Sunday, July 18, 2010

DVD Review: EDGEPLAY: A FILM ABOUT THE RUNAWAYS

(Shock Entertainment)

Picked up by Shock for release five years after it’s US bow, to coincide with the middling biopic, ex-bassist Vicki Blue’s insightful but plodding documentary tells a cautionary and occasionally surprising tale about teenage girls being caught in a get-rich-(and laid)-quick scheme devised by manager-producer Kim Fowley.

Edgeplay is essentially a home movie that uses almost every camera effect in the Final Cut Pro book to ineffectually spice up repeated footage of the girls – now in their late 40s – recanting barely remembered stories of their brief time in the spotlight. Blue labours over the member’s recollections; drummer Sandy West, guitarist Lita Ford, singer Cherrie Curry often tell the same story in succession, dulling any impact considerably particularly given that so little footage of the band is included and almost avoids actual discussion of the music. The most glaring failing in this intensely well-meaning documentary is the omission of the film to include any actual music by The Runaways due to the ban enforced by chief songwriter Joan Jett who appears in the film only in grainy flashback.

One thing Edgeplay does well is documenting their stories; clearly, Blue has earned the trust of the other deservedly jaded ex-members. Especially poignant is that of Sandy West who, in the film’s most interesting section, details her life after the dissolution of the band and despairs the band’s inability to reform, repeatedly asking a very reasonable ‘why not?’ Adding to the emotional impact are interviews with her mother who would sadly outlive her daughter who died from lung cancer months after the film’s release.

As a documentation of also-rans of music history, this is an interesting addition to its field, and somewhere between Edgeplay and The Runaways is a great story waiting to be told, but, like The Runaways’ career, the film reeks of missed opportunities.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

NEW BEST FRIEND - An interview with Kate Nash

With a new album, a world tour and an obsessive approach toward writing, KATE NASH still has time for catching up with Riot Grrl and modern feminist literature, as ANDY HAZEL discovers.

Kate Nash is a force of nature, a polarising and prolific performer as British as Bow Bells and as verbose as a Cockney car salesman on a roll. No longer reeling from her dizzying year of 2008 which saw her go from ex-BRIT school theatre graduate with a broken leg and the maternal gift of a guitar, via a MySpace hype-explosion (remember them?), to a UK number one album and accolades both in the US and UK, Nash has chilled. Whether these props are deserved is a hotly debated topic on blogs and, you’d imagine, between teenage couples; topics for songs usually surround boys being jerks, girls being exasperated, and acting independently. However, three years into a relationship with Cribs’ guitarist Ryan Jarman attentions have turned elsewhere.

“I think that life is still a little bit hectic and mental but I’m used to it now,” she says in her typical rapid-fire manner. “I’m used to the lifestyle; being away from home a lot, constantly having to deal with the merry-go-round of shows and meeting people but now I’m more settled and I’ve bought my own place. It’s really nice to chill out and have your own space, so I’m really enjoying playing live and playing the new songs and getting to tour.”
With her schedule soon to be bringing her from the summer festival circuit of the UK to our own shores, Nash has been getting to know her songs in a new way. “It’s interesting playing an album I’ve fully realised,” she ponders. “I feel like I’m more at ease with the whole process because I put a lot of pressure on myself to live up to the expectations of what an artist does after their first album and it’s not easy to a year to write another lifetime of experience in a year. My Best Friend is You I kind of wrote without realising it. I never sat down and said ‘I’m going to write a second record’, I just wrote, I wrote the songs and let them come out the way they did.”

Featuring songs that are already hits in the UK Do Wah Doo and Kiss The Grrl the two predominant musical themes of the album are detectable in those titles. “I was listening to a lot of soul, 90s Riot Grrl and girl groups and I wanted to have that clash of sounds on the album; 60s vintage styles, spoken word and Motown and experiment sonically and mix it up a little bit.”

Mixing up songs is something that Nash is particularly accomplished at, with the year since her début Made of Bricks spent “doing normal things, like sitting around at home in my dressing-gown watching daytime television,” followed by year of working with a frankly impressive array of collaborators. Producer Bernard Butler, folkstar Billy Bragg, Blur’s Dave Rowntree and Jason Trachtenberg from his Family Slideshow Players feature among the musicians she’s worked with both musically and as part of her social activism. “When it comes to collaborations, I think you have to go with what you feel, what you like and trust and form a relationship,” she affirms. “It has to be natural and organic. Being who I am I’m very reliant on gut instinct and if I think something feels right then I go with it.”

This ‘going with it’ approach has been seeing a lot of exercise as Nash’s work ethic begins to look like that of an army squadron. Yet another graduate from The BRIT School of Performing Arts and Technology (Amy Winehouse, Imogen Heap, Noisettes etc.), Nash found her time there as integral to much more than just her songwriting. “They were my formative years. I studied theatre so it taught me about taking myself out of comfort zone, putting everything on the line, being fearless and a lot about storytelling and about creating a character. Most of all I took it very seriously and did a lot of things I was afraid of and developed a lot as a songwriter and performer because of it.”

Being almost absurdly productive and active is something that seems to be essential for any artist wanting to keep the attention of a largely teen and twenty-something fanbase, though it doesn’t seem as if this is a calculated move by any means when it comes to Kate Nash. “I do keep a diary as I write day to day,” she says “I’m trying to write down when specific things happen to try and remember write in a matter of fact way to record events and sometimes to remember where I come from. I write short stories and pieces for my blog and myself so it’s absolutely part of my day-to-day existence.”

Much of her writing is personal as her songs seem and, naturally for someone whose lyrics have been described as ‘gauche live journal poetry,” her fans respond. “I get really nice things from fans,” she says, brightening. “I have a book coming out soon as well so I’ve got a lot to write for and I get a lot of response to that. A little while ago I asked people to write about what love is and this one woman sent me a piece about how her three-year-old kid had leukaemia and the way this had changed the way she expressed love. She was writing about how in nature a bird would rip off their wing to help their baby, an elephant would lie down next to their baby and die for it and this woman wrote that love was shown by the way she could carry her pain. I published her letter and then she wrote to me again, and her kid wrote to me as well. It’s a bizarre relationship as you don’t know them but you do; really intimately.”

The theme of friendship and support is a key one both creatively and emotionally, Nash clearly holds friendship and her relationship with Ryan Jarman as sacred above all other things. Though not musically related, she describes their relationship as ‘a special situation’. “We’re spending a lot of time apart and that’s a challenge,” she says seriously. “It’s very romantic to miss each other and to get excited to see each other. I can’t imagine being with someone who doesn’t do the same thing as me, I couldn’t be with someone who didn’t inspire me. It’s easy now, we understand each other and understand the stresses, know what it’s like to do promo and be on tour and to be able to enjoy music together. We have a few things we like to play together too, but we very much have our own lives,” like all best friends.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

CD Review: FANFARLO - RESERVOIR (Warner Music)

England’s Fanfarlo are an indie pop group who rode a bracing wave of online journalistic hyperbole late last year following a glowing David Letterman appearance and the release of this, their début album. As is the way with bands and hype like this, the Australian release and tour comes as almost an afterthought but this is an album with much to be fond of.

