Tag Archives: Vaughan Simons

In memory of Vaughan Simons, 1971-2018

5 Dec

Vaughan Simons...

Vaughan Simons…

Sometime around the end of October, Vaughan Simons died.

I didn’t see it coming. As for Vaughan, he said that he didn’t want memorials, wakes or get-togethers. I’m finding it impossible to comply with all of that. For all of the self-erasing bluster we sometimes put out in our darkest moments, few of us can simply dissolve into the murk of other people’s forgetfulness after we die. Vaughan certainly won’t.

Probably many of you reading this won’t have heard of Vaughan. He won’t be on any of the end-of-year obituary lists of the great and good, or of the famous. If you have heard of him, most likely you’ll be one of the friends I’ve directed here… or you may, long ago in the mists of the late 1990s, have read one of his reviews in ‘Misfit City’. If so, you’ll been have scrolling through reams of clumsy HTML in order to alight upon one of his confections of barbed sugar, bile and forward-looking conviction.

If Vaughan were still here, he’d downplay any credit, but he was very much the ‘Misfit City’ co-founder. In the early days, while it was me who was driving the project, writing most of the material and doing much of the legwork, it was Vaughan who was ensuring that I was less lonely while doing so. Vaughan also played a big part in shaping the incipient webzine’s tastes, and its spirit of enquiry. He lifted some of my obsessive blinkers, gently challenged some of my own unacknowledged conservatism, opened a window or three. If you’re a regular reader, or you’re becoming one, much of what you probably like about ‘Misfit City’ is built on Vaughan’s efforts and encouragement.

I first met Vaughan in 1990, when both of us were new arrivals at the University of Hull. I was a Londoner, he was a West Country boy. Both of us were a little ill at ease in this battered city resting where east England shades into north England: out on its stalk of railway line, miles from anywhere much; a place where Northerners and Midlanders seemed so much more at ease, with their accents and outlooks settling better into the Humberside atmosphere. Vaughan and I had both shown up there looking for some kind of redemption or vindication: initially on the Drama course we both attended. Both of us being serious, thin-skinned people with a tendency to cover our fear with sardonic wit, we never quite figured out the rhythms and cues of a Hull social life.

This was one of the things that bound us. Another, in a jumpy and uneasy way, was music.

Again, we weren’t coming from the same place. I was formed from a background of musical theatre, classical, the pop I’d absorbed from years of independent library raids, and the extended palette of jazz and prog rock. Vaughan was more of a staunch indie-rock man. This was partially due to an affinity with that Lou Reed aesthetic, and partly due to close exposure to (and shoulder-rubbing with) arty indie strivers from his Yeovil hometown: The Becketts, The Chesterfields and Automatic Dlamini, the latter featuring future art-rock mainstay John Parish and a fledgling Polly Harvey. By the time I got into higher education, few people seemed to care all that much about music as something to listen to, something to think about. Vaughan was an exception.


 
The opportunities for clash and camaraderie were there from the start. During our first year, Vaughan and I would occasionally huddle opposite each other in our respective rooms, grumpily playing each other cassettes. Our sessions were sometimes aggressive, often temperamental: two lonely would-be tastemakers falling over each other’s feet, finding each other’s taste inexplicable. Notably, I tried to get him into Yes – the attempt was one of several five-second failures which I’ll not bother to list. But Vaughan, in turn, exposed me to Pixies, the nagging ennui of Bleach, the disillusioned angst of Furniture, bits of The Fall; my first dose of My Bloody Valentine’s holocaust guitar; the first fumblings into the Velvets and Lou Reed records I’d somehow missed as a teenager.

For what it’s worth, when we did reach a consensus it wasn’t entirely a matter of me being schooled. For instance, we reached a point of agreement over mid-’70s King Crimson (whose barrage of rattling noise, violin drone and gnarly guitar got through Vaughan’s resistance) and when I countered MBV’s microtonal pitch-bending hallucino-pop with the tonal guitar swerves of David Torn. As for me, I gradually absorbed what Vaughan was bringing to the table, and as I held onto my roots but expanded my tastes indiewards (into the likes of The House of Love, the rare-bird shimmer of Cocteau Twins and the classical-industrial sampler bombast of The Young Gods), we came more into line.





 
By then, of course, we’d become mutually accepting, mutually supportive friends, doing what we could to back each other up. Beyond the cassette sessions, there wasn’t much more music during this part of the tale. The story of our theatre work is probably best told some other time. We did once pitch in together for a cabaret cover version of Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus (Vaughan as a bulky balaclava’d terrorist on piano, me as a leathered-up comedy rock-god on bass with balled-up sports socks shoved down my trousers). There was also a brief period working on a body-politics University revue, with future Suede member Neil Codling (a rapid, matter-of-fact composer and multi-instrumental jack-of-all-trades, who took one of my lyrics about fashion and tailoring and spun it to a jaunty tune that’s yet to appear as a Suede B-side).

Vaughan probably had fonder memories of his staging of Jim Cartwright’s dream play ‘Bed’, which we took to the Edinburgh fringe in 1993. I worked closely with him on that one: acting under his direction, serving as his auxiliary brain while we combed through the script’s allusive dream-logic, and tracking down Jean Michel Jarre’s ghostly, uncharacteristic ‘En Attendant Cousteau’ as intro music. (It was one of the few times when I got the Euro-prog side of my musical tastes past Vaughan’s implacable guard. I didn’t tell him who’d created it until he’d chosen it…)


 
Post-Hull, Vaughan and I regrouped in London during 1994. While bumbling along wondering whether life was ever going to start, we kept each other stimulated by swapping homemade music comps via cassettes through the post. Quicker off the mark with job-hunting than I was, Vaughan had more ready cash than I did. He spent a fair chunk of it on hunting down left-field tunes and textures. An early adopter of communication technology, he appreciated my geeky fascination with recording details. He’d picked up a little tiny printer, and would always indulge me by sending his cassettes with little typed-out slips filling me in on who played what. These always came with irreverent miniature essays, which I appreciated even more. Even after I’d bought the original CDs myself, I’d keep Vaughan’s essays and slip them into the booklets.

Nearly twenty-five years later, I’ve still got them all. I loved Vaughan’s delighted enthusiasms, which overturned his guarded cynicism and dispelled his intermittent grumpiness. He’d wax lyrical on the phoenix-like, post-folk return to action of Eyeless in Gaza. He’d provide me with perky little ruminations on dubtronicists Seefeel; on murmuring post-Pale Saints duo Spoonfed Hybrid; on indie-folk songstress Heidi Berry, her albums festooned with various former members of Cardiacs (another of Vaughan’s favourite bands, and one which would reduce him to a guileless smirking mess of joy).

Vaughan introduced me to what we’d both come to see as a “holy British quadrinity” of post-rock – Moonshake, Laika, AR Kane and Disco Inferno (who collectively, while less prominent than the Mogwai/Explosions In The Sky consensus we’re stuck with today, achieved and meant so much more). He once bought me a copy of White Town’s ‘Your Woman’ and sent it along by post – just as the song hit number one – with a handwritten letter raving unguardedly about its homemade aesthetic, pluck and left-wing in-jokes.


 
When I decided – circa 1996 – to set up ‘Misfit City’, one of the first things I thought of were Vaughan’s miniature essays. It was natural to invite Vaughan onboard, and to encourage him to expand his original off-the-cuff enthusings into longer reviews. Also, since I’d been spending the last few years on a prog rock zine (trying, with mixed success, to get classic/neo-prog fans to expand their outlook into a broader concept of “progressive”) I thought he’d expand my own scope.

Consequently, during the first three years of the original crude-format ‘Misfit City’ webzine you’d have been able to find assorted Vaughan’s-eye views dotted through the pages. His enthusiasm for Eyeless in Gaza, Disco Inferno and Bark Psychosis made it into the early postings, and he was soon bringing in more. He covered Cranes (growling at them for slumping into college rock), one-off trip-hoppers Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra, and avant-pop trio R.O.C. (another new favourite).

Only a couple of years out of the closet himself, he explored Patrick Fitzgerald’s flagrantly gay post-Kitchens of Distinction romp, Fruit. He let his romantic side and his cynical side tussle it out over The Bathers. At a time when half of the arty writers in town were fawning over Spiritualized, he delivered a measured dissection of ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’ (and although I’m not one for outright critical bitchery, I think I’ll always treasure his brutally blunt putdown of their parent band, Spacemen 3, in the opening paragraph).

I’d also occasionally feed Vaughan things from outside his immediate knowledge base and comfort zone, and wait for a response: whether it was positive (Jocelyn Pook, John Greaves & David Cunningham) or scathing (State Of Grace). Vaughan and I would also collaborate, via various methods, as “Col Ainsley”, combining our insights, our perspectives and our occasional cheap shots. Mostly, this involved me adding odd gracings to Vaughan’s stern dressing-down of James’ ‘Whiplash’, his intrigued exploration of ‘Wappinschaw’ (by transfigured noiseniks Cindytalk), and his surprisingly warm response to The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’. It also led to reviews of erratically ambitious skunk-rockers Lo Fidelity Allstars, of enigmatic early post-rockers Labradford and emergent art-tronica force Darkroom, and of Bill Nelson during his surprisingly successful drum-and-bass/Beat-poet period.

The Ainsley method generally involved Vaughan starting a review and me finishing it, chucking in an image or association which I thought was in keeping with his perspective. He always congratulated me when he thought I’d nailed it. When I didn’t, he kept a generous diplomatic silence. If he ever found me pushy or domineering, he didn’t say so.

Don’t expect any stories of wild times in grubby shared flats; or tales of baiting or celebrating indie-hopefuls to their faces. There are none. Likewise, there were no precarious nights out on coke, E or speed; and there were none of the I-Ching pranks, the gleeful bitching clubs or the twenty-four hour fire-station atmospheres which always seem to bubble up in the memoirs of the journalists who cut their writing teeth while working on the music weeklies. Vaughan and I were more sober, more obscure characters – mostly out of the music biz loop and generally half a city away from each other, with much of our contact by phone or email. While I spent several years in shared accommodation in Stoke Newington (turning my room and my shrinking amount of shared space into a man-cave), Vaughan was working his way up through one-bedroomers in Acton and, later, Clapham.


 
Occasionally I’d inveigle him out for gigs. I suspect that getting him over to Shepherds Bush to see Barenaked Ladies was an elaborate tease, but that seeing Sylvian & Fripp (and, later, a MIDI-ed-to-the-gills six-piece King Crimson) was more of a celebration of friendship. The camaraderie remained. We were a pair of lonely, earnest, sidelined brains; writing as and when we could; bobbing on the millions-strong sea of self-obsessed insomniac lights that made up London.

By 1999, however, things were changing. I was sulking in low-status clerical work by day and obsessively, stubbornly hammering out ‘Misfit City’ reviews by night. Vaughan, meanwhile, was shifting focus. He’d always been meticulous, but now he was going professional and doing it well, working for the BBC on then-nascent internet projects of the kind we take for granted now. He found the idea of “WAP phones” particularly hilarious, mostly because the name suggested Wile E. Coyote and slapstick. The irony is that you’re probably reading ‘Misfit City’ on one now; and Vaughan’s last-ever advice to me was on how I might tailor the blog to fit better into the world of phone-browsing.

At the same time, Vaughan’s musical stance was relaxing, and my former champion of esoteric left-field indie was guilelessly singing the praises of the early Coldplay singles. I wasn’t judgemental or stupid enough to feel that he was selling out, but I could recognise that he was unbending a little. He didn’t reject ‘Misfit City’ as such, but he no longer had the time to concentrate on it. We gradually, blamelessly drifted in our different directions, birthday meetings eventually yielding to radio silence.

Vaughan out and about...

Vaughan out and about…

The best part of a decade later, I reconnected with Vaughan via Facebook – not because I was looking for a writer, but because I missed my friend and because technology was now enticing old buddies back together again. By then, Vaughan had gained plenty more experience as a writer and solo blogger; as a sardonic forum star; as a man who knew how to put things together and lead teams. Musically, his fleeting enthusiasm for Coldplay and their ilk was long gone. During the last decade of his life he was sunk deeply and appreciatively in the world of Manchester indie-folk: Louis Barrabas, Ríoghnach Connolly’s ongoing adventures in Honeyfeet and The Breath. From what I can gather, it seemed to be one of the few things which dragged him out of his flat and out of London.

