Wednesday, March 28, 2007

My Sad Captains and other Fortuna Pop stories

A month ago at the Buffalo Bar, My Sad Captains didn’t impress immediately. They played a little too long, perhaps; certainly all songs sounded like the band had only ever heard Pavement in their lives, apart from the welcome relief of a couple of poppier numbers, which indicated that they were familiar with Sloan, Canada’s foremost Pavement fans.

The flicker of potential there was, however, was enough to entice me to RoTa recently where they raised the roof with an inspired collection of songs that revealed an ambition to match the American bands they’re in debt to.

The literate college rock card was still played, but a wider scope of influence captured Grandaddy’s pastoral panoramas and Wilco’s wistful laments, and always in the background somewhere you could hear small pieces of magic recalling any warm, familiar gem from the sweet sound of the first four Byrds albums.

With the standard guitar set-up augmented by samples and a violin’s tipsy reels, MSC revealed themselves as a band to match the more expansive American leftfield sounds of acts like Flaming Lips and Sparklehorse. A single arrives on Fortuna Pop! in May, followed by an album later in the year.

This signing confirms Fortuna Pop! as one of the UK’s premier operators. The new Butterflies of Love album, Famous Problems, overcomes the production issues that perhaps hindered their previous effort, 2002’s The New Patient, by recording songs quickly and largely self-producing them.

I’ve lived with the album since last September, when Jeff Greene was kind enough to make me a copy after being even kinder to cook me dinner in his Brooklyn studio (a fine space itself, covered with artworks made by prisoners and the mentally ill, including Daniel Johnston’s decorated lyrics for I Save Cigarette Butts) and it still sounds on every play, after all this time, like a great lost classic from 1967 that the listener has excitably unearthed.

The Airport Girl album’s no bad thing either, revealing the band as something far more than the classy jangle act they’d previously shown themselves to be. Taking its cues from Aztec Camera’s breezy charm and The Go-Betweens’ lovelorn melodies, Slow Light is, in a little over half an hour, brighter and richer and fuller than most albums.

With albums expected from My Sad Captains and Dan Greene’s (of the Butterflies) side project, The Mountain Movers, later this year, Fortuna Pop! threatens to hog the discerning listeners’ end-of-year lists come December.

If only they’d kept hold of Fanfarlo, whose post FP single, You Are One of the Few Outsiders Who Really Understands Us, ticks all the right boxes, including that crucial one “doesn’t sound anything like Coldplay” because there was a little hint of that in their debut, then that would have assured FP owned 2007.

But Fanfarlo are on a different trajectory of success now. They have the same management as the Sugababes, you know. And, odder still perhaps, David Bowie is a fan:

Fanfarlo - You Are One of the Few Outsiders Who Really Understands Us
“This is Fanfarlo's second single, the follow up to the superb Talking Backwards. There's a touch of Guillemots about this, and while I'm not sure where they're from, it's a very English sounding record. Imaginative instrumentation here too. It's great to see so many new bands moving away from the standard rock line-up...not that that doesn't still work, it's just nice to hear the sonic depth expanded a bit.
I've heard four or five of Fanfarlo's songs now, and, like a few of my other favourites, they have that particular knack of being able to create uplifting music that's blessed with a delicious melancholia at the same time. If you get a chance, check out the animated video for You Are One of the Few Outsiders Who Really Understands Us, made by the Fanfarlo's guitarist, Mark West. Now, why didn't I think of getting band members to do other stuff...could have saved a fortune. I'm sure you'll be hearing a lot more of Fanfarlo.”

Butterflies of Love’s England tour starts tonight, for those of you who fancy Chelmsford:
Mar 28 The Bassment, Chelmsford
Mar 29 Buffalo Bar, London
Mar 30 The Cherry Tree, Steventon (nr Oxford)
Mar 31 The Rising Sun Arts Centre, Reading
Apr 3 The Grapes, Sheffield
Apr 4 The Packhorse, Leeds
Apr 5 The Cluny, Newcastle
Apr 6 The Social, Nottingham
Apr 7 The Louisiana, Bristol
Apr 8 The 100 Club, London

Friday, March 16, 2007

Let's Go Naked

“Being in a band in Brisbane is a political statement on its own,” a Brisbane musician once wisely noted.

I asked Robert Forster a few years ago about the role The Go-Betweens, from Brisbane, had played in the traditionally masculine world of Australian music and whether, given the increase of Australian artistes escaping the confines of rock and expressing themselves by playing more melodic music, often with an effeminate undertone, was The Go-Betweens’ legacy.

