Wednesday 31 December 2014

Welsh Wednesday #17

#17: Final Day by Young Marble Giants

It’s New Year’s Eve, which means the final day of the year. So what could be more fitting than a song entitled Final Day? Except this isn’t all about one year turning into the next – it’s about there being no next; this is the final day of life as we know it.

Cardiff’s Young Marble Giants released just a couple of singles and a solitary album, but their legacy is extraordinary. Their desolate minimalist music sounded like little else at the time (late 70s/early 80s) and has become the template for so many others since to base their sound on. I can’t hear The xx without thinking YMG.

Final Day is basically about impending nuclear destruction at the hands of the warmongering leaders during the Cold War. The rich and powerful will take shelter while the rest of us poor sods will suffer in the fallout. It remains the band’s best known song; it is probably also their darkest and most haunting. Remember, in 1980 this threat was very real, or at least that’s what our distinguished world leaders led us to believe. So this track must have been terrifying to many who heard it, this facing up to reality was absolutely not your regular topic for a pop song. It retains a certain chilling eeriness to it to this day.

The band occasionally reforms for a gig or two every now and then, all of which pretty much sell out as soon as they are announced. As is typical of such artists, they’re often unappreciated until the world catches up with them. For Young Marble Giants, it took about 30 years…

Thursday 25 December 2014

50 songs to take to my grave #21: Fairytale of New York

This was on my list right from the start, but it's obviously been held back until an appropriate time.

Yeah, the predictable Christmas post. Ironic seeing as I don’t like Christmas and particularly hate all the hype and forced joy that comes with it. I also despise the same old songs being turfed out year after year after year and played in every shop you go in. No other time of year would you ever expect to hear Shakin’ bloody Stevens blaring at you from a store’s PA system, so quite why it’s acceptable to ensure we get him wittering on about snow falling all around him (like, that happens every Christmas in Wales, Shakey, doesn’t it!) several times a day, every day from mid-November onwards is beyond me.

Let’s be honest here – almost without exception, every popular Christmas song ever made is terrible and does not deserve to be inflicted upon the ears of even those whose music taste is rather suspect to say the least.

I say almost without exception. There’s always something that bucks the trend. In this case, it’s the Pogues, who came up with not just the greatest Christmas record of all time, but one of the all-time great songs period: Fairytale of New York. I’m not going to write loads of stuff about it as there is already loads out there  - articles, books, documentaries; this one song has proven to be a massive inspiration to writers, film-makers and other musicians alike.

The fact Kirsty MacColl guests on it is the icing on the cake for me. It’s no secret that her voice makes me start weeping like an idiot, but her delivery on Fairytale of New York is both exquisite and extraordinary. And that’s the key for me, it’s not just the song itself, as brilliant and unique as it is. It’s the performance too. Shane and Kirsty really live the characters they’re playing, while the band acts as the soundtrack to this micro-play, never overshadowing the singers, but providing just the right amount of atmosphere and feeling to elevate the record to the unprecedented heights that no Christmas record had reached before – or arguably since.

I do have a Christmas playlist featuring the likes of the Ramones, the White Stripes and the Fall. The standards are conspicuous by their absence. No Slade or Shakey; no Mud or Macca; no Roy Wood or Jonah Lewie; and absolutely, definitely no bloody Band Aid (I have a problem with charity records too – I’ll write about that one day)! However, in amongst the seasonal obscurities, you will find this record, a dark fairytale revealing the side of the festive season that no one wants to acknowledge. It’s the only really different Christmas so-called ‘standard’ out there which makes it the only one worthy of my time.

Wednesday 24 December 2014

Welsh Wednesday #16

#16: O Tannenbaum by Cerys Matthews

What makes Christmas bearable? Well, a Cerys Matthews record can certainly help. In 2012, Cerys released 'Baby, It's Cold Outside', a selection of Christmas carols she performs in her own unique style, her wonderful Welsh lilt accompanied by acoustic instrumentation - guitars, banjos, harps, etc. Somehow, when these songs are sung by Cerys, it's like you've never heard them before, as if she breathes new life into them.

Sadly, for some bizarre reason, she saw fit to include the duet with Tom Jones she released some years before, the song that gives this record its name. It sticks out like a sore thumb and absolutely does not belong here. But that leaves 14 other gems to choose from and I've decided to go for her rendition of the German folk song O Tannenbaum (O Christmas Tree) in which Cerys even attempts a verse in the German language. I can't tell how good her German is, or if there's a noticeable Welsh accent - I'll leave it to Dirk and Walter to offer their thoughts. Either way, it's delightful.

