Thursday, 31 March 2011

My favourite album cover, like, EVER!

There's something terribly unforgiving about the cover of the Human League's 1980 album, Travelogue.

The grainy lack of focus, the violently bright sun lurking ominously (is it rising or setting?), and the mysterious figure being transported across harsh arctic plains - all of these elements add to an overall picture of nihilism, of a bleak, solitary future (the League were constantly looking forward) where there is a lack of simple human connection. In short, I think it looks brilliantly chilling.

The cover also reminds me of the opening scenes of John Carpenter's re-make of The Thing, which sees an Alaskan Malamute running away from it's frantic Scandinavian masters after something has gone horrifically wrong at their research facility.

Unfortunately I can't find out who shot the cover. But in a weird way I don't want to know.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Live: Crystal Stilts - 24/3/11 - Audio, Brighton

Judging by the scowls on their faces it’s difficult to tell whether Brooklyn noise-popsters Crystal Stilts like to be beside the seaside. The first show of their seven-date British tour sees them on the south-east coast in Brighton playing to a surprisingly sparse crowd.

All too often the band has not so much been accused of ripping off Joy Division but molesting Ian Curtis’ corpse. The post-punk pioneers are clearly an influence, but Crystal Stilts also take inspiration from the strung-out insouciance of Velvet Underground and the swampy mysticism of the Doors.

The influences come together seductively on Departure, a swirling broth of fuzz bass, descending chords and creeping, funereal keys. The song is drawn out, letting it have its way with the audience, and when it is brought to an end, punters shake their heads wondering what strange plane they had just been taken to.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. When it wants to their music can reach euphoric highs, as demonstrated on the spritely Sycamore Tree and the swaggering Through the Floor. This is as upbeat as it gets though as these moments are snuffed out quickly by a further dose of the morose.

For the most part the band look thoroughly disinterested but one gets the feeling that it would be a cardinal sin for them to look like they enjoy what they are doing. Does Lou Reed ever smile? Did Ian Curtis ever burst out into a beaming, ear to ear grin? Lucky for them their music has plenty of life in it yet.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Friday On My Mind

Like 42.5million other people, my curiosity got the better of me the other day and I watched the video for Rebecca Black's Friday on Youtube.

I was typically reluctant at first as I had decided the song was going to be an atrocity. It was a purely instinctive reaction, but then I thought why not see how bad it actually is? Maybe its the masochist in me, he who writhes and squirms ecstatically in the horror, but I have always found terrible music highly comedic, no matter how earnest the performer is.

My opinion didn't change once I had heard it. Yes, it is a sorry piece of music, the aural equivalent of watching a dog with no legs trying to stand up, but is it really worse than anything else in the charts?

The top 40 has always been smattered with shit and as I write this it is no different. The Black Eyed Peas have their perennial place in there, this week with Just Can't Get Enough. Its as irritating and auto-tuned as Black's single. Another pot shot leads us to Tinie Tempah's Wonderman (featuring Ellie Goulding), which is as banal and monotone as listening to an old person talk about something which you simply do not care about.

What do we have here? Olly Murs' Heart On My Sleeve, a terminal ballad of euthanasian proportions; Alexis Jordan's Good Girl, one of the worst songs to enter the chart this year, yet it reached number six; and George Michael's butchering of True Faith, calling into question whether it is worth saving children in Africa.

Friday certainly isn't better than anything in the charts but with all the commotion surrounding it one could be forgiven for thinking that it was a recitation of the Nazi Party manifesto produced by Stock, Aitken and Waterman. With it's insistence on repetition and auto-tuning it is no different to the majority of the music in the charts right now. Take this as a warning: we haven't heard the last of Rebecca Black.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

...But Seriously.

And so today it was announced that Phil Collins is retiring from the music industry. I can't say I've ever cared for Collins' music except that he features prominently in my favourite book of all time, Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho.

Patrick Bateman's meandering paeans to stars such as Collins, Whitney Houston and Huey Lewis and the News are amongst the funniest moments in the book and go some way to demonstrate Bateman's sickeningly bland facade, masking the gnarled torment within.

In Mary Harron's film adaptation, Bateman (played by Christian Bale) entertains two prostitutes whilst informing them emotively about Collins' work with Genesis ("too artsy, too intellectual") and his later solo work ("more commercial and therefore more satisfying, in a narrower way"). Engaging in sex with both women, it is to the soundtrack of Sussudio, Bateman's personal favourite, from Collins' 1985 album No Jacket Required. Its a perfect 80s pop song which, to anyone who has seen the film, is now loaded with gratuitous sexual imagery and Patrick Bateman's immortal line, "Sabrina, don't just stare at it, eat it."

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Interview - Gruff Rhys

Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys' latest solo album, Hotel Shampoo, is based around his monumental collection of complimentary hotel toileteries he has gathered from years of touring the world. Rhys built a miniature hotel from the 500+ bottles of shampoo which was on display at the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff and he is currently touring Britain, playing a series of dates in typically unconventional venues. I got an interview with him at St. George's Church in Brighton where he was playing on Saturday.

How was it getting the sound sorted in the church?

