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CONCERT REVIEW – Chaos Theory presents ‘Jazz Market’ @ The Luxe, Spitalfields, London, 29th May 2013 (featuring A Sweet Niche, Macchina del Tempo, What?! – with guests Yasmyn Hendrix, Moo Clef, Chloe Herington) (“tunes and stutters and babels”)

9 Jun

Walking into the Luxe, I feel even shabbier than usual. I fear those spotless white napkins and wooden counters; I look sidelong at the pricey menu; I sidle off to the side door as soon as possible. Like most of the rest of Spitalfields, this place has gone upmarket and left me behind. Until about a decade ago, it was the Spitz – another restaurant, another bar, another venue. Much loved, and more boho-genteel: I’d come here for electronica, for rock of the post- and mathy variety, and for the occasional off-centre songwriter.

Occasionally I’d come for jazz – something which, as a language, still sits oddly in London’s mouth. It’s not that the city spurns jazz – enough London musicians, venues and festivals give the lie to that. But I feel that sometime it seems a little deracinated here, even in a town where more recent arrivals like reggae and salsa now seem like part of tradition. Supper jazz might be healthy, foyer spaces still welcoming, but outside of grants or outright corporate sponsorship, it’s mostly a tribute to the tenacity and dedication of London’s jazzers that the music keeps its personal, inventive foothold here. The old Spitz was a place which welcomed jazz in plenty of its diverse strands and split-tongued digressions. When you were at a Spitz jazz event, you could feel the music striving, feel its life; and when all of that ended London jazz was diminished.

This picture’s a little too gloomy. There were – and are – other venues, and for those who still want it, the displaced spirit of the Spitz lives on elsewhere as a jazz collective. But it’s heartening that Chaos Theory Promotions (that mobile feast of wide-spanning musical interest, springing from place to place across London) seem to be paying a little homage to old times when they drop their Jazz Market night into the Luxe. Some things stay changed, sadly. I’ve not been here in years, but in Spitz days the music owned the top floor (and a Shoreditch panorama, such as it was). Now it’s down in the basement bar, sharing with the comedy and competing with the toilets: sidelined. Never mind. The Chaos brokers themselves are brimful of enthusiasm, and three jazz trios have come to chat.

What?! sway and chop through something (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

What?! sway and chop through something (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

If jazz is a language, What?! keep it as handfuls of sentences plunged into a deep baggy pocket, mixed up with anything else they’ve found during the week. Everything in the pocket is regularly hauled up for inspection, to be chucked and scattered casually across a table, just to see how it will fall. The boys certainly aren’t purists, although their taste for locating comfortable licks and riffs in whichever genre they’re toying with does keep you guessing as to how much of what they do is serious. In keeping with this, they’re acting as class clowns tonight. In fetching scarlet dressing-gown and shades, his white-man dreads spilling from a Rasta cap, guitarist Niels Bakx is part-Trustafarian and part-trannie. Bass guitarist Ago Collura, his back turned to the audience, is Reverse Man – a white mask strapped to the back of his head beneath his Tyrolean stovepipe hat, a collar and tie sprouting from the nape of his neck. Having apparently lost a bet, sparky drummer Raphael Lanthaler performs stripped to the waist and down to his underpants (though he’s been allowed to keep his hatful of bright rainbow-dyed feathers as well as his delighted grin).

On record, What?! strut and step like a cool-jazz function band about to be warmed-up and overcome by a sly sense of mischief. Both of their recent singles make a showing tonight – the Brubeck reggae of Tikka Masala (now with extra curlicues from Ago’s bass and curves of wah on the rhythm guitar); a spiked-up, rockier version of Schwaffelen, passing a swaying cats-cradle of jazz and ska touches over and over the tune. This kind of music is what they’re most at home with. It’s not, however, what they’re most drawn to doing. What?! like to stray – prancing into diced-up, chequered rock patterns dominated by the thwack of Raphael’s tom; laying out a sun-stroked Caribbean hiccup for a minute; or suddenly picking up and pelting through some driving motorbike music. Still very young (at an age where anything and everything can be hysterically funny), and still drunk on the musical options that surround them as busy session players and broad listeners, What?! can certainly groove: but they won’t settle.

