Thursday, July 20, 2006

SONG: "JCB" - Nizlopi (Half These Songs Are About You, 2004)

An obvious choice perhaps, but a band which I feel deserves more attention than they've received in its wake. Nizlopi are Luke Concannon and John Parker, two local lads who eat, sleep and breathe music. A charming and organic mixture of folk, jazz, roots and hip-hop (complete with human beat-box to compensate for their lack of a drummer), they played every coffee-shop and house-party in the region before starting to make a name for themselves on the national festival circuit with their spontaneous and disarmingly intimate live shows (which often involve wandering out into the crowd and singing right to your face). It’s precisely this sense of familiarity and connection with their audience which has earned them one of the most devoted cult followings in Britain, a tireless mob of supporters known as ‘The People’s Republic of Nizlopi’.

I was introduced to the band fairly late on when a friend sat me down in front of his computer and showed me the now-infamous animated video for this track in the closing months of last year. What perhaps surprised me most was that not only had I somehow managed to never catch them live, but I’d even been on the same bill as them on several occasions and they’d still never crossed my radar. As the video began to unfold, I immediately regretted this scandalous oversight, as it quickly became apparent that the chance of seeing them up-close and personal for a £1 entry fee was about to become a thing of the past.

went to Number One for two reasons: one, a really cracking promo which rightfully became one of the most talked-about links on the internet; two, the fact that it’s a truly wonderful song capable of uniting people from all walks of life (for better or worse, you couldn’t wander through a single town centre last Christmas without hearing hoards of revellers spilling out of pubs singing “I’m Luke, I’m five and my Dad’s Bruce Lee / Drives me round in his JCB…”). They’ve arguably written better songs - check out the lush orchestral swathes of Sing Around It on their debut album or the witty diary confessions of Clear - but few which are able to rival the unassuming potency of this track.

You know the drill by now: an autobiographical meander along the roads of the
Midlands from the perspective of a five-year-old dyslexic kid, listening to the irate hoots of the drivers behind him while his Dad sings along to Christy Moore. However, it’s the attention to minutiae that really makes the song come alive: the wilfully naive turns of phrase (“The engine rattles my bum like berserk”) and references to childhood touchstones capable of summoning nostalgic memories of a forgotten innocence - The A-Team, Zoids, Transformers. When the song reaches its memorable coda and Concannon’s joyous proclamation of childhood invincibility rings out, just like the digger in the video it spreads wings and soars.

When I went home that night and showed the clip to my housemates, they too were utterly captivated and immediately voiced their enthusiastic approval for these heroic regional troubadours. After they went to bed, I stuck it on once more and a strange thing happened: I burst into tears. I don’t know what it was - I’ve never had a Dad who works in haulage, I’ve never held traffic up on the bypass from inside a big yellow digger, and I’ve never suffered from learning difficulties which had me removed from school. Perhaps it was an accumulation of everything that was going on in my life at that point, and perhaps it’s the fact that there’s something undeniably touching about hearing a bullied child’s wonder and excitement at finding sanctity with those he loves most. Indeed, perhaps it was just a natural reaction to hearing something so perfectly realised and heart-wrenchingly beautiful, but I’ve honestly never experienced a reaction so visceral to any song that wasn’t fuelled by violent angst. Lord knows what Concannon’s father made of it upon first listen, but to this day it remains the most affecting tribute to any individual I’ve ever heard - there’s just something about it which seems capable of striking a chord in anyone who hears it.

With a song like this, the sincerity of the performance plays a vital role in determining whether it succeeds or fails, and it’s here that Nizlopi’s forthright honesty really comes into play. Luke Concannon’s voice is soulful without resorting to Mariah Carey-esque histrionics - its effortless musicality bears the hallmark of a truly great singer, with notes literally just tumbling out of him to the point where you really believe in every word that he’s saying. Consequently, the track is cute without ever being cloying, and moving without ever resorting to sentimentality. It may well also be the last truly great Number One single for several years to come – with the exception of Gary Jules and Michael Andrews’ anomalous Mad World, it’s been a long time since such a genuine and heartfelt record hit the top of the charts (prior to that I’d say it was probably Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U way back in 1990).

I met the pair recently backstage at
Warwick’s Graduation Ball and they honestly couldn’t have been lovelier if they’d handed me a tenner and told me to go buy myself something nice. John recognised me from the local area and was more than happy to stand around chatting about music, distribution and all the other trivial concerns of the independent shoegazer attempting to make their way in the big, bad world. I told him my own personal JCB story and he took it with admirable grace and modesty, even though he must’ve heard similar recollections a thousand times before.

My principal worry was always that Nizlopi would go down in history as one-hit wonders – sadly given JCB’s kiddie-friendly appeal it seems inevitable that it might become tagged as a novelty hit, and it’s just a fact that bands this offbeat and soulful rarely find a mass audience. But of course that’s far from the whole story in this case - I think it’s fair to say that the kinds of people who just buy singles and don’t bother investigating a band further were never really going to ‘get’ Nizlopi or their ethos. I asked John how he felt about the song in light of their second single Girls making so little impact and his reply was typically insouciant – they never really expected to achieve any level of commercial success, so to have one song put them in a position to advance their careers on their own terms is an absolute godsend. They’ve used the money and exposure gained from its success to fund future releases, shed light on other local artists and continue their work for charities which encourage youngsters to pick up an instrument rather than simply buying into pre-packaged karaoke acts - so while they may have been beaten to the Christmas Number One by X-Factor winner Shayne Ward, they’ll have the last laugh a generation from now.

