Wednesday 30 September 2015

Welsh Wednesday #55

#55: Hwylio Mewn Cyfog by Cate Le Bon

Cate Le Bon is the current darling of Welsh music. Her current project, Drinks, sees her teamed up with fellow California resident Tim Presley, aka White Fence. She's constantly working on something or another. In the last couple of years, she has collaborated with the likes of the Chemical Brothers, Manic Street Preachers, Willis Earl Beal and Kevin Morby.

I featured Kate in this series back last November, but today's post takes us back to her very first EP, 2008's Welsh language 'Edrych Yn Llygaid Ceffyl Benthyg', which translates as 'Looking A Gift Horse In The Mouth'. Hwylio Mewn Cyfog (Sea Sick) was the opening track and kind of set the template for what would follow, although of course Cate has continually experimented and developed her sound over the intervening period. It is unmistakably Cate Le Bon though. Good track this, and it's nice to hear her singing in her native tongue.

Here's Cate performing Hwylio Mewn Cyfog live on Welsh language music show Bandit:

In light of the ongoing refugee crisis some of Wales' leading musicians have come together to unite under the banner of Welsh Rock For Refugees. The result is 'Reach Out' – a 30-track album from which all proceeds will be donated to Refugee Action – a UK based charity that helps refugees at home and abroad.

Available on Bandcamp, contributors include Super Furry Animals, Gwenno, The Joy Formidable, Stereophonics, Charlotte Church, Kizzy Crawford, Mike Peters, Cerys Matthews... 'tis a veritable who's who of Welsh music! Read the story of the album here.

Monday 28 September 2015

The genius of Tim Smith #14

#14: Buds And Spawn by Cardiacs

I was always a little disappointed with the Cardiacs' fifth album 'On Land And In The Sea'. The two records that immediately preceded it contained songs that had not only been around in their canon for some time, but that had been recorded and released before. 'On Land And In The Sea', however, contained only one such song; the rest were all new.

That odd track out - Buds And Spawn can't really be described as old though. Its only previously recorded outing was in a BBC session for the Janice Long show in 1988, released as a 12" in early '89. Later that year the new album came out and I was thrilled to notice that Buds And Spawn was present and correct. It's a typically manic piece of Cardiacs jollity, but also proved to be one of the most melodic and anthemic tracks on the record.

Lyrically - well come on. If you can decipher Tim's lyrics you're a better person than I am. This one really isn't clear, but it seems the song's protagonist is an interesting character. One minute it seems as though he's facing up to is mortality:

  "Waiting to see which way he will jump to find
  Which hole he's to creep into when he's old and tired
  Not expected to carry on."

He's clearly having some problems though, life's struggles getting the better of him:

  "Walking on fire bright
  Something is stealing his feeling again
  Lick wound he heals and still feels there's some pain
  Washing his dirt in the mud and the rain"

But all the while we're told "He's a very special man" in a joyous, celebratory manner. You work it out. All I know is that Buds And Spawn was easily the stand-out track on 'On Land And In The Sea' for me at the time, and so it remains. Fans laud the album as one of the band's best, but I just never properly connected with it in the way I did with 'A Little Man And A House...' and 'Sing To God'.

Buds And Spawn perfectly illustrates Tim's penchant for creating weird shit you can sing along with. Utterly incomprehensible, but with a refrain which makes you want to wave your arms in the air. Which brings us to the unanswered question at the conclusion of the song: what exactly is the point of giving us hands? Answers in the comments section, if you please...

Saturday 26 September 2015

Autumn Covers #4

OK, for the record, I absolutely fucking hate Duran Duran. Always have done. I remember first seeing them on Saturday Superstore when I was barely a teenager. They were huge at the time - and boy did they know it. Never before had I seen such an arrogant egocentric bunch of arseholes. I detested them immediately and never softened my stance.

Many years later, within the last decade or so, they appeared on the Jonathan Ross show. You would have thought they'd have mellowed with age and, no longer teenybop heartthrob flavours of the month, they'd be humbler and, maybe, not arseholes. No. Nothing had changed. Total twats of the very highest order. My loathing of them continued unabated and still does.

Sadly though, my hatred of Duran Duran is tempered everso slightly by the fact that they did occasionally write a decent tune. Sometimes someone will cover one of their songs and I'll actually quite enjoy it, mainly because it's not actually Duran Duran. I remember Miles Hunt thought rather a lot of himself back in the day. The Wonder Stuff were a much better band than Le Bon et al, so you can forgive him just a little bit. A few years back, they released an album of covers of songs by bands from the Midlands which included Planet Earth, Duran Duran's best song in my opinion.

