Saturday, December 13, 2008

10 Classic Irish Albums

MY BLOODY VALENTINE - Loveless (1991)

Not just the greatest Irish album of all time: the greatest album of all time, period. In fact, not just the greatest album of all time: the greatest work of art created in the history of mankind. If you ever need a testament to the benefits of relentless perfectionism, look no further: as this masterpiece was created between 1989 and 1991, mainman and visionary Kevin Shields went through eighteen recording engineers and nineteen recording studios, allegedly almost bankrupting his label Creation Records in the process (according to who you believe; Shields strenuously denies this). At the end of it all, Creation label-head Alan McGee vowed never to work with Shields again. Yet the end result was a record of almost alien beauty.

MBV can be seen as part of a lineage of great bands – the Stooges, the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, The Jesus and Mary Chain - who revolutionised and redefined guitar music: Shields’ primary innovation was the use of a technique nicknamed ‘glide guitar’, a method of wavering the tremolo bar of the guitar while strumming. This led to a disorientating, hazy effect as the music slipped in and out of tune. The textured, layered sound of the album led many people to believe that the band were using multiple overdubs, when in Shields’ own words “it's actually got less guitar tracks than most people's demo tapes have.”

Loveless seems to simultaneously pulverise the listener with waves of distortion and envelop them in an abstract, dream-like haze. The sense of contrast is heightened by feminine, unintelligible vocals that glide in and out of focus along with the music. It’s rare to find an album that manages to sound so harsh and discordant and yet so soothing at the same time: while on the one hand the record was the cornerstone of some of the loudest live shows in music history, on the other hand tracks like ‘To Here Knows When’ and ‘Blown a Wish’ convey a sense of pure tranquillity and bliss.

Even with the greatest albums, there are often tracks you’re tempted to skip, weak links in otherwise flawless works; but there’s not a single track on Loveless that falls below perfection. The final third of the album in particular - running from the haunting drone of ‘Sometimes’ through the celestial one-two of ‘Blown a Wish’ and ‘What You Want’, and ending with the hypnotic rhythms of ‘Soon’ - is simply the most incredible passage of music ever recorded.

There’s never been a follow-up, but that’s no great mystery: how do you follow perfection?

Standout Tracks: Blown a Wish, What You Want, To Here Knows When

10 Classic Irish Albums (2)

WHIPPING BOY - Heartworm (1995)

In terms of going against the cultural grain, Heartworm takes some beating. The year was 1995: Britpop was in full swing with all its attendant caricatures and satire; and while Blur and Oasis were going head-to-head at the top of the charts with songs about country houses and rolling with it, the Dublin four-piece released this brutal, uncompromising transmission from the heart of darkness.

An ominous, mournful violin intro sets the tone as opening track ‘Twinkle’ disguises it’s dark subject matter (‘turning tricks just like your mother’)with a seemingly clich├ęd chorus (‘She’s the only one for me / Now and always’), coming across like a cousin of R.E.M.’s classic anti-love song ‘The One I Love’. Influences like The Cure and Joy Division abound, with Ferghal McKee’s bleak delivery backdropped by violent, churning guitar and occasional stately strings. The subject matter is almost relentlessly dark, dealing with broken relationships and mental turmoil, even touching on domestic abuse on the controversial ‘We Don’t Need Nobody Else’. However, there are some shards of light breaking through the gloom: ‘Personality’ is a perfectly timed mid-album injection of serenity, while the bittersweet ‘When We Were Young’ gave them an unlikely radio hit.

Standout Tracks: Twinkle, We Don’t Need Nobody Else, When We Were Young

10 Classic Irish Albums (3)

GEMMA HAYES - Night On My Side (2002)

She may have lost her way in recent times, with her music increasingly characterised by bland alt-country arrangements; but debut album Night On My Side marked Gemma Hayes out as a special talent, one that called to mind influences as diverse as My Bloody Valentine, PJ Harvey and Lisa Germano. It’s a captivating record whose strength lies not just in its individual songs but in the impressionistic spell cast by its melancholic atmosphere, discordant guitars and Hayes’ delicate, yearning vocals.

The Tipperary native possesses an extraordinary voice that couldn’t fail to impress if she was singing the contents of a phone book, and the music here ranges from the bleary Americana of ‘Day One’ (as gorgeously understated an opening track as you’re likely to hear anywhere) to the anguished drone of ‘Tear In My Side’ and the churning guitar rhythms of ‘Hanging Around’. The aching minimalism of ‘What a Day’ and the still incredible-sounding ‘Back Of My Hand’ (has there been a better Irish single released in the last 10 years?) epitomise the edge that she’s been struggling to recapture ever since.

Standout Tracks: Back Of My Hand, What a Day, Day One

10 Classic Irish Albums (4)

ASH - Free All Angels (2001)

When Ash followed up their wildly successful debut 1977 with the dreary dirges and second-rate Stooges imitations of Nu-Clear Sounds, many feared that the young Downpatrick band had burned out too soon. Main songwriter Tim Wheeler went to ground for a while as he tried to get back in touch with his inner mojo, and the band brought it all back home by deciding to write and record in the same garage where they had made their first steps.