“Yes!” he agreed animatedly . “I don’t like to take credit for our influence, or boast about it, but if there’s one thing we have done, it’s definitely that and it’s very important.” (disclaimer: slight paraphrase, as this is from memory)

Let’s Go Naked formed in Brisbane in 1984 (“The band consists of a student, workers and a layabout, me,” – Murray Power, singer and guitarist), in a city at a time when the bands that did make it, left the place. In a musical climate that favoured covers bands, LGN did not always go down a storm:

“One night a group stood down the back in the dark and yelled out, ‘Boring!’ So I went down to them and said, ‘Shut up or leave!’ It was a shock for me and shock for them, but it worked.” (They left.)

The band released a mini-album in 1986, Everything, on Waterfront, followed by a single, 3 Limbs, on Trust a year later. Egg Records have done something recently and are planning on doing something in the future.

Jim, I know you’ve visited here before, so if you’re reading this: I have some interviews and features from Australian local newspapers that was the press pack for Everything. Do you want copies?
NB This song is only up for a week. Hey, I don't make the rules.

Nick Rudd - the very beginning

Nick Rudd seems destined to be one of those exceptionally talented musicians who, be it through laziness, not meeting like-minded musicians often enough or sheer bad luck, will probably only merit a footnote in pop’s annals.

It’s a shame, because he’s made some great records in his time. If you don’t know his outing as The Big Maybe, Some Things Never Change/It Should Be Alright By Now (hell, you pick a favrouite), then finding it now will make your weekend all the better; the classic One In A Million single as Blown is $0.50 at you couldn’t, I swear to god, find a better way to spend a few pennies than that.

Back in 1982, at the very start, Nick released an ep, "Ok...Go!" by the B-Lovers on Sabine Records. Those fine folk at Messthestics have, I understand, released one of the b-sides. The A-side, Inside Out, is worth your hearing, trust me on this.

After that, Nick made a decent album as Turning Curious, "Soul Light Season", which was produced by Mitch Easter, and promoted with a sticker on the front claiming it as being “from the heartland of American rock”. What it was, in fact, was a charming, mid-80s REM affair and the first signs that Rudd had an unerring knack for power pop greatness.

His next outfit, Weird Summer, I have only the one album by, Homer. I don’t like this record much. If you, dear reader, know if Weird Summer got better, please offer me recommendations.

NB This song is only up for a week. Hey, I don't make the rules.

Paul Chastain - the very beginning

Before Velvet Crush, before The Springfields, before Bag-o-Shells - in fact, before anything at all, Paul Chastain debuted with the Nines.

They made one 7" ep in 1983, Like A Top, which is impossibly rare. I don't suppose it's on the internet (I don't know where to look; I've never downloaded a song in my life), so seeing as news of a reissue seems never to be on the agenda, I may as well post it for the consumption of fans of great pop songs everywhere.

The lead track Worst Comes To Worst and a b-side,Now & Then are by Chastain; the other b-side, Too Late (to change your mind) is by guitarist Doug Montgomery, and mighty fine that track is, too. If anyone knows whether Mr Montgomery released any other songs, do let me know. Thanks.
NB These songs are only up for a week. Hey, I don't make the rules.

I Don't Want To Work For British Airways

Back in the heady days of (racks brain, scratches head, takes a guess) February 88, NME awarded Anorak City by Another Sunny Day one of its singles of the week.

One comparison the review made was to "‘I Don’t Want To Work For British Airways’ by surely you remember who...” Uh, the Scissor Fits, we know now. It does have the same spirit and rampaging bite of Anorak City, and it’s worth posting so’s you can have a listen.

Those people at Hyped2Death, who have it on one of their Messthetics compilations (oh, guys, I uploaded this from my vinyl copy), offer this:

SCISSOR FITS -I Don't Want to Work for British Airways / A Small One (Dubious SJP-793) Hounslow '79 first EP: Messthetics #101
The Scissor Fits hailed from Hounslow, barely two miles off the main runways of Heathrow, so "I Don't Wanna Work for British Airways" takes to heart the DIY maxim "write what you know." Their debut EP was recorded before they'd ever played in public, and 'dedicated to the Soft Boys.' Mike Alway was a songwriter and part-time guitarist-and-general-inspiration who actually went on to manage the Soft Boys: he had the 'Fits open for them several times during the Underwater Moonlight era. (Alway later managed the Monochrome Set and launched the Blanco y Negro, Reviere, ...If, él and Sound of Chartreuse labels.) Yank drummer Bud Drago put out a (remarkably American-sounding) EP on the same Dubious label but soon headed back Stateside (he's now in Character Z, and running, while the 'Fits went on to record a live EP for Tortch that featured a couple of DIY's finer, longer, more psychedelic numbers. The band-name? "a Don Martin cartoon in MAD magazine depicted a woman with a long cigarette holder accidentally stubbing her cigarette out in a man's eye. The resulting sound effect was 'SIZZZA - FITZZ' or something like that..."