What?! - unexpectedly naked drummer... (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

What?! – unexpectedly naked drummer… (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

It’s unclear how many of the band’s disruptions, false halts and oblique quotes are written rather than improvised, but their sense of fun constantly overpowers their artfulness, and every so often their humour dips towards novelty territory. When they slip into a quick strum through Happy Birthday for a friend, it’s warm but a touch too crowd-pleasing. I doubt that What?! wouldn’t care if anyone told them that. An easy-going and sociable band, they’ve invited buddies up to play and clearly thrive on it.

Like a dayglo Tom Waits in his checkered-tablecloth bowler and green tints, the jazz-prankster Moo Clef sits in for a couple of songs. One he plays straight, blowing a fiesta trumpet over a reggae section, fluent and cool-fired. For the other, he adds various sung, rapped and chanted interjections that he tweaks and filters into cartoon oddities via effects pedals. At one point, a chipmunk-voiced cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit takes over, the band smoothly slipping into light-touch Nirvana riffage. The joke wobbles somewhere between Battles and Zappa: disarming romp, or sarcastic cheese. (Or lounge act. Ha.)

It’s a different story when Yasmyn Hendrix and her flower-child headscarf step up to front the trio for Stay With Me. Usually she’s found in unlikely venues, crafting herself castles out of her own vocal loops. Here she plays it straight and soulful, her light but bluesy vocals lounging and skittering over What?!’s skein of tango-funk and Come Together dub-shimmer. For a while, the band sit back and enjoy playing as accompanists. For a while, they stay rooted. They’re good at it. Those quick-cut style shifts and the metafoolery are just part of their choices, not their only option.

Still, in between clear individual pieces the band improvise loosely, and as much with genre as with anything else. They’ll roll out a strolling lunar echo (Raphael sighing and gusting on the drums with near-silent brushstrokes while Niels caresses out wide chords), or crawl through a fragmented, broken-backed jazz ballad that they’ve deconstructed to the point of disintegration. Once they spit out a talking-blues bossa (with Niels on vivid slide guitar), only to refit it midway and produce a tumbling complex skeleton of arpeggiated notes, traveling from Elmore James to Gilberto to Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen in a matter of minutes. Towards the end, they throw in a grunge-rock climb complete with punk screaming. Raphael (tonight’s head joker) continually tosses in triggers: false stops and starts, or stalking who-blinks-first contests with Ago.

Again, how much of this is quick coin whipped out of a trick-bag is unclear. What is clear is What?!’s breadth of reference, be it a midsection of shoegazing-summer guitar-echo, a little reggae chip or a mass-less bridging passage of math-rock brewing like a disappearing wreath of mercury fumes. Sometimes their work is a puzzle; sometimes it’s cut-and-shunt. Sometimes, though, it seems as if they’ve scattered themselves out a bit too far, becoming a set of waggling jazz-hands where they should be a breathing, scatting jazz lung. They could do with a little time to breathe in and rethink, maybe.

On first sighting, Macchina del Tempo are raw-boned, hard-faced men. They look like the kind of band that shows up at remote and friendless small-town gigs, purely to prey on other bands. You could imagine them cornering some other, more hapless group in order to swipe and swig their beer in front of them, shake them down for their gig money and then steal their van, all without cracking those stony expressions.

Stocky guitarist Walter Fazio, glowering above his inverted Slayer goatee, looks particularly fearsome, purposeful and frowning – the kind of man who’d grunt one word and unleash hell. Then you see him play. As he smiles, broad and unguarded, while one of his liquid runs of notes hits the spot, then you understand what Macchina del Tempo are really about. Jazz Market regulars, this fusion trio made common cause a few years ago. Two Brits and an Italian, forged in and scarred by the grim working heat of innumerable cover bands, they made a leap to somewhere they could flower.

Macchina del Tempo heading towards fusion temperature (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Macchina del Tempo heading towards fusion temperature (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

What Macchina del Tempo provide tonight is a strong contrast to What?!’s permanent state of playful. Effortlessly inventive but tightly-drilled, they roll out four long and muscular pieces of driving jazz-rock ,each with a gritty core which suggests that there might be something to that initial hard-man appearance. If you’re imagining the kind of shrill sterile tech-wank that afflicted jazz-fusion when it gulped down the wrong bits of synthpop and heavy metal at the end of the ‘70s, think again – and think further back. There’s certainly plenty of rock in here, but from the organic end, in which sweat and texture add body and warmth as well as disrupting any shop-fresh sheen.

