Category Archives: music

Grass Widow (Grass Widow, 2009)

For the last couple of months Grass Widow has been on my list of great bands that I failed to discover during 2009, and only came across during a trawl of Top 100 lists at the end of December. After an awful lot of repeated listens I’ve promoted the album ‘Grass Widow’ to one of my absolute favourites of 2009. Like The Drums’ ‘Summertime’, every track feels like the centre of the album. Grass Widow songs have the raw feel of first-attempt rehearsals, and evoke the naive joy of the much-missed Brighton trio Electrelane and the discordant mishmash of early Deerhoof.

They’re brilliant. And while I’m happy to have found them now, the question for me remains: how does one find out about new music these days? I sign up to plenty of blog RSS feeds, (over)use Spotify and read Boomkat newsletters – but in the absence of a trusted print music magazine or the Peel show, I still feel at a loss how to avoid missing a new band like Grass Widow.

Listen to Grass Widow on Spotify.

And while I’m ranting… I’m inordinately happy that Spotify have developed an update to their Spotify iphone app, currently with Apple for approval. The update will add Last.fm scrobbling functionality to the mobile app, meaning that my Last.fm profile should soon be a far better reflection of what I’m actually listening to. That I’m so pleased by this is, I realise, troublingly sad.

Lost John (Lonnie Donegan, 1956)

Lonnie Donegan’s 1956 recording of the traditional song ‘Lost John’ contains more wonderful moments than most artists manage in a whole career. Donegan was a lovably inclusive singer, treating his band and his listeners as part of the gang, as this intro to the song shows: ‘Now this here’s the story about an escaped convict called Long Gone Lost John / It’s got a nice chorus so if anybody wanna join in, here’s the way it goes…’ His band rattle and yelp through the tune and Donegan morphs from a jovial variety performer into a frenzied rock and roller, the recording equipment struggling to capture his rasping shouts.

The song is doubly significant to me. I was introduced to Donegan’s music when I avidly listened to, and recorded, Peel’s Radio 1 show around the millennium. Peel could hardly contain his glee when he contrived to play a Lonnie Donegan recording such as (my own favourite) ‘Ham ‘n’ Eggs’. When the singer was admitted to hospital in 2002 with heart problems, Peel visited him at his bedside, which I suspect was a pilgrimage of sorts for the DJ – Peel once remarked that in his opinion of rock and roll history, ‘Lonnie Donegan pushed the button that started it all’. When Donegan passed away in November of that year, Peel tearfully recounted the visit during one of his shows. He had sat at Donegan’s side and chatted, and together they had sung Peel’s favourite lyrics from ‘Lost John’:

Now Lost John made a pair of shoes of his own
Finest shoes that ever were born
Heels on the front, heels behind
So nobody know which way Lost John g’wine

…which, in fairness, are some of the finest lyrics I can think of too.

In the radio shows immediately following Donegan’s death, Peel could barely hold himself together. During the first show, he didn’t manage to speak in between songs and choked on his words each time he tried to talk about the singer. Even by the following week, Peel only stopped playing Donegan songs because his wife Sheila warned him not to.

When John Peel died in October 2004, the song ‘Lost John’ obviously took on an extra significance, not just because of the titular character, but because of the attachment that Peel himself had to the song and his favourite singer. To me, the song has become a celebration of both Donegan and Peel – two of my musical heroes.

You really must listen to ‘Lost John’ – click here to listen to it on Spotify. In fact, work your way through at least the first CD of Castle Music’s ‘Rock Island Line: The Singles Anthology 1955-1967’.

As the man said: ‘If anybody asks you who sung the song / Tell ‘em Lonnie Donegan been here and gone’.

Spotify playlist: 30 Year Old Man (March 2010)

I’m terribly self-indulgent. This summer I’ll turn 30, and as I’m currently feeling more positive about my life than I ever have before, this playlist celebrates all the things that I’m not.

1. 30 century man – Scott Walker
2. Mr suit – Wire
3. You’re getting old on your job – Lonnie Johnson with Clara Smith
4. I’m a worried man – Johnny Cash
5. Look back in anger – Television Personalities
6. Shadows of tomorrow – Madvillian / Lord Quas
7. 50 year old man – The Fall
8. Getting old blues – Johnnie Temple
9. Working for the man – Roy Orbison
10. Dull life – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
11. Headache – Frank Black
12. Funny how time slips away – Elvis Presley & The Jordanaires & The Imperials Quartet
13. Sleepy man blues – Bukka White
14. Jack o’ diamonds – Lonnie Donegan
15. Getting old and gray – Howlin’ Wolf
16. Timothy – Henry Mancini
17. Tomorrow never knows – Jad Fair

And curse you Spotify for the lack of ‘Dignified and Old’ by The Modern Lovers.

Click here to listen to 30 Year Old Man on Spotify.

