Monday, 30 May 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK# 13: Comet Gain - "Just One More Summer Before I Go"

While technically a London band, Comet Gain sound (and have done so for almost 20 years now) as if they are from Glasgow. Among the more obvious influences I could name indie legends like Orange Juice and particularly The Pastels. Comet Gain’s albums are more or less evenly split before slow-burning (one might say twee) ballads and fiery post-punk rockers. 

Comet Gain's albums have been getting better and better (the band’s newest, Howl Of The Lonely Crowd, is terrific). For me, City Fallen Leaves (2005) is their richest, most fully realised work so far. That album's undisputed classic, “Just One More Summer Before I Go”, has this great juxtaposition: recklessly sad lyrics against a catchy, adrenaline-fuelled melody. Desperate is the word.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Album review: SMITH WESTERNS - Dye It Blonde

Highlights: Still New, All Die Young, End Of The Night, Only One, Dye The World  

For me, Smith Westerns’ second album is a huge improvement over the messy, lo-fi charms of their debut  (The Smith Westerns, 2009). And while some complained about the more polished sound (this ‘more’, you have to understand, is relative), I’m glad I now have a clearer idea of what this band is about. 

When it comes to Smith Westerns (and, indeed, Dye It Blonde), people tend to mention artists like Marc Bolan and David Bowie. I’d be a fool to deny the obvious glam-rock influences here, but my reference points would rather include more contemporary suspects: think the more intense bits on The Sleepy Jackson’s first record (Lovers, 2003) or Black Kids with more guts and better tunes.   

Because really, the 10 songs on Dye It Blonde sound like 10 slices of juicy, seedless watermelon. Drenched in slide guitars (The Vaccines don’t stand a chance) and noisy (but always melodic – The Vaccines still don’t stand a chance), fuzzy wall of sound, these songs are both clever and mindlessly joyful. I won’t get into too much detail, but the guitar hook of “Still New”, the breathtaking “All Die Young” chanting, and the lilting melodic delight of “Only One” can all make me pretty much disregard the mellow, non-charismatic (if lovely) vocals of the singer.  

So, what are they about? Well, really, they are about catchy, ingenious pop songs, and that intense, uplifting vibe that makes you forget about everything else, and just enjoy the whole thing, hook by hook. And what a beautiful, tasteful album cover to boot. 


Monday, 23 May 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #12: Scott Walker - "The Old Man's Back Again"

Scott Walker’s fourth solo album, Scott 4, is one of the most coherent, thoughtful, elegant records I know. Scott’s rich croon, evocative lyrics, dark and beautiful textures – it might be really hard to choose favourites. But the deep, haunting “The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated To The Neo-Stalinist Regime)” speaks to me in a way most personal, most profound. This country being what it is. 

In a way, I do of course envy those who can’t identify with the song’s lyrics – but in a way, they could never understand the painful poignancy of it all. A classic - what else is there to say?..

Friday, 20 May 2011

Book review: SOLAR by Ian McEwan

Great writers don’t always write great books. And I do not mean they fail or write crappy ones – no, it’s just that sometimes they do it deliberately. They do it on purpose. This is like Graham Greene resorting to his ‘entertainment novels’, this is like Martin Amis coming up with Night Train after The Information, this is like a novelist going for a short story collection once in a while. A breather, an outlet for some smart and tempting thought that maybe won’t set the world on fire but that you are reluctant to throw away. Particularly with all that skill, talent you possess. 

Solar (2010) is a lovely little satirical novel from Ian McEwan. And by ‘little’ I do not mean the book’s length – in fact (and somewhat perversely), this novel is among McEwan’s longer ones. But whereas books like Amsterdam or Black Dogs were given the necessary weight by that serious, grave subject matter and McEwan’s no-nonsense style and vibe, Solar, while certainly not a comedy, reads like intellectual pulp fiction of superior quality. McEwan makes the human tragedy that is there approach farce so often that you are left with an odd feeling this is a kind of a Victorian novel informed by modern problems and realities. Not that I mind. 

