Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Welsh Wednesday #80

Million Miles by Novocaine

Newport was, rather bizarrely, christened "The Welsh Seattle" by the media on both sides of the Atlantic in the 90s. A bit silly really, but then journalists do have a tendency to label certain things in order to make their lives easier. Mind you, The 'Port did have more than its fair share of decent alt-rock bands at the time. One of them, Novocaine, could well have gone on to be as big as, well, the Stereophonics? Or the Manics? Sadly it didn't quite happen for them.

The band released a clutch of singles, a mini-album and a full-length LP in the space of four short years gaining more and more plaudits and media exposure as they went. As it turned out though, Million Miles was their final single. It may sound a bit dated now - very '90s - but 'tis still a good track. Members reformed shortly afterwards as the short-lived Vel-Tone.

So here's a blast of Cool Cymru from the New Seattle circa 1998!




Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Welsh Wednesday #79

#79: Ffarwel I Llangyfelach Lon by Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog

This is probably the oldest song I've posted on this blog to date. Ffarwel I Llangyfelach Lon (trans: Farewell to gay Llangyfelach; also known as A Soldier's Farewell) is a very old traditional Welsh folk song. It was one of a small amount of secular songs to survive the Methodist revival and puritanical reforms which nearly obliterated Welsh folk song during the 18th century. Folk music has subsequently flourished and those old songs have been interpreted numerous times in numerous different ways.

Ffarwel I Llangyfelach Lon is a song about a young man leaving his home in Llangyfelach (a village located a few miles north of Swansea) to join the military and, ultimately, to fight. It is that rarest of folk songs in that it has a happy ending, our hero returning home to his girl who has been patiently waiting for him.[1]

One famous version of Ffarwel I Llangyfelach Lon was performed by Edward H Dafis, a 1970s folk-rock band. Edward H Dafis is the band name, but guitarist Hefin Elis wrote a newspaper column under this name before giving it to the band. However, I've chosen a much more recent rendition from another folk-based outfit Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog. Hailing from the tiny village of Rhos Botwnnog on the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales, the band consists of brothers Iwan, Dafydd and Aled Hughes along with a merry band of four fellow troubadors. To date, they have released three albums since their formation in 2005. Their most recent, 2012's 'Draw Dros y Mynydd' was nominated for the Welsh Music Prize, but Ffarwel I Llangyfelach Lon featured on their second record a year earlier. It's a great take on this beautiful song.



Soundtrack:


Here's a rousing live version of Edward H Dafis' take on the song dating from around 1976.



There now follows a short intermission during the Easter period.
See you back here again next Wednesday.


[1]English translation of the lyrics can be seen here if you're interested.

Monday, 21 March 2016

It Came From Japan #9: Bo Ningen

Two or three times recently, I seem to have taken my cue from Swiss Adam. And so it is again today. Last month, he posted this review of a Savages gig he attended in Manchester. Supporting that night were Bo Ningen, a noisy psychedelic Japanese band I had heard a lot about but wasn't overly fussed with the music I'd heard. Adam raved about them. I vowed to check them out a bit further and came across this:



Now it makes sense. What a phenomenal fucking racket! A 23 minute set consisting of just three songs? Guitars being swung around? A bloke in a dress?? Speaking of which, is it just me, or does lead vocalist Taigen Kawabe look more feminine than a lot of women I know? He even carries that dress off rather well, don't you think?

Clearly, Bo Ningen have to be caught live. It gives them much, much more room to go for it. That's metaphorical room, although the video clip above makes it look like they're playing in someone's living room. It's actually being filmed by a US radio station at the Icelandic Airwaves Festival in Reykjavik.  There's more energy in that tiny little space than in all the nuclear power plants across the world. Maybe Bo Ningen are going to save us all - a clean energy source and fucking bad-ass rock & roll. I'm sold.

