music

Baxter Dury, Halo Maud – Stereo, Glasgow, 20 February 2018

In May this year, Baxter Dury will play at the Casino de Paris, an iconic venue with a capacity of 2000, and venue for an iconic live album by Serge Gainsbourg; Stereo in Glasgow is among the best venues in Scotland, but it’s just a smidge smaller (capacity: 300) - the audience tonight may not know, in a way, just how privileged it is.

Parisians Halo Maud open, perhaps a little bit bashful at first if très charmants, their sound is certainly aligned with what one tends to think of in terms of contemporary French pop music (or at least that which we are exposed to in the UK): somewhat ethereal vocals, minimalist guitar, slightly proggy keyboard washes, melodic and propulsive bass, driving (but never heavy) drums. There’s a lightly psychedelic touch to them, little hints of Broadcast, Melody’s Echo Chamber, Aquaserge – at one point, vocalist and guitarist Maud Nadal (also of Moodoïd) even sings a searching melody that brings Björk to mind. Rightly well-received, their set is dynamic and memorable.

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Baxter Dury’s onstage persona is certainly geezerish but with a knowing glint in the eye present at all times. It’s wholly appropriate for the music, especially numbers from his superlative 2017 album Prince of Tears, a catalogue of sad characters victimised by their own masculinity, too in love their own bravado and braggadocio to notice they’re pathetic, broken.

Across a set composed primarily (but not solely) of songs from his last three albums, Dury is a charismatic stage presence and the music shines. Played live, these songs take on an extra vivacity, muscularity – the band has a great time, and so do the audience. It’s pretty rare for a 16-song set (including encore) to be anything other than irritating/waring/boring by the time of its conclusion, but not tonight. It’s pretty much perfect - sometimes cheeky, sometimes downtrodden, always captivating. Dury should be a household name in the UK but as it stands he’s just another example in a long list of ways our Continental brethren can show us the way. Bof.

Photos: Erika Sella. Words: Andrew R. Hill

Under your skin: Hesteofringen - Henning Christiansen

Image courtesy of Holidays Records.

This oddity from boutique Milanese label Holidays Records makes for a disquieting and arresting listen across its 8 minutes and 55 seconds. A single-sided 10” in beautifully minimal respectively white/green and red/white outer and inner sleeves, it transcends its origins as the soundtrack to a singularly bizarre and brutal piece of Danish conceptual/performance art.

Broadcast to a large portion of the Danish population in January 1970, Hesteofringen (‘Horse Sacrifice’) was the ostensible ritual slaughtering and dismemberment of a horse in protest of the ongoing war in Vietnam (the horse was actually very old and put down humanely by a vet). Initiated by Bjørn Nørgaard, this ‘happening’ is captured on silent super 8 footage - a medium that is lent an additional strange horror by the fact that it was so often used to record home videos in the past. The record sleeve’s colour scheme is no coincidence – on a snowy plain in northern Denmark, we see (multimedia and performance artist) Lene Adler Pedersen incanting as a ‘priestess’ while wearing a red, black and white robe, a reflection of sorts of the horse’s dark body bleeding out onto white ground as it is hacked up - while Fluxus-associated Beuys collaborator Henning Christiansen accompanies the act on a green violin (this scene is documented in a vibrant colour photograph on the inner sleeve). The only sound in the film is the music documented on the record, which is partly repeated later in the film (17 and a half minutes long).

The music (a piece that is actually entitled ‘Min døde hest’ – ‘My dead horse’) consists of Pedersen, childlike, singing a poem by Nørgaard; Nørgaard plays plangent, cyclical piano chords while Christiansen draws out atonal, creaky, moans from his violin. The voice is the part that dominates, the part that captivates most – nothing so unusual about that – mourning, distracted, absent. But the (Danish) lyrics repeat the piece’s title again and again, with interjections about crawling inside the dead horse, “Oh, your soft intestines”, and “dead horse on bread”. We do not need to comprehend the lyrics literally (a kind Discogs user, Google translate and the sleevenotes are to thank for these transcriptions/translations) to understand that this voice speaks of a profound loneliness.

