Friday, August 24, 2007

SONG: "Tiny Vessels" - Death Cab for Cutie (Transatlanticism, 2004)

This song, the undoubted highlight of Death Cab’s magnificent fourth album, is deeply personal to me for reasons I shan’t embellish in gory detail. On a superficial level the listener is able to take what they will from its naked emotional candour. We’ve all been there – lying awake in the dark next to someone and wondering what the hell we’re doing. We’ve all cheated and manipulated another person’s emotions at the expense of our own. We’ve all had our hearts broken, and then gone and done the exact same thing to someone else.

Tiny Vessels almost didn’t make it onto Transatlanticism; Benjamin Gibbard’s bandmates initially questioned the validity of the exercise and tried to warn him away from releasing it at all. As an act of catharsis, the song is callous, cruel and utterly devoid of human feeling. However, their frontman was adamant that it should stay, and he was right: just because the things he’s saying are appalling or reprehensible, that doesn’t make them any less true. The impulse still exists - denial leads to nothing more than a viral infestation of its seed. Painful though its articulation may be, there is no other way: it simply has to be said.

Tiny Vessels is a kind of void; it haunts you with a soullessness that is difficult to place. It’s there in the way Chris Walla’s guitar lines continue spiralling aimlessly once the turmoil has subsided, and the way its final bars fracture into a thousand pieces before fading to a ghostly echo. The whole recording hums with an eerie sense of disquiet that’s impossible to shake. As with all the most challenging art, it’s uncomfortable and uncompromising, but always true to itself. That the song manages to retain a sense of dignity and compassion in the face of such atrocity is testament to its author’s refinement of language and phrasing - ultimately its vicious prose becomes an apology of sorts: an admission of wrong-doing for a hurt that can never be erased. However, for better or worse, by committing his feelings to tape the singer at least had the conviction to see events through to their bitter conclusion.

Richly orchestrated yet devastatingly sparse, Gibbard
s despondency is tangible throughout; though he knows that time will heal the wounds and repair the damage he has caused, at this moment Tiny Vessels was the only available outlet for his grief. And by virtue of his confession, he is redeemed.

GIG: Slint performing "Spiderland" (London Koko, 23rd August 2007)

Generously awarded “Ten fucking stars” on its release by the band’s former producer Steve Albini, Slint’s second album Spiderland was so far ahead of its time that it basically created the genre known as post-rock (or ‘math-rock’, to cite its latest permutation) single-handedly. Fittingly for such an enigmatic work - the band’s wry smiles on its iconic cover are as inscrutable as that of the Mona Lisa - Spiderland became shrouded in mythology from the moment of its conception. Aside from insisting it be heard on vinyl, the band were apparently so drained by the writing and recording process that they promptly disbanded, selling off all their equipment and swearing that they’d never play it again (when they later decided to reform for a series of one-off performances, they had to buy back all their gear to enable them to recreate the original sounds).

Picking up where their abrasive debut Tweez left off, Spiderland is an album of mechanical riddles: its rhythmic patterns twist and writhe while spoken-word narratives of alienation and discord unfold in a chilling whisper. Its alternation between crashing hellfire and menacing hush took quiet-loud dynamics to greater extremes than had ever been previously attempted: the album’s fifth track is so slight that it’s at times almost impossible to make out what’s going on. Though only 50 000 copies have been sold to date, it’s a solid bet that most of its initial purchasers went off and formed a band themselves.

ATP’s annual Don’t Look Back season invites artists to perform a seminal album in its entirety – a bold move in an age of dismembered tracks and file-trading. Indeed, the experiment seems especially interesting tonight, with the static positioning of the band within a defined performance space creating the illusion of a session which the audience is looking in on, rather than actively participating with. It
s as if the music is there to be admired objectively from afar - a conceit that Walter Benjamin once dubbed “the unique phenomeon at a distance”. Ultimately, as on shows like The Old Grey Whistle Test, it’s hoped that this approach creates a greater longevity: as Whistle Test presenter David Hepworth suggests on the shows DVD anthology, “the sparer the performance is, the more it lasts down the years”.

I mention this because it’s clear from the offset that we’re here to witness something of substantial import. As The Lemonheads’ joyous romp through It’s a Shame About Ray two years ago suggested, Don’t Look Back ought to be a celebration, but tonight the atmosphere is foreboding and claustrophobic. There is little-to-no communication between the band and their audience, to the extent where it’s difficult to tell whether they’re loathing every second or simply immersed in concentration. I suspect it’s a little of both, though ultimately it doesn’t really matter: the uncomfortable silences that linger between songs simply add to the intensity of the performance. From the moment Breadcrumb Trail’s ringing harmonics give way to sinewy arpeggios and blow-torch distortion, you can’t take your eyes off them. Hearing the album in its entirety at decibel-shattering volume, you’re able to detect complexities hitherto unacknowledged: tonight, Nosferatu Man makes the chunking polyrhythms of Tool sound like a child bashing a toy drum. By the time the album’s towering centrepiece Good Morning, Captain slithers forth to mount its slow-burning sensory assault, you’re absolutely spellbound.

While the band themselves may rue its unlikely standing, there’s no questioning that Spiderland has become one of the most important rock albums of the last few decades - even a casual glance at tonight
s setlist confirms where Mogwai got most of their ideas from (frankly, the similarity between Hunted by a Freak and Washer ought to be a matter for High Court discussion). To think that Slint created such an accomplished and forward-thinking piece of work when they were still in their early twenties is remarkable; that it still sounds fascinating seventeen years on affirms the mark of true greatness.

SONG: "Porcupine or Pineapple?" - Brakes (The Beatific Visions, 2006)

I’ve got to give props to this track, which crept up on me the other week to deliver the musical equivalent of a brisk drubbing.