Nizlopi can often be found perusing the racks in the Leamington Spa branch of Fopp, and humbly downplay their own celebrity when approached; round here they’re literally just the local lads made good - or, by their own admission, “two blokes who are still learning how to play music and get as good as they can”. Regardless, even if history does only remember them as ‘the JCB band’, that’s still a hell of an achievement: it’s a fantastic song from a marvellously innovative act who I’m proud to be able to cite as an influence and an inspiration.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

SONG: "Try Honesty" - Billy Talent (Billy Talent, 2004)

As a club DJ there are always certain records which you never get bored of, and indeed actively look forward to playing; those precious few for which you’re quite prepared to suffer the indignity of hammering out Livin’ On a Prayer another 400 goddamn times. There are countless songs from the general mainstream milieu which I hold pretty high in this regard; however, in the alternative genre, my five uncontested favourites (in ascending order) are as follows:

1) “Staring At the Sun” – The Offspring
2) “Losing My Religion” – R.E.M.
3) “Bleed American” – Jimmy Eat World
4) “Munich” – Editors
5) “Try Honesty” – Billy Talent

The fifth song in the list is easily the most ragged of the bunch, and certainly the one best-suited to hollering along to with a skinful of alcohol in some dingy rock club. The first time you hear this record, it offers a sensation not entirely unlike having your face slapped by that rubbery orange twat off the Tango adverts. Watching the sight of these four straggly livewires roar out of MTV2 two years ago was one of those glorious (and, sadly, increasingly rare) moments where I get so excited by a record that I literally jump up out of my seat and start frantically pacing around the room, pointing excitedly at anyone who’ll listen while proclaiming “Christ, this is fucking brilliant. BRILLIANT, I say!” (anyone who’s ever witnessed this sorry sight will no doubt testify as to just how entertaining it is, though we ought to spare a thought for the poor young lady who once invited me back to her place only to be confronted with such a display upon first hearing Reuben’s Blamethrower).

Try Honesty, with its queasy opening arpeggios, choppy dynamics and volatile temperament owes as much to bands like At the Drive-In and Refused as it does to old-school punk influences The Buzzcocks and the Sex Pistols. Consequently, the band have a sound which is not only invigoratingly aggressive, but also snappy, melodic and unmistakeably their own. Imagine waking up in a video game and suddenly being bombarded with all kinds of dangerous objects while the cast of Gremlins chases you across the screen. Much more than the usual run-of-the-mill punk-rock bludgeoning, it’s a full-blown assault.

Much of this rampant individuality is undoubtedly attributable to the presence of vocalist Benjamin Kowalewicz, a twitchy, wild-eyed madman who sounds like Squeak from South Park overdosing on Ritalin. Rhythmically this song slices and dices all over the show, and the band’s snottily anthemic sound is littered with backing chants reminiscent of the shouty gang mentality of bands like Rocket From the Crypt and Agnostic Front. “Forgive me father / Why should ya bother?”, Kowalewicz barks before that massive hookline literally erupts to steamroller its pathway across the chorus: “TRYYYY HONESTY! TRYYYY HONESTY!”

However, it’s the monstrous breakdown in the middle-eight where the song really comes into its own. Without warning, the rhythm shifts into half-time with a series of pyrotechnic explosions that soon give way to a seriously filthy riff that rumbles its way down the scale with a wilful disregard for anything in its path. “I’M INSANE!!! IT’S YOUR FAULT!!!”, Kowalewicz yelps, before the rest of the band weigh in with a sly melodic caterwaul of “CRYYYYY…” The punk-rock equivalent of a massive pressure-drop in a dance track, it’s absolutely one of the greatest moments in modern alternative music.

The whole song has a hilariously mocking tone, as if deliberately emulating the stroppy temper tantrum of a bawling baby. Never ones to shy away from an opportunity for invention, there’s also a great moment towards the end where they unleash a series of wiry guitar bends which sound like uncoiling springs in a broken mattress. It’s no surprise that this song was the first one to be written in the band’s transition from larkabout punk-metal japesters to serious contenders; it rightly turned them into megastars in their native Canada and thrust them kicking and screaming into the limelight just about everywhere else. Just as the ridiculous follicular architecture of guitarist and chief musical force Ian D’Sa suggests, it’s an utterly electrifying experience akin to jamming a wet fork into a plug socket and flicking the switch. I will continue to play this record for as long as I’m DJ-ing rock nights, no doubt flinging myself around with reckless abandon all the while.

SONG: "Always and Forever" - JJ72 (I to Sky, 2002)

Music is such a vital component of everyday life that certain songs will always remind you of specific people or a given time or place; such is the strength of their evocative power that they will bring back rushes of the exact feeling you had when their meaning was most applicable to what was going on in your life.

JJ72 were actually the first band to make me pick up a guitar and start writing songs. I’d been inspired by countless artists before them, but had always found myself hitting something of a brick wall when it came to penning my own material. However, when their signature tune Snow appeared on a Melody Maker cover CD back in mid-2000 it made quite an impact on me. It was so simple, yet so powerful – the chord structures and melodies didn’t sound as complex as those by bands like R.E.M. and Counting Crows, whose shadow always loomed large over my own songwriting attempts as I was always trying to emulate their respective styles and inevitably falling short.

Similarly, I’d never felt confident about singing until JJ72 came along. The first time I heard Mark Greaney howling out the likes of Oxygen and Algeria though, I immediately knew that this was how I was supposed to do it: you just open your mouth and wail. Greaney’s voice – a startling mix of angelic choirboy and someone who’s just been set on fire – inevitably proved divisive, but his passion and conviction were undeniable. It was through listening to him and the more restrained (though often equally fraught) efforts of Elliott Smith which made me realise that you don’t have to be technically perfect to be a good singer: ultimately you could be coming out with any old nonsense, but if you do it with belief and feeling then the song takes on a life of its own. (I’ve since been told that my own singing voice is pitched halfway between these two influences, which is the biggest compliment I could hope for).