The next installment of Messthetics features the Versatile Newts on CD for the first time

Messthetics #103: Midlands D.I.Y. 1977-81 103 covers the Midlands scene from 1977-81. Highlights include The Prefects swaggering “Things In General”, Swell Maps’ certifiably eccentric “Camouflage Attack”, The Cravats’ uber-classic “Gordon”, The Shapes’ super-hero-worrying “Batman In The Launderette”, School Meals’ staff-baiting “Headmaster” & Domestic Bliss’ previously unreleased anthem, “Domestic Bliss”, collectively making a watertight case for Leamington Spa being the creative centre of the known universe! The package will once again include a 16-page booklet pimped to the max with sleeve scans, unseen photographs, bonus MP3s & the ubiquitous Chuck Warner penned essays!
1. Versatile Newts – “Newtrition”
2. Prefects – “Things in General”
3. Swell Maps – “Camouflage Attack”
4. The Accused – “Arrested”
5. Digital Dinosaurs – “Aliens in Your Skies”
6. Profile – “Vince”
7. Hardware – “Walking”
8. Spizzoil – “Fibre”
9. Famous Explorers – “Boy Detectives”
10. Cravats – “Gordon”
11. Buzz – “Life Ends”
12. Shapes – “Batman in the Launderette”
13. School Meals – “Headmaster”
14. Domestic Bliss – “Domestic Bliss”
15. Hardware – “Face the Flag”
16. Hawks – “Sense of Ending”
17. Cracked Actor – “Statues”
18. Lester and the Brew – “Bad Day in The City”/”Eyesight Bad”
19. 021 – “Robot”
20. Dangerous Girls – “Dangerous Girls”
21. Human Cabbages – “The Witch”
22. Cult Figures – “Zip Nolan (live)”

Messthetics Regional Series will continue in due course, with volumes in the pipeline from Wales, Scotland, Manchester/Liverpool/Lancashire, North-by-Northwest, the South Coast, the West Country & Essex/East Anglia.

The Vertebrats

"The Vertebrats had written the quintessential garage rock anthem. The way they had made a contemporary-sounding garage-rock song was what made that song stand out and inspire us to try our version of it… 'Left in the Dark' is a time-honored, minimalist piece of what garage rock was all about."
Jay Farrar, Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt

The Vertebrats "Left In The Dark"

After punk’s blistering 70s incarnation had cooled, the revolution that had claimed 1976 to be year zero turned out, with the advent of new wave, to be largely the catalyst for looking back rather than ahead. On both sides of the Atlantic, bands with electric guitars were looking to the 60s and, realising that they had been cheated, knew that the Who were far better than the Pistols.

The greatest, most enduring, legacy of punk’s brief, raucous reign was to achieve the Marxist dream of handing the means of production over to the proletariat by demonstrating how easy it was to start an independent record label, and establishing the distribution network to facilitate the dissemination of records.

In America, 60s pop nut Greg Shaw – who’s credited by some with coining the phrase “punk rock” in Creem while writing about garage music – was involved in the reissue of the legendary Nuggets album in 1976. While it was evident to Shaw and others that the nascent punk explosion had been greatly influenced by 60s punk, for reasons of clarity he then called 60s punk ‘garage’.

“In 1979,” Shaw wrote, “I… started a new imprint, Voxx. This label, it was announced, would offer a home to bands working in a purist '60s garage/punk/psych tradition, with low-budget recording and packaging, no advertising or hype-roots music, of a kind not yet very well known, appealing to a chosen few; anyone that didn't already know about it, we didn't want their business! It felt good.

“A lot of this was rhetoric, but my desire to exit the commercial rat race certainly wasn't. What a pleasure it was to tell pestering managers that "we're only signing neo-psychedelic garage punk" and watch them try to convince me their Huey Lewis clone could fit that mold. Eventually, they left us alone.

“At first it was a struggle to find bands to put on Voxx, but a contest to find new talent in the genre…resulted in the first of four Battle of the Garages comps. The label thrived, and became our primary outlet throughout the '80s.”