Vaughan was glad to hear from me, and we were talking on and off up until the month that he died; but we never met face-to-face again. There were various reasons for this. Throughout the whole time I’d known him, it had been obvious that Vaughan suffered from assorted illnesses and troubles which affected his self-image and how certain people were likely to view him (and even, sometimes, what he was allowed to do). Later on, these roadblocks even come to affect what he was capable of doing. On top of that, there were hauntings: tormenting bits of his past that circled like ghostly sharks and regularly savaged him. Often he preferred to be alone, ensconsced at home, safely insulated behind phones and wires – even while friendships remained central to his existence.

Despite his troubles, Vaughan soldiered on and, in many respects, achieved more than many of the unencumbered. This past month, I’ve been hearing from many people (most of them strangers) about how inspirational he was as a boss at the BBC internet coalface; or as someone to virtually cross swords/slap palms with on some forum or other; as a poster of vinegar-wry wit, or as an encourager of other people’s blossoming via their own blogs. In his last years, Vaughan single-handed ran the Pixel+Pilcrow web design company from his flat, assiduously providing excellent, state-of-the-art modular homepages for customers and friends (most of whom eventually overlapped, one way or the other).

Yet, metaphorically and literally, his illnesses and challenges were taking pieces out of him and eroding his life. As I saw these things happening (generally behind the fierce shield of Vaughan’s stubborn dignity, and often only perceptible via dropped hints) I came to regret my reticence. I wish that I’d had the brass neck to intervene sometimes, and maybe risk hurting his feelings, but perhaps providing the chance to help him to make things better.

And then, one morning, he was gone forever.

* * * * * * * *

When I relaunched ‘Misfit City’ in blog format about eight years ago, I’d decided to make it much more my own thing. By mutual consent, I didn’t re-mount Vaughan’s contributions. At that point, he considered them juvenilia and curios in a writing career which spanned original blogwork, technical writing and sardonic children’s stories.

Since his death, I’ve reconsidered my position, and those reviews are now all back up in ‘Misfit City’ as part of an ongoing reworking of the blog. You can read them via the links above; or, if you want to coast through them all, you can get them in a sorted sequence (with this memorial at the top) by following the tags for Vaughan’s name or for Col Ainsley.

Re-reading them now, two things occur to me: Vaughan was right about them being juvenilia, but it also doesn’t matter. Like many of my own writing at the time, these reviews betray many of the flaws, pretensions, awkwardnesses and quick judgements of writing by people not yet out of their twenties, yet also not quite on the ball as regards youth cool (whether spontaneous or studied), nor knowing which instinctive steps to take in order to pass themselves off as tastemakers.

Yet the man’s voice, and mind, razzes through regardless. Tart, salty, Anglo-Germanic; sometimes surprisingly coy or camp; clearly in love with his subject, and only partially covering up his enthusiasm with that deflecting humour and that peanut-gallery sarcasm. It was right for the zine. At the start, ‘Misfit City’ was unashamedly awkward, hopeful, geeky and anxious. It keeps those characteristics now; and Vaughan was, in those early years, an integral part of that spirit.

* * * * * * * *

Goodbye, Vaughanie. You never knew how much people were going to miss you. I know you hated phoney sentiment and how annoyed you got at people’s tendency to blather along with their half-arsed well-meaningness (when they should have been getting up and doing something solid to help), but I do what I can to commemorate you.

Right now, I’m tempted to pick up something I know you couldn’t get along with – one of the most balloon-headed Yes albums, say, or the Lloyd Webber ‘Requiem’ – just so that I can imagine telling you about it down the phone. Just so that I can invite you to write something about it. So I could hear the whistle of you sucking your cheeks in and squirming; and finally, hear that carefully polite, firm, impeccably-enunciated “er… No,” emerge from your mouth. As if you’d spent the intervening three seconds mouthing a sugar cube into a tiny statuette of a unicorn, and had just delicately spat it out, completed with its own little sculpted, candied glare.

You were always a sweetheart, in sarcastic-git’s clothing. Sleep well, you lovely fraud; you wise, spiky friend.
 

LOOKBACKS – album reviews – Cindytalk’s ‘Wappinschaw’, 1994 (“one of 1994’s most intense, perverse and unusual lost albums”)

30 Aug

Cindytalk: 'Wappinschaw'

Cindytalk: ‘Wappinschaw’

For almost fourteen years now, Cindytalk have been forging a lonely path through the ever-changing styles of modern music. Despite the soft pink flush of their name, Cindytalk’s music has always been so out-there, so much a music of violent extremes, that they have (more or less by default – how much could you change when you touch both ends of the spectrum?) stayed the same – no bad thing – while refining their sound on each album.

Gordon Sharp, the mainstay of Cindytalk’s many line-ups, is perhaps best known as the voice of three haunting tracks on the first album by 4AD art-collective This Mortal Coil, which also spawned Elizabeth Fraser’s honey-drenched version of Tim Buckley’s Song To The Siren in 1983. Yet 4AD-ethereal was never really Sharp’s bag. Cindytalk operate in the same dark areas that Michael Gira and Swans did before they transformed into doom-laden acoustic hippies (no more titles like Raping A Slave, then, Michael? cheers, love!), or The Birthday Party before Nick Cave mellowed out into Satan’s crooner.

They’ve wilfully, awkwardly, pursued music of extremes. Their first album, ‘Camouflage Heart’, must rank somewhere alongside Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’ for sheer unlistenable music for (dis)pleasure, that has to be owned simply to piss people off. And the mammoth ‘In This World’ was a double album of contradictions – one record of near-industrial rock with razor-sharp guitar sounds (varying between tooth- extraction by electric power drill or sheet-metal white noise), and one record of near-ambient instrumentals and songs, mostly played on very soft piano like Erik Satie on Mogadon.

But it’s been a long time since any new Cindytalk material; perhaps because of artistic reclusiveness, perhaps through being a true cult act. Having already had a protracted recording between 1990 and 1992, this album took a further two years to emerge on a record label in 1994. A lone concert aside, we’ve heard nothing from them since (that’s what y-o-u think.. – ED.). Hence this five-years-after-the-event review: cults can always do with getting bigger while they wait for the resurrection.

So, ‘Wappinschaw’; one of 1994’s most intense, perverse and unusual lost albums…


 
It opens deceptively simply, with an a-capella reworking of Ewan MacColl’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, reflecting Gordon Sharp’s interest in folk idioms (especially his own native Scots). He’s singing solo, without echo or reverb, up close, right there in your darkened room. His voice – one of the most expressive at conveying rage, pain, fear – displays power here yet, somehow, also insecurity. A Song Of Changes is leaden-paced at first, but David Ros’ guitars are more blurry and hazed than previous industrial strength Cindytalk noise. Suddenly the guitars hit an almost bright riff around which Sharp fluctuates and soars. A song of changes, indeed – light is breaking into Cindytalk’s dark world: “Within the heart of everything, there is you…”


 
It doesn’t last, though. Return To Pain (hah!) lurches in on a mix of barely-scrubbed electric and slide guitars, creating an empty and menacing atmosphere as Sharp emotes through wordless high vocals. It’s nightmare swamp music, midnight in the Mississippi plains accompanied by the scariest of companions, before the tension explodes into a barrage of noise. Drums, shotgun guitars, and Sharp wailing that “everybody is Christ.” Y-e-e-es; whatever you say, Gordon.


 
Whichever expectations are set for them, Cindytalk trump them on this record. Wheesht is introduced by a tape of Alisdair Gray reading an extract from his mammoth Scottish psycho-epic ‘Lanark’: a story of a young boy dreaming about what lies beyond the clouds. Recorded over the sound of a ticking clock and a ghostly musical box, this exercise in unsettling atmospherics chills the spine and sets us up for Wheesht itself: a brutally short, non- musical violent collage of bass drones, sonic interferences, sampled voices, blood-curdling screams and other genuinely unnerving sounds.


 
To the looping, echoed scrapings of a low-tuned violin, Snowkiss restores some sense of calm with more of Cindytalk’s music for winter nights – Gordon’s vocals imploding out of their rage into delicate lines and wordless harmonies sung over the gentlest of chiming, raindrop pianos. The lyrics of Disappear evoke a painfully trapped life: “You’re in heaven now, / Inside your head. / No thoughts of flight, / Your wings are clipped…”, while a strongly martial beat provides the tracks only propulsion as guitars and sampled interference compete with each other in a swirling eddy of sound. The lively, echoing trumpet on Traumlose Nacht, mingled with delicate piano and evocative waves of rolling drums, provide some relief and a different sonic vocabulary – it sounds like incidental music for the dark magic and oppressive heat of ‘Angel Heart’.


 
The final track, Hush, starts as an guitar-and-solo-vocal acoustic lament (back to the folk singing of the opening track) but then gives way to influential voices from the heavens (including samples of Orson Welles and Joseph Beuys) before everything fades to leave a long passage of bagpipe music that is, after the tumult of Cindytalk in action, strangely beguiling and soothing… but wait. After a long pause, a final hidden track, Muster. An incendiary, veritably Napalm-Death’s- worth battery of hideous thrash-noise, over which Sharp’s passionate ragged voice issues forth evocations to notable spirits: “The Wappinschaw is an invocation of the spirits of Shiva: Rise, William Wallace, rise! Rise, Arthur Rimbaud, rise!” He goes on to summon the spirits of Pasolini, Sitting Bull, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, amongst others. So unearthly does Sharp sound, so compelling, that I have no doubt that the spirits responded. Quite the most disturbing sound heard on CD for some time.


 
I wouldn’t like to hazard too close a guess at what kind of emotional traumas Gordon Sharp purges from himself to make this music; all razor blades, blizzards and crow feathers. It’s enough to say that, after fourteen years on the extremes, Cindytalk demand your rapt attention, your horrified fascination…

(review by Col Ainsley)

Cindytalk: ‘Wappinschaw’
Touched Recordings, TOUCH 1 (5 021958 432021)
CD-only album
Released: 1994

Get it from:
(2018 update) best obtained second-hand

Cindytalk online:
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September 1998 – album reviews – Bill Nelson’s ‘Atom Shop’ (“freefalling away with the breakbeat imprint stamped onto the songs”)

20 Sep
Bill Nelson: 'Atom Shop'

Bill Nelson: ‘Atom Shop’

Compare and contrast. A while ago, Bowie – in a last-ditch attempt to prove he’s still relevant, still the musical chameleon of old – clambered aboard the drum’n’bass gravy train. That music’s normally made by lone bedsit technoheads; Bowie tried to do it with a bloated old rock band. Oops. Still, being Bowie, he could always pick up the phone and request the services of Goldie or some other jungle luminary. The end result sounded clumsy and desperate and – pointedly – as if Bowie had no real interest in drum’n’bass, since he kept dragging the music back towards the ever-more-familiar Bowierock. Not good.

On the other hand… Bill Nelson, him from ’70s Bowie contemporaries Be Bop Deluxe (and a man who mostly holed up in an ambient hermitage in Wakefield during the ’80s and ’90s) has also discovered drum’n’bass. A year before Bowie, too, with 1996’s rattlin’ good ‘After The Satellite Sings’, which sounded – unlike Bowie’s studied “so-how-do-I-do-jungle?” approach – like it had been a revelation and release to him, and without surrendering his own musical personality. Call me romantic, but I could imagine the middle-aged Nelson huddled over his radio each evening, tuning through the FM jungle pirate stations, listening in awe to the complex rhythms and then rushing to his music room to apply what he heard.

‘…Satellite…’ was a suave salvo of smartly retrofitted ’50s-accented art-pop with a bloodstream of “quintessentially English” drum’n’bass, if you can imagine such a thing – Nelson’s laid-back vocals (like a cross between David Sylvian and Cabaret Voltaire’s Stephen Mallinder) topping a very compacted sound, curiously lacking bass oomph but loaded with frenetic drum patterns, beatbox-assaulting jungle snares, burbling electronics and witty speech samples, including someone sounding suspiciously like Maggie Thatcher exclaiming “absolutely dazzled!” over the rush of beats. It was cheeky, it was damn cool, and it had a heart beating under its sharp starched creases.

‘Atom Shop’ is the follow-up; a boxload of demos that failed to get enough funding for the full studio treatment. All the better, ‘cos we know that that way lies ‘Earthling’, Bowie lumbering into a clumsy three-point turn and spilling his load. This album’s rougher edges help – not enough to convert a hardcore junglist, but evading the slickness of most crossover efforts. And it continues ‘…Satellite…’s so-quaint-it’s-cool eccentricity, from Nelson’s memories of being in hock to American glamour during his ’50s childhood and art-college ’60s in Yorkshire.