This too shall pass – RGM version (OK Go, 2010)

This music video is really rather wonderful. Various advertisers and filmmakers have created these Heath Robinson-esque contraptions before now (and I’m a total sucker for all of them), but this one’s especially inventive. I imagine that some people will be upset about what looks like a cut at about the 2:30 mark, but I don’t think it makes a bit of difference to the overall effect.

On top of that, the fact that this video is embeddable in this blog is important. See here for an discussion of OK Go’s struggles against record company EMI to allow them to create and share their own music videos.

Every Plan B magazine ever, for free

In an admirable attempt to secure its status in the history of music journalism, the team behind the now-defunct Plan B magazine are offering every single back issue in pdf format, for free. You can download it here – you’ll first need to get hold of a torrent client though.

Plan B was a pretty bold publication. It had some really fantastic aspects, and I hope it’s not disrespectful to the journalists to say that I thought the often beautiful illustrations were among its best assets. Everett True’s snarky, self-congratulatory editorials often grated with me, and his indulgence often permeated into the rest of the magazine. Having said that, Plan B was a welcome forum for new music in the years following John Peel’s death, and since the magazine closed shop last year I’ve still not found a single source for music recommendations that feels so much like home.

Two Weeks (Grizzly Bear, 2009)

Up until this point in this blog, I’ve tended to write about music that I unreservedly love – songs that I replay as soon as they’ve ended. ‘Two Weeks’ by Grizzly Bear falls into another category. In 2009 Grizzly Bear escaped the long shadow of Animal Collective; in the indie press there were few songs that were as widely praised as ‘Two Weeks’. I love it too – but I’m not sure it’s a keeper.

I’ll avoid asking whether it’s a good track. The question that interests me is whether we – the music obsessives and list-compilers of 2009 – will like the song in 5 years time.

The track has a swagger unknown to Grizzly Bear up to this point. The piano line and ‘whoa-oh-oh’ backing vocals are infectious. The chorus swoons. But isn’t the production a little too perfect, almost clinical? There’s nothing wrong with a guitar band sounding more like Beyonce than Pavement, but something about this track rings false – there’s an inherent smugness that rankles.

It’s hard to predict how prevailing musical tastes will change – but when I listen to this track I always have the uneasy feeling that when we move on from 2000s-era American psychedelica-tinged indie, it’s tracks like this that we’ll guiltily ridicule. The grandiose follies of Sufjan Stevens, Akron Family’s freak prog – will they in retrospect sound like the last fart of early 21st century US indie before some pared-down music style sweeps them away? At the moment my money’s on Animal Collective’s work standing the test of time, partly because they’ve evolved significantly with each release. But Grizzly Bear? Ask me in 5 years time.

The album Veckatimest isn’t on Spotify, so listen to Two Weeks at Grizzly Bear’s homepage, here.

I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts) (The Turtles, 1968)

Formed in 1965 as The Crossfires from the Planet Mars, The Turtles were huge by 1967 – their biggest hit ‘Happy Together’ knocked ‘Penny Lane’ from the #1 slot in the USA. Their follow-up album, ‘The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands’, was a concept album in which the band pretended to be a series of different groups, credited with fantastic names like The Atomic Enchilada and The U.S. Teens featuring Raoul.

While ‘Eleanore’ and ‘You Showed Me’ were the big hits, the track ‘I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts)’ is a one-and-a-half minute nugget of mad genius. The band adopt what I think is supposed to be a Hawaiian tribal war chant – but the pounding drums, whoops and call-and-response shouts come off more like the Sugarhill Gang. Later sampled by the Beastie Boys (‘Jimmy James’) and De La Soul (‘Say No Go’), it’s amazing how well it measures up against early B-Boy classics like Incredible Bongo Band’s ‘Apache’.

The transition from ‘I’m Chief Kamanawanalea’ to the sublime ‘You Showed Me’ is a vindication of The Turtles daft multi-persona concept and – is it weird to have a favourite transition between songs on an album? Because that’s mine.

Listen to I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts) on Spotify.

The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands

The drums from Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours (Stevie Wonder, 1970)

While it’s a fantastic song all in all, for me it’s all about the drum track. It’s so unfussy, so methodical and regular, and then so satisfying when the drums break out into a quick rattle at the close of some of the vocal lines. I’ve not been able to find out for sure who the drummer is, but Motown’s house band The Funk Brothers are usually credited so the likely candidate is Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen.

It’s amazing how much he’s able to achieve in the moments that he allows himself to escape from the standard beat, and I love the way that towards the end of the song he lets the rat-a-tatting take over little by little, threatening to transform the song from Stax-esque funk into a wild marching band.

Click here to listen to Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours on Spotify.

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The lead guitar from So Not What I Wanted (Herman Düne, 2002)

David is my favourite songwriter of the Herman Düne brothers but this song by André is an absolute beauty. There are two guitar solos in this song and both are near-identical – I’ve always assumed that the solos were by David, but I’ve had trouble finding out either way.