Written as a live band and perfunctorily produced by 2009’s producer du jour Peter Katis, Reservoir is an album that a lot of people would like, but few will hear. Reasons for this are writ large throughout the album, as it ticks so many boxes of what is ‘quality indie’ since Arcade Fire tore up the rulebook. Baring little resemblance to the ebullient twee that coloured earlier EPs and their contribution to 2006’s landmark Kids At The Club indie pop compilation album, Fanfarlo have grown in a way that many of their contemporaries on that album would never have considered and would likely have viewed as very…American.

In short, this is exactly the sort of album that would be made if Clap Your Hands Say Yeah got Beirut to do some arrangements for them and told Peter Katis to do whatever he did on Funeral. This is both great, because Fanfarlo are smart songwriters and you could do far worse than those touchstones, but it does feel as if the band’s personalities were lost somewhere over the Atlantic.

Despite the ready references, there are some top tunes herein. Fire Escape is a gloriously wrought mix of Farfisa, synth arpeggios, acoustic guitar and exuberant horns all brought to a rolling boil by vocalist and ringleader Simon Balthazar. Ghosts (unsurprisingly already used in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy) makes Beirut sound more fun than he’s ever had appropriating, and Drowning Men should satiate Arcade Fire fans until the release (and perhaps following the release) of The Suburbs. While there is nothing earthshaking about this modest addition to the year’s impressive array of indie albums, it’s not entirely without appeal and worth investing in for those who want to get something familiar yet different onto a mixtape, or to hear what a British indie pop group sounds like when made over by one of the most lauded producers. With an Australian tour in August, those who hear Reservoir will likely be convinced to check them out, or at least bide time with Fanfarlo till the real thing comes along.

CD Review: WHITE WOODS - BELLPLAY

(Sensory Projects)
The funereal stomp underpinning many of the tracks on the début release from Melbourne’s White Woods seems to emerge from some distant rhythms beneath the bitumened streets of the city. There is a depth to the music here as if it has been composed while on a 3AM walk and channelled directly to analogue tape. Mo Tucker rhythms, strangled guitar slashes and melodic bass push the songs along and under the skin, never going for the jugular when an imperceptibly subtle increase in tension will do. Though the album has only seven tracks each is a different variation on the theme of what to these ears seems like personal isolation and urban desolation.

Far from being a depressing proposition, Bellplay is brightly mixed and Keith Mason’s keening slices of feedback and warping shimmers ease in and out of songs with an engaging unpredictability. The sad and propulsive chording are the musical highlight in their marriage to the vocal meters. Their pale distance allows the bass to meander and chime while the drums beat mournful tattoos.

Here’s hoping that the distant voices that occasionally colour proceedings don’t get too loud, that interviews and photos don’t tarnish the mystique that this albums so effectively builds. Perhaps it’s selfish, but this band is quietly making passages out from their firmly built walls and it’s bound to resound with a lot of listeners. There is a lot to like in here; the lurching beats and precise rhythmic accentuations that all instruments and vocals follow creating a dirty hypnotic swirl like a slowly approaching pavement to the face of a falling drunk as on Groundswell and Sea Sickened. Elbows and Kneebones begins with surely the slackest-sounding Phil Spector-beat ever recorded. While there is little of true originality to begin with, the twists and turns taken by the players ensure that what may begin as familiar becomes weirdly compelling, somewhat similar to a dream of being buried by an avalanche in slow motion, it’s sad and impenetrable but bleakly beautiful too.

Though unlikely to get much airplay and win fans over with live performances, White Woods are an interesting group for the atmosphere the album makes and the subsuming of personalities by the relentless force they make as a whole. A layered and well-recorded début.

Live Review: EARL GREY POLICY, THE GALLANT TREES

Monday, June 28, 2010
WESLEY ANNE

The importance of musical ability in composition, and as a part of putting on a decent show, is thrown into the spotlight tonight at the Wesley Anne. It’s not as clear cut as one band has it and one doesn’t, but the role it plays in The Gallant Trees (as secondary to songwriting and the act of a performance), compared to Earl Grey Policy (it’s all we’ve got), makes for an interesting contrast.

The Gallant Trees, brainchild of singer-songwriter Joel Stibbard, are one of the most underappreciated bands on the Melbourne scene. Playing his 107th gig since last May, Stibbard plainly has a huge affection for his songs, the audience and performance, and they combine to make a wonderful show. Backed by Chris Chinchilla on drums and Tim Woods on bass, songs primarily concern the loves of the songwriter, namely birds and social observations. While Pigeons are the Best Headbangers has been steadily growing as a cult hit, Birds With Fangs and Visit Me Pelican also allow the band to shine while Stibbard’s earthy banter takes in an open discussion about social anxiety, hallucinations, operatic vocal solos and a frank disclosure about glasses and nose sweat. This band is clearly unlike any other and utterly of their place and time in a way so few are. Bring on the album.

In stark contrast, Earl Grey Policy are about as exciting as you’d expect a band with the word ‘policy’ in their name to be. Playing a blues-funk-reggae fusion, with a lot of competent solos and no dynamics, this is the musical equivalent of watching someone park a sports car for an hour.

EGP may be suited to an early afternoon slot at a summer festival where the vibes flow a little more loosely, but this is a Sunday night in winter in inner Melbourne and if you’re going to show off, you’d better be charismatic. Unfortunately, bandleader Andrew Ferguson calling for another meandering piano solo, cracking an in-joke or taking another wailing guitar solo over some offbeat reggae chops does not suffice. Watching talented musicians play and work with each other to create something unique can be compelling, but EGP come across as a lunchtime jam at the VCA with songs comprising verses that bookend the extended displays of musicianship.

Still, the freedom and passion earlier exhibited by The Gallant Trees more than makes up for later uninspired rambling. Tonight’s lessons: don’t treat a gig as a jam, and pigeons are the best headbangers.

Live Review: THREE MONTH SUNSET, IOWA, THIEVES

Saturday, June 26, 2010
CHERRY BAR

Let’s get this out of the way right now: yes, these bands are united by a love of big swirly guitar sounds and sure they are all indebted at least a little to the lush cacophonies created by sonic pioneers Kevin Shields and Robin Guthrie, but never does this get in the way of a glorious gig or suggest a lack of originality in composition. Meditations on a sound or field of sounds when played by people who understand it well, invariably brings a personality into the music as much as a trained jazz pianist and tonight’s lineup suggests the shoegaze well is far from dry.