Pulp fiction, Beat writers, cartoons, natty bebop and cars with silver fins are all part of Atom Shop’s dream fabric. It kicks off with Wild & Dizzy’s swirl of trumpet mixups, dry drum’n’bass pulse, chill synths and blue guitar, peppered with ’50s dude voices. And one of the other songs is called Viva Le Voom-Voom, baby. There’s a lot of fanboy energy here: he’s knocking on 50, but Bill Nelson still sounds naïve and sparkling with enthusiasm, bless the old goat.


 
Though one thing you notice pretty fast is that ‘Atom Shop’ doesn’t have the hurtling clubby drive of ‘After the Satellite Sings’. Train With Fins looks back towards the more drum’n’bassed ‘…Satellite…’ songs like Flipside – fast and clattering upfront snare drum patterns, with a techno twang and banks of horn-like guitars calling up the ghosts of Stax – but, though speedy, it never breaks much of a sweat. Which is also true of Rocket Ship’s sliding jazz/d’n’b snake rattle and Trevor Horn stabs, or Popsicle Head Trip’s Ferry smooch and tight heavy-metal riffs – all mingling through the drum’n’bass dryness, but the beats ain’t so obvious as they could’ve been.


 
Magic Radio has a light d’n’b push to it, but ends up like The Orb doing Somewhere Over The Rainbow. ‘Atom Shop’ sounds more touched deeply in passing by drum’n’bass, rather than grabbed by it; as if it’s freefalling away with the breakbeat imprint stamped onto the songs, a teacher’s kiss. Here you’ll more often feel the pathways of d’n’b rather than the punch; the points where space has been prepared, the dynamics of the beat, waiting for the kick that never quite comes.

Oddly, though, ‘Atom Shop’s a much blacker album than its predecessor, even if it does sound less like a session on Massive FM. ‘…Satellite…’s most awkward point – the strafing, Fripp-like guitar solos – have been phased out for a bluesier approach. Nelson’s guitar is busy everywhere, and if there’s some of B.B.D.’s fluid finickiness to it, he can also sound like a sample-era John Lee Hooker, or the subtler detailing Hendrix of Little Wing and Up From The Sky. All this is dovetailed into the minimal trip-hop feel taken to the top of the charts by Garbage, Sneaker Pimps et al (especially for the more ominous Girlfriend With Miracles), but Nelson’s got a more developed musical sense.


 
So everywhere you look, there are things going on: elements of electronica, samples and live instruments in a complex, but never fussy or muso, interweaving. Dobros and slides are all over Pointing At The Moon’s sleepiness, little bits of rural blues and gospel organs jostle into the arrangements; and so do probably all the “s”s in Mississippi too, if you can find ’em. And jazz dances wherever there’s room; trippy Dizzy Gillespie trumpet cascades, cheeky clarinets, even a bit of scat. Bill Nelson’s found, and gone into, the future we’re starting to guess at from our Portishead records and big-beat singles. A glittering, malleable, disorienting wonderland built out of chewed-up scraps of our past and ghosts in the record players. Something which he pins down in the sizzling hip-hop/jazz hybrid of Spinning Dizzy On the Dial when he sings “I’ve seen the luminous stuff of dreams, / I know what’s going down… Awake to all eternity / with the jazziest ghosts in town.”


 
It’s about a sensibility, I guess, a feeling. Which leaves us with the preoccupations of Nelson’s sighed, sometimes stoned vocals through an album of songs that are mostly poised in dreaminess. ‘…Satellite…’ celebrated the liberation Nelson’s kinetic d’n’b exploits offered him, poked fun at those who thought he might be a little old to join the jungle massive (“I had my sonic youth / When you were lost in ether… / I’ve got nothing to say, and I’m saying it. / Yeah, that’s the stuff for me.”) and had an undercurrent of suspicion at the American dream (“Whither thou goest, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”). But ‘Atom Shop’s more content to bask in sighs about “the way things swing”, “moving stars spun from mirror ball”, “Chet Baker on the lo-hi-fi”, trippy kittens, glamour girls from Mars, and Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Perhaps he made his point the first time around.


 
Rest assured that it stays on the right side of Austin Powers, thanks to things like the Beat-rapping on Billy Infinity, the shuffling shoe-drag balladry and springy guitars of She Gave Me Memory, and the way in which My World Spins cooks everything together best – gospel emphasis, lucid little guitar and electric piano strums, pitter-pat drum’n’bass velocity, a Cars-style creaky hipness and Nelson’s determination to keep his head clear: “now everybody’s got their information / but none of it matches mine. / Saints preserve my reputation and keep my thoughts sublime.” The sense of a mind open to new sounds and influences pervades. Before the closing Jetsons-style supermarket jingle, Nelson’s declared himself to be “sending signals and leaving clues / from the hymns of history to the far-future blues.”


 
And aside from the excitement for the listener, part of the greatness of Nelson’s current trajectory is hearing a rejuvenated art-rocker enjoying exploring startlingly new musical forms and weaving them into his history. Doing it for himself, without a style guru or scenester shoving a batch of 12-inch white labels into his hands, saying “Sample some breaks from this – it’s what the kids are into.” Keep flicking through those FM stations, Mr Nelson…

(review by Col Ainsley)

Bill Nelson: ‘Atom Shop’
Discipline Global Mobile, DGM 9806 (633367980625)
CD-only album
Released: 15th September 1998

Get it from:
Best obtained second-hand.

Bill Nelson online:
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March 1998 – maxi-single reviews – Lo Fidelity Allstars’ ‘Vision Incision’ (“promises to blow our minds wide open, but falls well short of the promise”)

26 Mar

Lo Fidelity Allstars: 'Vision Incision' maxi-single

Lo Fidelity Allstars: ‘Vision Incision’ maxi-single

I had this lot down all wrong at first, I admit it. From the bragging “we’re the greatest” interviews, and the “dance music with real instruments” tag, even the look of the group, I had them down as (god forbid) the new baggy. I was fully prepared to go out and shoot them so I didn’t have to live through the horror that was baggy yet again. But a couple of odd tracks here and there have persuaded me to save my bullets… for now.

Sure, there’s a “real band” sound at the heart of the Lo Fidelity Allstars, but they can manage to make their take on turn‑of‑the‑millennium genre‑defying dance culture a gloriously uplifting thing. Their baggy forerunners (Happy Mondays, Stone Roses) always sounded like they were prevented from gliding to a higher musical plane by having their feet firmly stuck in the field of mud labelled “indie”. The Lo Fi’s, firmly centred on the sampler and decks, don’t have the same problem as they reel off ribbons and streams of sound, rather than chug doggedly away like an old pro dealing with a new fad. But…


 
Oh, the senseless waste. Vision Incision promises to blow our minds wide open, but falls well short of the promise. Good start, mind. Smooth beats, hedonistic keyboard riff, an infectious soul-diva backing hook, and the matter of the live band sound becomes irrelevant as the track lifts and soars smoothly like the most uplifting house or techno, boasting “As we travel at magnificent speeds around the universe…” At which point the Lo-Fi-s prime weak spot is revealed: Dave The Wrekked Train’s bland Speak’n’Spell vocals. Mashing up randomised texts, as he does on other Lo-Fi-s sonic collisions, they work fine. Faced with actual poetry, they creak like a ground axle. Please, if this is the way he carries on all the time, sack him. He has delusions of being a more hip Mark E. Smith, but ends up just sounding like a London cabbie – a monotone mumble grating over the divine music and pointing up the dreadful rhymes in some of his lyrics.

Perhaps he reckons he’s aiming at the street-level psychedelic lyricism of hip-hoppers like the Wu-Tang Clan: the thing is, those guys sound like they believe the weed-fuelled surreal-o-vision they’re raving about. Dave just sounds embarrassed, as if he’d rather have stayed in his siding and chatted to Thomas The Tank Engine this time around. Consequently, I can’t decide whether this is a successor to Orbital’s Chime for the genre‑busting, cross‑pollinating late ’90s dance scene, or just OMD meeting The Orb in a spot of megalomaniac galactic synthpop. Or, alternatively, the KLF doing Spinal Tap.


 
The remix is referred to as a “12” mix” ‑ how bloody Eighties. I suspect that, in homage to their record label, this is the Lo‑Fi-s’ attempt at the Big Beat remix. The Late Train has mutated (oh god!) into the slower‑talking brother of The Shamen’s Mr C. for the first part of this extended work‑out. Wisely, they quickly dispense of his services and crank up the heavy beats to provide a real tour de force instrumental for the band. Proving that if you like your beats big and bouncy, then this dissipated bunch can turn their devious minds to that too. The Midfield General Shorter mix is the sparse techno‑electronica version. A mechanistic, simple beat, overlaid by electronic squelches and interferences, as the original track is ripped to shreds and rebuilt, as elements and sequences of the original drift in and out of the mix. Oh, and Train-In-Vain is just a distant, distorted presence, way back in the ether. Wise move, guys.


 
By this stage, frankly, it’s difficult to tell whether Gringo’s Return To Punk Paste is, in fact, a new track, or yet another radical remix of the original. What it does prove, yet again, is that the Lo‑Fi-s can also turn their hands (deep breath) to a ’90s version of the sounds of early ’80s rap and electro. Skeletal beats and distorted, squelching basslines set the parameters for that unmistakeable sound, aided by some nifty no‑nonsense American speech samples.


 
Cunning remixes or no, even if feted as the best new band in Britain by ‘Melody Maker’ and handed The Future on a giant silver platter to play with, the Lo Fi’s are still going to bellyflop if they keep expecting that stuff like Vision Incision’s going to justify that reputation. It’s not that they’re talentless rip-off merchants. On the contrary, their sampledelic experimentation – when they’ve taken all the sounds of the world, scrunched them up and run with them – is at least as heart-jumpingly astounding as any other visionary pop cut-ups around, if not more so. Hype or no hype, they can bring the noise with a vengeance. This is a real Quality Street of a band – whatever your favourite tribe in the current cross‑cultural collision, there’s music for you here. And if this is the sort of open‑minded group that all the mess of sounds in the ’90s can produce, then the future is wearing some very cool shades.

But compared to their own mighty One Man’s Fear (the world being slowly and gloriously wrenched to sticky bits by Jim Morrison’s psychotic baby grandchild), this ain’t so much a vision incision as a mere blink. Someone had their eye on nothing more noble than a chart placing when they knocked this lot together. Just cut it out, OK? Show me stars, not hot gas.

(review by Col Ainsley)

Lo Fidelity Allstars: ‘Vision Incision’
Skint Records, SKINT 33CD (5025425503320)
CD/cassette/7- & 12-inch maxi single
Released: 23rd March 1998

Get it from:
(2018 update) best obtained second-hand.

Lo Fidelity Allstars online:
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November 1997 – album reviews – Labradford’s ‘Mi Media Naranja’ (“the sound of dust with blues”)

22 Nov

Labradford: 'Mi Media Naranja'

Labradford: ‘Mi Media Naranja’

Last year’s self-titled, scheme-solidifying Labradford album saw the Virginian post-rock doyens – as I put it at the time, playing “perfect pop for Prozac people” via “desert guitars drifting into the night.” As I also said, we seemed all set for a slide into Death Valley, Oops. Except we didn’t end up there after all.

Somewhere on the road along the way, Labradford seem to have pulled in at this little deserted Tex-Mex place called ‘Mi Media Naranja’, where they’ve ambled into the cobwebbed bar, dusted off some country band’s abandoned instruments and decided to record another album, just so that the year’s release schedules won’t forget them in a hurry. And suddenly classic rock seems to be on the agenda. Tunes are heard. Mark Nelson’s picked up a slide guitar, Carter Brown adds electric pianos to his armoury, two string players are brought in. To keep up that arty enigmatic quality, songs are given one- or two-letter titles (a strategy only topped by The Aphex Twin’s use of calx symbols a few years ago) to remove any hint of presupposition on our part. And we’re rolling.


 
And… it’s not the Allman Brothers (well, do surprise me). But this time, although the funereal pace remains a Labradford constant, the music mostly sounds like Ennio Morricone revamping Pink Floyd’s ‘Obscured By Clouds’, under Michael Nyman’s instructions. S being the perfect example – melancholy Pacific twang-guitar, chilly organ, sobre violas in a Rachel’s manner, and the definitive Labradford touch of a coldly beautiful and crystalline short-wave radio whine (off on the edge of hearing and pinking the edge of the ears, insinuating indifferent, mindless, slightly dysfunctional technology into the sound of the human players). Tinny-edged strings duet with a piquant, ever-so-slightly discoordinated accordion, EQ-ed up for subtle discomfort.


