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Springing Back: The Monochrome Set’s “Platinum Coils” Reviewed

The Monochrome Set - Platinum Coils

The Monochrome Set, formed in 1978 out of the ridiculously nutritious ooze of the post-punk milieu, is most often described as a grievously underrated band that should have become much more famous, and whose impact is written all over the style of later bands. Their story also often includes their connection to Adam and the Ants. At the end of the day and the beginning of the twenty-first century, I think we all know who aged more gracefully and with more dignity; whilst The Monochrome Set’s frontman Bid has remained a dandy gentleman, Adam Ant has become a hostage to nostalgia and his own highwayman persona. Despite the Ants’ massive success in the early eighties, Bid’s band, including core members Lester Square and Andy Warren, was always the more interesting and intelligent one. And they steered well clear of the peculiar, postcolonial posturing in which several of the New Romantics indulged. Admittedly, I’m most familiar with the first phase of The Monochrome Set’s output, which includes “Strange Boutique”, Love Zombies, Eligible Bachelors, and The Lost Weekend, and several brilliant pre-Strange Boutique singles released on Rough Trade, but I hope to get more acquainted with the Japan-release-only years of the band’s second phase. Those first four classic records pulsate with ideas and lyrical genius, and contain stylish, avant-garde pop poised between surf rock, jazz, vaudeville, baroque, doo-wop, Spanish guitar, rockabilly, gospel, and circus music, casting sharp, post-punk shadows with the tension of a perpetual showdown at high noon.

It’s been seventeen years since The Monochrome Set released an album. In the meantime, I’ve been busy enjoying Bid’s other band, Scarlet’s Well, another aesthetically pleasing project, but with a different group of musicians and a more fantastical narrative structure (the album art is as exquisite as the musical concept, images of a dream-world that recall art nouveau, Aubrey Beardsley, medieval illuminations, and children’s book illustrations). Nonetheless, I was very excited when The Monochrome Set self-released “Platinum Coils” a few months ago. The shiny mirror-like sleeve features Lester Square’s wonderful monochrome illustration of Bid’s head effectively exploding with a surreal collage of objects, many of them from previous centuries and decades, and spouting ephemera like a cornucopia of medical references and human figures. The cover art also deliberately echoes their debut album, from the arch quotation marks around the title to the image of the diver in full flight, which has now shifted from the front to the back cover. The three inside panels of the sleeve are filled with “The essence of Platinum Coils.” At first glance, this fundamental nature of the album seems to be an alphabetical list of word association; a stream of consciousness meets a series of weirs to shape it into a selective dictionary. It begins with “A” and “Aardvarks,” and ends unexpectedly with “Yum.” You come to realize that these are the words that appear in the lyrics of the record itself; they become representative of an attempt to impose order on randomness, thus, ironically making less sense. The album’s content is appropriately eclectic and dream-like, that latter adjective not pertaining to woozy gentleness, but to synapses firing conflicting flare signals into the night.

With the opening explosion and spry guitar line of “Hip Kitten Spinning Chrome,” you’re plunged directly into the quick-witted world of The Monochrome Set. I find it a bit difficult to describe their signature sound, but it’s all over this album. It’s post-punk skiffle. Or indie quickstep. Or rockabilly tango. At any rate, their music is a far more colourful affair than their band name would indicate. The chorus, which features the lines “There’s a kitten on my hip, and it’s going on a trip/Up a river to my head, where it’s purring,” is beguiling and playful, yet its medical subtext belies another less frivolous level. In the surfy dance number “I Can’t Control My Feet,” the dreamscape features a cast comprised of a nurse, a porter, and a man with no hands “tripping the wax fantastic,” echoing the medical undercurrent of the first track. In doing so, this song reveals a second theme running alongside the surreal quality of slumber and dreams: incarcerated madness. The import of the album’s title, then, becomes clearer: platinum coils are medical instruments used to treat brain aneurysms. After a little research, I had a better understanding of the context of the title and the album’s content. Bid had apparently undergone this procedure for a brain aneurysm a couple of years ago. It turns out that “Hip Kitten Spinning Chrome” actually creatively refers to the catheter used to deliver the platinum coils to Bid’s brain, which shows just how fortunate we all are that his sharp brain remained intact.

Upbeat, easy-going songs like “Free, Free, Free,” “Mein Kapitan,” and “Cauchemar” are humorous with their extensive, bizarre wordplay, but they, too, paint a more pathological picture of institutionalization. “Free, Free, Free” is a dialogue between a patronizing nurse and a patient craving liberty; the June Bridesian shuffle of “Mein Kapitan” narrates a story about a patient who seems to believe he’s in the military and is being coaxed back into his cell with an inventive array of things, including Immanual Kant, Lou Reed, and peaches (it incorporates the magnificent line “if he plucks with plastic pick a minor sixth, over which, lunatic licks”); and “Cauchemar” is a mandolin-scintillated song about nightmarish, pill-induced delusions, ranging from sergeant major to vampire viscount to Grand Inquisitor, and the pleas to be restrained for fear of shooting a buttock in the trench, sucking arteries, pricking sinners in the sacristy, and any other tongue-in-cheek, euphemistic misdemeanours. The latin-infused, slinky “Waiting for Alberto” is one of my favourite songs on the album because it embodies dream logic in its hyper-realistic, but ludicrous details:

