smile on your face.

Manic Glaswegian pranksters Lapsus Linguae provide ‘Olestra (There’s Only One Drinking Fountain in Heaven)’. A stab of theatrical art-metal somewhere between Faith No More and Beck (with a Resident eyeballing it from the director’s chair) it has all you need to storm the castle of pomp. There’s a man called Penelope Collegefriend singing in a rampant bellow like a punk Freddie Mercury; there’s an inexplicable strings break and a rolling piano line continually chopped off with guillotine precision; there are namechecks for Hermann Hesse and Charlton Heston, and choicely bizarre lyrics like “More I eat, the hungrier I feel – / I lick menus, ignore the meals.”

Holding up the genteel-er proggie end are the whimsical and witty projects of the Larcombe brothers. With ‘Sand (Blowing About)’, Stars in Battledress provide a beautiful dance of fluent piano and autoharp: but beyond the divertimento prettiness, James Larcombe leads the duo through eddies of suggestive Debussyan chords.

Richard Larcombe goes on to turn in a conceptual tease on Defeat the Young‘s wonderful ‘I’m Ruining Something’ – an absurdist essay on the corruptions of power which blends Gentle Giant with Lewis Carroll and Stravinsky. Larcombe greets his ensemble of actors, trombone, and full-blown operatic chorus as a lounge-lizard lord of misrule, sighing a manifesto of playful destruction in his arch, refined tones. “I’m recognised as your one sovereign Lord Protector / Trust me – I’ve learned of your country by tape and slide projector. / Each day I’ll go out of my way to spoil, deface and tarnish, / like he who ruins carpentry by swapping glue for varnish.” Oboe, piano and hammer dulcimer float in a dreamy arrangement like an August haze. Apparently there’s a whole album’s worth of this story in the Larcombe shed – ‘The Golden Spike’ – and it’s only one of their dastardly plans.

Both of House Of Stairs’ lo-fi electronica boffins seem to grab inspiration from bargain-bucket electrical goods. Desmotabs create an appealing Stylophone fanfare buzz on ‘Gaseous Exchange at the Alveoli’, let their drum machine go nuts and assault a heart monitor, and squiggle some demented Mini-Moog solos before the entire track melts like a Dali model. Max Tundra (the Frank Zappa of the techno world) continues his marvellous and bizarre mission to fuse hardcore dance music with prog rock. ‘Life in a Lift Shaft’ equals Desmotabs buzz-for-buzz while festooning tough and hilariously uptight Tundra beats with jittery robot piano and fat sub-bass from the tar-pits. Alarm-clocks fly past on tiny wings trying to take bites out of the zany, sunny tune.

The free-er bands – as usual – have a harder time. Gnarly bass-and-drums duo Guapo can be the missing link between ‘Red’ and Ruins when they want to be. However, their grinding ‘Pharoah’ – despite Dave Smith’s excellent Brufordian snarework – is mostly as subtle as a flying breezeblock. Dragging large chunks of pyramid across the desert and insisting that you appreciate each tortuous step, they occasionally snap, shoot off the flywheel and go ape with some fearsome tattoo riffs. Hardcore acoustic fusioneers Cheval de Frise hop up and down with impatience on ‘Chiendents’, banging their heads against their own lo-fi envelope, manically coiling up tighter and tighter acoustic guitar scrabbles against the tussling drums. Compression to destruction, breaking out in wild slashes.

And finally there’s the hardcore department, with the recently defunct Ursa demonstrating why they’ll be a sad loss to the British heavy scene. Avoiding hardcore’s usual fixed, deafening riffage and reductive howling, ‘The Blooding’ begins with a studied ponderousness and heaviness which gives way to an inspiring controlled demolition. Galloping punked-up Iron Maiden guitar runs charge under giant toppling riffs, the band dodging falling masonry via nifty turn-on-a-dime spins while losing none of their brute power. American Heritage, likewise, execute proggie timeswitches with rapid and brutal thrash flair, their sound a bleak, bare cliff of thick guitar noise. It’s anyone’s guess as to why they’ve called their track ‘Phil Collins’ – it’s an unlikely tribute, whether it’s aimed square at the Genesis drumstool or at the white-soul crowdpleaser.

Anyhow… here’s a house of many doors, happily balanced on the rougher brinks and fringes and demonstrating the breadth of personalities camped out in even one small part of today’s art-rock community. Admirable.

