Friday, 31 July 2015

Just because...

August is going to be a bit quieter around here. Because it's summer, because MrsRobster and I are off work for a fortnight, because she and TheMadster have birthdays (the latter being a rather special one...), and because I need time to write more articles, I shall only make two posts per week. Welsh Wednesday will continue as normal, and a mix of stuff will appear on Saturdays. Come September, it's business as usual with a couple new ideas coming to fruition too.

Today, I'm posting something new JUST BECAUSE I love it. CLOWwNS hail from Brighton and their debut album has just been unleashed. Their racket is everso slightly silly, but highly energetic. The track Trousers has been getting some airplay on 6Music. It's rather splendid. Idiot Bouncing was the first single from the new record, but rather than offer up the MP3 directly, I'm sending you to the official free download page so you can grab it from there in exchange for an email address. I shall be checking tour dates cos if they happen to be in this neck of the woods I'll be popping along. Enjoy.


Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Welsh Wednesday #47

#47: World Cup Drumming by Mclusky

Mclusky were one of Wales' most best-loved bands around the beginning of the last decade. Their raucous brand of punk coupled with often hilarious and surreal vocals courtesy of Andrew 'Falco' Falcous led to them recording two Peel Sessions and gaining three Festive 50 entries. They were also a fave of Colin Murray on Radio One who once played their 2003 single Undress For Success three times in the same show!

The band split in 2005, but Falco and drummer Jack Egglestone - along with fellow Cardiffians Kelson Mathias and Hywel Evans of prog-rockers Jarcrew - formed Future Of The Left. This band has recently started to throw old Mclusky songs into their set, and last year a new Mclusky lineup - featuring Falco, Egglestone, current FotL bassist Julia Ruzicka and Damien Sayell of St. Pierre Snake Invasion - performed a benefit show in Newport. Dubbed 'mclusky', this line-up has been playing a few more shows of late.

Today's Welsh Wednesday track, World Cup Drumming, was the closing number on Mclusky's snappily-titled debut album 'My Pain And Sadness Is More Sad And Painful Than Yours'.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Martha My Dear

The name Wainwright should be familiar to anyone who has even a passing interest in music. Martha Wainwright is the daughter of folk singers Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III and the sister of Rufus. I'm a fan of her honest, candid songs and distinctive voice.

In 1997, aged 21, she released her debut album, the cassette-only 'Ground Floor', in her native Canada. It should have bring a springboard for a successful career, displaying as it did her talent for songwriting and performing. However, it took a full eight years for her follow-up to appear. When it did, the critics went wild. The eponymously-titled record was considered her proper debut and contained a new version of its predecessor's opening track Don't Forget. I've always preferred the original though and it remains one of my faves. The album also contained the awesomely-titled Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole, a barbed comment at her father and his habit of writing songs about his family rather than looking after them. But it's Maker that stands out for me, a brilliant track that swoops and soars majestically and gracefully above the others.

By the time her next album came out in 2008 - t
he mischievously-titled 'I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too' - Martha was able to rope in such luminaries as Pete Townshend, Donald Fagen and Garth Hudson, as well as her mum, aunt and brother. While there was evidence of a shift away from folk and more into a pop/rock direction, the songs were still strong, in particular the single You Cheated Me and Comin' Tonight, my personal favourite, and one in which Martha's voice really shines. 2012's 'Come Home To Mama', continued the move into the pop arena, but is notably darker and more experimental in mood. This might be attributed to the death of her mother two years earlier, and it doesn't always make for easy listening. Despite this, she sounds more assured than  ever, even if her lyrics seem to suggest otherwise: "I really like make-up sex / It's the only kind I ever get."

Of course, her most commercially successful moment came as guest vocalist on Snow Patrol's Set The Fire To The Third Bar, but it's clear she's worthy of the acclaim she's garnered on her own. She never rushes things so it's difficult to say when her next album will materialise, but I'll be interested to hear where her sound is heading.


Here's Martha giving a spine-tingling rendition of Nick Cave's The Ship Song. Tissues at the ready:

Friday, 24 July 2015

It Came From Japan #2: Toquiwa

In the Autumn of 2012, MrsRobster and I trotted along to The Gate in Cardiff to see The Wedding Present play their classic 'Seamonsters' album in full as part of the tour for the record's 21st Anniversary. But for once, the talking point was not about another stirling performance by the boy Gedge and his gang, but a group of utterly bonkers Japanese girls who our hero had spotted in Japan and brought back to the UK with him.

