Monday 26 February 2018

The hidden world of R.E.M. #23

A year after their first ever show, R.E.M. were fast becoming one of Athens' favourite bands. Not only that, but they had played numerous shows around the southern states of Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina. In a couple of months they would play dates in New York with Gang Of Four, so it's safe to say their stock was rising at some rate. But on 10th April 1981, they were back at one of their favourite hometown venues - Tyrone's.

This show has graced many bootlegs. The one I have is a single vinyl record called 'So Much Younger Then', one of the most highly-rated recordings of those early shows. While later boots would include the full set, this one only includes some of it, omitting many of the songs the band would later record in the studio (Radio Free Europe, Pretty Persuasion, Rockville, etc). What we do get, however, is a wonderful insight into those early gigs and some of the band's earliest material. The sound quality is excellent too.

Body Count was a popular song in those early days. It also could be the band's first to have a political subtext - it references Vietnam and "dancing off to war"; "military metaphors are metaphors no more" etc. It's a song that I think had promise, but it never made it onto tape in the studio. Wait, on the other hand, was demoed. It's one of the band's poppiest early moments, like the Stand of its day perhaps? Here, Michael Stipe's sisters Lynda and Cyndy join the band to yell "WAIT!" in the choruses.

Mystery To Me is a fine example of R.E.M.'s fast, garagey sound of the early years. While they didn't seem to have a regular set-closer, this one did end a few shows around this time. On this occasion, the band returned to the stage for a one-song encore - White Tornado. It's unclear if Stipe joined his bandmates onstage.

Later in the week, the band would enter Mitch Easter's Drive-In Studio in North Carolina to lay down their first demo. It yielded the tracks that would, in remixed form, make up their first single later in the year. Maybe, if you ask really nicely, I'll post something from this demo tape. But only if you're good.

Friday 23 February 2018

New stuff wot sounds like old stuff #5

OK, one more of these. Couldn't resist this one. Boy Azooga come from Cardiff and will hopefully become as synonymous with Wales as Tom Jones, sheep and cheese on toast! They make a terrific noise, described by their label Heavenly as "an ensemble that swings smoothly from filmic instrumentals to a churning, rave-tinged rock that hints at both Can and their progeny in Happy Mondays."

Frontman Davey Newington comes from a very musical family - his grandfather was a jazz drummer and his parents both played in the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. He has also been part of Charlotte Church's band (as drummer) as well as numerous jazz bands and orchestras. Talented fella then.

Boy Azooga's debut album '1, 2, Kung Fu!' is due out in June, but the two singles that have emerged have already made it one of the most hotly anticipated records of the year. Here's the current song - it's short but it packs a punch. The guy at the very end of the video, by the way, is one Kliph Scurlock, former drummer with the Flaming Lips and now a Cardiff resident.

Monday 19 February 2018

The hidden world of R.E.M. #22

I never had satellite or cable TV growing up - still don't now, and never will - so I didn't get to see much in the way of MTV or VH1. The latter ran a series called Storytellers which involved getting an act in to play a live set, but between songs telling the stories of how the songs came into being. Hence the title of the show - clever, eh? I've heard a few bootlegs over the years and I have the Bowie one which I ought to post a bit of sometime (though I did post a track from it in last year's Bowie Week).

Recently I acquired a copy of the R.E.M. show recorded in 1998, the very day 'Up' was released in Europe. It's a gem. Some wonderful stories that display the band's humour - particularly Michael Stipe's - and gave an insight into the band's writing processes. So today, here's a couple of highlights. Ironically, I'm starting off with one that isn't prefaced by a story. I'm Not Over You appeared on 'Up' as a hidden track at the end of Diminished. Michael Stipe started playing it solo, accompanying himself on guitar, during the subsequent tour. He would take to the stage at the start of the encore and nervously strum the first few chords as the crowd fell silent. His playing was tentative and his singing delicate - he was outside his comfort zone for sure. Here he has a bit of accompaniment from the band, which now included Joey Waronker (on drums), Scott McCaughey and Ken Stringfellow on guitars, keyboards, percussion etc.

There's no doubt that, while 'Up' spooked some fans out with its experimental approach post-Berry, and by it being a bit too long, it certainly did contain a couple of wonderful, wonderful moments. One such moment came in the form of At My Most Beautiful, which remains one of the band's greatest songs. Here, Stipe tells how it was a deliberate attempt to pay tribute to The Beach Boys and that it was his present to his bandmates. Mike Mills goes on to explain how the music came together in the studio before Stipe asks Mills, McCaughey and Stringfellow to perform the chorus backing vocals a capella. The result will make the hairs on the back of your neck stick up.