Bo Ningen currently have three albums out, plus a collaboration with Savages (who are probably my favourite band right now), a 40-minute piece called 'Words To The Blind'. Your MP3 today is a single from Bo Ningen's most recent LP 'III', which also features the sensational Jehnny Beth of Savages.



Soundtrack:

Go on then, you might as well have the video as well...
 


Saturday, 19 March 2016

The Devil's Music

Up Jumped The Devil by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

After a few songs that made the series purely because of their titles, not because I particularly liked them, today's instalment is just pure quality. I surely don't need to tell you anything about Lord Nick of Brighton; we all know he's long had a devilish side to him. My daughters used to think Nick looked like a vampire. Looking at the cover of 'Tender Prey', I can see why. This merry tale appeared on that album, the Bad Seeds' fifth, immediately after the chilling Mercy Seat. Jet black storytelling of the finest order.



Soundtrack:

Friday, 18 March 2016

50 albums to take to my grave #34: The Holy Bible

I'm not sure what it is, but I find the darker side of life far more interesting than the brighter side. Perhaps that's why I want to take the Manic Street Preachers' 'The Holy Bible' - one of the most genuinely disturbing records ever released - with me to my grave. If there was a colour darker than black, 'The Holy Bible' would be that colour.

When it was released back in August 1994, I thought the Manics were pricks. I'd seen them live a year or so before and they were so bad I left before they'd finished their set. I hated Nicky Wire with a passion. Every time he opened his mouth in an interview, complete horseshit would escape. At least that's the way I read it. My old mate Midget (RIP), was a Manics fan, however. I managed to wrangle a couple of free tickets for him to see the band on the Holy Bible Tour in Exeter. He came back disappointed, saying it never really got going. The mood was too dark and the songs too slow.

I now rate the Manics as one of my favourite bands. 'The Holy Bible' has long been hailed as their masterpiece, and I can't argue with that. It's no secret the band was struggling internally with Richie's mental and physical health, but the intensity of the situation probably shaped the way 'The Holy Bible' sounds. There's an excellent Wikipedia entry for the album, so I'm going to point you there if you want the full lowdown. It's not a pretty tale, but utterly absorbing nonetheless.


You kind of get an idea what you're getting into just by looking at the song titles: Of Walking Abortion, Archives Of Pain, The Intense Humming Of Evil... The subject matter of the songs offer no relief: prostitution, American consumerism, British imperialism, freedom of speech, the Holocaust, self-starvation, serial killers, the death penalty, political revolution, fascism and suicide. Musically, it's rife with minor chords, ominous droning and unnerving noises. Chart material it most certainly ain't.

When I first heard 'The Holy Bible' properly (as in I actually listened to it and gave it a chance), I felt very uneasy, but got lost within it. It did take a little while to take it to my heart though. It is an album you need to get to grips with and you can't do that on a single hearing. It's also something you need to listen to as a whole. Sure, I have my favourite tracks, but it works better as an entire album from beginning to end. Maybe it's because I actually find it very difficult to write about the songs on the album. I can't even pretend to get into the heads of the writers, and in all honesty I'm not sure I'd ever want to; we all know what happened in the months following the album's release. If the album wasn't dark enough already, it would soon become blacker than black in the aftermath of Richie's disappearance.

'The Holy Bible' has a foreboding sense of doom running throughout. Even when it looks back, it judges the human condition in the most damning way possible. That 'The Holy Bible' has become one of the most revered British albums of all time is just nuts, yet I can't argue against it. It is as intense and challenging a record as you can get. If only more people would make records like this. The easy option is rarely the best. 'The Holy Bible' wasn't easy for the band, it's not easy for the listener. It's a wonder it exists in the first place, but thank god it does.



Soundtrack:


Incredibly, the band bagged a Top of the Pops appearance with one of the album's singles Faster. It became the show's most complained-about performances, solely down to James wearing a balaclava which some pillocks (more than 25,000 of them, apparently) interpreted as showing support for the IRA! Meanwhile, happy, smiling teenagers jump about merrily to a song about self-abuse...


Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Welsh Wednesday #78

#78: Bizarre Love Triangle by Devine & Statton

When the Young Marble Giants split, the various members moved on to all sorts of different musical projects. Singer Alison Statton formed the jazz-tinged Weekend before training to become a chiropractor and t'ai chi instructor. In 1989, she returned to the music biz alongside Mancunian musician Ian Devine, formerly of Ludus, a band adored by a certain chap called Morrissey. Based in Cardiff, Devine & Statton released two albums together, 'The Prince Of Wales' and 'Cardiffians'.

Among a couple dozen originals, the pair recorded a handful of covers. One was the dodgy old Crystal Gayle ballad Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue, another was the Martini Rosso advert. However, you'll be pleased to hear I've gone for their take on one of New Order's finest songs Bizarre Love Triangle.

Incidentally, although Young Marble Giants get back together every so often and play a few gigs, Alison continues to work as a chiropractor in nearby Penarth.





Monday, 14 March 2016

Vintage Vinyl #16

The Associates - Party Fears Two 7"
Bought from: The Record Shop, Cardiff
Price paid: £1

Back in the early to mid 80s, when I was still learning about pop music, I would buy discount compilation albums, the sort where you'd get two records bundled together as a double pack. This was pre-'Now That's What I Call Music' days. I can't remember many of them now, they are long gone. But one such set compiled hits from 1982. One track included was Party Fears Two by the Associates. I knew nothing about them but was familiar with the song from listening to the chart show on Radio One every Sunday evening.

Many of my friends in our blogging circle have rightly made much of Billy MacKenzie and his tremendously unique voice, so I don't see much point in repeating it. Having said that, I do believe it is MacKenzie who makes this record what it is. While it does have that infectious earworm of a synth riff repeating at regular intervals, I can't help thinking it might have gone largely unnoticed if sung by anyone else. The guy's range is phenomenal. No one else sounded like him, that's for sure.

It all went pear-shaped after this. The band's third album 'Sulk', from which Party Fears Two and its b-side were taken, went top 10 and wowed the critics. However, the next album was refused by the record company and remained unreleased for 20 years. The next two failed to set the charts alight, the critics weren't keen either and the band split in 1991. You all know about Billy MacKenzie's tragic end, so we won't dwell on that.

This is probably in most people's top 5 80s synth-pop records of all time. As someone who finds little in the way of emotion or inspiration in electronic music, maybe I'm not one to venture much of an opinion on the genre. That said, Party Fears Two does make my list as it really is such a stand out.


Soundtrack:

By the way, in case you've not heard, the first couple of Associates albums are getting the deluxe reissue treatment and are scheduled for release in May. And as if by coincidence, I just found out that Party Fears Two is getting re-released for Record Store Day in the UK with an unreleased version of Australia on the b-side.

In the meantime, here's Billy & gang on Top Of The Pops for the first time. This clip sums up everything there ever was to simultaneously love and hate TotP at the same time!

Saturday, 12 March 2016

The Devil's Music

The Devil's Right Hand by Steve Earle

To be honest, I'm really not much of a country-rock fan. I just get images of rednecks and right-wing nutjobs waving the Confederate flag and voting for Trump[1] running through my head when I hear it. I can't help it. Ol' Satan will have a lot of fun with that lot when it's time. Or so I like to think. Mind, there are a few tracks on Steve Earle's 'Copperhead Road' that are somewhat listenable, mainly because of the political songs on side one being very un-right wing. The Devil's Right Hand seems to be one that other country legends have a particular liking for. Bob Segar and Waylon Jennings released very similar versions to each other, while Johnny Cash, true to form, made it his own. But for today, here's the original. 



Soundtrack:


[1] Surely it is no coincidence that the word 'trump' is sometimes used to mean 'fart'?