The music is perhaps very slightly reminiscent of John Cage’s songs for piano and voice (as found on ECM’s 2012 release As It Is), or Erik Satie, or Patty Waters, but one tends to think more of Jandek, or Grouper (particularly Ruins) in the sense that - irrespective of the actual circumstances of the playing of the music - this sounds like a room containing one person, singing inwardly, lamenting, not taking much care to the execution of the playing, more trying to work through something harrowing, and perhaps finding they are inadequately emotionally or linguistically facilitated to do so. Holidays Records describe the piece as a ‘sad lullaby’ and it’s hard to argue with this description. Lullabies are often used to sing children to sleep, especially if they are unsettled or temporarily troubled; this sounds like someone singing herself to sleep, slipping back into something infant, seeking comfort, warmth, protection.

  Lene Adler Pedersen and Henning Christiansen perform  Hesteofringen  (film still found on inner sleeve).

Lene Adler Pedersen and Henning Christiansen perform Hesteofringen (film still found on inner sleeve).

In Christiansen’s ‘THOUGHTS ABOUT A DEAD HORSE (and an attempt to move on)’ (February 1970), presented as sleevenotes to Hesteofringen, he underlines the existential isolation that echoes through the record: “Our most immediate problem is contact among people. For the last five years, the code word has been communication, but this was on an external level. At stake now is the internal level.” The hippy-ish context of that most late-60s/early-70s artwork, ‘the happening’, and the references to mysticism throughout Christiansen’s statement tend to make one suspicious of this assertion, but it is not so distant from Lacanian thought around language’s alienating effects – most basically (so one is given to understand), that there is a fundamental, irresolvable disconnect within each one of us that leads to an innate dissatisfaction, and language (as an external system) bears much of the responsibility. While the then-fashionable quasi-spiritual mumbo jumbo contained in Christiansen’s 48-year old statement is to some degree validated by tracts of poststructuralist theory, it is really a tautology, irrelevant. As interesting as the sleevenotes are, and as fascinating as the original artwork/performance is, the song resonates all the louder by itself.

Hesteofringen lends some voice to that alienation, without resolving it. That language here has to some degree broken down - become repetitive, twisted, obsessive - is surely no coincidence; not understanding the literal meaning of the words (though the repetition is obvious) actually enhances this sensation of alienation. That the voice, piano and violin all sound slightly misaligned, disjointed, heightens the sensation further still; but the voice alone transmits this alienation well enough, and the loneliness conveyed makes one a voyeur. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, spying on private trauma.

“Oh, just the whole world was a dead horse.”

Crawling inside your “dear, dead horse” won’t bring it back to life; it may protect you from the elements for a while, but the world remains outside.

This may make the record sound horrific, unbearable, unlistenable, but it is far too beautiful to honestly deem it so. Hesteofringen is undeniably stark, strange, discomfiting; but its hypnotic melancholy cannot help but get under your skin.

Hesteofringen is out now on Holidays Records, in a limited edition of 350 copies. Thanks to Low Company Records for bringing it to our attention.

Andrew R. Hill


Bibliography

Ghosh, Mallika. “Lacan and Post-Structuralism.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Anthropology (IJSSA), Dec. 2016, pp. 85–89., http://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/0e8b/d896781fe72f4533098794afbc64b4586949.pdf.

Harwood, Mark. “Nature and Culture.” Surround, Apr. 2014, surround.noquam.com/nature-and-culture/.

Hvidt, Annette Rosenvold. “About the Work: The Horse Sacrifice.” Statens Museum for Kunst, 22 Mar. 2017, www.smk.dk/en/visit-the-museum/exhibitions/past-exhibitions/2010/bjoern-noergaard/about-the-work-the-horse-sacrifice/.

Lechte, John. “Jacques Lacan.” Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers: from Structuralism to Postmodernity, Routledge, 1994, pp. 77–81.

'Simply Thrilled: The Preposterous Story of Postcard Records' - Simon Goddard

Simon Goddard’s whimsical account of Postcard is prefaced by Maxwell Scott’s oft paraphrased “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It’s a quote that is key to understanding and enjoying the book. It does not ‘set the record straight’, it is not a reference manual of endless gigographies and timelines – if that’s what you’re after, that book is yet to be written. Simply Thrilled: The Preposterous Story of Postcard Records is not a hagiography per se – the presence of myriad acts of self-defeat (and, every now and then, incompetence) and acid-tongued put-downs run rather contrary to most accounts of sainthood – but it does indulge the mythmaking, as well as further romanticising that which has already been significantly romanticised. It’s an engaging read, for all that the line between fact and fiction is often knowingly blurred (quite where is far from apparent much of the time, although Goddard does occasionally illuminate the reader with footnotes on particularly contentious matters).