In a nutshell, Solar is about a man who framed himself. Michael Beard, a Noble Prize winning physicist, leads a really messed-up family life. Which suits him fine up to a certain point: he learns that his fifth wife has the effrontery to cheat on him. With a builder and, to make matters even worse, with Beard’s colleague (from some imaginary research centre in Reading – they work on solar energy). The latter’s death in a freak accident is the onset of a rather grotesque plot that involves intellectual theft, inflated ego, treachery and possibly even a spot of real love. Beard gets caught up in a game he is bound to lose. Even if he does get so close to becoming the hero who saves the planet from global warming. So yes, the subject matter is indeed serious enough – but in the end it’s all about the way you present it. Ian McEwan does that in an amusing, accessible (though never chummy), thoroughly entertaining way. 

Still, we do get that snappy tragicomic feel at the end of the novel. The last few sentences are really powerful. And the image of an innocent loving girl running up to her doomed, confused father is as vivid and memorable as an author can get. 

Not a McEwan classic by any means (I bet he knows as much), but still a solid, moving book of a true master. Intelligent and addictive, the book might win him some fans. But most importantly, it makes one think of another Saturday that must be coming someday soon.


Monday, 16 May 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #11: Damien Youth - "These Days Are But Molecules"

Now Damien Youth is certainly one unknown man. I could also say underappreciated, but I don’t feel comfortable with that word anymore, particularly in Damien’s case. The simple, haunting words of Stephen Pastel: “In the end you become as big as you are supposed to be”. Anyone else say that – pleeaase, but Stephen Pastel I can believe. 

Obscurity? But Damien Youth asked for it. Obscurity is what suits his songs just fine – that’s not to say they are bad. Yes, all of his albums are frustratingly uneven, but his constant flashes of brilliance are almost worthy of any Robyn Hitchcock or Syd Barrett (both of whom the man so clearly idolizes). This song here, “These Days Are But Molecules”, is taken from what I consider Damien’s best, most consistent album overall, Phantoms Of Fables (2005). Gorgeous, sad, mysterious – it’s heartbreaking for no particular reason. The video is brilliant as well ( I might be mistaken here, but I believe it was also made by Damien).

Saturday, 14 May 2011


Possibly the best description of Luke Haines’ music I’ve ever heard came from a John Rain (from “Listening to a Haines record is like being kidnapped by a masked hostile fiend only to find out they are taking you to the seaside for ice cream and tea”. It is not surprising then that the man’s memoir (the first part; the second, I understand, is currently a work in progress) turned out to be brutal, bile, bitter, but also incredibly engaging, funny, and wickedly amusing. 

Luke Haines has always been adamant in his opinions, and, quite predictably, he was not going to hold anything back when writing about Britpop. Luke’s relationship with the scene has always seemed intriguing. On the one hand, he was a distinctly British artist on the cusp of it all; the emerging phenomenon did boost his career to a certain great extent. On the other hand, bands like Luke’s very own The Auteurs or, say, Denim, were a lot more intelligent and simply better than those who came to define that troubled, cool British culture of the 90’s. And Luke Haines deals with the situation quite fine: by being brutally honest as well as reasonably cynical about all that (modest) success, hypocrisy, and the sickening hangover that came next. 

Of course, in a Luke Haines book about Britpop everybody gets a slap in the face. Yes, his underground heroes do get mentioned (Robert Forster, Grant McLennan, a few others), but of all those people who enjoyed some great success in the midst of the whole Britpop thing, only Jarvis Cocker walks out unscathed (but this is the man, remember, who called Haines the greatest songwriter of the 90’s). Also, for one reason or another Luke is nice to Suede’s “sweet” drummer, but that’s about it. Over the length of this decidedly vitriolic book Luke Haines is not nice: Blur are called “bandwagon jumpers”, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke is dubbed “most heinous of all creatures”, and those poor Gallagher brothers are literally murdered. But it is not as if Luke Haines himself remains clean; no, like I said, the man is brutally honest. Not every artist would want to describe the kind of tour in America he had to endure (even though there’s nothing wrong with a British artist who gets flunked overseas). 