Melys have featured on these fair pages a couple of times before, but are always worthy of another mention. The Welsh wonders once did a version of Girls On Film for a John Peel session in 2004. It was their eighth and final session for the great man who passed away later that year. Quite frankly, Duran Duran are not fit to lick Melys' boots. So there!


Friday 25 September 2015

Just because...

I need no reason whatsoever to post some Sister Rosetta Tharpe, so here is arguably the most influential female in rock 'n' roll - the person who many point to as inventing the rock guitar solo. Before Chuck Berry. Before Carl Perkins. Before Bill Haley. She was years ahead of the lot of them. If this ain't Friday music, I don't know what is!


I just can't let this post go without posting this classic clip from 1964 - Sister Rosetta playing Didn't It Rain and Trouble In Mind on a wet and blustery train station platform just outside Manchester. Honestly. The story of the gig is here, but just enjoy the clip first. It's as joyous as joy can get.

Wednesday 23 September 2015

Welsh Wednesday #54

#54: The Last Drop by The Joy Formidable

One of my fave bands of the last few years, The Joy Formidable make one heck of a noise for a three piece. Their songs are big and bold and anthemic and hummable as feck. MrsRobster and I have caught them live twice, most recently last summer at the tiny Globe in Cardiff just before they hit the festival circuit. Since then, they seem to have done little but tour, mainly in North America where they seem to be going down rather well.

If you ever get the chance to see them live, do so. They're quite an enigmatic bunch. The lovely Ritzy has a smile to brighten the darkest night and really gives it some welly on stage. Bassist Rhydian looks like he may have played a bit of rugby in his time. Definitely a fave of the band's female fans. Drummer Matt looks a bit like Russell Brand but isn't a knobhead as far as I know. He is good to watch though, and his kit is often set up to the side of the stage at the front alongside his bandmates.

I can't believe I haven't actually featured the Joy Formidable in this series before now. I've chosen an early track, from their first release, a mini album entitled 'A Balloon Called Moaning'. It features the original version of their monster song Whirring and was the first thing I heard by them. It hooked me immediately. It was reworked and, along with three other songs from the record, ended up on the proper debut album 'The Big Roar' a couple of years later. This track, however, wasn't one of those, which means it's a little obscure and rare. It is still representative of the band's sound and is a pretty darn good song, worthy of inclusion in the Welsh Wednesday collection.

New material has been scarce since 2013's 'Wolf's Law' album. A couple of Welsh-language singles were released in the second half of last year, but a third album is in the works apparently. I keenly await its arrival.

In light of the ongoing refugee crisis some of Wales' leading musicians have come together to unite under the banner of Welsh Rock For Refugees. The result is 'Reach Out' – a 30-track album from which all proceeds will be donated to Refugee Action – a UK based charity that helps refugees at home and abroad.

The Joy Formidable have recorded a brand new exclusive track for the album which is available on Bandcamp here. Among other contributors include Super Furry Animals, Gwenno, Stereophonics, Charlotte Church, Kizzy Crawford, Mike Peters, Cerys Matthews... 'tis a veritable who's who of Welsh music! Read the story of the album here.

Monday 21 September 2015

It Came From Japan #4: Kinoco Hotel

Kinoco Hotel is probably the best looking band in Japan. I dare you to argue. Their sound is very reminiscent of sixties beat groups and garage bands. They dress like hotel concierges, though in all honesty I've never stayed in a hotel that has concierges that look like Kinoco Hotel. All good fun, of course, but are they any good? Well darn it, do you think they'd be on this blog if they weren't?

Each member of Kinoco Hotel past and present has curiously adopted a French forename. Led by singer/organist/dominatrix Marianne Shinonome, the band has to date released half a dozen albums and a couple of EPs since 2008. Everything's performed in Japanese, though a few titles are in French, such as the 2013 EP 'La Contre-Attaque De Marianne', which rather awesomely replicates the cover of The Stooges' 'Raw Power'.

I only have a couple of their early records as it doesn't seem to be that easy to get hold of their stuff. However, I've chosen a couple of fine tracks for you, their titles combining to give you the two colours of the Japanese flag. Clever, eh? I've even taken the trouble of translating the song and album titles into English. How good am I to you?

