Thursday 27 July 2017

Never heard of 'em - they any good?

31st August 1994. I’d blagged some tickets to see a fairly new artist play at a little club in the centre of Birmingham. I seem to remember that I had a bit of difficulty getting rid of one of the freebies – no-one wanted to waste an evening watching some guy they’d never heard of. Anyways, it’s too hot to spend a summer evening in some smelly “rock club”, right?


It was a less than capacity audience that made it to Edwards No8 that night. It was hot, too. I don’t think anyone knew what to expect, really – I spotted quite a few freeloaders from other record stores, a bunch of movers and shakers and some regular folks. A few older guys too – apparently this performer’s dad was big in the sixties. Big deal. We all settled in to check out the bands. First up were Faith Over Reason who were pretty groovy in an almost-but-not-quite shoegazey sort of way. They did a reasonable cover of Nick Drake’s “Northern Sky” which I thought showed a lot of class. After 45 minutes they left the stage to a good reception and after the obligatory mic tweakage and linechecks, on sauntered The Main Act. The band looked tired. The bassist leant against his bass rig for the first number, his eyes heavy and his face downcast. This was beyond low-key. The singer, resplendent in army surplus trousers and a white vest picked, up his Telecaster and without any fanfare or even the most cursory of introductions, started to sing. And after about 90 minutes he stopped. I can’t adequately describe the gig, suffice to say that it might be the greatest live performance of anything by anybody that I will ever see.

Everyone shuffled out, looking shellshocked. The live performance area of the club was on the second floor and I had to clamber over a number of girls who were sitting on the stairs, sobbing, as if this was 1973 and they’d just seen Donny Osmond. They hadn’t seen Donny Osmond.

They’d seen Jeff Buckley.

That gig was one of the most powerful and intense experiences I’d ever had. The main set consisted of most of the just released “Grace” album – the encore was Big Star’s “Kanga Roo”. I seem to remember that song lasted about quarter of an hour: it just kept building and building and building. It probably didn’t last that long, but by then, I had scant concept of time. I’ve been to a lot of gigs since then, but nothing has had that effect on me.

I didn’t know what to expect on that night. I was lucky enough to have been given an advance copy of “Grace” on cassette, so I’d lived with the album for a while, but I had no clue as to what the live performance would be like. In 1994, there was no internet forum to consult to prepare me for my night out. I Don’t think the guys I went with had even heard any of Buckley’s music before that night. They took a risk and they shared this amazing experience.

Live bands are everywhere. At weekends, they’re in all the clubs and bars you go to, playing too loud for you to talk over and spreading speakers and wires all over the place. Annoying aren’t they? Jeff Buckley was one of those annoying weekend warriors once. He’d turn up to a club, put his amp on the spot where you’d normally sit with your friends, trail speaker leads on the floor for you to trip over and generally ruin your drinking time. Or, he might completely blow your mind and give you a story you’ll tell for the next twenty or thirty years – “Hey kids, did I ever tell ya ‘bout when I saw Jeff Buckley play in a club no bigger that this room…?”

Not every pub or club band will turn out to be Jeff Buckley, but loads of these bands on their first tentative steps to fame and fortune (or crash and burn) are worthy of your attention. They’re out there night after night, often playing in places that have no business having bands playing in them at all. They play, pack up and either crash on someone’s floor, sleep in the van or maybe head off to some nasty Bed and Breakfast where they all sneak into one room. They get up and do it again the next day.  If they sell some T Shirts or CDs at a gig, then maybe they’ll get to eat lunch. No one gets rich on record sales anymore, so live performance is the main revenue strand for musicians today. Ever wonder why it costs a week’s wages to see a big band now? The production costs used to be subsidised by the increase in record sales generated by a tour. Those sales aren’t there anymore. If you’re in a band on a tiny label – or with a self-released album – it’s a major consideration to play a show outside of your local area. I wonder how many amazing bands we’ll never get to see because it’s just not commercially viable for them to travel to a gig?

Try and see a new band when you can. Most clubs sell beer, so if the band isn’t to your liking, have a few pints and I guarantee they’ll sound better. Well, that’s what I say to people who I’m trying to convince to see my band. But the main reason you should see new bands is simply this: bragging rights. My older brother delights in telling me that he saw The Kinks at a club in Wolverhampton. A friend of mine saw The Sex Pistols in a local bar that held about 100 people. I saw Jeff Buckley on a Wednesday night In Birmingham.

What’s your story?