 
If ‘Mi Media Naranja’ could be summed up in one phrase, it’d be “the sound of dust with blues”: inertia melding with the memory of sadness. Spiritualized might be a handy comparison. But then, so’s Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross – that same tragically sad yet detached Peter Green-style slide guitar shows up on G, as a milk-bottle jingle melds with tinkly Gameboy morse-code squirts, lonely and insulated footsteps scuff in the background, and a Spanish guitar plays like a mantric harp. Nelson’s voice (when it makes an appearance) sounds like it’s travelling through half a mile of cupboard fluff. C is more like Angelo Badalamenti under heavy sedation: an excursion of subterranean Rhodes piano, prayer-bell clinking, and papery flutter.


 
Compared to the unquiet dreamscapes of ‘Labradford’ , there’s something almost domestic about ‘Mi Media Naranja’: something like the drowse of an abandoned family home during a pollen-y summer. A tinny spinning-top rattle rolls hollowly through I’s midground above watery organ and tides of static, as narcotic sleigh bells nod against four-note guitar. There are distant kiddie voices and sterile, fragile electric strings on WR; and guitar dust-bunnies on V, set against the reverberant pulse of a metal bowl while Nelson whispers a trickle of unsurety through the comforting lap of sound. “Too many give… / These insights will see right through your plans. / At the mouth of the highway tunnel, the decision waits for your next command… / Secret candles still can burn: / is it deep enough? / did you make it deep enough?” In the near-hush, Brown’s piano sketches in what remains of the still air.



 
P finally closes the sojourn with a dose of Harold Budd meets Hank B. Marvin. Low, sweet Rhodes and three- note piano-note, sustained, furry, quivering organ drones in a shimmery haze, with the dislocated thrummmm of bass against the slow rise of a second organ. You start listening to the album in an abandoned bar. You end it back among the coma patients, in the suffocatingly pure-white sheets of a hospital bed.


 
Compared to the beautiful frozen grimness of ‘97’s eponymous album, Labradford’s work on ‘Mi Media Naranja’ is a pretty fuzzy, lazy business. But, after a while, it becomes something that makes just as much introverted emotional sense as its predecessor. With these two albums Labradford have floated forwards, pinned between miraculous, lucidly speechless visions… and being lost in the cradle of their own inner fog.

(review by Col Ainsley)

Labradford: ‘Mi Media Naranja’
Mute Liberation Technologies/Blast First Records, BFFP 144CD (5 016027 611445)
CD/download album
Released: 19th November 1997

Get it from:
(2018 update) CD best obtained second-hand, or download from Bandcamp.

Labradford online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

October 1997 – album reviews – The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’ (“one of the few times recently where rockers with an eye on the past have come up with its substance as well as its shape”)

7 Oct

The Verve: 'Urban Hymns'

The Verve: ‘Urban Hymns’

There’s classic and there’s Classic. I guess you could say that “classic” refers to whatever emerges from the past and underpins the future, something that becomes part of the way things are done, things are thought. Something that is there, to be tapped into. Archetypes.

On the other hand, there’s “Classic”. A sort of snob’s trademark; a lovingly-restored, polished artifact from the past, like fleets of Model T Fords puttering around a private racetrack in 1998. Something you can buy, like horse-brasses or fake-Tudor house frontage. Hired vintage suits.

That’s why it will always be utterly incomprehensible to me how The Verve are compared to Oasis; are hangers-on in that awful Weller/Ocean Colour Scene/Creation band circle of “friends of Oasis”. A scene where all inspiration has been submerged in encroaching conservatism; where authenticity is no more than off-the-peg habit; where you imagine that by thieving the possessions and the poses of the great, you can become great. A beggar’s court of stained carpets, grubby heirlooms… and “Classic” songwriting. You would’ve thought that by now The Verve would’ve wiped the sleep from their eyes, taken an incredulous look around themselves at that pack of plodding duffers, and buggered off out of there.

Look, with this mighty album, The Verve are well clear of that paltry, inflated “Noelrock” equation. The battle for greatest guitar rock album of ’97 was between Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ and ‘Urban Hymns’. While Radiohead’s more experimental approach has created an album for the exposed and overloaded pre-millennial soul, arguably this album is pure music for the timeless, stripped heart. Songs, surging choruses, swelling strings, drenched in emotion. Yes, it is a “classic rock” thing. Yes, the basic shapes are extremely familiar, even timeworn sometimes. Yes, guitars do swagger between romantic and pugnacious, and lads still sing out the untidy facets of their rough-diamond hearts. But even with all this, it’s still somehow an album of the moment.

And while I defy any intelligent person to listen to Don’t Look Back In Anger without bursting into derisive laughter, Richard Ashcroft and the rest of The Verve seem somehow able to plug directly into the genuine classic rock tradition. You know, that one which Noel Gallagher can only wear like a little boy swiping his parents’ clothes, waddling into the front room with sleeves flapping a foot below his hands and shoes dangling around his tiny feet – “Look at me! I’m a grown-up too!”

Enough of that. Leave it behind. The Verve have, whether they’ll acknowledge it or not. ‘Urban Hymns’ may ease its broad shoulders into certain well-known-and-namechecked spaces: The Rolling Stones, Lennon, Hendrix, The Doors, a hint of Pink Floyd in ’69 or ’71, The Stone Roses… But there’s more to this than the aspirations of a bunch of Wigan pub-rockers. A lot more.

Bitter Sweet Symphony, of course, everyone knows by now. But hold on, this is a piece of systems music if I’ve ever heard one. (Um, aren’t you supposed to be going on about Northern Soul like everybody else, Col? – ED.) The strings sequence slides in (courtesy of Andrew Loog Oldham’s orchestral version of the Stones’ The Last Time) complete with bells (bells! glorious!), the staccato drum pattern motors off… and, basically, that’s it. The structure builds subtly, but there’s no real bridge or chorus. Ashcroft leads the melody by weaving around and harmonising with the band’s hypnotic spatial groove. The video had the feel just right – put the track on headphones, follow the walking-pace rhythm, and you immediately Do The Ashcroft. Tunnel vision, walking straight ahead, oblivious. Magical.


 
Both here and throughout ‘Urban Hymns’, the crucial ingredient is in the detail. Behind the familiar riffage, behind Ashcroft’s raw and tender delivery, there stretches a vast depth of sound, like a field of stars seen from high above. And Nick McCabe lives in this space, manipulating a guitar like Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ paintbrush: moans, swooshes, calls, swathes of colour and musical dialogue. It’s easy to see why The Verve could not be such a magical band without him. Most lead guitarists stick to one spot, on stage or one record: but McCabe seems to be fucking everywhere, cut loose from gravity, from his body, from everything. It’s a bit “Floyd”, a bit “Jimi”, a bit space-rock, but it’s always intensely, dynamically involved; never adrift in a haze of selfish narcosis.


 
Space And Time, though, swaps the lush atmospherics for a more straightforwardly guitar-based sound with an anthemic chorus, but still parades Ashcroft’s insecurity like a beacon for those with similar feelings: “I just can’t make it alone.” Within weeks, then, this track will have established itself as a rallying call to legions of insecure fans. Just wait and see. And, yes, one could be cynical about such identification with mere pop songs, but how many artists wouldn’t sell their soul for such emotional power? Many bands have one such song (Sit Down, A Design For Life). The Verve have just written virtually a whole album of them.


 
Sonnet utilises, not for the only time on this album, a romantically lush, almost country sound. A simple electric rhythm guitar and tinkling piano accompany the verses, before the full Verve power blooms in the life-affirming chorus – “Yes, there’s love if you want it…”

The Drugs Don’t Work is the massive morning comedown after what seemed to be the best night of your life – chemically enhanced, of course – and you’ve realised that you can’t block everything out, no matter how hard you try. Beautiful strings, subtly countrified lead from McCabe, Ashcroft’s emotionally affecting vocal – this song is so finely constructed, with an ear for peaks and lows, that it already has the feel of a timeless standard that’s always existed within some heavenly rock canon. It also contains one of the most eloquent avowals of unstinting, devoted love that I’ve ever heard in my life – “If heaven falls, I’m coming too / Just like you said / ‘You leave my life, I’m better off dead.'” Make no mistake, this is one song that’s gonna feature in those 3-a.m.-highly-emotional-end-to-a-party situations for years to come.


 
But it’s not all dark nights of the soul. “Happiness, / more or less, / it’s just a change in me. / Something in my liberty… / But I’m a lucky man…” – Lucky Man is a song of hope and thanks for the crowd to sing, too. Another classic melody, performed by this oddly timeless band – another strings-laden track where The Verve perform with subtle, understated grace. Unlike so many other bands who witlessly drag in a string section to add a touch of authenticity, The Verve understand the dynamics of strings and orchestra and throughout the album they perfectly complement the sound rather than compete with it.


 
Well, look, if this is getting too romantic, lush and orchestral… the thumping intro to The Rolling People leads into a swaggering Doors-style guitars’n’rhythm assault. This song also allows greater opportunity for Nick McCabe to let fly on lead guitar, proving again that he’s as skilled in delicate atmospherics as well as able to play with great power. On Neon Wilderness (on which he takes the lead writing credit) he takes The Verve back to the ambient rock of ‘A Storm In Heaven’ as he builds stately shifting ice-floes of guitar submerged in the band’s watery echoes and Ashcroft’s vocals appear to free-associate in a waking dream.



 
The album’s only weak link is This Time, the only track that noticeably breaks the medium-slow tempo. It attempts an awkward mix of The Verve’s new melodicism with a “guitar-dance” feel (shuffling percussion, treated vocals, funky guitars, you know the score) but in contrast to the rest of the album’s majestic assurance it just sounds directionless, with Ashcroft’s most loose-limbed lyrics just filling up space. Better baggy, basically. It would have been a revelation in 1991; now, it just sounds like one of The Verve’s few concessions to their own nostalgia.


 
Come On, the final track, is the rawest we hear The Verve on ‘Urban Hymns’. Powerfully self-assured and confident, it is a barrage of full-on band attack, rock guitars leading the charge plus the return of the “Mad Richard” of the band’s fledgling years – holding forth, shouting, challenging (and frankly, probably talking bollocks) atop the sonic attack. Glorious it is too. “Come along with our sound / Let the spirit move you…” Indeed.


 
This is one of the few times recently where rockers with an eye on the past have come up with its substance as well as its shape. As Come On, and the album itself, spirals noisily towards its climax (there is one hidden track, a swelling soundscape of studio clatter, radio interference, feedback, a crying baby and a haunting deliquescent guitar line: as if The Verve have grabbed so much inspired sound from nature that it demands to be given birth to, song or no song) the scale and magnitude of what The Verve have achieved in the past thirteen tracks all gets a bit much for “Mad Richard” as he shouts out “Fuck you! This is a myth!” That’s what I heard, anyway.

I hope that’s what he says. It should be what he says. Against all odds, a mythical, legendary album.

(review by Col Ainsley)

The Verve: ‘Urban Hymns’
Virgin Records/Hut Recordings, CD HUT 45 (7 24384 49132 1)
CD/cassette album
Released: 29th September 1997

Get it from:
on general release.

The Verve online:
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May 1997 – album reviews – State of Grace’s ‘Everyone Else’s Universe’ (“an oozing of tepid ambience”)

3 May

State Of Grace: 'Everyone Else's Universe'

State Of Grace: ‘Everyone Else’s Universe’

And this is 1997?

In the world of contemporary pop music, I thought ‑ hell, we all thought ‑ we had the equation worked out. Electronica = The Future. Trad Guitar Rock (Oasis + Kula Shaker + Cast + Ocean Colour Scene) = The Past. But State Of Grace, a Northampton electro‑ambient quartet now on their third album, are here to prove otherwise. It’s electronic, yes, but it’s also as retro and dated as Noel Gallagher’s Beatles pastiches.

Conspiracy is a six‑part concept track… or rather, it’s an obvious way to become immediately suspicious about an album just by looking at the track listing. (Six‑part concept tracks issue a subliminal message to me. That message is “run away!”). Part 1, Forest Fields Forever is horribly slick‑sounding trance, complete with weedy female vocal and obligatory ethnic voice sample. The parts seem often to be linked by ambient wind and water effects… oh no, sorry, that was Part 2. I dozed off for a moment. Part 3 (Single Spies) tries to be Dubstar, but with Sarah Simmond’s ultra‑forgettable voice and gibberish lyrics, plus powder‑puff electronics, it makes Dubstar sound like Nine Inch Nails. Part 4, Noel Street Blues, ups the tempo to a sleek techno and, by including the sampled combination of a warbling operatic diva, more generic‑ethnic wailing and an accordion, momentarily arouses some interest. But by this point I didn’t know which part I was listening to. It all continued in this insipid vein for a number of years, by which time I’d lost the will to live.

