Myxomatosis #4 – Words and Music

I realize this is territory already well-trod by Larissa on her previous blog, but I think it’s worth contributing a mixtape devoted to literature, poetry, and books in general relatively early in the life of From a High Horse.  It’s not a secret that we’re very influenced by books around here, and intertextuality in whatever guise it comes is always a treat to discover and rediscover.  The fact that pop songs are perfect vehicles for concise distillations of favourite books and stories has been put to use by many, many people…and I’m sure the list of songs inspired by literary works, whether explicitly or more obliquely indebted, would be nearly endless if one tried to catalogue them all.  Relatedly, this list is nowhere near exhaustive of my favourite songs with literary connections, but it’s nice to save some for another day and playlist.

My last mixtape was inspired by a favourite childhood book, and that’s caused me to reflect on some of my favourite things to read, past and present.  As a child I couldn’t get enough of stories featuring 19th and 20th century girls and their adventures – I adored the Betsy-Tacy series, almost everything related to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, and I loved the work of Frances Hodgson Burnett and Louisa May Alcott.  Almost equally revered were fantasy books of all kinds: I loved Madeleine L’Engle, The Indian in the Cupboard series, The Phantom Tollbooth, Kit Pearson’s books but particularly Awake and Dreaming, and The Chronicles of Narnia.  I also desperately wanted to be Harriet the Spy, or at least Laura the Spy (sadly it doesn’t have the same ring).  Some children’s books I missed when I was actually a child and have read as an adult, leading to the pretty huge variety of literature I consume now, or try to consume (it’s often a source of frustration to me that my rather slow reading pace isn’t conducive to reading all the books I have yet to discover).  Having an English degree, some of my favourites have been introduced to me by past professors for literature classes, like Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy, Hiromi Goto’s The Kappa Child, and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.  And of course, what I read isn’t always literature: I’ve read some amazing rock biographies, cultural histories, and occasionally travel books (Paul Theroux’s, anyway).  I’m not nearly as well-read as I’d like to be, but at least I have that essential requirement: an ongoing and unabated curiosity (as well as a sometimes manic compulsion to fill every available space with books.  Just their presence in my home soothes and thrills me).

It strikes me that a lot of works referenced here are modern and postmodern, which is definitely indicative of my reading tastes.  I’m certainly drawn to songs about books I’ve read and loved, like “The Crying of Lot G”, “Now My Heart is Full”, and “Patrick Bateman” (okay, love is definitely too strong a word and too simple an emotion for how I feel about American Psycho).  Anyway, when songwriters rehash the works they’ve been influenced by in their own words, it provides a usually very interesting and useful glimpse into someone else’s interpretation of a story.  For me, though, the most exciting thing about songs that reference books is their indication that these stories have as much impact on other people as they do me; that we’ve read the same words and been transformed by them.  As the character Hector says in The History Boys: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you.  And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead.  And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”

Download Myxomatosis #4

David Bowie – 1984 (References George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four)

Morrissey – Now My Heart is Full (References Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock)

Barry Adamson – Something Wicked This Way Comes (References Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes)

Decemberists – Billy Liar (References Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar)

Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights (References Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights)

The Cure – Killing an Arab (References Albert Camus’s The Stranger)

The Divine Comedy – The Booklovers (References a huge chunk of influential writers and characters)

Mastodon – Blood and Thunder (References Herman Melville’s Moby Dick)

Momus – The Lady of Shalott (References Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott)

Manic Street Preachers – Patrick Bateman (References Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho)

The Field Mice – So Said Kay (References Jane Rule’s Desert of the Heart)

Ra Ra Riot – Each Year (References Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird)

The Hold Steady – Stuck Between Stations (References Jack Kerouac’s On The Road)

Patrick Wolf – To the Lighthouse (References Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse)

Rufus Wainwright – Grey Gardens (References Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice)

Joy Division – Colony (References Franz Kafka’s In The Penal Colony)

Yo La Tengo – The Crying of Lot G (References Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49)

Siouxsie and the Banshees – Something Wicked (References Shakespeare’s Macbeth)

Bang Bang Machine – Geek Love (References Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love)

The Gaslight Anthem – Great Expectations (References Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations)