Following a prologue explaining the life Victorian cat illustrator and inadvertent Postcard logo designer Louis Wain, Goddard introduces us to the Mitty-ish, Saltcoats-dwelling teenage Alan Horne, perennially setback by “fate’s cruel ministers” (a fate used recurrently to great comic effect); most readers will know how integral he is to the Postcard story – in some ways, Goddard renders it all the more incredible that he could be. From there, Goddard recounts his absurd tale of the (still) influential phenomenon that was Postcard Records (slogan ‘The Sound of Young Scotland’): short-lived, a haphazard lurch from genius to disaster and back again, full of youthful bravado and naivety, all the while producing some of the most jaw-droppingly vivacious music ever recorded (although none of it could ever measure up to Pale Blue Eyes for Horne, of course). Horne, Edwyn Collins and co. believed they could take the charts and were outward-looking, without ever losing their very Scottish sense of humour (and periodic self-destruction). Orange Juice were from Bearsden, Josef K Edinburgh, Aztec Camera East Kilbride – all pretty close to each other – but the Go-Betweens were from Brisbane; nonetheless, they weren’t afraid to play with a particular image of Scotland as well (see the label 7” sleeves from 1981).

 ' Funky Glasgow Then' map - a Record Store Day exclusive

'Funky Glasgow Then' map - a Record Store Day exclusive

The book presents the Postcard story as just that: a tale, a fable, a ripping yarn. Its is a compelling narrative and often laugh-out-loud funny; the overly florid language can be a tad overpowering, even a bit grating (particularly at first), but the eccentric subjects lend themselves to it (how many debut singles – how many songs, for that matter - have used the word ‘consequently’?). There is also the risk of the humour overwhelming an inspiring story and rendering its protagonists parochial bumpkins – it narrowly avoids doing so by the obvious affection Goddard has for his subjects (as well as the fact that these stories have come from the participants themselves). There is an obsessive fanboy in this writer that is perhaps a bit disappointed by a lack of endless hard facts and figures, trivial minutiae, but that same anorak-bearing, social incompetent was also enthralled to read the myth recorded in black-and-white. Finally. Postcard (the records, the idea of it) is held close to the hearts of many – Goddard’s book will certainly not detract from this, he may well serve to enhance it. There’s certainly a lot more to be said about the journeys that the talents of Postcard took, but this book gets things off to a flying start. Ye Gods.

 

 

Andrew R. Hill


'30 Odd Years' - Vic Godard

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BBC 6 Music DJ (and former member of The Fall) Marc Riley refers to Vic Godard as ‘The Greatest Living Englishman’ and after listening to 30 Odd Years quite a few times now, it’s hard to disagree (as far as songwriters go, anyway). His influence in the late-‘70s was significant and it resonates to this day. Godard (né Napper) took the emancipatory energy of punk and applied his inchoate yet sophisticated songwriting nous to it, filtering a variety of genres through both over the decades. From 1978’s Don’t Split It through to a 2012 rendition of 1992’s Johnny Thunders with Davey Henderson’s marvellous Sexual Objects, there’s no ‘Joey-punk’ knuckle-dragging and not a hint of flab.

The first disc is the more straightforward of the two, although it may raise the eyebrows of the hitherto uninitiated: it starts off punk (albeit with a smart, cutting, ‘60s garage edge), develops into Velvets-tinged pop, swings into full ‘Cole Porter’ mode in the middle, briefly turns off into the best Bond themes you’ve never heard (Spring is Grey and Stayin’ Outta View (Instrumental)) and ends with muscular Edwyn Collins-produced Northern Soul. All this could surprise even the seasoned fan with a full pre-existing familiarity with the individual songs.