I’m waiting for Alberto
Will he bring me pears or apples or a bag of exotic
I hope it’s not bananas, bananas make me ill
With his mental pencil moustache, in a minute, he’ll be here
Smoking with curses; pinching the nurses’ bottoms
Oh, haven’t you met him

At the same time, the song represents the real mundanity of waiting for entertaining visits from friends whilst in a hospital bed. This experience is transformed into a fantastical, classy composition via Bid’s elegant turns of phrase and artful storytelling; for example, the chorus is sung in French and can be translated as “Oh, heavyweight, climb the thirty-nine steps/One shoots the shit here,” beautiful Hitchcockian reference and all. Bid’s jaunty, rich vocals convey the knowingness of the lyrical dexterity over top of the plinking, advancing guitar, sighs of Helena Johansson’s violin, and a wonderful guitar solo that mimics flamenco and shady French alleyways.

The tempo slows in “On My Balcony,” a jangly ballad that feels like drifting down a tributary of oblivion. There’s a mournful anonymity in the narrator’s position of watching from a lofty, unnoticed perch, which, due to Bid’s brilliant lyrical skills, could be a hospital balcony, but also a romantic, lonely tower in a dark fairy tale. This detached vantage point resurfaces in “Streams,” in which the narrator watches people slip by to excellent guitar and bass lines bobbing along with the ride cymbal.

The remainder of the album is more quick-paced. “They Call Me Silence” is a sinister creeper of a song as Bid’s vocals slip and slide in a menacing wraith formation. The music glides along like a spy tango as Bid sings of a sense of immobility and muteness, and a sabotage of the senses. It makes me think of what is left when the voices in a person’s head cease. The cinematic purview shifts as the spaghetti western facet of the band comes to the foreground in “Les Cowboys.” It features some excellent guitar twang, side shuffle bass, and clopping percussion; however, even the strange adventures of the “cowboys” are corralled by surgeons, nurses, and the day ward. The penultimate track, “I’m Happy to Be Here,” is a jolly, rolling track with periods of energetic syncopation, and ultimately, anticipation. The poignant imagery of “Slide down slowly to the floor, lie at my bony feet/Curl up like a fawn upon a grave, you’d look so sweet” takes on further meaning when you read about Bid’s brief collapse due to decrease in blood pressure whilst in hospital. The music flickers with life and celebratory fervor. The song’s last line is “Waves are lapping at your feet, come, sweet, and leave the shore,” which evokes freedom and the relief of release. The album ends with the brief track “Brush With Death,” a loose, wonky instrumental, which was penned by Andy Warren and appropriately features brushes across the snare. It sounds a bit like elevator music for Bid’s trip through levels of recovery. And it sounds like a variety show conclusion, complete with rim shots and soft shoe shuffle. Both connotations are appropriate.

“Platinum Coils” is a truly welcome return. Despite the fact that the record is replete with consciousness lapping at the edges of trauma, it is equally funny and witty, conveying the lucidity and profundity to be found in mental interruptions, half-sleep, and near-death experiences. In a way, this album is about taking stock. Gratitude for Bid’s recovery, check. Breadth of The Monochrome Set’s career, check. Refreshing musical hybridity, check. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest antics, check. Language acumen akin to Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, check. Clever clever band, check.

Order “Platinum Coils” from The Monochrome Set’s website.

Hip Kitten Spinning Chrome – The Monochrome Set

Waiting for Alberto – The Monochrome Set

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Impossible Space and Suspension: The Rest’s Seesaw Reviewed

The Rest - Seesaw

I first encountered the brilliance of Adam Bentley and Jordan Mitchell when I wrote a review of their album, Surreal Auteur, created in their incarnation as Allegories. That record made it to number twelve in my Top 40 Albums of 2008. Then I received the album Everyone All at Once, created by their more recent band The Rest, by accident. I wrote a review of it. It went on to occupy the number three position in my Top 40 Albums of 2009. I took a blog hiatus, and The Rest produced a weirdly wondrous EP, including a cover of Robyn’s “With Every Heartbeat,” called The Cried Wolf, which came with a book: a twisted retelling of the cautionary tale of lupine lies, naming the tale’s eponymous boy Hans Horatio Stickypants, and casting him as a con artist who inhabits places such as Souplandia and Dragon City. After three years in the making and unmaking, including the untimely death of their friend and producer, The Rest have now released their second LP Seesaw; they unveiled a track each week leading up to the album release date on June 19. When a song was introduced, it was available to download for free until the next song was posted. They still often sound like a Canadian version of the Scottish band Meursault, Bentley’s vocals also sometimes careening into tones similar to Zac Pennington of Parenthetical Girls. Seesaw evokes perpetual movement, a coordinated flow that feels effortless and dreamy. Bentley’s golden-throated vocals ululate with panoramic abandon and punctuate lines with ecstatic sobs that are uplifting rather than mawkish. Whereas Everyone All at Once seemed slightly more shambolic and more minimal in arrangement, Seesaw is urgent, ambitious, and playful, and Bentley’s voice becomes more abstract as lyrics become less distinct in an atmospheric turn back to the language-defying Allegories.