I confessed my guilty worship of the band to my housemates recently and they both scoffed loudly, bawling “WHYYYYY WON’T IT SNOOOOOWWWW???!!!” in hoots of derision. They’ve got a point, of course - JJ72 were always one of those bands who you either adored or couldn’t stand depending on how far you were able to connect with their overblown tantrums and sense of wintry melodrama. As an angsty, irrational 18-year-old falling in love left, right and centre, I thought they were absolutely perfect. Six years on, the naked emotional torment of their eponymous debut album has less relevance to me than when I first heard them, but it still has the ability to get me pretty fired up. As the title suggests, with their second LP I to Sky they set their sights much higher, jettisoning the self-indulgent cries of “I want to be a happy boy” and replacing them with aspirations towards a more holistic, spiritual outlook. Always and Forever was the album’s towering centrepiece – a triumphant proclamation of undying affection which by rights ought to have lifted them into the stratosphere. Sadly the record was poorly-promoted by faltering indie label Lakota and, after several years in the wilderness following the departure of willowy bassist Hillary Woods, the group recently disbanded.

This was my first ever ‘our song’ with a girl. Some people might think it a naff choice, and that’s fair enough – like I said earlier, you either bought into it with JJ72 or you didn’t. For me though it came along at exactly the right moment as I fell properly in love for the first time. “Halfway to heaven, I saw a light was on” coos Greaney over a brightly-strummed electric guitar; “In the deep blue of emptiness, my refuge grew strong”. Like the song’s key sentiment, the imagery is typically grandiose, conjuring widescreen panoramas of journeys across endless highways and insurmountable terrain, by “chariots of fire, and chariots of ice”. A piercing falsetto presides over a lilting refrain as the chorus arrives, only for the melody to eventually bend inward under the weight of its own lofty proclamations as Greaney sings: “For always and ever, my home”.

Always and Forever isn’t so much about the song for me, it’s more the experience which matters. It’s about feeling every conceivable emotion for the mere sake of feeling: “All that I asked from you was more of the same / All I received from you was more of this pain”. It’s about being so wrapped up in one person that everything else ceases to matter. Even though my relationship with the girl eventually ended, she’s still my best friend, and for that I will always be thankful. I owe her so much and have never really articulated the fact as well as I’d like to have done (though I did try on 7 Words). But we’ll always have this song. With its gloriously clear production it sparkles like gold, a shining diamond in the rough. It soars high above the rooftops and instils in me a feeling of pure love. It is indivisible from her in my memory. Always and forever, my home.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

SONG: "The Ballad of David Icke" - Clem Snide (End of Love, 2005)

A simple song, this – but, as I’ve said before, it’s often the simplest ideas which are the most effective. A two-minute a cappella track about the notorious E.T.-fearing loon who once made a right tit of himself on Wogan doesn’t have a particularly promising ring on paper, but on record it becomes something else entirely.

I stumbled across Clem Snide when the band’s lead singer Eef Barzelay played solo support to Ben Folds on his last UK tour. At the time I wasn’t sure if ‘Clem Snide’ was the singer’s own name, a collective band moniker or a persona he’d created. However, what quickly impressed me about this wiry, bespectacled character was the fact that within seconds of strumming his first chord he’d managed to silence the room with his engaging tales of religious doubt, the sinister side of I Love Lucy and waking up in a world soundtracked by German hip-hop. Literate, paranoid and at times just plain odd, his lyrics primarily focus on the eccentricities of his own perspective and the off-kilter way the universe seems to stare back at him. The accompanying music is old-time folk in its overall feel, but infused with a melancholic alt-country twinge which brings to mind artists like Smog, Sparklehorse and Heartbreaker-era Ryan Adams.

This song originally appeared on a political benefit album in the run-up to the 2004 Presidential election entitled Future Soundtrack for America, before turning up on a bonus CD with the band’s most recent long-player End of Love. The double-edition of the album is well worth tracking down, if only for this and the video for their equally-magical single Fill Me With Your Light, in which you get to see Barzelay do the grooviest little dance this side of the Pixies girls on Youtube.

What really makes this track (though of course it has to, given that it’s the only musical element on there) is Barzelay’s achingly sad voice, an instrument so finely nuanced that it conveys subtleties of expression that most singers can only dream of. Full of defeat but still able to convey humour in its strangely reciprocal tone of desperation and bemusement (there’s a great moment on the album when the music trickles to a halt and he sings “The first thing every killer reads is – Catcher in the Rye…”), when combined with the despondency of the song’s lyrics it’s a truly marvellous thing. “The secret rulers of the world have stolen my girl”, he wails plaintively in its opening seconds; “They whisked her away in a black limousine / And that was the last of her I’ve ever seen…”

It’s certainly tongue-in-cheek, and might even be slightly silly were it not for the unfakeable anguish in Barzelay’s voice and the strength of the protagonist’s conviction that his beloved’s will would remain resolute no matter what (“They knew that her heart was the purest of pure / Through unbearable suffering, she would endure”). There’s beauty in the horror, and even a certain poetry as the abductee stares into alien eyes and longs to find herself “Drowning in honey, awake in a dream”. The surrealism of this ghostly waltz is enhanced by its sole concession to production trickery - a lonely echo which creates the effect of it having been recorded in a deserted aircraft hangar which he’s stumbled into just certain that he’d find evidence of a massive government conspiracy.

It the song were any longer it’d probably fall flat on its face. Set it to music and I suspect it also wouldn’t work half as well – but then that’s the mark of any savvy tunesmith, knowing just the right buttons to press and for how long. “Now that I’m found, I miss being lost”, Barzelay muses on another fine track from the album, the gently ambling Jews for Jesus Blues. Listen to it at just the right time of night and you’ll find yourself magically transported to a similar netherworld partway between consciousness and dreaming.