The second disc initially follows naturally enough with We’ll Keep Our Chains from Godard’s second Collins-produced Long Term Side-Effect – melodic, tough, a bit off kilter and underpinned with that trademark Northern Soul swing. But then the generic twist-turns begin to emerge in ever more awe-inspiringly unexpected ways. First there are two infectious gospel songs from LTS-E and then we’re into turn-of-the-century urban with The Writer’s Slumped, which has more than a hint of Missy Elliott’s Get Yr Freak On about it (which came first, one wonders?). There’s even Godard classics such as Ambition with a distinct good-ole-fashioned-hoe-down bent, blackly funny music hall in the form of Blackpool (the theme to an ill-fated theatre collaboration with Irvine Welsh) and the jaunty, accordion-led, Brechtian number The Wedding Song. The most incredible thing about all of these diversions is how natural it all sounds – partly a testament to picking collaborators of the finest calibre but primarily due to being possessed of a songwriting talent, an authorial voice, so definite and distinct as to frequently leave one breathless.

The last song proper is the aforementioned live rendition of Johnny Thunders with The Sexual Objects. Recorded at Stereo in Glasgow in December 2012, it was a performance that was a part of a series of events dubbed VIC.ism, the weekend-long Glasgow leg of which celebrated Godard’s influences, influence and his special connection to the local music scene (his connection to Scotland is emphasised further by excerpts of the late Edinburgh poet Paul Reekie discussing Godard and Subway Sect on the short intro and outro tracks). 30 Odd Years reinforces the extent to which Godard’s back catalogue and fulsome talents deserve to be celebrated and emphatically so. Even the Godard/Sect aficionado is likely to uncover a fresh understanding, not least because of the wealth of alternative versions, radio sessions and live recordings on offer. The promise of a further Edwyn Collins-produced record, 1979 Now, later in the year is very exciting indeed, and if ever a 40 Odd Years appears, one could be confident it would be every bit as essential a listen as its predecessor.

'30 Odd Years' is available now on Gnu Inc Records on CD and download.

Andrew R. Hill

'Wig Out At Jagbags' - Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks

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Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks’ 2011 album Mirror Traffic was rightly hailed as one of the highlights of the former Pavement singer’s solo career so far. Much was also made of how much it sounded like Pavement, but Malkmus and his backing band have never really drifted all that far from the sound for which he is still best known. The new record, Wig Out At Jagbags, is slighter than Mirror Traffic even if does occasionally feature a broader palette of instrumentation than one was accustomed to hearing from Pavement. One such song is Smoov J, which features a muted horn solo, subtle Hammond and synth strings and trips into outer space on delayed lead lines, before floating gently back to Earth on an acoustic guitar.

Wig Out At Jagbags is sprightly, brief and occasionally throwaway, albeit in the best possible way. Although actually placed closer to the end of the record, Rumble at the Rainbo and Chartjunk feel centrally placed and are rather, well, fluffy - they’re great fun and not much else; the former is particularly amusing as a cutting observation of an ageing punk/’punk’ scene, and the latter features a buoyant horn section ‘70s-toned rolling electric piano.

 There’s plenty of melody on this breezy album, but the more cryptic the lyric, the harder it is to connect with it. The wordplay is certainly entertaining (and this kind of lyric writing has been a frequent marker of Malkmus’ songwriting since it first emerged over two decades ago) and reflects an occasional stoned feeling that manifests itself in a kind of absent-minded psychedelia (as opposed to the almost hard rock feel of some earlier Jicks material). There’s no denying there’s a lot of skill in the way these songs have been written and there’s plenty to enjoy, however slippery the (sometimes hyperactive) abstractions get.

'Wig Out At Jagbags' is released today on Domino in the UK and tomorrow on Matador in the US.

 Andrew R. Hill

Review: 'Virgins' - Tim Hecker

 Tim Hecker’s last album proper, 2011’s Ravedeath, 1972, was a sepulchral affair; true to its title, the ghost of a kind of rave music oscillated throughout but through a murky, foggy, doom-laden haze. It was cold yet overwhelming, appropriate given that much of it was recorded on the organ in an Icelandic church. Virgins carries through many of the melodic and sonic markers of Ravedeath, 1972 (including that recurring fogginess) but is altogether more spectral, more colourful, albeit no less mysterious.

  Image courtesy of Kranky.

Image courtesy of Kranky.