Opening track “Who Knows” is the perfect example of the exhilarating end of The Rest’s sound spectrum. It begins as a distant oscillation that blossoms into an easy, but exciting conversation. The melodic lines tilt back and forth around a humming fulcrum, sometimes stretching to arc and crisscross their crescendos like well-timed fireworks or a beautifully constructed fountain. Bentley’s reedy fragility gently nudges rhetorical questions along before gliding beyond them into the stratosphere. For “Hey! For Horses,” the rhythm picks up and bolts in syncopated jubilance. There are small crests repeated over a ticking, light percussion, turning an idiom about politeness into a rollicking high-speed chase. Then the ballad “Always On My Mind” elevates shoegaze beyond the dense cloud of distorted guitar into lighter territory as Bentley tenderly sings of “incredible mercies” and the simplicity of human touch.

In the carnivalesque “Laughing Yearning,” guitars mimic steel drums, and Bentley belts his way through the months like the flag-bearer of a celebratory procession. The song hints at Vampire Weekend, which of course means a debt to Paul Simon; however, The Rest casts the style in more ethereal terms. Making the cinematic quality of their music even more pertinent, their track “John Huston” continues the theme of yearning as Bentley addresses the director with passionate pleas, and this sweeping sound continues in the slower “Could Be Sleeping,” which also features the epic expanse of Bentley’s high register. The most subtle of the songs on this album is “The Lodger,” which reverberates with hymn-like serenity. Of course even this lover’s lullaby eventually pushes itself into elegant peaks, quivering and hanging amidst feedback. Returning to an appropriately youthful tempo and flourishes of organ, “Young and Innocent” flirts with childish and adolescent exuberance by playfully using the introduction of The Crystals’ “And Then He Kissed Me” and satirizing “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music. Its bracing, almost puppyish, pace and controlled cacophony reminds me a bit of early Los Campesinos, too.

Despite the fact “The Last Day” begins like an angelic solo, the song unfolds into a rushing bittersweetness propelled by an insistent kick drum, shimmers of cymbals, and entwining guitar figures that seem to build arborescent patterns in the air. Though Bentley begins the track with the lines “Glory days/And I know it’s the end, but I’m tired/On top of the hill/the town below is on fire,” the song is anything but fatigued and flagging. Energy continues to fizz and pop until the music drops out behind the faded echoes of vocals. The final track, “Slumber,” casts back to the first half of the twentieth century with its lazy ride cymbal and strains of violins. Like a boyish crooner, Bentley sings the starry-eyed refrain of “how am I supposed to slumber?” Just as songs like “Young and Innocent” and “Hey! For Horses” appear gleefully to mock youth while imitating its most exciting bits, “Slumber” shuffles its feet in an almost lugubrious salute to awkward school dances and the obsession of teenage dreams and tear-stained pillows.

Seesaw is available in several formats on their Bandcamp page, including a limited edition on clear 180gram vinyl (it comes with a one-of-a-kind handwritten note about the songs and/or recording experience by individual members of The Rest). This latest record from The Rest is anything but static and at rest. Sleep and the act of reclining figure often in the lyrics, but Seesaw is definitely more about the fight against slumber and reverie and the rebound into breathless wakefulness. They seize every dimension through their sound, teetering acrobatically out on limbs. The balancing act of these musical and lyrical dynamics works as a series of cantilevers, crafting seemingly impossible space and suspension throughout the record. Seesaw is a frontrunner for my 2012 list. Welcome back.

Hey! For Horses – The Rest

The Lodger – The Rest

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Stillborn Renaissance Man: Ramblings on the Return of Lawrence and Felt: The Book

Felt Book

This year’s Record Store Day at Into the Music turned out to be a rather notable one. Though I harboured some absurd hope that I may find a copy of the RSD 7” release of Go-Kart Mozart’s “New World in the Morning,” I soon discovered that the best I was going to do in the middle of the RSD melee was a vinyl copy of McLusky’s McLusky Do Dallas and a 7” copy of “Kick Out the Jams” on vinyl the colour of raspberry cheesecake. However, in a twist of fate perhaps even more absurd than my wish for “New World in the Morning,” the find that made me weak in the knees was a used vinyl copy of The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories. So weak, in fact, I managed to miss the second Felt album in the bin, which Laura duly purchased. These are the first signs of Lawrence that I’ve ever seen in this record shop in the ten years I’ve been a customer. It was a happy and strange coincidence considering the resurgence of interest in Lawrence in the past couple of years. It used to be difficult just to track down copies of Felt CDs – at least where I live. Nine years ago, Cherry Red Records decided to reissue the Felt albums on CD; they were a rather Spartan affair without nostalgic liner notes and without much beyond the cardboard sleeve designed by Paul Kelly. I began to collect them several years back. Then last year, Californian duo Girls released a limited edition heart-shaped piece of vinyl entitled “Lawrence,” an aptly woozy instrumental tribute to the reclusive frontman of Felt, Denim, and Go-Kart Mozart. Then came Kelly’s documentary film, Lawrence of Belgravia, which originally screened at the British Film Institute last year and is currently making its way across select UK cinemas. Having heard Lawrence talk about it on radio shows and having read numerous articles about it, I’m desperate to see the film; however, I suppose I have to wait just as I seemingly have to wait to purchase even a digital version of “New World in the Morning” (the odd limitations of copyright and distribution in the international iTunes system). Lawrence began giving more interviews on radio and online, and even hosted his own Domino Radio show. Even Tim Burgess expressed his love for Lawrence—something I found a bit odd until I noticed Burgess’s Lawrence-inflected intonation on part of the chorus in The Charlatans’ “North Country Boy” when it came on the radio a couple of weeks ago. Another more recent development concerning Lawrence, perhaps to build on the recent interest, was the limited edition of 1000 books of Felt photographs, quite simply entitled Felt: The Book.