For me, one of the strongest points of the book is the conspicuous lack of any personal information. The man truly is all about art. After a relatively brief account of Luke’s pre-Auteurs life/struggle/spleen, we enter the spiteful mind of someone who did want success but who was at the same time very uneasy about getting it. Hilarious, merciless wit shines through all those stories dealing with narrow-minded music bosses, crooked record labels, edgy relationship inside the group (edge courtesy of Haines himself, obviously), frustratingly successful or unsuccessful tours, etc. And Luke Haines doesn’t mind presenting himself as this evil, almost Mark E. Smith-like character. Though in the end he does come off as a morbid, slightly awkward person who’s very well aware of his own genius. But in his case – I’m willing to accept anything (I do consider him a near-genius as far as songwriters go). This unabashed self-confidence doesn’t sound annoying – it’s a part of Luke Haines’ charisma and, dare I say it, charm. He sounds extremely amusing, even irresistible, when he calls New Wave his first masterpiece, After Murder Park his second masterpiece, his left-field record about Baader Meinhof his third masterpiece. And he would go on, of course, but we stop in 1999, with the beginning of Black Box Recorder, the greatest of pop cynics. 

Oddly, there is no excessive hatred towards Britpop in Bad Vibes (he mostly targets personalities). Yes, so the whole thing did engender a great deal of silly enthusiasm and faceless mediocrity (Haines does get to mention a number of those names), but a flawed scene is still better than no scene at all. Yes, so Luke Haines resents the inevitable association with Britpop he has to suffer, but those still were the days that had some colour, character to them. Even though Haines would hate to admit that. Did he play any part in Britpop’s downfall? I guess that’s a yes, simply because he got caught up in all that silly excitement that once seemed so tempting. 

I have to admit I’m not too keen on a couple of self-consciously surreal, artsy parts (like his lengthy dream about stealing his contract with the record company, for instance). But I am still hugely impressed by that beautifully symbolic, almost poetic ending. Noel Gallagher eating ice-cream and waving him from some distance. Does Luke Haines wave back? Well, it’s a revelation, and you’ll have to read the book to find out.

I would like to note, and the cover I included here indicates the fact, that I only managed to get the audio variant of the book. Luke Haines reads it all himself, and I would say that the experience is probably even fuller. Those sinister whisperings and intonations, and particularly the way he pronounces “THE VERRRVE”. I almost suffocated chuckling. 

And to finish it off, a short list of my favourite moments in Bad Vibes. Read on. 

The MOST SURPRISING moment: when L.H. mentions that he has a soft spot for Modern Life Is Rubbish. God, I still can’t believe it. 

The FUNNIEST moment: that bit when amid the Baader Meinhof self-appraisal L.H. can’t resist and plays the riff of the title track. Brilliant! 

The CRUELEST moment: the part when after a concert in Japan L.H. shows The Auteurs’ second guitarist a fan letter. The letter advises L.H. to dump the second guitarist. 

The MOST MOVING moment: when L.H. suddenly understands (after the dissolution of The Auteurs) that the Cellist (that’s the way James Banbury is called throughout the book) did care about the band, and was not all about getting money for the job done. 

Finally, the GREATEST moment of the book: L.H. briefly talks to Iggy Pop after a concert of The Auteurs. Pop tells him he liked the electric violin. L.H. is clearly distressed. He wants to tell Iggy Pop it’s all about songs, not the Cellist; that every British band has an electric bloody violin. That he is such a fan, that he has all Iggy Pop’s records, even Party. Very bitter, but frank and fascinating – like the whole book.


Monday, 9 May 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #10: The Divine Comedy - "Tonight We Fly"

It’s not as if The Divine Comedy is a very little known band or something, but I’m convinced that more people should know Neil Hannon's music. Simply because it is so great, so accessible, so adorable. Check this one out, for instance, “Tonight We Fly” off Promenade (see  recent review). It’s hard for me to think of another song that marries sadness and happiness so beautifully and so convincingly. The melody is inspirational, plus some of the most heartfelt, affecting lyrics in a pop song. 