Perfect And Wild is more suffocatingly polite techno‑pop, with the joyful addition of a twee slide guitar. Still, as so often on this album, the awful lyrics offer a laugh. “And when love is calling / Like an open book” ‑ look, I’m sorry, but books don’t call; they’re inanimate objects! So innocuous and bland is this music that you could walk round supermarkets to its accompaniment.

Now where was I? I need a dozen eggs, some margarine, a packet of mini chicken kievs… oh, sorry. Right, then. Er, Sea‑Saw. Oh, mild trip‑hop. Sarah tries to sing with a lazy, underwater vibe, but only ends up sounding as disinterested as I am, like she’s about to drop off to sleep. And will somebody please alter that bloody drum machine pattern! Now! (If you think I’m losing patience, you’re right).


 
Be afraid. Be very afraid, for there are three versions of the track Hello on this album (they obviously place great faith in the song‑‑poor, deluded souls). This version, subtitled Fall Out The Lions (eh? Your guess is as good as mine…), is musically somewhat engaging: mournful violins and a rising/falling keyboard sequence over brushed electronic drums. But the words are more sixth-form gobbledegook: “In the silence / the colour is an island. / Fall out the lions, / take everybody with you.” What? Still, the chorus is one to join in on – “Is it so? Hello, hello. / Is it so? / Hello, hello.” Poetry, utter poetry.

Version two of Hello is a remix by Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto. To a clattering beat and a phased dub keyboard, plus Meat‑treated vocal, it all manages to sound at least vaguely contemporary, whilst hardly essential. Version three (gosh, you can have too much of a good thing, can’t you?) is an Aphex Twin‑style remix‑‑it dismisses all the elements of the original track save for a ghost of the vocals, and constructs a stomping bass‑heavy techno track. By now, it is so far from State Of Grace’s original that it hardly belongs to them at all. Consequently, it’s the best thing on the album.


 
Rose II begins and ends in an oozing of tepid ambience, but would potentially be an affecting minor‑chord‑laden melody if it hadn’t been subjected to another sheen of bland synthesizers and, worst of all, whining treated electronic guitar. By now, lost somewhere in a maddening nightmare, praying for this album to end, I suddenly sense a name appearing before me. M…? M…? M… M‑… M‑Mike Oldfield?! Jesus, it does ‑ it sounds like bleedin’ Mike Oldfield!! (Worse than that, Vaughan. It sounds like late ’80s Mike Oldfield, the stuff that not even Oldfield fans seem to have any more… ‑ PROG ED.)

State Of Grace are awfully, horribly dated. They are trying to be some sort of combination of modern ambient techno ‑ for which the music sounds simply too out‑of‑date‑‑and the pristine machine pop of, say, Propaganda… yet lacking that group’s excellent song constructions. The lyrics are abysmal, too. The hip new title State Of Grace would like to have conferred on them ‑ electronica ‑ is redundant. This is, being as kind as possible, what used to be known in the pop world as “electronic music”, which would firmly date it as being pre‑1987’s acid‑house revolution.

But let’s not be kind. Let’s be unkind. This is out‑of‑date, bad europop, bad trance, bad electro‑prog… get the idea?

I don’t want it in my universe.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

State Of Grace: ‘Everyone Else’s Universe’
3rd Stone Ltd., STONE 028CD (5023693002828)
CD‑only compilation album
Released: 28th April 1997

Get it from:
(2018 update) best obtained second-hand.

State Of Grace/Fatal Charm online:
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March 1997 – album reviews – Jocelyn Pook’s ‘Deluge’ (“a suite of stunning invention and sheer beauty”)

1 Mar

Jocelyn Pook: 'Deluge'

Jocelyn Pook: ‘Deluge’

The elegant grace of tragedy is often linked with the splat of farce. This album’s major selling point (on some copies of the CD, it’s trumpeted by a sticker ‑ I kid you not) is that it features the music from last year’s TV ads for Orange mobile phones, namely Jocelyn Pook’s setting of “Blow The Wind Southerly” sung by Kathleen Ferrier.

Sigh. It’s sad but true that increasingly weird and wonderful music is getting picked up and co‑opted by advertising agencies for their campaigns. Your average ‘Coronation Street’ ad‑break may currently play to a soundtrack of Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Aphex Twin, U‑Ziq, Cocteau Twins… and Pook. They’re selling their souls for the filthy lucre from red‑braced ad execs. Of course they are: rampant fucking capitalism is bringing us the best that post‑modern music has to offer. It’s art selling out!

But… Mr or Ms Normal Music Fan are going into Our Price and humming this music over the counter to Shop Assistant. Consequently, they’re getting turned on to (at least relatively) experimental music, er, man… And as Jocelyn Pook joins the hideous capitalist gravy train (look, I’m not being cruel: my tongue is in my cheek) from obscurity to the CD racks, the musos among us will smugly tell that Pook is widely known as the leader of the Electra Strings (along with Caroline Lavelle, Sonia Slaney and others), who have no doubt been rushed off their feet in the past couple of years as every British pop act decided they must show their serious side by having at least one strings‑based track in their repertoire (I think we call it “hiring in a touch of class”).

But here ‑ ably backed by the Electras, knife‑edged art‑scene soprano Melanie Pappenheim and a pocketful of exotic musicians and sounds ‑ Jocelyn Pook shows herself as being beyond simply a viola player. She’s a composer of emotion and invention and, in the best traditions of post‑modernism, introduces classical and traditional musics to the brave new world of samples and electronics. OK, so it has to be admitted that Dead Can Dance are an immediate and convenient comparison, but ‘Deluge’ is warmer, more emotional: less monumentally impressive, perhaps, but also nowhere near as harsh and Wagnerian.


 
The twelve tracks of ‘Deluge’ (germinating from a clutch of “post‑modern hymns” written for a Canadian dance‑theatre project) are best appreciated as one pre‑millennial suite with recurring themes (the emotions drawn from the year 1000, the methodology from 2000). Requiem Aeternam, like many elements of the other tracks, opens the album with solo and multitracked singing of a traditional requiem over one sustained root note. Post‑modern chamber plainsong, in other words, founded upon a sense of inevitability that’s unchanged by the impact of technology.


 
Technology, in fact, might even be hastening that grand inevitable. Oppenheimer is undoubtedly one of the central parts of ‘Deluge’. It opens with a disturbing sample of Robert Oppenheimer talking (he seems heavy with emotion, a man with the weight of his discovery of nuclear destruction bearing down upon him) surrounded by a foreboding nuclear wind: this merges into the poignant but more hopeful sound of the Jewish call to prayer and a dawn chorus of birds. As the central sung theme from the first track returns with a supporting string section, a haunting, heartbreaking elegy is created.

For Oppenheimer himself, this could be the emotions created by his dread and foresight at what he had created. More powerfully, however, this piece stands as a requiem for a world forever changed by the knowledge of possible nuclear annihilation. A post‑Cold War planet we may now be, but his music took me right back to the nervousness of the mid‑’80s and its accompanying, tangible dread of nuclear war.


 
Lightening the mood and returning to the music, Blow The Wind (subtitled Pie Jesu) does indeed feature that Orange ad music again. Heard without those connotations, however, this is a brilliant interweaving of samples and live sound, as Kathleen Ferrier’s familiar rendition of the traditional vocal is interspersed with Pappenheim and Pook’s plangent vocal counterpoint, the echoing sounds of children playing, and more soaring strings. As in hip‑hop, the form that originally used sampling to such great effect and historic importance, the sample of Ferrier is used as a basis to build other musical sequences, instrumentation and vocals. It’s humble, beautiful, and ends far too soon.


 
The lessons in the new technology of music Jocelyn Pook has gained will undoubtedly further influence the writing and performance of her music for her own instrument ‑ strings. The penultimate piece, La Blanche Traversée, appears to be a fairly standard chamber‑piece setting of words by Racine, but more remarkable is the subtle instrumental backing. Pook and the Electra Strings play a slightly off‑rhythm pattern of oscillating notes that, to any DJ or mixer who knows his decks, would be regarded as a loop. I feel that it is safe to assume that the original hip‑hop DJs never had this development in mind when they crafted scratching and looping. ‘Deluge’ is a long way from being electronica, but the ’90s cross‑pollination continues.


 
While music has broken all the boundaries of genre in the ’90s, the end products have resulted in albums of naked emotion or sonic inventiveness. But rarely both together. ‘Deluge’ is a suite of stunning invention and sheer beauty in its music, but with all the necessary emotion of a requiem for the post‑nuclear age. The wind blows cold, with the sound of ravens on the air, but it tugs your whole life right to the surface of your skin.

Never mind the politics of how you got to hear of Jocelyn Pook or ‘Deluge’. Open your mind to it.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

Jocelyn Pook: ‘Deluge’
Virgin Records, CDVE 933 7243 (7 24384 29632 2)
CD-only album
Released: 24th February 1997

Get it from:
(2018 update) long out-of-print, so best picked up second-hand. Most of the tracks on ‘Deluge’ were remixed and reissued on the ‘Flood’ album in 1999.

Jocelyn Pook online:
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February 1997 – album reviews – James’ ‘Whiplash’ (“dabbles in new styles, mostly unsatisfactorily”)

27 Feb

James: 'Whiplash'

James: ‘Whiplash’

When a band have made it, are popular, and their songs are heard in every commercial outlet, a person is simply playing a game of pathetic one‑upmanship if they smugly proclaim: “Oh, I liked them when they were a cult band. They’ve gone all pop now!” These are very sad people.

Ahem. Now…

I liked James when they were a cult band. They’ve gone all pop now. Yes, I admit it. I am a sad person and I claim my five pounds.

In truth, I lost touch with James after ‘Gold Mother’, when they entered the pop stratosphere and those T‑shirts became ubiquitous. My attitude to Sit Down exemplifies my attitude to ‘Whiplash’. Sit Down started life as a strumalong of identification with those who felt alone or slightly dispossessed, insecure. It was re‑released as an epic soundtrack which seemed to command “You WILL Sit Down!!”. And whilst every baggy‑shirted indie kid and raver performed the increasingly meaningless charade of plonking their arses on the stage, that song (and James themselves) sounded, to these ears, like a New Age, slightly more subtle Simple Minds. When my mother chose Sit Down as her favourite song, opined that Tim Booth was “a nice young man” and started asking me which one in the band was “James”, my interest in the band as a pop entity virtually evaporated. (You none‑more‑punk, you! ‑ ED.)


 
‘Whiplash’ promises much. It is heralded as “a return to form”. For old James fans, this is a pronouncement we’ve heard before. But the opening track, Tomorrow, has the pulsing rhythm, the simplicity and directness, the expanding layers of sound that I so remember were classic James; and so it is better to forget, perhaps, that this song is about three years old and first appeared in embryonic form on ’94’s experimental excursion ‘Wah Wah’. Elsewhere, Lost A Friend features verses with a skeletal musical backing and Booth returning to hitting all those strange half‑note harmonies of old, before breaking into the obligatory big chorus. It’s still James’ version of their Big Music, but it no longer lumbers like an over‑produced fabrication as in recent years. Sadly, trite lyrics like “my TV’s telling me / that all of our money goes into the military” and “I see some soldiers with guns / they are killing for fun / they are killing to entertain me” do not raise my political consciousness one iota. May I call you Bono, Tim?


 
This album’s biggest problems come where the much‑vaunted contemporary feel exerts itself. There is always an awful doubt when a band returns from a long break saying that they’ve been listening to techno/trip‑hop/drum’n’bass/ambient (or whatever; delete as applicable), and the new masterpiece is produced under these influences. Eighty per cent of ‘Whiplash’ features these dabbles in new styles, mostly unsatisfactorily.

The album’s first single, She’s A Star, is the most startling and perhaps most successful, sounding like Suede-lite. But it lacks Brett Anderson’s detailing of urban degeneration, suburbia and glamorous smack habits. With Suede, She’s A Star would be blackly ironic ‑ she would be a lonely girl in a dead commuter belt, or a wasted junkie. But Tim means it ‑ she really is a “star”. That’s lovely for him and her (whoever she may be), but ultimately rather naive for us.