Thieves are a new group who channel that early-90s British sound to glorious ends. Balancing fury and beauty, the atonal and tonal, climbing and falling basslines, riffs and melodies from chugging verses, to bridges that build up and choruses that burst into widescreen give a lot to like. Vocals sit back in the mix but winding melodies shine through, most commonly from the bright 12-string guitar of Seb Hammond, though it’s singer and guitarist Patrick Robinson who leads the charge through the songs. Penultimate track Almost Over hints at the sky-carving glory this band – still in early days - are capable of.

Iowa are an odd group, with a name suggesting cornfields and Slipknot that thankfully have nothing to do with either, and everything to do with making riff-heavy Dinosaur Jr/Swervedriver–influenced sounds that ricochet around the low-ceiling and grubby walls of Cherry Bar. Songs chug and burn and the melodies slide out of layer after layer of meticulously crafted guitar, when songs slow and drag, the sounds and details crackle to life with a Crazy Horse-like glow and things get very nice.

Launching their first EP and in no uncertain terms owning the evening are Three Month Sunset, a band who has coalesced around the loud and ‘beauty-as-terror’ guitar of Gabriel Lewis. Lights off, a projector beam is trained on the band, monochromatic kaleidoscopic images play as the shimmering guitar, and dual-bass throb of the band begins soon moves to a cruising altitude.

When music is as loud and carefully constructed as this, the mid-gig addition of clashing vocal harmonies seem incongruous. On record, the singing is gorgeous; here the music is so loud pitching must be a problem. The EP’s opening track No Horizon is still a mesmerising triumph though and the singing barely detracts from the brilliance herein. Watch this space, Three Month Sunset are likely to set it on fire.

CD Review: DEAR DARKLY – THE BOAT PEOPLE

(MGM)

Quite why this band hasn’t yet ‘broken’ (should that be what they want to do, and judging by the production on Dear Darkly it is), is a mystery only explained by their lack of an out-front vocalist. They receive airplay, write crackling pop singles, have a work ethic, create great film clips, have a style that is familiar yet their own, and, most importantly have fresh ideas.

By no means as beholden to the idea of ‘epic’ or ‘expansive’ pop as say Temper Trap, Boat People have, on Dear Darkly, set their sights higher than earlier releases would suggest. While a trajectory is all well and good, and the natural development of a band can take a more polished path to questionable ends, The Boat People have integrity coming out their ears and this proves to be their finest album yet. Tracks like Dance To My Pain, single Soporific and the frankly unhinged Echo Stick Guitars suggest that live shows will be getting even better and the band now want you to move as well as appreciate.

While mixing their Go-Betweens indie sounds with a bit of Midnight Juggernauts beats may cause some to wrinkle their nose, Boat People make it seem like the best idea they could have had. Under the Ocean is all headlong guitar slashes and near shoegaze-submerged vocals. This is perfect for those who like their Triple J-rock and lose interest with bands like Ghostwood or Three Month Sunset. Songs like Antidote and Damn Defensive are surely just weeks away from getting sweet repositioning to a TV show or film and going totally nova.

There is an ambition on Dear Darkly that is likely to surprise those who have been following the band, and it doesn’t sound like an affectation or adoption. Given the tightness and confidence from a band with a stable lineup and on their third album, there is every reason to believe that things can only get better, though it’s hard to see how the scope and songwriting can beat Dear Darkly.

CD Review: ZULYA – TALES OF SUBLIMING

(Unstable Ape Records)

Since her arrival in Australia in 1991, Zulya Kamalova has been awing, bewitching, educating and captivating audiences with her Westernised interpretations of Tartar and Russian folk music and this may well be her finest hour.

Dispensing with the Children of the Underground moniker, though keeping the members and adding hosts of other instruments, Tales of Subliming is a monumental achievement, likely to bring her another ARIA for World Music Album of the Year. Expanding from the more traditional folk flavours of earlier releases, this is a free-flowing and inspiring album with production and instrumentation reaching new heights; Kusturica soundtracks and early-80s Tom Waits are the most commonly mentioned touchstones but they barely scratch the surface of what lies here.

Julian Marshall’s work both as percussionist and producer is utterly glorious, giving the songs and their hugely varied sounds the space to shine and building Zulya’s voice – that ever-evolving lustrous thing of wonder – a throne from which to rule. Surely there can be few more evocative and understated singers in this country, regardless of whether she sings in English (as she does here on seven songs) or Russian. The Mermaid’s Tale and Ocean Lullaby reveal a never-bettered torch song sentiment that thrills Europhiles as much as jazz aficionados or anyone longing for something definitely different.

Songs linger on individual freedom (Little Sky), race through fables and folk tales (Baba Yaga’s Dream) and haunt the back alleys of Mediterranean ports (He Fell So Deep) all the while tugging gently at your hand. Songs are pushed along with lulled strings, junkyard percussion, insistent double bass, creaking nautical horns while the coursing backdrops highlight the plight of the protagonist, often caught in a fairytale of their own creation.

Anyone can sing about marriage as a prison (The Ropemaker’s Daughter), lost souls (The Water Woman and the Orphaned Girl) love and death (A Tale of Love and Death) and transcending mortality to become a cloud (The Subliming of the Snow Maiden). It’s a rare songwriter who can tap into folklore centuries old, see it from the perspective of an eternal outsider, tie those feelings into a voice so powerful and with musicianship so accomplished to deliver it without a hint of pretence or affectation. If you crave the authentic and the pure amidst a world of artifice and posturing, you can do little better than to listen to Tales of Subliming.

CD Review: CLAIRE HOLLINGSWORTH – CRAFT SAVVY CRIMINAL

(Independent)

With her début release, Claire Hollingsworth, bandleader at Brunswick’s School on the Hill, follows on from her two EPs with a gently sparkling ode to deviations from normalcy. This is a small album both in tone, ambition and running time, though it’s no less wonderful for its intimacy, a sense that fits perfectly with the production and packaging.

“I come to you in sleep / guided by the lighthouse that you keep” Hollingsworth gently intones as the album unfolds. Many songs herein are quiet and thoughtful turns, served well by the treatment they’re given. Roping in Andrew Wright to produce and percuss, Craft Savvy Criminal has been given an ideal midwife. The album is a lovingly made collection of songs, and, as the cover art so clearly suggests, one heedless of fashion or current trends. Hollingsworth has a voice it’s difficult to imagine inhabiting any other genre, so well matched to a gently strummed acoustic guitar, sparse piano and quiet reflections that seduce as they celebrate. Odes to a stolen laptop (Dear Junkies) and her hometown (Fremantle) rub shoulders with the darkly fragile and lonely Four Walls while the whole thing sounds as though it couldn’t have come from anywhere else in the world than Melbourne.