Various Artists: ‘House of Stairs Volume 1: Useless in Bed’
House of Stairs, HOS001 (5030094077829)
CD-only compilation album
Released: 2nd December 2002
Get it from:
(2020 update) best obtained second-hand

March 1998 – album reviews – Handsome Poets’ ‘Rebirth: The Best of the Handsome Poets’ (“sharp geeky wisdom with a trace of… clear, sparkling melancholy”)

26 Mar

Handsome Poets: 'Rebirth: The Best of the Handsome Poets'

Handsome Poets: ‘Rebirth: The Best of the Handsome Poets’

A lot of successful bands are made up of people who hunger towards grabbing the whole huge meaning of things and singing it out in 4/4, but who are too stupid to manage it by thinking it out. With the physical route mapped out in their bodies and nerves, they blunder there by blunt instinct, turning their brains off and shouting their way there.

Over in the cult corner, people like Californian popheads Handsome Poets (based around British ex-pats Stephen Duffy and Dale Ward) work in a slightly different way. Again, it’s their bodies that are the idiot savant side of the partnership: sneaking away from lofty pursuits to listen to pure pop, chew up chart singles and turn out chirpy tunes. It’s just that in this case Duffy and Ward have brains which tingle with too many possibilities, too many unsureties for them ever to believe in any one big shouty meaning. And in these cases instinct isn’t completely trusted: the brains feel a need to come down from their ivory condos and do something about what instinct has created.

To get to the point… on a superficial listen, ‘Rebirth’ (a compilation of the best of Handsome Poets’ cassette albums) seems to be a late resurgence of that strain of carefully crafted, earnest MTV pop rock that flourished in the early ’80s before getting nuked by dance, pop metal, rap and cynicism. The sort of airy, medium-sized, studio-tanned songs you’d get from guilelessly musical pop musicians – tidy white-funk guitars, shiny synth riffs and clear, breezy vocals. The occasional Latin drum loop. Soft-soul saxophone solos and argumentative violins pop up on occasion. Songs display painstaking intelligence, craft, and the other double-edged nouns used as weapons by the kangaroo courts of British rock journos who’d condemn this sort of stuff to death without a second thought.

Ah, but underneath…

Those brains have been getting to grips with what the bodies have cooked up. And are settling down like a large and decorative bird on a small nest. Some of it is as earnest as it appears. Both Gotta Get Up and Hope are pure synth pop for clean people, with enough billowing to enchant and enough boy-next-door humility to avoid plummeting into New Romantic pomposity. But much of the rest of ‘Rebirth’ sounds more like what Thomas Dolby’s lab techs might pull out of their lockers and work on quietly, once the Professor had packed up and gone home for the night.

Even as they pursue the naive thrill of a good old-fashioned song, the Poets’ brains are tinkering away at the workings like a pair of compulsive mechanics. Unusual instruments are factored in (kalimba, psaltery, tuba and didgeridoo all make their presence felt amongst the sequencers and loops), as are odd contrasts (the sprightly classical strings which bookend Drumsong, the tuba oompahs and tinkly metal percussion on Waiting For The Sun). Samples expand the sounds and themes. Bits of glazed-eye plastic gospel pop up. It’s clean cut ’80s. but gingerly dipping its perfect hairstyle in ’90s water. The journey wiggles away from the freeway and explores what’s going on in more out-of-the-way streets.

Like another set of transparently faux-naifs before them – Steely Dan – Handsome Poets cast a skeptical eye on American smoothness and vitality. While they’ve little of Steely Dan’s poisonous wit (being more like a melancholy Men At Work), they’re definitely dark horses under the light’n’polite pop funkiness. Handsome Poets’ pop cocktail is a mixture of sharp geeky wisdom with a trace of the clear, sparkling melancholy that Love let flow through ‘Forever Changes’: fed through squeaky-clean electronics it might be, but it’s there.

Take Everybody Knows, which sees Duffy haunting the edges of gatherings, nursing drinks in resentful, camouflaged desperation. “Everybody loves a party, but there’s always one who never leaves. / And it’s me…” Samples of cheerful party chatter swim through the mix as he reflects “one day I have the world in my hands, then it’s a downpour of lost souls. / And I occasionally belong. / In all honesty, I wonder, how often do I tell me lies? / Why not choose exhilaration, why not choose to see the light?”

Handsome Poet’s California (never specified, but unmistakeable) is a place that still brings bemusement to these transplanted and pop-bitten Brits. So Often’s savage catalogue of rip offs and scams (musically, Danny Wilson meets Prince with a touch of Japan’s arty, pernickety precision) stalks angrily through a rogue’s gallery of lifestyle conmen: “Watch out for the buggers in designer tie dye. / Grunge hippies dressed in black, eating souls for dinner, / incense burning sharks who cannot look you in the eye.” The atmosphere’s perfect for breeding phoneys (“your faded genius, one they’ll remember when you’re dead and gone. / My tongue’s in cheek, can’t you see?”).

