Siouxsie and the Banshees – Dazzle

I should probably begin with a little housekeeping, a minor info dump before we fully invest in opening communications. When we parted ways, I did not for a second think two whole years would have to pass before I felt comfortable in my writing again. I hoped that a month or two of detox would give me the jolt required to up my game and bring you a leaner, better blog than before. But such is life, old plans fall by the wayside as others rise ascendant. It’s best not to worry about would could have been when you can set yourself on the path to what shall be; for during those years both nothing has changed and everything has changed. New cities, new friends, and new outlooks have become part of the story (which I’m sure you’ll pick up as we go forwards) whilst I remain the same, simple fan of music, listening religiously and endlessly ‘discovering’ things that just make me want to scream joy from the rooftops. Throughout these fallow years there has been so much I have wanted to share. So many songs, bands, artists and thoughts have come to me, but never could I find the strength to lift up the metaphorical pen. It has caused me to miss you, deeply. But now I feel I have run out of excuses. At the dawn of this new decade, why deny myself your company any longer? Welcome back to the Appraisal.

Cards on the table, I dropped the ball on Siouxsie and the Banshees. My musical upbringing, as painstaking noted throughout the course of this blog, hopped from 90s pop and early 20th Century classical directly to nu-metal pretty much the moment I turned 14. While I’d like the record to show that I have no shame in this fact (because what’s the point), it did mean that I’ve spent much of the ensuing 20 years filling in the gaps in my musical experience. So despite my deep and sincere affection for all things Bowie, despite a mid-20s flirtation with Gary Newman, and despite the cultural cache inherent in liking seminal 80s acts; Siouxsie to me was just an occasional talking head. A cool one, no doubt, but the actual music of the Banshees seemed forever on the “I’ll get round to it at some point” pile. It wasn’t until a few years ago when my sib started sharing Siouxsie songs with me (in turn tilting my Spotify Discover Weekly playlist in a noticeably gothic direction) that I got it. The hype, that is. Quite Badly.

So, what makes this song great? To be honest, if you’re reading this blog expecting me to enlighten you with my accredited perspective, turn back now. Return to those musical influencers on YouTube who promise to reveal arcane truths in a neat, advert friendly, 10-minute bubble. We don’t use knowledge as a weapon here, nor do we enforce cultural hierarchies through the presentation of the subjective as fact. The only question I can answer (as best I am able) is what makes this song great for me? And the answer? Context, mostly. It’s been a funny few years, filled with pretty solid highs and the most utterly crushing of lows that you can imagine (as you likely felt them too). When a cultural utterance (such as song, film, experience etc.) hits you in this state, it’s hard to fully explain why one specific thing appears in the moment greater than all others. Dazzle, in a roundabout way, came to me at such a time. Flo (my sib) had previously sent over Spellbound and I’d given 1981’s ‘Juju’ a few spins out of curiosity. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that Dazzle – Glamour Mix, a 12” version present on the 2009 expanded reissue of ‘Hyæna’, popped up on Spotify and my life became staring blankly into space as tumultuous drums and aching strings jaggedly demarcated the territory of my soul. Like, I’m not even joking. I was in a place, man. Can’t quite remember if it was dark or light but my feels were certainly unbalanced enough to afford this song an extra subjective beauty for me.

Not that extra subjective beauty is required

It’s not a complicated song. It doesn’t need to be. The notion that complexity is by anyway the absolute mark of accomplishment is deeply flawed. It is something I have exceptionally strong feels over to the extent that I always have to hold myself back from leaving aggressive comments on certain ‘recommended’ music vloggers. To me, the avoidance of complexity within the arrangement (beyond the luscious string intro) specifically imbues Dazzle with an incisive intensity lacking in much contemporary music. We don’t always need to be a born-again Rube Goldberg with our intent. We don’t need endless textural shifts and overdubs to stake our creative ground. Sometimes it is enough to just need to quietly stare into someone’s eyes as their knife hits your gullet. Simple. Pure. A clean death, free from worry. That final contented sigh.

Of course, we speak in metaphors, it is the done thing. The death is symbolic but no less real for it. The who I was before is not entirely who I am now. For one thing, now I am writing and now we are talking. As mentioned, I’ve listened to a hell of a lot since we parted and have a huge backlog of things to say (and not all of them on contemporary music influencers…), but Dazzle is as good a point as any with which to tentatively get back into the swing of things. Got to make a start somewhere. After all, as Siouxsie says: “Pull some strings, let them sing”

Well now we are back in earnest, why not dip back into the halcyon years by having a read of these related posts:

David Bowie and Me – Part 3. Blackstar (an ending)

What’s in a song?: Iggy Pop – The Endless Sea

Judge not, lest ye be judged. If you feel the urge to subjectively critique my own musical work you can find it by clicking here.

be my friend. get in touch.