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I Love the Nineties: Screaming Females’ Ugly Reviewed

It’s not an original sentiment, but I do admit to a pretty intense nostalgia for the 1990s.  As a relative latecomer to the worlds of music and culture that have largely occupied my life since the ‘90s, my obsession with that decade doesn’t have much to do with how I actually experienced it and more to do with the ‘90s culture I’ve discovered during the past twelve years.  The music of Sleater-Kinney, Dinosaur Jr, and in general the college rock of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s have all been discoveries of the last decade for me, which perhaps isn’t saying a lot as I’m 26 and, like I said, a bit of a pop culture late bloomer.  The punk-influenced do-it-yourself work ethic and raw sound central to the most compelling American underground music scenes is what’s kept me coming back to the work of my favourite ‘90s bands again and again, and this latest offering by New Brunswick, New Jersey’s Screaming Females incites the same kind of enthusiasm in me.  The trio, comprising Marissa Paternoster on guitar and vocals, King Mike on bass, and Jarrett Dougherty on drums, has a sound that’s undoubtedly reminiscent of some of those ‘90s music scenes and their bands, but in an unselfconscious, un-ironic way.  Basically, Screaming Females just rock really hard and really well, without sacrificing melodic sensibility or losing any (essential, in my opinion) personality-giving weirdness.

It’s this weirdness – I refuse to call it quirkiness – that could make their sound a bit polarising.  It primarily comes in the form of Paternoster’s voice, a strident thing that morphs from restrained and rather nasal to snarling growl to full-throated shriek in the space of a phrase.  I adore it, and I think it’s great that her vocals are featured more prominently on Ugly than on its predecessor, Castle Talk.  This is underpinned by some classic power trio musicianship that shows off Paternoster’s other awesome skill: her impressive guitar playing.  Seriously, her guitar work is amazing, but more importantly, it’s infectiously fun and energetic.  Rolling off deliciously catchy riffs as well as tons of powerful and expressive solos on song after song is no small feat, particularly on an album of this length (over 50 minutes).

Ugly opens with the awesome “It All Means Nothing.”  Paternoster’s captivating guitar work is apparent right from the get go, squealing and doing its own thing while she sneeringly and sarcastically goes on about a soured relationship.  It showcases the band’s strengths really well and as such makes a fitting opener.  What stands out for me about this track is that it satisfies my craving for heavier, guitar-led sounds and is still unabashedly sunny.  “Rotten Apple” has got a bit of manic bounce to its guitar lines and a giddy refrain in which Paternoster just repeats “I’m a rotten apple” in her charmingly nasal whine.  As do most of these tracks, it features a guitar solo, but this one in particular smacks of contagious fun.

“Expire” also stands out on this collection for its surf-inflected riff and ska-reminiscent laid back delivery.  The restraint of the verses is relieved by the all-in power of the refrain that’s counteracted yet again by an interval of soft ooohs while the guitar, bass, and drums work out a hypnotically rhythmic figure.  “Tell Me No” gets a bit messier, guitar-wise, and rattles along at a pretty breakneck speed.  It lets up slightly just before the halfway point for an austere interlude of unusual minor intervals before a haunting guitar solo, but then it’s right back to (admittedly, very well organized) chaos.  The slower groove of “Leave It All Up to Me” is satisfying, as is Paternoster’s voice multi-tracked and harmonizing with itself over steady stabs of guitar and drums.  In my opinion, the album’s highlight is the seven-and-a-half minute slab of stoner rock that is “Doom 84.”  Here Screamales get heavier than they do on the rest of Ugly and it suits them: the riffs are bigger and more memorable, they hit their groove with ferocity, and, perhaps most importantly, after several minutes of guitar noodling and a vocal bridge, at the point when they come back in again with that riff, the pure head-banging relief of it is dizzying.