This book, published by Fabrice Couillerot, Lora Findlay, and Paul Kelly with First Third Books, and signed by Lawrence, is a fitting tribute to the band, somehow exclusive and luxurious whilst plain, clean, and unassuming. The greyish covers complement the many black-and-white images inside; the simple word “felt,” in elegant, light sans-serif, is engraved in the front cover, a shadow melting into the general greyness, a half-impression, an indentation begging to be discovered. In fact, the few colour photographs that do appear in the book seem exceptionally lurid and startling, as though they’re encroaching on the soft, monochromatic world of Felt’s vintage timelessness. Bob Stanley writes the foreword, and is suitably enthusiastic in the way music fanatics often are, assigning life-changing properties to purchasing Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death. He highlights Felt’s gauziness, mystery, and lack of commercial success, the latter being the most common narrative when discussing Lawrence generally. It is a narrative that Lawrence perpetuates himself – the first photo in the collection, which is of three-year-old Lawrence looking on in distress as his older sister holds the toy she’s taken from him, is accompanied by his text: “A portentous snap – so prescient. The prize has been swiped and he stands alone – miserable.” Stanley ends his foreword with his first meeting of Lawrence in 1989, a meeting he is glad took place at the end of the Felt run because it preserved the romantic enigma of the band for him yet allowed him access to the Denim years. The Saint Etienne, Kevin Pearce, Heavenly, and Lawrence connection forms one big, blurry, beautiful mess. Paul Kelly, who used to play with Saint Etienne, directed Finisterre, a fascinating psychogeographic journey through London. It featured a Saint Etienne soundtrack, which, in turn, owed a debt to the likes of Felt’s Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death. And of course, Finisterre also featured voiceovers from Lawrence. And a script largely written by Kevin Pearce. Theirs is a world of fanzines, cult successes, indie mythology, fervent fandom, modish style, and beauty in urban mundanity. It is a world that was brilliantly rendered in the series of stills in Finisterre, and also in the stills of Felt: The Book.

Whether Lawrence intended it to be or not, the book is a document of his own narcissism and Type A personality. Of course the book is also indicative of the singular vision and divorcement from reality he writes of in his introductory paragraph in the book. Perhaps they are the same thing. They are attributes that made Felt both extraordinary and impossible. Lawrence openly writes about his frustration with his band members, and what he perceived to be a lack of seriousness and passion for the band. At the same time, he chooses band members according to how lustrous their hair is; he chooses guitars according to which one would look the best. He admits to his own paranoia about photographs of himself, asking to keep all negatives, so they wouldn’t end up in the wrong hands. To accompany a series of photographs of the band in his bedroom, Lawrence writes: “From day one I was reluctant to take photographs outdoors because I refused to be at the mercy of the elements. I think that was a particularly wise decision from one so young.” He outlines the importance of the band’s cohesive look, ostensibly one he created himself: the checked shirts to invoke Richard Lloyd on the cover of Marquee Moon and John McKay on the sleeve for Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “The Staircase (Mystery)”; thin Doc Marten soles; 50s-style peg trousers, a look which would later be pillaged by the pretentious S.C.U.M. (alarmingly, lead singer, Thomas Cohen, even seems to have stolen Lawrence’s “Primitive Painters” hat and the moody glare from beneath a dark fringe); and old leather jackets, which had to be different from the types of jackets worn by The Ramones.

In a striking two-page spread following Lawrence’s anecdote about touring Europe with his disinterested bandmates, Lawrence’s head appears in the bottom corner in front of Edvard Munch’s “The Worker on His Way Home”; he is dwarfed by the large nightmarish painting of hollow-eyed workers, who look like they are either dissolving or emanating from within flames. With his eyes downcast, Lawrence takes on a martyr-like pose in front of a strong indictment of industrial labour. He comes to embody both the cultivated apartness of many of the images and the text he provides for a different set of photographs: “Any activity that demanded effort was, in the end, left to me. Even acts of vanity.” A photo of Lawrence’s reflection in an ornate mirror, entitled “Me and my mirror in my room,” speaks to the essence of Lawrence on so many levels, it may as well be a tower block. The text beside the photo makes me more uncomfortable than most of the other pieces about his control issues. Lawrence recounts his time with a girlfriend named Vikki, who he convinced to steal a mirror from a hotel room: “Vikki was a great kid – I could get her to do anything.”