On the uninhibited jazzy swing of Drumsong it’s difficult to make out whether they’re embracing the instinctive rhythms and redemptive power of dance, or lampooning its nouveaux hippy pretensions. By the fifth time those sunshiny choruses swing round and a muffled, earnest voice starts mumbling about “the song of the green rainbow”, you get the impression that Duffy’s gently puncturing someone’s mystical balloon. And what about Stephen Twist, who’s opted to reinvent himself in cult land? “No salt, no sugar, no coffee, no meat, no fun / Mmm… but the garden looked so good. / Would the real Stephen Twist please stand up? / Would the old Stephen Twist please stand down?”

In amongst these sketches of the parade of folly, small and genuine human stories still run. Too Much is a straightforward boy-loses-girl-and-gripes-about-it-in-a-bar scenario, but given an Eyeless in Gaza big-pop edge by Duffy’s arch upfront singing over a bath of rapid strumming, electrowashes and cushioning voices. Undersea’s opportunistic coward – slippery and suspect, beset by drones, baby cries and mirages – swims through an ocean in his dreams, flailing at his responsibilities and searching for isolation. Prez Bill hides under the acoustic bluffness of the ’80s political tub-thumper, but curls up at the edges to reveal a sharp (and very British) distrust of campaign gladhanding (“He shakes my hand and kissed my daughter. / Grin your grin, that’s our reward. / There’s just one thing I’d like to ask you – do you know me?”) and sarcastically asks “Is he all things to all men? Well, you tell me.” Sitting By the Ocean is a lonely beach vignette: a resigned stretch of slide guitar curves like the arc of pebbles chucked into the sea, as two people (one gently accepting, one hung up on being acceptable) utterly fail to make their connection – “I said “it doesn’t matter who they are, it’s who you are that really matters.” / She said “I want to come inside.”…”

With a name like Handsome Poets, you expect a gang of mumbling poseurs concentrating on perfecting the fall of their curls and couplets, or at least cultivating some Richard Ashcroft cheekbones. You actually get a couple of very human characters who’re more likely to blow their cool with an explosive (but compassionate) snigger at the ludicrousness of it all. You’d like them.

Handsome Poets: ‘Rebirth: The Best of the Handsome Poets’
Splendid Music, SPLENDID 005
CD-only album
23rd March 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) Original CD best obtained second-hand, although I’ve found quite a lot of them on Amazon.
Handsome Poets online:
Facebook MySpace YouTube Vimeo Google Play Spotify Amazon Music
Additional notes: (2020 update) This particular Handsome Poets shouldn’t be confused with the Dutch pop band of the same name, founded in 2009. Stephen Duffy (still not to be confused with the bloke with the same name out of The Lilac Time and Duran Duran) now plays with That Man Fantastic.

November 1996 – album reviews – Various Artists’ ‘Radio Hepcats’ compilation (“a strong whiff of dark-toned, filigreed, 4AD style introspection… heady, winning underground music”

26 Nov
Various Artists: 'Radio Hepcats'

Various Artists: ‘Radio Hepcats’

Can you can imagine a sort of cross between ‘Friends’ and a pre-job-market ‘This Life’, in which all the characters appear to be played by close relatives of those odd, unclassifiable, button nosed mammals (what the hell were they, then? bear/possum crossbreeds? doughboys?) who got perpetually stuck with the supporting roles in Disney Club comics?

If so, then you’ll have a fair (if reductionist) idea of Martin Wagner’s ongoing graphic novel ‘Hepcats’. Along with its darker and more tragic sister strip ‘Snowblind’, this warm, witty, compassionate and beautifully drawn adult strip – set on the campus of the University of Texas – follows the fortunes of a small group of students (Erica, Joey, Gunther, and Arnie) and their perpetual struggle of balancing friendships and growing maturity with an acceptable level of fun and the freedom to make mistakes. Sounds familiar? In Martin’s hands it’s both recognisable and sparkling.

Currently celebrating a new linkup with Antarctic Press and the consequent release from the headaches and pitfalls of self publishing, Martin’s just expanded the “Hepcats” world by releasing the first in a set of companion CDs: not so much a ‘Hepcats’ soundtrack as just a set of, as Martin puts it, “damn good songs that seem right at home with Erica and the gang.” But if you’re expecting another college beerkeg singalong album, think again.

Despite the tendency of the Hepcats cast to engage in animated chat as opposed to holing up in their bedrooms brooding over a Walkman, there’s a strong whiff of dark-toned, filigreed, 4AD style introspection to this compilation. It’s the tendency of the bands involved to spice their music with a little darkness, a little ornateness: and as a result ‘Radio Hepcats’ is generally closer to the sombre and unsettling shades of ‘Snowblind’ than the lively sun-washed tints of ‘Hepcats’ itself. Green Day’s pogo party this ain’t: it’s more like Ivo Watts-Russell’s children coming home to roost.