Like Maynard Keenan’s Tool offshoot A Perfect Circle, Brakes are a side-project whose work stands equal to that of any of its constituent parts. Comprising various members of UK indie stalwarts British Sea Power, The Tenderfoot and Electric Soft Parade, the quartet marry the latter’s melodic sensibilities to BSP’s barking eccentricity. Best-known for the indie dancefloor stomper All-Night Disco Party, their
recent LP The Beatific Visions was named Album of the Year by 6Music and XFM despite slipping by virtually unnoticed. The band has an eclectic, anything-goes approach that makes them impossible to wrestle down from track-to-track - if the LP’s title song sounds like a homage to summery 60s popstrels The Apples in Stereo, Spring Chicken is a classic rock’n’roll barnstormer in the mould of Eddie Cochran and The Cramps. Equally, for every driving thump-along like Cease and Desist there’s a disarmingly gentle hymn lurking just round the corner: check out touching album-closer No Return, which uses the image of riffling through old blues records in a Birmingham thrift-store as a poignant metaphor for a failed relationship.

In keeping with the general air of stylistic irreverence, this appropriately spiky effort sounds like absolutely nothing else on the album. A deranged, minute-long blast of throwaway nonsense, it comes across like Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster molesting an Arctic Monkeys number while sloshed on Sunny Delight. With a structure apparently lifted straight out of Folk Implosion’s Daddy Never Understood, the rhythm section rattles along with a total disregard for public safety while vocalist Eamon Hamilton yelps out the question on everyone’s lips: “Porcupine or pineapple? / …Who won the war?! / Who won the war?! / Who won the war, and was it worth fighting for?!”

One of the most utterly pointless songs ever penned (as Hamilton later pertinently ponders, “Who won the war, and what the fuck was it for?!”), I’ll bet all the money in my pockets against all the money in yours that the idea for this song arose from a drunken Celebrity Deathmatch-style conundrum on the tour bus one evening. Either that or their thinking’s naturally this skewed - I wouldn’t put it past them. From the sound of things, they’re absolutely fucking nuts.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

SONG: "Golden Skin" - Silver Sun (Silver Sun, 1997)

If there were any justice in the pop world, Silver Sun frontman James Broad would reign supreme. I’ve always been utterly mystified by the travesty of his band having never made the big-time – along with fellow guitar-pop practitioners Fountains of Wayne and The Lemonheads, they always seemed the most likely candidates for mainstream acceptance. Arriving at the tail-end of Britpop with a rash of equally great bands who never found the recognition they deserved (Out of My Hair, Blameless and Livingstone to name just three), Silver Sun’s blueprint was a simple one: The Beach Boys + Cheap Trick = instant pop perfection. If the immediate influence of these two acts wasn’t exactly difficult to discern (Scarecrow, one of the standout cuts from their second album Neo-Wave, is I Want You to Want Me), neither was the quality of Broad’s songwriting. Pitched partway between the fun-time bubblegum bop of The Monkees and the more classical approach of girl-groups like The Ronettes, he perhaps emerged three decades too late – had they been around in 1963, Silver Sun would’ve had teenage girls in pigtails squealing round their bedrooms.

Predictably massive in Japan, the band’s trademark multilayered falsettos were augmented by a glossy, radio-friendly sheen which saw the band equally loved by Chris Evans, Saturday morning TV and Kerrang! magazine. In an age of Weezer, Ash and Joyrider, the horizon was looking luminous indeed for Silver Sun; inexplicably, however, following brief flirtations with the Top 40 through radio favourites Last Day and I’ll See You Around, the band scored their biggest hit with an arbitrary cover of the Johnny Mathis standard Too Much, Too Little, Too Late before vanishing off the face of the earth.

Surprisingly, the band recently re-emerged from the wilderness after a six-year hiatus to release not one but two self-produced albums: Disappear Here (on which Broad allegedly plays every single instrument) and last year’s Dad’s Weird Dream. You’d think that six years of bitter reflection would herald some kind of misanthropic Kid A­-style reinvention – however, like The Ramones before them, it’s a comforting testament to the singularity of Silver Sun’s vision that their formula never changes. Despite not having any kind of major-label backing, they still manage to make their albums sound like the most expensive records ever produced. Their kitsch B-movie comic-strip artwork remains as endearing as ever. And the tunes are still top-notch.

Though I’ll See You Around was a much catchier song, for me it’s former single Golden Skin which always best captures what Silver Sun are about. A joyful, carefree skip built around an ascending day-glo riff, the song’s sugar-sweet exterior offers the perfect firewall for Broad’s slyly acerbic observations on the illusion of celebrity. Silver Sun have always been suckers for a massive chorus, but this one is more restrained: heralded by a rolling crescendo, the melody hangs teasingly in the balance before bursting into a resplendent refrain which sounds like the perfect call-to-arms for anyone unfamiliar with their futuristic sunshine aesthetic: “Open the door, and let the light in”. Come the song’s gloriously overblown finale, the band pile on vocal harmonies in the grand tradition of Twist and Shout before thundering into the final chord with gleeful intemperance.

Fads come and go, but great pop lasts forever. I suspect that James Broad knows this – it’s one of the only ways to find solace from the disappointment of almost cracking the mainstream and then being cruelly slapped back into obscurity. To this extent, the image which forms part of the artwork for Disappear Here (that of the singer standing alone on a beach staring at the ocean, one man against the world) seems to me an apt metaphor of his refusal to let the bastards grind him down. The man is a hero to be saluted – and not just because he once sneaked a song onto daytime radio which contained the lyric “All of my ex-girlfriends, they were shit”. Against all the odds, he’s still here. His band’s still out there doing their thing. His fans remain as loyal as ever, and the next record can’t come soon enough. We’ll see you around.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

ALBUM: "Nevermind" - Nirvana (Geffen, 1991)

In the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, Nirvana’s second album has assumed a near-mythic status which renders it untouchable to all but the loftiest of social commentators. One of those ubiquitous titles which pops up time and again in the upper echelons of 'All-Time Greatest' lists, so much has been written about Nevermind that its status now precedes it - often to such an extent that its actual content is unfairly undermined. Since I bang on about the band so often on these pages, I thought it was time to offer my own appraisal.

Given the album’s casual omnipotence, it’s easy to forget precisely what Nirvana achieved with Nevermind: whether you dig its artistic accomplishments or fail to see what all the fuss is about, there’s simply no disputing the enormity of its impact. Nirvana’s emergence at the start of the last decade paved the way for every major rock act to have followed. Call it a blessing or a curse, but without Nirvana there’d be no Green Day, Rage Against the Machine, Weezer, Muse or Radiohead - in fact, the entire cultural landscape itself would be radically different (Quentin Tarantino acknowledges Cobain in his screenplay for Pulp Fiction, a film he offered the singer and wife Courtney Love key roles in). The album hit a nerve which struck deep into the heart of a generation struggling to find its own identity, causing a wounded soul to emerge kicking and screaming in all its pent-up fury.