The result was the triumphant Free All Angels, which recaptured the wide-eyed punk-pop vibe (see the bittersweet summertime homage of ‘Walking Barefoot’ or the irrepressible‘Burn Baby Burn’) that first marked them out, while adding a vital dose of maturity (the sublime ‘Sometimes’ perfectly captures the sadness of a break-up with minimum self-pity) and world-weariness (the Spectoresque ‘Someday’) along with some pleasing curveballs (‘Candy’ samples The Walker Brothers to superb effect). ‘Shining Light’ landed Wheeler an Ivor Novello award, and was later covered by Canadian artist Emm Gryner, who threw the song’s classic pop melody into even sharper relief. The album went straight in at number 1, dislodging Janet Jackson: it prompted drummer Rick McMurray to ring her record label and leave his own version of Outkast’s ‘I’m sorry Miss Jackson’ on their answering machine. Good times.

Standout Tracks: Sometimes, Candy, Burn Baby Burn

10 Classic Irish Albums (5)

ROLLERSKATE SKINNY - Horsedrawn Wishes (1996)

One of the great lost Irish bands, Rollerskate Skinny emerged in the early 90’s with records that garnered much critical acclaim, and though they packed it in after their second album, Horsedrawn Wishes, they still retain a considerable cult following. Their music is an invigorating, hazy, shape-shifting blend of distorted, MBV-like guitar textures (Kevin Shields’ brother Jimi was a drummer in the band for a period), gliding shoegaze washes, power-pop harmonies and melodies that call to mind the Stone Roses.

‘Swingboat Yawning’ and ‘One Thousand Couples’ utilise quiet-loud dynamics with pulverising, warped guitar assaults; ‘Cradle Burns’ is a joyously disorientating pop song, while all the ingredients come to a glorious climax on ‘Speed To My Side’, surely one of the greatest Irish singles ever recorded. They really don’t make them like this anymore: I’ve often said that no one will ever be able to recapture the magic of MBV’s Loveless, but Rollerskate Skinny came pretty damn close.

10 Classic Irish Albums (6)

U2 - The Unforgettable Fire (1984)

This writer will always have a soft spot for U2’s fourth studio album, as it was arguably the last record they released before they became the bombastic entity they are now, for better or worse. Not that it’s necessarily an understated record: the opening two tracks, ‘A Sort Of Homecoming’ and ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’, see Bono at his chest-beating best and their music at its most yearning. The former, in particular, remains one of the most underrated songs in their repertoire.

Elsewhere, though, there’s some of the most experimental, ambient music the band have released, obviously informed by collaborator Brian Eno: on ‘Elvis Presley and America’, Bono turns in a restrained, hypnotic vocal performance over a backdrop of warm, chiming atmospherics; in a similar vein, closing track ‘MLK’ is essentially a lullaby, a gentle drone framing the singer’s exhortation to ‘Sleep / Sleep tonight / And may your dreams be realised’. Then there’s the windswept, almost mystical soundscape of the title track; while live favourite ‘Bad’ takes its cue from Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’ and creates something similarly transcendental but completely unique. Then there’s tracks like ‘Wire’ and ‘Indian Summer Sky’, which showed that The Edge was still taking plenty of guitar lessons from post-punk acts like Gang Of Four.

You can keep your Joshua Tree, this is the one I’m taking to the metaphorical desert island.

Standout Tracks: Elvis Presley and America, A Sort of Homecoming, Bad

10 Classic Irish Albums (7)

THE FRAMES - Set List (2003)

The Frames tend to divide opinion between the loyalists who flock to their shows and the critics who feel that they should force themselves out of their crusty, folky comfort zone and write more songs like ‘Revelate’ (guess what side I’m on); but there’s one thing that most people will agree on: Set List is a terrific and life-affirming live album that sees the band at the peak of their powers. Recorded in November 2002, it documents a triumphant set in front of an adoring crowd at Dublin's Vicar Street.

A true people’s band if ever there was one, the set is punctuated by anecdotes such as the infamous ‘dog that never moved except to chase that one car’ story, while crowd reaction is high in the mix – a vital ingredient, and one that many live albums lack. But this is no mere cabaret: the music is scintillating and stirring throughout, taking in a grinding, furious ‘Revelate’, the punk-pop rush of ‘Pavement Song’, the lullaby-like ‘Star Star’ and a spine-tingling rendition of ‘What Happens When The Heart Just Stops’. Practically every take here pisses all over its equivalent studio version, and when the mournful, sinister-sounding ‘Fitzcarraldo’ reaches its gut-wrenching climax, you’re left wondering just why Glen Hansard seems content these days to play the role of the glorified busker.

Standout Tracks: Revelate, What Happens When The Heart Just Stops, Fitzcarraldo

10 Classic Irish Albums (8)

Not strictly an album, but I couldn’t leave the Leesiders out, and seeing that 2006’s A Renewed Interest In Happiness is the only studio album I own and is fairly so-so, we’re gonna go with this. The Franks first came to prominence in the early 90’s with their colourful, zany indie-pop; at the height of their popularity they reached number 11 in the UK charts with ‘After All’ and were supported by Suede and Radiohead. They were soon left behind by the mainstream as Britpop came along and wooed the masses, but this excellent collection shows that their gift for a contagious melody stayed with them even when they became more of a cult concern.