“Something Ugly” begins with a guitar build-up that’s like a motor revving, giving way to perhaps their most punk-influenced song, complete with staccato guitar licks and flourished with fizzy bursts of cymbal.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Paternoster’s alternating growl and exuberant yeah yeah yeahs work particularly well here against a backdrop of simultaneous snotty teenage disdain and insecurity.  “It’s Nice” closes the album on, depending on how you feel about the preceding thirteen songs and their unabated energy, either a much-needed sweet and slow note or a disappointingly saccharine let down.  I tend towards the former reaction, and I think Screamales do mellow acoustic pretty well.  Again, considering the length and constant exuberance of the rest of Ugly, it’s a treat to hear a different side of them.

It’s probably not a surprise that ‘90s alt-rock hero Steve Albini was on board for Ugly as producer.  This is their fifth album, after all, and with Screamales’ unique take on ‘90s-influenced, punk-inflected rock, they were probably both due for and highly deserving of a big name producer like that to help realize their sound.  The sound on Ugly isn’t a departure from that on their previous albums, but Screaming Females seem to have hit their stride here pretty perfectly, with melody balancing guitar histrionics, accessibility countering artistic integrity, and of course, a kind of raw and breathless beauty offsetting some occasional ugliness.

Screaming Females – It All Means Nothing

Screaming Females – Expire

Screaming Females – Doom 84

Ugly is out now and available on Don Giovanni Records.

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The Re-action of Avant-Nouveau: The Pre New’s Music for People Who Hate Themselves Reviewed

The Pre New - Music for People Who Hate Themselves

As a fan of Earl Brutus, I was excited to hear that Jamie (Jim) Fry, Gordon King, Stuart Borman, and Shinya Hayashida, decided to form a new band, The Pre New, with Laurence Bray and Stuart Weldon. Their debut album, Music for People Who Hate Themselves, was released on April 2, and it covers an astounding amount of musical ground while remaining a cohesive, fascinating record. There’s an arty knowingness to their genre play and topical lyrical content that reminds me of other witty glam fans like Luke Haines and Lawrence (as much as Haines would likely loathe being compared to Lawrence). However, they also retain that trashier glam rock element that reminds me of a band like Sigue Sigue Sputnik. But perhaps due to their arty knowingness and trashy glam, the Pre New recall their earlier incarnation, Earl Brutus, most of all. The band’s description of themselves:

Imagine, for a moment, a modernist decadent block of flats from the 1950s, a work of art, utopian, a design for living. The building becomes rejected, vandalised and defecated in and is nearly ruined by the events and attitudes of the 1970s. Now in the first part of the 21st century it has now been fully refurbished into beautiful expensive designer apartments on sale in Foxtons in Shoreditch…That is what The Pre New is.

The focus may have shifted from Barratt Homes (see Earl Brutus’s “Blind Date”) to Foxtons, but the Pre New is still very much a continuation, hyper-conscious of its own self-reflexivity. According to Fry, the British Rail logo on the cover art acts as both a tribute to the late Earl Brutus vocalist/lyricist, Nick Sanderson, and as a symbol for the tension and dynamism of opposing forces, Newton’s third law of motion co-opted into the realm of musical pop art. While the colours used in the cover art could reference the Sex Pistols, Fry says they’re actually the colours used in this season of Polo Ralph Lauren. This ambiguity and possibility, this tension between past and future creates a pushmi-pullyu of musical and lyrical references. The record is threaded with the suspension of anticipation, the reminder of modernist impulses in limbo with unfulfilled futures. One of Earl Brutus’s most famous lines was “You are your own reaction” from “The SAS and the Glam That Goes With It.” In many ways, Music for People Who Hate Themselves uses reaction as both a response to past events and re-action as in action repeated. Incidentally, the entry for “reaction” in my Oxford thesaurus provides this example of usage: “a reaction against modernism is inevitable”; the Pre New appears to be the inevitable reaction against the post-modern reaction. It feels like they are reaching back to a time before the 90s buzzword “new.” The Pre New sits on the brittle chest of the whole hauntology music genre and pummels it with incendiary fervour.

