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Mellow Peaches, 'Biscuits and Cobblers'

Mellow Peaches, 'Biscuits and Cobblers'

Regular readers might remember a recording session I took part in a few months ago. Finally, the CD which is the product of those sessions has been released. Biscuits and Cobblers, the second EP from Black Country bluesmen Mellow Peaches, has its official launch night this coming Thursday, but copies are now available from the band. Now, OK, Amit and Rich are good friends of mine and, yes, I play on the CD – but that’s at least in part because I’ve always been so impressed by their music.

I first met them when we were on the same bill together, and their line-up included a bass player. Even then they were tight and startlingly creative – and accomplished – musicians. Blues can be a genre defined by the obsession of its musicians with playing just like Skip James. The Peaches know all the styles, but break free of them. So Biscuits and Cobblers starts with ‘Iktomi and the Muskrat’ an instrumental which builds in incremements into something more Ennio Morricone than Mississippi John Hurt, and includes ‘Sail Away’, a song which wouldn’t be out of place in a jug band. Their rootsy influences range wider than many of their contemporaries, and that’s what’s exciting about their sound.

You can hear those and other songs on the band’s MySpace. No digital downloads of the complete EP yet, but drop them a message or an email about getting a copy. Even better, catch them tomorrow night at the The Nursery Tavern in Coventry, or make it to Birmingham’s Crossroads Blues Club on Thursday for the launch gig. Good times.

React or DieSome weeks ago, I bought React or Die, the latest release from Glasgow-based indie folk-pop outfit Butcher Boy. It’s been defying my expectations ever since. Not so much because its arrangements are particularly unusual, or its brand of acoustic-ish feyness is so entirely unexpected from a Scottish indie band, but because the album never quite slots as it should. Yes, it’s melancholy, but the songs move by and large at a quick zip; sure, it’s literate, but the lyrics also seem better bedded into the melody than might often be the case with other clever-clever bands; and the melodies themselves are very rarely memorable, and yet manage their hooks through the use of language.

This makes for a record which you come to care about only slowly: on first listen, it may all pass you by. There’s nothing here that grabs you per se – it’s all too low-key for that. But after a few listens you begin to realise that something is going on beneath the overly calm surface of these songs, and this leads you to replay the CD regularly, going deeper into how the whole thing is put together. Most notable, and this not surprising from a band whose songwriter once used the moniker Butcher Boy to pseudonymously publish poetry, is how the words built into shapes which don’t just fit the melody but shape it. This sort of thing is often spoken of as the holy grail of songwriters, but to be honest very few actually want to do it as completely as its done here – it can sound strange, to force the song along with assonance and the rhythm of language, rather than with bass guitars and drums. It works rather well here, and forces you over time to listen very carefully not just to the words themselves but how they’re put together.

It’s a trick Frightened Rabbit used last year on The Midnight Organ Fight, albeit less systematically, and to my ears the two bands share a great deal in terms of approach. Both bands craft songs which feel like unified artifacts, rather than an amalgam of melody, lyric and arrangement, and this is very difficult to achieve without at the same time making them feel unnatural. But Butcher Boy in particular also sound very organic – loose, fun and though there probably isn’t a bum note on the album there feels like there could be.

You can listen to the band at their MySpace page – have a click on album highlight ‘A Kiss Will Marry Us’. They deserve more exposure.

Kitty, Daisy and Lewis

Kitty, Daisy and Lewis

That question about the virtues of the retro has been in my mind again, whilst listening to Kitty, Daisy and Lewis, the debut album from the Durham siblings. The youngest of them is 16, and the eldest 20, but they are influenced by 50s swing and R&B (and helped out by their ma and pa), and their music less betrays its influences as it does faithfully reproduce them. They are callow, for sure – a cover of “I Got My Mojo Working” and the quoting of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”‘s signature riff hardly speaks of a depth of allusion – and at times the record feels a little redundant.