Songs like ‘Colours’, ‘Fashion Crisis Hits New York’ and ‘After All’ combine infectious hooks with that peculiarly early-90’s jangly guitar sound, while Paul Linehan’s eccentric delivery (or is that just the Cork accent?) and frequently oddball lyrics also play their part in the distinctive Frank and Walters sound. Yet they also have a melancholy streak running through much of their work, such as the graceful, elegiac ‘New York’ or the superb ‘Daisy Chain’.

This compilation is a testament to the art of great pop music, although I do have a couple of minor quibbles: there’s no inclusion for the classic ‘Michael’, a song that beat Franz Ferdinand at their own game before they even existed; or their cover of The Smiths’ ‘Cemetry Gates', which taps hidden reserves of melancholy. What’s that? The Frank and Walters making a Smiths song more melancholic? Yes, you heard me right.

Standout Tracks: Colours, Fashion Crisis Hits New York, Daisy Chain

10 Classic Irish Albums (9)

THE POGUES - If I Should Fall From Grace With God
When the late, great Joe Strummer joined The Pogues as a temporary touring vocalist in the wake of 1991's sacking of Shane MacGowan, it was a tacit acknowledgement that the Pogues were worthy of being regarded as indirect descendants of punk forebears like The Clash. MacGowan and co. saw the link between the physicality, energy and political potency of traditional Irish music and the similar characteristics of punk music; the result was a compelling, invigorating fusion of styles that arguably reached its peak on their third album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God.

The opening one-two of the title track and ‘Turkish Song Of The Damned’ (which adds Eastern European influences to the brew) is as thrilling a start to an album as you’ll hear from any punk act, with MacGowan echoing Strummer’s unhinged cries and yelps in his own inimitable style. It’s not all loud and fast though: rubbing shoulders with the rowdy, raucous likes of ‘Fiesta’ and ‘Bottle of Smoke’ are tracks like ‘Streets Of Sorrow / Birmingham Six’ and ‘Thousands Are Sailing’, which don’t shy away from controversial topics, but treat their subjects with empathy and pathos. And then of course there’s ‘Fairytale Of New York’, which despite being rammed down our throats every holiday season is still absolutely magnificent.

Standout Tracks: If I Should Fall From Grace With God, Turkish Song Of The Damned, Fairytale Of New York

10 Classic Irish Albums (10)

DAMIEN DEMPSEY - Seize The Day (2003)

Bookended by two songs that sound like extracts from a self-help book, this is the kind of album that could fail spectacularly, but it doesn’t: Dempsey’s positive, anti-cynical stance is perfectly measured, helped by the fact that he doesn’t shy away from dark topics like heroin addiction (‘Ghosts of Overdoses’), street violence (‘Factories’) and institutional abuse (‘Industrial School’). His distinctive Donaghmede accent and singing style isn’t to everyone’s taste; but to these ears it’s a formidable instrument in itself, bringing a much-needed novel angle to a singer-songwriting genre that was already becoming overpopulated when this album was released.

While his more politicised, topical songs tend to suffer sometimes from lyrics that are unsubtle and even a little trite, it’s the more personal, philosophical ones where Dempsey really comes into his own - such as the sublime ‘It’s All Good’ (which features terrific backing vocals from Sinead O’ Connor) and the reggae-tinged ‘Negative Vibes’. There’s also evidence of a quirky sense of humour on ‘Jar Song’, which imagines drinking sessions with a list of Irish literary figures, while ‘Apple Of My Eye’ is an enchanting tribute to New York as the safe haven to many an Irish emigrant. You could draw all kind of inferences from such a song appealing to a demographic who were becoming increasingly intolerant of other cultures, but that’s beside the point: this was an album that disarmed any cynicism and exhorted you to ‘love yourself today’. Good advice.

Standout Tracks: Apple Of My Eye, It’s All Good, Negative Vibes

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Albums of the Year Lists. Yay! Nay?

It's that time of year again, when music magazines like Q, Mojo and Uncut release their lists of the best albums of the past year. So here's a look at the top 10's:

Q Magazine:

10. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!
09. The Raconteurs - Consolers Of The Lonely
08. Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid
07. TV On The Radio - Dear Science
06. Duffy - Rockferry
05. Glasvegas - Glasvegas
04. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
03. Coldplay - Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends
02. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
01. Kings Of Leon - Only By The Night


10 Neil Diamond - Home Before Dark
9 The Bug - London Zoo
8 The Week That Was - The Week That Was
7 Glasvegas - Glasvegas
6 The Hold Steady - Stay Positive
5 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
4 Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
3 Paul Weller - 22 Dreams
2 The Last Shadow Puppets - The Age Of The Understatement
1 Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes


10 Paul Weller - 22 Dreams
9 Kings Of Leon - Only By The Night
8 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!
7 Neon Neon - Stainless Style
6 Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid
5 Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
4 Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
3 TV On The Radio - Dear Science
2 Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
1 Portishead - Third

And now for the best bit: let's bitch about the lists. It has to be said that the presence of the Kings of Leon at number 1 really is a new low for Q. Only By The Night is an album that moves even further away from their Creedence/Skynyrd-influenced Southern roots and closer to the streamlined, stadium-ready songcraft that seems to attract so many bands who get the sniff of a crossover. Liam Gallagher said it better than I ever could:

"I like Kings Of Leon, but I don't know about this fucking new record. I like the old stuff. I like (Caleb Followill’s) voice. When they first come out I was going, 'Who the fuck is this?' They were cool, and now they've all got their sleeves cut off. It seems to me they've gone for the bucks, man. I'm not dissing them because I fucking really like them, but it's like they've got this U2 sound and you can do better than that."