Friday, 11 March 2016

50 albums to take to my grave #33: The Dreaming

I simply could not go to my grave without having a bit of Kate Bush for company. While many would no doubt - and understandably - opt for the masterpiece that is 'Hounds Of Love', for me there was never any question what I'd be going for - its immediate predecessor, the ultra-mad 'The Dreaming' from 1982.

I had long been aware of Kate Bush, mainly as she was one of the biggest pop stars around when I was growing up, but the first thing I bought of hers was Running Up That Hill, cloely followed by 'Hounds Of Love', then the compilation 'The Whole Story'. From there I investigated Kate's back catalogue. When I got to 'The Dreaming', it was like some kind of weird epiphany. It was by far the most bizarre record I'd ever heard, yet it captivated me. Most of it was beyond me in terms of understanding what the hell was going on, yet time and again it lured me back, almost begging me to get to grips with it. It's become like a metaphor for my life, really. I've had all sorts of weird shit happen that I can't make head nor tale of, yet I've somehow continually been drawn to confront it.


And that's probably what 'The Dreaming' was to Kate Bush. She calls it her "I'm going mad album", and it is just that. It is crazy, schizophrenic, unstable and the most uneasy-listening of her entire career. Yet for all that, it is an astonishing piece of work that I can come back to time and time again and manage to pull something new out of.

To think, a song like Sat In Your Lap was deigned to be the most suitable track to put out as the album's first single. Unsurprisingly, the singles that followed flopped. No one on radio dared play them. If you wanted to hear 'The Dreaming', you had to buy it. If you wanted to understand it, you had to immerse yourself in it, deeply, over and over. There's so much going on. There Goes A Tenner, a song inspired by old crime movies, employs a jaunty oompah beat as Kate sings of a failed bank robbery; Suspended In Gaffa, probably the closest thing we get to a so-called 'conventional' song on the whole record, is actually a twisted waltz about wanting something that continues to elude you. The title track is a dark tale of the plight of Aborigines driven by Rolf Harris' didgeridoo and loud tribal rhythms inspired by Peter Gabriel; and Night Of The Swallow draws on her mother's Irish heritage with its reeling uilleann pipes and penny whistles as Kate sings of a criminal's desires to move on to pastures new while his lover pleads with him not to go.

If I had to choose just one song to illustrate the often disturbing nature of 'The Dreaming', it would have to be the closer Get Out Of My House. Influenced by Stephen King's 'The Shining', it is Kate at her most unsettling. "GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!" she shrieks; "Eee-aww, ee-aww" she growls, along with her backing singers (who include her early mentor David Gilmour, incidentally). Bizarre isn't the word, but I'm at pains to find a word that is!

'The Dreaming' is chaotic, angry and dark. It's also brilliant, intriguing and constantly full of surprises, even after 34 years. That's probably why I keep coming back to it and want to take it with me.



Soundtrack:

And a couple of videos from the period...


Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Welsh Wednesday #77

Wearing Shorts In Scotland by Samoans

I once caught half a Samoans set, walking in on them supporting Future Of The Left. I wished I'd arrived a little earlier as they were pretty damn good. Critics-a-plenty have hailed the Cardiff quartet, citing comparisons such as the Deftones, Mogwai, Oceansize and Nine Inch Nails. Their early singles sounded more like Foals did around their first album. But the beefed-up sound of recent releases places them more firmly in post-rock territory than math-rock.

Wearing Shorts In Scotland is the epic closer on Samoans' debut (and so far only) album from 2014. Apart from it being a bloody good track, I thought of the strong Scottish blogging contingent who frequent these parts when I chose this one. Tell me guys - I can't imagine any nation that has the kilt as part of its national costume - with naff-all underneath - would be too bothered about wearing shorts. You'd consider it being overdressed, wouldn't you?

Anyway, I can certainly hear the Mogwai influence in this, plus more than a little Godspeed You! Black Emperor, I reckon. And there's still an element of Foals in there too, albeit the more recent Foals sound. Big.