Yet the trio have real beef, and “Going Up The Country”, “Buggin’ Blues” and “Polly Put The Kettle On” are all dancefloor shakers of the old school which are dextrous contributions to a tradition, rather than ham-fisted love letters to better players. It’s almost a shame that the kids spent ages collecting retro recording and production equipment – ribbon microphones, ancient mixers and masterers and RIAA curves – when making a record with this sort and level of  musicianship which also sounded like it was recorded now might have been a more interesting proposition. But it’s hard to like a record whilst also dissing its ethic.

Worth watching out for live, it might also be interesting to see some originals from the group – “Buggin’ Blues” is penned by 18-year old Lewis, but otherwise the 10 tunes on this album are old standards of one sort or another. It’s in that shying from originality that this album fails to be much more than a diverting – and very well executed – retread. Great fun and not a little refreshing, if they take their straightforwardly rootsy sound to a new place as for instance did Nickel Creek, Kitty, Daisy and Lewis may also still become something very special, to boot.

In the meantime, and for those of you who like your rockabilly rawer and more mature, I recommend Swampmeat. Yee-haw.

Life Death Love and Freedom

Life Death Love and Freedom

I’ve been listening to John Mellencamp’s Life Death Love and Freedom, sent to me by a friend who clearly knows my taste in music very well. It’s a very fine CD, made so of course by Mellencamp’s undoubted gifts as a songwriter, but also by the sympathetic production of T-Bone Burnett. Burnett has made something of a career for himself as a producer of grainy acoustic Americana, following the runaway success of his soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou?, the Coen Brother’s Dustbowl Odyssey. Most recently, his production for the Robert Plant / Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand helped that release not a little towards its Grammies success.

Another friend recently likened the production style of a CD of my own songs, Walk The Floor, to Burnett’s. This is high praise indeed (and I won’t be so churlish as to modestly pooh-pooh it, though I could): Burnett is my kind of producer, with a love of traditional virtues allied to a keen eye for modern possibilities. No doubt this fidelity to the particular qualities of music, and awareness of the limitations and capacities of technology, led to GBurnett’s conception of the format in which Life Death Love and Freedom was released. ΧΟΔΕ (or Code) aims to do for recorded music what THX did for movie sound, reproducing the experience of listening to the studio masters. The ΧΟΔΕ disc can only be played in DVD players, and since my own player is currently attached to a 14″ TV with a  hopeless mono speaker, I haven’t been able to test it out. Has anyone else out there?

Left only with the CD, meanwhile, the songs’ strengths have of course still been more than obvious. The CD makes for a dark listen, but its bluesy forms and clear arrangements also make it an entertaining one. We probably have T-Bone to thank for that, too. Recommended.

March of the Zapotec/Holland

March of the Zapotec/Holland

Usually Colour Matt and I agree on matters musical, and I have some sympathy with his position that Zach Condon’s Beirut can feel a little like an exercise. And yet Condon has made some wonderful music in this vein – both the Gulag Orkestar and The Flying Club Cup were replete with very fine tunes and not a little sublime arrangement. Perhaps it is true that, were it not for his lo fi trappings, Condon would like be condemned as a novelty act; and yet precisely those trappings tend to suggest something more than mere appropriation is at work in his music.

Disappointment is therefore the only reaction to make to the double CD Condon has recently released, and which Matt mentions in that post. Half the sort of thing one expects from Condon – a Beirut CD with parping brass and indigenous folk stylings – and half an intermittently disastrous foray into electronic under the name Realpeople – ‘No Dice’ in particular sounds like it was put together in five minutes for a kiddie disco.

That latter disc’s only standout track is the one Matt mentions, ‘Venice’. ‘My Night with the Prostitute from Marseille’ starts out divertingly enough, and remains lyrically impressive, but it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that Jens Lekman might yet have done a better job. The former disc starts strongly, meanwhile,  ‘El Zócalo’ short but evocatively chaotic, and ‘La Llorona’ simply a very finely put together song. Even this more persuasive set of songs seems somehow incomplete, however, and though it ends on a jolly waltz, I was left with the overall impression that Condon had made some missteps. It is possible that his consistency on previous releases has simply spoiled us.

