Not everyone enjoys Christmas; for some people it's the most lousy time of the year. While we're all subjected to the same infuriating pap from Macca, Shakey, Slade and Wizzard every freaking year, all happy jolly ditties celebrating what a wonderful time everybody has, Gruff Rhys approached the subject from a completely different perspective.
In 2011, he released his 'Atheist Xmas' EP which included this tragic tale. “Sad things happen at Christmas as well you know, it’s like any other day," he told the BBC at the time of release. “It’s a song based on true events and things that have happened to my friends over the years. So I hope it’s not too crass, you know. It’s a crass title, but it’s just a really sad song."
Recording it wasn't exactly easy either; there was certainly no Christmassing up the studio. In fact there was a riot going on outside while Gruff sweltered in the basement space in Bristol. Somehow though, he makes it sound as charming as all his work, yet terribly upsetting too
So while you're opening your expensive presents, overindulging in sumptuous foods and alcoholic beverages and generally being cheerful and merry, spare a thought for those poor souls who have little to look forward to at this time of year. Merry Christmas...
(I'm taking some time off for the holiday period, so this is the last post of 2015. Back on 2nd January.)
With all the 'proper' albums covered, here's a bonus post which looks at Polly Jean's most significant other releases.
4-Track Demos (1993)
That rarest of things: an album of early demo versions that could arguably be better than the finished product. The 'Rid Of Me' demos, recorded solo by Harvey in 1991 and 1992, were lauded by Steve Albini, the final album's producer. He encouraged their release and, following the band's split in 1993, they saw the light of day.
The songs that made the album certainly have a different feel to them in demo form, though they aren't that far removed from the definitive versions. The real delights here though are those songs that were never recorded by the band. Reeling really might have been one of 'Rid Of Me''s best songs if they'd chosen to do it, but for me it's M-Bike that is the undoubted highlight. It needs no further embellishment, it is an angry blues song that gets its message through as it is. One of my fave PJ Harvey tracks.
Overall, '4-Track Demos' is a worthy accompaniment to 'Rid Of Me' and betters it in places.
Like so many before her, Polly acknowledged the part in her success played by John Peel. She recorded eight sessions for Peel between 1991 and 2004 and no fewer than 19 of her tracks featured in his Festive 50 countdowns over the years. This compilation goes some way to collecting the unique versions Harvey recorded for the great man, but there is rather sadly, and a tad irritatingly, a number of stark omissions.
The debut session from October 1991 is included in full. Consisting of four tracks from 'Dry', it shows how raw that first album was. These live versions sound very close to the those originally released, although Sheela-Na-Gig is even more visceral - a ripper of a version. From then on, only part sessions appear, and some not at all. The second session from 1992 is entirely missing, but the two tracks from 1993's session are simply essential. I always loved Naked Cousin and still think it's wasted as a soundtrack-only track, while her version of Willie Dixon's Wang Dang Doodle is a joy and shows how Polly's heart is truly in the blues - with a touch of the odd thrown in.
Elsewhere, a wild version of Snake with John Parish, a ghostly take on Beautiful Feeling without Thom Yorke and an arresting acoustic version of You Come Through all delight. But while you can't really fault any of what is here, ultimately marks have to be deducted for what's missing. Hopefully one day, we'll get the complete collection.
An odd one this. Polly teamed up with her old pal and collaborator John Parish for an album of experimental songs in which he contributed the music and she the lyrics and vocals. It divided critics at the time of its release, and if I'm being honest I'm still not all that keen now. I suppose it shouldn't be considered a 'proper' PJ Harvey release - it was credited to John Parish & Polly Jean Harvey - and her record company thought it was commercial suicide.
Yet even this record has some intriguing moments that merit a revisit. My particular faves have always been Heela and the single That Was My Veil, both of which sound like more conventional PJ Harvey songs (the former wouldn't be that out of place on 'To Bring You My Love'). Otherwise, Civil War Correspondent and Rope Bridge Crossing are also worth hearing, but the rest of it is not really my bag.
Nearly 13 years after their last work together, Polly and John got back together for a follow-up. This one was more song-based and less experimental, though it is in no way what you might call straightforward. Opener Black Hearted Love is a guitar driven highlight, something that could have popped up on previous PJH records. The skewed banjo tones in Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen take us off the safe path and into a more frightening, darker world where Polly sounds breathless and desperate. Pig Will Not is not just totally bizarre, but disturbing. Harvey wails: "Aaaaaaahhhhhhhh! I will not!" before launching into a tale of a violent angel while barking like a dog. Seriously.
So OK, it's not in the slightest bit straightforward and quite experimental, yet for some reason it feels like an easier listen than 'Dance Hall At Louse Point'. Just.
The final three. A couple of lows before a monumental high...