Another fascinating dimension of the book is found in the opening pages of each year/section organizing the groups of images from 1980 to 1989. Each year begins with a page of short lists of cultural texts, ranging from film titles to book titles, from album titles to live performances, from documentaries to music press articles. The implication is that these were important influences on Lawrence’s art and thought during these specific years. Just as meticulously curated as his photo archives, which he had kept organized and labelled and could present to Couillerot when the idea for this book came about, these lists present a highly specific construction of reality to accompany the carefully chosen representation by the photographs. Lawrence’s interests are perhaps both expected and unexpected. The post-punk indie favourites, like Joy Division, Sudden Sway, Echo and the Bunnymen, Win, Fire Engines, The Teardrop Explodes, and Orange Juice, in his lists seem natural as inspirations for his own DIY aesthetic. The Pop Art/Andy Warhol/Factory references and Beat Poets also seem to fit with the romance of the loner, the extreme control over one’s own microcosm and image, and the absorption with self-destructive fame. I can also understand Lawrence’s affinity for documents of deliberate isolation from society, including the two Edies of the Grey Gardens documentary and Marjorie Wallace’s coverage of “The Silent Twins,” June and Jennifer Gibbons (the latter also interestingly taken up by Nicky Wire in the lyrics of “Tsunami,” the Manic Street Preachers being yet another node on the Heavenly, Kevin Pearce, Saint Etienne network). Then there are films like Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now, which probe the darkness and corruption of humanity in the context of the Vietnam War, and obscure road movies like Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins. Additionally, Lawrence includes films that deal with ostensibly real street narratives about young people, including Pixote and Wir Kinder Vom Bahnhof Zoo. I suppose, in a sense, all of these texts are about being outside of society, whether through escape, rejection, revenge, or gritty voyeurism. These little lists without explanation are what you would imagine to be on Lawrence’s Facebook profile page if he were to have one.

Why the seemingly recent flurry of interest in Lawrence? Can it all be due to Lawrence of Belgravia? Or is the time finally right for an artist like him? The Internet nurtures the niche and the cult, and Lawrence has pretty much always been a cult. His mystique and power comes from being a timeless artist perpetually out of his time, and now time has become eternally present. Now everyone has become a solipsist in her/his private, yet public, corner of cyberspace. We can all follow our singular visions and realities, and cultivate and display very particular versions of ourselves, just as Lawrence always has. Lawrence also makes sense within the paradox of extreme intangibility and tangibility in the digital world; this duality of the current digital age both allows for increased disposability, mobility, and immediacy, but encourages an extreme sort of fetishism for the physical, material, and artisan, in ever more limited editions, in response to the immaterial of the digital. Lawrence thrives in the climate of exclusivity, limited editions, and limited engagements. He is a walking exhibit of archive fever, an aspect of culture that has only intensified in recent decades with the possibility of infinite archives and memory trumping history. Not only does Lawrence have an apparently encyclopaedic knowledge of indie culture, but he also owns a well-curated, enviable record collection. After playing Nightingales’ “Idiot Strength” during his Domino Radio stint, Lawrence makes the off-hand comment of “I haven’t heard that record in twenty years because my records have been in storage”; a world of subtext from the man who was living in London hostels for years due to lack of funds, but who managed to retain his extensive, eclectic vinyl collection. He embodies a false sense of mobility and minimalist living, a tension that could be definitive of these latter days of capitalism. Lawrence, the consummate contradiction, highlighting the contradictions inherent in society itself. Alan McGee once wrote that Lawrence “wanted to be renowned in the underground like Andy Warhol, but simultaneously felt he should be writing hits for Cliff Richards,” an artist in a liminal position of high and low, cult and superstardom. In a world where global superstars and major record labels are on their way to becoming obsolete, Lawrence seems to be vindicated, and he fits quite perfectly.

Lawrence the Man Who Was Not With It

In Felt: The Book, Lawrence states, “I’m quite averse to renaissance men and dilettantes.” In quite ornery, contradictory fashion, he has experienced a rebirth of sorts, and in simultaneous projects. By relinquishing control and allowing himself to become the object rather than the subject in the last few years, Lawrence’s unbeaten path has finally converged with the more travelled networks across the wireless globe. The last photograph in the book is one by Donna Ranieri; it is of Lawrence holding Herbert Gold’s The Man Who Was Not With It, an image which, incidentally, was also used as cover art for Veronica Lake’s 7” named after the Gold book. As with many of the Felt photographs, the image works on several levels. There’s a certain mercy in Lawrence’s self-belief; other eccentric, but brilliant artists have been destroyed by self-doubt, cutting their work, and often their lives, short. Instead, Lawrence has bided his time, remaining stubbornly true to his own artistic instincts. His thought processes may be baffling, and sometimes maddening, but they are beguiling, too. And, in the process, he may just have become with it.

After seven years, the next, highly-anticipated Go-Kart Mozart album On the Hot Dogs Street will be released this June. I’ve already ordered my LP copy. Order yours here. On Gideon Coe’s radio show last week, Lawrence also talked about the release of a mini-album of electronic music, so keep a watch for that as well. Copies of Felt: The Book are still available – order here.