Monday, 7 March 2016

This Monday Reggae Feeling

Ari Up by Hollie Cook

Talk about a musical pedigree: Hollie Cook's mum and dad were a Sex Pistol and a backing singer for Culture Club and her godfather is Boy George. Aged just 19, she joined the re-formed Slits before teaming up with the mighty Prince Fatty and releasing two particularly good reggae albums to date.

Ari Up, of course, was the awesome frontwoman of the Slits until her death in 2010. Hollie wrote and recorded this fine tribute to her former bandmate for her second album, 2014's 'Twice'. She's nailed it, as far as I'm concerned.



Soundtrack:

Saturday, 5 March 2016

The Devil's Music

Devil Inside by London Grammar

There are numerous bands around that sound like London Grammar. They make the kind of radio-friendly generic indie-electropop so beloved of blokes with beards and girls with lazy voices who sound like they're croaking at the end of every sentence. The sort of music that ends up on the 'Made In Chelsea' soundtrack. Every so often though you hear one track by such acts that shove you sideways a little, a kind of "ooh, that's not bad" moment. This cover of INXS's classic Devil Inside is not one of those moments, but at least they've done something different with it.



Soundtrack:

Friday, 4 March 2016

50 albums to take to my grave #31: Shhh; and #32: Levelling The Land

The reason I'm lumping these two records together is because of the huge importance they have in a certain period of my life. I won't spend time repeating myself - I posted three articles a couple years ago about the bands concerned that tell the story pretty well; [here], [here] and [here] - so I'll just deal with these records and what they represent.

I found out a hell of a lot about myself during the early 90s. I realised that despite coming from a modest working-class family in a sleepy westcountry market town, there was actually quite a lot about life I didn't like and that there was an alternative, a lifestyle I embraced. I found a new group of people who would become good friends. We had a lot of fun together, I learned a lot from them. Of significance was the music I discovered.

Both Chumbawamba and the Levellers were bands I was everso slightly aware of before, but thanks to my new-found crowd, they became two of my favourite bands. 'Shhh' was Chumbawamba's fourth full-length album and to this day I love it. It was an album I was hooked on and probably my most played record over a two or three year period. It led to me seeing them no fewer than 10 times and to this day it is an album I can listen to without a shade of irony or embarrassment. 'Shhh' represents a kind of political awakening in me, when I realised I actually had opinions that mattered and that other people shared them. It's also packed with bloody good songs loaded with energy, force and bile, but always generously laced with humour and fun.

'Levelling The Land' was similar in many ways. Its messages were pertinent to my way of thinking about things and once again I learned a lot from it. The Levs were one of the best live bands around at the time. This was the band's second album and became their breakthrough. I still have my original CD copy, the one with the original tracklisting (they scored a hit with a non-album track which was then grafted onto a re-issued version by the record label eager to cash-in on what they probably thought would be very short-lived success). I haven't played it much in the last 20 years, but believe me it got a fair amount of spins back in the day.


Whether a record is artistically brilliant or not is open for discussion and generally rather subjective. What can never be argued is the personal impact some records have on a person. These two were monumental in their influence on me. They played a significant part in making me the person I am today. You may want to check out those links above to the early articles I mentioned in order to fully understand where I'm coming from, but I'm pretty sure everyone has records that really mean something to them in terms of their lives, not just because those records are deemed worthy by the so-called critics. And let's face it - how many records of the last 10 years or so have politically inspired today's 20/30-somethings? I mean, people like Frank Turner may shout about certain issues now and again, but he went to Eton with Prince William so he's hardly a credible role model for any underground counter-culture.

The tracks I've chosen to represent these albums were my faves at the time (and probably still are). Bigmouth Strikes Again and Sometimes Plunder were always big hits at Chumbawamba gigs, while Riverflow was the fastest, loudest, sweatiest song in the Levellers' live set which guaranteed me diving headlong into the pit without a care. Another Man's Cause is a touching highlight from 'Levelling The Land' and 25 years on it remains sadly poignant.

