Monday, 25 October 2010

Happy John Peel Day!

Six years on from John's death. I won't pretend to have listened to him religiously - I think he would've been more essential listening had I been around a decade earlier - but I can think of few others with such immense passion for music. In many ways he's the forefather of the myriad of bloggers all over the internet who have no time for marketing and financial reward, instead relishing the pure joy of music. For that reason, John I salute you. Here are a few of my favourite sessions:

Dancing in the Moonlight by Thin Lizzy (1974)

A Forest by The Cure (1980)

Drain You by Nirvana (1991)

Come out 2nite by Kenickie (1996)

Downs are feminine balloons by Mercury Rev (1993)

There goes my gun by The Pixies (1988)

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Satan's comin' round the bend.

I was planning on taking a detour from the FIVE series and doing an old fashioned album review but the Lord of Blogs Turner requested Heavy Metal so I am obliged to oblige him. As you will be familiar with from my previous desperate efforts to save face my choices come with a large caveat; Heavy Metal is extremely vague. I think Hard Rock is generally a better category but less exciting sounding. The reason for my caution is that Heavy Metal as a genre is extremely hard to define. Does there need to be a certain percentage of satanism for bands to qualify? Surely Alice Cooper is HM or is he more glam? Thin Lizzy are loud enough but does Phil Lynott's flair for small town lyricism exile them from the grandiose paganism of Osbourne et al? Can Guns N Roses be pigeon holed as metal when they seem the anti-thesis of so much of its early proponents? I don't have an answer to these questions but I simply propose that the very fact I have raised them be enough for you to forgive any controversy my selections raise.

Heavy Metal

Run to the Hills by Iron Maiden
I certainly feel my opening track to be at home in the genre and quite frankly there are few better at show-casing the uncontrollable adrenalin rush that make this style of music so appealing. As a History teacher I even admire the shamefully hyperbolic interpretation of the consequences of wide-scale population migration in the American West. I would suspect that much of the global sympathy for the Sioux Indians originates from sweaty, long haired metallers. Historical contribution aside, the simple drum beat that starts the track is guaranteed to inspire palpable excitement amongst groups of men all over the planet. When the guitar comes in and Bruce begins any plans you had for the next four minutes can be put on hold.

Child in Time by Deep Purple
An unusual choice perhaps as in terms of volume Deep Purple's finest hour is muted for the majority of the track. It is an extremely measured exercise in control - both in terms of the haunting, mesmerising vocal from Ian Gillan and equally the uncharacteristic restraint of Ritchie Blackmore's guitar accompaniment. I won't go into the gory details of the number of fantastic howling renditions of this song I've participated in after a heavy night but I'd be lying if I denied a smoke machine being involved. Whatever your views on the track - and several of you may find it utterly preposterous and hilarious - you have to admire the composition of simple elements to create such a powerful effect.

Enter Sandman by Metallica
I spent several of my formative years involuntarily listening to Metallica. I never liked them, still don't, and would find it a struggle to listen to the entirety of a Metallica without losing interest around the halfway point. What this song demonstrates is that metal, like all genres, is magnificent one off songs by artists who are otherwise uniformly dire. What Sandman also showcases is how production can still have a phenomenal influence over a style of music fundamentally entrenched in live performance. Bob Rock's production has gone down in history, believed by some to have either saved or killed metal depending on your point of view. I personally think on this track he is responsible for a masterpiece - the intensity of the percussion married to the triple layering of the rhythm guitar creates a gigantic yet taut sound. I will always associate it with the unusual setting of Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Safari park as our 'enigmatic' guide decided to stick it on full blast shortly after passing an elephant crossing a road. Now that's rock n roll. The video I've chosen is a live performance despite what I've just discussed as the reaction of hundreds of thousands of Russians is too good not to include!

Dazed and Confused by Led Zeppelin
It'd be wholly wrong to focus on metal without including an offering from the great Led Zeppelin. Page, Plant, Bonham and Jones are so widely revered that they are less and less often referred to as Heavy Metal. I think it is part of the accepted derogation of the genre that such a band are seemed too good to be termed as such. It's massively unfair, Led Zep are a prime example of everything that is good about Heavy Metal and wholeheartedly fulfill the mantra of Heavy Metal as 'the sensory equivalent of war.' I could have chosen any of twenty incredible songs such is there back catalogue but I've opted for Dazed and Confused as for me it most effectively exhibits the peerless base of John Paul Jones. If you haven't heard any of his recent stuff with Dave Grohl and Josh Homme I recommend you seek out 'Them Crooked Vultures.' That's not to say they come anywhere near the brilliance of this track but only a select few ever have.