Uh Huh Her (2004)
I have a rather odd relationship with 'Uh Huh Her'. It was nearly four years since the mega-success of 'Stories From The City...' and Polly was rejuvenated. She took her time over it - two years of writing and recording. She also did pretty much everything herself at home. Only the final drum tracks and backing vocals were added with the help of others at the end of the process.
The end result couldn't have been more different to its glossy predecessor. 'Uh Huh Her' is altogether more ragged and earthy, a rather dirty-sounding record. Who The Fuck? sounds like a demo. In fact, quite a few of the album's 14 tracks sound like demos. Pocket Knife would fit quite comfortably on 'Is This Desire?' So would The Slow Drug, its backing track sounding like it might have been lifted off Peter Gabriel's fourth album.
The Letter is one of my favourite PJ Harvey singles, simple in construction yet imbued with the unexpected twists of we've come to expect; those backing vocals for a start. Cat On The Wall is another of my highlights with its growly distortion. But It's You steals the show for me. It's more reminiscent of the dark experiments on 'To Bring You My Love'. It rumbles in sinister fashion in complete contrast to Polly's lovelorn lyrics. Then there's The Desperate Kingdom Of Love, a beautiful, intimate moment featuring just a tender vocal over a strummed acoustic guitar; quite unlike anything she'd released before.
One disappointment is the fragment of No Child Of Mine. It was later that same year recorded in full by Marianne Faithfull (ably assisted by Polly, of course), but I'd love to hear a complete version by its writer. Overall though, it's an album high in quality in terms of its material and its sounds. So why do I have this difficult relationship with it? Well I just don't think it sounds like an album; you know, like a 'proper' album. It doesn't quite hang together for me. A bit like 'Is This Desire?' really. I played it a hell of a lot when it came out, but I still don't hear is as a coherent album. It's a bit all over the place, never quite settling down, restless and fidgety. And it's got a minute of seagulls on it. Seagulls!?! But, it has bags of quality with plenty to love about it too. See my dilemma?
Probably PJ Harvey's most unusual album, purely from the point of it not being the sort of record we expected. While it's difficult to know what we're ever going to get from her, a set of piano-led ballads wasn't the first thing that sprang to mind. One of the reasons for that is perhaps that piano was never one of Harvey's many instruments (she also plays harp, zither and cigfiddle here). However, she taught herself to play and the results are rather surprising.
Haunting is probably a good word to use to describe the music on 'White Chalk'. The songs are quite dark (not unusual for her), but not perhaps as uneasy or disturbing as some of her previous work. They're almost ghost-like in places, especially when Polly's voice soars to the highest register she's sung in yet (just listen to her chilling wails in The Mountain). Songs like The Devil and The Piano could be among her career highlights. It's just that overall, it can get a little repetitive. There's far less excitement and variety on 'White Chalk' than your typical PJ Harvey album and less to keep you (me) gripped.
Not my favourite PJ Harvey moment then, but you can't fault her bravery and artistry in putting out something so quiet and understated. Having said that, "Hit her with a hammer / Teeth smashed in" are really not the sort of lyrics you'd expect on such a record. It is PJ Harvey after all, so maybe it's not so different. And at least it sounds like more of an album than its predecessor.
The war album. Her best album? Very probably. In fact very little released this decade even comes close to 'Let England Shake'. It is Harvey's most different-sounding album, both musically and vocally and by god does it astound in every way. The subject matter (war and conflict) really shouldn't be a source of such wonder and awe, yet PJ Harvey - and perhaps only PJ Harvey - can make it as charming as it is jarring.
The majority of the songs were composed on the autoharp, with Harvey having to "find the voice" with which to put them across. The title track which opens the record illustrates her new sound perfectly, as does The Glorious Land which sounds like a decades-old folk song. Its bugle call reminds us of the protagonist's situation - fighting for his 'glorious land' of England. This track, perhaps more than any other, resonates with the true tragedy of war.
The Words That Maketh Murder is horrific. Part of Harvey's research involved reading modern-day testimonies from civilians and soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its lyrics illustrate the full horror of war:
"I've seen and done things I want to forget;
I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat,
Blown and shot out beyond belief.
Arms and legs were in the trees."
On Battleship Hill stuns. Polly's voice reaches the highest register of her career (even higher than it did on 'White Chalk'), and it chills. Written On The Forehead samples Niney The Observer's Blood And Fire to staggering effect. It is one of my favourite PJ Harvey tracks. On The Colour Of The Earth, Harvey duets with Mick Harvey. It's another triumph, a haunting folk song telling the sad tale of a World War One soldier paying tribute to his best friend who was killed:
"I thought I heard Louis' voice
Calling for his mother, then me But I couldn't get to him."
The acclaim 'Let England Shake' received is richly deserved, not least in winning both the Mercury Music Prize and the prestigious Ivor Novello Best Album Award. It's difficult for me to pick a favourite between 'Dry' and 'Let England Shake'. They are both very, very different records released at very, very different stages of Harvey's career. However, they are both remarkable records in their own right and I love them both.
