Tag Archives: urban frowning

REVIEW – The Four Disorders: ‘Cat Lady/Hell And Hackney’ demo, 2014 (“both dark and breezy”)

21 May

I don’t know much about The Four Disorders, and that’s how they seem to like it. A brief heads-up email arrived about them the other day, but lyrical hints and a single downcast, distracted photo don’t tell me much more than that they’re probably based in Hackney, that they’re a boy/girl duo (Mi-Shan and Joe), and that they’re not big on eye contact.

Mi-Shan and Joe of The Four Disorders (photo © The Four Disorders)

Mi-Shan and Joe of The Four Disorders (photo © The Four Disorders)

There are just two Soundcloud demo tracks so far, both demos. Not quite a secret, not quite a single. There’s a contradictory whiff of reclusive hipster to this (not necessarily a bad thing – I dip into hipsterworld sometimes, and it’s a guilty relief to find someone there who hates self-promotion). What I can glean about The Four Disorders, therefore, comes mostly from their sound, which somehow manages to be both dark and breezy.

Rhythms are closures : minimal drum machine clacks and markers, enough to pump the songs along up-tempo but otherwise just nails holding the box together. Sidelining (or suppressing) the sparse and begrudged clusters of starved, spangly guitar, Mi-Shan offers greyed-out nighthawk pads of budget string-synth. Moods are made or broken on Joe’s upfront bass guitar, which looks and sounds almost as big as he is, whether it’s trudging down the beat with a dour plectrum-hammer or traveling on a supple, pianistic twist of growling melody. Allowing for home-studio roughness, they end up somewhere between Sisters of Mercy (circa the clenched and hooded cynic-rumble of ‘Floodland’) and the brighter, more forgiving dance-pop of Saint Etienne (sprinkling reappropriated, refiltered tints of classic pop sounds over washed-out London suburbs).

Whenever Joe opens his mouth, however, it suddenly turns a bit teenaged-Neil-Tennant. He sings with a similar small-voiced and beady tone – brittle and nasal, watchful and dry. Like Tennant, Joe also wears heartache and reflection as if they were part of the same, wrong jacket; tight and a little irksome. On Cat Lady he sighs, with a hint of exasperation, “I could love you if you drop this nonsense.” Over glum keyboard chords and a chilly, thudding bassline (and with a hint of cocaine weariness), he outlines the stagnant mind games which keep score but eventually lead to nil. “You think you know it all, you think you’ve got my life worked out, you think you see right through me, / but you don’t know me and I don’t want to show you. / You think you’ve got me in a corner, you think you’ve outmanoeuvred me – / but I show you only half the truth / and it cuts me out, it cuts me out…”

With excruciating – and accurate – teenage gawkiness, the song flickers between states and stances. It travels rapidly from poised bleakness (“you think you’re only using me to satisfy you when you need it / I wish that’s all you wanted from me, but I can feel the pain inside you”) to the unwanted sympathy, sincerity and pathos of the schoolyard underdog scratching for love. (“You’re smarter and more popular than me – / it’s true, but I just wish that you could believe it too / and put yourself at ease.”) In its dance of masks and blushes, it feels like a mash-up of Brett Easton Ellis and ‘Waterloo Road’.

That awkwardness, that inability to maintain a fixed pose, seems deliberate: a conscious, complicit songwriter’s choice. On Hell And Hackney, Joe takes on the insubstantiality and self-indulgence of his peers, but even while taking it to task with verbal barbs and jabs, he brings in the rueful tone of the implicated. “Aimlessly we drift, like a frivolous emotion, or a dream that fades into the day / Further round the bend, delirium advances; / we bite the hand that tries to save… / We’re still pretending there’s another life, / parallel and far away.” There’s more fizz to this one, too: counterpointing her blocky keyboards, Mi-Shan fires out digi-gastric hi-NRG gurgles, bell-tones and sub-bass quirks over Joe’s rolling bassline.

Joe, meanwhile, lunges into the malaise to root out the muck, distraction, and confusion. “We’re only alive when we drop out of skies, wash away the compromise, / we’ve nowhere to hide, nothing left inside, forgotten what we’re trying to find… /Sad to say, we wash away the day, / destroying our time. / Cast away, sleepless we lay, /wasting our pride.” As he breaks his own cool surface, skidding vigorously between scold and clarion call, you can almost forgive him for skidding for hideously out-of-tune; especially when he tears a window in the torpid clouds towards the end. “Yes, I know how miserable it seems, / laying blame and thinking of those long-forgotten dreams; / but I hope someday we wake up, laughing at the mire we’ve left behind, / to find it’s not too late.”

Dour tones and duff notes notwithstanding, this has promise: at the very least, I like the idea of a more Gothic spin on Pet Shop Boys. Even if Joe and Mi-Shan still won’t look me in the eye…

The Four Disorders: ‘Cat Lady/Hell And Hackney’
The Four Disorders (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Stream-only demo tracks
Released: 10th April 2014

Get it from:
Stream only on Soundcloud and YouTube.

The Four Disorders online:
Facebook Soundcloud YouTube

REVIEW – Qwestions: ‘Humble Pie’ single, 2013 (“cowering and defiant; brave and fucked-up and lucid”)

14 Feb

Qwestions: 'Humble Pie'

Qwestions: ‘Humble Pie’

“I’m dry-heaving, saying these words with meaning,” gasps Qwestions. Gut feeling. It’s supposed to be at the heart of hip-hop: but in a music of masks, demands and fly-posted signifiers it often gets pasted over.

Too much. There’s too much to represent – too much history and geography to be spat up like fireworks, too many links and hand-holds to be acknowledged, too many objects to count. No wonder that so many rappers rapidly run down and put up the same touchy, predictable façade. No wonder that they turn into mobile billboards flattened of meaning, riding in identical limousines – overwhelmed; turned into nothing but front; still scared of the moment when everything will be kicked out from under them.

As for Chicago MC Qwestions, his desperate, dazzling raps suggest that he couldn’t fall into this two-dimensional lie even if he wanted to. At 23, standing tall and shaking, he’s a man who flinches from masks and who lives on the outside of his skin: tears, confusion, grand-and-ground-standing and all. He’s everything that hip-hop ought to be in its honesty. Here, perched on a clenching, reluctant beat and hunched underneath Mario Anthony’s chilly stratospheric washes of synth (as cold as a 4am January on the South Side) Qwestions is both cowering and defiant; brave and fucked-up and lucid. It’s said that rappers have to grow up fast. Qwestions reminds us that growing up is actually a constant, painful process.

Humble Pie sounds like a man hitting concrete, but knowing that he has no choice but to get up and run on. While Qwestions kicks off with what sounds like a typical brag (“I am the greatest rapper alive – / am I wasting my time / eating this humble pie with a plastic fork and no knife?”), the rap quickly and deftly folds in on itself. It becomes both critique and confession of Qwestions’ life and work, of the compromises which he has to make both as artist and man. Even the mocking drawl of the chorus spins between multiple and revealing mirrors: a boast of being a cut above, a wry acceptance of holding back, of pretense and the wrestle with ego. “You know, you know, you know, / they won’t love you when you know, / you too dope, too dope, too dope, / so I play my role… / I know it’s moving slow.” Even the pay-off line could be aimed as much at himself as at a foe onstage – “Make sure you eat some humble pie before the show.”

Many of the images in Humble Pie revolve around guts, and around the value and terrors of food: the nutrition of work, the unpalatability of being conscious enough to let the world intrude. In his dedication to honesty, Qwestions dares to sometimes be repulsive; dares to be outright with matters of weakness, helplessness and terror . “Vomit all in my kitchen sink – / the nausea gets critical when I start to think,” he moans at one point. “I let my mind drift then my stomach flips. / I guess it is a curse when you born with gifts.” Later, he shoulders his offstage burdens with a mixture of courage and gripe – “The scene changes, but it’s the same script, / I’m trying to be a good father… / I sacrifice all my happiness for a couple of dollars and some pocket lint.”