Sunday 9 July 2017

Daisy House: "Crossroads"

What goes around comes around. No matter how unpalatable a trend may be, stick around and it’ll rear its ugly/beautiful head sooner or later. Everyone breathed a sigh at the end of the eighties muttering “thank God that’s behind us”, but guess what? Now it’s the golden age of Art and Culture, depending on whose blog posts you read. I have a storage unit full of pet rocks – in about three years, I’m going to be a very rich man. Maybe

Some of us are waiting patiently for one particular genre to roll back around – a good one this time. Who remembers folk-rock? Great songs, well played with gorgeous harmonies and articulate guitar lines. I’ll tell you remembers folk-rock: Daisy House, that’s who. 

It’s album number four for the Southern Californian father/daughter duo.  Tatiana Hammond sings and Doug Hammond does everything else. Annoyingly for us mere mortal, he does everything else incredibly well, from searing lead guitar lines to delicate piano parts. Goddamn over-achievers… They’ve taken all the great bits from a long neglected genre, given it a 2017 spit shine and the result is “Crossroads”. 

Often when musicians take inspiration from a particular era, the results can verge on pastiche. With “Crossroads”, Daisy House have struck a fine balance – in terms of subject matter, general sensibilities and sonic palette, they’re happy to live between 1966-1972. Wisely, they’ve opted for contemporary production values which adds a sparkle and clarity to the material. Is that a drum machine I hear…?

If you have “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” and “What We Did On Our Holidays” on heavy rotation on your listening platform of choice, then Daisy House are your new favourite band. If you ever wondered what Fairport Convention would have sounded like if Ian Matthews had stuck around and they’d gone a bit easier on the “trad-arr” material, then wonder no more.  From the strident opener “Languages” to the plaintive closer “My Death Is Coming For Me”, “Crossroads” is loaded with fantastic songwriting and musicianship. Both Hammonds possess expressive voices with echoes of Sandy Denny, Joni Mitchell and even Susannah Hoffs of the Bangles. It would be trite to compare them to the Mamas and the Papas… but sometimes they sound like the Mamas and the Papas. 

Daisy House have impeccable taste – we get Byrdsy jangle with “The Girl Who Holds My Hand”, Sheryl Crow style pop-rock-folk with “Night of the Hunter” and two songs – “Pristy Lee” and “Albion” which could have been written 200 years ago, or yesterday. And don’t forget, this lush panorama is constructed by two people. Just two people. Caveats are few – “Nocturne” seems strangely out of place – a piece of cod-opera, almost apologetically placed towards the end of the album. It’s beautifully played, but it’s kind of baffling. Maybe that’ll turn out to be my favourite track on the album in a years time. “Grand Canyon” might buckle a little under its own weight, but that’s about it. 

It’s an incredibly earnest album. Heartfelt and passionate. There’s not much levity on the record, but that’s OK – Radiohead seem to be making a decent living from this Pop Music lark and they’re not noted for their vast repertoire of “knock-knock” jokes. Maybe if they had a full band, the results would be a little looser and lighter. They seem to be doing pretty well at the moment though…

“Crossroads” is so delightfully removed from 2017, it’s practically cutting edge. Its nostalgic without living exclusively in “the good old days”. An eye on the past and one on the future. Remember folk-rock? Daisy House do. And they’ve made it irresistible. 

Click HERE to listen to "Crossroads" on Bandcamp

Thursday 6 July 2017

The Shock of the New*

Every Christmas, my old mate Richie sends me a mix CD. They’re about an hour long and they’re comprised of stuff he’s heard that year that has excited or intrigued him. That’s a nice thing to do, right? Richie is a stand up guy. I’ve got about 15 of these CDs, neatly filed in the “compilations” section of my CD collection, so it only seems fair that I reply with one of mine. When we first did these, I struggled to make all my favourites fit on one CD. Then I struggled to find enough “good” stuff to go on at all. Last year, I didn’t make one.

That really upset me.

I have a ton of excuses – family life, busy job, gigging most weekends blah blah. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? When I looked for new stuff, it had to be new stuff that sounded like old stuff, so I was forever searching for bands that sounded like Posies, Jellyfish, Big Star yaddyadda. A fruitless and unhealthy pursuit. I started to feel a bit ashamed – I mean, here I was, a music teacher, rock trivia nerd and a bass player in a couple of bands who struggled to name two or three new albums he’d heard that year, let alone enjoyed. That had to change. I wasn’t going to do this of my own volition so drastic action had to be taken…I wrote to a handful of online music review sites and blagged my way onto the review staff as a freelance writer. That way, I would be given a long list of music and a deadline to hit. With an editor (metaphorically) breathing down my neck for copy, I’d have to get my ass in gear.

Guess what? It worked. 

The lovely people at The Rocker and Gigsoup send out lengthy lists of stuff to review and I get to pick whatever I think will be interesting. For the first time in years, I feel as if I know what’s going on. I get to listen critically to old faves like Matthew Sweet and The New Pornographers and new and incredible stuff like Rips (sensational debut album), The Tearaways, The Cheap Cassettes and loads more. I’m excited about new music for the first time this century. 