Great albums? Classics? Timeless and seminal? Maybe, maybe not, but they have been a part of me for nigh-on two and a half decades and that's all that is needed to qualify their inclusion here.



Soundtrack:

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Just because... (an unexpected Thursday post)

So many people lapse out of music in their 30s. They just settle down, stop going to gigs, stop buying records and listen to horrid commercial radio stations, thinking Adele really is the future of all art as we know it.  When I turned 30, I had just discovered the White Stripes who had a monumental effect on me. I knew there and then I wouldn't be turning my back on music like many of my friends had.

Into my 40s and while still very heavily into music (as you know), I hadn't been blown into oblivion by an act since Jack & Meg in 2001. I thought they might be the last. But here I am, counting down to my 45th birthday, and I'm happy to admit I was wrong. I'm being blown away, time and time and time again by a band I've yet to catch live, but can't take my eyes or ears off whenever I see or hear them. Last night I watched this and once again *!!!BOOM!!!* Mind truly blown!


Like WOW! Swiss Adam recently had the immense luck to see Savages live. I'm still seething with jealousy. He reckons they are more of a live band than a studio act. He's probably right, but I'm still enthralled by their latest album 'Adore Life' to the point of obsession. Here though, even in the setting of a large empty studio, you can see what Adam means - they really show what a fucking brilliant band they are. Gemma Thompson is an artist. Her guitar is a pallet, the strings are paints, her hands are her brushes, her amps her canvas. She doesn't play guitar - she paints sound. Ayse and Fay are an astonishing rhythm section, their timing is impeccable. And Jehnny Beth is a stunning frontwoman because of the way she puts herself into her performance. Her eyes are intense, her hands are rarely still, and her voice scythes through the barrage of wonderful noise her bandmates concoct behind her. You can tell she truly means every single word she sings. Really.

OK, OK, I know - I'm smitten. But before anyone starts - it is NOT just because they are women. In fact, I don't ever refer to Savages as an 'all-girl band'. Aside from being a lazy cliche (as used regularly by the NME), it does Savages an enormous disservice. They are just a remarkable, astounding, extraordinary band. Being an all-female band is not a novelty these days, though the media would no doubt disagree. The thing is Savages excite me with what they do, not because of how they look. No, they don't do much musically that's particularly new - at least not to 40-somethings like us - but they're doing it in such a way that demands we dont just write them off as mere post-punk/art-rock revivalists. They are sooo much more than that. I've seen all male bands who have been making music for 10, 20, even 30 years who cannot compete with the sheer tightness and togetherness of Savages.

Phew - I need to calm down. I'm running out of superlatives to hurl at them. But I had to get this out, this sheer emotion at discovering that, even well into my fifth decade on this planet, I can still get so completely worked up about a band. This was never meant to be a carefully-worded, well thought out piece of writing, just a blurt of passion and sentiment. Forgive me. Normal service returns tomorrow.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Welsh Wednesday #76

#76: No Wrenching Of Guts This Time by Seazoo

Wrexham has a good little lo-fi scene going on of late. Seazoo are among those bands to be picking up interest further afield. Curiously dubbing their sound as "post-teddycore", they record most of their stuff in the spare bedroom at the home of one of their members. When they started off, their membership consisted of vocalists Llinos and Ben and a stuffed orange bear called Dai. Nowadays they have five or six proper members, and Dai, well I'm not sure what happened to Dai...

To date their discography consists of a couple of EPs and singles (which you can find on Bandcamp). The wonderfully-titled No Wrenching Of Guts This Time is taken from Seazoo's 2013 debut EP 'Ken', a short, sharp, fuzzy blast of quirky north-east Wales pop.



Here's the video featuring the original line-up (including Dai).