 
Go To The Bank is roughly the third song on the album that mentions TVs, so James have obviously spent their time away wisely. Seemingly a diatribe against the evils of money, the lyrics leave a bad taste in the mouth with the repeated line “it all belongs to Caesar…” Is someone rather peeved about recently having to settle a large bill for unpaid taxes, eh? This track and the next, Play Dead, are full of techno effects that ultimately do not go far enough. They dabble in electronica, but still align themselves to typical James nervy strumalongs. But the two styles don’t gel, and they’d be more satisfying as one or the other. Play Dead, in particular, could be one of James’ truly haunting acoustic numbers if it dropped the excess techno zeitgeist baggage: it is one of the few obviously beautiful melodies here.


 
Greenpeace (oh Tim, do you have to be so fucking obvious? What next? Veggie? ’90s Hippie? Beanbag?) is a dark, slightly rockier take on trip‑hop, alternating between distorted vocals and ambience in the verses and a chorus that feels like it’s built on the bassline of Massive Attack’s Safe From Harm. It is leaden, and rather desperate to show how contemporary it is. Where James once had that aura of being a band of weird but pleasant loners down the end of the corridor, they now come across more like insufferably tedious born‑again Christians; but, as Greenpeace shows, ones who are desperate to prove to the church elders that they are hip and rebellious, and that “this is what the kids are into.”


 
It’s all so frustrating when elsewhere there’s such a blatant demonstration of the simple, peculiar emotional alchemy that James can muster so well. I’m talking about Blue Pastures, a quiet, near‑acoustic whisper of a coda to ‘Whiplash’s technophilic sprawl. Jim Glennie’s bass rings like a sleepy bell, guitars fill out dark clouds in the sky, and James’ old Patti Smith influences are evoked once more as Booth unwinds the story: someone quietly putting things to rights, then walking out into the snow to die. Their thoughts slow, the ground gets closer. Snow covering. Peace arriving. Fade‑out. Perfection ‑ for once, we respond with tears of compassion and recognition rather than of frustration.


 
But in the reckoning, this album is a disappointment after the marvellous and underrated ‘Wah Wah’. Which proved that, in the right laid‑back conditions and with the right production influence from Brian Eno (who part‑produced and “interfered” with this one, but evidently not enough), James could come up with the post‑modern experimental pop they so desperately seek on ‘Whiplash’. Chained, often rather clumsily, to the typical James of old, the two styles pull against each other. U2 have managed to cling to the bandwagon by enlisting the best technoheads around. If James want to do likewise, they’d better get someone who can do a better job at improving the rather leaden attempts at electronica on here. Or they can forget the zeitgeist and return to being the pre‑pomposity weirdo folkies still to be glimpsed occasionally.

Which way, Tim?

(review by Col Ainsley)

James: ‘Whiplash’
Mercury Records/Fontana Records, 534 354‑2 (731453435421)
CD/cassette album
Released: 24th February 1997

Get it from:
on general release.

James online:
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February 1997 – album reviews – Cranes’ ‘Population 4’ (“lacking in their usual ambition to take flight”)

15 Feb

Cranes: 'Population 4'

Cranes: ‘Population 4’

Coming out of the closet as a Cranes fan has been a dangerous thing to do, throughout their career. Unadventurous (and sometimes frankly spiteful) reviews have continually harped on that word ‑ “Goth” ‑ and Alison Shaw’s distinctive vocal style. Cranes first emerged against the hideous trend that was “indie‑dance” or “baggy”, and have remained resolutely out of step with the musical climate, with a small coterie of the artier music journos and a band of devoted fans to sing their praises.

The cover of Cranes’ last album proper, ‘Loved’, showed Degas’ ‘Blue Dancers’, and the album echoed those dusky blue hues and nineteenth‑century European Romantic feel. The music came swathed in atmosphere, but with each track having its own style and exploring a different, often new, facet of Cranes’ collective persona. Then the experimental nature of the ‘Orestes Et Electre’ project ‑ sandy, static theatre music ‑ hinted (semi‑successfully) at startling new directions. So here I am, fully prepared to herald the genius of Cranes… and they present a back‑to‑basics band sound chained to, of all things, an American college rock influence. Why?


 
Why does Fourteen ‑ for all of its stop‑start dynamics and distorted guitars ‑ sound like Veruca Salt?! The sophistication of the lyric is such that Alison Shaw appears to be singing “yeah” throughout most of the track. Oh. Breeze features bright summery chords all around, lyrics about sitting on golden beaches with views of the sun, sea and shore. The musical dynamics ‑ the few there are ‑ show no sense of originality or of Cranes’ usually meticulous, almost classical arrangements. It sounds like Belly. Anyone can “do” that: few people can “do” Cranes. Can’t Get Free is similar, complete with sweet “la la la” backing vocals, and a lyrically excruciating chorus that no doubt imagines it is being deeply profound about an emotional situation: “how can it be? / Why can’t I see? Just can’t get free / It just can’t be.” I nearly swallowed my tongue.

But look, if this new “direction” is to persist, then Cranes should concentrate on the likes of Sweet Unknown, which comes across like Mazzy Star stripped of the Velvets’ langour and opiate haze. It feelingly documents the end of a relationship: “for a while our world seemed right… / My whole world has gone away…” Or there’s Angel Bell, a very restrained attempt at a deep South/Birthday Party dynamic song in an ice‑cool Cranes style, with a primal rhythm being ripped out of an unidentified instrument. Possibly a cello being mutilated in the name of Gothic atmosphere. Saint Nick (Cave, that is) would be pleased.



 
And, thankfully, there are moments when Cranes reveal a taste of the album they could have made ‑ a development of their music but still recognisably, uniquely, Cranes. The album opens (lulling one into a false sense of security, it has to be said) with Tangled Up ‑ one of those beguiling, metronomic laments with sparsely clipped acoustic guitar and Alison’s wispy, vulnerable child vocals echoing in the night (you have my permission to groan at that unoriginal description of her voice). Oh sure, Cranes could probably do this sort of thing in their sleep, but it’s inimitable; one of the eeriest and most affecting sounds around.


 
Stalk is also a standout track. A chilling, menacing tale of someone obsessively watching, watching, watching ‑ “the bars at your window / are killing tomorrow for me” ‑ set to a claustrophobic soundtrack of rumbling drums and stroked acoustic guitar. The problem comes in the vocals ‑ the track’s sung by Jim Shaw, normally the skilled arranger of the band’s musical atmospheres. While he does sound low and menacing, and you can feel his breath behind you, he also has no singing voice whatsoever, frankly. Shame.


 
Another relative high point is Brazil. Very like Jewel (their, um, “hit single” from the ‘Forever’ album) in its dry upfront sound, with the guitars providing a slightly Spanish acoustic feel. The sound is deepened by, on this occasion, by the very un‑Cranes‑like bright electric piano which, surprisingly, works beautifully in these surroundings.

But still there is that feeling of an incomplete Cranes, lacking in their usual ambition to take flight. To Be, the final song, exemplifies the problem. A slow mini‑epic of the sort that Cranes usually specialise in to such mesmeric effect, drowned in harmonies, atmospheres and intricate classical structures, is rendered less powerful by its resolutely “live band” feel.

‘Population 4’, then, ends with a song that barely leaves terra firma, when it could have the ability to soar. Cranes are still a very special group, not worthy of their bad press. It’s just that, for whatever musical or personal reasons, they have held themselves back this time.

Cranes: it’s a vision thing. We want the vision back.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

Cranes: ‘Population 4’
Dedicated Records, DED CD 026 (743214315224)
CD/cassette album
Released: 11th February 1997

Get it from:
(2018 update) best obtained second-hand.

Cranes online:
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February 1997 – album reviews – The Bathers’ ‘Kelvingrove Baby’ (“full of Celtic soul histrionics, surging choruses and delicate instrumental interludes”)

13 Feb

The Bathers: 'Kelvingrove Baby'

The Bathers: ‘Kelvingrove Baby’

Oh, but I do worry about Chris Thomson.

Chris Thomson is The Bathers. He’s been ploughing his lonely furrow for ten years, since the break up of the seminal Glasgow group Friends Again (who also featured James Grant of Love And Money ‑ no, me neither…). This is The Bathers’ fifth album ‑ it will doubtless be received with the same resounding silence as all the others, save for the tiny devoted following who will think manna has descended from heaven. So why was I worried? Well, the sleeve to the last album, ‘Sunpowder’, contained the desperately insecure messages “Support the Arts ‑ Hug A Musician” and “The Dream Is Over ‑ Long Live The Dream”. Sob.

Now you’ll have to take The Bathers to your hearts, surely…?


 
In truth, the first three or so tracks are a touch disconcerting by normal Bathers standards. The (frankly pretentious, but marvellous) European‑influenced titles are absent; the credits show a preponderance of Wurlitzer, Rhodes and electric pianos rather than the normally ever‑present ethereal strings and chiming classical piano lines. And while Van Morrison has often been an undoubted influence, on this album the influence is perhaps too pervasive, and it verges at times on sounding like an avant‑garde Hothouse Flowers. The trio of Girlfriend, If Love Could Last Forever and East Of East Delier ‑ whilst gloriously late‑night ‑ can make them sound like a barely‑audible, zonked‑out but musically polite cafe band. At one point, I half expected Thomson to slur: “Ladeez and gennelmen, we’re your band this evening. Gonna take a little ol’ break now. See you at the bar, which is now open.”.


 
But for East Of East Delier, the European outlook (“I dreamed she’d come from Copenhagen…”) is back, serenaded by Thomson’s 2 a.m‑feel, decidedly tipsy, highly emotional display, and the album twitches into life with No Risk No Glory. With a sparse acoustic base to the verse, and sympathetic soul‑style backing vocals (by, of all people, Del Amitri’s Justin Currie ‑ bang goes the indie cred) that echo Thomson’s lyric, the chorus rises to breast‑beating Celtic soul and a lyric full of self‑awareness ‑ “I was born to suffer.”

And after a slightly hazy start to the album, Once Upon A Time On The Rapenburg restores my faith. It’s like an old friend, and you should never change an old friend. All the signature Bathers motifs are there ‑ the classical piano, the strings, the over‑emotional vocals, the continental cool. And the lyrical concern is a familiar one about kissing a girl under starlit skies in various exotic European locations. What a guy…


 
Kelvingrove Baby itself is the album’s central epic ‑ there’s always one, full of Celtic soul histrionics, surging choruses and delicate instrumental interludes. It begins as a simple piano motif before bursting into life with haunting voices and an operatic diva weaving in and out of Thomson’s lyrics ‑ which could be corny, but instead sends a shiver down the spine. He’s expectantly waiting for a girl again, and dedicating his overflowing paean of love to her hometown. The music regularly builds, swells and bursts like a raincloud, as Thomson reaches ecstatic preacherly heights of inspiration: “when your girl looks at you, and she sighs, / when she moves beside you, you want the moment touched with magic and immortality. / You want rain, / you want soft music, / and the last words to be about love!” Pianos and drums explode. The song ends, soaked to the skin and smiling.


 
On a quieter tip, Girl From The Polders is a good example of what Thomson does so well: taking a standard, timeless melody (you know the tune already, from the first notes onwards) and drawing out of it something haunting and emotional. He seems to be waiting through the seasons, until summer, for her this time. (Hands up if you see a lyrical theme emerging…)

The one unforgivable track ‑ the first real blot on Thomson’s copy book I’ve heard in ages, is Dial. More cafe band music; too mellow, man. Lots of filmic guitar, elongated major‑7th chords, treacle‑smooth backing vocals and an irredeemably cringeworthy chorus ‑ “Caller, you’re divine.” Ugh. But Hellespont In A Storm (yes! titles! titles!) wins us back: a late‑night lament guided by an accordion, acoustic guitar and violin. Although, gorgeous as it is, Thomson’s way with a familiar melody takes a tumble in the verses, where echoes of Unchained Melody can be clearly heard. Oh, never mind…

The final track, Twelve, finds Thomson devoting himself to a girl in the most poetic and tangible of ways; “I’ll love you ’til the roses lose their perfume… / until the poets run out of rhymes… / ’til the twelfth of never. / And, baby, you know / that’s a long, long time…” Then that “Bathers moment” appears ‑ distant voices appear and disappear through snatches of ghostly telephone conversations, string passages shoot up at the back of the recording like incense rushing up the dome of St Peter’s. The callers hang up.