Opening track Prism is well named, light cuts through clouds of aural murk, then transforms into the piercing, chaotic, trebly piano arpeggi of Virginal I which glisten, flicker, dim in the dark. Already the melodies (if that’s the right word) reflect that of Ravedeath, 1972, but it’s not about the melodies, it’s a record that continues Hecker’s exploration of texture. He reflects a kind of abstract expressionism, Rothko blown up to an even greater, gothic scale, strip-lit and metamorphosing before your eyes. Such verbiage may invoke a digital version of, say, Morton Feldman but Virgins is no For Philip Guston, it’s not self-important and it billows along at a pace, Lynch meets Argento. There are traces of the latter’s favoured composers Goblin, as well as the former’s forays into in sound design and composition (most particularly the industrial soundscape of Eraserhead); Live Room is the more bombastic moments of Suspiria both inflated and muted, twisted, creepy, with creaking, straining, diegetic sound thrown in too – you’re in the horror film with the score deafening you as you desperately scramble away from your assailant.

If that all sounds over-the-top then the empurpled prose is at fault, not the music which - while demanding to be played at considerable volume - is never anything other than well measured. For all its BIG moments, Virgins also has plenty of quieter ones too, as with Live Room Out, the ghostly, more minimal sibling of its similarly named predecessor, or Black Refraction’s repeating piano motifs, fragments of a depressed Satie heard through a stretched tape loop at a séance, clattering medium’s table and all. The use of ‘real’ or ‘room’ (read non-instrumental) sound in some ways disrupts the engagement of the listener, but it also draws the listener further in – what noise is in the room or environment that you occupy, and what is on the record?

This is one of the more readily identifiable markers of what makes Hecker such a peerless composer-producer; while the use of digital instruments and manipulation is overt, its collision with the acoustic, the analogue and the ‘real’ often leaves one unclear as to where one element ends and the other finishes; this miasma never feels forced (although it does sometimes feel like there are elements being pushed together with great force), it is always purposeful.

Virgins may not be a work that seems terribly subtle on first approach, but it is in fact nuanced, intriguing, entrancing, disquieting. Just as Francis Bacon’s art sought to “Return the onlooker to life more violently”, Virgins finds Hecker approaching a return of the listener to life more spectrally (in both sense of the word). There is a deep, dark undertow to this record, but light pierces the void in continually surprising ways, in a kind of inverted chiaroscuro; Hecker ably demonstrates that light is essential to render the darkness all the more appealing.

 

Tim Hecker’s ‘Virgins’ available worldwide on Kranky (except for Canada where it is available on Paper Bag Records).

 

Andrew R. Hill

'Loud City Song' - Julia Holter

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I began writing this review this as I returned to Edinburgh from London. It’s far from the first time I’ve visited but it was an intense sojourn. I’ve lived in a city all my life (albeit one that feels more like a village sometimes), but even with the seemingly endless noise of the Festival crowds still ringing in my ears, my arrival is met by the roar of the city - a city that is almost too big, too sprawling, to be appropriately accommodated by the term - and it is keenly felt, amplified by the briefness of the encounter. Nothing is quiet. Even late in the night, the city emits a low-level thrum, an electric buzz. Its very scale, in all directions, presents a kind of loudness, whether sonic or visual, actual or imagined. Julia Holter’s Loud City Song does not take London as its titular subject (that honour is bestowed up on Holter’s native Los Angeles as a transposed setting from Paris for Colette’s Gigi) but it does convey the sense of wonder, unreality, confusion and fear that a city can reveal as it unfolds slowly to you for the first time.

Loud City Song opens in an arresting and captivating fashion with World. “Heaven/All the heavens of the world.” Her naked voice is slowly dressed by sparse, solemn instrumentation, strings that creak in heavy groans and sighs in an arrangement that is reminiscent of Scott Walker and solo Mark Hollis – disjointed lyrics can only lend further credence to this comparison (a comparison that can easily be applied to other parts of the record). Holter discusses “All the hats of the world” and her, her hat and the city’s relationships. Then “Everyday I grow older/Every day I grow a bit closer to you”. Closer to who? The song closes thus: “What am I looking for in you?/How can I escape you?” Is it a lover? An assailant? The listener? The city? Death? World is a disquieting and enigmatic beginning to an album that asks more questions than it provides answers to, a quality that makes it all the more enticing - enthralling, even.