Saturday, 7 May 2011

"Slight" return of Kate Bush

It might seem unlikely if you don’t know the details, but Kate Bush is releasing a new record this May. Just 6 brief years after 2005’s triumphant Aerial, it might seem ridiculous, unbelievable. But then the hard truth kicks in: Director’s Cut (due out on the 16th of May) is an album consisting of reworkings of Kate’s older material – the songs that made up The Sensual World and 1993's unjustly dismissed The Red Shoes 

The word ‘artist’ doesn’t mean a thing these days. Critics, consumers, and, of course, artists themselves keep brandishing the term in a way that could be considered satirical. But it’s not – they seem to be deadly serious, as if all it takes is shoot a movie, release a record, paint a picture… 

And speaking of paintings… If you visit Metropolitan, you will find a number of old-school, relatively successful paintings done by women. They are good, no doubt – but they are also academically, plainly good, for they are made in manly style and from manly mould. They look dated. Most of them lack emotion, depth, attitude – and not only that. Consider: you can easily find loads of attitude and emotion in someone like Chrissie Hynde, who adopted a very recognizable rock-star image many years ago and for all those years to come. But I fully get her music – or seem to, anyway. Quite soon I come to realise that I’ve grown to fully appreciate the Pretenders’ excellent first record, and can only be moved by “Kid” for purely nostalgic reasons. Whereas the music of Kate Bush – it is timeless, it comes from that vast, Emily Bronte-esque imagination, it is not even really gettable. I strive to get it (and get enormous pleasure from trying) – her genuine, sensual, creative, spontaneous, whimsical, Molly Bloom-like world, but I never really get it. Because she’s not trying to be anything, she’s just expressing herself, she’s just doing her art – like a true artist should. Kate never really had any time for being hip, modernistic, feministic, etc. For me, her music is a perfect example of female art that is genuinely and masterfully easy and relentlessly impressive and hard-hitting at the same time. In fact, I view the music of Kate Bush as some kind of an equivalent to the affluent, highly lyrical literature of Virginia Woolf or, say, Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova. Songs like “Hello Earth”, “Hammer Horror”, “The Man With The Child In His Eyes”, “Leave It Open”, “Army Dreamers” (…) – they bring me to tears, they make my heart beat faster not because of those good old days when I first heard them, but because they are full of intelligent, out-of-this-world hooks as well as poetic, sometimes fairly disturbing imagery that keeps puzzling, thrilling, enticing me.  

But when you’re a fan – you know you’re in trouble. Inventive, whimsical perfectionist, Kate never releases albums if they don’t have the word ‘masterpiece’ written all over them. One could of course argue that working on a record for 12 goddamn years is slightly stretching it (I’m talking about Aerial here), but consider the quality. Art, after all, is not something you meet in the crowded street, smile casually, and say hello to. 

So there’s nothing I can do about the boyish excitement that is overwhelming me. Yes, Director’s Cut is just an updated collection of familiar songs; yes, the prophetic “Deeper Understanding” now has this inevitable computerized voice; yes, the video for the song is not too good (even though the fact that Noel Fielding gets hanged at the end makes it worth it); yes, it means that we’ve got another eternity to wait for Kate’s next album. But I know for a fact that several days from now I will be immersed in a singular, intriguing world of an artist who happens to be so rare and so true. 

Incidentally, for me Kate Bush also reflects everything that is so great about women. This effortless maturity, this intuitive experience. Yet again she makes me realise the simple truth: that a man is a boy, and a girl is a woman.

Monday, 2 May 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #9: The Blackeyed Susans - "Memories"

The Blackeyed Susans’ first album, All Souls Alive (1993), is one of Australia’s finest ever – though what else would you expect from a record that features members of The Triffids? Too bad the Susans never managed to repeat the rough magic of those affecting, beautifully arranged songs. 

At the moment the band’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s classic “Memories” sounds like the greatest thing in the world to me. An absolute musical riot. Warren Ellis’ head-spinning violin must have been the thing that made Nick Cave add a new member to The Bad Seeds’ lineup. Oh, and of course: David McComb is singing this one. David, I should mention, is my absolute hero. Nothing can describe Australia better than his songs and those vast, tough, heartbreaking vocals. What a tragedy. Some things never really heal. 

But my God what a performance.