I have to say, they look a little daft but strangely sexy at the same time. They do, however, sound undisputedly groovy, in an Austin Powers kind of way.


And for an extra little bit of titillation, here's the video for Kinokonotoriko (which doesn't seem to have a translation), also from 'The Ecstasy Of Marianne':

Saturday 19 September 2015

Autumnal covers 3

Joy Division songs have been covered countless times over the years. There have been some stinkers, but equally there have been plenty of scorchers too. Today, I've chosen two I like; I'll leave you to decide whether they're stinkers or scorchers.

Grace Jones has been known to lose control on a few occasions. Here's a famous one. Seems fitting that she chose to cover She's Lost Control. Originally the b-side of Private Life in 1980, it was recorded and produced by Sly & Robbie. Longer versions with extended dub passages graced 12" releases and the 1998 compilation 'Private Life: The Compass Point Sessions'.

Mind, if you thought Grace was an uncompromising character, consider Michael Gira. Swans have never been a particularly likeable band, but Gira has been known to insist all air conditioning is turned off and heating turned up at venues they play to increase the intensity and volatility of the audience. In spite of the difficulty their music presents, there are a few accessible moments in their catalogue.  In 1988 they released a version of Love Will Tear Us Apart, or rather they released three versions. One version, known simply as 'Black' is a tender acoustic-driven take, fronted by the haunting vocals of Jarboe. The 'Red' version is a more full-blooded affair with Gira on vocals, while the 'Acoustic' version is like a cross between the two, with Gira taking lead vocals and Jarboe on backup. I'm giving you both the black and red versions, and will leave you to discover the acoustic one yourselves.


Friday 18 September 2015

50 albums to take to my grave #28: White Blood Cells

Before you continue with this article, may I suggest you re-read this piece to understand why this album had such an impact on me. It also saves me writing it again...

Ah, you're back. Right. So putting everything else to one side, the music on 'White Blood Cells' varies in styles and moods, yet remains consistently gripping throughout. Fourteen years on from its original release, what makes this record just as endearing today? Well it seems to gel so well in spite of its variety. The undulating distorted delight of the opener Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground gives way to the hillbilly stomp of Hotel Yorba. Then we get the organ-led blues of I'm Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman (still one of my fave White Stripes songs) followed by the raw punk-pop blast of Fell In Love With A Girl, and Expecting boasts a riff that almost out-Sabbaths Black Sabbath. It's seamless in spite of its eclectism, and we haven't got to the end of side one yet!

I remember getting a bit of a tingly feeling the first time I heard The Union Forever. It has a creepy, Hallowe'en feel to it that sounds like Screamin' Jay Hawkins meets Portishead's first album. It's a standout if only for the fact it sounds utterly unique in the band's catalogue. Of course, the big attraction of the White Stripes at the time was their ability to look and sound like no one else AND take that over into the mainstream.

Side two is a little less adventurous, its songs being loud and guitar-fuelled, although it is preluded by the cute and childlike We're Going To Be Friends. There's still plenty of interest here though. Offend In Every Way would have made a cracking single; I Can't Wait and Now Mary are also among the best songs on the album; I Think I Smell A Rat was an early fave of TheMadster - she would sing along to it (aged 5) on car journeys; Aluminum is a monster that has its roots in early 70s heavy rock (Led Zep, Deep Purple).

Right through to the closing duet, This Protector, Jack and Meg enthralled me in 2001 and still do now. 'White Blood Cells' is not an album you can get bored with, and it remains a record that sounds distinctive and unparalleled. It is also timeless; it hasn't dated one iota, maybe because it was always rooted in rock music's past in the first place. Its impact at the time cannot be underestimated, but if the songs and the sounds weren't there, The White Stripes wouldn't have had the effect on modern culture they undoubtedly went on to achieve.

If I'm being completely honest, the White Stripes probably made better records than 'White Blood Cells' (yes, really!), but this being the one that introduced me to the band and shook my world to its foundations means it joins me in my grave over the others.

Wednesday 16 September 2015

Welsh Wednesday #53

Sunset Veranda by The Peth

During a short period of down time between their last two albums, the members of Super Furry Animals engaged in some solo projects. Drummer Dafydd Ieuan needed "an excuse to spend large chunks of time in a recording studio", so he called upon some mates to form a new band. SFA bassist Guto Pryce came aboard along with the Gwynedd brothers Meilyr and Osian of Sibrydion, two very early SFA members Dic Ben and singer-cum-Hollywood actor Rhys Ifans, and a couple other friends and associates. The band was christened The Peth (peth being Welsh for 'thing').