Hollingsworth’s talent for constructing and arranging a song is greater than her subjects, which are more commonly musings that become compelling through her rendering. It’s easy to feel you know her given the sincerity and warmth inhabiting every second and it’s a testament to the musicians involved that the performances are top notch and arrangements sensitive. Possibly the finest songs on the album Mirror Mirror and Faux Serial Killer sees Hollingsworth empower her songs with uplifting vocal and string arrangements which suggest that when she’s ready to broaden her palette, the results will be wonderful indeed. As it is, Craft Savvy Criminal is a record to seek and treasure.

MADE TO LOVE MAGIC - An interview with Romeo Stodart of The Magic Numbers

ROMEO STODART, singer and songwriter with London’s THE MAGIC NUMBERS tells ANDY HAZEL about repressed accents, working with the late Robert Kirby and singing with great Brian Wilson.

It’s been a quiet spell for The Magic Numbers. Following their auspicious début onto the British scene five years ago which saw reviews glowing and concert-goers ecstatic, it was a mere 18 months between first and follow up album. Comprised of a double brother-sister combo; Romeo and Michele Stodart and Angel and Sean Gannon there has been a near four-year silence from the band since their previous album Those The Brokes. So, what went down?

“We finished touring, built a studio, did a lot of writing and my sister had a baby girl,” says singer and songwriter Romeo Stodart warmly. “I’m definitely excited to get out there to do shows. We’re playing some festivals here then we’re coming to Australia. We’re very keen to get back to the beach, I hope we get some days off,” he says wistfully, “I was born in Trinidad you see.” Does that explain the distinctive high-pitched voice? “Maybe,” he says laughing. “In Trinidad you speak patois with slang and if I’m stoned or angry I revert to the patois, actually, I almost feel like I’m repressing my accent day to day,” he says surprised.

The band’s third album The Runaway sees them branching out from the harmony-laden indie pop that made them the favourites of record store aficionados and the Beach Boys-loving dad throwing a dinner party, and into moodier territory. “Yeah, I guess The Runaway came out a bit like that, more moods than pop hooks,” he explains “There were more ways to colour the songs; more atmosphere in there. I wanted to make a guitar-driven record this time; less band-in-the-room and focus on using different instruments to move songs along. I think the album needs a few listens to unveil things.”

A key reason for this shift was the drafting in of Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurðsson. “We’re all big fans of the Icelandic group múm. One of our favourite songs is We Have a Map of the Piano, and Valgeir did a lot on that. We were half way through recording and he was someone we’d talked about bringing in to provide an objective approach with fresh ears. He came over to London and listened to what we’d recorded so far and said: ‘yeah, when can I start?’” Stodart explains happily. “He’s got a really calming presence and ended up having quite a strong influence on the album. For instance, on Why Did You Call? we talked about making the drums different, not like a kit but not like a programmed drum sound either. Sean played the drums then Valgeir would go around the studio finding bits of paper, a box, a can, or anything that sounded good, and would layer those sounds to accompany the drum. What we like a lot is the subtleties of things, tiny things that make sounds you’re very used to hearing sound special, and he was great for that.”

Clearly a lot of other people like their subtle twists on indie folk-oriented pop given the impressive record sales, their six UK Top 40 singles and legions of loyal fans. Evidence of their songwriting quality is the litany of collaborators that their first album brought them. Bringing in Nick Drake’s one-time friend and arranger Robert Kirby for The Runaway turned out to provide Kirby with a worthy swansong before his untimely death last October.

“Robert Kirby had done all the string arrangements on the album so we tribute to him the end of [final song] I’m Sorry. His arrangements are just beautiful on their own,” he says, before a lengthy pause. “We got in touch while working on the second album, initially for the song Take Me or Leave Me. Michele sat there and played the song to him and he said: ‘Wow. Unusual time signature,” and she said ‘Really? I’m not sure what it is,” he says laughing. “We played him some others and Robert said ‘Look, this is right up my street, I’d love to work with you’. We just clicked on music and we became good friends for the last three years. So when we were working on the new album we got it sounding the way he wanted it. We were just really lucky to have made music together.”

Another recent collaboration that bore rich fruit was with Edwyn Collins, singer with Scottish outfit Orange Juice. “It was a really moving experience,” says Stodart contemplatively, tentative about the time spent working with Collins following his recent stroke. “Of course we were all big Orange Juice fans. We’d done a show with Edwyn before he had the stroke, kept in touch and played at his 50th birthday in Scotland, which was fantastic. When he was making the new album I got to go down to his studio; really, maybe nothing there was made after 1970,” he exclaims laughing. “They’ve got ProTools on a computer but it’s almost hidden, just in case someone needs to use it, everything is recorded live. I walked in and this guy shakes my hand and says ‘Hi. I’m playing drums with you today’ and it was Paul Cook from Sex Pistols! I couldn’t believe it,” Stodart says with youthful elation.

Hobnobbing with idols and critical hyperbole while nice don't explain the drive to create music or what keeps a fraternally-bonded band together as musicians. Stodart explains: “I do feel very lucky when I think of who we’ve worked with, and to have achieved half of what we’ve done as a band; playing big festivals, or small gigs where you see people down the front singing the songs. I can’t even describe it; it’s like ‘man…I never thought I’d be here’. The all-time maddest one was – I’m big into harmonies, as you can probably tell – when we supported Brian Wilson on tour in the UK,” Stodart says, his voice still redolent with disbelief. “We were touring with him and occasionally chatting to him after shows and for the last four nights of the tour he got us up to sing backing vocals on Love and Mercy, which is one of my favourite songs of his. To this day I look at this whole thing and that experience especially, as…not real.”

So, can there be any dreams left to fill? “In some ways I feel I can’t ask for more, but I still do have dreams. Neil Young, man…” Having a Neil Young ask to work with you maybe? “Well, yeah, but I’m cool just to rock up and bring my guitar and have a jam. I’d love that,” he says laughing. Don’t put it past him.

CD Review - THE FINISHING SCHOOL: THE HOPEFUL CHORUS LINE

(Vitamin)

Adelaide’s The Finishing School is an interesting prospect, and not one to be confused with (quite brilliant) weekly Melbourne indie-dance night of the same name. The band comprise of brother and sister team Emily and Thom Combe, Lyndon Gray and Andrew Gaborit and are best known for being ‘the band that has Peter Combe’s kids in it’, which is a distracting irrelevancy given that any similarity begins with the surname and ends with the prominent use of acoustic guitars.

This, the début album, is a lushly recorded effort highlights of which include smart arrangements, delicate acoustic finger-picking, a rhythm section more interested in atmosphere than drive and, most notably, a deft use of fraternal harmonies. What it doesn’t have however are memorable hooks or a clear concept of what it wants to get across.