November Listening Notes

Writers block is killing me today but I feel compelled to write something due to last weeks absence. So here are a few tunes to tide you over.

Caetano Veloso – The Empty Boat

I have long been a fan of Caetano Veloso and the whole Tropicalia movement, but I had never heard this song until I started doing a bit of arranging work for the exceptional Paris/Bristol based Fantasy Orchestra. As with most Tropicalia, it’s the lush, inventive orchestration that builds a body around the simple guitar pattern and allows Veloso’s words to pierce. Keep an ear out for the ever evolving orchestra that artfully contrasts the woodwinds with the strings.

Matt Berry – Take My Hand

The best part of enjoying music is that it’s always there to be discovered. It’s not like a painting tucked away in a gallery’s storage or a lost staging of a famed play; it’s there available to us in it’s readily appreciable form. There are snobs out there who scoff and make you feel rubbish for not having discovered Jon Wizards sooner or fools who judge you because your knowledge of Stevie Wonder is fleeting. They miss the point. Music is there to be discovered and enjoyed on your own terms. I may not know Stevie now, but there’s a lot of time left to discover him. That’s why I feel no shame in only now discovering the densely rewarding music of Matt Berry, despite Dr. Sanchez being the best character ever.

Labi Siffre – Bless The Telephone

You don’t need much, just an instrument, voice and text. It doesn’t need to be complex, just a verse, chorus and reprise. It doesn’t need some deep philosophical purpose, just a little muse on your feelings. I would rate this as one of the greatest love songs ever committed to tape and certainly one of it’s most honest. The way he breaks the conversation to exclaim his love (“It’s nice to hear you say hello / and how are things with you? / I love you”) gets me every time.

Noam Pikelny – Waveland

This week I’ve been guest blogging over at my sister concern MusicForMy, a bespoke music service that lets you easily commission original music and unique arrangements for your special event. You can give it a look see by clicking this here sentence, but it lifts the curtain on how I go about arranging music, at least to begin with. The arrangement of music is key, in all genres. An incredible melody or wrenchingly beautiful chord progression is next to worthless if set for kazoo and toy piano. Satisfying music needs to follow a certain logic across the genres, otherwise you just end up with confused mush. For me, the arrangement is as vital as the piece itself. Take my classical piece Farewell, Nathan Adler which exists in two versions; one for piano trio and one for symphony orchestra. Go click those links and give them a listen. Once you get past the electronic nature of the MIDI presentation (I can’t quite afford an orchestra yet) you can clearly see that changing the instrumentation immediately alters the atmosphere of the piece. Powerful stuff. Of course, talent tends to throw what rules we build for ourselves out the window. Sometimes the instrument you least expect can claw the most inexplicable wave of melancholic relief and joy once in the right hands. Sometimes you only need a banjo.

I’ve always liked the banjo, probably due to a very crappy demo of Camptown Races on my first keyboard along with an awful banjo setting. When I finally heard one for reals it was just so alien yet earthly, a bizarre hybrid of percussion and melody. I even bought one a few years ago but my playing has unfortunately never really taken off (probably because it stayed in Britain when I moved to Sweden). Noam Pikelny, on the other hand, is one of the most important pickers of his generation, cropping up all over the records of Chris Thile, Aoife O’Donovan, Steve Martin, Béla Fleck and a whole host of the great and the good of the Contemporary Bluegrass scene. Do you know the Contemporary Bluegrass scene? You should do, it is by far and away the most progressively interesting in all music; an ever-churning eddy filled with a refreshing honesty of both it’s history and the welcome disparate influences that feed it. It also has a great sense of humour running through the community, which is to be expected when Steve Martin is a member.

I’m drawn to Pikelny’s playing because of this. Because of his wit and his intelligence. Because of his skill in knowing exactly where to place that beautiful hybrid sound. Because the banjo can provide such a wealth of colour within the ensemble and he wants to show us. Waveland is almost Debussian in it’s Impressionistic chord progression, yet by setting it for banjo and banjo alone, Pikelny creates something exceptionally unique. He pushes our perceptions of the role of the banjo and hopefully by sharing it with you, you will discover the joys available when listening to the old clawhammer.