Saturday 13 December 2014

The Genius Of... Tim Smith #5

#5: Camouflage by Mr & Mrs Smith And Mr Drake

Around the time of Cardiacs' third cassette-only album 'The Seaside' in 1984, a quaint little tape also sneaked out by an odd trio called Mr & Mrs Smith And Mr Drake. They were, of course, a selection of Cardiacs members, namely Tim Smith, his wife Sarah and William D. Drake. What they made could be described as Cardiacs-lite, but that's not strictly fair.

Cardiacs were regulars at the old Stonehenge Free Festivals in the 80s. This record sounds like the sort of thing they might have done around the campfire with the flower children. Tim playing acoustic guitar - something he rarely did with his 'proper band' - Sarah with her sax and recorder and Bill with any keyboardy thing he could lay his hands on. All took a shot at lead vocals and everything was recorded very low-fi and with very little embellishment.

It all sounded very 1967 folksy-wolksy and while it can't be compared to any of Cardiacs' best works, it does show another side to Tim's songwriting and performances. As the mad, crazy vibes of the seven-strong Cardiacs continued to be his main vehicle for another 25 years, the occasional surprise like this punctuated things nicely. Stripped-back and blissful, the eponymous tape remained fairly elusive for some time, being available only through their fan club and at gigs. Eventually released on CD some 20 years later, it remains a sidenote in Tim's extensive discography.

Camouflage is my favourite track, a duet between Tim and Sarah.

Friday 12 December 2014

Just because...

JUST BECAUSE MrsRobster and I went to see Inspiral Carpets last week, I thought I'd post one of their lesser-known gems today. Irresistible Force was the closing track on 'Revenge Of The Goldfish' from 1992, an album surely worthy of a critical reappraisal.

They didn't play this one on Friday night - they did a mix of new songs and the classic singles - but I've always liked it as it doesn't really sound like anything else they did, so on that basis I'm posting it. You're also getting a bonus remix, a rather trippy take on the track by Fotran 5 which is an awful lot better than your average remix was at the time.


Wednesday 10 December 2014

Welsh Wednesday #15

#15: Gimme Back My Morphine by Henry's Funeral Shoe

Not being Welsh can have its setbacks when it comes to pronouncing place names around here. I'm much better now than when I first got here, mind. For instance I can now say Ystrad Mynach pretty darn close to how it should sound, but back in 2001 my attempts caused much amusement among my new colleagues.

"Hey Kev," my then boss called to our colleague after one such effort. "Come and listen to this English twat say Ystrad Mynach..."

Anyway, Ystrad Mynach is a village in the south Wales valleys in the county of Caerphilly. From there, an awesome sibling duo by the name of Henry's Funeral Shoe blast out loud, fuzzy, rockin' blues that has earned them much respect on the live circuit around the UK. In 2012 they hit the States playing rough bars in Detroit and somehow found themselves on a cruise ship hanging out with Kiss!

Their most recent release, the 'Comfortable Skin' EP that came out in August, is testament to this. For today's posting, I've selected a track from their second album, 2011's 'Donkey Jacket', a fine example of what they do so well.

Monday 8 December 2014

Vintage Vinyl #4

Red Box - For America 7"
Bought from: Strawberry Fields, Cardiff
Price paid: one of a batch of singles I paid £8 for.

I told you about the shop where I bought this record along with a few others back on #2 in this series. The last time I passed it, it was closed and a sign in the window announced it was closing for good. A shame as I didn't spend nearly long enough there last time.

The story of Red Box is a rather interesting one, but I'll leave you to read that on Wikipedia. I remember this single back when it first came out in 1986. I had actually bought their previous single Lean On Me which reached number 3 in the UK charts the previous year. If I'm being honest, I much prefer Lean On Me - it's an absolutely corking song, one of the great forgotten hits of the 80s. For America was conceived as a protest against the record company. In spite of the massive worldwide success of Lean On Me, Sire felt Red Box's material didn't have the mainstream appeal they desired so asked them to write a song that could be a radio hit in the States. For America was the result, but far from championing our transatlantic friends, it was a scornful critique of the shallowness of the US media.

For America also made the Top 10 in the UK and was number one in six countries. Ironically (or not) it wasn't a hit in the States! The band's debut album 'The Circle & The Square' followed, and I remember buying it. Sadly, it didn't emulate the success of the singles, peaking at a lowly number 73 in the UK charts, and that was pretty much the last we ever heard of Red Box. Well, sort of...

A second album 'Motive' was released in 1990 to no fanfare and it sank without trace, Then 20 years later, a new Red Box line-up released 'Plenty', their third album, through the legendary Cherry Red Records, the label on which they released their very first single way back in 1983. They still tour and are big in Poland, apparently.


Saturday 6 December 2014

The Genius of... David Gedge #5

#5: Wow

One of Cinerama's finest moments, and the loud guitars that once graced the Wedding Present's works make a welcome appearance. A tale of lies, deceit, cheating and a secret rendezvous; the boy Gedge is taken in by a temptress despite already having a girlfriend. But although he's prepared for a one-night-stand, he's not certain he wants to commit anything more to this siren.