Declaration – Felt

Until the Fools Get Wise – Felt

Sunlight Strings – Felt

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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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Long Live Sheffield: Former Lover and Nature Set Split Maxi-Cassingle Reviewed

Former Lover Nature Set Cassingle

It was an unfortunate day in 2008 when The Long Blondes had to disband after only two albums due to guitarist/songwriter Dorian Cox’s stroke. While rumours continued to percolate around Long Blondes frontwoman Kate Jackson’s yet-to-be-released solo album, I hadn’t heard anything more about the rest of the band, especially about what had become of Cox. Then at the end of last October, I received an email out of the blue ether, announcing his return with a new band called Former Lover. And they were apparently releasing a limited edition maxi-cassingle with fellow indie Sheffield band Nature Set. This was fantastic news. For one thing, I really love the word cassingle. Luckily, I also discovered that I really enjoyed both bands’ work. Fronted by Myrtle with Cox on guitar/organ and Daniel Dylan Wray on bass, Former Lover is an exciting departure from the scratchy vintage pop we had grown used to hearing from Cox. Instead, we get some minimal, yet seductive post-punk that relies heavily on the bass guitar for melody lines. Nature Set, which includes another ex-Long Blondes member, Reenie Hollis, and Daf, Claire, and Marie of garage-punk band Navvy, is a high-octane contrast with buzzsaw guitar and wonky synths. The sunshine yellow cassette has no label, but comes in a cardboard slipcase that has a DIY stamped design reminiscent of The Orphan Arms’ aesthetic. The analog format definitely serves both bands’ styles of music, allowing for the constant creep of static on Former Lover’s songs and fleshing out the fuzztones of Nature Set.

The first side I’m cued to slip into the tape player is the Former Lover side. Myrtle’s detached yet sweet, Alison Stattonesque voice is a clinical complement to a musical background that makes me think of sodium-lit car parks and cheap, brown-wallpapered motels from the 70s (the retro aesthetic is also cultivated in their music videos). With the three songs’ knocked-up pauses and obvious drum machines, they evoke the seedy and the synthetic. “He Doesn’t Have to Know About You” begins with a psychotic, pared-down bass figure that recalls “Stand By Me,” but twists it into something unresolved, unhinged, and voyeuristic. The song even includes what sounds like a much harsher, sharper güiro, a mechanized güiro, in fact. To supplement the languid bass, there are fabulous scribbles of distorted guitar that sound like someone slowly losing his/her mind. In a singsong, matter-of-fact vocal, Myrtle provides the chorus of “He doesn’t have to know about you/And she doesn’t have to know about me/For the record.” She even sets a time limit on the relationship: “until we’re thirty-five at the most.” The second track, “Unlust,” carries the fullest guitar line, but still keeps gaps of tension and a metallic iciness in the random clangs of percussion. There are more lyrics of a fantastically straightforward nature, such as “I suppose my lust for you is wasted/So I suppose I should divert it somewhere else.” The final track is “Heartbreak Button,” an understated tango set to the weirdly flat whip of a drumbeat you would find on the opening of New Order’s “Blue Monday.” Between stabs of organ, Myrtle pleads “Don’t press the heartbreak button…please,” damping her desperation by reverting to the mechanical stance on love and sex that is present in the previous tracks. At one point, the song becomes particularly chilling as the narrator asks “I was a good person/Wasn’t I?,” which sounds like the kind of unsettling, doubting question you hear from a person clinging to an unhealthy relationship.

With their snarky female backing vocals and pop sensibility, there’s a bit of Kenickie about Nature Set. Their opening track, “If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now,” taunts and seesaws back and forth to a punchy bassline and a counter melody on synths. The drums pound through the bridge as synths continue to build with alarm-like quality and the electric guitar crescendos to a roar. “Hands” begins with the proclamation that “this week has gone to hell” and the narrator has “done nothing worthwhile.” It blossoms into a punky version of a 60s girl group song complete with a Spectorish bassline on methamphetamine and wide-eyed Sarah Records vocals. There’s a brash honesty to the lyrics, including “I’m not wishing it could last,” and the chorus is a blast of blissful melody as it delivers more candid observations: “It’s all right here in my hands…I still want more than I’ve found.” Closing track, “I Am a Planet,” is a swift, spinning slap of crazy. The vocals build upon each other in rhyming recklessness while arcade synths buzz in the background and the drums crash. It’s the perfect, incendiary collapse for the end of the cassette.

I truly hope I’ll be hearing more from both bands in the near future. Long live the Sheffield indie scene. And long live the impractical, yet enchanting cassingle.

Purchase the cassingle for only £2.50 at Naked Under Spacesuit.

Heartbreak Button – Former Lover

I Am a Planet – Nature Set

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A Finer Whine: Benjamin Shaw’s There’s Always Hope, There’s Always Cabernet Reviewed

There's Always Hope, There's Always Cabernet album cover

When Tom Ravenscroft played Benjamin Shaw’s “12 000 Sentinels” on his 6Music show a few months ago, I was intrigued by the wry, abstract words and laconic vocal style. As such, it was an appropriate track for a DJ such as Ravenscroft. Though my full concentration wasn’t on the song because I was also at work at the time, it felt funny and pleasingly sad. Through the speediness of the Internet, I managed to purchase his 2009 EP, I Got the Pox, The Pox is What I Got, within minutes of first hearing “12 000 Sentinels,” and I subsequently preordered his first full-length album, There’s Always Hope, There’s Always Cabernet, which was released by Audio Antihero last month. To call Shaw lo-fi would be lazy, albeit convenient, and the term doesn’t encapsulate what his music and lyrics do to/for you.