Elsewhere he’s stepping up aggressively, unsure whether to ball his fists or spread his hands, but stripping his self-assertion to the bones of desperation in a bid to be understood. “Remember life in the hood – why the fuck you think I’m so cocky? / Why you think I try so hard? / Why you think you can stop me?” Even here – and after all of the moans, acidic spits and fear-belches – it’s hard not to like Qwestions. But then, a rapper who shares so much about the human condition is to be treasured.

You just hope that he’s going to make it through. Sometimes he sighs, half-broken even as he delivers: “Am I wasting my time / investing in all my dreams with no moments to recline?… / I just want to lay up, / sleep and never get up.” Meanwhile a nagging, sneering voice slips through the verses; a spiteful ghost flitting in and out of the gaps in the tower blocks. A voice from the back of his head, overturning his brags and hollowing out his talent as fast as he assert it.. “Your little crude knife… / You’ll never eat.” The guts of belief are laid bare: there’s everything to defend, everything to play for.

Qwestions: ‘Humble Pie’
Ingenious Dreams Media Group (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 2nd January 2013

Buy it from:
Soundcloud

Qwestions online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter YouTube

REVIEW – Laughtrack: ‘Amusements’ single, 2001 (“counting the change and failing to come up with comforting answers”)

12 Aug

Laughtrack: 'Amusements'

Laughtrack: ‘Amusements’

Amusements is a majestic but famished slink across rain-dirty pavements in the gaudy heart of town: redolent of grime and darkness, and with disturbed puddles wavering neon reflections at you. A techno dub-groove catwalks its way from start to finish, toying with all the time in the world: whether the wire-wool guitars are beating themselves against it or whether the sound is being gulped away to reveal the skeletal machinery of bass and beat prowling onwards. A thin but insistent vocal hangs at the heart of it: “I can’t tell you no lies / We’re moving into a new kind of life – / a strange new world, a comfort zone / where nobody has to be alone.”

It’s a lyric which almost sounds as if it ought to be bobbling along on top of a corporate anthem: but which, in this context, sounds as if it’s shadowing the giant corporate hands which can pat you on the head in one pass and scoop away your world with the next. “Why have you sold the future, why have you sold the past?” questions the chorus. “Is it for our amusements, ‘cos nothing is meant to last?” Someone’s standing on the edge of the kerb, swaying on their heels, counting the change they’ve been returned and failing to come up with comforting answers.

If the original Amusements resembles a rocked-up ‘Mezzanine’, the Severance mix (done with “avant-hardist” MEME) flings the drums into echoing relief and carves the groove into a zombie stomp, Garbage-style. Grating peaks of sub-bass and further sandstorms of psychedelic guitar crackle somewhere between Chapterhouse, Suicide and Levitation – sleekness savaged into life by noise and interference. No words, but an implacable, forceful indifference. The deal’s done – it’s time to bring out the heavy lorries.

Slide round the corner, and things are different. The torch song atmosphere of Left Standing implies Goth-cum-trip-hop, but also a take on Billy Mackenzie at his most open. It’s the brittle piano chording, that cavernous sway of arrangement around the lamp-post glow of a solitary microphone; the hints of theatrics and sincerity interlocking fingers and squeezing for luck… or in desperation. That said, it doesn’t follow the Mackenzie trail entirely. There’s an absence of helium operatics and peacock posturing. Instead, the almost-buried voice of Joe (Laughtrack’s mastermind) catches at the same blend of clenched unfunky indignation as Roland Orzabal at his most vulnerable; and even breaks at the same preacherly point.

This time Joe’s not mourning a way of life, but a person: and although the burden of grief is shared, the empty space that’s been punched into his life is obvious. Joe sounds exhausted and angry as he confesses “I really don’t care for very much these days, / but the living is easy in a pointless way. / You left us standing, and now everything is hard to say…” Thankfully there are compensations, new reconcilations, new solidarities to be found in the face of it: “I tell my friends ‘don’t be so scared’… / You left us standing, and that’s something we’ll always share.”

It’s Laughtrack’s unease – their sense of huge forces and emotions moving behind the immediate business of life – that draws you back to them. This is dark, luxuriant pop to tease apart with the fingertips and pry into; something that suggests stories in the same way as the more oblique moments of no-man or Smog. And Laughtrack’s simple but oddly unsettling name (raising questions every time you consider it) suggests a writer intelligent enough to be aware of the frame surrounding whatever he does.

As Laughtrack roll away off into the night, they’re being quietly trailed by gumshoes who are after some more answers.

Laughtrack: “Amusements”
Contrary Public, CONTPUB001 (no barcode)
CD-only single
Released: 2001

Buy it from:
Best looked for second-hand.

Laughtrack online:
MySpace

REVIEW – Forty Shades Of Black: ‘Belisha’ single, 1999 (“smudged and ever-so-slightly stifling”)

13 Jul

Forty Shades Of Black rear up with the dirty, sticky, galumphing riffs of Belisha – an elephantine math-rock construction with stubble somewhere that’s annoying it. It lumbers around, red-eyed and furious, tearing a few trees up in fits of fiery rage. It also provides a way for the spiky London post-rockers Delicate AWOL to let off steam (Forty Shades Of Black is basically a handy alter-ego for them when they don’t want to sing).

We’ve met Belisha before, on Delicate AWOL’s ‘Random Blinking Lights‘ EP. Put centre-stage, its grind’n’chop, Mogwai-meets-Ruins sardine-can shapes bang aggressively against your eardrums, and look set to dominate. That is, until the band unveil the smudged and ever-so-slightly stifling sound-painted dreams of the other tracks. These reveal themselves gradually, like disintegrating lacework peeling off an old dressmaker’s dummy.

The soft explorations of Sidings are a post-rocker’s picture of a shunting yard being swallowed by the encroaching dark. Intermittent bass throbs mutter alongside shivering guitar. Caroline’s quiet moans float past alongside feathery passes of brushes on drumskins. Notes slide by, softly massive and indifferent – red lanterns looming out of the darkness. Much less of a reverie, Advanced Formula is as fragile and awkwardly stretched as a crane fly. Spidery math-rock chording scratches out a place to sit: an E-Bowed solo paints a long wavering strip of electric-blue Bill Nelson light across the cloud cover, while the shapes give way to a relaxed out-of-synch swing.

I’ve mentioned before how Delicate AWOL seem hung up on disintegration. This time, watching things decay and fall apart seems somehow satisfying – the return of something to its disassociated elements, instead of the fraying of desires. Whichever is your favourite collapse, inside or out, this band can orchestrate both.

Forty Shades Of Black: ‘Belisha’
day Release Records Ltd., DR102 (no barcode)
7-inch vinyl-only single
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
Long-deleted – try to find this second-hand.

Delicate AWOL (Forty Shades Of Black) online:
MySpace

March 2012 – EP reviews – Vex Ruffin’s ‘Eulogy’ (“kicking the bleached ghost of Martin Hannett”)

15 Mar
Vex Ruffin: 'Eulogy'

Vex Ruffin: ‘Eulogy’

Punk helps you cut loose from your roots. Where you land is your own business. Take lo-fi riser Vex Ruffin, who turns his back on the Californian sunshine of his Chino Hills hometown and dreams himself over the Atlantic to Blighty, to a soggy Stockport or a drizzled Haywards Heath. Once there, he’ll while away the time throwing some deliberately awkward shapes and kicking the bleached ghost of Martin Hannett round a multi-storey car-park.