This was one of my favourite pods back in the day. Looking at the tracklisting today I'm not surprised - there's some great tunes on it, and a real mix. As always, the text remains pretty much untouched from the orignal article written four years ago. The rant about Simon Cowell is still relevent. I keep digging and trawling for new music and have managed to avoid every single episode of the X Factor ever since it started. I don't think that's likely to change any time soon.
Pod 11: Illumination (first published January 2011)
struggling to come up with a single idea for a title for this podcast, I
finally settled on 'Illumination' for two reasons. First, it is the
title of one of the tracks and acts as a tribute to its singer who
passed away prematurely just a week or two ago. Secondly, and perhaps
more importantly, it shows the breadth of diversity in music that
constantly entriches our lives. Simon Cowell would have us all believe
its about young pretty boys and girls, a Christmas number one and loads
of money in his bank account. But Cowell can kiss my lily-white
arse. If you really want to light up your life with music, you have to
open your mind, go in search of it and immerse yourself in the wonder
of what amazingly talented people there are out there beyond horrible
mainstream TV and radio. Ten more examples of such delight are
presented here in another illuminating podcast.
1. Rachel GoodrichThe Black Hole (2008, Tinker Toys)
hard to classify an artist like Rachel Goodrich. Is she pop, folk,
indie, retro? Her music seems to cover all these grounds and more. She
has a new album - her second - due for release next month.
2. BroadcastIllumination (2000, Extended Play 2 EP)
The sad passing of Broadcast's Trish Keenan
this month proved to me once more that life is a fragile thing and that
it matters not if you are good or bad, talented or not, it gets us all
in the end, sometimes, like Trish, far too soon. Broadcast were/are
extremely well respected in electronic-indie circles and this track
illustrates beautifully their atmospheric minimalist psychedelia.
3. Joy DivisionDead Souls [pitch corrected] (original 1980, Still; this version 2010, A Recycle Sampler)
Thank the lord for nerds. If it weren't for the kinds of music geeks over at thepowerofindependenttrucking, neworder-recycle or smithsrecycle,
we wouldn't have brand spanking new remasters of iconic music like this
new version of the track which originally appeared on the b-side of
'Love Will Tear Us Apart' pitched too high. These guys are working
through the back catalogues of New Order, Joy Division and the Smiths to
clean-up and correct the originals far better than the so-called
professionals who have continually messed up with each set of official
re-releases. Yes indeed, nerds of the music world - take a bow!
4. Signe TollefsenDown By The Water (2011, Baggage)
singer-songwriter Signe Tollefsen is a rising star in Holland and is an
in-demand support act for established artists. Her newest release, a
six-track EP, contains intriguing re-interpretations of other people's
songs. Nestling between versions of tracks by Michael Jackson and David
Bowie is this amazing take on PJ Harvey's 1995 single. It's only
January and I think I've already found one of my tracks of 2011.
5. Frank TurnerTry This At Home (2009, Poetry Of The Deed)
a 21st Century Billy Bragg, Frank's folk-punk is gaining him an
increasingly massive following thanks in no small part to his hectic
live shows and festival appearances. I love the sentiment of this track
- music is in all of us and we could all do something a damn-sight more
meaningful and relevant with a guitar than many of today's "rock
stars". Do it!
6. James Vincent McMorrowFrom The Woods!!  (2011, Early in The Morning)
debut album from this Irish singer-songwriter draws on the "darker,
less spoken about aspects of life, solitude, disillusionment" in novels
by Roald Dahl, John Steinbeck and F Scott Fitzgerald. Musically, there
are obvious parallels with Bon Iver, but James is picking up enough
plaudits on his own merits without the lazy comparisons. By the way, I
had to tweak this to make it more podcast friendly, using the intro of
an earlier version of the song, and cutting out a bit of 'dead-airtime'
in the middle. So what you get here is a unique mix!
7. Miranda Sex GardenLovely Joan (1992, Iris)
Back in August, podcast number 3 included a track by the Mediæval Bæbes featuring Katharine Blake.
I said I would post something by her original band - so here you go.
Miranda Sex Garden began as an a capella trio busking in Covent Garden
singing traditional English madrigals. Over time, their sound mutated
into avant-garde gothic darkwave. This track marked the start of that
process; the song itself dates from around the turn of the 19th/20th
8. Future Of The LeftArming Eritrea (2009, Travels With Myself And Another)
band formed from the remains of Mclusky and Jarcrew in 2005. Certainly
one of the noisiest things I've featured in a podcast to date
but nonetheless rousing and original. Triv question: what is the link
between Future Of The Left and Frank Turner (above)? Answer at the
9. Saint EtienneMario's Cafe (1993, So Tough)
may come as a bit of a surprise to those who think they know me to
learn that one of my all-time favourite albums is Saint Etienne's second
'So Tough'. There is something distinctive about the London trio's
brand of pure pop that sets them apart from everyone else and I find I
can still listen to this record without a hint of irony. This is a
wonderful observation of everyday London life as told by the gorgeous
voice of Sarah Cracknell.