Certainly Macchina are as much Motorhead as they are Mahavishnu or Metheny (and, given the choice, they appear to be more Rush than Yellowjackets). One of their offerings blends a long-throw fusion funk with creamy jazz metal, a tight seethe of musicality with a laddering, gibbon swing to it. Another starts as a swinging Jimmy Page-meets-Sonny Sharrock hydra – tremendously fluent, ribbed with dissonant slashes but full of tight prog-rock pounces of unison guitar and bass, with a strong rumbling taste of Ace Of Spades (and a final united scurry like La Villa Strangiato).

However, Walter’s persistently inventive guitar playing ensures that the band’s music never boils dry. There might be a bit of Hendrix in his floating horn-wail of lead line, continually playing a push, stroke’n’stretch game with its envelope. There’s probably a pinch of Allan Holdsworth ripple, some dirty Mike Stern blues or Foley McCrearey whumph, an occasional trilling coil of fretboard tapping… whatever there is, it’s subsumed into Walter’s own voice. For the forty minutes he’s onstage, he’s playing almost continually and never once puts a foot wrong. For the full set, he wraps you in the ins and outs of his conversation, his pauses for thought, his gently brooding reflections, frowns and unspoken implications. Guitarists this compelling and fertile are rare – and they’re a pleasure to encounter.

Macchina del Tempo - Jamie McKenzie nails a scale (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Macchina del Tempo – Jamie McKenzie nails a scale (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

From the start, it’s also been clear that Macchina have an utter mastery of the flexible groove. While drummer Mick Claridge can certainly swing, it’s only part of his vocabulary as the band drive and chivvy through their smooth shifts of time and tempo. On bass guitar, Jamie McKenzie plays neither the great soloist nor the staid, conservative backliner. Instead he firmly unzips the chords in all their glory, then fingers his way around and across the scales in a continous springy roam. A dextrous fretted fingerstylist, he knows where every note needs to go. His playing creates a webbing of involved, swung-baroque bass-line, over which Walter’s guitar can flicker like a sly chameleon whenever it needs to. Mick subtly supports the arc; swirls under it, drums cruising and lifting like a river-rise.

A prolix music blogger lurks in the shadows... (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A prolix music blogger lurks in the shadows… (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)


They’re certainly making an impact – around me, bodies rapidly lose their reluctance, peeling up from the Luxe’s dark faux-leather sofas to sway and wave to the Macchina percolations. A third piece, though it starts with a crabby rock sidle strangely similar to You Really Got Me, soon turns into electric-chicken jazz funk. Mick slides greasy rhythms from hand to hand even as he pins the piece to the floor, a human nail-gun. For the last in their foursome of amplified groove, the band’s funk turns a little Mahavishnu: full of tensing stops, bullish balance and hot scraps sliding unregarding from that smouldering guitar. Even now, deep into their set, the three Macchina men seem transformed by their playing. Seeing those tough faces softened and gentled into something resembling reverence – it does the heart good.

What?! have the playful end of things covered tonight. Macchina del Tempo have so convincingly laid claim to solidity and substance that they’d be tough to follow with something similar. It falls to A Sweet Niche, then, to stagger splay-armed along the edge; to rake their nails down the rough wall of art and shout the appropriate odds.

A Sweet Niche drive forward (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A Sweet Niche drive forward (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Ben Handysides drums with dainty motions but powerful strikes. He looks like a handsome public-school rugger star who’s thinking about becoming a poet; he can play jazz, folk, progressive rock, kletzmer and sundry permutations of all of those and more. This makes him a shoo-in for A Sweet Niche when they play live. While they’ve already got an established drummer for composing and recording, he lives, rather disobligingly, far off in Cornwall (where he can presumably maintain the freshness required for their studio sessions). Everyone else in the band besides Ben seems to have intense sidelines in film, or theatre, or the spiky world of contemporary classical. Perhaps this explains the open-marriage, flyaway feel of the band; and why Ben currently seems like a blond bridge linking the two remaining poles of A Sweet Niche together.