Indeed, beyond its immediate musical influence, the success of Nevermind revolutionised the way the industry thought, in turn opening the door to a world of possibilities for musicians previously considered too much of a minority voice to achieve cultural recognition. Sub-genres like post-rock would never have been given the opportunity to develop and flourish as freely as they were ultimately able to, and even leftfield acts like Death Cab for Cutie owe the band a clear debt of gratitude (frontman Ben Gibbard recently composed the score for About a Son, the upcoming documentary narrated by Cobain from hours of unreleased audio footage). Predating the equally-significant explosion of online music dissemination by a good ten years, Nirvana’s revitalization of the rock market brought passion, intelligence, attitude and integrity back to music.

It’s obvious to any casual listener that on a fairly basic musical level Nirvana were far from revolutionary, basically tacking together a series of key influences (Pixies, Melvins, R.E.M., Sex Pistols, The Beatles) into one dirty great roaring package. However, if you’re able to strip away all the window-dressing applied to the band and listen to the music afresh, I challenge even the thorniest critic to remain unmoved. It still lights a fire in me every time I hear Very Ape or Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, just as Breed makes me want to shove the nearest person to hand and get shoved right back – one can only imagine how it must’ve felt hearing Teen Spirit for the first time in a world full of C&C Music Factory clones. Hell, a fair proportion of Nirvana’s output wasn’t even that special (Dive and Been a Son being two examples which immediately spring to mind), but the reason their catalogue will continue to endure is down to the sheer passion, drive and intellectual savvy which underpins it. You simply can’t exchange illusion for substance when it comes to achieving longevity in rock’n’roll - G.G. Allin died for the cause, but he’s unlikely to be revered fifty years from now because he never had any fucking tunes.

One of the charges that I hear consistently hurled at Nirvana is that they were an overrated teen-angst group peddling immature rants against the world when they ultimately had it pretty cushy (personal discontent aside, let’s not forget that this was a band who sold 10 million records and once knocked Michael Jackson off the top of the Billboard chart). However, to adopt such a narrow perspective does, I feel, rather miss the point. Of course they’re overplayed and unduly deified, but that’s hardly the band’s fault - any more than the fact that their aggression resonates with young people or that Smells Like Teen Spirit has now become an excuse for 12-year-olds to ruck at school discos. Kurt Cobain’s own relationship with success may have been complex and evasive, but the simple truth is that both he and Nirvana never asked for any of it: the hype, the fortune, the pressure or the mantle.

Moreover, to simply dismiss them as rudimentary angst-merchants is both ignorant and reductive, since any song Cobain wrote which pandered to this mentality was always endowed with a hearty dose of cynicism and irony (let’s face it, most sulky adolescents rather miss the point of Teen Spirit’s knowingly apathetic rhetoric). There’s little direct mention of adolescent malaise anywhere on Bleach, the only album of theirs actually written during the singer’s formative years, and Cobain always possessed an astute degree of reflexivity when it came to analysing his own position in the world (lest we forget, this was a man who was all in favour of naming the follow-up to Nevermind ‘I Hate Myself and I Want to Die’). However, rather than kicking brattishly against the mould, his artistic response was considerably more subversive, opening In Utero with a sardonic track which satirised his own status as king of the outcast teens (Serve the Servants) and a musical lampoon of Teen Spirit that addressed the media’s intrusion into his life through savage metaphor (Rape Me). Cobain wasn’t any kind of genius, just as he wasn’t saying anything that hadn’t been said a hundred times before by infinitely more literate artists. However, he was a gifted, articulate and intelligent songwriter capable of disguising his own confessional intent under veils of imagery: listen to the indolent carnal entreaties of Come As You Are, which effortlessly eclipses the unsubtle bluster that nu-metal bedwetters like Papa Roach would later hold up as the last word in catharsis.

The moment which always best epitomises Cobain to me is the end of their MTV Live and Loud set, in which a baying audience whoops and hollers while the band destroy their instruments. Alone onstage, Cobain flings his guitar through the air before turning to the crowd and clapping rabidly in a vitriolic display of sarcasm. So far, so characteristic, but then something unexpected happens: he turns back, and – with an almost involuntary look of guilt – loiters apologetically at the side of the stage for a moment before disappearing from view. The image is eternally poignant: that of an angry, confused young man on top of the world but unable to view his achievements as anything but hollow - torn between conflicting desires for recognition and anonymity, adoration and respect; between the purity of his intentions and the bastardisation of his art for commercial gain.

The fact is then that myth-making has always been redundant in the case of Nirvana. Cast aside the cultural ramifications of their success and the romantic gloss of Cobain’s troubled psyche and you’re left with the eternally-befuddled perception of Everett True, the band’s unofficial man-on-the-floor who has remained perpetually unable to reconcile the myth with his own direct experience of the trio: a small-time punk band kicking against an establishment they had no affinity with (former NME scribe Keith Cameron once described the trio in equally delightful terms, deeming them “a beautiful waste of time”). As a teenager in the mid-90s, I grew up with the legend, not the people behind it - to this end, I’ll probably never be able to get as close to Nirvana as I’d ultimately like since it seems inconceivable to me that they were once just another touring band you could check out at your local fleapit. But I’m slowly getting there: as I continue to reach the same age as Cobain’s own personal milestones, the more clearly I’m able to view them in purely intimate terms.

Above all else though, I’ve discovered that for me Nirvana do exactly what they say on the tin: they take you to a place of absolute harmony. Nevermind is a record that beats you about the head until the damage is so profound it hurts no longer; just when it looks like you’ve finally been bludgeoned into submission, they spoon-feed you sugar ’til you drool like a baby. It’s no secret that Cobain used music as an outlet for his own internal conflict, or that the literal definition of the band’s name formed a direct correlation with his perception of punk rock (which he saw as a spiritual entity capable of taking you to a place of total freedom). This is why he was able to hurl himself into the drum-kit night after night with no thought for self-preservation: as long as he was in the throes of this perfect escape, nothing could ever hurt him.