Woman by Wolfmother
Heavy Metal as a description has now widely fallen out of favour in terms of industry marketing. It is rare that a new act - despite fulfilling all the seeming requirements of metal -are described as such. The genre seems to have been the victim of Thatcher-esque diengagment as speed, thrash, dark, black and even the loathesome nu have taken turns in rebranding and distancing metal from its heavy roots. Wolfmother are a classic example of this, for me their style is unquestionably Heavy Metal yet even their wiki entry describes them ludicrously as 'stoner rock' before admitting the term Heavy Metal could be applied. I see no reason to be ashamed.

Friday, 15 October 2010

A browser and a rich black lady

I'm talking OPERA of course! Well I thought it was clever but I never profess to be great wit. Anyhow, seamless link over I'm doing another five to check out but after the bright lights and pounding beats of Dance I've gone in a very different direction for this one. I'm no more knowledgeable about this one either so frankly as a blogger I'm failing but hopefully my hokey charm will save me. So here goes, five Opera songs I absolutely love...

Barcarole by Offenbach (from The Tales of Hoffman)
Unsurprisingly my adoration of this piece originates from it being used to stunning effect in a wonderful film. If you have seen La Vita e Bella (Life is Beautiful) - and I'm sure you have - you will recognise it from that. I was actually lucky enough to visit the town where the film was made Arezzo in Tuscany on my honeymoon but that's a needless tangent. The music is utterly enchanting, like being swept along in a dream and it perfectly encapsulates that feeling of being utterly in love in someone. Enjoy.

Un bel di vedremo by Puccini (from Madame Butterfly)

If Barcarolle is all about the enchanting feeling of being in love, Un bel di vedremo is all about the pain that love brings. I can honestly say I have never heard a more utterly heartbreaking yet at the same time completely compelling female vocal than Maria Callas performing this track from Puccini's opera. I especially love the brevity of the track - it is short yet fuelled with emotion and sticks in the mind long after it has finished. A side note which some of you might like to know is that Pinkerton by Weezer is said to be loosely based on the story of Madama Butterfly. The album is named after B.F. Pinkerton and is based around similar themes of lost love and sexual longing with a heavy Japanese influence. River Cuomo and Puccini - who knew?

Una furtiva Lagrima by Donizetti (from L'elisir d'amore)

One thing about Opera that I have always quite liked is quite frankly I often massively misread the message of the song due to the language issues. This is a classic example - for me the tenor appears defiant yet forlorn when in fact he has apparently just found out his 'love potion' works. This might be treason but the story in Opera is usually an absolute load of bollocks but despite massive flaws a narrative is vital to effectively tie the collection of songs together. Let's face it if a naff story about borderline date rape inspired Donizetti to write this then fair play to it. I've included a first for the blog - a vocal which is over a hundred years old. According to those who know about these things i.e. not I, Enrico Caruso is the greatest tenor of all time and based on this performance it is hard to disagree. Masterful.

va, Pensiero by Verdi (from Nabucco)
Stirring can't begin to cover this hypnotically powerful patriotic ode. This song has such power to move the emotions that the myth was long perpetuated that a defiant encore of va, Pensiero was the trigger for the final unification of Italy. This differs from my other choice so far as it does not focus upon a single vocal instead showcasing the majesty of orchestra and choir working in perfect harmony.

Nessun Dorma by Puccini (from Turandot)
I'll be honest - I was sceptical of including this. I feared it had become the Hey Jude or Bohemian Rhapsody of Opera; loved by the masses yet loathed by the purists. Then I listened to it and realised I would be a pretentious dick not to include what is arguably the greatest vocal ever created by man. One listen immediately transported me back to special night at the Arena di Verona where as our honeymoon came to a close my wife and I sat in the cheap seats (well steps) and experienced the wonderful theatre of a live Opera. Expectations could not be higher as I knew the big number was approaching. This tends to be the cue for a let down but not one bit of it - for around four minutes it felt as if the world stood still as an entire amphitheatre was captivated. No matter how many times I hear it I can't help but feel moved and if that makes me an Opera chav than so be it. Over to the big fella...