  "I don't want to stay forever
  I don't want to leave my girlfriend
  But wow!
  This isn't happening the way I planned."

Structure-wise, Wow is very Wedding Present; verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, instrumental coda. Classic Gedge really. Only the twangy guitar and bongos in the opening verse and the keyboards in the chorus and coda hint at this being a Cinerama song. Us old-school fans could breathe a little more easily. But more than anything, it is a really good song, proving that Gedge could still pull it off with aplomb whatever name he was recording under.

Wow was released in 2000 as Cinerama's fifth single and appeared, in extended form, on their second album 'Disco Volante'. The single version was eventually compiled on 2002's 'Cinerama Holiday' compilation.

Friday 5 December 2014

Memories of a thousand* gigs #37, #38 & #39

(* probably not actually that many, but who’s counting?)

Some of the most memorable support slots I've had the pleasure of seeing...

#37: Cardiacs (supporting Chumbawamba)
Pyramids Centre, Portsmouth - 15 November 1995

You all know the extent of my love for Cardiacs. I only caught them live on onew occasion though. It was one evening whilst studying for my journalism exams on the south coast. The band had slimmed down from seven to four members by this point, but jeez were they good. Tim’s silly banter, telling the crowd to “SHUT UP!” during the quiet bits, and his routine abuse of brother Jim added to the general bemusement of some audience members, but it all made a strange kind of sense when they played. Listening to Cardiacs’ music, you wonder how any band could play it live. Only by experiencing their live show do you really get it. Utter genius with a touch of hilarity thrown in.


#38: Papa Brittle (supporting Chumbawamba)
The Anchor Inn, Westward Ho! - 1 August 1992

I saw Papa Brittle a few times around this period and remember them with great fondness. Chumba was, I think, the biggest band the Anchor ever hosted so they were undoubtedly the main draw, but Papa Brittle made a lot of friends that night. The energy and intent in their performance fuelled the capacity crowd through one of the sweatiest gigs I’ve ever experienced. They returned for a headline show a little while later, and on another occasion in Exeter gave a shout out to Westward Ho! after spotting us in the crowd.


#39: Von Bondies (supporting the White Stripes)
Anson Rooms, Bristol - 20 November 2001

Until earlier this year, the Von Bondies were probably the last support band I saw (who I wasn’t already aware of) that made me think “wow, gotta get some of their records.” And I did, purchasing their CD from the merch stall after the White Stripes had played. They were just raw and loud and bluesy and soulful and loud and full of energy and raw and loud. Plus they had the lovely Marcie Bolen on guitar. The following year, MrsRobster and I went to see the Hives at Cardiff International Arena, but had no idea who the support was. As they came onstage, I recognised them instantly. “It’s the Von Bondies,” I declared excitedly as the wife nodded in approval. Once again they were raw and loud and…..


Wednesday 3 December 2014

Welsh Wednesday #14

Happy Active Horse Organ by Mowbird

Wrexham: home town of weathergirl Sian Lloyd, footballers Robbie Savage and Mark Hughes, Olympic rowing double gold medallist Tom James and, erm, Russell Crowe's grandfather. Wales' most northeasterly major town is also home to Mowbird, a combo who describe themselves as a "DIY quartet". Since 2010's debut EP 'Excellent, OK', they've put out a string of singles and EPs, mostly through Bandcamp and many of them for free.

This year they got around to releasing their debut full-length album 'Islander', and a lot of fun it is too. Lo-fi, fuzzy and refreshingly honest, it's quirky enough to put a smile on your face, but not dumb enough to dismiss as mere novelty. On the contrary, I want more bands to be like this rather than disappear up their own backsides as they have the tendency to do.

Today's Welsh Wednesday pick is a song that originally featured on that shiny debut EP, only I've chosen the even shinier made-over version that appears on the album. I'm not sure if the Happy Active Horse Organ of the title is the organ that's played on the song itself, but I like to think it is (as I have no idea what else it could mean...)

If you like this, download more Mowbird stuff via their Bandcamp page. A lot of freebies to be had there...

Monday 1 December 2014

Blues Monday #4: Trouble So Hard by Vera Hall

Of course you know this one, though I'm not sure it's really blues, more American folk. But still, it's a stormer. Adell Hall Ward was born in 1902 and lived her life in Alabama. It was during the thirties that her singing came to prominence, thanks in part to Alan Lomax who recorded her for the Library of Congress. Lomax remarked that Hall had the "loveliest voice" he had ever recorded. Indeed, her deep baritone is certainly affecting in a warm, comforting way.

This song, recorded in 1937, is best known to modern audiences as the vocal track on Moby's Natural Blues, but it sounds best unadorned and unaccompanied. A wonderful recording.