At 02:10 André’s and Diane Cluck’s vocals drop out and the guitar solo begins – at first confident and clear, but then fading and rattling into uncertainty. As the next verse continues, the lead guitar shimmers in the background, and then at 4:38 the solo returns, this time accompanied by an insistent regular drum pattern, rising in volume gradually.

The lead guitar line’s naive simplicity and repetition mirrors André’s cracking voice and sometimes awkward French-Swedish accent. It’s one of the most perfect marriages of vocal and instrumental melodies that I can think of.

Click here to listen to So Not What I Wanted on Spotify.

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Summertime! EP (The Drums, 2009)

Although only released last year, I like to imagine Summertime! by The Drums as the soundtrack to my end-of-sixth-form summer holiday. It’s sunny, hopeful and nostalgic. Like Animal Collective, The Drums have Brian Wilson as an ancestor, but also mix in Factory Records reverb and melodies that you’d swear were hits back in the 80s.

This EPs one of those rare records that make me sure that whichever track I’m currently listening to is my favourite – but I think ‘Don’t Be a Jerk, Johnny’ has to be top, if only for the coda ‘You used to be so pretty / But now you’re just tragic / Believe in something / You’re full of horseshit’.

There’s a huge amount of buzz around for The Drums – Rose and I will be seeing them live on 23rd Feb and I can’t wait to hear a sample of their first full-length album.

Click here to listen to Summertime! on Spotify.

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Spotify playlist: I Keep Losing Heart (Dec 2009)

Here’s a Spotify playlist that I made at the end of last year. It’s a bit of a mishmash of old 78s, distortion and cheap Beatles pastiches (come on Spotify, surely you can talk the boys around by now?).

1. I don’t want to set the world on fire – The Ink Spots
2. Welfare bread – King Khan & the Shrines
3. So bored – Wavves
4. California girls – The Magnetic Fields
5. rr vs. d – Au
6. I keep losing heart – Electrelane
7. Lesley Gore on the T.A.M.I show – Casiotone for the Painfully Alone
8. The cracks are showing – Vivian Stanshall
9. Shake appeal / Tight pants (live) – The Stooges
10. Red shoes by the drugstore – The Wedding Present
11. Bottle opener – Giddy Motors
12. You can’t catch me – Chuck Berry
13. All my loving – Beatles Rumba Band
14. Living in hope – The Rutles
15. Making plans for Nigel – XTC
16. Two sleepy people – Hoagy Carmichael & Ella Logan
17. Say a litle prayer – Santo & Johnny
18. Barbados – Lord Invader
19. Staging the plaguing of the raised platform – Cornershop
20. Are animals – Au
21. You are the generation that bought more shoes and you get what you deserve – Johnny Boy

Click here to listen to I Keep Losing Heart on Spotify

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Girlfriend is Worse (Ex Models, 2001)

I’m a total sucker for songs with modular, separate elements that eventually come together in surprising ways.

‘I lost my place / In your / Line of vision’ begins the song, the vocal line stop-starting, timing at odds with the lone staccato guitar line. Then on the second vocal phrase the rhythm guitar and drums hit, just two beats for a fleeting moment.

Fifteen seconds in, Shahin Motia emits the perfect phrase ‘I hate my body / I love your eyes’ and the drums thwack again and again, battling the guitar riff with bloodyminded steadiness.

And then, suddenly, the whole band are in agreement. Thick guitars mesh together, the off-kilter drums manage to underpin the melody without appearing to relate to it, and Shahin sings ‘You see, you see me, you see me / Hey, you see me, you see me’. It’s mindless but it feels eloquent, somehow.

The song’s modular, bitty. It never allows itself to reach a stable rhythm. The band occasionally drops out leaving just the knifing guitar, only to appear with a shriek moments later. Past the 50 second mark you feel that the band could fray and dissipate at any moment, and then at 1 min 03 secs it’s all over as abruptly as it began.

Click here to listen to Girlfriend is Worse on Spotify.

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The first 30 seconds of Zoo Station (U2, 1991)

Fair enough, U2 are now profoundly uncool. And on relistening, much of Zoo Station isn’t nearly as special as I’d believed in 1991 – a large proportion of Bono’s lyrics are banal (‘I’m ready to duck / I’m ready to dive / I’m ready to say / I’m glad to be alive’). But the first 30 seconds are magnificent.

The track begins with a barely audible ticking, then a huge formless guitar riff lurches in and drops like a stone. The second time round the riff is followed by an industrial clunking that might be distorted drums but is almost felt rather than heard, like the thump of a migraine. Finally, a percussive tapping begins off-beat, perhaps a spanner hitting a pipe in a vast warehouse space. The riff and percussions repeat, slightly out of phase with one another. For the next few seconds the two patterns compete until they eventually mesh into a cohesive rhythm. The undistorted guitars arrive, Bono ruins the party, and the song becomes more and more conventional as the song progresses… but those first 30 seconds were glorious.

Click here to listen to Zoo Station on Spotify.

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