Back in his real home, Vex is fertile soil with a growing reputation – a onetime Cure fan with a parallel taste for Ruff Riders hip-hop, an anti-technique approach to guitar, and a wide-open yen for discovery and striking scratch-video. Potentially, it’s an interesting combination for creative confusion; especially as he doesn’t appear to be the fringe-dwelling white geek you’d expect, but a bandana-rocking American Asian with a penchant for moody or macabre photocalls (ruling alone on a bench with an intimidating glower, or playing shot-to-death up against a wall). Despite the gangster trimmings, Vex is also an artistic loner, playing with anyone but following no-one, and vocally eschewing scenes.

Strange then, that ‘Eulogy’ should so precisely capture the dank anti-achievement atmosphere of a single scene; English post-punk from the dying days of the 1970s. It’s all there – the rat-scuttle drum-machine sounds and tin-tube vocals; the primitive synth-blipping (from early Mute singles); the street-sweeping snarl-up of half-buried guitar. Even the jittery sheathes of reverb and echo, recalling Hannett’s work with the Invisible Girls and John Cooper Clarke.

Distant and detached, Vex’s voice funnels into the mix as if it’s been blown in with the leaves. The baleful alienation feels like Public Image Ltd. – on Eulogy itself, Vex even declares “I don’t wanna be seen, and isolate myself with your scene…  I don’t want it” in a gruff Jah Wobble growl. But Vex simultaneously goes both further and not so far, archly clipping his thoughts and lyrics down to a bare, bored minimum. On Perfect Congestion he just chants “I don’t want to hear it, I don’t want to hear it.” Even the drumbox blip and cheap synth tang of Secret Weapon (with its hopeful refrain of “You’ll stand, you’ll see”, halfway to a classic cyber-single) sounds like a marching call bleached down nearly to nothing; like five-year-old graffiti traces.

It’s a freebie EP, so perhaps it’s best not to expect the cream. Yet this is bland coming from someone who recently made his name with postcard singles and fired up his restlessness with I’m Creative. OK, the sounds were similar, but this time Vex succumbs to a drizzling disaffection. In Tunnel Vision, Vex toys with a tale of inspiration (“it was late afternoon when I felt the brilliance, and it was truly original,”) but delivers it in a robotic monotone, ending up in a blind-alley moan over a slew of guitar fuzz. For Space Out , he flaunts his Cure fandom in a shambles of punk psychedelia and stair-tumbling drum loops, intoning “I can barely breathe, I need to clear my head, I need to get inspired” in a Peter Sellers joke voice.

I suspect that he’s taking the piss on a grand scale (why call anything ‘Eulogy’ when you sound so fucking bored with it all?) but the joke’s a pretty thin one. There’s something in the tone of this which suggests a smart guy deliberately turning his back. While this leaves a disappointing taste, it’s not quite enough to justify me returning the favour and turning my own: Vex has more in him, but it’s time to start taking some risks.

Vex Ruffin: ‘Eulogy’ EP
Stone’s Throw Recordings (no cat. number)
Free download EP
Released: 9th March 2012

Get it from:
free download from Stone’s Throw Recordings.

Vex Ruffin online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr

February 2011 – album reviews – The Chewers’ ‘Every Drop Disorganized’ (“a couple of junk dogs”)

12 Feb
The Chewers: 'Every Drop Disorganized'

The Chewers: ‘Every Drop Disorganized’

The Chewers thrust their faces, suddenly, out of the forest. They notice your startled expression, but they just cross their eyes at you. They’re not here to entertain you, let alone impress you. They’re sniffing around music, a couple of junk dogs, seeing what they can make of it. There will be bumps and boings: there will be scraps of sudden, enthusiastic remembering. There will be sudden interjections. There will be rather a lot of hammering.

The Chewers are Travis Caffrey and Michael Sadler, a pair of self-confessed West Virginian freaks. Most of what they do involves rudimentary guitar lines which complain like old suspension springs; drums thumped with a bastardized ritual technique; frowning stump-handed bass playing which is too big for the room but too inert to leave it. They sing, after a fashion – usually in a menacing deadpan creak, sometimes in a gruff lobotomized roar. Melodies are torn off, like unwanted paint: they strip everything down to a trapped and surly chug, then filter it through the sound of collapse. Sometimes they leave an electric organ broiling in the corner, add a layer of picked-out piano, or torment a fiddle with skeleton plucks or sawing skids.

These are the kind of tunes that could make a musician forget how to play. Their goofy, deadpan primitivism sounds like drunken mechanics banging rocks together in a Flintstones cartoon; or a couple of bears who’ve set upon and eaten a guy in a one-man-band outfit, then start fumbling at the crumpled instruments to try and get that interesting noise back. We’ve been here before, of course, with The Residents – and a musky, oppressive Residents reek hangs all over The Chewers’ faux-artless art music. At a root level, both bands work with the same kind of sub-technique – deliberately clumsy, deliberately short-sighted, attempting to sneak up on an idiot-savant approach from behind.

Much of The Chewers’ debut album ‘Every Drop Disorganized’ seems to follows a freak-show blueprint. Stirring a greasy canful of satire and nihilism, Travis and Michael are self-confessed cartographers of tiny personal hells. While what can be discerned of their settings, characters and stylings are unmistakeably American, they’re often fairly timeless. They present stark three-line drawings of insanities and self-inflicted rages, or of situations slewing into enmity or a crude revenge. Their Americana is absurd and brutal, part Faulkner and part ‘Gummo’ – the kind of storyscape in which thick-set dungaree’d inbreds drag their own coffins around on leg-chains and where frowning men, preoccupied with guzzling and paranoia, squat guard outside collapsing shacks, broken-down trailers and mouldering gambrel houses.

In fact (as with The Residents), what The Chewers do behind their Muppet voices and smeary, tarry-black humour is less elaborate and even more savage. With American Gothic, there’s some state of aspiration to fall from and some perverse pleasure in the decay. The Chewers, though, deal with lives apparently blunted by ignorance, obsession, violence and inertia from the start. You’re a brute; or a chump; or the target of someone else’s shills and exploitations – and you’re stuck with it. The misanthropic ranting of Human Scum is couched in brown-dwarf rock-and-roll, compressed to a broken stumble of sour fuzz guitar, splattered twang and thunder-drum. “Get your slime out of this house,” one Chewer growls on Get Out Of Town, while half a blues riff tussles with fragments of Dobro slide. “You left many things behind. / None of them was a friend.”

The Chewers clearly enjoy their grim and guttural journey. During breaks in dragging around those hope-coffins, they indulge in short instrumentals, deliberate guitar bungles and instinctual blobs of pick-up-and-play sound-art. The Scooby Doo caveman vocals and berimbau twanging on Who Ra makes that Residents debt even more explicit (it could easily sit alongside the faked rituals and pop-culture gags on ‘Eskimo’). Don’t Go In The Tent offers three minutes of machine pulse, bat-wing bellows-chords and drill-whistles. The Day The Circus Came To Town fools around with Autotune-whooping, kazoos and fiddle scrawls. The Chewers bring an exultation to this part of the work, delighting in the clash of noises.

Much of the music thumbs its nose at American aspiration while revelling in American orneriness and the palpable debris of American life. This makes absolute sense – the other key Chewers influences are those utterly American musicians and songwriters who stick like bones in the throat of their culture. The three Swamp Drag pieces bear the stamp (or stomp) of Tom Waits hobo-music pieces with their wounded marching drum, their dinosaur gronks and busted-suspension riffage, their broken-off stub of tune and the lost, frothing narrator winding his way inwards. Butterknife – with its deadpan sprechstimme and its indistinct, twisting story of marital discontent, murder and kitchen utensils – owes plenty to Frank Zappa .