Monday, July 10, 2006

SONG: "Lovestain" - Jose Gonzalez (Veneer, 2005)

Ever since the appearance of his single Heartbeats in a recent Sony Bravia TV ad campaign (you know, the one with all the coloured dots bouncing down the road), this previously-unknown Swedish singer-songwriter’s unassuming debut album has been hurtling off the shelves at an alarming rate. I say ‘alarming’ because the record itself looks like becoming a true anomaly in this day and age: a down-tempo offering from an independent solo artist that’s not only really good but also exhibits serious crossover potential without fear of its integrity becoming tarnished. Presumably for many of you your reaction upon first hearing Heartbeats was comparable to my own: if memory serves, I believe my response was simply “God, whoever the hell that’s by, it’s wonderful…”

The track itself is actually a cover of a Bjork-esque dance song by loopy electronic duo The Knife. However, like all great cover artists, González completely reinvents the track to make it his own by picking up on the song’s hidden depths and emotional frailties (he’s also reworked Kylie Minogue’s kitsch 1988 hit Hand On Your Heart to equally impressive effect).

I bought his debut LP Veneer the other week on the strength of this track alone. Like Elliott Smith’s earliest releases, the record is self-produced and thus has an endearingly dusky lo-fi quality to it which not only really adds to its overall character but oftentimes recalls the delicate sound of Nick Drake. It clocks in at just over half an hour and rarely progresses above a hushed whisper – indeed, it’s so intimately recorded that you can hear every scrape and squeak along the frets, every breath inhaled and every shift in expression, no matter how subtle.

After listening to the album in its entirety several times, Lovestain was the song which really started jumping out at me. The track has a cold, edgy malevolence about it which could only come from the most steely-eyed and calculated of restraint. It revolves around a methodical guitar motif which evokes an air of Appalachian folk, and the lyrics consist of just three lines repeated like a mantra: “You left a lovestain on my heart / You left a bloodstain on the ground / But blood comes off easily”. A series of dull hand-claps lend the track a monotonous, hypnotic rhythm as the song rises and falls within its given parameters of volume, as if on the edge of breaking into a rage before quietly reigning itself in.

The singer’s voice is impassive throughout and rarely displays any emotion; indeed, such is the power generated by his apparent detachment that you can almost imagine José González hunched over his acoustic guitar in a dark basement somewhere playing with the same intensity that he might in front of an audience of thousands. The track ends abruptly after a mere 134 seconds with the cold proclamation, “You left my heart stained” – a sentiment which anyone who’s surrendered to the charms of this unique and talented artist would no doubt echo in the strongest terms imaginable.

SONG: "Stay Where You Are" - Ambulance LTD (Ambulance LTD, 2004)

Much is made in the music press nowadays of what’s considered ‘cool’ at any given moment: who’s got the right haircut, who’s been seen at what gigs with whom, which musical style’s hot-to-trot from week to week (currently something called ‘punk-funk’ I believe, which I’m pretty sure The Rapture cribbed from Gang of Four a good couple of years back so that’s yet another rehashed current trend sure to last all of five minutes…) Occasionally though – just occasionally – a band comes along who prove themselves the glorious exception to the rule.

Ambulance LTD (pronounce the individual letters) are cool without even having to try. So laid back they might as well be permanently horizontal, this loveably nonchalant New York quartet effortlessly meld the icy sheen of Interpol to the open-hearted candour of Elliott Smith. That they somehow managed to slip under the radar to deliver a debut album of grace and poise at the tail-end of the Noo-Yawk hype machine simply affirms the fact that you can’t compensate for a lack of class with propaganda – it’s something that a band either has or they don’t. However, while Ambulance have finesse in spades, the reason their music works so well is because the style comes a resolute second to real substance. This is a band who craft first and dress snappily later, meaning that their songs are imbued with a velveteen flair that impresses and stirs simultaneously. Believe me, a year from now we won’t be saying the same thing about ¡Forward, Russia! or any of their fly-by-night contemporaries custom-built to zero in on the zeitgeist before crashing and burning quicker than a heat-seeking missile.

Stay Where You Are is by far the standout from Ambulance LTD’s self-titled debut, an album smoother than George Clooney and Brad Pitt sharing a Galaxy bar and the aural equivalent of having your ears gently stroked by Jessica Rabbit. The track opens with two minutes of shimmering guitar noise which blends various layers of the song’s primary chord structure in reverse. While I will sheepishly admit to cutting this part of the song off for brevity’s sake when including it on compilations, the effect if taken as a whole is utterly mesmeric: too ambient to constitute feedback and too melodic to pass as mere dissonance, the sheer tranquillity of this extended introduction puts you in exactly the right frame of mind to best experience what follows.

When the song itself kicks in, it almost sounds like the band are barely even playing, such is the degree of minimalism with which they approach the task. Half-sung and half-whispered, the vocal lines linger in the background, often overlapping and cross-fading to ethereal effect. Indeed, despite being quite a jaunty little thing overall, I actually find this track perversely calming – its quietly moving central refrain perfectly counterbalances the insistent musical strut to evoke a sense of wide-eyed innocence, a feeling best encapsulated in its gorgeously understated lyric: “Stay where you are, I’m right behind you / …I might not be the one that’s true, but I’m trying don’t you know”.

The climactic movement at the end of the song is the real zinger though. A looping guitar-line weaves gentle patterns around the melody as lead singer Marcus Congleton (a man presumably not named after the crappy Northern town where I spent my teenage years) juxtaposes diametric opposites in a bid to further pacify his intended: “Don’t hang on, don’t let go / Don’t aim high, don’t aim low”. Stripped of the ability to cling to anything tangible, both he and the objection of his affection are simply left hanging in mid-air, as if dangling serenely in suspended animation. As only the best songs can, Stay Where You Are accurately evokes this sensation of abandonment by taking you to a place of absolute calm where it feels like nothing can hurt you.