10. LeadbellyGoodnight Irene (1947, Complete Recorded Works 1939-1947)
the greatest folksinger/storyteller of all time, Huddie William
Ledbetter, with one of his many signature tunes. The origins of the
song are disputed, but it is generally agreed that Leadbelly pretty much
made it his own, and this version of it, his third, was from the last
session he recorded before his death two years later.
I have a mate in Devon I'm still in touch with who's a huge fan of Mike Peters. I quite like the Alarm, but I wouldn't say I'm a fan as such. Nonetheless, there are some songs by the band I love. As my 'Songs to take to my grave' series edges towards its conclusion, I have 68 Guns on the list of those that could just make it into the final 10. For that reason, it's not that track you're getting today.
'Raw' was the Alarm's final album before they split in 1991. It included a cover of Neil Young's Rockin' In The Free World. The band also released a Welsh-language version of the album ('Tân') which is now rather rare - it has never been reissued. So here's Rockin' In The Free World in Welsh for you!
(All versions of this track are no longer available)
So Lonely & Invisible Sun - The Police 7"s Purchased from: The Record Shop, Cardiff Price paid: £1 each
I have a number of memories of The Police. I remember when Message In A Bottle was number one and we'd all sing "massage in a brothel" in the school playground without having any idea what that actually meant other than it was quite rude. I remember one of the first singles I owned was Don't Stand So Close To Me. I also remember one of the very few cassette albums I ever bought was 'Synchronicity'. And I also remember borrowing my cousin's blue-vinyl 7" of Can't Stand Losing You and my auntie getting quite upset that he should lend me something with a sleeve like that. In fact I had a couple other Police singles, but I never bought an album, though I did inherit a Police 'Greatest Hits' CD when MrsRobster's record collection became merged with mine.
Safe to say then that I've always liked the Police without ever being a proper fan, so to speak. Think what you like about Sting, but he hasn't always been a pompous prick of prodigious proportions. He was at one time the best pop star on the planet. Well, a very good one, at least. They made some absolutely cracking songs. When I chanced across these two in The Record Shop, I grabbed them. So Lonely came out in November 1978 and didn't chart. However, four massive hits later, they re-released it and it made #6 in spring 1980.
My fave Police track though is Invisible Sun. Banned by the BBC, it was the most political song the band ever wrote, coming as it did at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. There's the juxtaposition of the gloomy drone running through the song with Sting's lyrics of an invisible sun giving hope to those caught up in the violence and acrimony of the situation. Light and dark. It's a great song, an unusual choice of lead single from their fourth album, but it reached #2 regardless.
As for the b-sides? No Time This Time was initially exclusive to the So Lonely single, but oddly became tacked onto the end of the band's second album a year later just to flesh out the running time. Shambelle is an instrumental track that has only ever been made otherwise available in the 'Message In A Box: The Complete Recordings' boxset in 1993.
We reach the point where Polly Jean reached a commercial and critical peak.
To Bring You My Love (1995)
No one could have expected what Polly Harvey had in store for her third album. 'To Bring You My Love' was in so many ways far removed from those first two loud and raw guitar albums. But then, the goalposts had moved somewhat. Having now split PJ Harvey the band, she was now PJ Harvey solo and that's always naturally going to lead to a shift in dynamic. It left her free to experiment. Even so, the extent of the change left many of us unprepared.
The opening title track is a slow-burning earthy blues number that never really bursts into life, but feels sinister and somewhat chilling. That element of PJ Harvey was still intact then. It's what follows that truly delights though. Meet Ze Monsta still rates with me as one of her best tracks. That incessant stomp-stomp-stomp rhythm, the ominous electronic buzzes and fuzzed up guitars, and Harvey's almost demonic vocal combine to make this one of the most extraordinary songs in her canon.
And it doesn't stop there. The darkened mood gets even darker with Working For The Man, the song that stood out for me on first listen. The deep bass rumble that powers the song, coupled with Harvey's quiet, menacing and claustrophobic vocal delivery, makes it possibly her most unique track. Definitely one for a Hallowe'en mixtape. Elsewhere, the acoustic tracks C'mon Billy and Send His Love To Me lend an air of normality to the proceedings; Down By The Water is a disturbing murder ballad of Nick Cave-esque proportions; Long Snake Moan is a rocker (for want of a better word), the loudest, fastest moment on the whole record.