World’s questions linger unanswered with a plunge into the immediately hypnotic, intense, blissful Maxim’s I. “I don’t understand” Holter declares, and the music reflects the statement, presenting a scene of cinematic awakening. Impressions of woozy unearthliness recur throughout, and while this has been Holter’s stock-and-trade since her debut album Tragedy, the greater possibilities - and constraints – of recording in a ‘proper’ studio for the first time have galvanised her sense of the otherworldly in a far more compelling way. He previous record Ekstasis was full of ethereal melodies and disembodied lyrics, but it occasionally drifted dangerously close to the New Age insipidity of Enya. Such a flirtation occurs only once on Loud City Song, at its midpoint of (Barbara Lewis cover) Hello Stranger – it’s just a bit too ambient and uncomplicated for its own good, letting swathes of digital reverb do most of the work; that it is a cover speaks volumes of the strength of Holter’s songwriting.

Hello Stranger does provide a necessary break in the album, for all its mildly irritating execution. The album has a dizzying and at times overwhelming build. The third track Horns Surrounding Me pulses insistently then breaks into coruscating organs, delayed vocals and clouds of billowing horns that threaten to engulf both Holter and the listener; the following In The Green Wild builds playfully around lolloping double bass, detuned sound effects and chatty backing vocals before drifting into another place: “There’s a humour in the way they walk/Even the flower walks/But doesn’t look for me/It walks just as it’s grown/It’s laughing so naturally/Ha ha ha ha”. Is this the disoriented city-dweller in the country (as is suggested by the title), or could it be the reverse?

After the wafting ambience of Hello Stranger, Maxim’s II is a curious mix of the acoustic and the synthesized, and brings to mind early solo Brian Eno, as this album occasionally does. Something in its mix of light and shade, pop hooks and out-and-out strangeness, as well as the recurrence of a certain kind of vocal double tracking that echoes Another Green World or Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy.

Loud City Song continuously throws curveballs – who expects the almost aggressive Maxim’s II to be followed by the genuinely beautiful piano-and-strings ballad of He’s Running Through My Eyes? Who could expect that to be followed by the playful foray into ‘80s-style MOR pop (albeit a thoroughly subversive and somewhat surreal one, despite the synthetic bossa beat and oh-so-smooth sax solo), This is a True Heart? And then, who could expect the unashamedly cinematic (there’s that word again) finale of City Appearing? On the latter, Mark Hollis once again springs to mind, as does The Walker Brothers’ weirdest moment The Electrician, and this follows a track that sounds a bit like Spandau Ballet or Chris de Burgh if they were female-and-interesting-and-really-good-not-totally-atrocious.

City Appearing opens from a bare voice (like World) and into a slow ecstasy, “Taken by surprise/Taken through the city”. It’s a spaced-out late night taxi drive, a neon sunrise through a rain-spattered window. A cacophony builds, dazzling, spectral - late period Talk Talk on MDMA - then bursts, shimmers…and it’s gone. Like a dream you never want to end, the release into the real word is a shocking one. Dreams tend to slip away over time, become less detailed, degrade; in this sense Loud City Song is far less like a dream and more like a city: one' s experience of it is a continually renewing process of revelation; this record unveils new corners, light and dark, with every visit – disquieting, elusive and seductive.

'Loud City Song' is available on Domino Records now, on CD, LP and download formats. 

Andrew R. Hill

 

'Slow Summits' - The Pastels


The Pastels make a virtue of taking your time with their first album in sixteen (or ten or four) years, Slow Summits, as Andrew R. Hill finds.


It’s taken a while to get there, but it’s been worth the wait; The Pastels’ new record, Slow Summits, is – appropriately – a career high. It’s a record that seemed to threaten to remain inchoate forever, but now, sixteen years after their last album ‘proper’, Illumination, it has manifested as an album that is possessed of vivacity, gentle eccentricity and vibrant melodic brushstrokes, both fine and broad. It expands on a palette that was first exposed with Illumination, greatly developed with 2003’s The Last Great Wilderness soundtrack and further refined with 2009’s fruitful and frequently gorgeous collaboration with Tokyo’s Tenniscoats, Two Sunsets.

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Secret Music fades in, reveals itself with an initially delicate arrangement of pattering drums, Gerard Love’s undulating bass and Katrina Mitchell’s voice - somehow both guileless and knowing - before growing into a (somewhat) quiet crescendo as other instruments and voices join in; it’s a perfect opener for an album that ebbs and flows but (slowly and - kind of - quietly) builds  - the album title couldn’t be more apt, for innumerable reasons.

