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.
Some 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
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
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
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
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
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.