To round off, another solo effort. This time, Mike Mills regales us with the story of how he wrote (Don't Go Back To) Rockville before delivering an abridged, yet astonishing, version of the song at the piano. I've said it before, I'll say it again: Mike Mills - DO A SOLO RECORD, DAMMIT!

And here's a clip from the show:

Friday 16 February 2018

New stuff wot sounds like old stuff #4

OK, so if you live in the UK and haven't heard of Shame yet, then either:
 a) you've been hiding in a cave in the middle of friggin' nowhere for the past 6 months;
 b) you've become a monk, living a simple, silent life in a cave in the middle of friggin' nowhere for the past 6 months; or
 c) you have absolutely no interest in music whatsoever. And you've been living in a cave in the middle of friggin' nowhere for the past 6 months.

Basically, they are THE band to watch in 2018. Steve Lamacq thinks they're the new Clash or something. Probably. Actually, yeah, he probably genuinely does. Anyway, I wasn't quite convinced the first time I heard them, but their debut album 'Songs Of Praise' that came out last month is really rather fine. Quite a few styles going on but I suppose they could be described as punk/post-punk/new wave if you wanted to put labels on them.

I'm not going to get to see them when they play Cardiff in April. Aside from the fact it's sold out, we're watching our wallets for a bit so gigs have to take a back seat. Which is a shame (arf!) because I reckon Shame will be fecking amazing. I hope they are for everyone lucky enough to be there.

Right. That's quite enough young whippersnappers doing proper music. I'm off to listen to some old people. Where are you, Mr Cave???

Thursday 15 February 2018

New stuff wot sounds like old stuff #3

Harriette Pilbeam is Australian. Her parents called her Hatchie as a cute nickname and it sorta stuck. Having played with a few bands, she's struck out on her own and her debut EP 'Sugar & Spice' is due soon on Heavenly Records (which is probably the perfect label for her). Her first track Try created a bit of a buzz when it appeared last summer. Sure is better still, in my book. She seems to have been listening to the Cocteau Twins quite a lot, maybe some Lush too. That's not a criticism, this is shimmering, glistening indiepop at its finest.

Wednesday 14 February 2018

Memories of 2018 gigs #1

British Sea Power
Support: American Mustard
The Globe, Cardiff - 11th February 2018

I doubt there will be quite as many gigs this year as, for reasons I may explain at a later date, we're having to watch our pennies a bit. Prior to tightening our belts, we had already booked tickets for three shows this year and this was the first of them. And what a way to start!

Although I was a little puzzled at the choice of support for the evening. American Mustard are a four-piece rhythm and blues band from Cardiff. They've probably played every pub in the city and gone down a storm. But this isn't pub rock like Dr. Feelgood or even the Blues Brothers. Basically, if you can imagine any movie in the 80s that had a bar scene in it and a band was playing - American Mustard could have been that band. Pub rock lite. They were musically tight and highly competent, but also highly unoriginal and certainly not the sort of band I would have expected to open this show.

I came to British Sea Power rather late, always being aware of them but not actually taking much of their music in until their third album, 2008's 'Do You Like Rock Music?' Since then I've loved pretty much everything they've done. Maybe I'm in a minority, but I prefer their more recent work to the first couple of albums. So tonight's set containing plenty of songs from the last three records is no bad thing.

Bad Bohemian, Keep On Trying, What You're Doing, Praise For Whatever, The Voice Of Ivy Lee and Saint Jerome, all from last year's 'Let The Dancers Inherit The Party', were interspersed with songs that spanned the band's back catalogue. Early classics like Remember Me, It Ended On An Oily Stage and The Spirit Of St. Louis, were, predicatably, very well received. But Machineries Of Joy and Who's In Control were equally brilliant to these ears.

Of course, the dancing bears made an appearance. It's amazing - on the stage you have one of the best live bands in the country playing a blinder, yet for several songs, most people seemed to forget the band was even there, just seemingly wanting to touch, hug or watch a couple of people wearing giant bear costumes dancing in the crowd. Good fun, maybe - but a real distraction.

The de facto closing brace to the main set - Waving Flags and The Great Skua - was utterly majestic as ever and rendered an encore unnecessary, but they played one anyway. On a stage festooned with their trademark foliage, a stuffed owl and a plastic heron, British Sea Power lit up and warmed a bitterly cold February Sunday as I knew they would. OK, so they didn't play my favourite song off the new album (International Space Station) but any criticism of that nature seems petty. It was a show that blew away the cobwebs of the winter hiatus. Shame now that I'm back in the mood I have to wait 'til June for the next show...

Here's a couple of recent live clips, starting with something from the latest album 'Let The Dancers Inherit The Party'...

And here's the regular set closures, both from 'Do You Like Rock Music?'. This is from a set in Glasgow last year for the BBC. Absolutely stunning!