Exactly, but then that's what makes their presence at number 1 so depressingly predictable: Q, more than any other mainstream publication, rabidly encourages this stadium band nonsense. Just check their blurb on the 'album of the year': 'Kings Of Leon are making big rock music to fill big spaces, without resorting to hot air or empty posturing.' Have you ever heard anything so tedious? The thing about Q is when you actually read the magazine you can see that there's some very good writers on their staff, but for whatever reason (and maybe it's an editorial thing) the overall attitude of the magazine seems to be: 'how mainstream is this band? can they fill stadiums? how accessible is the production?' etc. etc. It's as if this is their only criteria for judging music (it isn't, in fairness, but it's easy to get that impression).

Then there's Coldplay at number 3. You'd think Q would have learned their lesson after raving about the substandard X & Y and giving it the 5-star treatment, but nope, apparently Viva La Vida - an album that was greeted with a resounding 'meh' by most discerning listeners - is 'their Unforgettable Fire. Their first properly great album. U2 arrived next at The Joshua Tree, so expect even better to come'. Ooookay.
Moving on...

It's similarly predictable, if somewhat less disagreeable, to see the strong showing of Fleet Foxes in the Mojo and Uncut lists. As great as the album is, it could conceivably have been made at any stage in the last 20 years, and these magazines do tend to favour music that (a) sounds like it could have been made decades ago, (b) is made by artists who are decades old or (c) falls under the broad term 'Americana'.

You sometimes wonder whether it's too much to ask to have a music magazine that attempts to cover genres and styles of music equally, and not be biased towards stadium rock, Americana or trendy fads (hello NME!). Then you realise that it's no wonder music magazines are losing readers to the internet and websites like Pitchfork and Drowned in Sound.

Anyway, enough bitching, there are some great albums in there, with the likes of Elbow, Nick Cave and Bon Iver getting some fully-deserved approval across the board. Come back here on December 31st for Electric Whipcrack's Top 10 albums of the year. Or maybe early January. I don't like being rushed.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

REVIEW: The Clash - Live at Shea Stadium

Contentious beast, the live album. The standard argument is that a recording of a gig is a poor substitute for the experience of actually being there, while many question the fidelity and authenticity of 'live' recordings: even something like Live and Dangerous, which is widely regarded as one of the best live albums of all time, is said to be only '75% live' (according to some sources, the only 'live' aspects of it are the drums and the crowd). All too often, these kind of records are subjected to the kind of overdubbing and re-recording that renders the whole exercise of releasing a live album completely pointless. I've always been a firm believer that a few out-of-tune vocals and bum notes is a small price to pay for capturing the authentic, warts-and-all energy of a live gig, but most bands (producers?) seem to be more concerned about airbrushing out the kinks: the result doesn't sound like any gig i've ever been to.

The Clash are exactly the kind of band whose live energy you'd hope to capture on record, as integral a part of their reputation as it was - just watch this clip:

1999's From Here to Eternity (8), a compilation of recordings from separate gigs that covered pretty much all the musical phases of the Clash from their debut to Combat Rock (7.5), did an admirable enough job (although surprise surprise, certain tracks were instrumentally overdubbed). That served as the only official live Clash release up until this year's Live at Shea Stadium. Taken from the second night they played at New York's Shea Stadium (Oct. 13th 1982) during an American tour supporting The Who, it's a gig that's long been bootlegged, and the circumstances around the tour are well documented. To cut a long story short, Topper Headon - the drummer who had pretty much penned their biggest hit, 'Rock the Casbah' - had been turfed out of the band due to his continuing heroin addiction, while tensions continued to simmer between Joe Strummer - uncomfortable with the idea of playing large arenas and moving further away from their punk roots - and Mick Jones, who was becoming increasingly alienated from the rest of the group (in part due to internal power struggles involving manager Bernie Rhodes). Within a year Jones would be out of the group and the Clash would be more or less finished. Despite all this, the gig in question was regarded as a triumph, with many present testifying that the Clash well and truly upstaged the headliners.

With all this context in mind, it's all the more surprising that listening to Live at Shea Stadium is such a curiously bland experience: it's neither the sound of a band disintegrating in acrimony nor the sound of a band triumphantly seizing their opportunity to convert the masses; instead it just sounds like a band going about their business with maximum competency but minimum danger: 'going through the motions' might be harsh, but it's hard to know whether the strangely passionless sound of the Clash on this record was a symptom or a cause of the band's discomfort at the new environment they found themselves in.