Toquiwa started their set in front of a couple of dozen onlookers. By the end, the place was nearly full and people were going mad for them! The thing is, they're not the sort of band where you wander in during their set, check out a couple of songs, then go get another beer. This lot compelled you to watch them. Right from the outset they made jaws drop. How many bands do you know who open their set with a cover of the Spice Girls' Wannabe and succeed in making it sound so ridiculous, you suddenly realise why the 90s were so shit? When you've got this crazy Japanese woman, adorned in bright colours and face paint, striding up to audience members yelling "I tell you what I want / What I really really want" in their faces in a thick Japanese accent, while a guitarist with blue hair and a drummer who stands up make a right racket behind her, it's difficult to ignore. That song was made for Toquiwa, not a bunch of fake, manufactured music industry puppets.

And so for half an hour, Toquiwa bewildered, bemused and befuddled everyone who dared enter the auditorium. But love them or loathe them, they were undoubtedly never forgotten. When they launched into a version of the Weddoes' own Kennedy, the place damn near erupted. With laughter, mainly, but in an affectionate way.

David Gedge signed Toquiwa to his Scopitones label and released their self-titled debut album. "I’ve never seen an audience blown away by a support band quite like Toquiwa," the great man himself once said. You know, he's not far wrong...


And here's a couple of live clips just to give you some idea of Toquiwa's exuberant performances:

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Welsh Wednesday #46

#46: Death To Los Campesinos! by Los Campesinos!

Los Campesinos! have the unique characteristic of being (probably) the only Welsh band with no Welsh members. They all met at Cardiff University in 2006 and fast became a favourite on the local music scene. They are very much regarded as a Welsh band and remain based in the capital. The line-up has fluctuated over the years, though the core trio of Neil, Gareth and Tom has remained intact. Coincidentally, each band member, past and present, has the surname Campesinos! With an exclamation mark. I've never met anyone with that name, so you'd think they would struggle for members, wouldn't you.

The emphasis of Los Campesinos! is definitely on pop. They've dabbled in various genres over the years, but have never strayed far from pop music. They always sound like they are having a whale of a time.

Today's Welsh Wednesday choice is one of the band's early tracks and features the original line-up. It opened their debut album 'Hold On Now, Youngster' in 2008, but an earlier version appeared on their 2006 demo tape (curiously also titled 'Hold On How, Youngster'). Admittedly I never really followed Los Campesinos! a great deal and wouldn't call myself a fan, but this is a great single.

Monday, 20 July 2015

The Youngs One

I don't recall how I first came to hear Jenny Owen Youngs, but the internet must have been involved. I was probably taken by the title of one of her early tracks Fuck Was I. Fortunately my shallowness was justified - it was a really good track, angry and biting yet with a mellow acoustic guitar and cello arrangement.

It's not easy to pigeonhole her, which is a good thing of course. She can be folky, rocky, poppy and experimental all on the same record. There might be comparisons to people like Regina Spektor or Aimee Mann, but on the whole Jenny maintains her own identity. To date, she has released three full-length albums, her most recent - and my favourite of the bunch - being 2012's 'An Unwavering Band Of Light'. It's riddled with interesting ideas and is undoubtedly Jenny at her most fun and confident-sounding. Sleep Machine is, for me, her best track so far. It's unpredictable and menacing; almost schizophrenic. I'm also a fan of Clean Break from her second album, 'Transmitter Failure' from 2009. Twangy guitar, country-rock stylings, a little vaudevillian music hall and enough grunginess to keep it contemporary and fresh-sounding.

An EP entitled 'Slack Tide' came out a month or two ago and features newly recorded acoustic versions of previously released songs and a cover of Johnny Cash's evergreen classic Ring Of Fire. Hopefully she'll give us some new material pretty soon, though she's not known for rushing things.


And here's a version of her 2011 stand-alone single Great Big Plans:

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Self-congratulatory birthday post

Wow! I made it to 44. Who'd've thunk it? I know most people couldn't care less how long I've been loitering in and out of existence, often living on the fringes of what many regard as 'normal', but it's OK here. Some of the time. The rest of the time I have music to give me peace.

I'm giving you some reggae today as I don't post nearly enough. I think I might start a reggae series in the autumn. The family rabbit Eric (pictured) likes reggae. He'll often hop out into the kitchen, sit on his shoebox and chill out to some heavy bass-fuelled riddims while I'm cooking or something. Even the animals in our house have good music taste. So I'm dedicating something to the furry wee blighter - the rather aptly-named Kiko Bun. He's from London but is half Panamanian and half Italian. Of course, that can mean only one thing - he makes brilliant, authentic-sounding roots reggae. If you visit his Soundcloud page, you'll find a number of his tunes, including So Mysterious.