The record roars into life with the snotty spitfire of “I, Rockstar,” exhorting you to burn down Foxtons. Halfway through its unhinged chaos, it breaks into a heavy dose of nasal sighing that recalls “(Curtsy)” from Earl Brutus’s Your Majesty…We Are Here. Foxtons appears for the second time in “Cathedral City Comedown,” which mocks “the perfect recipe” of bourgeois life and the “death of England.” Sneering, bashing rock drifts into a psychedelic detour before driving back with a vengeance, augmented by grungy banks of synth buzz. This railing against the significance of property ownership in conjunction with “civilization” status ends with Borman reciting poetry about roundabouts, pound shops, Letraset, the rotting ripeness of England, and of course, the burning of Foxtons. The humourous melancholy of contemporary society is lampooned again in the first single to precede the album, “Do You Like My New Hair?,” which I first heard when Jeremy Deller sat in for Jarvis Cocker on his Sunday Service show last year. Suffused with razor-sharp synths and plashy guitars, it’s the sunniest, most indie pop song on the album. Fry sings “Text me/SMS me…M and S me/S and M me/B and Q me,” conflating consumerism and communication culture. The Pre New return to the emptiness of real estate in the track “In the Perfect Place,” which features Sarah Cracknell. It’s an alternately snarling and glimmering Kraftwerkian track that provides a perfect balance between the dreamy Cracknell and the heavily vocodered Fry. Fry sings like a forlorn appliance while Cracknell, known for her breathy coolness on Saint Etienne tracks, sings details that an estate agent would likely point out to interested buyers. Though Cracknell is ostensibly the only human element to the song, she sounds like a shiny android agent. Fry’s vocodered pronouncements continue on “Albion (You’ve Done Nothing Wrong),” which was released as a single on Valentine’s Day this year. It sounds like a pile driver dirge and was supposedly originally intended to be chucked into Buckingham Palace’s backyard in time for the Royal Wedding. Instead, the song becomes an absurdist indictment of England as a whole. The country is satirized with appropriately shallow acronyms like “lol” and “omg.” In addition to the second appearance of the archaically modern Letraset, the Pre New deride the instant, superficial celebrity of Susan Boyle with the line, “I, too, dreamed the dream/Karaoke machine/Obviously.” The song concludes with haunting, almost robotic, lines from Samuel Beckett’s enigmatic, Beethoven-referencing television play The Ghost Trio. In a brilliant correspondence with Earl Brutus’s “You are your own reaction,” and this current band’s name, The Ghost Trio is divided into acts entitled “Pre-action,” “Action,” and “Re-action.” Beckett’s motifs of waiting and time provide the perfect shades of gray for this album’s themes.

The short interlude of “A Song for People Who Hate Themselves” is a sleazy saunter of a tune with drums banging away like the swinging hips of a cartoon femme fatale as Borman recites lines like “bring me the head of Susan Boyle” over top. It is a reply and extension to Earl Brutus’s “On Me Not In Me.” As he repeats a bitter “now what?,” he seems disappointed by the state of futuristic imaginings, but he is also daring you to attempt a response. His remark of “we slide this way/we slide that way” could be an acknowledgement of the band’s ambiguous flux and the album’s ongoing slippage between genres. “I Believe in Jackie” is a foray into surf-rock guitar twang, which melts into a pumping electronic groove, signaling the rock-dance dichotomy of following track, “A Night on Leather Mountain,” the DAF-referencing disco paean with camp macho vocals. Snarling guitars smash into 8-bit figures as Fry announces “I need disco/I need Berlin.” The song then transitions into an instrumental ambience with a woman speaking over top of ghostly German radio transmissions. She discusses the stagnated waiting of the Cold War, and ends with “It never kicked off,” which could just as well be applied to the hopes of modernism in general, before the track bursts into blistering, epic synthpop.