There are a few undoubted highlights: a storming rendition of 'Police On My Back' and a swinging 'Train in Vain' both translate particularly well (is it a coincidence that they're both sung by Mick Jones, the band member with the most enthusiasm for the arena tour?), while the way they segue from the proto-hip hop 'Magnificent 7' into 'Armagideon Time' is a fairly compelling showcase of the band's stylistic breadth. For the most part, however, you're left frustrated and wondering how classics like 'Spanish Bombs', 'Clampdown' and 'Rock the Casbah' can sound so utterly bloodless : sure, it's tight and focused and all those other words that critics use to describe records that they're never going to listen to once they've filed their review, but there's nothing here as exciting as the early performances included on From Here to Eternity, nothing as spine-tingling as that haunting version of 'Straight to Hell' ('sing in tune, you bastards!'). In short, this record comprehensively fails to capture the essence of the Clash : they weren't a band who played to the bleachers; they were a band who eliminated the barrier between performers and audience, consistently innovating and evolving, and, well, once these things started to be compromised you feel the end was nigh.

Of course, it's hard to know whether the limitations of this record are down to the way the gig was recorded and produced or whether it's to do with the performance itself (i'm certainly not going to argue with people who were actually present at Shea Stadium). Let's just hazard a guess and say it's a bit of both. If you're waiting for the definitive Clash live document, be warned: this ain't it.


Cut Copy's new release

Not content with releasing a heavyweight contender for album of the year (In Ghost Colours (9)) and playing a string of rapturously received shows around Europe and America, Melbourne trio Cut Copy are now releasing album standout 'Far Away' as a single, featuring some tasty-looking remixes and a brand new track ('Sands of Time'). The full tracklisting:

1. Far Away
2. Far Away [Hercules & Love Affair Remix]
3. Far Away [Damn Arms Remix]
4. Far Away [Golden Filter Remix]
5. Hearts on Fire [Aeroplane Pop Mix]
6. So Haunted [Knightlife Sun-Soaked Reprise]
7. Sands of Time

Cut from the same day-glo synthpop cloth that characterises the rest of the album, 'Far Away' is pure sonic seratonin, and was one of the highlights of their superb Electric Picnic set. No matter how many times I hear this bouncy Human League homage, the intro slays me every time; scientifically speaking, if it doesn't fill you with the urge to dance, then you're clinically dead.

Manic Street Preachers : The New Testament?

The Manic Street Preachers recently announced that their next album, tentatively pencilled in for spring 2009, will feature lyrics that were left behind by former member Richey Edwards, who disappeared in 1995. Writing on their official site, the band state:

'All the songs we are recording are lyrics left to us by Richey. Finally it feels like the right time to use them...Musically, in many ways it feels like a follow up to The Holy Bible but there is also an acoustic side – tender, romantic, nihilism, “Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky” esque. It’s a record that celebrates the genius of his words, full of love, anger, intelligence and respect. We have to make this great. Wish us luck.'

Comparisons to 1994's The Holy Bible (9), the last album they recorded as a four-piece, are all the more interesting considering the band are working in the studio with producer Steve Albini, who also worked on Nirvana's In Utero (9.5) - one of the few mainstream albums released during the 1990's that can match The Holy Bible for sheer, uncompromising fury and despair.

However, creating something that can stand comparison with such a monumental piece of work - The Holy Bible is still an absolutely terrifying listen that includes anorexia, concentration camps and the sterilization of rapists among its subject matter - is easier said than done. This is no longer the same band who caused over 25,000 complaints when they appeared on Top of the Pops wearing balaclavas and military gear, but three middle-aged men whose main obsessions these days seem to be (a) hoovering, (b) Motown/Spector homages, and (c) ridiculously expensive consumer products. 'Your Love Alone Is Not Enough' may well have been a stirring single, but last year's Send Away the Tigers (5) was a distinctly average album and certainly not the career-rejuvenating triumph it was painted as in some quarters.

Still, cynicism aside, let's hope they can pull it off, and there'll be nobody happier than me if they do: MOR irrelevance is a sad fate to befall a band once capable of this:

Friday, November 7, 2008

Review: ASH - 1977 (Re-issue) original release : 1996

When you look at the position Ash currently occupy - on the fringes of the mainstream, with good-but-not-great reviews in the press being the order of the day - it's easy to forget just how big a deal they used to be and how phenomenal their initial rise to prominence was. Attracting media and record company interest with their debut single 'Jack Names The Planets' in February 1994, they followed up with the mini-album Trailer and a trio of superb singles - 'Petrol', 'Uncle Pat' and 'Kung Fu'. Their moment truly arrived when 'Girl From Mars' landed at no.11 in the UK top 40 in July 1995, and this was followed by a Glastonbury slot which took place just two days after lead singer/guitarist Tim Wheeler and bassist Mark Hamilton finished their A-levels. The debut album, 1977, released in May 1996, followed hot on the heels of Top 5 single 'Goldfinger', and shot straight in at number 1 on the UK album chart, dislodging Alanis Morrisette. It was an astonishing couple of years, not only in terms of commercial success but also in terms of the staggering quality of output from a group of young men still in their late teens.

Recently the band performed 1977 in its entirety in London's Roundhouse, and demand for tickets was so great that they've now released the album in a deluxe edition, along with Trailer , the Live at the Wireless radio session, a live set from Reading 1996, and a disc of 22 rarities and B-sides. Value for money? You bet. Having long since misplaced my copy of the album (one of the first I ever bought), it's given me the perfect opportunity to re-purchase, and of course get all nostalgic about those times when you'd spend all day writing the names of your favourite bands on your pencil case or school books. Which was doubtlessly one of the things that appealed about Ash: they were exactly the kind of rabid fanboys that you were, their obsessions - Star Wars, Jackie Chan, Hulk Hogan, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Thin Lizzy - all mixed into a compelling brew of breakneck riffs, pop-punk hooks and teenage kicks.