Overall, 'To Bring You My Love' was the album in which Polly Harvey was able to spread her wings as a studio artist. While the first two records were meant to be played live, this one was an exercise in production. It's blues, but not as we'd ever heard it before (it's strewn with references to Captain Beefheart, Muddy Waters, et al). Yet, even as complex a record as it is, she did pull it off live. I saw her perform most of these songs at Glastonbury in 1995 and the experience is still etched in my mind, an extraordinary performance. But even that wasn't the most surprising thing about 'To Bring You My Love' - that honour goes to its commercial success. Who would have thought that this record - this mad, crazy record - would have been her commercial breakthrough? It is a brilliant record, but not one you'd have expected to make Harvey a star.
In spite of the acclaim and success of 'To Bring You My Love', Polly didn't rush a follow-up. Instead she collaborated with Nick Cave on his 'Murder Ballads' project, and former Automatic Dlamini bandmate John Parish on an album to feature later in this series. By the time 'Is This Desire?' came out, she had been through quite a bit.
Harvey describes this as a very difficult record to make owing to personal circumstances. It is, however, also her favourite. It was certainly her quietest record to date, the loud guitars of her earlier recordings now almost a distant memory. For me though, as a fan, I have never been able to fully connect with 'Is This Desire?'. I'm not sure why, but it doesn't quite hang together for me. That's not to say there aren't some great tracks though. Angelene, The Wind, A Perfect Day Elise, The River and the title track would all feature on a homemade Best of PJ Harvey compilation without a moment's thought. But while the most experimental and odd numbers on 'To Bring You My Love' all seemed to have their own place and helped bind everything together as a whole, on 'Is This Desire?', the experiments either stick out like a sore thumb, or feel directionless or misplaced.
Maybe it's a sequencing thing. I've tried rearranging the running order a couple of times and while it sounds better up to a point, there just seems to be a couple of tracks that don't fit at all. I wouldn't miss My Beautiful Leah or Electric Light, for instance. But then, maybe I'm missing something; far be it from me to question Polly's impeccable judgement. From a personal viewpoint though, 'Is This Desire?' doesn't get near my top 5 PJ Harvey albums.
Stories From The City, Stories from The Sea (2000)
Eschewing the darkness of her previous work, Polly decided to make an album that expressed her love of America. 'Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea' couldn't have been more different to anything else she had done before. Little in the way of experimentation; big, bold pop songs you could sing along to; bright, polished production. It was meant to be that way. "I thought, I want absolute beauty. I want this album to sing and fly and be full of reverb and lush layers of melody. I want it to be my beautiful, sumptuous, lovely piece of work."
Sing and fly is exactly what 'Stories From The City...' does. Good Fortune, the lead single, was one of the brightest, most melodic tracks she'd made. It was also one of the most optimistic lyrically: "And I feel like some bird of paradise / My bad fortune slipping away / And I feel the innocence of a child."Big Exit's guitars chime with glee as Polly's voice soars. A Place Called Home, my fave track on the album, is a little more subdued, but it still glistens with Polly's new-found optimism. There are echoes of early PJ Harvey in there too; Is This Love?, This Wicked Tongue, Kamikaze and The Whores Hustle And The Hustlers Whore turn those guitars up and Polly even rasps her vocals.
Overall, this was PJ Harvey's pop record. It worked far better than anyone could have imagined. It garnered her nominations for BRITs and Grammys, and won her the Mercury Music Prize. She's not made another record like it since. I adored it at the time, but if I'm being honest, I've always preferred her dark side. Listening to it again for this article, I recognise what a good record it is, but it doesn't give me the goosebumps I still get from 'Dry' or 'To Bring You My Love'.
#12: Public Service Broadcasting Y Plas, Cardiff University - 27th November 2015 Support: François And The Atlas Mountains
Y Plas is Cardiff Uni's nightclub. It used to be called Solus and we saw The Joy Formidable there a few years ago. Since then it has undergone a radical refurbishment and now looks like a hipster bar. It doesn't look like a place for gigs other than the large stage. It doesn't feel much like a gig venue either. If the support band was anything to go by, it also doesn't sound like a gig venue. They were bloody terrible, but I'm not sure how much of that was the venue or the band themselves. They were tuneless and directionless. They reminded me of Vampire Weekend; I hate Vampire Weekend.
Not the greatest of starts, but Public Service Broadcasting have never disappointed. MrsRobster and I have seen them twice before, but never in a venue this size. They've certainly grown in stature since their second album - the brilliant 'The Race For Space' - was released. Their live show was always impressive, even in tiny venues in front of a couple hundred people. The visuals that help tell the stories of their songs remain, but now everything seems to have been upscaled. Even the band line-up has been expanded. As well as J. Willgoose Esq., Wrigglesworth and their trusty visuals engineer Mr B, they are now joined by multi-instrumentalist J. F. Abraham and a three-piece brass section. Bigger venues afford more room on stage, therefore the luxury of being able to make the songs more 'live'.