Stuttering electro and cabaret/vaudeville merge to create the next brief interlude “The New Black Hole.” Slinking ride cymbal accompanies visions of an apocalyptic Los Angeles, already referenced in earlier songs, and then the track swiftly expands into “The Pre New Anthem,” a modernist manifesto as rave anthem. Fry intones “This is a premix/This is a preview/We came before you /We were brand new/We are Pre New/This is what we do.” Earl Brutus crops up once again in the lyric “Action time/Satisfaction/You are your own reaction” along with further references to Pop Art, futurism, and the death drive. It ends with what sounds like the TARDIS, a machine for another cult time traveller, which is highly apt for what follows: the only song fully recovered and resuscitated from the last days of Earl Brutus, “Teenage Taliban.” It begins with a profanity-laden brawl, breaking glass, and car alarms, and then goes on to poke fun at the ridiculous rules and tyranny of adolescence with the freedom of middle-age perspective. The closing track, “Transfer,” is an ethereal wisp of a song that foregrounds the sound of measured exhalation, which now recalls both the opening track “I, Rockstar,” and in turn, “(Curtsy)”. It is literally the breathing room at the end of the record; with its flatline of synths, tendrils of glockenspiel, and minimalist drum machine beats, it ends up becoming nearer to a cathedral of ventilation. The sound of breath could be that of trepidation or meditation. Nearly four minutes into the song, it merges into an echoey swirl of Earl Brutus, eventually ending with “The SAS and the Glam That Goes With It.” It’s like hearing a song from another room. Or opening a stage door into the past. As the chant of “You are your own reaction” fades into oblivion, you’re left with a bittersweet sense of palimpsest. While it could have just been another reference to Letraset, “Transfer” instead becomes a poignant, out-of-time tribute.

There are specters on Music for People Who Hate Themselves: lost friends, lost futures. Nevertheless, there are also vibrant comments firmly grounded in the present, moving forward on an alternative trajectory. This album is a response to personal and collective pasts through an energetic repetition and refashioning. This band is an industrial project for the cyberspace age. Since unfortunately so few bands seem to have picked up the Earl Brutus torch, the Pre New had to step in. They are their own reaction.

You can stream and purchase Music for People Who Hate Themselves on Soundcloud.

Do You Like My New Hair? – The Pre New

A Song For People Who Hate Themselves – The Pre New

The SAS and the Glam That Goes With It – Earl Brutus

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Myxomatosis #3 – Capitalism is the Crisis

I’ve never paid much attention to London rapper Plan B, aka Ben Drew. He was that rapper/soul singer in a sharp suit, who I vaguely remember performing on the Brit Awards last year. Then Dorian Lynskey wrote this blog post for the Guardian, describing Plan B’s latest Shostakovich-sampling single, “Ill Manors,” as the greatest British protest song to hit the mainstream in years. I would tend to agree with Lynskey. Whether you’re a fan of Plan B’s music or not, and whether you see the “Ill Manors” music video as glorifying last summer’s riots or not, this single is the first real attempt in the realm of popular music to articulate the self-fulfilling pathology of this particular manifestation of class unrest. Question his intentions or method all you like, but at least you’re bothering to question the underlying issue at the same time.

Literally a week after I returned from London last summer, large parts of it were burning, and shops were being looted. Not being a Londoner or having lived there for any considerable amount of time, I didn’t know how to react to the ongoing news footage of the riots. As they spread to other cities around the country and as David Cameron made more speeches about coming down as heavily as possible on the perpetrators, I couldn’t help choking on the hypocrisy. No matter how ambiguous I feel towards the rioters and their seemingly futile actions, I can see that they were used as scapegoats by the government: “Look at how disgustingly materialistic these young poor people are…they rioted for nothing of value, just trainers and electronics. Thank goodness they lived up to violent stereotypes. We can’t imprison bankers, so we’ll make sure we punish the poor to make ourselves feel better, and we’ll feel even more in control in an otherwise uncontrollable situation if we become the noble brandishers of brooms.”

Granted, these seemingly sudden metropolitan revolts are complex and the result of many converging causes, but Owen Hatherley and China Miéville give me, at the very least, a different lens through which I can perceive them. Hatherley, as a socialist and an architectural critic, contends that these riots were inevitable due to the structure of London itself. He highlights the failure of “urban regeneration” and the parallel worlds created by this type of urban planning in which the powerful and powerless live cheek by jowl, the latter rendered invisible to the former. In many ways, Miéville, a writer of urban fantasy, has pointed to a similar unspoken dynamic in his 2009 novel The City & the City, and in this latest essay, “London’s Overthrow,” he traces the faultline of dissent and tension snaking through the English capital, an economic Molotov cocktail that is only exacerbated by the preparation for and arrival of the Olympics. He brings in strikes, council housing, grime music, and diaspora along the way, a chain of meditations on London’s undercurrent of chaos. It may be a bit of a stretch, but I would argue that the recent British television series Misfits expresses the anxieties felt about the young and poor, and in turn, mocks their demonization. In a satirical representation of middle class fear, superpowers are conferred upon the otherwise powerless ASBO bugbears; they then go on to commit ever more graphic, blackly comic acts of violence and chase each other through perpetually grey cityscapes dominated by Brutalist council housing and grim alleys. To push this hypothesis even further, I can hear the sonic similarity between the dystopian drone and harangue of Public Image Ltd.’s “Careering” and The Rapture’s “Echoes,” the theme song for Misfits. The English riots of last August and the ceaseless tensions around economic disparity in the UK are, of course, not the only indication of the enduring recession. They are the surface damage on a diseased ideology.