Addressing Absence

Yesterday I rang one of my oldest friends for the first time in many months. It’s a habit of ours with very specific rules; we catch up, laugh at our experiences, promise to call regularly and then not hear from each other for half a year. A gaping silence ensues where I often wonder how they are but never get round to picking up the bloody phone. Once a significant time passes one of us breaks the deadlock and we finally succumb to our friendship. On answering I always recite my opening apology to perfection (“I’m so sorry I didn’t call earlier, I’m an awful person, time just got ahead of me etc.”) and we move on. Yesterday was different, I said sorry once before being shut down. “Stop it. We always waste 20 minute apologising for not ringing and promising to call more often even though we both know we’ll just end up doing the same thing anyway.”. She has a point.

There have been many moments when this blog has been on hiatus, forced or otherwise. There is always a long winded apology. Not this time. Welcome back.

A little Bluegrass

I’m treating this blog at arms length at the moment, sorry about that. Time pressures and the like have sapped the enthusiasm somewhat, but that’s not to say I don’t still have music to share. In the absence of words, here is a new song worth repeating while I plan the next step.

I love Chris Thile.

What’s in a song?: Adele – Hello

There is much to respect about Adele. I must be clear in this fact, for if anything her resounding use of Estuary English on the world stage is a rare thing indeed. She also can sing; not to the heights of Shirley Bassey, Aretha Franklin and the other greats, but she can certainly hold a tune. Though as she returns to us after taking some time off with her third numbered album and it’s (spoilers) incredibly disappointing and bland lead single; I’m once again left disheartened by the power and sway held by my industry. A songwriter I recently made acquaintance with, Benjie Loveless recently posted something I’ve seen far too many times over the years; the final statement of defeat. Normally it goes something along the lines of: “Thanks for the support over the years but I’m just fed up of nobody listening and the system being gained against me”. I know, I know, the success rate for musicians is minimal and there comes a time when you have no choice but to cauterize the gushing wound. Yet Benjie’s music is good and interesting and different from most; the sound of one man making the music he wants without external interference. Thankfully he seems to have retracted his statement (as I can’t find it anywhere) but the fact he got so frustrated in the first place upset me. The fact that anyone should ever feel this way upsets me. What has this got to do with Adele? Let me digress.

Numbers. It’s all about numbers. How many sales, how many plays, how many followers blindly following you off the cliff. All the advice on *ahem* ‘making it’ urges you to up all your numbers before the big men upstairs even consider giving you a shot; get those Twitter friends and Facebook likes by fair means or foul. You gotta show the hard proof that there is a market for your work. Adele has numbers. Adele has had numbers from the beginning by dint of being an alumnus of the BRIT School. For those unaware, the BRIT School is a government funded (with help from the British Record Industry Trust) performing arts school in the UK that has produced acts like The Feeling, The Kooks, Katie B, Katie Melua, Leona Lewis and Amy Winehouse amongst many, many others. ‘Wow’, I hear you cry, ‘how progressive!’. It is, of course. But I have axes to grind and issues to air. The problem with grooming children for (often monetary) ‘success’ in this business is that you make (often monetary) ‘success’ the only medium with which you can judge yourself and your art. This is stupid. Utterly, utterly stupid.

Before releasing her new album Adele tried to work with Damon Albarn, allegedly a personal hero (though quite how is beyond me). It didn’t go well, Adele was desperate for advice on how to deal with the pressure of returning to the public eye after years away but Albarn just wanted to work and create. The arrangement broke down, he called her ‘insecure’ and her new album ‘middle of the road’. She used her bigger persona to say ‘don’t work with your idols’. But he has a point. She was being irrationally, unnecessarily insecure. Her album was always going to be a mega success because she was groomed that way. She’s simply too big to fail. Albarn on the other hand is a genuine lover of music; a man with endless tastes and influence who, through struggling up the musical ladder, has earned his place at the top of the pile. He didn’t get any fast-track education and a book of contacts on completing his basic schooling. He merely formed a band, wrote music he liked and then ground it out until it was a success. From his perspective Adele was whining about an impossibility when she should have been focusing on crafting some amazing tunes. I mean, why else would she want to work with such a uniquely talented person?