A Sweet Niche - Oliver Sellwood's baritone lecture (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A Sweet Niche – Oliver Sellwood’s baritone lecture (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

One of these two poles is Oliver Sellwood, on baritone sax. He’s a fluid rippling player (with plenty of bassy skronk in him whenever he needs it) and he’s as well turned out as his playing: neat haircut, neat glasses, unflappable demeanour. He can blow like a demon, but he delivers these storms coolly and professorial, as if chatting from a podium. The other pole is on the other side of Ben and looks as if he’ll rattle himself to bits at any moment. In his agony-scarlet sweat top, Keir Cooper is spindly and driven; bristle-bearded, and playing a guitar as if someone will nail him to it at set’s end. Everything about him screams “art lifer”. He’s the filmmaker. He probably sleeps once or twice every five years, if someone else talks him into it.

A Sweet Niche cast off with a clutch of snaking instrumental wiggles. Oliver’s baritone sax tattoo soon settles into a blaring drone, around which Ben casts up a ticking construction set before the band blaze up into distortion. Keir is clearly going to be the splinter in the jam – his face crumples into walnut creases as he drives shattered howls out of his guitar. Ben looks loose in comparison, his drumsticks dangling like plucked lilies. Oliver disregards them both, ripping off a sax solo as if he was wrenching a seam from a jacket: it’s a little Arabian in tone, a reproving and arrogant ripple of grace above the chaos, of which there’s plenty more to come.

A Sweet Niche - Keir Cooper, about to bounce off another wall (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A Sweet Niche – Keir Cooper, about to bounce off another wall (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Their second salvo, Eye Music II is crash noise from the off. Their third begins as a kind of minimalist ska, then becomes Yaketty-Yak re-imagined for math-rockers. After Ben delivers a burst of horse-clopping rimshots, they break for another swirl of Arabian saxophone, heavy on the romance, before heading back towards the ska armed with hammer-swipes of noise. To top it off, the coda is a lullaby pop tune.

As a band – or, perhaps, as a spasm – A Sweet Niche seem to crouch somewhere between John Zorn (in his more impish Naked City moods) and the wracked, Maoist judders of English free jazz. Moments where a passage of brittle swing mutates into a kind of thrash samba could be put down to dark humour, but it’s difficult to calculate the shape of the band’s intent when a cheerful passage of saxophone sleaze is overtaken by screeching guitar alarm and then a taut, distant game of musical tag as Keir and Oliver dot each other with single notes and with silence.

It’s tricky to pin down whether what they do is political, or disruptive for its own sake, or just a natural expression of brain hiccups; or whether all of these options are equally valued or dismissed. Besides their wary body language – which could be a deceptive feint anyway – they give little away personally. There are no arcane jokes at the microphone, and few wacky titles (although the choppy ta-ta-ta and carousel echos of Bananagirl inspire even more confusion, as if Bagpuss had joined Slayer).

A Sweet Niche - Keir Cooper plays another agonizing chord (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A Sweet Niche – Keir Cooper plays another agonizing chord (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Ultimately A Sweet Niche’s aim seems to be to blow their education out of their minds, like a bolus of brain-snot. Chunks of structure regularly whiz past our ears (Oliver, in particular, has a knack for hurling fervent and compressed musical dialogue) while Keir is ceaseless in shaking off his thoughts as an urgent, committed racket. At one point, following a particularly intense bit of guitar wringing, he blinks with astonishment. For a few seconds, he looks relieved, with a surprised smile and the hint of shy laughter fluttering round his chops, and a “where did that come from?” shrug lifting his arms. As they head towards the end of their set, though, their disruptive peace-destroying turns into a dotted bounce. Bit by bit, they’re turning to a dance even if at the next song they’ll be trying to squash us against the wall with ripped slices of metallic thrash-hop.

They end with a thunderous, purging blast through Duodecimal. Then, bizarrely, they’re back for an encore, augmented by Chloe Herington (the unflappable reedswoman from Chrome Hoof, VALVE and Knifeworld) who suddenly pops up to moonlight and to add a new factor to the band’s unruly chemistry. There’s plenty of muttering, subtle stares and subliminal eyebrow gestures before they get started. It’s unclear whether they’re cueing each other, playing chicken or attempting some kind of disguised wink-murder.

A Sweet Niche with a pensive Chloe Herington (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A Sweet Niche with a pensive Chloe Herington (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Just as I’m losing interest, they reel out a tremendous length of jazz-thrash-turned-sludge-metal. Her alto sax hovering, Chloe stays silent for most of it before jerking into place right at the pell-mell coda. She blows ten or fifteen seconds of twisting Coltrane overblowing over the roar, and then everything crashes to a halt. The night’s over, and so is A Sweet Niche’s psychological shell game. The strains and strange focusses slough away like last month’s bandages: with the instruments down, they’re suddenly warm with each other.