Big Youth is an absolute legend, and his version of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? is a corker. He manages to integrate a bit of Mercy Mercy Me into it too. Linton Kwesi Johnson is another legend. I once chose to write about Inglan Is A Bitch when I did my English A-Level. It was in a poetry book on the syllabus. I didn't realise I had to read it aloud to the class though. It's written in Jamaican patois and I sounded utterly ridiculous.

And to finish with, one of the greatest legends of them all - Toots Hibbert with his Maytals. In 2012, he released a really rather brilliant album called 'Live On Strawberry Hill' on which he reinterprets a batch of his classics as live acoustic versions. I've gone for Monkey Man, but to be honest, that was a random choice as the whole damn record is just freaking amazing. The bass in this is LOUD! Yes!

Wish me luck in my 45th year. Let's do this again next summer.


Friday, 17 July 2015

50 songs to take to my grave #35: Quick As Rainbows

To my mind, Kitchens Of Distinction were one of the great overlooked bands of the 90s. There are all kinds of theories behind their failure to break into the mainstream: they were difficult to categorise; the singer's sexuality wasn't deemed compatible with the genre; their songs' challenging subject matter. All utterly ridiculous, if you ask me. Kitchens Of Distinction would have been huge if artistry really mattered to the masses. But it doesn't, so they weren't.

A shame, because it means the masses missed out on Quick As Rainbows, one of the era's great pop songs. The original single, produced by the late Martin Hannett, was always one of my favourite tracks of the decade. Released in March 1990, it didn't sound like anything else around at the time. The shoegazing movement was taking off, and for some reason, Kitchens were lumped in with that by the ever-lazy press, but I always thought there was a lot more to them than that. With Kitchens of Distinction, there seemed to be far more emphasis on melody and meaningful lyrics than their contemporaries.

It was the band's first new material since their debut album, but it wouldn't be until a full 12 months later that a new album, 'Strange Free World', would emerge. It contained a newly recorded version of Quick As Rainbows, and I was massively disappointed. It just lacked a bit of the punch the original had. While it was clear the intention was to make it fit with the rest of the album - which it did - I would rather it had been left off altogether as it meant most people came to know this inferior version rather than the amazing original.

While I can now stomach the album version far more than I did back then, I still cannot get past the fact that the original single version is infinitely better. It's less laden with claustrophobic noises and effects which distract from the song itself. Hannett's simpler take on it allows Quick As Rainbows to breathe and spread its shimmering gloriousness far and wide.

I absolutely adore Kitchens Of Distinction, and when they released their first album in 19 years in 2013, it was a delight. They clearly still had it in them to write some great music and the finished songs were among the best in their canon. The Bowie-heralding single Japan To Jupiter was a serious contender for this series, but it was edged out as Quick As Rainbows has endured for 25 years, and I still haven't grown remotely tired of it. If that doesn't qualify it for a place in my coffin, I sure as hell don't know what does.

UPDATE: There's been an extraordinary amount of hits on this post in less than 24 hours, way more than any thing else I've ever posted. Well, according to Blogger's stats anyway. Anyone know if this has been tweeted or shared somewhere?

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Welsh Wednesday #45

#45: Clean And Serene by Gulp

Gulp features Guto Pryce of Super Furry Animals and Gwion Llewelyn of Yr Ods (and formerly Race Horses). They are fronted by Guto's Scottish girlfriend Lindsey Leven. The band released its debut album 'Season Sun' last year, its blissed-out electronica vibe making it a must for lazy summer evenings.

Clean And Serene is one of my faves from said album. It floats into your brain, lingers for a few minutes, then floats away again, leaving traces of its melody which you can't shake for ages afterwards.

Sunscreen, li-lo, cold beer and Gulp. What else do you need?

Monday, 13 July 2015

The Finnish line

In 2011 I heard an album that just gripped me. So simple was it in its delivery, yet so absorbing. Just a woman and an acoustic guitar. No adornments, no tricks; just nine sparse, spectral, solemn songs in their nakedest, starkest form.

The artist was an Ethiopian-born Finn named Mirel Wagner, the album was her self-titled debut. It was one of the simultaneously sweetest and darkest things I'd heard. Contradiction? Of course, but that's what made it such a fascinating prospect. Songs like No Death and Red are haunting and desolate, but so honest. There's no deliberate attempt to make them like that - after all, there's only so much you can do with a voice and acoustic guitar - but they are naturally brooding and sincere. Her lyrics play their part, of course - sad tales of death, despair and dancing with the devil.