Wannabe lounge-lizard contemporaries like The Strokes could try for years to write something this beautiful, but they’d never get anywhere close. It’s like liquid caramel lolling over your tongue as you slip into a blissful slumber. Girls, if you ever get this on a mix CD from a guy, chances are he’s really trying to tell you something; I suggest you listen carefully, as I seriously doubt they’ll ever be able to put it anywhere near as eloquently themselves.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

SONG: "Conversation Intercom" - Soulwax (Much Against Everyone's Advice, 1999)

I love songs that send out one set of signals but are actually about something else entirely – partly because I like to feel smug and superior when telling people that they don’t know a song until they’ve really listened to it, and partly because when I have a go at reworking tracks acoustically it means that the songs can often take people completely by surprise (“Oh, I never knew it had any meaning!”). Perhaps my favourite example of this paradox in recent years – which, funnily enough, has also become my biggest bugbear ever since it became appropriated by clueless slappers with no understanding of its true intent - is The KillersMr. Brightside, under whose shimmering disco surface seethes a wrenchingly sad tale of emotional torment and sexual jealousy (check out my take on it here).

Ironically for a band so technologically forward-thinking in their approach to writing and performing (Soulwax were arguably one of the first modern bands to successfully marry alternative rock songwriting to a dance-oriented production ethic, with their subsequent work as re-mixers, bootleggers and producers practically inventing the electro-clash genre), here the Dewaele brothers find themselves at the mercy of a piece of machinery.

Lead singer Stephen’s nemesis is his lover’s answerphone. Throughout the course of the song, he finds himself unable to speak to this dehumanising machine which distorts his every word and “makes a whispering man sound as if he cries”. Everything he tries to get across becomes twisted when relayed through this impersonal mediator (“You hear what I say, but it comes out all wrong”); what is heard is never what was intended, and you can really feel the desperation creeping in as he finds himself frantically hitting “1-800, dial-to-be-heard”. It’s a simply enough metaphor, but sometimes the most straightfoward conceits are the most effective. When taken more widely the song’s principal themes of misdirection and miscommunication speak volumes to anyone who’s ever struggled to talk to someone they love and found themselves thwarted by seemingly insurmountable obstacles, be they physical or emotional - certainly if you slow the song down (as the band did for a bonus track on a reissued version of parent LP Much Against Everyone’s Advice) it assumes a whole new resonance and becomes infinitely sadder in tone.

Sonically the production masks the song’s deeper vulnerabilities: a throbbing bass-line pulsates rhythmically throughout over a spiky, mechanical drumbeat while a slide guitar zithers away merrily with an apparent total disregard for everything else that’s going on. There’s no doubt that this is one of the best-sounding records I’ve ever heard; it somehow manages to marry the steely edge of contemporary dance music to the grimy feel of introspective indie, all the while retaining the kind of ice-cool precision and effortless showmanship than have become the band’s stock-in-trade. However, it’s the song itself which really captures my imagination – more so than any other in the Soulwax back catalogue, it has real heart, and possesses more feeling than the band would usually allow themselves to exhibit. That the track ends on such a downbeat note with only a fragile piano and hushed vocal remaining (both cleverly recorded in such a way that it emulates what the person on the other end might hear coming out of the machine) serves only to emphasise its unassuming depth and beauty.

SONG: "No Happy" - Serafin (No Push Collide, 2004)

This is an odd little effort which I never fully appreciated until I dug out Serafin’s first (and, to date, only) album No Push Collide for revisitation recently. With its blistering chorus and hard-line production, No Happy immediately jumps out at you as a standout track upon first listen, but it’s only after a few spins that it starts to become apparent just how genuinely bizarre this song is.

For my money, Ben Fox Smith is one of Britain’s most interesting and distinctive songwriters, and yet he remains relatively unknown outside of a small circle of alternative rock fans. He first came to my attention in the late 90s as the nasal-throated frontman of short-lived teen-rockers Stony Sleep, who cut their teeth on the promising LP A Slack Romance before disintegrating in a narcotic-fuelled haze when their record label collapsed (their bassist sadly didn’t survive the fallout; however, in recent years Smith’s brother Christian went on to drum for Razorlight). I came across Serafin entirely by chance when I heard an advance copy of their debut EP and immediately recognised Smith’s unmistakeable voice. Indeed, watching them perform around the time of its release, it was evident that the singer was experiencing a new lease of life: gone were the choppy Egyptian vistas of Stony Sleep’s later work and in was a more full-on rock approach which owed as much to mid-period Idlewild and the Pixies’ dynamic attack as it did to the furious charge of Nirvana.

Lyrically, Smith has always exhibited a somewhat distorted conception of the world. Sometimes he sings almost absent-mindedly, head cocked quizzically to one side as if staring out of the window and creating abstract metaphors for the everyday things that he sees. On this track, however, he goes one step further and spins a labyrinthine yarn reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven and the gatekeeper scene from Kafka’s The Trial in its evocation of a tangled web woven by some enigmatic visitor. “Sunday morning, a revelation”, he sings; “Banged my head against a brick wall / Turned around, it was him!”. What follows is a philosophical and often surreal conversation between himself and this mystery sage, who offers him a series of cryptic riddles to solve in an apparent attempt to gain some form of clarity.

The narrative builds in weirdness and intensity until everything drops away and a lone guitar remains, perfunctorily chunking out the chords which will inevitably pave the way for the chorus. Its eventual arrival is prefixed with a hilariously skewed guitar bend, the alt-rock equivalent of a needle being abruptly knocked across a record or the comedy proing in The Prodigy’s Out of Space. When it finally drops, the chorus explodes with the full force of a fucking megaton bomb. “Go and get no happy! Go and get no happy!”, Smith shrieks like a banshee from the depths of an oesophagus that sounds like it’s gargling Jack Daniels and gravel. I honestly haven’t the faintest idea what he’s on about by this stage but god, it sounds incredible. The chorus itself seems almost hexagonal in construction; the accompanying chords shift around at odd angles to create a kind of rotating kaleidoscope that the melody can’t seem to break free from no matter how many variations on itself it attempts. Second time around, the sweetest of falsetto harmonies replaces the scream for a couple of bars before it all kicks off again in gloriously ragged fashion. “Go and get no happy! Go and get no happy!”