Two other songs have a fairly explicit Captain Beefheart tang. The evangelism parody of Savior Pill crumbles like ripe old cheese as it lurches along on jazz cymbals and gnarled-up blues: although the lyrics, using the language of oldtime radio hucksters, are more Zappa. “Shouldn’t you have some relief? Call to see if you qualify… / Legs are restless, souls in strife. / Side effects include everlasting life. / Call in ten minutes and you’ll see the light. / Benefits are many, side effects are few – we’ll even throw in a Second Coming.” Beyond its guitar boings and grits-pan clunks, Fire on the Hill stumbles into trek poetry, painting the simple beauty of the outdoors in disconnected swipes and flashes while entwining it with the occult. “Trouble is following me through the long grass… / Voices beside me as I sit near the flames – the horses make noises, they drop through the dark… / Laughing is loud, / the crickets are chirping. / The sky is a dome.”

On the whole, though, Chewers songs are populated by fuck-ups. Convicts stuff their faces; some people fall down wells (where they wait, somewhat indifferently, for rescue), while others wander permanently off the trail. Damaged men sit alone in rooms, propelled into puzzling hallucinations by ringing telephones. The ambitious aren’t spared either. With the grinding punk-slurry riff and monotone delivery of Hollywood Car, Travis and Michael caustically lay waste to dreams of celebrity, reducing them to empty greed. “Rotten soul don’t get old… / Pledge yourself like all the others. / Step over your mom – skin is glossy like a magazine cover… / Smile through your teeth and ignore the poor. / You got your foot in the door. / You’ve had fifteen and you want some more… / Hollywood isn’t a workplace rat-race – / it’s a high-speed chase. / Cut off your nose to spite your face.”

Perhaps where all of this fails a little is in the way The Chewers allow their absurdism thicken into cynicism. Never really presenting their blundering song-characters as anything other than grim entertainment or easy meat, they don’t leave them the option of dignity. There’s rarely any of punk’s indignation; and not even much of Zappa’s frustrated disdain. On Specimen, they play a crude kazoo-laden cha-cha-cha and deliver a one-way story about a man becoming a test animal in a destructive medical experiment. On the strummed, limping lollop of Charlie Chum, they show even less sympathy for their hapless protagonist. “You should have seen this coming” they grunt, as they drawing a muddled, menacing picture of a man who first deceives and then overreaches himself; who “chews his words like cows chew cud… / believes every word he speaks.” Falling foul of the predators, he eventually pays the price – “Charlie Chum has got two hands – / one swats flies, one deals cards. / Deck is cut, game draws blood, / sharks tear Charlie Chum apart.” Travis and Michael, at least, seem to think he had it coming. Despite the murky flourishes, this never rises above the level of chump cartoon, and that’s a shame.

But perhaps I’m being unfair. Even at the very least ,the album’s cartoon-noir tone is enjoyable once you’ve attuned yourself to its sinister creep; and one track – an acapella ode to the joy of pancakes – offers some relief. As The Chewers sing, hiccup, belch and gargle their way through a gamut of American musical trademarks (a blues-grind, some close-harmony doo-wop, a prison song, a Spike Jones fusillade of comedy noises) they also recite a series of cheerfully dumb Bubba-isms in a thoughtful Jimmy Dean drawl. “Life without pancakes is hell on earth, / and I don’t mind my massive girth… / The only difference between beast and man / is – an animal can’t make a cake in a pan… / When they find me bloated in the gutter, / they can cover my coffin in syrup and butter.”

Though they top it off with a particularly dopey and violent twist (“The only way I’ll have my fill / is when they make one good enough to kill,”) it’s somehow an affectionate moment: one in which they embrace their all-American idiot as well as laugh at him. At The Chewers’ jokiest moment it all comes together – the stubbornness and rebelliousness that’s as much a part of Americana as is romance or beauty; the love of homemade noise and of squeezing music out from the pips; the thick’n’tasty bozo parade.

The Chewers: ‘Every Drop Disorganized’
The Chewers (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only album
Released: 6th February 2011

Buy it from:
The Chewers homepage.

The Chewers online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud LastFM YouTube

August 2009 – album reviews – Knifeworld’s ‘Buried Alone: Tales of Crushing Defeat’ (“a dense and complicated thicket”)

24 Aug
Knifeworld: 'Buried Alone (Tales of Crushing Defeat)'

Knifeworld: ‘Buried Alone (Tales of Crushing Defeat)’

Barely two tracks in, and (against a backdrop of spidery chords and distant whistling bird-noise) you can hear Kavus Torabi sigh “way to go – a scream fanfares the notion / that fortune and art don’t make good bedfellows.” He ought to know. Since the early 1990s, he’s fought plenty of tough uphill battles in order to fuel strange, intoxicating and awkward music: eight years of startling psychedelic math-rock with The Monsoon Bassoon and six of dogged multi-jointed expressionism with Cardiacs (plus digressions into latterday Zeuhl, madrigal, folk and chamber rock).

You could have forgiven Kavus if he’d played safe on this first, pseudonymous solo album. As one of those people who knows just how ecstatic and luminous music can become if you have the determination to push and ride it all the way, he’s also learned the hard way about how ambition and application don’t necessarily open the ears of the public – or stop the wheels coming off your band in a shower of sparks. Then again, musicians of his omnivorous and kaleidoscopic nature will never be truly happy rolling around the same well-trodden streets as everyone else.

True to past Torabi form, ‘Buried Alone…’ is a dense and complicated thicket of an album, infested with a riot of ideas: an explosion of technicolour shagginess to set against a rank of forward-sweep Britrock haircuts. Anyone who remember the cyclic romps and the full-tilt joyful roar of The Monsoon Bassoon will find some recognizable DNA in here. Yet if that former band was bottled lightning, then Knifeworld is a far more scattered beast. Standard rock instrumentation clusters, interlocks and spins apart in a glorious swirl of noise: an additional palette of clarinets, toy xylophones, violins and santoors adds wood, spit and rattle to proceedings. Crowded and impossibly animated (with multiple styles rubbing up against each other), the album sounds as if Kavus has ripped off the top of his head and let a decade’s worth of listening and imagination just spill out. Yet everything finds its own step in the dance.

Singled Out for Battery exemplifies the intricate wildness on offer, as shivering walls of electric distortion set off a dancing chorus and fairy-ring reels on recorder, guitar and piano. Hollered psychedelic tabloid headlines cartwheel through the verses and everything builds to the kind of exultant boiling guitar solo that suggests King Crimson and Hendrix dancing together around a ‘Wicker Man’ maypole. Large swathes of the album resemble an unstoppable pile-up in Toytown. Propulsive alt.rock riffery worthy of Pixies, Buzzcocks or Shudder to Think is sandwiched by bursts of staccato chamber music or thorny-backed melodic wanderings reminiscent of Henry Cow. Spindly Syd Barrett mumblings sprawl into unresolved mantras, while multi-angled web-work phrases on acoustic guitar are mown down by breaks of crushing thrash-metal.

In one corner, soft voices lilt mysteriously across a barren heathscape; ecstatic and sinister. In another, a dayglo Latin chant flirts with crunching power riffs, hammer dulcimers and fluting see-saw Mellotron before tangling with a crash’n’burn burst of Nancarrow player-piano. In the middle of it all there’s even a delirious single, Pissed Up On Brake Fluid. Horn-heavy and stuffed full of chart-pleasing hookery, it rampages happily towards indie rock radio entirely on its own terms. It’s about a deal with the devil going embarrassingly wrong; or it’s about failing to beat your own devil; or it’s about pranging your car as a metaphor for life. Kavus fires it straight through the center of the record, like a jaguar through a hoop. It soars past – waving the same catchy, compulsive freak flag as The Monsoon Bassoon’s Wise Guy – and then it’s gone, leaving fiery paw-prints on the swarming musical landscapes which surround it.