“Left In The Dark” was on that first Battle of the Garages compilation. There was a ballot sheet with each album inviting purchasers to vote for their favourite song on the album: “As you listen to this album, rate each group on a scale from 1-9 in the categories of "Beat," "Melody," "Lyrics" and overall "Trippiness", using the handy scorecard provided, then compute the total. The group with the highest score is your ‘winner’.”

Whoever I bought my copy of the compilation from hadn’t voted; the clear winners in my mind are The Vertebrats (but, of course, a lesser song by The Chesterfield Kings won). Shaw himself wrote in 1980 of The Vertebrats that, "This is the most exciting demo tape I've heard in a long time."

As well as versions by Uncle Tupelo and The Replacements, Courtney Love has recently recorded a version. Go here to read the full bio and buy the A Thousand Day Dream compilation. You might already have the double 7” that Parasol put out in 92 and will know from that, then, this is a band worth checking out.
The most telling review of the album, as such, comes from guitarist Ken Draznik:

"It's an OK song, but I don't think it's nearly the best song I've written."

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Orchids

Let me reminisce…Seventeen years ago this summer, I saw The Orchids in Biele and Zurich. During the day, we chatted, played football and drank beer. My pidgin French was called upon to ask the only Swiss youths who couldn’t speak English to go forth into town to buy The Orchids some hash. A transaction was happily made.

One night at the gig, me and some other travellers were there early. Given that there were five of us and we were obviously foreigners in the closed Swiss indiepop world, we were mistaken for The Orchids. Cue a few hours of being given free drinks at the bar and being stared at by curious Swiss pop fans.

Hackett told me on Saturday night, at their triumphant return to the stage after 12 years, that the Swiss tour was the last time he smoked hash and that they all drank far too much back in those days. “After thirty crates of beer in Biele,” he laughed, “the promoter refused to give us any more.” They had a few friends with them on tour, but even so, that represents some prodigious drinking.

Drunk enough for Hackett, backstage after the gig, to pull out his guitar and attempt to coerce me to sing Felt’s I Didn’t Mean To Hurt You. “You know the words, don’t you?” Uh, yeah, but I can’t sing. “Shite! Everyone can sing.” As a public service, I declined all cajoling and coaxing.

Later and after more drinking, I unsteadily walked down the highway towards the camp site with my thumb out. A married man, about the age The Orchids would be now, picked me up. He had a picture of his kids on the dashboard. Very soon, he had his hand on my thigh. “You speak very good English,” he cooed. Being English rather helps. “You are very polite,” he smarmed. Your reporter made his excuses and left. That sort of thing happens quite often to teenage boys.

On Saturday, I’m pleased to report that The Orchids were a more sober, mature but no less engaging proposition than in their heyday, hearts on sleeves as ever, soaring harmonies and chiming guitars to the fore. The album, Good To Be A Stranger, is out today. Previews can be heard over at their myspace page.

Afterwards, the guitarist John, in a scene uncannily like Before Sunrise, but without the sexual tension – well, I can only speak for myself; The Orchids themselves are, after all, only human – arranged to meet me again in Switzerland seventeen years from now in 2024. I hope, given Saturday’s fine return, that I see them long before then.

Much of my evening was spent DJing. It was probably most fun when me and Harvey were DJing together after the show, each playing a record in turn. This provided the onus, I suppose, for each of us to play great records so that we didn’t clear the dancefloor (except the floor was never danced upon).

Someone did ask for a few requests, which Harvey fielded. “Have you got any Wedding Present?” No. “Have you got any Smiths?” No. “Have you got any Shack?” No, but I played the Pale Fountains earlier.

Sean of Fortuna Pop! was promoting the gig and had called upon our services strictly for “old school indie”. I used the occasion to play some Australian indie and was pleased to inform Greg of Brisbane's The Zebras, who rued that, “The Go-Betweens follow us about. They’re the only band from Brisbane,” that the next record to be played was by an 80s Brisbane band, Let’s Go Naked’s 3 Limbs.

He hadn’t heard of them. By chance, I was out with a former member of The Visitors the following night. The Devonshire lad opined bleakly that Coldplay, Devon’s current favourite sons, have never heard of The Visitors. I suspect Coldplay haven’t heard much good music in their time, but it’s a fair point. We agreed that Joss Stone and Muse are similarly unaware of The Visitors' delights.

Egg Records, I note, are planning a Let’s Go Naked retrospective later this year. On the basis of the 7” and the mini-album I have, it’ll be worth checking out. As is the new Zebras album. No departure from the first one, but if that means strong songwriting, driving riffs and fine pop tunes, it’s all right by me.