Like the cover art, this band is very good at being made up and looking/sounding the part. However, within the aesthetics lies an emptiness; a lot of nods and gestures but little to distinguish the band from the thick woods of plaintive and mellow Australian acoustic songsmiths, many of whom create stronger images with a lot fewer words and chords. This isn’t to say that there aren’t moments of interest – Starting A Conga Line features some wonderfully intricate and un-showy guitar work from Thom Combe, and there is a genuine grace and warmth to his sister’s floating vocals over the surprising electronic backing of Filthy Attraction.

Given that the album rarely moves above a moderate pace and they are not aiming for the hip, the atmospheres they seek to evoke could be better served with simplicity. There is obvious talent here and future efforts could be more interesting. What does work though is the production of Matt Hills and the rich instrumental backing the band construct, which combine to reinforce the urge for the lyrics to be tightened.

BRINGING THE VIBES - An interview with Ash Grunwald

Prolific acoustic funk-rocker-bluesman ASH GRUNWALD’s new album Hot Mama Vibes is all about riffs, hip-hop collaborations and getting universal. ANDY HAZEL passes it round.

“I’m on the Gold Coast at the moment,” says Melbourne-born blues-rocker Ash Grunwald, on the road at the start of a phenomenally comprehensive Australian tour. “I’ve got the band and my family in the motor home, they’re coming with us to Europe too”. This tour not only takes in every state and territory, but he it wants to expand as it progresses. “We played a pick-up show in Gladstone last night,” he says “this town that one of the guys in the band is from. They hardly ever have music there and we love to do it old school, bring the music to the people, bring the feel of old blues performers so we just added it in.”

This attitude of universality, one that infuses the music of Grunwald, his approach to releasing and performing albums, writing and collaborating, perhaps begins in his genes. “Well, my name is German or Dutch, but half of my family are coloured South African. I’ve always felt drawn to rhythmic music so in a way me playing this is bringing my roots full circle.” Given that his gigs often see an Australian playing African-American influenced music to a European audience, this idea of interconnectedness is redolent throughout his now six-album canon.

Hot Mama Vibes is an album borne from four different state capitals and completed by Grunwald at his home studio. “Once we finished touring the last album, Fish Out Of Water, I thought we’d try a new method of recording. I got the band into the studio and we jammed for about 16 hours, just to see what happened. It was really fun; just freeform partying and having a good time. Then I painstakingly went back and re-recorded parts, edited them and turned jams into songs. Then over that I’d sing verses and brought in collaborators.”

Grunwald’s use of collaborators has favoured hip-hop artists such as Count Bounce from TZU and Chasm and Ozi Battla from Astronomy Class letting each producer and beat-provider flesh out their own sounds for each song. “In the early days I always thought of myself as a cross between a blues musician and a DJ; I was playing music for people to party to. I’d always try to generate a feedback loop with the audience where people would be influencing the music. It’s kind of like the approach I take to making music now; I just meet people and things happen. I tend not to seek out collaborators, more let life bring them to me,” he ponders. “The Lady Luck beat came from Chasm – I had Ozi Battla hit me up for a chorus one time, so he owed me a beat. With Mr Trials, I knew the Hilltop Hoods crew through a friend and he liked Fish Out Of Water. We did a track together called Little Did I Know that went well for us mutually. I liked his style, he’s really rough and bluesy in a hip-hop sense and we ended up doing four tracks and touring together.”

Unlike the US where blues and hip-hop are genres that rarely meet, Grunwald suggests that as a musician in Australia mixing up styles comes more easily. “For me the groove you find in hip-hop and loop based music is a groove that I love. It’s hypnotic and fits perfectly for me because it’s a great way of making more riff-based music and almost all my stuff is riff-based.” When asked to identify something that he carries through the various collaborations and shifts between styles, Grunwald is pensive. “Every album will have a story song on it, that’s when you get later in the album usually, but the bread and butter of what I do is riff-based. Vocals and guitar tend to be bluesy and usually looped beats made in a hip-hop style, that was the case before I worked with hip hop producers too. Early stuff was bear bones; me in a room with a guitar and a stomp box. The second album was me playing with junk percussion and loops. On the next album, we did a combination of styles and everything was looped but we put in hip-hop beats and samples, buried in the mix a bit. I wanted to have that cool loops thing but not obviously derived from the hip-hop scene, I was kind of reluctant,” he confesses. “There was an element of thinking ‘people are going to think it’s too weird’ since I was known as a blues artist, but as time goes on it doesn’t matter -it’s probably fine to mix stuff up like that. In fact,” he says laughing at his younger self, “I really do wonder why I talk about it so much in interviews, I’m sure the audience doesn’t care about this stuff. You usually find that you get feedback afterwards and people have barely noticed, but it does make me think that maybe I was boring before,” he says with another laugh.

When it comes to composing the tracks on Hot Mama Vibes (which may or may not be about settling down with his girlfriend and daughter in northern New South Wales as some have suggested), Grunwald is keen to emphasize the influence of the producers involved. “Making this album was really different. I recorded a lot in Brisbane with Chasm, as well as in Melbourne with Count Bounce [from TZU and Urthboy], in Adelaide with [DJ] Trials [from Hilltop Hoods] and Sydney. Listening back I can hear the producers work is really varied; Count Bounce’s production is really punchy and cooking for that particular song [Never Let You Go], it’s like a dance Aussie rock kind of feel and then we sort of put the dirt in from the room down afterward. The stuff I did with Charles came from dirty samples, he blasts it out there and crams it in and make it big, rip the speakers. They both sound phat – different producers give a different flavour. When I was recording, I didn’t want the album to be too varied, but now I think they’d rather sound that way. You spend your life listening to playlists these days anyway. I think our ears don’t mind a bit of a change in the production, it keeps the interest levels up.”

So where might album number seven find Ash Grunwald? Further into domestic bliss? Jamming with visiting friends in his studio to create backbones for the next album? Grunwald’s response is less certain. “I don’t know what we’ll do next. [Band member] Fingers Malone has been doing some dance stuff so we’ll see what comes out of that when we have a muck around.”

Live Review: GREAT EARTHQUAKE, LOVE CONNECTION, MILK TEDDY

Tuesday, June 15, 2010
THE WORKERS CLUB

From the opening thrums of Milk Teddy to the closing looped melodies of Great Earthquake, tonight’s show ranks as one of the year’s best so far, and it’s a safe bet that the punters packing out the band room feel the same.

The humble majesty of Milk Teddy has rarely been better held than in their closing song Michael. Shoegaze-slanted chords, intriguing half-captured lyrics and meandering melodies with the welcome addition of The Motif’s Alexis Hall give the band a lift over other lo-fi charmers.