In 2008, they released an album entitled 'The Golden Mile', preceded by the charmingly-titled single Let's Go Fucking Mental. Its sound was as one might expect - rather psychedelic and progressive - but perhaps a little faster and rockier than either of the two parent bands. One of the record's highlights is Sunset Veranda which features vocals from Ifans and Dionne Bennett who Dafydd would go on to work with in The Earth.

A second Peth album, 'Crystal Peth' was recorded in 2012 but is yet to be released. Dafydd wants Ifans to be on board with any release schedule but "I don’t even know what continent he’s on these days, so I’ve just been waiting by the telephone for the right time to release it. Maybe I should just take the hint and release it anyway!"

Monday 14 September 2015

This Monday Reggae Feeling #1

A new series for Mondays. No one likes Mondays, but a bit of sunshine in your life as you go into the week can't ever be a bad thing. So with that in mind, I present This Monday Reggae Feeling, a monthly series featuring my choice of reggae delights. I'm looking forward to this as there are some steaming tunes just waiting to be shared. So many in fact, I wondered where to start.

I settled on a track that I decided to name the series after. There is a new collection of Trojan Records singles that has just been released, and it opens with this wonderfully uplifting track. This Monday Morning Feeling was a hit for Tito Simon, reaching number 45 in the UK in 1975. It really should have got higher. One heck of a way to start the week.


Saturday 12 September 2015

Autumnal covers 2

This week, a couple of duets. I know a few XTC fans are regular readers, so you may enjoy this take on Towers of London. Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs have made three albums together, 'Under The Covers' vols 1, 2 & 3. Each is a covers record featuring tunes from a different decade. This is from volume 3, the 80s album. OK, so it's nothing radical, but I love the way their vocals harmonise so effortlessly.

You And Your Sister appeared on Chris Bell's only solo album following his departure from Big Star. It's a truly stunning recording in its original form, but there is something about Kim Deal's voice that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy when I hear it. Tanya Donelly's voice is so sweet, it's almost in complete contrast to Kim's, yet they go so well together. That's what makes this version of You And Your Sister, from the third This Mortal Coil album, such a delight.


Friday 11 September 2015

50 albums to take to my grave #27: Document

This piece formed the bulk of an article I first posted back in March 2014 (here). It aptly tells the story of how this became one of the most important records of my life, and therefore an absolute MUST to take to my grave. No sense in writing something new when this does the job.

Nils Horley was a guy at college who was pretty much loved by everyone. The girls wanted to sleep with him, the boys secretly wanted to be him. Nils had charm, wit and humour in abundance. He also had his own place and, in the words of David Bowie, “boy, could he play guitar”.

Nils also loved sharing his passion for music with people. Whenever I popped round his flat there were records strewn about the place and there was always music playing. His tastes were typically varied, but he just loved awesome guitar playing. However, despite the steady diet of Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Zeppelin and Van Halen he fed me on each visit, it was a very different band that Nils introduced me to that had a profound effect on my life – and not just in a musical sense.

December 1987: A 16-year-old Robster was finding college a slightly strange experience. On the one hand, I was struggling to see much relevance of anything I was being taught in classes to what I wanted to do with my life. I was devoid of enthusiasm and inspiration in terms of my pending adult life. On the other hand, college was an incredible place for discovering music. Already I had become engrossed in a slew of artists that were completely new to me – The Wedding Present, New Order, the Soup Dragons, etc – and I wanted more, more, more. And I got it.

One Friday afternoon, Nils aroused my interest. “Ever heard any R.E.M.?” he asked. “Errr, no,” came the reluctant reply.  I so wanted to say yes and sound cool, but I couldn’t tell a lie. Not that Nils cared, he wasn’t the kind of guy to pass judgement on people. “Listen to this,” he said as he handed me a cassette. “I bought it for my brother for Christmas so can I have it back on Monday?”

And that’s the moment it started. Bye-bye old Robster, welcome to a new dawning. This was the day R.E.M. entered my life and my very soul was changed forever.

What Nils lent me was a copy of R.E.M.’s fifth album ‘Document’. What immediately struck me was the cover – a black and white photo of a guy constructing some kind of abstract sculpture out of what looked like a pile of junk – and while the title was prominent, the band’s name was tiny and blended in with a little triangular motif stating “R.E.M. NO. 5”.