It was good today; we can hear each other. Sometimes it can be quite bad but today it seems OK. We usually trust the promoters to get a good venue.

Does touring fill you with as much excitement now as it presumably did when you started with the Super Furry Animals?
Yeah, in a different way, I suppose. When we (SFAs) started to tour the excitement was coupled with being on a long drinking session (laughs). Maybe now it's more about the music. When we were starting out it was a complete head expansion going to a new town. It was an insane absurdity. It was a lot of fun, y'know. We still have fun on tour but that's why we don't tour as often because our bodies can' when I tour on my own I'm very sensible. With Super Furry Animals we have a certain influence on each other...

After a series of collaborations, how is it just doing the solo thing?
It's about being...I think this record is about being in my comfort zone, which isn't necessarily the most adventurous thing to do. But you have to give up control over some things.

So you're not a control freak in the studio?
No. I haven't got the loudest voice. When I make my own records it's a lot faster. I'm not the most articulate so I'm not very good at explaining things to other people. It doesn't mean it's a better record. I can record exactly what I was trying to do.

The album was mainly recorded over here but mixed in L.A. Is that a bit surreal?
Yeah, a lot of it was recorded in other people's houses but I had one day in a big commercial studio because I didn't have a record deal. I recorded the drums in one day in a big studio.

Why L.A.?
To work with Mario Caldatto who has done albums with people like Beastie Boys and Tone Loc. He works in his own space, not like a big studio. We worked on his computer. He's got a load of old synths as well so I went round his house to do it. I took my family as well and stayed over there for a bit.

What's your favourite part of America?
I like the energy. It's like becoming a child again because everything is big. That's what I found exciting about touring because it keeps everything new and America is so big you still find something new every day. It seems endless. You could tour there perpetually.

You've said that you wanted to make a record of piano-led ballads but that didn't really happen with the new album. Do you feel your musical tastes have changed?
A lot of things that have gone onto this record are things I've been listening to since I was a teenager. It was very much about making a record of simple songs like you'd get with John Cale and Lou Reed records.

Do you take pride in certain songs more than others?
Yeah, I suppose the ones I'm happiest with are the ones that I had the least control over. Things like Shark Ridden Waters which almost came by chance working with Andy Votel. There's piano on most tracks but the piano on that song is by kids on a toy piano.

Should we expect any more collaborations any time soon?
Yeah, I've been turning a lot of things down. With SFAs we were extremely guarded for years and I was turning everything down until Mogwai asked me to sing on their record (the song Dial:Revenge on 2001s Rock Action), and I love Mogwai, love hanging out with them, and they asked me to go to Glasgow for three days so it was "Yeah, go on then" (laughs).

How was it working with Gorillaz (Rhys collaborated on the track Superfast Jellyfish on 2010s Plastic Beach)? I always imagined Damon Albarn to be a dictator in the studio...
But I suppose he's in his element in the studio - he's surrounded by the instruments he's collected over the years. I think all the money he's made from Gorillaz has gone back into Gorillaz.

Did they let you have much of a say in where the song you collaborated on was going?
For Superfast Jellyfish he had a bassline and we had a fifteen to twenty minute jam and he picked out two bars of it and then put the song together and then he wanted me to write a chorus. He gave me the title. Then I went away and didn't hear it for three or four months - by which time he'd edited my parts and De La Soul came in and did some rhymes which was crazy because I was buying De La Soul records when I was 19. It was, like, "Wow!".

Did you play Glastonbury with them? I didn't see them because I was off watching the Bootleg Beatles at the time.
No, I didn't, I was in L.A. at the time. It's a very unusual situation when I get asked to help headline Glastonbury and have to turn it down.

When you signed with Creation in 1995 were you witness to any of the madness of Alan McGee?
I think he was straight by then but they were extremely exciting times. My experience of Alan McGee was just someone who was extremely enthusiastic about everything he was doing which rubbed off on other people. When he first heard The Man Don't Give a Fuck it was supposed to be a B-side and he was going, "That's a single; lets release it next week". And people in the office were going, "No, Alan, it takes three weeks to manufacture a record"..."OK, lets do it in three weeks." He wanted to do everything straight away which was great.

How motivated would you say you are? Is it good to have someone like that behind you who is propelling you forward?
It's always good to have enthusiastic people behind you. Enthusiasm is an amazing trait to have.

Have you always been this laid back?
Yeah, I don't know if I am laid back...I think some people often mistake enthusiasm and creativity for madness, which is ridiculous when people just want to try things out.

Apart from bottles of hotel shampoo, do you collect, or hoard, anything else?
Yeah, records are acceptable. We're living in a very disposable age and our minds aren't cut out for disposability. I think we still instinctively want to keep hold of everything and we care about the objects. That comes from a time when people had so much less in their lives and they really wanted to take care of those things.

Do you still have your first guitar?
No, I've given those things away...

Out of generosity?
Yeah, people want things for raffles as well.

So you don't have rooms full of guitars at home?
No, no, as a musician I always wanted to be a drummer and I have no interest in guitars. I've got very little emotional attachment with them.

So do you have a few drum kits knocking around at home?
I've got one but it's been shared around half of Cardiff in various studios.