Let me know your thoughts and I'd love some suggestions of other genres to get the five treatment.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Dance, dance, dance the night away

Swift blog today as much to be doing but I thought I'd kick off a mini-series of five great tracks from a chosen genre. I'm conscious that my love of North American Indie could come to dominate this blog if I'm not careful and as there are other bloggers who do it far better 'everybody cares, everybody understands' and 'I am fuel, you are friends' are two great examples.

So genre one, and it's not one I am especially knowledgeable of so apologies if my choices are highly offensive:


I love a good dance. I have very little rhythm but what I lack in technique I make up for in enthusiasm. All kinds of music can be great for dancing - Motown and Northern Soul being the best - so I've always taken issue with the label of dance but I'll stick with it for this.

Heads will Roll by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

I accept that YYYs are far from a dance act and perhaps suggest I am immediately cheating but for me this is a straight down the line dance music and is all the better for it. There is something exciting about a band exploring a new genre but so often it falls flat and frankly embarassing (yes I mean you Bloc Party). However Karen O and friends manage to produce a relentless, pounding track which is humanly impossible not to at the very least tap your foot to.

U Don't  Know Me by Armand van Helden

This is a slice of unashamed commercial dance which topped the charts at the top of the charts when dance was king. 99% of commercial dance at this time was garbage and forgettable - Wamdu project, Toca's Miracle, blah, blah. This however had a hook which sticks in your head without getting incredibly annoyingly. I think the trick is to follow quite a conventional song structure in terms of verse and chorus thus avoiding the hook becoming repetitive. Analysis aside, it is a brilliant track that livened up many a Kendalian night out.

Aerodynamic by Daft Punk

It would be quite wrong of me not to include a Daft Punk track in the five and I plumped for Aerodynamic for a reason. Discovery was the first 'dance' album I ever fell in love with. As only a cliched 18year old could I played the mini-disc (!) the moment I crossed the border into France when inter-railing and along with Air it formed the soundtrack to my enlightenment which is so often tread by guitar loving indie kids. Aerodynamic stand out because it begins with an unintentional homage to ACDC and boasts one of the finest guitar riffs of any song. Magnifique.

Setting Sun by The Chemical Brothers (feat. Noel Gallagher)

'Noel Gallagher on a dance record? Oasis' Noel Gallagher? My beloved Oasis' Noel Gallagher on a *spits* dance record?' It is fair to say that as a frankly obnoxious fourteen year old the prospect of the man who made me learn guitar and want to be in a band teaming up with some drug addled ravey types was not a happy one. My immaturity was exposed yet again as the result was a track which sits happily alongside any of Gallagher's other output and most pleasing of all may have contributed to Oasis' bold decision to experiment with loops on Fucking in the Bushes to great effect. Setting Sun has an apocalyptic sense of desperation with Noel's vocals placed cleverly low enough in the mix to create the feeling of an all encompassing storm led by the driving drum loop. The two artists would collaborate again on the enjoyable but less exciting Let Forever Be and not to be outdone Liam lent a terrific guest vocal to Death in Vegas' Scorpio Rising. Death in Vegas were even recruited to produce Don't Believe the Truth which promised a dramatic change of direction but proved a step too far and the sessions are now confined to online rarities.

Tomorrow Never Knows by The Beatles

I know doubters still exist but they are ignorant fools, The Beatles are actually underrated to the extent that trash like Hey Jude is considered by the majority to be their peak yet their innovation and pushing of musical boundaries is appreciated by comparitively few. It has been said before that you can chart a person's musical awakening by which Beatles songs they enjoy. Like most I grew up loving the perfect guitar pop of Hard Days Night, etc but it is only when you delve into the delights of the Eastern infused tracks and experimentation of the White Album and Revolver that you recognise their true majesty. One accolade that is rarely bestowed upon The Beatles is their invention of dance music as we know it but Tomorrow Never Knows is exactly that. If you don't believe me listen again to Setting Sun and tell me there isn't a nod to The Beatles in the use of loops. It is something of a quirk that even when stepping out of his comfort zone Noel still managed to supply a hefty nod to the Fab Four.

I'd love to know your favourite dance tracks or critical slating of my choices so if you read, please leave a message. After all, just like Chrissy the Witch says, I'm you.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Ladies' Night

Friday night:

I'm sat here after a long week, enjoying the absolutely fantastic KT Tunstall album 'Tiger Suit'.