Another band only getting better with more gigs is Love Connection who tonight prove they’re turning into one of the best bands this city can call their own. With barely a gap between songs, their set is a stunning example of pacing, dynamics, effervescent melodies and motorik rhythms. When a band is this early into its existence, there is a rate of change and growth unlikely to be experienced later on. Despite playing songs from their album, there is a change in accentuation and possibly unintentional reinvention that means the songs are constantly morphing from something gently familiar into another beast entirely, kind of like Professor Lupin. Tonight the keyboards sit back in the mix and so forcefully are rhythms pushed to the fore that singer Michael Caterer snaps drumsticks. When hooks, such as the timelessly wonderful Lost City of Gold emerge they’re like rays of sun bursting through swelling cloudbanks. Their brand new closing song – a fuzzy slab of radiance forced up against Neu-esque rhythm breaks – is a highlight, but what really shines is the future this band are driving headlong into.

Astonishingly more than up to the task of following that set is Noah Symons who sets expectations low by being a man sitting behind the support band’s drum kit, a bass and electric guitar, an accordion and a xylophone and with (nooo!!!) a loop pedal. Just when this format hasn’t been done to death already, Symons takes preconceptions and happily sends them packing. Playing what turns out to be hundreds of parts all perfectly first time, Symons is a master of construction, deconstruction and reconstruction. Songs tend to begin with simple rhythms or melodies, build to a dense velocity, break away and finish with some of the busiest drumming this side of the VCA. Undone somewhat by terrible acoustics, cheap amplification and average microphones, Great Earthquake nevertheless launches his début album in style; when an encore of Joy Division’s Disorder seems wholly justified, this is one impressive talent on a steep trajectory.

INTO THE VOID - An interview with Eric Earley from Blitzen Trapper

Blitzen Trapper’s ERIC EARLEY talks magical realism, his scant regard for genre and some of the finer fishing spots in eastern Oregon. ANDY HAZEL listens carefully.

Already a week into Blitzen Trapper’s mammoth North American tour, singer and songwriter Eric Earley sounds like a man ready to curl up in a hidey-hole for a month and sleep out the winter. “Right now, we’re in Illinois, heading to Atlanta,” he mumbles into his mobile. “We’ve already played 4 shows or 5 shows and yeah they were great.” With the news that this tour is expected to grow throughout the year, taking in summer festivals in Australia, things got a little more excited on the line. “Yeah, some of those shows in Australia we were really, really happy with.”

With the release of Destroyer of the Void, their fifth album in seven years Blitzen Trapper have received some of the best reviews of their career.  “Does five albums sound like a lot? Yeah sure, I guess so, but it’s spread out over a long period of time so it’s not that weighty to me,” justifies Earley. “Also, I didn’t actually name the album, [Keyboardist/guitarist] Marty [Marquis] did. We were just thinking for a name of the first track and I thought it sounded good, so I don’t have any particular void in mind,” he says laughing.

Branded as part of the Americana stable by some critics and listeners, Earley leaps on the suggestion that they actually have a particular musical style. “I’d say we have scant regard for genre,” he says laughing. “That’s accurate. I play what like; that’s my genre. I mean, I don’t think any sounds are off limits…not really…I think in general I stick with what I know, what I’m comfortable with which is American sounds. I don’t use sitars and things, just because, you know, I’m not from there,” he says with a lazy chuckle. “Americana doesn’t influence our music, I think it’s actually the opposite of that. Living in the US and growing up here makes our music what it is, I’m not influenced by it; I am a part of it. I grew up in Salem an hour south of Portland; I lived in Eugene for a while too. It’s me writing what I know; I didn’t grow up in the city so I can’t write about that.”

Destroyer of the Void is an intriguing mix of the folk singer and psych rock band with a healthy dose of animism informing the lyrics and a bizarre sketch of a bull’s head encircled by dragons on the cover. “I think the cover has mythical elements going on with the animals and the style of the drawing,” Earley explains. “The record has a dreamlike quality, and a lot of dreamlike imagery, which I think is partly because I’m so interested in magical realism. That kind of thing I picked up as I went along reading things like [Georges] Bataille and [Jorge Luis] Borges, I don’t know why I connected with them especially; a lot of different authors I’ve got into for various reasons and they’re all important to me and my writing. I think it has more to do with growing up with older sisters who forced me to read and listen to things at a young and impressionable age,” he says sleepily.

“When it comes to writing songs, generally I…uh…don’t put a lot of effort into it,” he says with another wry chuckle. ”I try to be effortless, any effort is in trying to let the song come naturally and not get too much into obsessively creating or analysing, so yeah, I guess I feel more like a conduit for a song than an actual scribe.” Anyone with a passing interest in Blitzen Trapper will know the band’s love for the authentic and the organic so it comes as no surprise that the inspiration Earley speaks of often comes from time spent in the wilderness.

“I go fishing, a lot,” he says with another laugh. “There are a few places outside of Portland I like to spend time. I wouldn’t say all the inspiration comes from nature though. A lot comes from my relationship with people and what happens between us and I think that I use a lot of natural imagery when I’m talking about that sort of thing. There are so many parallels when it comes to describing them. I think about what I know and because of that. A lot of what I write take place in places I grew up in or places I know and I kind of stand back and let the imagery and lyrics come so I don’t have a choice as to what I write about.”

In justifying his chosen modus operandi, Earley is keen to distance himself from other bands currently mining the late 60s for its earthy glory. “I don’t know about this late 60s thing,” he says with an audible frown. “We aren’t thinking about ‘going back’ to a time when it comes to playing music. Whatever we write will seem like a ‘throwback’ to someone else because we’re using certain instruments and the human voice. You can choose how much you want to play and how much singing you want to do, and a lot of bands are choosing to do both, and a lot of bands don’t do this as much because they use a lot of technology. I think there is a medium and it depends on the song and the record. For us, we tend to mess around with it depending on the song,” though he doesn’t need to mention it, the album's storming progtastic opening track is a perfect example.

Choosing to work with producer Mike Coykendall is another example of Earley and the band sticking with what they know. A veteran of albums by She and Him, Bright Eyes and M Ward, Coykendall saw Blitzen Trapper through the making of their previous album Furr. “Mike Coykendall has a great studio and is a really cool guy, plus the studio is a few blocks from where I live,” says Earley a little more energetically. “We all have time in January and February, which is when we’ve recorded albums over the last few years. I guess the album is different from Furr though a lot of the songs were written around the same time. Some of the songs from Destroyer of the Void are five or six years old, but a lot has changed since they were written. I think that there will be changes on the next album, longer songs, perhaps. That’s just how I’m writing at the moment.” We’re all ears.

Live Review - YOUNG WERTHER, BRENDAN WELCH, MICAIAH

Saturday, April 24, 2010
EAST BRUNSWICK CLUB

An unseasonal tropical rainstorm doesn't stop punters from turning up early to see the new-to-the-scene opening act of pianist Micaiah. Though the East is an awkwardly cavernous venue to feel comfortable in at the best of times, Micaiah does a decent job of overcoming the 10 meters or so between himself and the shadowy audience with his warm and convivial presence, qualities reflected in his music. Though his and the band’s musical talent is unquestionable, the accessibility of his synth-piano-led pop songs aren’t memorable enough to leave a lasting impact. Despite this, it’s easy to imagine radio liking them and finding wings in the hands of the right producer.