The new material is stunning. The tension in tracks like The Other Side is played out really effectively, while Go! is the band's first bonafide singlalong track, the audience punching the air and chanting "Go!" throughout the chorus. Not bad for a band with no vocalist! Of course, the old faves were churned out too, but Signal 30, Everest, Spitfire and the others all now benefit from the enhanced live sound. Gagarin saw the brass players enjoy a few funky dance steps while a 'spaceman' boogied behind the drumkit. Willgoose's robotic banter with the crowd elicited many a chuckle. For a couple of nerds who love history and electronic music, Public Service Broadcasting are a surprisingly brilliant rock and roll band. The bigger spaces clearly do not intimidate them, they seem to relish it, and better still they pull it off, even if Y Plas isn't really the best place to be as an audience member.
#13: The Charlatans The Tramshed, Cardiff - 9th December 2015 Support: Frankie & The Heartstrings, Yucatan The Tramshed is a brand new venue situated in the heart of Cardiff’s Grangetown area. It’s part of an old building previously owned by the council and used as a depot for trams and buses in years gone by. While sone of the building is still under development, The Tramshed venue opened its doors just a few weeks ago and it’s already making a big impression.
I have to say I was impressed. It’s at the smaller end of mid-sized venues (no bad thing at all), has a balcony and a well-staffed bar – hurrah! Having hosted the mighty Public Enemy last month, The Tramshed welcomed the Charlatans this week.
Opening were Yucatan from North Wales. The best way to describe them is a Welsh version of Sigur Rós. Their album is wonderful and will feature in a Welsh Wednesday post in the new year (which is why I’m not posting a track of theirs here). Live they are unable to replicate the full lush sound of strings and brass like they do on record but they made a good fist of things. They did seem to have a mini-orchestra of bells played by the drummer and bassist which proved intriguing to those of us watching.
Frankie & The Heartstrings are the main tour support. I’ve never been particularly taken with anything I’ve heard from them before, but hoped their live show would turn me on to them. It didn’t. Apart from the songs being as ordinary as it gets, their frontman pranced around like the lovechild of Morrissey and Brett Anderson while subjecting us to some of the most banal attempts at audience interaction I’ve endured at any gig for some time: “You all looking forward to seeing the Charlatans, yeah? LOUDER! You all looking forward to seeing the Charlatans?” Yawn. The most interesting thing I can say about them is that they were selling their new Christmas single as a piece of Christmas cake. It has a download code on the wrapping, see?
As for the headliners? Well the only previous time I saw the Charlatans was at Exeter University when they toured their first album a generation ago in 1990! Then they were a fledgling flock of floppy-fringed indie kids with a slightly nervy stage presence and unremarkable performance. How things change. Tim Burgess today, with his magnificent bleached toadstool haircut, is a brilliant frontman. He does not have to indulge in silly mundane banter with the crowd. All he has to do is beckon the audience to raise their arms simply by reaching out his hands palms up and wriggling his fingers.
The set was superb too, with top-notch performances of several tracks from the bands current album ‘Modern Nature’, their best for some years, and a shedload of old faves – Weirdo, North Country Boy, The Only One I Know, Oh! Vanity, One To Another, Just When You’re Thinkin’ Things Over – you name it, they probably played it. In fact they even gave an outing to Opportunity which was a real surprise. Visually, the projections and films onto the hi-tech digital backdrop really added to the experience, and the lights were fantastic as well.
The only downside of the whole night was the sound. It was ridiculously loud. Now you know me, I like a bit of volume as much as the next man. I’m not getting wimpy in my old age, but sometimes there is such a thing as too loud. Like when the overall sound just becomes a rumble and an audible blur. At times, that’s what we got. A guy I know who was also at the show and is a sound engineer himself reckons the "top end on the vocals" are what caused the damage. It was a real shame as everything else was spot on. MrsRobster’s ears are still ringing as I speak (true! Not good.)
Of course, Sproston Green closed the proceedings and was as spectacular as the rest of the show. This was our final gig of 2015 and it was a hell of a way to finish. While the Slaves show was difficult to beat in terms of standards of the entire line-up, I have to rate the Charlatans right up there as the best band I’ve seen this year. Probably. After 25 at times challenging years, they’ve still got it, without a doubt.
I hear you. "Charlotte flamin' Church? TheRobster's finally lost it!" In my defence, I simply ask you to do this one thing for me. Ready? Forget the opera-singing child star; forget the pop diva; forget the one-time other half of Wales' best-looking (vainest?) rugby international. Forget even the recent political activist. Forget all that and listen to this track without predjudice. Go on. See what our Charlotte has become...