There’s a toughness that was missing on Two Sunsets underpinning Night Time Made Us that recurs throughout, and becomes more ferocious each time. It’s grit that’s tops things becoming too pretty, and keeps that certain strain of steeliness that The Pastels have always had present without disrupting the flow of the record (quite the opposite in fact - if anything, it keeps it pushing on). First single, Check My Heart, has a different kind of boldness to it. In primary colours, it’s the sound of summer, of letting go, of almost unbridled joy – almost, because, as with much of this record, even in its most summery moments there are slight melancholic touches, sometimes approaching something of a wistful tone; it’s a matter of light and shade though, and serves to make the sunniest parts all the more coruscating.

The climb continues with Summer Rain, framed with a chord progression that brings to mind Vic Godard and early Orange Juice (and again there’s that underlying toughness); without much warning the song turns around into a spectrally semi-psychedelic coda, something of a hallmark of the latter day sound of the band, and with good reason - they happen to be very good at it. After Image is the halfway break, a pause for reflection that showcases the range of the instrumental touches that pervade throughout the record and provide a kind of sonic canvas, a primer that creates a textural depth and helps the foreground hang together: wordless multi-tracked backing vocals, winding keyboard lines, wheezing melodica, burbling electronic touches and innumerable other instrumental details.

The ascent recommences with the most sumptuous piece in The Pastels’ oeuvre to date, Kicking Leaves melodically and lyrically swoons, and features a string arrangement by fellow Glaswegian Craig Armstrong that manages to be very much to the fore without being cloying or saccharine. It’s the most beautiful passage in a record full of beautiful passages. Wrong Light features an esoteric sing-along moment courtesy of Mr Pastel “Please don’t show/The wrong light/We are the shadows of the night” and a jauntily oscillating flute line, sounding la bit like a lost track from Two Sunsets, albeit crisper than much of that album’s soft-focus psychedelia.

Tom Crossley’s flute is also showcased particularly effectively, as is Alison Mitchell’s trumpet, on the brooding title track. The tone of the instrumental is unexpectedly dark, guitar chords clang against a driving rhythm section. It’s a song that bears a furrowed brow, a determined last push towards the peak. It could easily be the theme to a lost Franco-Tartan film noir, and it’s a bit of a surprise, a chiaroscuro impression that throws the rest of the record into sharp relief, panoramic and breathtaking.

Come to the Dance rounds the album off with a party, all buoyant vocal melodies and strident guitar, the party at the peak, and rightly so - Slow Summits is worth celebrating, as well as a celebration in itself. The Pastels may no longer make quite the polarising racket they emerged with in 1982, but the vivacity rendered in their earlier work remains, and while the music is a little bit subtler, a bit more crafted, that same spirit definitely carries through. This record is affecting and infectious, warm and energetic. Whether the wait has been four, ten or sixteen years by your count, Slow Summits gives the impression that the same interval again would be worth the wait. That doesn’t mean that anyone wants such a long wait for the next one, of course, but there’s clearly something to be said for taking your time.

Slow Summits is out now on CD and LP on Domino Records.

Live: Veronica Falls (with La La Vasquez) at St Leonard's Shoreditch Church, 8 February 2013


It all gets a bit much for our Andrew R. Hill when he catches the one and only Veronica Falls in action in London


St. Leonard’s Shoreditch Church is mentioned in the nursery rhyme Oranges & Lemons (“When will you pay me? / Say the bells of Old Bailey / When I am rich / Say the bells of Shoreditch”); that Veronica Falls should launch their second album Waiting for Something to Happen in such a venue is, on the face of it, oddly apposite. Hitherto, the band have been purveyors of melodies and lyrical concerns that capture something of the qualities associated with the nursery rhyme (and, by extension, childhood itself): sweetness and innocence on the surface with and underlying darkness and melancholia. Tonight’s show builds on this solid foundation but with a new confidence, a boldness even, that suggests a figurative coming of age that is reflected in the grand yet austere setting.

First up are three-piece La La Vasquez, who bring to mind Black Tambourine, Vivian Girls and Pavement, not only through their melodies and clattering rhythms, but also the constant sense that it could all fall apart at any given second. Theirs is a thrilling racket and a perfect preface for the headlining act.