Who was the guy on the cover?[1] Was he in the band?
[2] Why R.E.M. no. 5?[3] And what does R.E.M. stand for anyway?[4]

One of the attractions of the band, particularly in their early days, was the mystery they seemed to pervade, intentionally or otherwise. Michael Stipe’s mumbled vocals, barely audible in places, asked plenty of questions to begin with. When you could make out his lyrics, there were further questions, like ‘what the hell is this guy on about?’ As they progressed and Stipe’s vocals became much higher in the mix, the mysterious nature of the band continued. Why did Stipe so rarely give interviews? He is the frontman and lyricist after all. And still no one knows what the hell he’s singing about!

The ‘Document’ artwork introduced me to this world. The music therein convinced me to stay and become a resident, for ‘Document’ was a revelation to me. To begin with I had never heard a voice like Stipe’s. By now out front and dominant, its reedy, almost sneering resonance disconcerted me for a bit. It was something I clearly needed time to get used to. It took about 40 minutes.

“The time to rise has been engaged,” he sings as the album’s opening lines, over a solid drumbeat and a repeated guitar note, all chiming and distorted. To a 16-year-old raised as a working-class socialist through the god-awful Thatcher years, this was an inspiration; a call-to-arms, a rallying cry. “What we want and what we need has been confused.” Wow, truer words have never been spoken, or indeed sung. Those first 20 seconds of Finest Worksong woke me from my teenage slumbers. I already sensed I was listening to something special, even if it did take a little longer to realise just how special R.E.M. were. B
y the time Oddfellows Local 151 came around at the end, with its almost desperate strains of "FIIIRRRRRRREHOOOOOOUUUUUUUSE!", I was totally convinced this was a band I would adore for a long time to come.
The journey home from college that day was like no other. ‘Document’ was my soundtrack not just for the bus ride, but most of that entire evening and throughout the weekend. I don’t think I played anything else. I made a copy of the tape so I could give Nils back his original on Monday, but not be without this phenomenal record afterwards.

The track that stood out immediately was The One I Love which sounded familiar, though I couldn’t place where I’d heard it. I had no idea it had become the band’s breakthrough US hit and had narrowly missed the top 40 over here, so therefore was all over radio. (I rarely listened to radio, most of it was shit.) Yet, in spite of its mainstream appeal (and its subsequent repeated success), it too just seemed a little odd and off-kilter. “This one goes out to the one I love,” seems an innocuous enough line in itself, but coupled with “A simple prop to occupy my time” it takes on an entirely different, far more sinister meaning. Stipe had vowed never to write a love song. In The One I Love, he had instead written the ultimate anti-love song, the story of someone who uses and abuses until the next object of his/her affections comes along (the penultimate line is “Another prop has occupied my time”). Even hearing it properly for the first time, this strange twist wasn’t lost on me. It stoked my curiosity even further.

‘Document’ takes repeated listens to fully understand it, even if you are already somewhat familiar with R.E.M. It also helps if you have some knowledge of American politics (which I didn’t at the time). Over the years my fondness of it has not diminished; on the contrary it has grown and grown. I would easily name it in my top 5 albums of all-time purely on the music alone. In terms of what it means to me in respect of my whole life, the only other serious competitor would be the Pixies’ masterpiece ‘Doolittle.‘Document’ was the first record I bought with that year’s Christmas money. It sounded even better on vinyl.

More than any act previously or since, R.E.M. captured my imagination, fired my enthusiasm and inspired me to seek out music of every conceivable mood and genre. They dominated the next 10 years of my life and even brought Mrs Robster and I together.

[1] Michael Stipe, apparently.
[2] Yes.
[3] It was R.E.M.’s fifth album. But then you knew that already…
[4] Ah!  The classic question. Most people will tell you it’s Rapid Eye Movement, the stage of sleep where dreaming takes place. However, the band has neither confirmed nor denied this. According to guitarist Peter Buck: “We couldn't think of a name at first. I liked Twisted Kites. Then we thought maybe we should have a name that was real offensive, like Cans Of Piss. That was right up there at the top. Then we thought we didn't want to be called something that we couldn't tell our parents or have to mumble. R.E.M. just popped out of the dictionary one night. We needed something that wouldn't typecast us because, hell, we didn't know what we were gonna do. So R.E.M. was nice - it didn't lock us in to anything.”