This record is the audile equivalent of walking through the rain with a giddy amount of alcohol in your veins and a bum leg. Or navigating monkey bars made of Slinkies. Or performing children’s songs on a keyboard with depleted batteries. Or trying to thread a needle with melody while the end keeps fraying on you. The music is an endless dropping off, a cleansing cacophony, a perpetual winding down, lumbering on in circles of an ever more asymmetrical and meandering nature. For every right note there’s a wrong note or three, and the beauty of Shaw’s music is that it all works. All of it resolves even though your brain says it shouldn’t. Dissonance, wheezes, creaks, and static fill out the backgrounds with an ever-present hum of unrest even when the music itself sounds like a lullaby (for example, the instrumental “An Exciting Opportunity” sounds like short circuiting rain). Shaw creates a beguiling art on the ambivalent edges of adulthood, a place of drawn-out sighs and too much to cope with. His music and lyrics work together in a witty, measured fashion, where angst has ripened into a much finer whine.

After the brief introductory title track, Shaw displays his inventive lyrics on “How to Test the Depth of a Well.” I’m comforted by lines like, “So sit down with me on this fence/ cos if sorrow is money and money is rest/ then I’d call them tomorrow to get your bed ready for you.” One of my favourite songs is the saggy, defeated track, “Interview,” which flawlessly captures the atmosphere of job hunting. Shaw speaks for so many of us when he softly sings the frail lines: “I’ve got an interview tomorrow at ten/for a job I’ll hate.” Where he really mirrors my psyche is when he hopes to step in front of a pushbike or two, and concludes, “If I’m lucky, my head might land on the pavement, and my feet up in the air.” As friends will attest, this kind of thinking dominates my working life. He further explores the poverty of complacency in the penultimate track “The Birds Chirp and the Sun Shines.” It features one of the best vocal deliveries of “celebrate good times, come on”; rather than a fist-pumping disco chant, it becomes a throwaway comment to append to staring into the abyss, half-muttered, half-exhaled. His specific brand of hope amidst the general dissatisfaction comes in the final verses as his broken voice reaches out: “I believe that it’s going to be just fine/If we keep our bodies full of lepers and our bellies full of wine.”

Shaw’s illustrations for the album cover and liner notes are perfect complements to the music with their combination of sketchy pencil drawings, wavering lines, and layers of seemingly incongruent images and textures. There’s something child-like about them, and also something quite twisted and morbid, not that the two concepts are mutually exclusive. The hunchback that graces the cover of both his EP and his album feels like a sympathetic shriveled soul that I could identify with.

For all of us pretend grown-ups slouching through life, knowing we have bad posture, but also knowing that we feel even more uncomfortable and tired in the shapes we’re expected to pull, Benjamin Shaw is our soundtrack. His music is a shrug, warming and absolving. All we can do is try, and that is all our soggy hearts can beat for.

Interview – Benjamin Shaw

The Birds Chirp and the Sun Shines – Benjamin Shaw

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The Candour and the Grandeur: Roy Wilkinson’s Do It For Your Mum Reviewed

Do It For Your Mum Cover

I first became aware of Brighton-based band British Sea Power in 2004 whilst working on an essay about the type of masculinity constructed in particular men’s magazines for my Rhetoric of Gender class. In the #9 issue of Upstreet: A Lifestyle for Men, I stumbled across an article called “Spirit of British Sea Power” wedged between articles on Robert Wyatt and on the electro-ethnic trend, along with fashion ads dripping in sultry, vacant androgynes. I suspect that the crucial paragraph that intrigued me in the BSP story described how the band arranged meetings with journalists by using ordinance survey coordinates and could range from Charles Lindbergh to Iggy Pop in conversation. It was also rather apparent that they didn’t take themselves terribly seriously, cultivating a sense of irony and surrealism. These ideas hooked me, and eventually led me to purchase their debut album, The Decline of British Sea Power, and of course, the next four. And, naturally, I had to buy a BSP t-shirt that has “Heron Addict” emblazoned on it, and I will likely one day purchase a British Tea Power mug. After reading Roy Wilkinson’s compelling band biography, Do It For Your Mum, which was published by BSP’s label Rough Trade, I realized that this popping up in an odd place to ambush and then entice fans was a habit and a useful tactic.

Wilkinson, the older brother of band members Yan (Scott) and Hamilton (Neil), managed the band until 2006, and remains The Secretary of their emailed “newsboosts.” The inscription on the book cover, beneath the sticker of an abstract graphic of a deer (perhaps a little lost roe) on a mountaintop, reads: “One band, one dad, one world war – a story of British Sea Power, rock dreams and family farce.” Throughout his book, Wilkinson traces a convincing path through time and space, shifting from descriptions of sublime landscapes to those of the mundane, yet stressful, realities of running the day-to-day business of a rock band, and easily comparing his father’s atypical experience of World War Two to the atypical experience of his brothers’ band, much of the experience as about being apart from and disengaged with the outside world. Demonstrating that this fruitful sort of detachment runs in the family, he treads a careful balance between heartfelt belief and messy human frailty, and between Vaudevillian shenanigans and superhuman resilience, successfully turning delusion into a plausible career move.