Despite all of this wildness and waywardness, you can’t simply write the album off as pure self-indulgence. Although Kavus shuffles all of his elements with the free inspiration, impulsiveness and rough edges of a true experimentalist, he also has the structural suss of a prog-rocker to back it up. His wrestling scatter of ingredients ultimately fall into patterns that make sense, however eccentric. On The Wretched Fathoms, jazzy woodwind slashes force themselves onto a lurching tune and drag on the beat like grappling-hooks. Open childlike melodies are mounted atop Corpses Feuding Underground: but underneath it’s restlessly shucking its way through shifting ground and moods, fitting in rockabilly guitar grumbles and brass parps as it does so.

As you might have guessed by now, ‘Buried Alone…’ isn’t an easy listen. Nor, despite the ambition and diversity of its strong medicine, is it all that it could be. Towards the end the album bellies out into a string of uneasy warped dirges which don’t quite match the inventiveness of earlier tracks. Yet this is also the most genuinely psychedelic rock album in ages, and one of the very few psychedelic albums which genuinely deserve the title. Rather than losing himself in noodling out aural wallpaper for stoners, Torabi offers up a succession of yawing mind-flickers which weave between thought, dream and reality as much as they do between styles.

The battered, urban feel of the album – suggesting stretches of blasted fox-ridden scrub ground between Hackney tower blocks, untended bomb-sites and smog-smeared children’s playgrounds – only adds to this. In the gaps between (and within) songs, ominous sounds filter through: the caw of a raven, leaking water, booms of collapse, and distant sirens from hunting police cars. Then there are the lyrics: on first hearing, an obscure word salad sung in earnest, artless tones by Torabi and guest singer Mel Woods (from Sidi Bou Said). Picking deeper into them – past the twirl and bounce of the music and the witty, tongue-in-cheek dips into outright bafflegab – and you find the corpse in the bathtub, a raw web of terrors and regrets rising to the surface.

That hammy album title isn’t just there for a joke. Across the record, there are seeded references to “broken hands”, friends who “hide real agendas in the sidings”, or the terrible phone call that tells you “there’s been an accident.” Corpses Feuding Underground jitters over the fragility of relationships, with unresolved threats looming from both above and below ground, from both the living and the dead. Kavus frets about the return of claustrophobic “clammy horror”, mutters “I’ve buffer-zoned my friends, shut the family out” and wonders aloud “is it vibrations what make us tick over, / or is shrugging doubt, death pulling hard at your cuff?” On No More Dying, over a panicked rotisserie of New York minimalism (computerized piano edge and pulsing Philip Glass clarinets) he wails “all my friends, one by one, sever their correspondence.” The same energy that fires up the album has its flipside in the paranoia which shakes things to pieces. On the swaybacked Severed Of Horsehoof, an exhausted Mel seems almost to have given up. “Just go to sleep,” she sighs, resignedly. “I wish I could…”

Throughout ‘Buried Alone…’, there seems to be a recurrence of the same “be-he-alive-or-be-he-dead” uncertainty that’s also soaked its way, from the beginning, through the work of Cardiacs. A visceral confusion, which ends up rendering Knifeworld’s patchwork of song more vital. Perhaps it’s due to a conviction that whatever life there is – with all of its nightmares, random churnings and visits from the dark side – it is (or has been) precious. “Oh, we dazzled when we were alive” muse Kavus and Mel together on Torch. On the final champing swirl of Me To The Future Of You, Knifeworld’s vision of Armageddon is suffused with acceptance and love. “When oceans earn the right to dry up / and stars have fallen earthward by the score. / Ah the end reeks of familiar, of ever after me to you… / Lips and lids are closing, it’s alright.”

It’s peace, of a kind: an admission and demonstration that our peculiar battles do have meaning in the end.

Knifeworld: ‘Buried Alone: Tales of Crushing Defeat’
Believer’s Roast, BRR 002 (5060078526074)
CD/download album
Released: 17th August 2009

Get it from:
Genepool, Burning Shed or Bandcamp

Knifeworld online:

Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

June 2004 – live reviews – The Cox Cruise @ MV King Arthur, floating along the River Severn, Gloucestershire, early summer 2004 (featuring Earnest Cox, Ghosting, Charlie Says, Michael J. Sheehy & Paddy McCarthy of St Silas Intercession, Datapuddle) (“a self-propelled music bash”)

30 Jun

All we can see outside in the dark are moving, ghostly fronds – foliage bleached by the passing light spilling from our boat, nodding in the gusting winds above the lap of water. We’re on the river at night. We can’t see where we’re going, and we’ve entrusted our safety to a group of people with the seedy, ingratiating collective name of Earnest Cox. Things look bleak.

“It’s ‘Nam, man!” some joker screams suddenly. “Charlie’s out there, and he don’t surf! We’re all gonna die, man!”

He’s greeted by laughter. It’s all far, far too English for any of that: those nodding leaves we’re passing are in quiet Gloucestershire, and the River Severn isn’t winding us towards the heart of darkness… not unless Bristol’s having a really bad Saturday night. The double-decker boat we’re riding – the MV King Arthur – has been hired from the National Waterways Museum, and in under four hours we’ll have looped back to its safe berth in Gloucester. On the way, we’ll be enjoying a self-propelled music bash featuring the aforementioned Coxers and a little circle of related bands from Gloucester and London. There’s even a raffle. Cosy.

Had we set out a little earlier in the summer, and during the day, it would have been picnics and beer all round by now. As the red and gold lights of a jolly riverside pub bob past like a luminous Johnny Walker bottle, it’s clear that any actual weirdness will need to be handled by the bands. Crammed onto chairs on the makeshift band stage wedged into the top deck, Datapuddle do what they can. Alex Vald (who once played filthy guitar for Dream City Film Club) cradles an electric mandolin across his chest like a sulking cat. When not distractedly plucking and strumming at it as if he were plucking a chicken, his hands dart restlessly towards a litter of electronic gizmos on a table: a virtual theremin, a cheap sequencer, a plastic voice-changer and other bits of toy-box guts. Stephen Huddle plays sketchy acoustic guitar and pushes broken murmurs and mumbles of song up into Alex’s cobwebs of sound.

Datapuddle at The Cox Cruise

Datapuddle at The Cox Cruise

What ultimately emerges is a lo-fi cat’s-cradle of strung-together and slightly strung-out elements. Tidal dub; debris and dusty notes swept out of an Irish-American bar; bits of memory and reaction scattered like dandruff – all glued by static electricity and misfiring synapse energy to the guitar strings of a long-fried singer-songwriter. “Here’s a little sea shanty,” says Stephen brightly. A water-blip of electronics merges with a Lloyd Cole chug of guitar, rocking it on its rhythmic base. Alex buzzes a harmonica into an overlapping backwards loop, transforming it into a reversed melodica.

On the next song, trip-hop snare-drum smoke merges with psychedelic space whisper like the first skunked-out collision between Portishead and Hawkwind. Alex’s mandolin maintains a relentless, disappearing clang like a freight train bell, while Stephen mutters like Tom Waits ruffled from deep sleep. Peril – another shaggy-dog shanty written especially for tonight – namechecks the Severn amidst its steam-train chunter of knocks, old-school electro breaks, and harmonica rasps. “Don’t buy the brown acid,” Stephen sings, channelling up the confusion of a different party as ours sways cheerfully along the river.