Rayguns Are Not Just The Future

Rayguns Are Not Just The Future

Where lies the line between retro and pastiche? It’s a question The Puppini Sisters might ask themselves, or for that matter Ocean Colour Scene, BR5-49 or Camera Obscura, all of whom have dabbled or revelled in evoking sounds of yesteryear. Camera Obscura in particular have managed to craft a sound recognisably their own, which nevertheless wears its influences not so much on its sleeve as it does fashion a three-piece suit from them.

I’ve been listening to – am listening to as I type, in fact – ‘Rayguns Are Not Just The Future‘, the second album from The Bird and The Bee, the joint project of well-connected musos Inara George and Greg Kurstin. As suggested even by the record’s title, with its wry evocation of a now outdated but once cutting edge future, this is an album rooted very much in the 1960s. Everything from the artwork to the clothes worn by the duo proclaim a very conscious retroism, inviting us to expect the loungey Bond themes many of these songs so very much resemble.

It’s easy to wonder what the point of all this is, except that between retro and pastiche lies invention, and The Bird and the Bee manage very ably to inhabit that hinterland. So Polite Dance Song is all jagged lines despite its swelling brass, and Diamond Dave or Witch, whilst groovier than the 78 it no doubt wishes it was on, benefits from just the right hint of electronica.

There are missteps – Love Letter to Japan is too twee even for fans of Aberfeldy – but by and large the songs are accessibly familiar without sounding stale, George’s cool, often brittle voice offering a compelling counterpoint to the lush, dreamy arrangements of the multi-instrumentalist Kurstin. They are smooth and light, for sure, but all those swinging coffee houses have cappucino on the menu, right?

Dark Was The Night

Dark Was The Night

We’d completely forgotten about Matt’s heads-up last month over on Colour, but when we saw Dark Was The Night sitting on the shelves at HMV, we dimly recalled that it was something we wanted to buy. Checking the back cover only confirmed that; Arcade Fire, Beirut, Andrew Bird, Bon Iver, Cat Power, The Decemberists, Iron and Wine, My Morning Jacket, Gillian Welch and countless more have contributed tracks to the compilation. You couldn’t have made up a better selection of artists if you’d tried.

Even better, it’s being released by Red Hot to support AIDS awareness. We’ve spent most of the day listening, and particularly like the atmospheric first disc, which it will come as no surprise to anyone is the folkier of the two. The second, though, also features some fine contributions from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, My Morning Jacket, and Yo La Tengo, among others.

Most compilations like this tend to have the feeling of being thrown together hastily and with off-cuts. Here, almost every act brings a song worth listening to. We confess to being a bit disappointed that Iron and Wine’s song was so short, and not yet being much of a fan of Kronos Quartet’s title track, but this is an album with some very fine stuff indeed (we might single out, for instance, My Brightest Diamond’s cover of Feeling Good, which Muse wish they’d thought of) … and, of course, it’s for a beyond good and hugely important cause.

Buy it.

It's Not Me, It's You

It's Not Me, It's You

…is the title of Lily Allen’s second album, released on 9 February.  I’ve just read a positive, but slightly scanty review of the album on Jason Von Berg’s Times Music Blog (he got the title wrong, ‘It’s Not You, It’s Me’ has a whole different meaning!) so I thought I’d say a few words…

As I’ve probably mentioned somewhere on here, I’m a fan of British female pop divas.  And although I like to listen to Adele, Duffy or The Nash, I am especially fond of Lily Allen.

This all started in summer 2006, when ‘Smile’, Lily’s first single (happy tune, fittingly sinister lyrics) came on to my car radio, and just struck a chord with me.  Lily dares to say what many girls and young women feel: which is often, quite simply ‘fuck off’.