Tuesday 13 February 2018

New stuff wot sounds like old stuff #2

The new album from Shopping doesn't deliver many big surprises but it's been getting quite a bit of play in the car. I know everyone's gone a bit retro, all 80s/90s on us lately, but when you sound like a cross between the Slits and Gang of Four, that's really not a bad thing. Wild Child is taken from Shopping's third album 'The Official Body'. The video is absolutely terrible. Really, it is. It totally detracts from an otherwise most enjoyable song, so I advise you hit play then look at something else while you listen.

Monday 12 February 2018

New stuff wot sounds like old stuff #1

Thought I'd post some new stuff this week (with a gig review in the middle). In fairness, it's mainly new stuff that sounds like old stuff. First up, Anna Burch - formerly of Frontier Ruckus and Failed Flowers - has just released her debut solo album 'Quit The Curse'. Now I know there's more than a few fans of old-school C86-style indie pop that drop by here, so here's a recommendation for you. Personally, I find the album a little too fey and lightweight in places, but there are some nice tunes to be found. This one, for instance:

Friday 9 February 2018

Four at four

Today marks the fourth anniversary of Is This The Life?. This past year has been a difficult one for the blog, as regular readers will know. I'm still here though, even if I'm not as prolific as before. On the upside, this last 12 months has seen the average number of hits per post shoot up. That's mainly down to the R.E.M. series which has proven to be immensely popular. I'm glad about that as, when I started it, I considered it a kind of make-or-break item; if it hadn't taken off I might well have called it a day. In fact, I had this day down as my potential farewell date. As it is though, I'm sticking around for a little bit longer.

Cheers for keeping the faith. Here's some tunes. Four songs with four in the title for four years of existence. How very original.

Monday 5 February 2018

Head music

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed the addition of a new blog to my blog roll over by there on the right. OK, so you don't need to be that eagle-eyed - for some reason its thumbnail is bleddy HUUUGE! Dunno why. Anyway, I want to draw your attention to it because it's focusing on two things very close to my heart - music (obvs!) and mental health.

On occasion I've briefly mentioned my struggles with depression. I had to think about using the word 'struggles' because it makes it sound like I expect some kind of sympathy or respect for it. I don't. But you know, some days facing the world is really fucking hard. People piss me off far too often and I really just want to crawl into a corner and not come out until the darkness passes. It's better than it used to be - I can control it now, thanks in part to medication, but mainly the love of my family. Believe me, MrsRobster is the best therapy a messy head like mine could ever hope for. Only she can make me laugh out loud when all I want to do is die.

Anyway. Music. That's the other thing that keeps me going. It has for almost all of my 46 long years. There have been countless songs that tackle mental health in all its ugly forms. Bowie, Black Sabbath, Kanye West, Manic Street Preachers, Ellie Goulding, Amanda Palmer, Pink Floyd - the list of artists who have tackled the subject is vast. Yet still so few people understand it, or want to understand it, and it remains a largely taboo topic.

My Big Mental Head is a new blog that combines music with mental health issues. Connie and Hannah, the young ladies who run the site, call it "a safe space for musicians & their fans to talk about mental health". There's certainly plenty to write about. I'm not really in the habit of plugging other sites (aside from those run by my good friends over in the blog roll) but will you please drop by My Big Mental Head and say hello? I really hope they make it work and it helps people discuss their experiences freely.

Here's some tunes. You probably all know Kristin Hersh's story - about her mental health history. Since the age of 16 she has been in the grip of mental illness. It hasn't so much informed her music as much as made it exist. She claimed songs just arrive in her head fully formed and won't leave her be until she's written them down. In this article, she explains how she has been misdiagnosed more than once and recently found out the root cause of her illness. It's a fascinating read. I love Kristin Hersh. Her music is understandably uncomfortable, but she's so humble and funny.

And here's a song by The Wombats from their second album 'This Modern Glitch' from 2011. It's all about singer Matthew Murphy's own struggle with depression and the medication he took. I kind of lost track of the Wombats after this album, but the songs I've heard from their new forthcoming record sound pretty decent.

Thursday 1 February 2018

A song for... February

What says February better than a bit of classic reggae? Well, OK, lots of things, but 'tis a cold, miserable month in these parts so anything vaguely tropical and warm-sounding is always welcome. Two legends on show today - Trinity (b. Wade Brammer) and The Mighty Diamonds. Trinity is best known for his song Three Piece Suit which inspired Althea & Donna to write Uptown Top Ranking in response. The Mighty Diamonds have been in the business now for 49 years and still boast their original lineup.

In 1979, this song featured on the collaboration album 'Trinity Meet The Mighty Diamonds'.