Is the song a metaphor for something? Who knows. Judging from the title, it could be about depression or the darkness which befell Smith after his previous band’s collapse; alternately, when he sings “I saw myself as my own salvation” in the opening lines he might be suggesting that the mysterious visitor is a metaphysical extension of his own personality. But then of course it could be anything. The refrain in the chorus is at once a command from the protagonist’s instructor, a call to arms, or even the writer’s own veiled message to himself – like all the best art, it’s whatever you want it to be. What’s undeniable, however, is the skewed quality of the song itself and the fact that it rocks like an absolute bastard while doing something genuinely different. Well done, that man.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Addendum: I e-mailed the above article to the songwriter for perusal and got this response, which he's kindly allowed me to reproduce -

"Hey Chris, excellent writer you are and thanks for the ego boost. You might be interested to know that while reading your article I realised what the song actually meant to me personally, but, as you know, that should never be the whole story. Essentially, something really weird is going on. I seem to write what I want to say without actually having to say it, whether it's to myself or to someone else. The truth is hard to bear and you're right, I am absent-minded, this is a good defense from it. It seems that songs are like being in therapy and not listening to the expert advice being given or even caring an iota what it is; until later. Thanks a lot, Ben. "

SONG: "The Rat" - The Walkmen (Bows & Arrows, 2004)

Some songs make little impact upon first listen and slowly wheedle their way into your subconscious over time. Others give you teasing fragments to grab onto while suggesting that you might become more familiarly acquainted given a little perseverance. Some songs, however, cut out the pussyfooting altogether and just go straight for the jugular.

The Rat is one such tune. A chunnering minor chord signals the arrival of its urgent opening bars; a thunderous beat then kicks in and rolls all over itself before a lonely guitar adds subtle shades of melancholy and the vocals eventually roar to life. “YOOOOOOOOOUUUU’VE GOT A NERRRRRRVE TO BE AAAAAAASSSSKIN’ A FAAAAAY-VUH!” frontman Hamilton Leithauser howls in a ferocious drawl; “YOOOOOOUUUU’VE GOT A NERRRRRRVE TO BE CAAAAAAALLIN’ MY NUMMM-BUH!”. It’s as abrasive as a sack’n’crack-wax with superglue and sandpaper, and about as subtle as a boot to the groin.

Formed from the ashes of The Recoys and esoteric art-rockers Jonathan Fire*Eater, Washington-based five-piece The Walkmen stormed into the public consciousness midway through 2004 with this incendiary firecracker of a debut single. Clearly aware of being pigeonholed as one-hit wonders by a song which ended up transporting them onto Letterman and The OC, the band quickly began disposing of it early on in their live set in order to focus the audience’s attention on the rest of their oeuvre. However, while there’s no faulting the ruthless conviction of songs like Little House of Savages and My Old Man, they’ve never bettered this - The Rat is the kind of song that grabs you firmly by the bollocks, ruffs you up against a wall and then proceeds to bludgeon you about the head with its searing, white-hot, all-consuming rage.

Leithauser doesn’t so much sing about the messy aftermath of a broken relationship here as scream blindly at you in the hope that some of his hurt might rub off and he won’t have to feel it anymore. He’s pissed off, he’s angry, he doesn’t understand how such a terrible thing could’ve happened. When you listen to the vocalist picking his way through the wreckage like the dazed victim of a car-crash, you’re hearing the sound of a man searching desperately for answers and finding only pain. “When I used to go out, I would know everyone that I saw / Now I go out alone, if I go out at all”, he moans when the song finally calms down for a brief moment midway through, before it kicks back into life for one final bout of increasingly fraught anguish. His resolve finally broken, the song ends – suddenly, inconclusively - with a solitary drum beat echoing out over a desolate squall of organ feedback.

I distinctly remember my reaction the first time I heard this record: it made me snap back in my seat and cry “Bloody hell…!” with a look of simultaneous horror and admiration at the sheer intensity of what I was hearing. Much more than a mere exercise in catharsis, this is music as emotional blood-letting – and, best of all, with its whirlwind disco beat you can really dance to it. I caught The Walkmen’s set at Glastonbury a couple of years ago and was more than a little alarmed to see Leithauser’s veins bulging out of his neck as he stared wide-eyed into the distance and spat vitriol into the mic as if it had scorned him personally. Sometimes I doubt if he was even aware of the audience being there at all.

SONG: "Believe Me Natalie" - The Killers (Hot Fuss, 2004)

So by now we’ve all got a copy of Hot Fuss, the debut album by Las Vegas Shed Seven soundalikes The Killers. We all love Mr. Brightside and All These Things That I’ve Done, two of the greatest indie singalongs of the last ten years. Buried towards the end of the album though there’s this little-known and often-overlooked gem. Most people won’t really have bothered paying much attention to it as it isn’t as much of an immediate singalong as any of the singles or even its predecessor, the soaring Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll.

Part of what distinguishes the band from most of their mainstream indie contemporaries is the genuine sense of warmth and passion they bring to their androgy-glam schtick: what could so easily lapse into depthless imitation is redeemed by the sense that the band really do mean what they’re singing. Indeed, for all his arrogant posturing and sharp-dressed pretty-boy status, Brandon Flowers has a heart; he knows how to whip up a rousing anthem and he knows how to craft a good character song. While he may indeed not be much of a soldier, he has got soul, and for me that goes a long way.