Datapuddle come to a purring end with lashings of electric theremin wibble and a lengthy musical chew on a genuine melodica which has surfaced from their box of battered goodies. Watching them was like watching someone scrabble a shack together out of estuary trash and flotsam. In its way, it was just as raw and triumphant.

Paddy McCarthy & Michael J. Sheehy at The Cox Cruise.

Paddy McCarthy & Michael J. Sheehy at The Cox Cruise.

While the upstairs audience return to conversation and shore-spotting, Michael J. Sheehy and Paddy McCarthy are down below decks mopping up the leftovers (along with any beer that’s available). Cuddling a pair of honey-blonde acoustic guitars, the brothers from St Silas Intercession (and, previously, Dream City Film Club) have wedged themselves into a corner to hammer out rough’n’ready London-Irish punk blues as brutal as paving stones and hard-luck sneers. Eventually they’re joined by a wandering harmonica player and by a growing crowd of boozy party stragglers. Before too long, the corner turns into an enthusiastic trash-music shebeen (staggered over the changeover times between the acts upstairs) during which everyone’s treated to rattling, spat-out’n’spattered takes of the songs from the debut St Silas EP, starting with the vicious roar of You Don’t Live Here Anymore.

St Silas Intercession’s music is a London echo of the brutally direct and bluesy garage noise still spilling out of Detroit (and all of the little Detroits that have sprung up in the wake of Jack White or The Dirtbombs). Venomous as a dirty flick-knife and as blunt as masonry nails, it’s some way down the evolutionary tree from the corrupted sophistication of Sheehy’s recent songwriter albums, or even from the trawling sleaze of his old work with Dream City Film Club. Obviously the man himself couldn’t give a shit about all that: judging by the twinkle in his eyes and in Paddy’s, as they face each other off over sprawling riffs and hollers, they’ve rarely been happier with their music than now.

Paddy McCarthy at The Cox Cruise.

Paddy McCarthy at The Cox Cruise.

The brute-blues meanness of Get My Share has a good hard whiskey sting to it; as does the defiance of Caravan Rock (“me and my kids and their mum, / living in a caravan, moving on, moving on…”). A lacerating spurt through All About The Money sets people bobbing, scrambling and bouncing as well as a seven-and-a-half foot deck ceiling will allow. But as Paddy’s permanent goofy cartoon grin indicates, the St Silas brothers never take themselves too seriously. “It’s always about the money!” Michael protests, through a cheap megaphone. His voice suddenly jumps tracks from Louisiana bawl back through his London grit to an ‘EastEnders’ stage-Cockney. “You sla-a-a-g!”

Back upstairs, a dirty blonde in a cute plush cap is hammering a comradely nail into Mr Sheehy’s coffin. “Michael slags me off in his songs, and I slag him off in my songs,” explains Charlie Beddoes. Then she bowls us the rapaciously scornful putdowns of Vitriolic Alcoholic which kerb-kicks a snarling addict with a series of offhanded verbal wallops, culminating in “do I look like I give a toss? / It’s not my problem, not my loss.” It’s good to have friends.

The determined, diminutive Charlie is both the figurehead and the core of the shifting cult-of-personality that calls itself Charlie Says. Tonight, they’re three boot-babes and a moll-boy. Backed up by sidekick Ben Fisher’s car-crash guitar and by Lian and Kim Warmington’s ice-diva backing vocals and cool basilisk stares, Charlie plucks a remarkably articulate bass, sings like a breezeblock with lipstick and thuds out middle-weight girlpunk. Not short of charisma, Charlie holds the audience in the palm of her hand. The trouble is, she then rolls them around as if she doesn’t quite know what to do with them.

There’s a big difference between true punk and mere punk-ertainment, and Charlie Says wander a bit too close to the latter end of the scale. While Charlie’s former background in hip-hop art-rockers Rub Ultra is promising, discovering that both she and Ben are recent refugees from the touring band of tech-rocker Martin Grech pokes some suspicious holes in their lo-fi rebel stance. It just makes their music seem a little contrived. Not that the songs always help: It’s All About The Music is just another me-and-my guitar anthem, and Hey Leadfinger, Why You Gotta Keep Putting Me Down? is a foray into garage-blues which is far less interesting than its title is.

What pulls the band up out of fun-punk poseur-world are Charlie’s bright flickers of blunt humour and determination. The girlpower swagger of Venus Envy suddenly flings out “if the balls are in our court, then at least we have some,” while This Is Not My Story claims “whichever way it lands, my heart will keep on beating.” Little gems of lead-pipe wit and guts like this are what will make Charlie Says special; not desperate attempts to hitch onto whichever punk or garage soul flits past next. For the rest of the evening, I see Charlie perched here and there around the boat – beaming with life, always as if on the verge of delivering another breezy wisecrack. Let’s have more of that.

For all their efforts, Charlie Says don’t make me want to riot. Ghosting do… but I’d be rioting on their behalf. Five more minutes of hearing boozy party blabber drown out their beautiful, beautiful songs and I’d be flinging bottles around myself. Ghosting are heartbreakingly soft – as vulnerable and resilient as fresh grass bending underfoot. Unlike any other band this evening, they create little pockets of pure songcraft which you need to crane your head into to find out what’s going on.

Upfront, Dan Pierce picks out gentle acoustic guitar arpeggios which ride up into the atmosphere like thermals, and lets his voice follow suit. In the corner, wedged into a little cage of half-drumkit, laptop and miniature keyboard, George Moorey handles the rest. Intent and anxious-looking, he peers at his screen like a nervy microbiologist watching a virus proliferate. In fact, he’s just making sure that the sounds arrive on time – making tiny triggering adjustments to a mouse, reaching out one hand to roll off a gentle peal of Blue Nile piano, or swivelling to make precise soft taps on cymbal and snare with the single drumstick he holds in his other hand. It’s like watching someone play a one-man-band suit and conduct an orchestra at the same time. Yet even more impressive than this deft and diffident juggling act are the way Ghosting’s songs pool in the atmosphere – gradually, quietly filling up the space.

Dan’s big genial frame contains a songwriter’s spirit of rare and seductive delicacy. Faced with a chattering crowd, he simply shifts his guitar in his hands and sings soft, warm and open… and slowly the chatter drains away as the spell begins to work. Gently, Ghosting explore topics spanning all the way from frayed love songs (Your Love Don’t Make Sense) through thoughtful disillusion all the way to ending up being fingered as a murder suspect (Someone At The Door). Hopefully not as a natural progression – but if it was, you’d suspect that they’d’ve illustrated even that story with colossal and convincing sensitivity.

By the time Ghosting are midway through the exquisite, naked plea of I Want You To See Me, the crowd is hushed and half of them are hooked. Dan’s flexible and heartfelt singing – mostly a feather on tremulous breath, but rising to a swoony peak of intensity – sometimes recalls Mike Scott or Robert Forster at their very softest. In a fey, English, breathy way, he even has flashes of the fluttering abandonment of a Van Morrison or an Aaron Neville. Like them, he’s singing songs of real people grasping out at the intangible – unsure of what to believe on Anything That Might Be True, or “waiting for the one thing which really might have been some help,” on Good Year, only to wait in vain. Intangible desires, tangible heartaches. They’ll probably rise like damp rather than rockets, but I suspect that within a few years Ghosting will be very important to a lot of people.

Having put the whole cruise together in the first place, Earnest Cox get a well-deserved heroes’ welcome once they arrive onstage. They respond with perhaps their most energetic and assured set to date. It’s the third or fourth time I’ve caught the Cox, over a time when I’ve watched their sturdy intelligence getting to grips with lacing together their multiple influences. It’s taken a while for their mixture of old Memphis R’n’B, ’60s lad-rock, ’80s indie textures and prowling street poetry to gel.