Wednesday 9 September 2015

Welsh Wednesday #52

#52: Jezahel by Shirley Bassey

When I started this series, I swore blind I wasn't going to pander to the common public and media expectation of Wales by including Sir Tom and Dame Shirl. But I did Tom Jones' cracking collaboration with Jack White. Then I was reminded of this track, an absolutely belting soul number from the Girl from Tiger Bay and just couldn't resist.

Of course, most of you will instantly recognise the chorus, though if you're not sure where from, I've included it as a secret bonus track at the bottom of the post. Ms Bassey was recently back in her home city to officially open the new section of the Children's Hospital For Wales, which adjoins the very hospital I work at. To think, I was just yards away from a global singing superstar. I didn't see her though, I was too busy working...

If you caught her Glastonbury performance in 2007, you'll know she hasn't lost the power in her voice. Her most recent album came out last November just a couple months before her 78th birthday. Whether we like it or not, there's no denying Shirley Bassey is synonymous with Wales, although she has spent many years living in Monaco (where else?!). I'm not familiar with much of her work other than the obvious ones, but I just love Jezahel. What a tune!

Monday 7 September 2015

Vintage Vinyl #11

It's BACK! Yep, I've bought some records over the summer so Vintage Vinyl returns with more monthly 7-inches of fun. Fnarr fnarr.

Joan Armatrading - Drop The Pilot 7"
Bought from The Record Shop, Cardiff
Price paid: 50p

I had intended to check out a shop in the Cathays area of Cardiff called D'Vinyl, but parking around there is a bitch. So I drove on into Albany Road, a semi-frequent haunt where my fave Cardiff venue The Globe is located. On my way through, I spotted a sign pointing to a record shop down a residential sidestreet. I vowed to investigate. So I parked up and walked back in that direction. I found the record shop intriguingly named The Record Shop. Clever. It had a table outside laden with singles and albums. I picked a few from there (today's choice included) and then ventured inside.

To say the place was rammed is an understatement. Inside there were boxes upon boxes upon boxes of records, more records and more records. Records on tables, records under tables, records on shelves, records on the floor... It was a real Aladdin's Cave. This is the sort of place Heaven would be like, I thought to myself. I bought a few quid's worth of goodies, all of which will feature in this new run of Vintage Vinyl. I never made it to D'Vinyl that day, but did go a few weeks later.

And so to my first pick. I really should know a lot more about Joan Armatrading than I actually do. Aside from a couple of her big hits, she's pretty much passed me by. I'm not proud of it. I do vaguely remember Drop The Pilot when it first came out in 1983, but aged 12 I just wasn't interested in that sort of thing. I was hoping Adam Ant still had some decent songs in him. And then Relax came out making me an instant Frankie Goes To Hollywood fan.

Listening to it now, while the production is cringingly 80s, there's no denying what a fine song Drop The Pilot is, especially that chorus. It was her second biggest hit (only Love And Affection fared better) reaching number 11 in the UK. It was also her last Top 40 hit. She had made her 8th studio album 'The Key' with Steve Lillywhite but the label complained it wasn't commercial enough. So Joan went away and wrote a couple more songs, one of them being Drop The Pilot. Bingo! Well worth 50p of anyone's money, I reckon.


(I still haven't got round to solving my 'currently unable to rip from vinyl' problem, which means the non-album b-side Business Is Business is missing from this post. It cannot be acquired through legal channels (how daft), and the *ahem* not-very-legal methods have also drawn a blank. If anyone can oblige, I'd be grateful.) 

Saturday 5 September 2015

Autumnal covers

How's about a series in which I give you two related cover versions every Saturday throughout the Autumn? Sound like a decent idea? Well I do, and it should provide me with plenty of articles without having to scrape too many barrels!

To kick things off, I've picked two songs written by the late Amy Winehouse which featured on her sadly final album 'Back To Black'. I first saw Amy on Jools Holland's show. I wasn't quite sure what to make of her. There was definitely something unique about her, and that is what made an impression on me. I wasn't sure if I liked either her or her music, but the fact she was different was enough.

To this day, I still haven't decided on either point. What I do know though is that she was a real, genuine talent and a sad casualty of success and excess. She died tragically and far too young, but there's no doubt she'll be remembered for a very long time in spite of her short career.

These two songs, both written entirely by Amy, are performed by two quintessentially English bands - Saint Etienne and Arctic Monkeys. I personally cannot say a bad word about the former, and the Arctics have more than earned their place in my esteemed collection with some terrific tunes of their own.