The cry of “but there’s no good new music” normally comes from people who don’t look hard enough. That’s not a criticism – with so much stuff being released hourly, a casual listener will be overfaced. My advice is to persevere. Thanks to streaming services, we have an inexpensive way to sample the vast majority of new releases at our leisure. Gone are the days of buying an album, playing it and thinking “If I scratch this, would the bloke at HMV take it back…?” The downside is that we don’t work at listening to stuff – if it doesn’t hit us instantly, we pass on it. Sometimes, we’ll miss a “grower” because we’re looking for instant gratification. The great thing about reviewing stuff is that you HAVE to play the record a few times so you can write meaningfully about it. A great example was the Peter Perrett album I reviewed for Gigsoup – that started off as a pretty decent record and finished up as a bit of a classic. Every time I played it, it got better and better. I persevered and it paid off. 

We all live in an overstimulated environment. We have everything at our fingertips, but that sometimes means that the choice is so intimidating, we stick to what we know. We’re denying ourselves some amazing experiences if we do that. There’s no risk involved anymore and if you have a decent length commute (which I do…sadly) you have a great opportunity to check out something new.  And if we don't support new bands and buy new albums, we're sort of signing the death warrant for popular music. Perhaps I'm an optimist, but I'd love to think there's a band in a crappy rehearsal room right now, that's capable of producing something as good as "#1 Record" or "Murmur"

I can’t wait to do that Christmas compilation for Richie. This year, it’s gonna be a double. 

(Written with a tip of the hat to the legendary Don Valentine, who’s probably listened to more new music since lunch than John Peel managed in a lifetime. He must have four ears).

* Pretentious? Moi…?

Tuesday 4 July 2017

REVIEW: The Tearaways: “DW Hofner, Martin Gibson, Ludwig Rickenbacker, Earle Hammond & Vox Fender, ESQ”

Powerpop records should only be released in the Summer.  I’m not kidding.  It’s an unequivocal, scientific fact* that the kind of jangly noise made by your typical powerpop beat combo is best appreciated between late May and early September.  Or in the UK, that weekend in mid-August when the drizzle is slightly warmer than usual.  Harmonies, big choruses and songs about unrequited love make way more sense in the sunshine.  I blame the Beach Boys.

The Tearaways have got the timing just right.  If you’re looking for something to play in the car on that road trip to the coast, then look no further.  Backyard BBQ soundtrack?  Ditto.  Headphone listening on the beach?  Do I need to tell you again?  DW Hofner, Martin Gibson, Ludwig Rickenbacker, Earle Hammond & Vox Fender, ESQ”, in spite of its lumpy title, is distilled, bottled sunshine.  And it’s OK to apply it liberally.

So, who are the Tearaways?  Powerpop royalty, that’s who.  They’ve been shaking their Paul McCartney 1966 hairdos since 1981, picking up admirers like Tom Hanks and Rodney Bingenheimer on the way.  Even Piers Morgan is a fan.  I’m not sure how I feel about that.  With all that history they should be damn good, right?  They are. And so is this album.

These boys are music fans.  Sorry - music nerds. “…Esquire” is littered with references to their fave raves – in fact, the opening track “Bash” is pretty much a list of cool pop-rock bands and albums.  It doesn’t end there – scattered throughout the record are references, quotes and flourishes from stuff they like.  It never fails to raise a smile.

Unlike a lot of their peers, the Tearaways aren’t prepared to endlessly re-write “Feel A Whole Lot Better” until they jangle themselves to death.  “…Esquire” has enough variety to make the album interesting, but enough commonality to make it not sound like a jukebox.  In a shade over 45 minutes, alongside the aforementioned groovy pop tunes we get mid-tempo introspection (“I Quit My Job”), strummy acoustic singalongs (“Good Luck Lovin’”) a power ballad that doesn’t suck (“Find Yourself Another Fool”) and a cool cover of “Do You Remember Rock And Roll Radio?”.  Intelligent arrangements and the judicious use of a brass section means that this isn’t just another band paraphrasing “Yellow Pills Volume 1”.  Here’s a for instance – just when you think “I’m Just Trying To Be Nice” is sounding a little bit too Beatley for its own good, in comes a cool horn part.  Damn, these boys are clever.  Oh, did I mention Clem Burke plays the drums on this album?  Heavens to Betsy.

“…Esquire” doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautifully played, exquisitely sung and producer Earl Mankey has made it sound gorgeous, but there’s a lovely, playful feel to the record.  A little tongue in cheek, a little irreverent and very witty. It’s a music geeks’ wet dream.  The Summer starts here.

Robo Records 2017

* Nope. I made it up. Sorry