The other quality that marks them out from the pack is their tight reign over their own aesthetic. As evidenced on the jumpy, Depeche Mode-esque disco stomper Somebody Told Me, The Killers do a fine line in seedy backstreet tales which casually subvert the norms of gender and sexuality. Flowers’ tales of Las Vegas life aren’t of high rollers and names in lights; they’re of a wide-eyed, cocky young buck standing in the gutter gazing up at the stars while all around him hookers and drag queens canvass for business. There’s something inherently romantic though about the way he’s able to filter these visions through his own naively optimistic perspective to create something genuinely uplifting even in its darkest incarnation; though the eyeliner may often be smeared, there’s still hope there.

Believe Me Natalie works because it taps very specifically into this bittersweet milieu of broken dreams and time running out on the possibilities of youth, with Flowers presenting himself as a potential saviour to yet another lost soul: “Believe me Natalie, listen Natalie, this is your last chance / To find a go-go dancer disco”. There’s something about the combination of using the girl’s name directly and the pleading sincerity of his voice that gives this song a genuine resonance; its pounding offbeat rhythm adds an emotive pulse which shuffles and stutters as the song awkwardly struggles to find its feet and eventually take flight. The accompanying synth effects give the impression of a swirling circus coming to an end, conjuring grandiose imagery of big tops collapsing and show-wagons rolling out, with or without their passengers for the next town.

Flowers was right to rag on the chancers and pretenders who hopped on the bandwagon and experienced instant recognition in the wake of his band’s well-deserved success (particularly floppy-fringed pastiche revivalists The Bravery, whose own debut was a pale imitation of Hot Fuss). If I were more of a twat I’d proclaim this my favourite song on the album, but I know that I’d only be saying it just to be contrary because I’m fed up of people not getting what Mr. Brightside’s really about. It is really fucking good though, a definite close third to Brightside and All These Things that's well worth going back and investigating – as the sentiment of the track itself suggests, it’s never too late to rectify your past mistakes.

SONG: "The Future Freaks Me Out" - Motion City Soundtrack (I Am the Movie, 2003)

While navigating my way through the litany of generic crap which makes up the bonus DVD on Epitaph’s Punk-O-Rama 10 the other day, I rediscovered a track which dented my consciousness a few years ago and was overjoyed to find it eliciting the same response from me now as it did back then.

The song’s called The Future Freaks Me Out, and is the signature tune of big-haired
Minnesota nerd-squad Motion City Soundtrack. In the video, their lead singer Justin Pierre sports emo specs, an innocently bemused look and a barnet that would put Yahoo Serious to shame while the rest of the band gamely clown around in a variety of multicoloured settings. However, there’s melancholy afoot!

Some girl called Betty’s giving him a hard time. From the sounds of things, they’re a pair of Gen-X misfits who are uneasily wasting their days together, or at least really ought to be. Listening to Pierre’s gawky existential ponderings (which take in everything from Will & Grace and Footloose to failing to understand the appeal of drum’n’bass), you’re given the image of two people sat drinking coffee in their pyjamas in separate bedrooms way across town, both thinking of each other and not really knowing what to do about it. However, rather than lie around moping like half his label-mates seem to be doing, his solution, it seems, is to dance. In fact, it’s not just to dance - it’s to get his favourite pair of love-pants on and crack out the Napoleon Dynamite moves.

The song begins exactly as it means to go on, with the irrepressibly catchy hookline: “I’m on fire, and now I think I’m ready / To bust a move, check it out, I’m rockin’ steady, go!” A wuzzy synth see-saws over the top of it all for that extra new-wave edge, but it’s that nagging little three-note phrase that opens the track which really makes it; it gets in your head and refuses to budge. “I’m on fire”… just when you think it’s disappeared, it’ll casually pop up somewhere else as a musical motif or incidental guitar solo, guaranteeing that even if you remember nothing else about the song, those three notes will still be with you for days afterwards. Indeed, while the overall tune itself is straightforward enough, it’s perhaps deceptively so: with its oddball chord progressions and hopscotch-style melodic back-and-forth, it’s angular in the same way that a band like Bracket are, always shifting in a quirky direction, jumping a couple of extra steps down the scale instead of just going for the obvious note.

It’s a great little song, the kind of cutesy geek-rock ditty purposely designed to put a smile on your face. For all its apparent uncertainty, The Future Freaks Me Out is as sure to lodge itself in your brain as anything by Sum 41 or New Found Glory - like the best bits of The Rentals crossed with The Get Up Kids and Devo, it’s a bounce-along emo-pop gem, and a minor anthem for that special kind of dork who thinks he can win a girl’s heart with a mix-tape, a daft pair shoes and a goofy pin-badge. I sure hope Betty got with him in the end, because if not then she’s a damn fool.

ALBUM: "There Are No Happy Endings" - Engerica (Sanctuary, 2006)

Sometimes a band comes along who, although they fit a certain set of criteria, are quite unlike any other in their approximate genre. If Alkaline Trio and My Chemical Romance are the cool, smartly-attired scene-leaders of emo-punk and Billy Talent the wild, ragged understudies kicking against their own pop sensibilities with twitchy-eyed fervour, Engerica are the brattish, antisocial younger brother sitting in the corner yukking wildly at how stupid they think the whole thing is. Hilariously obnoxious live (with lead singer and perpetually-gurning prankster David Gardner often going out of his way to actively insult and antagonise the audience), in many respects they’re like the nasty little fucker on the cover of Ugly Kid Joe’s early albums, the kind of neglected second-born who goes around setting fire to things and flips you the bird as soon as he gets chastised for it. A deranged, cartoonish B-movie horror hybrid of Mclusky, Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster and The Misfits, they’re the unwanted bastard offspring who’s most at home torturing cats or running amok on Halloween, a walking ASBO waiting to happen: an all-puking, all-mewling ball of rage gobbing phlegm in your face while gleefully pointing at their own erection then deriding you for being gay.