There’s a moment on Nevermind which encapsulates this concept with effortless majesty. It’s during the middle blast of Stay Away, where Krist Novoselic’s bass just kinds of dips around in mid-air while Cobain’s guitar chimes in perfect melodic unity; soon after, a slashing refrain cuts across the vista accompanied by the words “I don't know why!”. It’s a total punk-rock freefall, a state of blissed-out immunity that’s neither here nor there: the sound of someone awash in a wall of distortion, flailing aimlessly in hopeless abandon. The same is equally true of Lithium, a song whose dopey smile is able to mask the pain inside because its author seems content to exist in his own protective bubble. As Nevermind’s penultimate track suggests, both songs are blissful sighs of resignation - a submissive shrug designed to leave you floating on air. Played loud, they leave me feeling utterly invincible, as if consumed by one overwhelming response: I’m on a plain. I can’t complain.

With this in mind, go put on Nevermind again, crank up the volume and just let it flood over you. Lose yourself in the fluffy cloudscape of Lithium and slam-dance like a loon to the all-out aggression of Territorial Pissings. Resist the urge to search for immediate meaning in the lyrics and appreciate them for what they are: a series of misnomers and non-sequiturs strung together in a specific order towards a certain effect. Listen to the chorus of In Bloom and laugh yourself silly at the irony of a thousand meatheads hollering along to one of the smartest refrains ever penned, never quite grasping that they know not what it means. Check out the hilarious middle-eight of On a Plain, where Cobain attempts to utter some profound rumination on life but ends up only confusing himself (“As a defence, I’m neutered and spayed / What the hell am I trying to say?”). And then go watch the wickedly demented video for In Utero’s lead-in single Heart-Shaped Box, which proves definitively why most of the band’s contemporaries failed to survive the hype of the so-called ‘grunge explosion’ - they were simply incapable of writing a song so artful in craft and brutal in execution.

Dying young seals the legend of an artist in a time-capsule - it solidifies their image in memory, ensuring they can never become anything less than their achievements in life. In short, they’re allowed to burn out but never fade away. Would Kurt Cobain’s output have sucked now if his life hadn’t been cut so tragically short? If the band’s MTV Unplugged set and prospective collaboration with Michael Stipe were anything to go by, I seriously doubt it. Cobain’s mass of wasted potential is that which has always left the sourest aftertaste, since creatively if not personally it’s always seemed like he still had so much left to give (if you’ve never heard Do Re Mi, his final recording which eventually surfaced on With the Lights Out, go hunt it down - it’s an astonishing song that offers an all-too-tantalising glimpse into the next stage of his ongoing evolution).

While In Utero perhaps remains a more accomplished album in strictly artistic terms (spare a thought for my other half, who was once forced to endure a drunken rant on why the album’s second side “could easily take any rock record of the last 25 years”), for these reasons Nevermind will always be the one that takes the cake. As Dave Grohl attests in Eagle Rock’s excellent Classic Albums documentary, the band’s intention was never to create any kind of landmark, just to make an album that sounded really good. It still does. It always will. Nevermind: the bollocks.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

DVD: Reuben - "What Happens in Aldershot Stays in Aldershot" (2007, Hideous Records)

For a brief moment back in 2002, the commercial future of British rock looked incredibly bright. One of the more gratifying consequences of seeing nu-metal limp towards its inevitable demise was that the spotlight shifted onto the UK’s vibrant post-hardcore scene. While the likes of At the Drive-In were busy bolstering the genre’s critical integrity across the Atlantic, bands such as Vex Red, Hundred Reasons and Hell is for Heroes were being snapped up by major labels left, right and centre while being heralded by everyone from The Guardian to Kerrang! as the saviours of British music.

And then, almost as quickly as the process had begun… nothing. It’s as if the record industry didn’t know what to do with the wealth of talent they’d acquired – they’d taken a grass-roots scene and tried to market it to an audience completely out of touch with its values and ideals. The cull was swift and brutal; of that original crop of bands, only a handful survived and are now still operative. Hell is for Heroes dropped off the radar following a sterling debut release, dogged by record-label problems which dealt a severe blow to their confidence and forced them to retreat underground. Mismarketed and misunderstood by their handlers at Columbia, Hundred Reasons were also quickly ditched, eventually emerging revitalised with last year’s excellent Kill Your Own LP. The unfortunate likes of Jarcrew, Distophia and The Copperpot Journals never even made it to the party; perhaps the only band to emerge completely unscathed (which is as much a testament to their unwillingness to play the game as it is to their considerable ability) was Biffy Clyro, whose years of dogged persistence only recently started to reap commercial dividends.

- a band whose acerbic lyrics and natural insouciance never quite seemed to complement the more rigorous workmanship of many of these acts – were perhaps unlucky to arrive slightly too late to catch the initial wave, and too early to lead the emerging current crop (yourcodenameis:milo, Fightstar, Gallows et al). With one eyebrow perpetually raised and a sense of humour equal to their penchant for driving, meaty rock, the band quickly established themselves as firm favourites on the underground circuit. You know a Reuben song the moment you hear it: they have an unmistakable authority that arises from the band’s crushing, Kerbdog-esque rhythms and Jamie Lenman’s husky but articulate bark. Indeed, quite aside from the quality of the tunes, Lenman himself is a born showman whose commanding presence and relaxed onstage patter makes the band hugely endearing to watch. They’ve always come across like the Ronseal of touring acts: they simply get in, do the job and fuck off home again. No muss, no fuss.

What’s perhaps most fascinating about the band though is that despite having built up a loyal and devoted following, commercial success seems to have casually eluded them. On the underground circuit, everyone’s heard of Reuben - and yet they continue to fall through virtually every net that’s been cast in the last five years. Following two well-received albums for Xtra Mile (the brilliantly-titled Racecar is Racecar Backwards and 2005’s Chris Sheldon-produced chunkathon Very Fast, Very Dangerous), the band’s frustrating lack of forward-momentum led to them founding their own label, for which this is the first release.