My interest in such music has not always been plain sailing.  My brother Joe was never the biggest fan.  But alas, at Glastonbury 2007, having spent the day squirming in mud listening to everyone else’s first choices, I managed to persuade him and a friend, Tom, to come and watch Lily perform on the Pyramid Stage.  Maybe it was the pink dress, or the gutsy-ness of a girl who will walk on stage in trainers, with a can of Strongbow and a fag.  Whatever, they were converted.  Lily doesn’t possess the over-mascaraed-I-eat-brown-riceness of many female artists.  Joe listed his favourite acts that particular year as Beirut, Editors, The Arcade Fire…and Lily Allen.  Tom even bought the album.  Result!

Glastonbury Smiles

Glastonbury Smiles

For all these reasons, I have been looking forward to hear the new album.  This time around, Lily’s music seems to have grown up a lot, and has a new found confidence.  Perhaps this fits not only her life, but also the lives of many of her fans.  Again, Allen is not afraid to confront significant topics: drug use, BNP politics, religion, unsatisfying ex-partners.  And it has paid off – both her recent single, ‘The Fear’, and her album have hit top spots in the UK charts.  Good.  It’s a brilliant album, with a new-found quirkiness which once again puts Allen ahead of American would-be-likes.

"Traditional Music Is Too Unreal To Die..."

"Traditional Music Is Too Unreal To Die..."

My post on Bob Dylan’s late trilogy necessarily implied that there are stages of Dylan’s career which can be roughly assigned to a given persona. This of course is a commonplace in terms of Dylan study – Dylan himself has referred to it (“I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”) – and the phases have slowly coalesced into what are often, at the level of detail, spurious stages: the protest singer, the rock rebel, the country singer, the divorcee, the Christian … and on and on, into every archetype of the modern age. It’s useful critical shorthand, but what can it tell us about an artist who tells irreverent jokes on his Christian albums, or references Verlaine and Rimbaud when he’s at his most amphetamined? Dylan evokes archetypes, but never fully inhabits them.

This is the trap Todd Haynes’s film I’m Not There (which I’ve just belatedly seen) is at constant risk of walking into. Six actors play six different characters, each of whom the viewer is aware of as resembling something of Dylan. (Not only does the film admit up front its inspiration; some actors, such as Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett, essentially perform Dylan impersonations – in Bale’s case dully, in Blanchett’s blisteringly.) So we have an actor who has played a version of Dylan trapped in a difficult marriage and arguing over custody; we have a wise old outlaw living in backwoods America and speaking up for the downtrodden; and there’s a young boy (played with preternatural maturity by the then 14 year-old Marcus Carl Franklin) who hops railroads, lies about his past, and gives his name as Woody Guthrie.

All Dylan life is here, then, and we are indeed almost constantly, and sometimes rather oddly, treated to quotes visual and verbal. It’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t already knowledgeable about Dylan wanting to see this film, such is its reliance on prior knowledge, and yet even its most obscure references are surely not too hard to catch for those in the know. At times, it feels like Haynes watched No Direction Home and read Chronicles Volume I, then wrote a script: Blanchett’s character, the drugged-up rocker Jude Quinn, is on a British tour when asked the same questions anyone can see for themselves in Eat The Document or Don’t Look Back; likewise, Kris Kristofferon’s admittedly wonderfully delivered narration borrows cadence and character from Dylan’s own prose writings, and a Pete Seeger figure picks up an axe. Haynes’s film cannot claim, then, to be anything but a biopic. The film is uncommon and unconventional, but Dylan isn’t its ‘inspiration'; he is its subject.

There are some effective pop surrealist passages – most notably Blanchett floating in the air, tied to the ground only by a thin trail of string attacked to her ankle, and the scene where ‘Woody Guthrie’ is eaten by a whale – but by and large the intercuts and vaguely avant garde imagery of I’m Not There hides what is a fairly straight forward thrust for a biopic: genius creative is misunderstood, genius creative is persecuted, genius creative triumphs. Haynes’s twist is that, in every case, his subject’s triumph at first seems anything but, seeming instead to represent a death, a defeat or a mere fading. But, whilst Quinn is dead from the moment the film begins, and Heath Ledger’s dysfunctional husband, Robbie Clark, is constitutionally incapable of a healthy relationship, it is clear that Haynes’s purpose is to show, primarily through his outlaw character, how the actions of someone in tune with his tradition will always exist within it. Despite the potentially schematical nature of his chosen ‘facets’, Haynes does not in the end oversimplify. “Everyone knows I’m not a folk singer,” shrugs Quinn, implying the ‘just’.