In the process of trying to figure out what has gone so terribly wrong, we create documentaries like the two-part The Party’s Over: How the West Went Bust on the BBC and the Canadian-produced Capitalism is the Crisis; however, this kind of analysis hasn’t done anything to ameliorate the issue. We know the system is broken, and we can even trace the reasons why, but we are at a complete loss at how to repair it or imagine life without it. Though Canada has ostensibly fared pretty well in the face of the financial meltdown of the Western world, it is by no means immune (it would be preposterous to think any country was safe in a globalized financial catastrophe), and with a Conservative government still in power and various Canadian industries going down with their US counterparts, I don’t feel confident. The last time we had a Conservative regime, we ended up with a massive deficit. This time we could also end up with environmental disaster due to colossal oil pipelines and ongoing support for the oil sands, and continued slashes to public services, the arts, and old-age pensions. All the while, we try to ignore our own parallel world set-up in which we never resolve the past and current mistreatment of Aboriginal people. We have had more regulation than other countries when it came to our banks, but we all know whose interests our Conservative government is protecting. As in England, many of us did not vote for this party. Both of our countries were kicked in the ass by first-past-the-post.

In terms of music, Plan B’s latest single wasn’t the only song to strike me as symptomatic of the seesaw of impending economic apocalypse and hopeless malaise, what Miéville refers to as “outrage-fatigue.” Around the same time, Akira the Don released his rather chipper “We Won’t Be Broke Forever, Baby,” which featured guest vocals from Gruff Rhys; though it doesn’t explicitly reference the current crisis, I can’t help but read it as a comment on the ostensibly never-ending recession. Then, I stumbled across Bernholz, aka Jez Berns, whose latest single is entitled “Austerity Boy.” It ends in a garbled sample of Madonna’s “Material Girl,” simultaneously retooling the greed-is-good, yuppie days of the 80s and recalling the more recent bizarre show of Occupy solidarity from Rufus Wainwright and Sean Lennon. These three songs then inspired the mix below. I’m angry, but I also feel impotent. Changing or improving on capitalism is attempting to reverse a tsunami of over four hundred years of ideology without any conception of or control over where the water could go.

Download Myxomatosis #3 here.

The Recession Song – The Indelicates featuring Mikey Art Brut, Nicky Biscuit, and Keith TOTP

Career Opportunities – The Clash

The Party’s Over – Jonny Cola and the A-Grades

Council Home – Denim

The Day That Thatcher Dies – Hefner

We Won’t Be Broke Forever, Baby – Akira the Don featuring Gruff Rhys

Wall Street – Johnny Boy

Credit in the Straight World – Young Marble Giants

Money (That’s What I Want) – The Flying Lizards

To Hell With Poverty! – Gang of Four

Rock for Sustainable Capitalism – Propagandhi

Mathematics of Chaos – Killing Joke

Ill Manors (The Prodigy Remix) – Plan B

No Future Shock – TV on the Radio

Volatile Times – IAMX

The Drinking Song of the Merchant Bankers – McCarthy

Austerity Boy – Bernholz

I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass – Luke Haines

Poverty – David Shane Smith

The New Improved Hypocrisy – The Radio Dept.