Last year, Mirel released the follow-up 'When The Cellar Children See The Light Of Day'. While it benefited from a better, slightly more polished production, it was no less sombre in its mood. Death was still its central theme, but along the way Mirel takes on the character of an abandoned baby, and even tackles the class system, ultimately concluding that, whether you're a Lord or his servant, you're going to die in the end. We also get some added backing vocals, cello and piano making cameo appearances, but it's still for the most part voice and guitar. The album won the 2015 Nordic Music Prize, the first time a Finnish act has ever won the award.

You have to listen to Mirel Wagner's music through headphones with no outside distractions in order to get the most out of them. The songs are quiet but intense, sad but comforting, unsettling but compelling. I'm really looking forward to where she goes from here.


Here she is on French TV performing possibly the most sinister skipping rhyme ever written...

Friday, 10 July 2015

50 songs to take to my grave #34: Come To The Bar

I'm not going to get all deep and emotional about this one. It's one of the most recent of all the tracks in this series, yet it has all the ingredients of a great pop song that will stand the test of time. I deliberated on whether I should include the album 'One Thousand Pictures' in the 20 Albums series - it is a corker, and its closing track Half Moon Street is as worthy of a place in this series as Come To The Bar. The reason I went for this track alone though is because of the way it sneaked up on me.

I heard it a couple times on 6Music. Marc Reilly played it and raved about the band. Steve Lamacq gave it a spin too. From initially floating over my head to dropping anchor in my brain's melody region and refusing to budge, Come To The Bar soon established itself as a firm fave. I mean, what's not to like? The way the chorus kicks in, that high "hooooooome" that comes from nowhere, the fun imagery of the lyrics ("d-d-d-dancing around until the carpet's wearing thin"). But above all - what. a. choon.

Singer Tom Sanders says his lyrics are largely streams of consciousness, but I think Come To The Bar really isn't that random. It's a welcoming song to an old friend who may well have been through a rough time.

"Just stop everything and think about coming home for a while.
It doesn't matter what happened to you, you're my crocodile."

OK, the crocodile bit's a tad random, but otherwise "It doesn't matter at all, just come to the bar" cannot have too many different connotations. It's a wonderfully uplifting song and one that might just get the folks at my funeral tapping their feet. That's if they're not tramping the dirt down, of course...

Sadly, Pete And The Pirates split after 'One Thousand Pictures', but three fifths of them went on to form Teleman who have become one of MrsRobster's fave bands. They are very good, but to date haven't come close to anything as good as Come To The Bar.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Welsh Wednesday #44

#44: Lemming by Melys

I featured Melys' classic single Chinese Whispers right back in the early days of this series (it was #3, in fact). The reason I've returned to them is because this song cropped up on a self-made compilation I was playing in the car recently and I decided it deserved a post.

Lemming was a single taken from the band's debut album 'Rumours And Curses', released in 1998 and is a tale of a rather unstable woman scorned. It's actually quite vicious: "I'll cover you in kisses and rip out your nails." Ouch! Our protagonist knows she's not all there though: "I'm agitated / Spasmodic / Inconsistent / A touch erotic." You certainly wouldn't want to cross this woman, I tell you. The song itself actually sounds a little unhinged in places. There's all sorts of things happening in it, a few unsettling noises that linger around and some menacing piano fills that roll in and out, taunting us then laughing about it.

"You didn't know what you let yourself in for," she spits. Now let that be a lesson to us...

Monday, 6 July 2015

Ray Of Light

Nope, not another Madonna posting. This one's about one of England's finest singer-songwriters Gemma Ray. An Essex girl, Gemma makes a marvellous melange of musical sounds, but mainly based around her twangy, swampy guitar (Lil One Arm, as she calls it). She blends retro soul, pop, rock and film scores and ends up with something that sounds like none of that and all of that at the same time.

To date, Gemma has released six studio albums, one of which was a collaboration with Thomas Wydler (of the Bad Seeds) comprising of instrumental music that formed an imaginary soundtrack for a film that hasn't been made. Her third record, 2010's 'It's A Shame About Gemma Ray' was a most intriguing covers album, mixing up songs by Buddy Holly, Shirley Bassey and George & Ira Gershwin, with Sonic Youth, Mudhoney and Gallon Drunk. In 2011 she recorded a single with Sparks and her 2012 album 'Island Fire' became the most highly acclaimed of her career. Her most recent effort, 'Milk For Your Motors' from last year, wowed the critics once more. She embarks on a short tour of France at the end of this month.