Chloe Herington waits for a cue which only she knows about (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Chloe Herington waits for a cue which only she knows about (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Ten minutes later, sleepy and stumbling, I’m making my way south-west of Spitalfields and I’m ever so slightly lost. Trying to find the tube, I’m wandering past the cluster of City skyscrapers by Bishopsgate – pushy assertions, half-formed nubbins and works-in-progress, garlanded by lights: and the finished statements, shoved heavenwards. Appropriate really.

Around my midnight bleariness (and as I’m passing the arrested concrete stump of the Pinnacle building, humiliated and frozen by market forces) I’m thinking dimly about language again, about tunes and stutters and babels and temporary silences. I don’t come to a conclusion, but as the last echoes of the gig swirl away in my mind I’m feeling glad that this part of town’s got some of its more unusual dialogues back.

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REVIEW – Alex’s Hand: ‘This Cat Is A Genius (A B-Sides Compilation)’ mini-album, 2013 (“mostly tarry, and it sticks to things”)

17 Apr
Alex's Hand: 'This Cat Is A Genius'

Alex’s Hand: ‘This Cat Is A Genius’

Sometimes barrel scrapings are as much part of the meal as anything else from the barrel. In the brewing industry, that’s how you get sludgy yeast spreads like Marmite. Yum. Or not.

Meanwhile… we’ve met Alex’s Hand before. They’re yomping Seattle-ites from the scruffiest, carney-est end of American Gothic; something like a junior Primus, Zappa and Residents rolled into one, abruptly zombified, and crammed into the fustiest old suit in Abraham Lincoln’s trunk of hand-me-downs. This EP of B-sides (so they call them – they’ve only ever put out one EP) certainly seems like barrel scrapings. It’s mostly tarry, and it sticks to things. It’s shapeless, it’s distinctly umami, and you might not like it.

That, of course, is the point. Alex’s Hand tend to revel in everything they do, both their moments of genuine artistry and their dumbest chunks of musical blubber. ‘This Cat Is A Genius’ is a pre-release teaser of off-cuts from their debut album (‘Albatross Around The Neck’). It shows off (if that’s the right word) their sludgier leanings; their most precipitous rants; their Melvins side. It sounds as if while the goofy fuckers were messing around in rehearsal, some vicious bastard poisoned their coffee – but they enjoyed it so much that they sent out for more and left the tape running.

What the band’s actually doing is dealing with the departure of Slurrp, their ontime lead guitarist and horn-razzler. Drummer Nic Barnes and bass-bothering microphone pest Kellen Mills drop their stage-names, pick up the pieces and tumble onwards; various buddies help Kellen out with the guitar parts; but it’s clearly been a blow. You can all but hear Alex’s Hand bouncing off the ropes. However, they’re not ones to miss out on a dark chortle, even at their own expense. Nor are they scared of turning a setback into a challenge. If they have to have a period of floundering, they’re damn well going to get something out of it, even if they have to milk it ’til it bleeds. Rolling away from a relatively tight rock stance towards something doomier (or at least more rubbery), they’re taking the opportunity to map the underside of their development as they go.

One of the last two tracks from Slurrp’s last stand – ConserveNow! – is six-and-a-half near-atonal minutes of Melvins-style strain: a lurch-along instrumental of fuzzed grunge bass and wobbly guitar, like a sick freight train careening along a lost stretch of railway. The other, Ants, is a collapsing shack-load of wreckage-guitar and free-form word association. While Slurrp sifts through sluggish, raging clumps of feedback in the background, Kellen’s schizophrenic basslines jump and ebb between laid-back mooch and irritated attack. He also mutters beady-eyed, half-cut stuff into your ear – mostly about giants and UFOs, although at one point he does complain “words are stale, empty – they lack a certain sensuality.” Much of the ‘This Cat Is A Genius’ shares this playful pissed-off stance – a complaining laughter; clever-dumb; slumming in drunken despondency and enjoying a grump. Kellen plays the role of educated-and-unravelling to the hilt, offering flashes of self-mockery through the filter of booze vapours and the pinch of bad shoes.