Tonight it does with a vengeance. Hello Stranger sweeps out of the gate with a swagger of rogue testosterone coupled with a smart and beady eye, as Cox singer La Windo immediately takes on the audience with his particular blend of strut and twice-burned wariness. Perhaps it’s recent honeymoon rejuvenations or perhaps it’s the side effects of squabbling over their current recordings, but Earnest Cox are smouldering tonight. Still looking like a disparate houseful of mature students (the band’s a bewildering range of types from motherly to mysterious, from rogue to stockbroker) they continue to draw on what’s in them already rather than trying to squeeze themselves into an image.

The rhythm section used to be little more than agreeably white’n’slightly-funky: now it’s moving towards a lubricious slippery groove, with bass player/occasional MC Simon abandoning cheese and cheeriness to join drummer Shane in seriously flexing the pocket. Nicola parachutes in flights of piano, springs of Booker T. Hammond organ or splurges of synth when she needs to, while Marc buries himself in the middle of the band, cooking up lightly-textured mats of funky guitar texture to fly blurs across the gaps.

Up front, where you’d expect to find a preening Rod Stewart lookalike, La continues to prowl like a Gloucester merging of Shaun Ryder and Lou Reed, delivering his narratives of edgy small-town life like the most restless man in the pub and shaking his percussion as if testing the heft of a throwing knife. He looks pretty handy: yet the Cox don’t exactly trade on casual violence, even when La hurls out scathing fighting talk on You’re Not Fit To Lick (The Shit From My Shoes).

Rather, they seize on restlessness in general, whether it’s randiness, boredom, the unease as your parents age towards death, or the bumps in love’s road. There’s swagger, vengeance and one-upmanship aplenty in songs like Two Can Play At That Game, Baby and Scratching The Same Old Itch: yet in spite of this Earnest Cox’s songs are about survival if they’re about anything. No More Happy Endings treads the ashes of hopes and securities with the dogged, battered trudge of someone who’s had the knocks, has sagged, but won’t go down yet.

The Cox’s musical cockiness almost makes them part of that line of lad’s bands dipping in and out of pubs, taverns and speakeasys (and finally Royal Command performances). Yet the way the bruises on the songs never entirely fade (and the way that La quietly retreats into himself, gaze distracted, mid-song) hints at a band who’ve accepted, even embraced, the dragging baggage of personal history rather than saturating themselves in adolescent posing. Marc’s refusal to play the role of the strutting guitar stud (keeping his back almost entirely turned to La and the audience as he brews up his noises) confirms it and heightens the internal dignity beyond the Cox’s miscellaneous looks.

Perhaps it’s this mixture of getting by, getting on and getting on with it even within limited horizons that makes Earnest Cox local heroes on the Gloucester scene. The familiar tastes of that stew of pop ingredients they serve it up with, plus their band’s anti-glorious English universality and their bumpy everyman charisma should win them friends around the country, whether or not they bring their boat with them.

As the Cox set hits its climax, we look up and find ourselves back in the Gloucester lock. Hometime, Charlie.

Datapuddle online:
Homepage TwitterMySpace Bandcamp LastFM

Michael J. Sheehy online:
Facebook MySpace LastFM

Miraculous Mule (what Sheehy/McCarthy/St Silas Intercession did next) online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud LastFM

Charlie Says online:
Homepage

Ghosting online:
Homepage MySpace Bandcamp

Earnest Cox online:
MySpace

MV King Arthur online:
Homepage

2000 – EP reviews – Empty Vessels’ ‘Empty Vessels’ EP (“uptight urban fuck-up music”)

14 Jul

Empty Vessels: 'Empty Vessels' (demo cassette, 2000)

Empty Vessels: ‘Empty Vessels’ (demo cassette, 2000)

Perhaps I was spoilt by the absolute flamboyance of David Devant And His Spirit Wife (a band of music-hall performance artists in Britpop camouflage, fronted by another Vessel) but I initially found Empty Vessels a bit underwhelming. Billing themselves as a “breakbeat/guitar soundclash”, I was expecting to be walloped around the head with seething snare cracks, to have my arse booted by kick-drum hits and my ears burned by electric wailings (all in a comfortable metaphorical way, mind). I was expecting festival style-ee-ee expansiveness. A sort of Asian Dub Foundation that had been gutted and stripped out, but were still rustling defiantly.

But Empty Vessels are less of a soundclash than a crowded minibus jammed with noises. They sound as if they do their recording in one of those tiny closets in Islington that estate agents try to flog to people as homes… or maybe in the cupboard of one of those closets. The usual claustrophobia of sped-up drum’n’bass-style breakbeats could only be amplified by these cramped, super lo-fi recordings; all skinny and vertical, never laying out when they can tense up. The sort of music inspired by hunching up and listening to hoarded CDs rather than by losing oneself on a sweaty, body-heavy dancefloor. Beat-science with a home chemistry set…

Nicotine is an unfortunate starter: neurotically trapped rushes of synth bass, shrill Killing An Arab-style guitar licks through budget fuzztones, and some pug-dog yelping courtesy of a bloke who sounds like Steve Harley forcibly bundled into a filing cabinet. Skip it for Chew-Up, a smarter shot in which all the beats are turned up and a careening sub-bass runs away with the foundations. Here the fuzzy shoulderings of guitar are a relief from the needling drums. The voice runs like a mumbling rat, complaining but flicking from rhythm to rhythm, and you find yourself wanting to catch on to what it’s ranting about. Empathising too much with your own sampler, it seems. “Chewing up experience, and chewing up experience… / It’s mine! It’s mine! / I acquire.”

Empty Vessels sound best when they don’t sound in control, when they’re running after their technology like it’s the last bus out of town. Sneering Face is one of those intriguing accidents that happen when you have white guys playing gladiatorial black dance music, desperately and unsuccessfully trying to get around their own whiteness, and ending up somewhere else entirely when they fail, sounding pretty liberated for it. While it starts as a wayward attempt at speed rapping (invaded by psychedelic space guitar echo), Empty Vessels have decided to fuck it all off about two-thirds of the way in and go for the ridiculous. Creaky vocal interjections that belong in Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop (“I – ought to teach them a leh-sson!”), seasick bloots of guitar, falsetto operatics wobbling in the background. The sort of vandalism that suggests they meant to do it from the start.

Uptight urban fuck-up music. Tower-block friendly. Angry summer sounds for days when none of your clothes seem to fit. I can’t say I like this, but it’s successfully sneaked into my curiosity field.

Empty Vessels: ‘Empty Vessels’ demo cassette
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Cassette-only demo
Released: 11th June 2012

Buy it from:
The original cassette is long gone, although it was possibly reissued as a Peoplesound CD single which might be available second-hand. These three tracks have since been resurrected on ‘Empty Vessels 1‘, available from Bandcamp

Empty Vessels online:
Homepage BandcampYouTube

November 1999 – album reviews – Sneaker Pimps’ ‘Splinter’ album, 1999 (“half in love with the idea of beautiful corpses and wanton failures”)

5 Nov

Sneaker Pimps: 'Splinter'

Sneaker Pimps: ‘Splinter’

Smack.

Its presence ghosts off this record like chill off the sea. The more you listen, the more obvious it gets; the more appropriate it seems. Twelve songs about different levels of letdown – alienation and betrayal; shortfall and disgust, “high fives and corporate anthems” – but always, always possessing an ability to be lifted above it; to float in a strange and tragic euphoria in which pain and torment are overwhelmed. A rush of transcendent languorous bliss while the mind hovers above, intact and unmarked.