A quick turnaround and Veronica Falls assume position, stridently launching with Tell Me. They are dramatically backlit, clad in dark hues, and (given the venue) the tenebrous oils of Caravaggio and Rothko’s religious paintings come to mind. Last year’s single (also featured on the new album) My Heart Beats is more vibrant than its relatively bloodless studio companion, retaining the edge that came as something of a shock on initial listen in April but moderated with a ragged edge. For old favourite Found Love in a Graveyard, the lighting shifts to the front creating enormous shadows, then the band really hit their stride with Waiting for Something to Happen.

To one familiar with their prior work and performances, throughout there is a sense the band has changed, there’s a new ‘toughness’, and it’s illustrated well by a double-whammy of - old tracks - Bad Feeling and Beachy Head. They’ve always had a certain quiet confidence, but now there’s something resembling swagger, a renewed tension in the dynamics that renders them justifiably self-assured as opposed to irksomely cocky. They also seem relaxed in the right kind of way, and let their somewhat gloomy image slip with the odd grin here and there. No wonder though – there’s dancing in the aisle, lips mouthing lyrics; it’s hard not to get swept along. Who else but Veronica Falls could make a song entitled Buried Alive so catchy, so downright joyous?

The band clatters through two songs from the old album followed by two from the new album (highlights being Wedding Day and Teenage, respectively), and then it’s over. Almost. The pitted and bare crucifix doesn’t have to wait long for the return of its temporary neighbours. Feet stamp, hands clap, throats cry and of course they’re back, with the Wicked Game-esque If You Still Want Me, their classic cover of Roky Erickson’s Starry Eyes and, the eternally perfect pièce de résistance, Come on Over. The collective elation of the audience and band alike, the revelry in this stunning setting, the tingling spines, the dewy eyes… It all gets a bit much for a certain ‘impartial’ writer. Come on over? Veronica Falls need never ask twice.

'cavalcade' - POST


Dynamic, intelligent and 'damn good fun', POST's debut mini-album, cavalcade, is a ride worth taking, as Andrew R. Hill finds out.


POST cavalcade cover.jpg

POST began life as a solo songwriting vehicle for Graham Wann, former guitarist, singer and songwriter of Bricolage. The latter emerged in the early-mid aughts, a key part of the exciting Glasgow scene that also included the likes of Franz Ferdinand, Mother & The Addicts, 1990s and the Royal We. Their impact was nowhere near as great as it should’ve been, and their self-titled debut - essential for fans of Postcard and melodic, intelligent guitar music – served as a final testament rather than a first chapter. POST’s debut (mini-)album cavalcade shares many of the melodic and lyrical markers that made Bricolage (and numerous preceding singles) great, but approaches them with an expanded sonic palette, often highly reminiscent of Low-era Bowie.

From the off cavalcade is taut, a spartan arrangement on Monument to a Lost Cause centring around a cyclical guitar riff and Wann’s vocal, the latter of which provides much of the track’s build; this boldly positions both the song and the record in opposition to contemporary ‘more is more’ attitudes to production by eschewing extensive layering. That the song captivates from the first beat, even though its tempo is just slightly faster than mid-paced, demonstrates that an enhanced use of dynamics is at work, in addition to well-crafted songwriting flair.

New Play Thing is a catchy glam stomp underpinned by a monosynth bass note, while R.I.T.H. is the track that harks back most to Bricolage’s scene, a winding lead guitar line carrying along frantic disco drums and brittle, funk-infused rhythm guitar. New Built Fears Love brings to mind Orange Juice and Pulp in the in their respective balladeering modes (but somehow doesn’t sound particularly like either), and manages to be genuinely lovely without resorting to arrangement clichés.

Metro Camel sounds like a lost track from Low, no small compliment, and is overt in demonstrating that album’s influence, as well as revealing touches of the Krautrock/Kosmische acts that inspired Bowie, Eno and Pop so much in late-‘70s Berlin; Ring Binder mines much of the same territory, albeit in a more spacious, psychedelic manner, harnessing an off-kilter drumbeat to superb effect.

cavalcade whizzes by in just under twenty-five minutes (it is a mini-album, after all), it doesn’t hang around any longer than it has to and uses a variety of influences in an engaging and refreshing way. It’s confident, it’s sharp and, perhaps most importantly, it’s damn good fun without having to be utterly brainless – pretty rare qualities, all told. More please.

‘cavalcade’ is available for download from POST’s bandcamp now, and will be available on CD in the near future (check out their Facebook page for updates).