I think it’s highly significant that Wilkinson is a music journalist by trade. Music journalists are the primary proponents for music mythology; the best of them have to write as though music and its creators are matters of life and death, writing as though music can mean something more. We fans take these pronouncements to heart whether they’re adulatory or scathing. It’s all part of the grand drama of music fanaticism; this kind of culture, encompassing music press, radio DJs, and independent record shops, allows us to pontificate and debate the merits of trivial aspects of song-writing and performance, bartering and bantering about cultural capital and making a plethora of lists. Excellent music journalists can create a captivating narrative from the music they review and from the bands they interview. Wilkinson is one of the excellent music journalists, writing his brothers’ band into transcendence.

Whether he’s describing how his brother Neil would attend PE classes in a “mildly homoerotic Smiths t-shirt,” how they couldn’t persuade Jarvis Cocker to accompany them into the forest to watch nightjars, or how one band member sawed off the tree branch he was sitting on and subsequently fell into injury, Wilkinson is as self-deprecating as he is self-aggrandizing. He was clearly not the best choice financially for band manager, a fact of which he reminds us at every turn, but he was a brilliant marketer and imaginative storyteller, using all of the innate quirks of the band to their advantage. He may lose thousands of pounds of the band’s money to corrupt policemen in Russia, but he exemplifies how one goes about becoming the perfect cult band.

Wilkinson’s biography ends up being more about music fanaticism than it does music creation. In addition to the Wilkinson patriarch’s ardent fandom and impassioned indie music research, a large part of the book is dedicated to describing the devotion of the myriad BSP fans, several who have seen the band play 150 to over 200 times and followed them up and down the continent in spite of full-time work commitments. They are fans with a particular sense of community, arranging pre-gig picnics on traffic islands. I wouldn’t believe there to be many casual BSP fans.

Despite this fanatic devotion, they’ve struggled with breaking through to the mainstream. The band’s encounters with other musicians and celebrities, along with Wilkinson’s encyclopaedic knowledge of music trivia and apt descriptions and anecdotes, add colourful context to the plot and provide much of the farcical comedy and pathos as Wilkinson and British Sea Power watch their contemporaries, including The Libertines, Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, and The Strokes, soar ahead of them in popularity. Wilkinson’s style is often delightfully understated and playful as in the passage where he cites his father’s description of their labelmates, The Libertines: “Dad had seen The Libertines in the NME: ‘Not sure about them. The tall one looks like a spiv. You can imagine him playing a jailbird in an Ealing comedy.’ Dad’s analysis held odd insight. Pete would indeed end up in jail—and, at least on one occasion, he would be sentenced at Ealing Magistrates’ Court.” I also feel as though I have to be a bit self-indulgent and reveal one of my favourite descriptions from Wilkinson. Referring to Mick Jagger on the cover of his Goddess in the Doorway album, Wilkinson paints him as a “half-finished animatronic rock mannequin from a fairground ride in France.” It is the underdog quality of British Sea Power that adds to their allure – I always believe in watching the underdog for the most interesting, obsessive-worthy art. It’s rewarding being a fan of a band that makes you work at being their fan.

In my mind, British Sea Power is one of those bands with extensive and eclectic influences from places well beyond music, making them much more interesting and unique than their peers. Their music draws from history, nature, science, literature, mythology, film, and current events. They are fans of Betjeman and alcohol. They can utilize Czech politics just as effectively as bird species. They put on bone-breaking shows with elaborate props in unexpected places, write obscure lyrics that require some excavation to make meaning, give even more obscure interviews, and provide interesting juxtapositions in the way so many of my favourite artists do, smuggling subversive and witty themes into popular anthems. Despite describing the events that formed the band and formed the Wilkinson family itself, the book still retains the aloof, sometimes enigmatic, quality of British Sea Power. Wilkinson writes quite emotionally and candidly about his own dreams and failures, and crucially, about their father’s competitive hopes and commitment to the band; however, his younger brothers and their bandmates seem to hover in the taciturn middle distance, completely unflappable and rather impenetrable. They don’t appear to get fussed over anything, still giving rather vague or seemingly superficial quotes when they actually do speak in the book. Of course, this only sustains the band’s mystique and allows fans to fill in the gaps. The members of British Sea Power clearly haven’t minded being different their entire lives, which adds an unpretentious honesty to their character.

There are ostensibly only 2011 copies of the limited edition of the book (mine is hand-numbered with a neat “306”), so please hurry to the Rough Trade site to purchase yours. It is exactly this kind of inventive rarity that works so well for the British Sea Power brand.

British Sea Power makes you think. Their art form is crunchy and perhaps the only truly revelatory thing about them. I think the world needs more bands willing to put themselves out there as a lifestyle choice. Do It For Your Mum also makes you think. Roy Wilkinson empowers you to believe that music fans can will themselves into an extraordinary lifestyle and choose to put their oars in less trammelled waters, pulling upstream for the perversity of it.

Childhood Memories – British Sea Power

Living is So Easy – British Sea Power

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