1977 still has a slightly disjointed feel - a third of the tracks had already been released as singles by the time the album came out, and some of the album tracks ('Lost in You', 'Let it Flow') don't quite match up - but it's excellence remains undimmed after 12 years: 'Girl From Mars', still arguably their best song, crackles along with youthful exuberance and a killer chorus; the riotous 'Kung Fu' is a 100mph tribute to Jackie Chan, while 'Oh Yeah' successfully captures the rush of teenage infatuation with a wistfulness beyond their years. Wheeler's remarkable songwriting talent comes to the fore on the grinding 'Goldfinger', where the narrator waits for a girl to 'set the score' ('I got some records on / Some bottles of wine / On this stormy night / The rain is lashing down / And I'm waiting for her'), while Hamilton threatens to upstage him with the distortion-fuelled vortex of 'Innocent Smile', a song that wouldn't sound out of place on Daydream Nation. It mightn't be Ash's best album - that honour goes to Free All Angels (9) in my book - but its got their most definitive songs.

Trailer, the EP that preceded 1977, is by no means a preliminary sketch, standing up as a very good record in its own right: heavier, harder-edged and with more of an obvious debt to grunge than their debut proper, it veers between the Ramones-esque punk-pop of 'Jack Names the Planets', the torrid riffing and morbid lyrics of 'Season', and the apocalyptic 'Petrol', one of those songs whose mysteriousness ('The cars stop outside, they all stay inside / The house is drenched in light, but what have I done wrong?') only adds to its emotional power.

Of the live sets, Live at the Wireless is the real keeper, a positively blistering performance recorded at the Triple J Studios in Australia in 1996. The version of 'Goldfinger' recorded here, shorn of Owen Morris' wall-of-sound production, is even better than on record, there's a terrific version of Ween's 'What Deaner Was Talking About', and 'Girl From Mars' and 'Petrol' are torn through with the energy and conviction of a band seizing their moment. Live at Reading 96 is less essential: while the energy levels are as high as ever, the set feels a bit flat at times on record, and the weaknesses of the three-piece set-up are more in evidence, a situation which would eventually lead to the recruitment of Charlotte Hatherley as second guitarist. Still, it's notable for the frenetic 'Kung Fu' finale - which seems to leave Wheeler breathless and speechless - and the reaction of a clearly adoring crowd.

There's a bit of overlap between the rarities disc included here and the one included with the impeccable singles collection Intergalactic Sonic 7's (10), but only five tracks in all. Unsurprisingly, it's a mixed bag, ranging from the playful to the heavy, but there's plenty of gold to be found. A four-track demo of 'Girl From Mars' brings its classic melody into even sharper relief, 'Don't Know' - one of their earliest tracks - has an endearingly amateurish-but-tuneful quality, while they also try their hand at some interesting covers (a bizarre vocoder-led electro version of 'Gimmie Some Truth', Smokey Robinson's 'Get Ready', 'Does Your Mother Know'). The prize, however, goes to '5am Eternal', a superlative, sinister slice of post-hardcore that sounds like it's been recorded in an echo chamber. And let's not forget the legendary Sick Party: the sound of Mark Hamilton intentionally regurgitating the contents of his stomach to howls of laughter from bandmates and crew, it was originally a hidden track at the end of 1977 and is included here in all its glory. And it's still hilarious.

I remember the thrill me and my best mate felt when Ash first hit the Top 20: it felt like a victory in a way, that this was our band rubbing shoulders with the vacuous mainstream heavyweights. Overly simplistic of course, but when you're that young you tend to romanticise these things, and that's why albums like 1977 hold such nostalgic value for us mid-twenties folk: they represent that sense of conviction and exhilaration that seems to dim with every passing year. Good to see it getting the comprehensive re-issue treatment it deserves.


Sunday, October 26, 2008


It's one of the great tragedies, if not mysteries, of the Irish music scene that so many of the best bands around these parts die premature deaths: just lately we've had the excellent Chalets and the Immediate fall by the wayside, joining the likes of Whipping Boy, Rollerskate Skinny and JJ72 in the 'why did they have to split?' files. It may be an unfair generalisation, but the bands with greater longevity and commercial success tend to be more conservative in outlook (the Frames, Snow Patrol, Bell X1), while more adventurous bands tend not to get due credit for their vision or ambition.

So let's just hope the same fate doesn't befall rapidly-rising Dublin-based band Codes. In the remarkably short time they've been together (they formed in mid-2007) the quartet have clocked up two Irish top 40 singles ('Edith' and 'This is Goodbye') and have just released latest single 'Guided by Ghosts'. On top of that, they've picked up rave reviews across the critical board, which is doubly impressive when you consider how sceptical certain sections of the Irish media are when it comes to domestic music (although it has to be said, they've frequently got good reason to be).