As suggested by their D-I-Y approach (my copy of the DVD arrived in an envelope addressed by the singer himself), Reuben is a totally self-sufficient, home-run operation. Amiably put together by the good folk at The Leftside, What Happens in Aldershot… is a disarmingly frank and frequently uproarious portrait of the band’s attempts to balance musical aspiration with the daily monotony of earning a crust, and as such grants us access to their spectacularly unglamorous activities outside of the band. Between amusing monologues about his hairdo and showing off his impressive collection of Dr. Who memorabilia, Jamie waits on tables at the local chippy. Personable bassist Jon Pearce stacks shelves for Waitrose. Baby-faced drummer Guy Davis (who really is that tiny in real-life) works at Debenhams and still lives with his parents. Both onscreen and in-person, the one thing that consistently hits home though is how immensely likeable they are: as the self-penned liner-notes to Very Fast, Very Dangerous attest, they really are just the kids from the local rock club who happened to go off and form a band. (Indeed, I’ll always have fond memories of Jamie wandering over to where I was DJ-ing during their UWSU soundcheck a couple of years ago and saying, “Dude! Is this The Dismemberment Plan?!” before giving me an appreciative devil-horns salute and strolling off again.)

As the group’s principal creative-force, it’s their passionate frontman who emerges as the most driven of the trio, but even his own ambitions for the band are grounded in a modest sense of pragmatism. I have no doubt that they’ll get there eventually: if there’s one thing that the steady ascent of Biffy Clyro taught us, the most important thing is to just get out there and cultivate a following - if you shift a few units along the way, bonus. However, it soon becomes clear that there are bigger things at stake than mere commercial gain: ultimately it’s their bassist who outlines their true intentions when he says, “The music industry is all I’ve known for the last five years, and that’s all I really like doing; if the band ended, I wouldn’t go and work in an office for the sake of earning some money… I’d rather earn half the wage doing something I really want to do. Having an enjoyable life is as important as having a wealthy one – it’s more important to have a good time and leave the world happy”.

With this statement, he nets it in one: there simply is no other way for Reuben. The reason they’ve been able to survive so long in such a tough climate is by playing it smart rather than opportunistic: they divide their recording advances three ways and then use that as a living-allowance, subsidising any extra-curricular activities through menial jobs. As an aspiring writer in similar circumstances, it’s a process I can empathise with completely: tedious though the graft may be, the daily grind is just an unfortunate consequence of attempting to forge your identity as an independent artist. I’ve been plugging away for years and have only recently started to see monetary recompense for my work, but when it all comes down to it I wouldn’t have it any other way - it’s either that or surrender my independence and become like everybody else: lifeless, dull and complacent. Many people rag on me for having never moved beyond my immediate surroundings upon leaving University, but I’d much rather this than getting up every morning to work a crushing nine-to-five job, only to come home and find my every creative impulse stunted.

Above all else then, it’s just about enjoying what you do. The extras on this package are absolutely hilarious: aside from an endlessly watchable slow-motion dance-off on the menu, we’re treated to all kinds of entertaining asides from piss-takes of Rod Stewart to a deliciously surreal short film in which Lenman films a group of Chinese people saying “Michael Jackson”. As an added bonus, you also get a blistering live DVD which features a typically incendiary performance from London’s Mean Fiddler: check out the punishing Stuck in my Throat for an example of the band at their most ferocious.

Regardless of whether or not you’re a Reuben fan, you really need to buy this DVD - not just because it’s the funniest and most candid depiction of life in the trenches to have emerged in many a year, but because it represents so much more than that. What Happens in Aldershot… is a testament to three artists’ persistence and integrity in the face of considerable adversity - in a revealing later scene, the band holds an impromptu conference to discuss that night’s performance of a new song and we see their underlying ethos emerge: that of a hard-working, democratic collective always striving to improve, develop and better themselves. Whereas Ondi Timoner’s similarly-themed Dig! charted the destructive relationship between art and commerce with car-crash voyeurism, here the harsh realities of grappling with day-to-day inertia are handled with good humour and a carefree shrug. Consequently, like the band itself, the film is charming, self-deprecating and at times even quite touching: in its final scene, the band exchanges gifts at a 10th Anniversary get-together and we see that above all else it is their friendship which has prevailed. For these reasons alone – not to mention the fact that chucking a few quid their way will help them carry on doing precisely that - Reuben are more than deserving of your cash. But much more importantly, on both a musical and personal level, they’re worthy of your respect.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

SONG: "To the Sea" - Razorlight (Up All Night, 2004)

Like drippy daytime-radio staples Travis, it seems bizarre to think there was a time when Razorlight were considered one of the country’s most exciting young bands. However, back before Johnny Borrell bagged himself a celebrity girlfriend and started strutting round with his shirt off at Live 8, he and his cohorts were rightly regarded as British guitar music’s brightest hope. When I first saw the group supporting The Raveonettes in late 2003, they whipped through eight songs in practically no time, dispatching what were essentially throwaway numbers with a clarity and brusqueness that fully justified their pointed moniker. It was clear that Borrell was a hugely charismatic frontman being ably backed by a dynamic group of musicians: on tracks like Stumble and Fall, Bright Lights and Rip It Up the band was in its element, creating slicing indie-pop that remained fun and credible despite its obvious commercial intentions.

Nowadays of course such perceptions are a distant memory, eclipsed by the looming shadow of their mega-selling second album and its ubiquitous signature track (you know the one). Let’s get one thing cleared up before we go any further, lest there be any doubt as to where I stand on the issue: America is a crap song. It embodies everything detestable about that which Razorlight have now become: wafer-thin, pseudo-anthemic piffle characterised by horrible, U2-esque delay and supposedly impassioned bleating. Inevitably of course this was always going to be the track which brought them to the masses - it’s as if destiny itself had served up another cosy singalong for the Just Great Songs compilation (available now at your local supermarket for only £9.77). In a recent NME interview, Borrell earnestly described America as “a political song”; to be honest though, namedropping the world’s greatest superpower in the title seems less like an act of social subversion than a cynical ploy to help break the band overseas. The lyrical equivalent of an empty piece of sloganeering, the word “America” itself is largely meaningless within the context of the track – frankly, it could be called Superted and mean about as much as it does now. Worst of all – and this really is unforgivable - it sounds unnervingly like The Fray (though in their defence I suppose Razorlight weren’t to know that when they recorded the bastard).