Inevitably given all this, the film doesn’t quite cohere. It wants to show how all its pieces are humming at the same frequency, but ultimately they are not. Robbie Clarke, caustic and chauvinistic, lacks the visionary playfulness of Jude Quinn, and Bale’s Jack Rollins is dour and dutiful where Gere’s Billy The Kid is wry and regal. Naturally, this has led to some considerable criticism, as Michael Gray recorded way back when. In the film’s defense, however, it is acutely aware of contradiction and chaos, weaving it into the very fabric of what it has to say about Dylan. Haynes sees the will to cohesion as deadening and fascistic, depicting, most obviously through his twin casting of Bruce Greenwood as the elitist culture journalist Keenan Jones and the heartless corporatist Pat Garrett, the drive of cultural and political elites to flatten, homogenise and define the perplexing variety of experience which is possible in freer circles. Nevertheless, this brave stand results in narrative hiccups, and I never quite felt that I was watched a completed film. The point, perhaps, is that nothing worthwhile can ever be completed.

If the film is as a consequence guilty of straying into the gnomic, it is rescued by its sense of conviction. Ben Whishaw in particular, playing a poet who gives his name as Arthur Rimbaud, delivers faintly preposterous dialogue with such verve that he is forgiven. Notably, he counsels those seeking to hide never to create anything, since anything they do fashion will hang around them like a conspicuous dead weight. How this exhortation to creatives to stand up rather than hide fits with Billy the Kid’s clear notion that simply to endure in the unnoticed margins will ensure your spirit lives on in the tradition is hard to fathom: again, the film butts up against its internal contradictions, and though they are all expertly handled the ways in which they criss-cross inevitably leads some lines to sound portentous rather than potent. The facets are all chattering over one another, creating, perhaps, a rich lattice of meaning, but not one which is suited to glossing by a two hour movie.

One day someone will produce a Dylan concordance, in which all his work will be brought together, the ‘Wiggle Wiggles’ side by side with the ‘Desolation Rows’, and every part of the written him will be there to study, to pick over and to fit together in a thousand ways. At the risk of over-hyping Mr Zimmerman, only Shakespeare immediately comes to my mind as an artist who has packed so much of life into the confines of his chosen art; and there is much to admire about the attempt made in I’m Not There to discuss it, since the film is a complex, beautifully shot, well acted and right-headed piece of art. It has ‘got’ Bob Dylan, and more importantly (to Dylan at least) his conception of song. It is inevitably more a part of the chaos than it is a way through the fog, but that is just a reason to watch it more than once. And with a cameo from My Morning Jacket and Calexico, in which they perform a song from The Basement Tapes, why wouldn’t you want to?

'Come Get Some', Willis

'Come Get Some', Willis

I’ve been listening to some new music today, but something about The Bird and the Bee’s sophomore release, Ray Guns Are Not Just The Future, reminded me of a record I had to do a bit of searching for: 2003’s Come Get Some, by Willis. Back in the day, I helped promote a live music night called State of the Nation. It was high concept stuff: indoor camper vans, video screens, and a decided leaning towards the softer stripe of indie (despite our grand multi-genre claims) which wasn’t at the time much represented on the Birmingham music scene (and probably isn’t now, either).

Willis played State in February 2004, and what I saw of her performance was enough to persuade me to buy the record (released a few months before on 679), which turned out to be a genuinely tip top collection. In fact, I thought the songs better than the live show gave them credit for, and it was a sad thing when she wasn’t given the opportunity to record another batch. Her twisted country soul, alas, didn’t quite fit with what was happening at the time. Listening back to the record today, it’s as good as it ever was.

To which end, it’s encouraging to see she’s still making new music in much the same vein. Huzzah!

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