This is my third listen to the new album and the highest praise I can give it is it just made ironing shirts actually bearable. In all seriousness this is a far better album than I was expecting - Tunstall is established as a talented song-writer but what truly surprises on this album is her confidence to use this as a base for experimentation. I have read the album described as taking a dance-oriented direction; 'nature techno' apparently. At times undoubtedly there is a hint of Pet Shop Boys (Lost) but it is misleading and frankly unfair to dismiss Tiger Suit as some kind of pet dance project. I found myself making links to Kings of Leon and even INXS on occasion yet the country, acoustic staple of Tunstall still has plenty of input. A huge amount of credit must go to Jim Abbiss the producer (of Arctic Monkeys and Editors debut album fame) who matches Tunstall's ambition and delivers a glorious, fuller sound that raises the bar. It is honestly one of the best albums I have heard this year and urge you all to buy it.

Eight out of Ten.

Saturday morning

So given my eulogising over KT it seems only right that I look to sort of meet Turner's request for a focus on the greatest female singer-songwriter. I say sort-of because quite frankly I don't feel able or particularly inclined to make that decision. It would lead me down a well trodden path of mining history and most likely ending up in a face off between Billie Holiday and Joni Mitchell. Instead I'm going to pick out a handful of female artists I rate highly, tell you why and let you see/hear a bit of them in action:


Probably my favourite of the lot, an artist guaranteed to divide opinion. I liked Bjork right from the first time I saw her as a young whippersnapper finding her incredibly interesting and unconventionally highly attractive. I accept that physical appearance shouldn't come into views on a musical artist but as a hormone driven teenager it was a major factor. I even bought Echobelly and Elastica albums in the futile hope that in some way this might push me closer to my britpop dream romance. Anyway I digress; the majesty of Bjork is that she has always sought to challenge the conventional without ever losing sight of the fundamentals of crafting a song. Her greatest asset of course is her voice and this never more evident than on her interpretations of classic Icelandic folk music like the gorgeous Gling-Glo. Her finest work for me has to be Hyperballad - the way the ominous music builds the tension and perfectly matches the imagery of the lyrics before unleasing a hit of pure emotion is simply glorious. Bjork also bears similarity with Ryan Adams and Gnarls Barkley in her flat refusal to simply reproduce the album mix in live performance, instead experimenting with new approaches often infusing different cultures.

Jenny Lewis

Unlike Bjork, Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley has yet really to become more well known as a solo artist as in her work with a band. However I genuinely think it is only a matter of time. I really like Rilo Kiley but since the fantastic More Adventurous the solo projects of Lewis have been far more interesting and memorable than anything produced as a band. The most notable, and in my view most enjoyable, off shoot has been her gospel tinged collaboration with The Watson Twins. The style of music really suited Lewis' songwriting style as it laid bare her vocal and gave her lyrics a new clarity which highlighted her gift for story-telling. Although dramatically different in musical direction her writing style reminds me of Richmond Fontaine in the way she creates a scenario that feels too real to be fiction.  Her other solo work includes the lively Americana 'Acid tongue' of which Elvis Costello was a contributor. For me undoubtedly her finest moment is the majestic 'Rise up with fists' which is one of the finest songs of the last decade.

Cathy Davey

You would be forgiven for thinking 'who?' Back in the days of being a carefree student going to gigs on my Leeds doorstep I went to see 'Thirteen Senses' and Davey was the support act. Talk about hitting the jackpot - she was absolutely mesmeric as she effortless switched between sultry and veangeful showing off a repertoire of songs which made a mockery of only having released one EP at that point. She has since produced three albums - the best of which in my view being her debut Something Ilk. The pounding drums which open the barnstorming Come Over are an unmistakeable declaration of intent and would be a worthy pick of the bunch were it not for the brilliant 'Cold Man's Nightmare' which is the closest anyone has come to explaining the infuriating case of lovely girl being treated like shit yet staying around. Davey's voice is remarkable without being overpowering and this is beautifully showcased in the clip I found of her covering Arthur Hamilton's Cry Me a River. It is criminal she hasn't received the levels of press that the equally brilliant Laura Marling has enjoyed.

I could happily go on with this all day but alas duties call. I could for example have waxed lyrical about the unexpected excellence of the debut album of Natalie Imbruglia (seriously!), the sensual brilliance of Melody Gardot, or the brash anarchic joy of MIA. However I will leave you with three performances from three magnificent, enduring female performers:

And this one is specifically for Mr Turner...