It’s clear listening back to their debut album Up All Night and its ghastly follow-up single Somewhere Else that Borrell always had ideas above his station. At their core, Razorlight are a nifty three-minute pop band, pure and simple: the aforementioned Rip It Up is probably the best example of what they’re capable of when their formula is boiled down to its bare bones. However, when it came round to banging the tunes together for an LP, Borrell’s desire to create the World’s Greatest Debut finally got the better of him: whereas the tracks would’ve functioned more succinctly as individual stand-alones, instead we got fades between songs, drum solos and various pointless interludes designed to make the work more of a complete whole. Unfortunately for Borrell, it had quite the opposite effect – since the tracks bore little thematic relation to one another, the finished product played like a nearly-great album ruined by over-indulgence (witness the way the band make a spectacular hash of Don’t Go Back to Dalston, a great tune which gets completely lost up its own arse when they decide to have it implode midway through).

Amidst the frustration however there was one moment which bore the mark of genius Borrell seemed so keen to inherit. Arriving at the album’s tail-end with a riff cribbed straight from Television’s Marquee Moon, To the Sea is a sprawling breakneck stomp with lyrics scattered all over the shop. The song takes the gabbling stream-of-consciousness approach of their earlier ramble In the City and applies it to a frantic musical accompaniment which dips and soars with giddy zeal. Here, the ocean is an emblem of escape, a place of infinite possibility where the dreams of two restless souls will either be reconciled or simply washed away: “Just click your heels, turn around / We’ll get out of this old town… / We’ll leave it all to the sea”. However, despite brimming with optimism, Christian Smith-Pancorvo’s clattering drum-fills bring a sense of hesitation to the song’s relentless forward-march; by the time it reaches its beautiful, desolate conclusion (in which Borrell finds himself howling into nothingness before an expansive skyline), the singer’s wracked cries convey a longing far beyond his years.

To the Sea was the song which always stood out to me from the band’s early live set, and when I first heard the recorded version’s ludicrously overwrought ending I thought they’d properly chuffed it up. With hindsight though, it’s absolutely perfect: you can hear Borrell’s voice literally come apart as the closing chords slowly crash into infinity. During the build-up to its eventual fallout, Björn Ǻgren’s guitar weaves soulful melodies around the accompanying clamour while Borrell repeatedly pleads, “I know that your love lies somewhere…”; indeed, the song’s agonising deceleration is made all the more painful by its insistent early fervour. When it eventually dies away we are left with only a quiet piano accompanied by a stream of mournful feedback: just another broken promise in an endless sea of dreams.

To the Sea is a poetic whirlwind of a song, a true revelation for a band whose anything-is-possible rhetoric and youthful exuberance were unduly stifled by one man’s ruthless quest for stadium-sized grandeur. This is the moment when Borrell’s blinding ambition and appetite for excess butted heads with his actual ability and came up solid-gold. They’ll never top it; like so many bands that rise to prominence with their first album, by the time they attempted to recapture its strengths they’d lost sight of what it was that made them so exhilarating in the first place. But for five-and-a-half glorious minutes, the romanticism of Borrell’s lost-in-the-city shtick was transformed into something far greater than even he could’ve imagined.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

FILM: "Clerks II" (Kevin Smith, 2006)

I was absolutely gutted with Clerks II, the oft-threatened and long-awaited follow-up to Kevin Smith’s 1993 slacker classic. It’s less of a sequel than a revisitation of the characters and themes of the first film – a drop-in of sorts. Ten years after the original movie’s inconclusive end, nothing much has changed: Dante and Randall are still idling away their days at the Quick Stop, the former agonising over his wasted potential and plotting an imminent relocation to Florida while his errant buddy innocently goes about sabotaging Dante’s love-life. However, when the store burns down, the pair are forced to relocate to the equally hellish dead-end of Mooby’s fast-food chain. This, coupled with Dante’s burgeoning relationship with his feisty boss (Rosario Dawson), throws the fretting malcontent into yet another existential crisis; meanwhile, a quietly resentful Randall decides to throw Dante a going-away party which may just bring everything into focus.

Despite having apparently closed the book on his self-contained ‘View Askewniverse’ at the end of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, initial notices were very positive for Clerks II. The film garnered ecstatic reviews from the press, received a standing-ovation at Cannes, and the internet abounded with tales of everyone involved rating it as the best film Smith had ever made (though I suspect the laugh-a-minute shoot was perhaps inversely influenced by the crew’s difficult experiences making Jersey Girl). I was fairly surprised then to find the film a rather depressing affair – for the most part it’s tedious, unfocused and amateurish even by Smith’s own lackadaisical standards. The gags are forced, the dialogue scrappy and the exposition stilted. Perhaps this will now be his final flirtation with the Askewniverse in which he’s most at home - I have no doubt from the numerous times he’s returned to the characters of Clerks in both comic-book and animated form that Smith clearly feels he has unfinished business at the Quick Stop. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was perhaps one backward step too far: casting aside the ropey Dogma (which I’m still not all that keen on even after several sittings), Clerks II was the first time I’ve ever felt truly disappointed by something Smith has put his name to.

Some context first. Back in the mid-90s, two films completely changed the way I looked at cinema. The first was Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993): here I was seeing for the first time a film in which absolutely nothing happened. When the credits roll, Linklater’s characters are none the wiser: no conclusions can be drawn about their future, and little has changed. The film was ostensibly little more than a bunch of people sat around talking, and simply offered a snapshot of a moment in time. For someone raised on the likes of Romancing the Stone and Turner and Hooch, this absolutely blew my mind. I’d never seen anything like it.

The second was Kevin Smith’s much-maligned sophomore effort, the riotous live-action comic-strip Mallrats (which, despite what anyone says, is a fucking great movie – sharply written, snazzily performed and funny as hell). Here was Linklater’s stratagem raised to a different level: not only were the characters sat around talking, they were discussing things that were relevant to me. At that time I knew absolutely nothing about Kevin Smith, but I was able to deduce everything I needed about the man simply from digesting his work. Here was a guy who was speaking my language: both this and Clerks marked the first time I realised I had the ability to pursue an avenue that had, until that point, always seemed closed off to me.