Even if Sneaker Pimps weren’t so candid about backstage recreation (or didn’t drop lyrical hints like “my aim’s so weak that I’d fail to get into my arm”), you can’t escape the fact that their second album is a heroin album par excellence. Admittedly, a smarter and more professional brand of smack music – no William Burroughs squalor, no Needle Park lowlife. The spike goes in beside a penthouse window, lying on a sleek leather couch; no dust on the floor. But then, as a pop group, Sneaker Pimps always seemed far too smart for the daytime shows and MTV gladhandings.

Well, some of them did. I saw an Sneaker Pimps interview in which Kelli Dayton – their original Goth pixie-ette singer – sat flirting and babbling on a sofa, flanked by Chris Corner and Liam Howe. When not answering their own questions, with a cool intelligence, they observed her with the bored and slightly amazed looks of gentleman experts faced with a posturing child. The hapless Kelli isn’t part of Sneaker Pimps any more. She’s been dropped out – as if via hidden trapdoor – or simply excised.

For ‘Splinter’, Chris Corner glides forward like Dracula to take over the mic. His slackly sensual looks (young Johnny Thunders and Ronnie Wood, with a wild crow’s nest of dyed-black hair) lounge all over the artwork of ‘Splinter’, much as his lisping, artfully-forlorn whisper floats ahead of the music’s tide. Perhaps it’s just extra clarity – with Kelli no longer an oblivious mouthpiece – but ‘Splinter’ feels like cresting a roller-coaster. A swelling build of dawning clarity, darker- toned, which sets you up for the plunge.


 
‘Splinter’ is also the most seductive pop record I’ve heard in a long time. Not coy winks or overblown soul-boy mating calls, not even on the acid-coated, Suede-stinging-Cameo-to-death stamp of Ten To Twenty. This is a more abstract seduction, the lure of rich fabric, sweet smoke or smouldering looks. It’s born not just from the unveiling of secrets but from Liam Howe’s shockingly opulent backdrop. Creamy, orchestrated synths and samplers traced with beautifully disturbing sound. Pianos echo, fretful in the cavernous dark. ‘Omen’ choirs or wailing-wall chants lunge out at Chris, trying to lassoo him. Small slivers of Oriental melody glitter in the fabric, and beyond the luscious trip-hop grooves eerie Bernard Hermann strings are trembling, bursting, warning. Female singers, disturbingly blank, shadow Chris’ pinched tones.

The whole album’s in a state of sensual motion, like restless waters or billowing tapestries. As for mood and motif, it’s always ominous – always half in love with the idea of beautiful corpses and wanton failures; with sultry sicknesses and the bloody romance of despair. Kelli or no Kelli, there’s always been a Goth undercurrent to Sneaker Pimps (and not just because the industrial-tinged, reverberant rock of Superbug also has a distinct tang of The Mission). When Chris sings “strike me down, give me everything you’ve got. / Strike me down, I’ll be everything I’m not,” on Lightning Field, he sounds bright-eyed, waiting for the lash.


 
For Half Life’s liquid, trembling swirl of pianos and ghost orchestras, Chris muses at the syringe or at the lover he’s failing with – “half life wastes before it goes – / it’s funny how your bee-sting touch never leaves me whole. / It’s not enough to stay here, almost trying. / You kept your last laugh, watch this dying.” On the magnificently disdainful, disgusted ‘Low Five’ he delicately spits back corporate language and schmooze-talk with savage grace – “Kite-marked for true low standards / where more wants all and no less. / Just change with no real progress… / I’m a low five downsize no-one else. / Do you love yourself?”

Bad relationships. With the biz, with the needle or with girlfriends – all three bleed together in Sneaker Pimps’ crafted disaffection. Only on Cute Sushi Lunches does this seem brattish, as Chris sneers “nineteen steps out from under your feet. / Can’t eat, won’t eat… / Hate like a child hates his hair cut,” and the instruments obstruct each other, stubbornly refusing to gel… but not quite enough to derail the song.


 
It’s a suspect confessional, a cunning blind to absorb attack while Sneaker Pimps slip the rest of the album past your resistance. The worm-turning cruelty of Curl, popping with funk under its lustrous ballad verses, stung by zithers and pulsating psychedelic grind – “I curl to break consent… / and I curl now to help me find you out.” And the little thrusts and revelations like “never compromise – you’re just always weak”; “it takes too much to please me – / attached but no real feeling,”; and (most killingly) “failure was on me, / but your ideals bore me.” All of it wrapped in that dark and dreamy music.

Beyond the sensual overkill – that luxuriant death-by-soundtrack – the rich nightlife sounds are sometimes folded away in favour of small rooms dominated by Chris’ spider-legged acoustic guitar. Flowers And Silence is the most explicit trip to the shooting gallery. Skeletal slow jazz waltzing among the radar blips somewhere between Scott Walker and John Lydon, moth-wing vibrations of synth, and a dry-mouthed Chris murmuring “she’s nowhere, she mainlines, / helps me out – now I can speak… / So nothing’s free. / Ghost-drunk, out of reach.”


 
Behind the dogged strum and distant alarms of Destroying Angel, strings slither down – blood trickling across a window – while Chris turns in the most sinister performance on the record. “The stones beneath the water that you walk on to be taller, / the hands you stuck together ‘cos you prayed you’d wait forever,”, he whispers, picking apart a dying affair full of desperate power games and scams, and ruthlessly stripping it away from himself, right down to the tattoos (“the words beneath my skin / the ink that you put in, / destroying all the things you left around.”). There’s torch music on Empathy Low – as well as a rich sleazy purr of double bass – but if so it’s torch reduced to clammy ashes, as Chris stares into the recesses of his soul and finds them disturbingly bare. “Proves herself to be closer, / but not me forever, not me… / My memory’s so / Empathy low.”


 
And there’s Splinter itself, the guitar zinging and slapping while things prowl in the shadows – growling, creaking double bass, moaning and scraping; boiling, ghostly noises from Liam Howe’s black boxes. Then there’s Chris, flint-eyed and flint- voiced – “Does it take the fireworks to make you look in wonder? / Would you give reaction to the cause I’m under? / So coloured by you, but your monkey messed it up – / surrounded by you, your monkey’s long-while had enough.” If David Sylvian had stayed in London, corrupted by the smoke and cynicism, he might have ended up this sleekly poisonous: enveloped in beautiful, cultured ambient sound and existential melancholy, but honing a small silvery sleeve-dagger for the right moment.

The final song – Wife By Two Thousand – could be a subway busk, with one of Chris’ faceless women singing back at him from further down the tunnel. A draught sucks at it, pulling Liam’s subliminal buzzes and celesta clinks away into the oblivious sounds of a crowd. While Chris strings phrases from I Can Sing A Rainbow into the chorus (as if trying to get back to childhood assurance), the song’s an attempted seduction, in spite of everything that’s gone before. Chris is playing the vulnerable card this time, with a cynical, pleading desperation. “Never so complete, just failing on its feet… / I think that I need working on, so work on me / I feel that nothing’s getting though, so get to me.”


 
But the last we hear of him is a nonchalant nothing-can- hurt-me whistle. He’s disappearing into the city with his bag of secrets closed up again, leaving you to make your guesses. The kind of doomed, fascinating bastard whom your eyes still follow, and whom your hands reach out to in spite of yourself. Damn.

Trust a junkie? Never. But they can be as compelling as their habits.

Sneaker Pimps: ‘Splinter’
Clean Up Records Ltd., CUP 040CD (5029271004024)
CD/download album
Released: 25th October 1999

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