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The Shins’ Port of Morrow: From a High Horse’s Inaugural Music Giveaway

Over the course of a decade and a half long existence and decade of releasing albums, The Shins have become synonymous with perfectly crafted, seemingly simple pop songs that are simultaneously redolent of the quiet pleasures and the equally quiet pain of the everyday.  After a hiatus of five years, during which time record labels were switched and band lineups changed and changed again, James Mercer and a new crew of musicians are now back with Port of Morrow, another gem of a pop record to add to their already glittering crown.  Yes, musically it’s an amalgamation of the three albums that preceded it, but after an absence this long it feels triumphant to hear Mercer’s familiar voice again – the voice that practically became shorthand for the early ‘00s American indie music scene, and may I add deservedly so.

We here at From a High Horse are undeniable Shins enthusiasts, whether from their earlier days or their more recent incarnation.  Yes, the soft alt-country twang of “Gone for Good” from 2003’s brilliant Chutes Too Narrow still moves me, as does my identification with its apathetic lyrics.  We’ve only made five playlists so far, but already The Shins have featured on two of them.  So, we’re lucky enough to be able to offer our first contest/music giveaway and two copies of The Shins’ Port of Morrow. To enter to win one of those CDs, please email me (laura@fromahighhorse.com) with ‘Port of Morrow Giveaway’ in the subject line within the next two weeks.  After the contest closes at midnight on April 21st, I will draw two winners and contact them for mailing details.  Good luck and happy Easter weekend!

The Shins – Simple Song

The Shins – No Way Down

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Willful Regression: Graham Coxon’s A+E Reviewed

While Blur continue to plumb the depths of their fans’ enthusiasm and nostalgia, reuniting this summer for the second time in three years to play a special one-off concert in Hyde Park to cap off London’s Olympic festivities along with The Specials and New Order (I’ll be honest – this did tempt me for more than a couple of seconds.  Happily good critical sense – as well as Larissa – intervened), guitarist Graham Coxon continues to evolve as an artist.  A+E, his eighth album in a solo career that began with 1998’s The Sky Is Too High, is unlike anything he’s ever done and it’s definitely not a stretch to say that his solo work has always been more interesting than that with the band that made him astronomically famous.  As fans will know, his albums are notable for not relying on the skills of session musicians, instead with Coxon calling on his own formidable musical talents to play most of the instruments himself.  He’s mastered countless guitar styles, not least of which is the finger-picking folk he used extensively on his last album, 2009’s The Spinning Top, an elegant, pastoral, sprawling concept album about a single man’s life, from cradle to grave.  And speaking of which, part of what pleases me so much about A+E is the wilful regression and contrast between the two albums.  Where The Spinning Top is lush and beautiful and peaceful, A+E is raucous, youthful, and angry.  Of course, sneering punk music is generally far more up my alley than folk, and Coxon’s self-imposed regression into the seemingly juvenile fascinates me, so it’s clear that I find this foray intriguing.

It’s also no secret that this is far from Coxon’s first dip into lo-fi punk and experimental guitar shenanigans.  His first four albums are all pretty rough, and as he was in Blur when he released all of these, it’s easy to assume and is probably mostly accurate that many of these noises were meant to distance himself from Blur and alienate himself from their sometimes teenybopper fanbase.  He was known then for his love of American college rock and indie punk bands in particular (that influence being a major reason why Blur switched styles between The Great Escape and Blur) and the influence of groups like Pavement, Hüsker Dü, and Dinosaur Jr. is as evident now as it was then.  On A+E, the departure from this style comes in the form of electronics and an undeniable krautrock feel.  In fact, the record is pretty much half-and-half loose, messy punk, and the driving motorik influence of krautrock, giving these songs a dark yet dancey feel that’s incredibly appealing.