Which brings us neatly on to ‘Hello’. There is painfully little to say about ‘Hello’. It is harmonically uninspired and dull. It steals Lionel Richie‘s inflection, intonation and title so flagrantly I’m sure they’ll call it a homage. It’s chorus exists only so Adele can lower the diaphragm and let rip; though as there lacks any sense of emotional build up or variation in timbre throughout, it falls flat. The trick with Adele’s music is imagine other people singing it, I can see Katy Perry muddling through this, or Kate Nash, or Miley Cyrus. Bland singers for a bland song. Then we have the lyrics; lyrics are meant to be Adele’s strong point, displaying as she does a compelling knack for distilling her heartbreak into 3 minute odes. Beside the aforementioned lifting of Lionel, there’s a shameless use of ‘California Dreaming‘ for no reason other than to connect it to a better song by our mental association. Thematically the song is as follows: Hi, I’ve been thinking about our distant past for reasons not worth going into, sorry about that, oh, you don’t really care, bye. What is that? A weak Adele fixated on a broken past (probably because her present is full of happiness) even though the person she is desperate to call has moved on like a sensible person. This isn’t poetry. This is barely text. Yet it is all irrelevant as she’s got the numbers. She’s got the contacts. That Estuary English endears her to an indifferent public. There was never any doubt of success.

This is what the industry wants us to believe. That once you tick all the right boxes, success will follow. This, and I can’t state this enough, is utter bollocks. Music, and the industry at large, needs to move away from this vampiric model of numbers; success comes in so many varied outlets that often (unfortunately) don’t give a payday. For me success is in writing, recording, releasing and promoting a collection of work completely on my own. It comes from my friends embracing it and asking me questions about it. It comes from strangers feeling compelled to share and comment on it. It’s a humble success but it counts. It gives my work a purpose and a life beyond anything ‘Hello’ could muster. Benjie’s work is exactly the same. Adele may be hogging the attention and empty plaudits of an industry seriously lacking in introspection, but Benjie’s work excited me. I’m sure he will keep trucking on despite the current lack of conventional success, because he is creating much needed art for the world. That brings success in of itself.

Please go check out Benjie’s work by clicking these here words, it’s New-Wave Americana meets Country-Eno.

You can also check out my new EP by clicking here. Please do. Please do. It’s like Adele but interesting.

Listings: 7 completely arbitrary live performances you need in your life right now

So yeah, I may have missed last week. Sorry about that. In my defense you only enter a new decade every so often and I decided to take the week off to focus on me. Selfish, like. I even made a big deal about releasing a new EP because, you know, my week my rules. It’s good. You should listen to it. Conveniently you can do so by clicking this here text because modern science is wonderful. Anyways, as part of my celebration of myself I loosened the purse-strings ever so little to buy a couple of albums; one of which, All That Glitters Is a Mares Nest by Cardiacs has been on constant repeat for the past 2 weeks. Unfortunately, due to my willingness to keep this blog varied, I think yet another post about how utterly incendiary and unique Cardiacs are would read rather bland. So to bend the rules a little, I thought I’d add 6 other completely arbitrary but awesome nonetheless live performances that you need to drop everything to watch RIGHT NOW! Don’t expect nuance, that’ll come next week.

1. Cardiacs – All That Glitters Is a Mares Nest (full concert)

I’m a fanboy. Cardiacs are the best band ever. But this live performance is utterly insane in how tight and energetic the group are. Considering this was the last time they’d play together in such forces (with Saxophone, Keys and Percussion all leaving after the gig), that’s no mean feat. It helps, of course, that each song is played at a 50% faster tempo. It breaks the brain quite wonderfully. Put an hour aside and imbibe it.

2. David Bowie – Andy Warhol (Lorelei 6-22-96)

Acoustic music is over-rated. It’s all about the mid-nineties pre-millenial angst. You don’t now Bowie unless you’ve seen the man dance like a drunk uncle over the gyrating industrial beats and atonal noise guitar. Plus he swears. That’s worth points, right?

3. Nine Inch Nails – The Becoming (Sasquatch Festival 5-24-09)

More industrial noiseniks. This list is going to be heavy, you better make peace with the fact. It’s fascinating seeing Trent channel his inner Mike Garson. It’s fascinating seeing NIN looking only 25% metal. It’s incredible the sound coming out of 4 individuals. Just stand me there and watch me melt.

4. Kate Bush – The Wedding List (Princes Trust Concert 1982)

Not much live footage exists of Kate. It adds to her mystique. It makes her the ultimate legend. But hang about, what’s that I spy? Phil Collins? Pete Townsend?? Midge Ure?! Nothing else ever need be said about anything, because this exists.

5. Tomahawk – God Hates a Coward

When I was 16 and stuck with dial-up internet that I could only use for an hour after 6 o’clock, this was my go to video. It’d take forever to load, but when it did it was like a bath of iron filings; grating and cold but strangely satisfying. The two times I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Tomahawk were up there with the best of them.