 
Chris Thomson will be waiting for you, bottle of red wine in hand in the late‑night rain, under the street lamp’s orange glow. He’ll be singing quietly to himself.

Goodbye, Chris. See you at the same place next time.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

The Bathers: ‘Kelvingrove Baby’
Marina Records, MA 22/MACD 4468‑2 (4 015698 446821)
CD-only album
Released: 10th February 1997

Get it from:
(2018 update) the original Marina pressing of this album has long since sold out, so is best obtained second-hand. The 2000 reissue on Wrasse Records is still available.

The Bathers online:
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November 1996 – album reviews – Labradford’s ‘Labradford’ (“aural massage never sounded so nerve-wracking”)

15 Nov

Labradford: 'Labradford'

Labradford: ‘Labradford’

With two albums already behind them, it’s time to stop lumping Labradford in with Tortoise as the only two notable examples of American post-rock. Post-rock is an uncomfortable catch-all that can’t really adequately describe a spectrum that takes in the noisy Trans Am at one end and the classical minimalism of Rachel’s at the other. And where Tortoise approach from an obviously jazzy direction, Labradford’s methods are ice-cold developments on ambience that now seem to be reaching a creative peak.

When a known band suddenly gives, say, their third album the name of the band (the way one would usually do for a debut), you can generally guess that they’re making a pointed statement of identity and distancing themselves from much of what went before. And – appropriately – ‘Labradford’ is Labradford’s most fulfilling statement so far; showing a fully-developed band consolidating the intriguing (but ultimately frustrating and insubstantial) thumbnail sketches they provided on ‘Prazision’ and ‘A Stable Reference’.

Experiments like the deep sub-frequency bass – straight out of acid house – dropping into the chilling ambience of The Cipher or the dissonant tones that break up the background of Lake Speed are perhaps signs of ears being opened to electronica; although this also leads to a loss of the band’s shared interest in the ancient music and religious plainsong which influenced their earlier albums. And which kept me listening past the point where I’d gotten infuriated by their sheer collegiate lethargy, the way they sounded like something made by people who only got out of bed to turn their Neu! record over.

That spectral and distinctly European quality is missing from this year’s model to be replaced by more obviously technologically produced atmospherics, and better production has separated out the sounds from the claustrophobia of ‘A Stable Reference’. The addition of rhythms, albeit perfunctory and not necessarily conventional drum sounds, makes a big difference to the progress of the pieces. Where previously Labradford songs started, hung in stasis in a foggy air and then disappeared, there is now a definite propulsion, a moving forward. Reassuringly, though, we’re not talking 120 bpm…


 
For a group dealing in mainly instrumental ambient atmospheres, it comes as something of a joy to come across titles that, for once, bear some relation to the sounds being heard. The first track really does sound like a Phantom Channel Crossing – the most nightmarish vision imaginable of a midnight journey in a tin hulk of a ferry. The engines, the chains, the metallic resonances, the emptiness – all there. Maybe I’m imagining things. Painting my own picture for the sounds I’m hearing.

But if that’s not what Labradford’s all about, then there’s no point. This is a gallery of sound, rather than music. And yes, Midrange really does appear to exist all in that spectrum. It’s claustrophobic. While Mark Nelson’s voice mouths more of his usual indecipherable profundities over the group’s ghostly atmospherics, it is noticeable that more light is seeping into the sonic palette – distant violins and, most distinct from the usual swirling morass, a subtly tapped-out rhythm. It still ends with the growing unease of that Labradford noise, however – the closest description being the amplified sound of air ventilation.


 
Lake Speed is underpinned by a metronomic, surprisingly insistent bass drum rhythm, like a niggling thought tapping constantly on the wall of your brain. “Like a clock / In pieces / On the floor / I try to fix it fast / So I don’t lose too much time” – and as the clock ticks, all manner of worryingly gentle alarms go off in the background. It gives the impression of a David Lynch piece that is seeking to add to your feelings of paranoia. Aural massage never sounded so nerve-wracking. One of the track’s twisted and elongated effects sounds like a man giving vent to a low, painful scream. It’s buried deep in the mix… but it’s there. How appropriate.


 
Scenic Recovery retains much of the sound and atmosphere of Lake Speed. But still the thoughts keep churning away inside. The tap-tap-tapping rhythm has altered slightly – suddenly it’s the regular but ineffectual pulse of a coma patient. As the mire of sound envelops you, and tension hangs in the air, a solitary violin carries a melody through the ether. Pico is one of Labradford’s “songs”; rather than just shifting atmospheres. Almost hymnal in its simplicity – a sequence of heartbreaking chords, a melody that is played by a friendly alien on a space-age tin whistle, a barely-there whisper of a vocal and another minimalist, almost endearingly clumsy rhythm. The pace is processional, almost holy.



 
Oh God, how does one describe The Cipher? It is just there. It exists, like sounds exist even in the most silent of nights. Look, this is the sound of digital and analogue air rustling chains. Ghostly. Calming. It is all of these things. But mostly, it just is.


 
Battered, the closer, is almost eventful. Delicately balanced on a hesitant mandolin-like guitar, a brightly melodic riff, and with a beep providing the rhythm – coma patients again, nurse – it hits a Cocteaus-like bliss-out at the end. Perfect pop for Prozac people.


 
The last notes we hear are desert guitars drifting into the night. Death Valley, here we come…

(review by Col Ainsley)

Labradford: ‘Labradford’
Mute Liberation Technologies/Blast First Records, BFFP 136CD (5 016027 611360)
CD/download album
Released: 12th November 1996

Get it from:
(2018 update) CD best obtained second-hand, or download from Bandcamp.

Labradford online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

September 1996 – album reviews – John Greaves/David Cunningham’s ‘Greaves, Cunningham’ reissue (“a muted treasure”)

10 Sep

John Greaves, David Cunningham: 'Greaves, Cunningham'

John Greaves, David Cunningham: ‘Greaves, Cunningham’

Too much information.

I’ll own up to being the occasional sad muso, the sort of person who wants to know which guest musician banged the tambourine on the second (unused) take of The Beatles’ Revolution on June 24, 1968, and what colour trousers they were wearing. (Look, it’s a hypothetical. Don’t send your replies).

It’s refreshing, then, to be recommended an album and know little or nothing about the artist. David Cunningham I am familiar with as the person behind The Flying Lizards, purveyors of bizarre‑sounding kitchen‑sink electronics who had a surprise hit in the ’70s with a version of early Motown hit Money, and has since produced much of Michael Nyman’s work. John Greaves? Search me. My excellent editor will no doubt insert a knowledgeable mini‑biog here. I think John Greaves may have been in some way involved in prog. God help us… (Near enough. He used to be in Henry Cow ‑ an enthralling but demanding gang of ferociously complex Maoist art‑rockers in the ’70s ‑ playing bass on revolutionary stuff that was far too twisty to sing over. Perhaps as a reaction, he’s been a song‑albums man ever since. Prog by default, I guess: the difference isn’t as wide as some would like to imply ‑ ED.).

So I didn’t know what to expect. What I found is a delicate and intensely beautiful curio. Totally motionless. Ice cold. Pure electronics, free of the distortion and sampling that we so associate with the form now, and only occasionally breathed upon by natural sounds. And a voice that sings of emotion but remains, almost intriguingly, detached.

The Mirage is a less than promising opening, though. It almost justifies the accusation that much avant‑garde music is simply nice melodies and good singers ruined by someone working randomly through all the programs on their synth in the background. But one is immediately struck by the voice of John Greaves: somewhere between Dominic Appleton of Breathless (and, more famously, This Mortal Coil) and John Cale ‑ appropriately, Greaves is also a Welsh tenor. The sort of voice, frankly, that is only ever heard in art‑rock. It’s heard to great effect on one of the stand‑out tracks, The Magical Building. A beautiful melody and a peculiarly touching analogy ‑ “Oh darling, it’s all so mysterious / The magical building that is us” ‑ despite its unusually clinical feel. Cunningham’s stark, clean electronic backing evokes further This Mortal Coil comparisons.


 
One Summer allows about the most human emotion on this album. Regret. The harmonies are all‑too‑real in beautifully surrounding Greaves’ voice as he regrets: “Swimming all around and never getting closer / To the one damn thing you knew we needed most…/ In a way, we never happened / In a way, we were never there / In a way, we were phantoms / In a way, we were fish in air…/ In a way, we didn’t care / And there’s nobody left to tell the tale.” If that doesn’t get you weeping over summer love affairs long gone, you are truly heartless.


 
In between the longer vocal tracks, there are a number of short ambient pieces. Whilst all retain the icy atmosphere of the album, the vocals elsewhere are so stunning one longs for their return. Nevertheless, the instrumentals are arresting in their own way, several of them sharing similarities with the recent work of Jansen and Barbieri; particularly the final track, The Map Of The Mountains, where marimbas play a softly rhythmic motif over an evolving ambient sequence. The Red Sand is a rhythmic instrumental of pulsating piano, percussion, strange dislocated vocal snatches, parping saxes and clarinet. The Other World ‑ due to its instrumentation in particular ‑ proves to be a more substantial interruption to the flow of the songs. The acoustic guitars and saxophone bring a more laid‑back feel when the steel‑cold otherworldly electronics have just got you entranced. One big flaw, though ‑ the sax player is given far too many solos whilst suffering from avant‑garditis. He doesn’t so much play the tune so much as parp strange caterwauling noises. Cheers, mate ‑ do ruin the atmosphere. Anyway…



 
The Voice returns. The Inside, penned by Greaves alone, is (apart from a recurring, majestic‑bubblegum hook of “oh, baby, oh”) sung entirely in French. So, no, I have no idea what it’s about: suffice to say that it appears an unwritten rule of art‑rock albums that they must feature a track sung in French. Whatever the content, this is an achingly simple torch song, so standard in its verse‑chorus‑verse‑bridge structure that it emerges as a feat of understatement when the temptation to load on the sounds would have been all too easy. The Same Way, also a Greaves‑penned track, is another song about lost love, finding love, insecurity about love ‑ “You could say I’m way off course / You could say I love you.” Indeed, it ends in the same way it began.

This is an album, a muted treasure, to discover as autumn ends. Music for a midwinter morning ‑ intensely cold, but intensely beautiful.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

John Greaves/David Cunningham: ‘Greaves, Cunningham’
Piano, PIANO 506 (604388401024)
CD-only album reissue
Released: 1996

Get it from:
(2018 update) best obtained second-hand.

John Greaves online:
Homepage Facebook Soundcloud Last FM

David Cunningham online:
Homepage Last FM

July 1996 – album reviews – Eyeless In Gaza’s ‘All Under The Leaves, The Leaves Of Life’ (“rings the sonic changes track by track”)

25 Jul

Eyeless In Gaza: 'All Under The Leaves, The Leaves Of Life'

Eyeless In Gaza: ‘All Under The Leaves, The Leaves Of Life’

Still undimmed after years of following a winding path from visionary post-punk to surreal pop, and through to a beautiful breed of semi-ambient outsider-folk, Eyeless In Gaza continue to blossom in their triumphant 1990s renaissance. They’re also as restless as ever – following soon after their ‘Bitter Apples‘ album (with its sustained autumnal mood) ‘All Under The Leaves, The Leaves Of Life’ rings the sonic changes track by track.

Indeed, Eyeless seem as happy to draw on their post-punk past as they are to explore the ghostly folk that’s left an impressive stamp on their recent music. Monstrous Joy opens the album and… God help us, it’s 1981 again! Joy Division bass rumbles, spindly single-note synths, buzzingly active electronic drums. Yet despite the timewarp, this is no Xerox copy of those years. Instrumentally, it’s a skilfully layered slice of pop atmospherics: lyrically, emotions are conveyed much more directly. Gone are the allusions to nature, but the atmosphere holds a definite frost in the air – “here is a sorrow that owns me, here is a sorrow that speaks.”


 
Struck Like Jacob Marley (despite the Dickensian title, a highly contemporary standout) does nothing to ease the chill. Led by rumbling bass guitar and defiantly noisy and distorted electric guitar, the lyrics are upfront advice to a friend consumed by cynicism – “it’s almost as though you have no positive view / and the old warmth is going, even though you don’t wish it to.” Hard words.

Meanwhile, the sonic adventures just keep on coming. Fracture Track is a mesmerising and bloody assault on the Eyeless sound. A violently struck, hypnotic rhythm guitar riff is blasted on all sides by discordant drones and buzzes: there are no drums, yet it sounds huge, and Martyn Bates pushes out a harsh-edged, ferocious vocal. “Blasted and blinded to chaos… / riding an animal hatred… / forcing such a numb and wasting path for you to blithely tread.” The violent and nihilistic imagery only adds towards making this the darkest, most fearsome track Eyeless In Gaza have ever recorded.