Friday 4 September 2015

50 albums to take to my grave #26: Throwing Muses/untitled

The words 'troubled' and 'tortured' are often thrown around to describe artists who seem to come across as erratic, morose, dark and moody. Thing is, Kristin Hersh is one of the very few artists to whom these words could actually genuinely apply. As a teenager, she was plagued with mental health issues, eventually diagnosed as bi-polar. She became pregnant and had her child taken from her, regarded as an unfit mother. Her demons forced her to write twisted, almost schizophrenic songs that evoked episodes of mania and frantic, violent mood swings.

While still 16, her band Throwing Muses recorded 'The Doghouse Cassette', a 10-song demo. Somehow, it resulted in a record deal. The band became the first American act to sign to 4AD, the only people it seemed who could understand just what the hell this music was all about. The demos were re-recorded and Throwing Muses' debut album emerged in 1986.

If you can get through the whole thing in your first sitting, you've done well. It's certainly one of the most uncomfortable records you'll ever hear, even disturbing at times. Commonly referred to as the band's self-titled debut, it was actually untitled.[1] That's understandable; I'm not sure what you could call this album. Hersh sounds possessed. It maybe her voice, but 'the voices' made her do this. It's utterly astonishing, breathtaking and bewildering. It's also more than just a little frightening. Vicky's Box epitomises the anguish and terror. "I only love pieces of things that I hate / Like this box" she shrieks. A myriad of strange chords and uneasy rhythms cascade around her, making the whole thing rather unnerving.

Perhaps the most troublesome of all is the closing track Delicate Cutters. Hersh's voice is accompanied only by her acoustic guitar and the ominous rumbling of David Narcizo's drums. And the voice is devastating. It stops you in your tracks as you wonder what the fuck is going on in her mind. "The walls never leave / And the walls begin to scream."

The disconcerting mood rarely lifts, though there is room for some decent tunes as well. Soul Soldier remains a career highlight, its nod to country music hinting at a sound the band would occasionally revisit. Tanya Donelly's sole contribution Green is another one that sneaks up on you, though it is one of the darker moments of her repertoire. Call Me seems to come charging at you right from the off, but its second half becomes more melodic.

The first Throwing Muses stuff I heard was the infinitely more accessible 'Hunkpapa' album a few years later. When I first heard this debut, it scared me half to death. I wondered how a band that made this record could have gone on to play an arena tour with R.E.M. and eventually gain a small degree of the commercial success they deserved but never courted. Kristin Hersh was troubled and tortured and whatever else it was that resulted in her making this extraordinary, intense record. "I feel boxed in / Think I'll be alright" she offers unconvincingly in Vicky's Box. Thankfully she was and still is, but god knows it wasn't exactly easy. Neither is listening to this record.

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Welsh Wednesday #51

#51: She Smokes, She Drives And Writes Poetry by Flyscreen

Flyscreen were an integral part of the Newport scene back in the mid-90s. Their niche was short, heavy, fast grunge-punk songs "about school, football and shagging" (in their words). To date, they have released a clutch of EPs and three studio albums, though there's been little activity from them since 2008.

I expect Webbie would be interested in their 'Size Five Leather' EP, which contained the songs Stamford Bridge, Carl Zeiss Jena[1], Your Phil Neal For My Willie Johnstone and Charlie George On Super 8. Difficult to find nowadays, though I will probably feature one of its tracks in a future post.

Today though, I've gone for a track that featured on the band's first EP 'Dapbag' in 1994, but was made over for their debut full-length 'Girls Can't Make Gun Noises' and subsequently released as the album's second single. It was around the time of this release that I booked the band I was managing at the time, Shrug, their first gig in Exeter. It was supporting Flyscreen and it was the most raucous and appreciative audience they'd ever played to at the time. 'Twas a cracking night.

This is the later version of She Smokes... that featured on the album. It's a good representation of the sort of noise that was coming out of Newport at the time.

[1] FC Carl Zeiss Jena: German football team. In 1981, Newport County (the previous season's Welsh Cup winners) enjoyed an unprecedented European cup run in the Cup Winners Cup. They met FC Carl Zeiss Jena in the quarter-final. County held the East Germans 2-2 in Jena, but lost the home leg 1-0. It is still remembered fondly in these parts as one of Newport's finest sporting moments, even though, in Flyscreen's words: "Carl Zeiss Jena broke our hearts."