Explicitly, sometimes. The Curtain Society‘s waltzing Ferris Wheel has that familiar sound of twangling Cocteau Twins bass and grumbling spiky washes of guitar under the melancholic push-and-pull vocals. More of those queasy, giggling, Robin Guthrie-ish guitars show up on Siddal‘s Secrets of the Blind, a two parter that swings unexpectedly from chirpy drunken-fairy pop into one of those Cocteaus alien piano ballads that dislocate you from your own consciousness.

And if you’ve ever wondered what a troubled hermit’s answer to the arresting, barren grandeur of Dead Can Dance might be like, look no further than Soul Whirling Somewhere. Unhittable – utterly isolated and beautiful darkwave – drifts up as if from the bottom of a well: Michael Planter’s ashy, yearning voice floating out from its shrouds of tolling Joy Division bass and dark persuasive ambience, which caress and pull it down like water saturating the clothes of a drowner. It lulls you with sepulchral beauty while draining the warmth out of the room: you can all but see ice forming on the speakers.

But let’s not nit-pick. Even if the 4AD pointers can sometimes be pretty self evident, this is – at the very least – an album of heady, winning underground music. They might have some obvious forebears, but the bands on ‘Radio Hepcats’ also possess persuasive and seductive sounds, which are especially welcome in the current atmosphere of half asleep indie and heritage Britpop. With The Red Dots, An April March plunge down into their own thunderous take on guitar heavy dream pop with enough force to squish any of their British shoegazer ancestors (Chapterhouse, Slowdive). This stuff rides on a natural internal dynamic as much as on any phaser pedal setting, and coasts in on a dark thrum of guitar as impersonal and unstoppable as a typhoon.

Martin’s offered us the odd surprise, too. Visible Shivers have the sort of name to suggest more of the same chilly darkwave as Soul Whirling Somewhere but prove, in fact, to have the same sort of Southern States nerviness as their near brothers in name, Shudder to Think. Lo-fi country-flavoured twelve-string jangle pop, complete with plaintive harmonica and plonky bass, which on After Glory prances closer to the Appalachian chirp of Robbie Robertson, Dr Hook or ‘Fables…’-era REM than to the stonecarved artiness of much of the rest of the ‘Radio Hepcats’ broadcast. Then there’s William McGinney‘s ‘Hepcats’-themed snatch of filmic lo-fi piano and synthwork, halfway between ‘Knotts Landing’ and Angelo Badalamenti. And to silence any remaining doubts, there’s two more bands on here – the shimmeringly lovely Mistle Thrush and the ever-magnificent No-Man – who transcend genrework altogether.

Mistle Thrush open the CD with a soulful seduction, giving us Wake Up (The Sleep Song). First it curls into our hearts like a gorgeously soporific Julee Cruise ballad, and then suddenly expands into a huge cathedralline Bark Psychosis space where Valerie Fargione’s voice strips itself of anxious sugar and powers up into a huge, majestic Patsy Cline alto, as if the lump in our throats has finally gulped them into a place more fit for their bewitching talents. Further on, No-Man provide two wildly different and divergent contributions: the industrial, near incomprehensible clatter pop of Infant Phenomenon (which powers along on a rattling log drum beat, offensively dirty guitars and gasped, abstract lyrics), and the all embracing Steve Reich-ian trance funk of Heaven Taste; a sweetly slumbering twenty plus minute ambient monster with a bellyful of twinkling lights, sky tickling violin, leviathan Mick Karn bass and perhaps a couple of bites of Chartres Cathedral.

Martin Wagner’s not only compiled a beautifully-paced compilation album, he’s also given much deserved space to a clutch of very under-regarded bands. And the latest activity on the ‘Hepcats’ site suggests that an even more captivating follow-up compilation is on the way. The whole ‘Hepcats’ affair, both on and off record, is looking like a series well worth tuning in to. Cool for cats and everyone else.

Various Artists: ‘Radio Hepcats’
Antarctic Press, RHCD1 (no barcode)
CD-only album
November 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) Long out of-print, rare, and best obtained second-hand. Originally came free with deluxe edition of “Hepcats” #0.
Hepcats online:
Martin Wagner’s Hepcats blog, and online reprints of the original comic at Comic Genesis.
Additional notes: (2020 update) Of the artists on this album, The Curtain Society and No-Man are both still active; Visible Shivers enjoyed a ten year career between 1990 and 2000; Mistle Thrush’s Valerie Forgione was later in Van Elk, while Soul Whirling Somewhere’s Michael Plaster resurfaced in Yttriphie and An April March’s Danella Hocevar later worked as Danellatron. William McGinney has divided his time between film music and academia.


Swoon. /swo͞on/ A verb. To be emotionally affected by someone or something that one admires; become ecstatic. Here are some people and things that make me swoon. #swoon #swoonage

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