The traditional Leaves Of Life, as arranged by Eyeless, sounds like a less wasted Flying Saucer Attack turned on their heads. The vocals and spartan folk acoustics take place up close, whilst the unsettling ambience – provided mainly by startlingly severe treatment and distortion of electric guitars and other electrical interferences – scares the life out of you in the background. Gothic folk at its best. And trip-hop? Well, OK, nearly. Answer Song And Dance definitely possesses a dark, nervous trip-hop undercarriage, with a slow, menacing beat, cool electronic sheen and Martyn’s vocals relayed through digital effects and compression: more experiments in new sound are going on here.


 
Three Ships, another arrangement of a traditional piece, is perhaps the most reassuringly familiar Eyeless In Gaza track here, comprising a solo vocal over Peter Becker’s long churchy organ notes (“all the black keys”, as they once called it). Even here, though, the second part of the track becomes subject to the unsettling aural sculptures of pervasive otherworldly drones, sonic interferences and sinister electronic pulses. It sounds like a late 90’s version of one of the frankly peculiar little improvised instrumentals that have littered Eyeless B-sides and rarities in the past: but, satisfyingly, it’s an example of technology finally catching up with the duo’s ambitious musical vision, so that they can finally express their experimental sides to the full.


 
It’s tempting to see this album as the second side of the coin flipped by ‘Bitter Apples’ last year. If the former was the familiar world of acoustic alchemy, natural imagery and the avant-folk song, then ‘All Under The Leaves…’ sees Eyeless In Gaza striking out for new challenges: testing their own musical limits, and casting off the gauze of allusion and allegory to put forward sometimes difficult lyrical statements directly. And while, on ‘Bitter Apples’, vibrant colours were all around and there was a last gasp of summer’s warmth, ‘…Leaves…’ is winter-cold. Challenging, but ultimately beautiful when viewed in the harshest of frosts.

Since unexpectedly bursting back into life in 1993, Eyeless In Gaza have been immensely prolific. But as their continuing string of albums in the comeback sequence show, quality has remained high: and Bates and Becker’s desire to move forward and experiment – while retaining Eyeless’ essential character – remains intact and proud.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

Eyeless In Gaza: ‘All Under The Leaves, The Leaves Of Life’
Ambivalent Scale Recording, A‑SCALE 021 (5 021958 463025)
CD‑only album
Released: 19th July 1996

Get it from:
(2018 update) original CD and 2009 Cherry Red Records reissue best obtained second-hand.

Eyeless In Gaza online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr Last FM

February 1996 – album reviews – Fruit’s ‘Hark At Her’ (“this bold, brash, noisy, fun, emotional tour‑de‑force”)

2 Feb

Fruit: 'Hark At Her'

Fruit: ‘Hark At Her’

Fruit is Patrick Fitzgerald (and friends). He, for those who care about such things, was the vocalist with the sadly underrated ‑ and sadly no more ‑ Kitchens Of Distinction, a trio of rather serious‑looking young men producing doomily arty, swirling guitar rock. (Digression: while Fruit is a terrific ‑ and more fun ‑ project, the Kitchens shouldn’t have been mercilessly dropped by One Little Indian. So much for the eclectic, egalitarian indies! OLI should get it together ‑ they dumped both No‑Man and Kitchens, unwilling to give them a little leeway to produce their own music. Basically, they now just exist to market Bjork. Idiots.)

So, as Kitchens Of Distinction… er… got out of the kitchen, Patrick set about producing this bold, brash, noisy, fun, emotional tour‑de‑force of (mainly) gay life. From the start, he was working against the prevailing musical current ‑ Fruit’s debut single, an evocation of gay life and death called The Queen Of Old Compton Street (not included here) came out in the same week as Oasis’ Live Forever. Such irony made me laugh until I choked.

Let Patrick educate you. Proceedings open with What Is Fruit?, sounding like one of The Fall’s chuck‑it‑all‑in‑the‑mix takes on crunchy guitar dance‑pop, but with a brighter sensibility from the start. Exotic voices and foreign tongues fly thick and fast with their interjections to that essential question. “Films, actors, addicts, vermin, / Friends, filth ‑ everyone I’ve ever met” ‑ out of the ghetto and all around us ‑ “not forgetting the two coppers in the kitchen.” This is gleeful and exuberant. Hell, the bright pop mix is even down to Pascal Gabriel.


 
Pleasure Yourself continues the fun, with much the same thrilling electric‑guitars‑plus‑electronics backing, as Patrick cheekily suggests: “Take my pleasure seriously / So come on baby and pleasure me / While you pleasure yourself.” Its wonderful directness can’t be avoided, and the same is true of Sally’s Car. To a ‘Diamond Dogs’‑era Bowie glam feel, Patrick remembers: “In Sally’s car we go too far… / lying on the back seat watching the meteors from Mars.” No, if you want subtlety, forget it. Then they drive away ‑ “put the roof down, turn the noise up.” Oh, come on! It’s corny, yes, but whoever your sexual partner, you’ve known that feeling.



 
But hey, if this is all getting too happy for you…

Starring Relationship ‑ featuring yet more dialogue, partly from Lush’s gleeful harpy Miki Berenyi ‑ is Patrick sounding as frankly pissed off as you always wish you could get when, at a party, you’ve got trapped into a corner with some misery of a person sitting on the stairs, bending your ear. “Don’t want to hear about your fucking relationship / The way you feel when he doesn’t think of you… / Just deal with it!” Patrick has got every whinging item of complaint in such talk nailed down and, to a soundtrack of suitably scratchy, edgy guitars, he’s spitting them all back at you ‑ with added bile.


 
The two central tracks of the album are not only the most musically dissimilar, but display the two sides of the gay experience. Prowler features the star‑shooting, to die‑for harmonies of David McAlmont: to a smooth late‑night soundtrack of lush acoustic guitars, husky organ and reedy trumpet, he and Patrick celebrate freedom and the opportunity to practice one’s desires without fear. It’s glorious. Through the music the sound of thunder breaks into the sweaty heat of a summer’s night outdoors. Such freedom is Shangri‑La…


 
The other side of the coin is Leather Jacket. To a Tricky‑ish soundtrack of kettle drums and nervously plucked guitars, Patrick relates an absolutely terrifying tale of gay‑bashing on the street. With increasing terror, he repeats the central line: “I hear the zip of his leather jacket / See the flashing of gun metallic…” The lads want to bash him up to impress their girlfriends, while he desperately prays to be spirited away by clicking his Doc Martened heels three times. Last time now: “I hear the…” Gunshot.


 
But there’s a reprise. Over the returning kettle drums, a certain Paul McGlone narrates his memories of a karate‑kicking and beating from two scum. Paul’s a survivor, though. He’s got the right idea. He wants justice ‑ to identify them in a police station‑‑and simple revenge ‑ the humane solution of a bullet through their heads. What with Lorne Burrell’s lethally camp, RuPaul‑ish delivery of a threat to kick the bully boys into paradise, the message is clear: the survivors are waiting…


 
The final track, Scatter Me, ends with death. Though these funerals of young men, AIDS victims, are now all too common – the same songs are sung, the same careful sideways looks to see who’s noticeably losing weight ‑ the proud defiance is still there: “The dead are so loud / Their monuments are so proud.” As he looks up to heaven and sees all the souls gazing down, Patrick’s naked, almost scarred voice surges with power and defiant strength, over a bare acoustic guitar and water effects.


 
So many voices and so many words, sung and spoken, populate this album that, at times, the music does rather take second place and search for a personality among many differing styles. But what the hell, this is such an amazing walk through relationships and experiences that such a criticism is unimportant for a fun project, a masterful achievement and a life‑defining catalogue of all those highs and lows.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

Fruit: ‘Hark At Her’
One Little Indian Records, TPLP75CD (5 016958 029524)
CD-only album
Released: January 1996

Get it from:
(2018 update) Out-of-print – best obtained second-hand, or downloaded from Bleep.

Fruit (Patrick Fitzgerald/Stephen Hero) online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

November 1995 – album reviews – Eyeless In Gaza’s ‘Bitter Apples’ (“an autumnal album in the most inspiring way”)

30 Nov

Eyeless In Gaza: 'Bitter Apples'

Eyeless In Gaza: ‘Bitter Apples’

After seventeen years on the wildest, furthest reaches of contemporary music, Eyeless In Gaza’s time may finally have come. With the British music scene proclaiming itself as boundary-free, cross-pollination of styles is the name of the game. Experimentation is the byword. Ears are open to new sounds.

Eyeless, of course, have been doing it for ages – from industrial electronics through early-80’s sparse electronic punk, bedsit acoustic folk, a stab at a big pop sound and experiments with mechanistic ambience. Then a seven-year abeyance followed by a shock return with the modern dance-pop of ‘Fabulous Library’ and by ‘Saw You In Reminding Pictures’ (an album of improvised, cinematic, ambient songs and atmospheres). Yet all, thanks to Martyn Bates’ distinctive, expressive voice and Peter Becker’s endlessly inventive musical collages, recognisably Eyeless In Gaza.

Much of Europe has been in on their greatness for years. Now that they have returned it is time that Britain listened in; particularly as, since Eyeless reformed, their career has been no nostalgic re-run of past styles, but a body of work that has engaged with the best of them in the camp marked “pre-millennial boundary-breaking zeitgeist experimentation”. Or something.


 
Following the head-expanding soundscape world of ‘Saw You In Reminding Pictures’, ‘Bitter Apples’ comes announced as a return to song structures and a live folk feel (acoustic guitars, bass, drums). The matured Eyeless In Gaza are now reinventing the brand of avant-folk song first heard on their Drumming The Beating Heart album over a decade ago. Lyrics such as those on Bushes And Briars immediately announce the folk influence – “through bushes and through briars / I lately made my way / all for to hear the young birds sing / and the lambs to skip and play.”

But any hint of preciousness about such a style is dispelled by the ghostly a-capella treatment of Bates’ voice, treated with vocal effects that make him sound like a possessed changeling, wrapped in his own tingling harmonies. Martyn Bates’ voice is unique – expressive in hushing to a sense of menace, or delicate and weary, or surging with the power to hit the rafters. He occasionally retains a slight rasp, an edge, to his voice from the first punk-inflected vocals of early Eyeless. A comparison? Impossible.


 
Year Dot demonstrates how Eyeless In Gaza can produce powerfully rhythmic, surging music from the basis of harsh acoustic riffs, Martyn letting his voice roam over the melodies with unfettered power. But technology is not anathema to such natural surroundings, though – the track closes in a sharp crescendo of electronic interference. Contemporary experimentation mixes it further with avant-folk on Jump To Glory Jane – zither passages are built upon bursts of white noise, klaxons, and improvised wordless vocal harmonies as just another instrument in the delicate construction. It’s a perfect demonstration of the duo’s implicit feel for building such atmospheres, and sets the tone for much of the rest of the album.

Perhaps the central track, though, is To Listen Across The Sands: powerful and urgent, built upon a crashing electronic drum pattern remorselessly pushing the rhythm forward and echoing the lyrical theme of listening to “all the mad, crashing waves.” The song would seem to be an allegory for a journey through a stormy life – “listen across the sands / to the waves drifting where you stand / and all their voices swallowing your life.” A theme that is returned to, lyrically and musically, on the title track. To an up-tempo soundtrack of syncopated guitar and percussion (plus a star appearance from a keyboard relic in Peter Becker’s armoury of sounds – the Wasp), nature’s imagery is once again summoned to describe the unpleasant aspects of life we sometimes have to wade through. “Such a bitter harvest, such a windfall falling that I can’t move… / all that I taste wastes me away – all that I’m succoured by and living on… / bitter apples…”

This is an autumnal album in the most inspiring way – new invigorating cooler winds provoking the falling leaves and scudding clouds. And Eyeless in Gaza are long-overdue for rediscovery, yet still ripe. Pluck.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

Eyeless In Gaza: ‘Bitter Apples’
Ambivalent Scale Recording, A‑SCALE 020 (5021958453026)
CD‑only album
Released: autumn 1995

Get it from:
(2018 update) original CD best obtained second-hand. There was a 2011 reissue on Hand/Eye Records which might be easier to find.

Eyeless In Gaza online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr Last FM

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