6. Cherryholmes – Don’t Believe (Loveless Cafe 12.16.09)

The beauty of Bluegrass is that nothing, NOTHING will compare to the insane talent and musicianship of those that can play it. It forces life out of you and commands you to defy it. It’s just a shame that so many do, because this song and especially this performance are far heavier than Bullet For My Valentine could ever be. Putting Speed Metal to shame.

7. Kaizers Orchestra – Øyafestivalen (11.08.2011)

How have I never spoken about Kaizers Orchestra? This seems a travesty beyond measure for they are yet another band who prove that Scandinavia gets all the good stuff. This whole concert is worth a listen, the musicianship, song-craft and staging are honed to perfection. They’re like a disease, they get under you and don’t let go. Yet they broke up which means we must survive on these scraps while they last; tokens of a past gone. What a past to miss.

So that’s my completely subjective list. There’s many I’ve forgotten and many greater performances yet to happen. If you want to know I’m like live then click this here text.

Oh yeah, and buy my EP! Or at least give it a listen, I’ll love you forever.

We need to talk about Sébastien Tellier (and in the process France and her Culture)

Let’s not kid ourselves, we all know the pointed reason why I have chosen Tellier this week. Bluntly, he is one of my favourite French musicians and I worry that I’d lose you if went into a multi-chapter dissertation on the early life of Claude Debussy (and his libido). We all deal with things differently; most of us are content with small additions to the mass outpouring of raw emotion, a kind of digital recoil from the horror and re-affirmation of our common community. This is perfectly ok, though to not act in such an immediate manner is also ok. Sometimes you need time to find the right outlet for your emotion so you can make sense and move forward. For me that outlet was Sébastien Tellier and specifically his 2006 compilation album Universe, an acoustic re-imagining of his popular songs mixed with excepts from his film score to the film Narco. Falling heavily into it’s Gallic subtlety, I let it take my grief and manoeuvre it somewhere practical.

Culture. When you think of France you can’t help but think of Culture. This is, weirdly, probably felt most keenly by the British and is at the root of our familial rivalry. For Britain’s Culture is young, chaotic and teething in comparison to that of France; an adolescent that purposefully diverges from the norm to spite a brother. Each successive cultural win being far more by accident than by design. But despite this upstart laying claim to the world imagination with every Downton Abbey, Bond and One Direction; France is forever seen as where real culture lives and breathes. A refined, purposeful culture. One that thinks differently from us, solving the same problems in classier ways. Yet we are wedded to each other by dint of history and sheer proximity; making us far, far closer than either side likes to admit. It came as no surprise to find that Universe was specially packaged for the British market, a collection designed to tug at that familial thread and, frankly, it was very much what I needed at the time. Now compare this with my, and I’m sure many others, first introduction to Tellier.

It’s pretty different from the slow jams I’ve been hitherto talking about. You probably remember it as being that bonkers song which broke the unwritten rule that the French entry should always be sung in French, qu’elle horreur! Naturally this caused controversy with certain people, causing Tellier to increase the amount of French sung in the final product. To the dissenters the French language, being tied so fundamentally to France’s culture, should not be substituted for anything lesser. You can see their point, identity is important. Yet what Tellier had done was tap into that greatest strength Culture possesses; that of evolution. It is pointless to try and contain something so fluid along national borders and equally pointless to ignore what is happening beyond them. With the current rise of right-wing politics in Europe, Culture still maintains free passage and right of residence whether you like it or not. All Tellier did was acknowledge it.

There’s an interesting interview with the chanteuse Camille floating about somewhere (which I can’t quite find right now) where she explains why she decided to record Music Hole in English. Far from being a middle finger to the establishment or a conceited attempt to get the Anglophone market share; it was actually fairly prosaic. English was simply a more capable language for the long syllables she wanted to use whereas French was better purposed for rhythmic poetry. Much like how you’d use an acoustic guitar over an electric to get a certain sound. Far from being a weakness on her part for shedding her identity, it’s actually the album’s great strength as she rips English apart to makes it suit each song on her own terms. This is the unspoken truth about our National Identities; they are irrefutable and strong regardless of whether we protect them or not. They are our varied, multi-coloured accumulation of the past. They can’t simply be swept away no matter how hard people may try; just look at Cornwall. So any attack on our ways of life and our manner of thinking will fail simply because these are concepts so ingrained that to part with them would be to part with our selves. There is no threat to France from the Anglosphere because France is France; a nation tied to history, passion, ideas and love. There is no threat that can shake it. Our castle is secure. Universe is a beautiful gem that wears it’s polyglot origin on it’s sleeves like bunting. It has been a balm.