Picking Brendan Welch as a support act is a brave move on the part of Young Werther, given Welch’s canyon-rumbling voice and the evocative lyrics he pens to match. The wayward rambling songs ebb and flow beneath, Closed Communities is striking in its dynamic shifts, Halls of Men is full of blazing imagery and his band are on top form. Welch appears like an alter boy who's endured a decade on a farm and feels compelled to sing of his reflections. Such authority is invested in his words that when he sings a Handsome Family or Woody Guthrie song he is compelling in a way few singers could hope to be.

By the time Michael Young (aka Young Werther) takes to the stage, four-piece band filing in behind, the venue is decidedly less empty. Here to launch his Knights of the Department Store album, it soon becomes apparent that Young is still adapting his voice to a rock setting. In highlighting chugging rhythms, full-bodied piano chords and twin guitar chops, the songs sound cluttered and their impact muted. That said, as soon as they allow some space to creep in, it’s mesmerizing watching the themes tenderly unravel. In these sections his Drake-esque warmth and intricate guitar work are powerfully present. Georgia Fields joins for a spirited take on Been Around the World and when Young strips it back to a solo acoustic take midway through set (or ‘visit to Folkland’ as he calls it) it's a room-hushing highlight. The band return for a lush and restrained rendering of Cornish Green, and the encore of Brothers in Harms Way shows just how gifted Young is as a songwriter and player and suggests the best is yet to come.

CD Review: HEATH CULLEN AND THE 45 - THE STORM WAS COMING BUT I DIDN’T FEEL NOTHING

(Fivebynine/Vitamin)

Heath Cullen has been a long-time sideman to a wide range of artists. A guitarist who has graced releases on the Vitamin label (Lucie Thorn, Tobias Hengeveld, Jackie Marshall etc.) and has deservedly gotten rapturous praise for his work. Handing most vocal duties over to bassist Robyn Martin is a smart move, their voices mesh warmly, especially on the opening Woke With The Birds.

Elsewhere the album threatens to be overtaken by his Springsteen or Ryan Adams-esque adoration of clipped American English, a habit that can be as evocative as it can be derivative. Typically, Cullen gets away with it as the music meshes so loosely and well; slack rhythms, valve crunch and blazing organ almost demand a shiftless vocal delivery. It’s hard to think an impassioned vocalist from the northern NSW coast, Cullen’s homeland, and it’s possibly this infusion of easygoing soul into his music that some will dismissively label as ‘summer surf music’ and others will find a balm. What isn’t in dispute though is the authority with which Cullen tackles these songs, sounding all the world as if this was is tenth not his first release. Your Love Is The Sea stretches into a swelling mass of Crazy Horse intensity that is done beautifully. Kathleen is a plaintive ode to leaving town and finding ‘another small town that kinda feels like home / Find a caravan park where I can be alone,’ and is made for driving rainy desolate roads at nighttime, the sort of mood he evoked so well on his labelmate Lucie Thorne’s album Black Across The Field.

A jaunty and unnecessary instrumental aside, the overwhelming mood of this album is one of languid Southern Rock from a contemplative and articulate man who clearly connects with the direct and unpretentious nature of the genre. Kitchen Song epitomises this beautifully, as does the closing Here Above The Dirt and all songs feature is classy but never busy guitar work, a feature that lifts him above the thickly wooded forest of singer-songwriters. Expect Cullen and the 45 at a festival near you soon, they’ll own that Sunday afternoon slot.

Live Review - ‘SWAN VS RAPTOR’ ALBUM LAUNCH

Monday, April 19, 2010
EMPRESS HOTEL

Dan Lewis, the man behind Special Award records, has thrown together a glorious collection of bands for his Swan Vs Raptor compilation CD, most of who gather to celebrate its arrival. The main stage is lit by strings of red and amber flower-lights, while the second stage is set in the adjacent dining room. Some highlights include:....

Lehmann B Smith who is joined by six singer/percussionists to deliver a set of broken Christmas carols as sung by the Flying Nun stable. Twisted lyrics, a reedy voice and sorrowful demeanour clash wonderfully over the stark sixties pop stylings and the mid-afternoon crowd respond warmly.

Monica Sonand, now known as Mononoke, is a transfixing performer. Facing us, synth on either side, she sways to the rhythms and infuses her warm sample-driven songs with a subtle drama that never strays into stridency. Songs like Turpentine (sample lyrics: ‘I punch myself in the face to remind me of your taste’) indicate a Goth sensibility that never gets in the way of the songs.

Melodie Nelson, aka Lia from Sydney group Moonmilk is a fascinating mix of echoing girl-group pop with a steely laziness; as if Jesus and Mary Chain produced an album for Julee Cruise. It’s a bewitching and wonderful set that makes you wish she’d make the trip down more often.

Owl + Moth (actually one Oliver Hunter, an autoharp and a loop pedal), looks like Patrick Wolf, sounds like Antony, invents a language like Jonsi, plucks like Joanna and has a small legion of adoring fans. His take on Ace of Base’s All That She Wants is overshadowed by his own compositional skills and deft use of a loop pedal, something few acts seem to lack today.

Raquel Solier aka Fatti Frances plays a life-affirming set of warm, intimate and muscular electro-pop before returning as drummer of The Ancients to anchor their winding indie rock; has there ever been a more talented group of musicians who put so little effort into vocalisations? Pavement-esque guitars underpin distracted murmurs and it sounds fantastic.

The Motifs showcase new material that is as beautiful as anything they’ve ever played, Frightening Lights and The Enclosures deservedly garner many new fans while Darren Sylvester continues to deeply impress, now with added guitar solos and that beautiful clash of his strangulated voice over warm sustained chords.

Closing the evening are Denim Owl whose clattering percussion, rich synth chords and bubbling melodies brighten the twilit Dining Room. Reclaiming their titular song, Swan Vs Raptor is a highlight. The band that covered it for the compilation, Woollen Kits, meanwhile provide a perfectly judged ending to the evening. In the several years since their inception, their musicianship has, if anything, become more limited while their songs get shorter, their lyrics more bizarre and their show more and more enjoyable. Possibly the only way the word refinement could be used in relationship to this band and their dynamite set. A glorious day, and, as every artist says, ‘thanks to Dan!’.