David Gordon Green, the talented but rather po-faced director of George Washington, famously once derided Smith for having turned film-making into a kind of Special Olympics. The bearded slacker admitted to being amused but slightly bothered by this statement, and not without good reason - while there’s certainly no denying Smith’s rudimentary grasp of cinematic technique (which he has repeatedly admitted extends little further than pointing the camera at his characters and letting them do the rest), I would argue that his contribution is equally valid: rather than destroying the art of independent film-making, in actual fact Clerks liberated the form. Smith’s emergence on the back of such a knowingly amateurish effort may have unwittingly opened the floodgates to any number of third-rate photocopies, but then the same argument could be made of Star Wars – and while George Lucas’s retreat into a purely technological mode of storytelling certainly has a lot to answer for, his films revolutionised the industry by creating an entirely new platform with limitless potential. Those who simply imitate inevitably fall flat; those who take the ball and run with it instil the medium with astonishing new capabilities.

While such an analogy perhaps falls flat when applied to Kevin Smith (who never sought to create anything other than his own niche in the world), the fact remains that he is good. Smith’s writing, while often self-indulgent, is sharp, finely-tuned and perceptive; the performances he elicits from actors serve his scripts brilliantly and imbue the work with a unique sense of camaraderie that translates warmly to an audience. Clerks aside, he may never have quite cultivated the appropriate filmic vocabulary to best articulate the tone of his output (Dogma in particular is a decent piece of writing brought shakily to the screen), but his films are always watchable, if only by virtue of being so incredibly good-natured. Indeed, his third movie, Chasing Amy (1997), remains not only his most complete and satisfying work, but the piece which proves definitively that the man has talent: here, one of the snappiest screenplays ever brought to the screen is brilliantly executed in an exemplary display of how to bring a low-rent aesthetic to authentic bearing on modest material.

For the record, I really liked Jersey Girl, Smith’s opinion-splitting 2004 effort in which he broke away from the View Askewniverse and tried to do something a little different (in this case, a tart family comedy). While the movie didn’t exactly represent a serious departure for Smith - his trademark badinage remained intact, as did his penchant for ensemble playing and pop-culture satire - the film did signal a clear development. For years he’d joked about turning into John Hughes upon becoming a father, but with Jersey Girl he managed to marry the smart, savvy Hughes of old (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) to the less-cloying elements of his later, more adult-oriented output (principally She’s Having a Baby, to which Jersey Girl is heavily indebted). It still wasn’t perfect by any means: the clash of styles was at times ill-fitting, and he never has quite mastered the art of montage for anything other than sentimental purposes. But the film was sweet, well-intentioned, and a very definite indication that there may be life beyond the rent-paying stoner humour for which Smith had by then become known.

Which is perhaps the key reason why Clerks II is such a crushing disappointment. The film’s final fifteen minutes (in which Dante and Randall are arrested and their repressed frustration with one another finally comes to a head) is outstanding, as is a touching earlier scene in which the pair momentarily escapes the humdrum of their day-to-day existence, only for Randall to mournfully admit that “Sometimes I get the feeling the world left us behind a long time ago”. However, for anyone who detected the streak of underlying melancholy in the first movie, these revelations are nothing new. Smith wants so desperately to be taken seriously as a film-maker, but for every moment of genuine insight we get another three of childish regression into frat-boy shock-antics; it’s like the director is stuck in the exact same situation as his characters, desperate to break free from the mould he’s created for himself but unable to give himself enough credit to abandon such a safe vantage-point (indeed, Chasing Amy provides a fairly penetrating insight into Smith’s own psyche when read as a commentary on the struggle between artistic aspiration and creative complacency). Whereas the trash-talk and corpse-fucking gags that gave the original Clerks such a distinctive sense of the author’s voice were admittedly cheap, at the time they at least seemed genuinely fresh; here they just sound like concessions to the dick-and-fart crowd he seems perpetually unwilling to abandon. He’s proved that he’s capable of so much more - why is he so stubbornly resisting his own development by kowtowing to an audience that’s all but holding him back?

The over-riding impression I got of Clerks II was that Smith had been honing the film’s third act for years and then sat down to bash out the preceding hour in a week, simply scribbling down the first things which came to mind. For the first 60 minutes, the writing is incredibly lazy: in addition to meandering conversations between Dante and his two ladies, we get throwaway chat about ass-to-mouth, an enlarged clitoris and – most eye-rolling of all – a desperately unfunny donkey-fucking scene. Ironically, it’s non-actor Jeff Anderson who gives the film’s strongest performance, bringing depth and pathos to the eternally hopeless Randall; by contrast, Smith’s wife Jennifer Schwalbach is awful as Dante’s cheerleader girlfriend, clearly struggling with the verbose dialogue and looking hopelessly out of place. Elsewhere, the director completely wastes a series of celebrity cameos (many of which serve little purpose other than to demonstrate how many famous mates he has), and there’s an impromptu musical number that’s never quite as fun as it ought to be. Most tragic of all, discounting an amusing Silence of the Lambs parody (clearly just a bit of business that Jason Mewes concocted in Kevin Smith’s living-room one day), even the antics of Jay and Silent Bob aren’t particularly funny this time around - it’s as if Smith exhausted all their comedic potential in their last outing and they’ve simply been bought back as a token gesture. Smith proved with Jersey Girl that he can handle essentially serious material without resorting to needless smut; the simple fact is that he’s better than this.

And yet… for all its flaws, I can’t get over that last quarter-of-an-hour. Randall’s heartfelt speech to Dante in the jail cell is as touching as anything Smith has ever written, made all the more impressive by the impassioned delivery of man-of-the-match Anderson (whose initial reluctance to commit to the project visibly dissipates in this scene as we see his own complicated relationship with the character begin to surface). Indeed, the film’s closing shot - in which the camera tracks backwards through the Quick Stop aisles to the sound of Soul Asylum’s Misery, gradually fading to monochrome before it settles on Smith’s mother reprising her milk-maid cameo - is near-perfect, offering a hugely satisfying denouement that very nearly redeems everything that went before it.