This is the new-phase Charlotte Church, the cool, electro-dreampop Charlotte Church. Who'd have thought it? Since 2012, she has been releasing a series of EPs ('One', 'Two', 'Three' and, erm, 'Four'...) featuring some of the most wonderful music, taking in electronica, alt-folk and math rock influences. Accompanying some of the songs have been stunning visuals, the one for Water Tower (from 'Three') probably being the highlight. Here though, it seems our Charlie has been channelling Björk among others. She might be singing of a secret fleeting encounter, now just a memory to recall. The title implies however she's singing of the end of time itself:
"Last night was the end of radio The DJ said to think of all of the songs you used to know And keep them safely in your head ‘Til you can sing them with someone who knows them."
Charlotte has been busy this year filming the new adaptation of 'Under Milk Wood' along with Rhys Ifans. There is a fifth EP in the series yet to be released. I think it might be called 'Five', or something. Hopefully she won't keep it under wraps for long.
Barrington Levy released his first record aged just 13! He has barely stopped making music since. By the time he reached the grand old age of 16, he was already one of Jamaica's biggest stars. He toured the UK in the mid-80s and enjoyed commercial success with his singles Under Mi Sensi and Here I Come. His biggest UK hit came in 1990 as guest vocalist on Rebel MC's cracking single Tribal Base.
A breakthrough in the US eluded him though, at least until his 1998 album 'Living Dangerously' which featured Bounty Killer and Snoop Dogg. In recent years, he hasn't been so prolific but often collaborates with other artists. Earlier this year, he put out 'AcousticaLevy', an album of acoustic tracks, some new and some reworked oldies.
I've gone for Under Me Sensi from 1984. While it didn't chart in the UK at the time of release, it paved the way for his breakthrough album and single, both titled 'Here I Come'. A great track it is too.
With a new album being hinted at, I thought it was about time I re-evaluated the work of one Polly Jean Harvey, one of the westcountry's most famous and lauded artists. You never quite know what's coming next with Polly and going back to listen to her discography only serves to show how she diversifies with every record she puts out.
So in the lead-up to Christmas, I'm going to give you my thoughts on each of her albums to date, much like I did with Mr Bowie earlier in the year. I'm going to deal primarily with her main studio discography, but there will be a bonus post at the end of the series to capture the other significant releases. To start with though, it's back to the beginning...
Having played with bands in and around her south-west home (The Family Cat, Automatic Dlamini, Grape), Polly had never had an outlet for her own material. With a bunch of songs ready to go, she formed her own power-trio and branded them with her own name, figuring that whatever happens in the future she could always take the name with her. And so it was that PJ Harvey the band went into a studio in Yeovil in the latter half of 1991.
Harvey has said of the resulting album: "[It was] the first chance I ever had to make a record and I thought it would be my last. So, I put everything I had into it. It felt very extreme for that reason." She wasn't joking. 'Dry' is phenomenal in its ferocity. It's raw and sparse, yet it's so unashamedly in your face your first impression is sheer terror. Listening to 'Dry' more than 20 years later, it still strikes me as one of the most intense records I've ever heard. Yet it's so honest, also. Other than the use of some cello, violin and double-bass, there are very little adornments to the guitar-bass-drums-vocals setup. Those embellishments are essential though. Dress stands out for the way that bowed double-bass and Polly's violin dance demonically throughout. The almost discordant strings on Plant And Rags sound as menacing as Harvey's lyrics: "The sun doesn't shine down here / In shadows."
I've already spoken at length about Sheela-Na-Gig, arguably one of the best singles released in the 1990s. It sits right in the middle of the whole thing, taking us to a peak rarely surpassed by anyone. But it's the beginning and the end that sets the pulses racing. Oh My Lover wastes no time at all presenting Harvey as not-your-average wannabe pop star: "Oh my lover / Don't you know it's alright / You can love her / You can love me at the same time."O Stella deals with religious iconography, the Stella of the title being Stella Maris (aka: Our Lady, Star Of The Sea or the Virgin Mary). Her devotion is expressed in an outpouring of fuzzy guitar and screams of "Gold / No! No!" while in Dress, she becomes "a fallen woman in a dancing costume."
Then, to conclude, Water builds like a storm before the final strains of Harvey and Rob Ellis yelling "Waaaa-teerrrrrr!" can be heard. It ends. The dam is fit to burst. If Harvey really did make this record as if it were her last, she certainly ended it sounding like there was unfinished business. This particular listener was left wanting more.
The acclaim heaped on 'Dry' since its release is fully deserved, but still feels woefully inadequate. It is one of the most tense and emotional albums you'll ever hear, and the fact it is the work of a 22-year-old Dorset girl makes it even more startling. I had never met any woman close to my age who could make my hairs stand on end like Polly Harvey could. Words just can't cut it; 'Dry' is an experience you simply have to live through to get it.
As it turned out, there was unfinished business, but it could well have remained unfinished. Following a gruelling touring schedule in support of 'Dry', Harvey emerged drained and ill, retreating back to Dorset to recover from a breakdown. During her recuperation, she wrote the songs that would appear on her follow-up.