Codes deal in the kind of unashamed, wide-eyed, electronica-influenced indie pop that the word 'soaring' was invented for, going straight for the jugular and not failing to hit the target. Reference points that come to mind are JJ72 (with less of a Joy Division fixation) or Delays (with a bit more grit and muscle) - not just musically but also in terms of singer Daragh Anderson's falsetto vocals. Yet this is the kind of music that is so fresh and vital that it renders references irrelevant: it's quite simply joyous pop music, and their debut album, which they're currently recording in Cardiff, should be very interesting indeed.

In the meantime, 'Guided by Ghosts' is available on iTunes and in HMV now. It's probably the most propulsive, guitar-based track they've released yet, and it possesses the kind of sweeping, grandiose chorus they're quickly becoming renowned for. Highly recommended, here's the video:

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Dawn Landes

Have to admit, I really do have a bit of a weakness for female alt-country/folk singer-songwriter types (Gemma Hayes, Feist, Jenny Lewis). Which is just as well, considering the amount of distortion, feedback and noise I subject myself to on a regular basis. Always nice to have a bit of a balance.

Dawn Landes hails from Kentucky via NYC, where she interned at various recording studios, in the process picking up the skills which led her to start recording and producing her own songs. It also led to her recording with such artists as Ryan Adams, Josh Ritter and Philip Glass.

Her music is a beguiling mix of alt-country, lo-fi and folk influences, all held together by her understated yet richly melodic vocals. She's been compared to artists like Cat Power, Beth Orton and Suzanne Vega: impressive reference points, but she's worthy of them. Particular highlights are the lilting country swing of 'Straight Lines' and the aching melancholy of 'Kissing Song', while her bluegrass version of Peter, Bjorn and John's 'Young Folks' has to be heard to be believed. Landes' set at the Electric Picnic was a treat, one of the many great performances I witnessed that weekend; Josh Ritter even joined her onstage for a tune at one point. All the above-mentioned tracks are on her Myspace, so if you've got 10 minutes to spare check them out. You'll thank me. Or her.

The video for 'Straight Lines':

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Killers' new single

Ah, those crazy Killers. First it was New Order and The Cure, then it was Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, and now who's their new inspiration? The Pet Shop Boys, apparently. Stuck in the 80's, these lads.New single 'Human' is a lush, yearning synth-pop confection, and it's a damn fine tune once you get over the initial cheesiness. It's the first material from their third album, Day & Age, which will be released on November 25th.

I've got very mixed feelings about the band: on the one hand, they've released three of the finest singles of the last few years ('Mr. Brightside', 'All These Things That I've Done', and 'When You Were Young', which prompted one of the most spine-tingling singalongs I've ever been a part of at Oxegen last year); on the other hand, their practice of wearing their influences on their sleeves descends into tacky pastiche at times, and their desire to be a big arena band leads to some shamelessly pandering gestures. Like all good conservatives, they've also expressed their wish that Radiohead should 'go back to writing pop songs'. Lads? Shut up, seriously.

Anyway, as good as the new single is, it's not going to erase any of those doubts. 'Are we human? Or are we dancer?', asks the chorus. What's that all about? Apparently it's inspired by Hunter S. Thompson. Who knows? Who cares? I've got soul but I'm not a soldier. What's that about? Just go with it.

Florence and the Machine

One of the highlights of this year's Electric Picnic was witnessing a breathtaking performance from 22-year-old Londoner Florence Welch in a tent which couldn't have been holding more than 30 people at the time (it was early, very early). While I knew she was very much on the fringes in terms of mainstream exposure, it shocked me to learn that, goddamn, this woman doesn't even have a Wikipedia page! What kind of world do we live in?

Possessed of a sensational voice that seems to summon up all the stormiest extremes of human emotion, her songs are frequently unsettling, bluesy journeys into those murky areas of the human psyche that we like to keep a lid on: the eerie 'Bird Song' is about killing a bird who sees you doing something wrong, only to find that when you open your mouth, birdsong exposes your secret; while 'Girl With 1 Eye' (a cover) refers to cutting out a girl's eye ('I took it home and watched it wither and die...'). Probably her most famous song, 'Kiss With A Fist', caused such a stir with its lyrics ('You smashed a plate over my head / Then I set fire to our bed') that Florence was prompted to state the following:

'It is about two people pushing each other to phsycological extremes because they love each other.The only way to express these extreme emotions is with extreme imagery, all of which is fantasism and nothing in the song is based on reality.
Leona Lewis's bleeding love isn't actually about her bleeding. This isnt really about punching someone in the face.'

Mmm, that pesky PC brigade!

She's also gaining quite a reputation for being a terrific interpreter of other artists' work, with her haunting version of Cold War Kids' 'Hospital Beds' being the most notable example (she's also covered Springsteen's 'I'm Goin' Down' and Beirut's 'Postcards From Italy'). This girl is heading for big things. She's playing the Tripod in Dublin on November 14 and it's highly recommended you see her live: aside from her powerhouse voice, she's eccentric as a bat and has incredible stage presence.

here's the vid for the song that's NOT about domestic violence:

and her myspace:

Monday, October 20, 2008

Fight Like Apes and their damn remixes!