We begin with “Advice”, a snotty punk number that is the antithesis of anything and everything that appeared on The Spinning Top.  His lyrical bile (“Just shut the point/ Tough break man, it’s not enough/ Completely tough, fucking enough”) is accompanied by a shambolic riff that breaks down even further at the end of each phrase into feedback and out of tune guitar squeaks.  Also, it’s fantastic.  Possibly the only advice necessary for this track is to play it LOUD.  “City Hall” plunges us headfirst into the drum machine-produced motorik beat that appears several more times on the record.  Its repetition is contrasted by well-placed jabs of guitar and horn honks alongside jazzier guitar figures and a subdued but equally repetitive lyric.  “What’ll It Take” is where the dance element is fully introduced in a heavily electronic, synthetic, spiraling way.  I realize that the point of much of this album is a kind of a ‘70s and ‘80s-influenced charming cheapness, but for me this track crosses the line into cheesy cheapness, the repetition here not quite coming off.  It may need more of a melodic sensibility to prop it up, or at least one or two more hook ideas, but the glaring simplicity on “What’ll It Take” makes it a pass for me.  That said, I do have some time for the ending, where he shouts “What’s wrong with me?” over increasingly frantic electronic noise.

Things pick up again, although not necessarily tempo-wise, on the droning “Meet and Drink and Pollinate.”  While the focus here is on the lower end of the guitar’s range, what stands out as a highlight is Coxon’s heavily processed voice with almost no variation in the notes.  This robotic romp is capped off with a sax solo that undercuts the midtempo droning effect, albeit played in the saxophone’s lower register.  Next up is album standout “The Truth”, a dark, post punk influenced, apocalyptic dirge with a monster riff.  The rhythm section is on display here, bass and drums enmeshing to create a wall of ominous sound that’s as dystopian as the words.  As Coxon sings “Slide into the dark, it’s taking shape around you/ Pretty soon it’s all that you will know” I’m reminded of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” if it were done in a different genre or Coxon’s own “You Never Will Be” from Crow Sit on Blood Tree.  There’s a menacing, looming guitar figure on top of all this sludge two-thirds of the way through, where it’s more evident that the bass is subdividing the beat, and a perfectly-fitted little hip shake is injected to intoxicating effect.

“Seven Naked Valleys” sounds positively lightweight in comparison (even though it’s not).  A groovy number that’s a vehicle for some deliciously raunchy sounding saxophone, it’s also got bizarre bleeping electronic noises, a woman’s sampled voice, squealing guitars, all on top of a reliably steady motorik beat.  These sounds converge at the end of each verse, and when Coxon ends his vocal phrase on a trio of ascending notes that are almost a strain, some extra noise is introduced too, and it sounds awesomely chaotic.  “Running For Your Life” is perhaps more unabashedly fun than anything else here, although no less gleefully boisterous.  Yes, it’s about escaping a gang of bullies, but between the hastily-delivered vocal lines and pop-punk riff that alternates with an all-out squall of noise, it reminds me a bit of the state of childhood: loud and busy and enthusiastic.  If cleaned up and prettified, this wouldn’t be out of place on an album like Happiness in Magazines or Love Travels at Illegal Speeds, but there’s something really addicting about the messy, lo-fi production that’s used to offset any commercial potential the melody may have.  The album ends on a mellower note with “Ooh, Yeh Yeh”, a blues-influenced song that forgoes dissonance and loudness for pretty harmonies and contentment.  It’s an appropriate ending, too, as Coxon has spoken about how the sessions for A+E yielded two albums’ worth of songs, with the punkier half showcased on A+E and the blues and soul influenced ones to potentially be released as an album later this year.

I’m always a fan of an album that totally cuts out the ubiquitous love song, so I think that factors into why I like A+E so much.  Mostly, though, it’s the combination of Coxon’s advanced and sophisticated musicianship with songs, production, and techniques that purposely obscure his skill.  His ability as a pop songwriter and performer has been pretty thoroughly explored on albums Happiness in Magazines and Love Travels at Illegal Speeds, and of course even his immense talent for guitar playing was challenged and improved on The Spinning Top.  What happens after that?  Well, for lesser musicians the answer is to retread old territory, and I suppose that, in his move from musical sophistication to simplicity between albums, Coxon’s doing some retreading of his own.  The success of his dive into krautrock and electronica is partially due to his constant willingness to experiment, and to embrace methods and techniques he hasn’t totally mastered in order to express himself.  A+E is an angrier and darker album than he’s released in years, but it’s also a much more fun album than he’s released in years, and Coxon’s joy in trying new things and embracing the results readily comes through.

Graham Coxon – Advice

Graham Coxon – The Truth

A+E is out today and is available through Graham Coxon’s website.

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