If 'Dry' was raw and edgy, 'Rid Of Me' was downright abrasive. This was a different Polly Harvey. She sounded psychotic at times, something she puts down to the state of her health at the time of writing. The sound is perhaps aided by Steve Albini's claustrophobic production. Critics were at odds on this, but I'm one of those who believes it perfectly captures the agonies and distresses of the songs.
The first thing to note about 'Rid Of Me' is that it is most certainly not 'Dry' volume 2. It's a difficult album to get through. The songs are not nearly as striking and even its lighter moments are darker than anything on its predecessor. Legs is traumatic, Harvey's despairing wails and moans are jarring. The opening title track holds back with its extended muted-guitar intro before Harvey finally unleashes her frustrations: "Don't you wish you'd never, never met her?" I even find Rob Ellis' chants of "Lick my legs, I'm on fire / Lick my legs of desire" chilling.
50ft Queenie is a frenzy and still one of her best songs and Me-Jane is a no-nonsense highlight ("Tarzan, I'm pleading / Stop your fucking screaming!" is one of my fave PJ Harvey lyrics!). Generally though, the mood of 'Rid Of Me' is low and gloomy. This is not a fun record.
Where 'Rid Of Me' suffers most of all is its length. With 14 tracks, it feels just a little too much. The odd strings-only Man-Size Sextet is completely out of place, and I'm not convinced the Bob Dylan cover Highway '61 Revisited works in the grand scheme of things. Overall, while 'Rid Of Me' is notable for its sheer angst-ridden energy, it isn't as good a record as 'Dry', nowhere near.
(* probably not actually that many, but who’s counting?)
#47: British Sea Power The Coal Exchange, Cardiff - 14th April 2013 Support: Milk And Biscuits Also present: Pete & Neil
One of only a handful of gigs in recent memory that MrsRobster hasn't accompanied me at. In fact, this wasn't even a show I had planned to go to. Two days beforehand, my colleague Pete let me know he had a spare ticket and was I interested. He only had one. Dilemma. MrsRobster was very understanding however, and for the small price of a couple of back rubs and a week or so of complete subservience, I was allowed to go out without her. Love 'er.
I'd never seen British Sea Power before, and neither had I been to a gig with Pete or our fellow colleague Neil. The three of us are part of our core group who play football a couple nights a week, but this remains the only time I have engaged in my other passion with the guys. It was also the first (and only) time I'd been to Cardiff's Coal Exchange, a wonderful building that sadly has closed for renovations and may never host another gig again. This was, I believe, its last.
Support act Milk And Biscuits were a rather whimsical folk act with a hint of psychedelia about them. They didn't do a lot for me, it has to be said, but they were a bit different and that's never a bad thing. Of course, they were supporting one of the UK's best live bands so it was no mean task. BSP have been making wonderful music for more than a decade now and I reckon they're getting better with age. Their recent studio albums (soundtracks aside) have been top notch, and there were plenty of songs from the then-current LP 'Machineries Of Joy'.
British Sea Power have always sounded great on record, but live they really shine. Visually they always make and effort; the stage was festooned in the band's trademark foliage and fairy lights. They also sounded as grand as the setting. Machineries Of Joy made for a magnificent, slow-burning opener; Loving Animals, Monsters of Sunderland and K-Hole (all from that current record) also stood out among the new songs. During Waving Flags, a nine-foot polar bear appeared on the balcony waving the Welsh flag, and a few songs later (s)he appeared in the crowd with an equally tall brown bear, dancing with audience members.
Among the old faves aired were Carrion, Remember Me, Please Stand Up and A Lovely Day Tomorrow, all of which were splendid and joyous. Pete and Neil were as transfixed throughout as I was. I suspected BSP would be a good band to watch, so it's a bit of a mystery as to why I didn't plan to go in the first place. I'm glad I did though.
#64: Darlin' If You Think My Songs Are Fun, Then Darlin' You Are Wrong by Sweet Baboo
Stephen Black - aka Sweet Baboo - is a resident of Cardiff, but hails originally from the North Wales village of Trefriw. His idiosyncratic songs have earned him a reputation as one of the nation's finest and most original artists. He's been releasing music now for nearly 12 years, but it's only in the last three or four years he's gained recognition further across the UK.
His fifth album, 'The Boombox Ballads' was released back in the summer and is probably his strongest yet, but the two that immediately preceded it were both nominated for the Welsh Music Prize. He has worked with Cate Le Bon, H. Hawkline, Teleman, Euros Childs, Gruff Rhys, The Pictish Trail, Tender Prey and a host of other current indie luminaries. A very in-demand fella indeed.
Today's tune comes from Sweet Baboo's second album 'Hello Wave' from 2009. Guaranteed it'll be stuck in your head for a while after.