Disgust, degradation, contempt and self-loathing are Engerica’s stock-in-trade. Masturbatory themes and recurring images of self-mutilation, decay, suicide and immolation abound on their incendiary debut album, from the wantonly fetishistic (“You fantasise of German wives in leather”) to the profane (“Jesus wept, and gave me a hard-on”), the carnal (“Yeah, I could tell by the smell, I was gonna get it”) and the shameful (“God damn! I had to see you naked”). Moans of “Oh, God…” can occasionally be heard buried deep in the mix, as if you’re listening in on someone who’s just found that their urine’s hideously discoloured. Throughout, there’s a perverse revelling in the rancour of sexuality at its most primal and base, together with an obsession for the physical by-products of sexual activity: blood, sweat, semen, disease.

Tracks like Trick or Treat?, Crooked Sex and Funeral Song are warped tales of people who find validation for their own failings in the humiliation and exploitation of others - “Your daddy was a poor man / Well so was mine!” Gardner taunts invitingly at his plaything on the former; “Your breath stinks - so kiss me…” he hisses lustily on the latter. You get the impression that if Engerica were a movie, they’d be a cross between Kids, The Idiots and David Cronenberg’s Crash, unflinchingly depicting the antics of a group of wilfully thoughtless teenagers who go around fucking disabled people just because they find them so grossly fascinating. When Gardner sings “We are the vaccinated, bow-legged and so frustrated” on Crooked Sex, he hints at the kind of dark feelings of revulsion and arousal buried deep inside all of us which few dare to speak of and even fewer dare acknowledge. The overall effect is akin to finding the diary of a rapist or serial killer and reading all their most intimate sexual thoughts laid bare in graphic detail. It may not always be pleasant or even comprehensible to the rational mind - but by god, you can’t take your eyes off it.

There’s an effortless, irreverent wit to Engerica’s lyrics and the construction of their music. Riotously inventive moments of vocal phrasing pop up all over the place - witness the way the way Gardner rolls words off his tongue in the second verse of Funeral Song, screams out impenetrable lines of fast-writ nonsense in The Smell and meanders his way through the brilliantly-titled It Was a Goddamn Suicide! (sample lyric: “My shoes are rubbish, my hair is a mess / My life is a failure, and I’m constantly depressed”) like a bemused Dennis Pennis. Rhythmically the songs chop and change at regular intervals, hacking hooks in half and putting them back together however they damn well please – never more effectively than in the brutal final seconds of My Demise, a relentless, Therapy?-esque 2-minute assault which is the aural equivalent of being stabbed repeatedly by a bloody great knife. When the overdrive kicks in, beneath virtually each song there’s a layer of throat-shredding yelps from Gardner and bassist Mike Webster, with drummer Neil-Ross Gregory rounding off a remarkably meaty production job with some of the most brutal, machine-gun-like clubbing since Dave Grohl started battering his kit to buggery back in 1991.

There are two key songs on this record. The first is Roadkill, a criminally-overlooked former single which – had it been properly promoted – ought to have become one of the most popular rock tracks of recent years. Too often, Nirvana are used as a catch-all reference point for bands who marry melody to a raging undercurrent of distorted guitars; the point that’s often missed, however, is that what Nirvana sometimes lacked in finesse they compensated for in both spirit and attitude. It didn’t matter what they played or how they sang it - what mattered was the sheer ball-busting energy of the delivery. It’s no small compliment then to suggest that Roadkill bears favourable comparison to Cobain’s own Breed as its choppy opening riff erupts into a propulsive fireball of surging rock. Midway through, there’s a quirky but effective 50s-style dance breakdown (“Shake your finger, shake your finger!”) before a drum-roll kicks in, a series of increasingly frenzied grunts appear and the whole affair detonates in an awesome display of pummelling, molten fury as Gardner howls out indiscernible lyrics in a thinly-veiled steal from the vocal-line of tourette’s. One of the few (semi-) serious tracks on the album, this is what Nine Black Alps might sound like if they had any fucking bollocks to back up their solid but ultimately rather perfunctory take on modern rock.

The other notable standout is Misery Guts, probably the darkest of the bunch. Constructed around a sinewy descending riff which spirals further and further down with each bar, this song feels very different to any other track on the record and consequently has a real emotional drive which, in their haste to keep two fingers permanently waving, the others perhaps lack. By turns witty, caustic, immature and perversely literate, the tone of the album is so relentlessly self-mocking that we are never really allowed to ascertain which songs are sincere and which aren’t – certainly the boo-hoo title of this track may be a deliberate attempt to deflect attention away from what appears to be a more honest and confessional statement of isolation and disconnection (“I’m in the special crowd, but I don’t feel special now / I’m in the empty chair; there’s one just over there”). It ends with the words “I’ll write a note” repeated over a haunting, ghostly moan before its final chord fades away – while it may simply be an attempt to add another dimension to the band’s knowingly unsociable personality, the track itself lingers long in the memory.

Far more than just a savvy, snotty, hard punk-rock album, There Are No Happy Endings is a triumph because it goes one degree further. While the band would no doubt balk at the suggestion that they’d created anything resembling art (it’s certainly hard to make such a case for a record which contains lines as deliberately lowbrow as “Liar, cheater, bogey-eater / Look out everyone, here comes Peter!” and features the phrase “I look like an arsehole” as one of its choruses), what they do manage is a stubborn approximation of the form. One of the acknowledged tenets of any work of art is that it creates its own world which draws you in and keeps you locked in a cohesive and coherent pattern of its own internal codes and images. To this extent, the album succeeds gloriously. The ferocity of its overall tone and pervading sense of degradation are relentless throughout - from the bludgeoning racket of 60-second opener Reasons to be Fearful Pt. 1 right through to the stark cover image of three empty nooses and its morbidly sarcastic title, the album creates and exudes its own unique, distinctive aesthetic. Easily the best LP of its kind since Billy Talent’s debut, this is a challenging (indeed, at times downright uneasy) but frequently hilarious and vital piece of work which deserves to find the biggest possible audience. Who, presumably, the band would then proceed to hurl abuse at with gleeful abandon.