It’s in these few moments that we see Smith’s true colours emerging. He has spoken at great length about his spiritual connection to the Quick Stop and a burning desire to return to the place which formulated his professional and personal identity. To this end, Clerks II is a cathartic pilgrimage of sorts - whereas the first time around Quick Stop was a demon to be exorcised, thirteen years later it seems more like a place of sanctity: an affectionate emblem of a better time. As a fellow writer, I can understand this paradox completely. The first film I wrote back when I was seventeen was Thrifting, a heavily Smith-indebted portrait of five disillusioned skater kids wrestling with the trials of youth in the late-90s. Years later, I can’t seem to escape its spectre; as unhappy as I was during that period, I now look back on it with an aching sense of nostalgia. To this day, I still find myself dressing the way I did back then, reminiscing about the music and pining for a way of life which has since become obsolete. Just like Clerks before it, Thrifting was written as a desperate howl of ennui; however, when redrafting the screenplay recently I noticed that while the characters resent the situation they are in, there is an intuitive feeling that things will never be this good again.

Ultimately, Randall and Dante’s realisation of their calling in life is a direct extension of the author
s recognition of his own inner truths. In acknowledging this, Smith’s film finally becomes a touching paean to friendship, and an unspoken love-letter to his best buddy and partner-in-crime Scott Mosier (whose disillusionment following the tribulations of Jersey Girl very nearly led to him quitting the business). No wonder then that Smith rates Clerks II as his most personal film to date, since it proves conclusively the one realisation to ring true: that home is where the heart is.

SONG: "Nazanin" - Good Shoes (Think Before You Speak, 2007)

I’ve been really digging Good Shoes of late, a band who’ve been unfairly overlooked in the unending procession of fly-by-night indie acts to have emerged in the last couple of years (perhaps as a consequence of their moniker’s unfortunate resemblance to the infinitely less interesting Good Books). I first happened upon the band about a year ago when I found a promo of their debut single We Are Not the Same knocking around with a note scrawled on it that read: “Awesome, awesome intro”. The intro in question turned out to be an endearing square-off between the band’s two guitarists, who both play the same chord over and over at rapidly accelerating speed as if daring each other to brake first in an impromptu game of musical Chicken (I recently learned that a lad I went to school with co-directed the original video for the song, which you can view here).

A product of scruffy middle-class guilt and bored suburban malaise, the Morden quartet’s excellent Brille debut Think Before You Speak is one of the two best indie records of the year so far (the other being Make It Ride from London firebrands Vatican DC, who bosh together all the best bits of The Hives, Interpol and The Killers into one deliciously feisty package). The album is an instantly likeable effort bursting with zippy tunes that range from laconic, Arctic Monkeys-esque postcards of urban decay (Morden) to lovesick laments (Blue Eyes) and jaunty lounge which recalls The Strokes at their most lovably blasé (Small Town Girl).

There’s a beautiful sense of confusion to the music of Good Shoes, a feeling of perpetual blankness exacerbated by the disarmingly spiky bounce of the band’s bittersweet pop. More articulate than The Enemy, more incisive than The Holloways and way more fun than the slightly dour Kubichek!, oftentimes their songs are less clear-cut first-person narratives than cutting critiques of the pretenders they see around them: the ambiguity is such that you can never quite be sure if they’re singing directly about themselves or simply taking the piss. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the neurotic ramblings of All in my Head, a merciless dip into the diary of a no-mark who babbles: “I’m a talented artist, but my heart’s not in it / I’m a good shag, but I find nobody fits… / I play in a band, but I’ve got no talent / I spit and I drool, but I just don’t change a thing”. The freeform musings then assume a sloppy symmetry as they slide into a see-sawing chorus which traps the protagonist in a web of his own constraints: “It’s all in my head, all my hopes and my fears / And I’ve laid it out here for you all to see / But it’s all, all in my head”.

Indeed, there’s something quite poignant about the way Rhys Jones’s lyrics seem to directly mirror the experiences of being a young man attempting to get to grips with his own emotions, only to find himself repeatedly running up against a brick wall. Former single Never Meant to Hurt You is a fine example of this, offering up a kind of half-hearted apology to a former squeeze for whom his feelings were never more than fleeting (“Do you ever feel like you’ve broken someone’s heart? I do… / Do you ever feel like you’re lying from the start? I do…”). The listless modern equivalent of R.E.M.’s classic kiss-off The One I Love, the track is infused with muted melancholy: his sadness arises not from genuine grief, but from a recognition that his wrong-doing simply cannot be reconciled against that which he knows in his heart to be true (“I-I, never meant to hurt you / You, never knew I didn’t love you / I hope you’re fine, but the vote is mine / I’m so sorry that I’m such a typical man”). Despite his best efforts, Jones ultimately finds himself firing nothing but emotional blanks, despondent at his own ability to give as much of himself as he’d like but unable to achieve anything other than arrogant distance (“I don’t think I’ve ever loved anyone…”)

However, it’s the album’s delightfully succinct opening track Nazanin which really floats my boat. As an actual song, there isn’t really anything to it, so it’s all credit to the band that they manage to make the track such a dynamic and fascinating listen. A loosely-concealed crib of various ideas from The Futureheads’ breakneck dancefloor classics Meantime and Decent Days and Nights, the track is a multilayered blast of staccato guitar which spins various motifs off one another while a single line repeats itself rhythmically in time: “All of my insecurities are summed up; when you walk into my…”. The lyric hangs tantalisingly in the air for about a minute or so; you can definitely feel it building to something, but you’re never quite sure what (eventually you’re completely wrong-footed when its conclusion is revealed to be “…when you walk into my room”: yet another example of personal inhibition made public in the frankest way possible).

Listening to the song closely, by the time its final proclamation rings out around the two-minute mark you can count somewhere in the region of eight separate guitar lines all playing off each other. Effortlessly eclipsing the dismal chancers plumbing a similar line in confessional clatter (from inexplicably popular chart-botherers Maximo Park to the hugely inferior Maccabees), it’s a superb opening to the album, a vibrant mini-firecracker of a song whose studied neuroses perfectly sets the tone for the tales of sexual and emotional inadequacy to follow.