Now I haven't heard the album yet, and so I can't pass judgement on it, but it's worrying when you see John Meagher giving it one out of five in the Irish Independent. Worrying and disappointing, because Fight Like Apes really did seem like a breath of fresh air when I first witnessed them live last year. Providing a much needed injection of colour and inventiveness to the domestic music scene, their excellent early releases - 'Jake Summers', 'Lend Me Your Face', 'Do You Karate?' - suggested a band with bags of potential, one reared on influences like the Breeders, Mclusky and Siouxie rather than Nick Drake or Joy Division.

However, the alarm bells started ringing for me when I heard the the way the three aforementioned songs had been remixed for the album. Quite simply, they've butchered them, adding a load of gratuitious, irritating sound effects, and polishing up the sound so that the lo-fi charm of the original versions has been completely lost. I really don't know why bands do this, if a song is good enough in the first place then why bother messing around with it? Nine times out of ten when bands do this, it's a bad idea. Unless of course it's a wholesale remix where you turn a rock song into a dance tune or whatever, but that's a different story.

Proof that the pennywhistle is a rock n' roll instrument

Fan of Sonic Youth? No? Shame on you. Fan of the Stooges? No? Shame on you. Well even if you're not a fan of either band you'll still find the following clip absolutely hilarious. It's TV footage from a show called Night Music back in the late '80's, with Sonic Youth joined by jazz saxophonist David Sanborn, Daniel Lanois, Don Fleming and a few other headers as they tear through an electric cover of the Stooges' 'I Wanna Be Your Dog'. Fleming steals the show as he runs up beside Sanborn to play the whistle in unison with Sanborn's sax, and best of all, starts throwing his whistle against the amplifiers to see if it can create feedback. Absolute genius. And quite possibly the funniest and most rock n' roll thing I've ever seen on Youtube:

Unfortunately, the footage cuts out before Thurston runs over to Lanois and cuts the strings off his guitar with a hedge-clippers.

While you're at it, check out this coverage of Iggy Pop joining Sonic Youth for a performance of the same song, Iggy literally barking like a dog towards the end. Amazing scenes:


what better way to get the ball rolling around here than with a good old-fashioned rant?

Oasis were recently unveiled as the headliners for Slane 2009. Yes, that's the same Oasis who haven't released a great album since 1995's (What's the Story) Morning Glory? (9/10) and whose main contribution to the music scene nowadays is their ever-hilarious interviews (more on that below).

Now don't get me wrong: Oasis, being the first band i ever fell for when I heard the glorious Crazy Horse-inspired 'Some Might Say' on my sister's radio one evening, will always have a special place in my heart. But, apart from a few inspired moments such as 'Who Feels Love?' or 'Stop Crying Your Heart Out', the music they've been releasing since the epic drug folly of Be Here Now (5) has been a mixture of the average and the downright awful (anybody remember 'I Can See a Liar'?). Don't believe me? Ask Noel Gallagher: of the 18 tracks he chose for inclusion on the best-of collection Stop The Clocks, a mere four were taken from the post-Morning Glory albums.

So what?, i hear you ask, it'll still sell out and plenty of people will enjoy it. Yet the announcement of Oasis as headliner is further evidence of the sad, sad decline of Slane, which used to represent so much more to Irish music fans. A quick glance at past line-ups illustrates the point: in 1993, a resurgent Neil Young shared the bill with Van Morrison and grunge heavyweights Pearl Jam; in 1995, Oasis themselves, on the back of the classic debut Definitely Maybe (9.5), played support to R.E.M., who were then still arguably at their commercial peak and touring for the first time in six years; while people still talk in awed tones about the legendary set Bruce Springsteen played in 1985. However, Slane never seemed to recover from the cancellation of Eminem's planned appearance in 2005: the only concert held since has been the travelling circus known as the Rolling Stones, while three-day festivals like the Electric Picnic or Oxegen are now held in much greater esteem and have been for some time.

Of course, you could argue that there's a shortage of bands with the ability to sell out the 80,000-capacity venue, but that's where multiple acts come in, and let's face it, between Oxegen, the Picnic and the fact that bands like the Killers often opt for their own arena shows, there's not much room for manoeuvre there either.
Anyway, back to the issue of Oasis interviews, here's a few gems:

"Americans want grungy people, stabbing themselves in the head on stage. They get a bright bunch like us, with deodorant on, they don't get it." -Liam

Liam on aliens: "I'm not frightened by them. I'm as smart as them. Probably thick as fuck, aren't they? Big goggly-eyed big heads, man, they haven't got a fucking clue. I'd do their fucking heads in, them aliens, man. They'd be like, 'Farking hell, farking hell! Lets get back to Planet Knob!"

"'Talk Tonight', the one he wrote while he was in San Fransisco with some fucking bird, that's shit and I fucking hate it. That's not going on no fucking record of ours. Y'know he's gonna have to get it together for that album. Ballads - one on the B-side, maybe one or two on the album, but that's it. He better cut it out, I'm telling ya. All this feeling down in America, man, and shit like that." - Liam

Liam on Coldplay: "Dido's with willies"

Comic genius. And here's a reminder of those halcyon days when Oasis really were the greatest band in the world:
This is going to be a blog mostly about music, but probably some other stuff as well. Expect record reviews, gig reviews, articles, think-pieces, rants (especially expect rants) ... hope you like it, feel free to leave comments