I know George over at the frankly brilliant Jim McLean's Rabbit is a bit of a fan as he posted an article featuring a Gemma Ray track not long back. 'Milk For Your Motors' was also on London Lee's Listening list for some time on Crying All The Way To The Chip Shop. So I'm in great company in my liking of her. I also recall the first time I heard Lana Del Ray and thinking "Gemma Ray's been doing this sort of thing for years!"

I've chosen four of my favourite Gemma tracks that I think best represent what she's all about. Alight! Alive! in particular is a mixtape regular.


And here's the marvellous cinematic video for 100MPH (In Second Gear), from her second album 'Lights Out Zoltar!':

Friday, 3 July 2015

50 songs to take to my grave #33: September Gurls

 Now here's a song that gives me goosebumps. Those gorgeous jangly guitars, those wonderful harmonic "ooohs" - just perfection. That Big Star did not achieve worldwide megastardom is one of the great crimes of the 20th century. At least they have become far more appreciated in subsequent decades, especially as they were obvious influences on bands who were far more popular than Big Star could ever have hoped to be - R.E.M., the Bangles, Teenage Fanclub, Tanya Donelly, Ryan Adams to name just a few.

Their second album 'Radio City' is one of those great lost records that did sod all at the time it was released, but came to be renowned as a classic. While it contains many gems, for me September Gurls is the band's absolute apex. For an album whose recording process was so simple, September Gurls sounds so marvellously intricate. There are several guitar layers, including Alex Chilton's 12-string Rickenbacker (my all-time dream instrument - oh Lord, won't you buy me a 12-string Rickenbacker...) and the obscure Fender mando-guitar. It creates a glorious multi-chime effect that resonates through me, swirling around with that charming melody and those "oooohs"... turns me to jelly, it really does.

The very first time I heard the song, it wasn't actually the original, but the Bangles cover on their second album. I was 14 and actually fancied bass player Michael Steele.[1] She sang lead vocal on that version of September Gurls, and I don't recall it registering with me that much. Of course, 30 years on, I realise two things: one - Susanna Hoffs was actually the hottest member of the Bangles (those eyes!); and two - September Gurls is a work of profound sweetness and glory in its original form, making any attempt at covering it a pretty futile task.[2]

If it rains at my funeral (which I'm pretty sure it will), this song will be the sunshine that breaks through the clouds and lightens the day. I'll be basking in its beauty in my coffin.

[1] I never understood why she called herself Michael, especially as her real name is Susan. A retort to Johnny Cash perhaps?
[2] Even the version featured on the reformed Big Star's 'Live In Memphis' album (recorded in 1994, released last year) is a poor, clunky take that should never have been allowed to see the light of day.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Welsh Wednesday #43

#43: Fear Is A Man's Best Friend by John Cale

After all those young upstarts I featured last month, it's time for a true, distinguished veteran of the Welsh scene...

You all know who John Cale is; you all know what band he was in. There's no point therefore in giving you any biographical stuff. Well, other than my fave Cale factoid: in 1963, he took part in an 18-hour piano marathon when composer John Cage staged the first full-length public performance of Satie's Vexations. It was $5 a ticket, audience members could enter when they pleased and claim 5c back for every 20 minutes attended. Only six people were present at the end, and only one of them had been there from the start. At the climax, some wag shouted "Encore!"

Anyway, I digress. Cale is 73 years young now, but continues to be a respected musician, composer, producer and occasional actor. His solo career as a so-called 'rock musician' (for want of a better term) has been a bit of a rollercoaster, and his output has reflected that over the years. Despite spending much of his adult life in the USA, Cale still carries the Welsh lilt he acquired in his formative years in Carmarthenshire.

A couple of suggestions for Cale tracks have come my way[1], but in the end, I decided to go for Fear Is A Man's Best Friend, the opening track from his fourth studio solo album 'Fear' from 1974. It's one I've always liked, especially the crazy, screaming breakdown he seems to be having at the end. I might go for something a little 'easier' by Cale in a future post, but for now, this fits quite well with where I am in the world.

Here he is performing it live on the BBC with Chrissie Hynde and Nick Cave in attendance...

[1] I haven't ignored those suggestions, I'll probably revisit them for a future article. This track just fits the bill right now.