Dear Me’s clench of lumbering punk disgruntlement mingles King Crimson feedback skitters with a collapsing, anti-play perversity. Inside itself, the song’s at war – halfway through, Kellen grabs a guitar and launches doggedly down a different tunnel and into a different tune. On the headache blunder of Train, he’s scouting for empty bars in order to avoid conversation, moping about insincerity like a touchy teenager: “wish I was happy listening to people with nothing to say. / Lying assholes with so much money / really are dead inside – / they pick my brains as they lie.” Longtime ally Ben Reece (of Step Daddy) drops in again to add wracked, protesting electric guitar and some needling ‘Marquee Moon’ edge as Kellen’s drunken soliloquy heads ever further downhill and then kinks back up shit creek, screaming about “blackest diamonds” and falling into the sea.

While the odd glancing zinger falls out of this kind of lyrical mess, Kellen’s verbal squalls and cracked mumbling are generally just another bit of colour. What he says is less important than how he says it; or just how the words hit the wall. Impression (featuring another temporary guitarist, Shadough Williams) sounds like a lobotomized David Byrne tripping over Black Sabbath. Nic drums on bottles while the music flinches between runaway bursts of samba and foot-dragging sludge-metal. Kellen dismisses another waster in smudges of sardonic detail: “he smokes his cigarettes, douses them with side-effects… / Stand to deliver, his parents used to say – / started out rich and pissed it all away.”

On Penticide, the band paddle around in a splatter of sprained, detuned instruments – piano, melodicas, glockenspiels – while Kellen’s rambling narration casts a cockeyed look downtown. Scribbling a vicious political cartoon of a “crack-whore free-market” full of hapless fools pushing “shit-stained zombie shopping carts”, he also rips himself and his peers ragged. “Welcome to the half-baked bistro… / conspiracy countdown coffee-shop collective,” he husks, before tagging himself as “a dying maverick with a bad attitude… / like Merce Cunningham took a shit in a wine glass.” Mocking his trashed, anti-heroic slide from high culture to garbage, the band break into sarcastic applause.

Confounding all this sarcasm, the final moments come close to delicacy. Sad Little Skeletons is slender, thoughtful and melancholy; initially, it’s not much more than distant birdsong and overheard chat, accompanied by lonely bass melody and shavings of rhythm guitar. For once, Kellen sings gently, setting aside the drunken howls and the scatter-shot smartarsery. Clarity renders his conclusions even bleaker. “Thoughts will come / then fly away. / These emotions are so thick, / like this life just makes me sick. / These piddly little humans, driving their cars / on the freeway… / Sad little skeletons; broken, but don’t realize they’re lost.” The rise towards a tangled noisy fanfare and the drowning of the words in yell and distortion initially comes as a relief. Then you go back and listen to it again, hearing the weary breathing and the tiredness that smacks of reality.

Part-broken, smeared, and devilled by little gouts of waspishness, this isn’t the easiest collection of songs and slurs to get along with. But there’s plenty to scoop out anyway, especially if you like hearing the wilful awkwardness of a band who enjoy stretching themselves out of shape and balance, and who can fit that in with the big boots and barfly lunges. If you enjoy feeling as if you’ve been dipped in an uncomfortable goo, that’s a bonus.

Alex’s Hand: ‘This Cat Is A Genius’
Alex’s Hand (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only mini-album
Released: 15th April 2013

Get it from:
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Alex’s Hand online:
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CONCERT REVIEW – The Cox Cruise @ MV King Arthur, floating along the River Severn, Gloucestershire, early summer 2004 (featuring Earnest Cox, Ghosting, Charlie Says, Michael J. Sheehy & Paddy McCarthy of St Silas Intercession, Datapuddle) (“a self-propelled music bash”)

10 Apr

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

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

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

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

Datapuddle at The Cox Cruise

Datapuddle at The Cox Cruise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paddy McCarthy at The Cox Cruise.

Paddy McCarthy at The Cox Cruise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Datapuddle online:
Homepage TwitterMySpace Bandcamp LastFM

Michael J. Sheehy online:
Facebook MySpace LastFM

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

Charlie Says online:
Homepage

Ghosting online:
Homepage MySpace Bandcamp

Earnest Cox online:
MySpace

MV King Arthur online:
Homepage

REVIEW – The Chewers: ‘Every Drop Disorganized’ album, 2011 (“a couple of junk dogs”)

31 Jan
The Chewers: 'Every Drop Disorganized'

The Chewers: ‘Every Drop Disorganized’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it from:
The Chewers homepage.

The Chewers online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud LastFM YouTube

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