Live Review: PIKELET, LOVE CONNECTION, WORLD’S END PRESS

Monday, April 12, 2010
NORTHCOTE SOCIAL CLUB

Playing the second of two nights at the Northcote Social Club, Pikelet has no problem in packing the place out and assembling another stellar pair of support acts (previous night featuring The Twerps and Parking Lot Experiments). Opening the night is the revelation of a revitalised World’s End Press, who have transformed their sound and now pack one almighty punch. Free from overly dense synth chords, crowded beats and busy basslines, the Pressers (as Triple J will likely refer to them in the near future, along with Presets, Juggers and Cutters) are like some (holy) blend of a tight undrugged Shaun Ryder on top form as remixed by DFA. Bar a brave cover of West End Girls, the set is a faultless exercise in enthusiastic dance pop, gloriously free of irony or any fear that dancing like a marionette on E is something to be ashamed of. It’s all one big suggestion that 2010 will be their year.

Another contender for owning 2010, Love Connection, have been garnering praise from all corners for their rambling synth-laden rainbow-orgy of an album and it’s clear that live, they are an even more intense and dynamic prospect. Guitarist and singer Michael Caterer slashes into Kobi Simpson’s buzzing synth melodies and Dean Noble’s rolling beats, lurching from indiscernible static stutter to a raw Kobain howl. From psych-splattered opened M.L via the high points of Trilogy, Lost City of Gold and All Over the band are like an aural equivalent of a never-ending first mouthful of ultra-fizzy lemonade, and you ARE thirsty.

Curtains soon part and before us, amidst a dozen or so potplants, are the quartet known as Pikelet. Shags Chamberlain at front and centre both literally and sonically behind his Realistic synth, pushes and drags the songs’ ‘scapes from spatial and glacial (Toby Light and Swooping Buzzards) to the midst of an Amazonian rainforest (Smithereens). The sheer talent involved in the band is formidable, each member an irreplaceably unique asset. Tarquin’s vocal interjections and intricate basslines, Matt Cox’s perfectly complementary percussion, and ringleader Evelyn Morris’s subtle use of loops, dry sense of humour, brilliant compositions and pitch perfect singing. Weakest Link .. along, Allergies and Gameland are heavenly. Several new songs possibly even outshine those from Stem, the album she is launching, indicating the well isn’t running dry anytime soon.

Live Review: HOULETTE, THE UKELADIES, NICK HUGGINS

THE TOFF IN TOWN

For a band that seems to have existed with minimal publicity – yet about to depart on their second European tour - Houlette do a fantastic job of packing out a venue. The mood tonight is one of celebration yet it doesn’t seem like 300 friends have shown up, rather a mix of Melbourne’s hip and curious and a lot of people who’ve heard Bless Bless, the CD being launched tonight.

Producer of aforementioned CD Nick Huggins begins the show with his trademark sparse poetry, spoken over warm rolling threads of guitar. Huggins reducing the potential of his songs to their most skeletal, nothing more than two or three plucked notes and a picture to describe. Though he performs with no accentuation of rhythm, he’s a Buddy Holly of the inner Melbourne nighttime. Closer Choose What You Love is particularly affecting.

The Ukeladies show they need no Dan Kelly or anyone else’s hand on their tiller as they attire themselves in complementary dresses, flowers in their hair, immaculate harmonies and a nice line in Pacific-themed balladry. One ukulele and a huge accordion is all they need to silence the room. Having more in common with C.W Stoneking than any indie band, The Ukeladies show what little it takes to make an impression when your ideas are this successfully rendered. When Captain Manas joins them for Eat All Night the crowd are ecstatic.

Curtains part to a projection of an Icelandic mountain range, keening violins and ethereal harmonies. The breathy vocals of singer Felicity Cripps are a thing of wonder. Though bound to alienate some listeners with her initial Teutonic po-faced earnest efforts (later dispelled wonderfully by some beatboxing and banter), the audience are captivated. Part Kate Bush confidence and physicality, part Ute Lemper boldness and often tempered by a fragility and tenderness reminiscent of Vashti Bunyan, Cripps is a hypnotic presence. New song Japanese Tattoos, Longttime, current radio single Tee Vee and beautiful encore Corduroy suggest that when the band (featuring ex-Underground Lovers drummer Derek Yuen) are firing and Cripps gets to cut loose, the band are unbeatable. Vocal interjections from guitarist Liam Linley are welcome additions and violinist Cecelia Dowling is a great asset. A band bound to appeal to any Europhile and whose début album heralds great things.

LOSING THE KNACK - DOUG FIEGER (August 21, 1952 - February 14, 2010)

Friday, February 19, 2010

The death of Doug Fieger, singer with The Knack and co-composer of one of the biggest pop songs of all time, My Sharona is a loss greater than the singular success of that song suggests.

Around the turn of the 80s no one could better signify the ebullience of youth and capture the effusive energy of lust better than Fieger. Moulded in the classic clean rock of the 1950s and blessed with brilliant musical ability and a timeless sense of melody and hook, Fieger was a leading light in the Detroit rock scene in 1970s, playing in the bands The Sunset Bombers and Sky. Eight years after moving to Los Angeles Fieger formed The Knack who would be regarded as ‘overnight sensations’ and ‘the new fab four’ by an adoring press, with Capitol Records’ promotional department sending the band into a stratosphere few artists would ever know.

At that time, late 1979, the band seemed unstoppable, blasting through the dying days of disco and spent energy of punk, revitalising rock and appealing in a way few bands had managed all decade. Their simple monochrome look perfectly matched their clean sound, a simplicity audiences loved, helped send Get The Knack, their multi million-selling début album, double platinum within months of its release. Subsequent albums revealed a rare combination of intensity and maturity but the rise of synth-pop left their more primal distillations high and dry. Kurt Cobain was not alone in recognising Fieger’s talents in the 1990s and his voice again rang out via the film Reality Bites in 1994. Unusually for a song released 15 years ago, My Sharona won new fans without a trace of irony.

Though music was his main talent, Fieger spent much time assisting others through substance abuse and addiction, devoting increasing amounts of time to this endeavour even while his own health was deteriorating. His penchant for cigarettes would later manifest as lung cancer in 2005, a diagnosis he thought he’d overcome until brain cancer was discovered in 2006.

His lust for life was bright and clear when we met before one of his last live performances in Melbourne having been clean, smoke free and sober for 25 years. He mentioned that his six-year spar with cancer hadn’t made him look at life differently but had given him ‘greater compassion for people who suffer’. Continuing to perform and tour right up until his recent decision to desist with chemotherapy, his undeniable yearning for the new thrills life offers was something he committed to music better than most.

His total belief in his own opinions and faith in his experiences were a tonic that helped a great many people in his time post-heyday. Rolling Stone once stated that Fieger’s lyrics had ‘appallingly bald opinions’ something he’d be unlikely to deny. His transplant to sunny LA only accentuated his Detroit-born intensity, a force he used for good. As he said of My Sharona: ‘Hey, it is what it is. I'm happy that I've had the success I've had because of it…it does what we wanted it to do and that is make people happy.’ Job done, and thank you.

THE YEAR OF THE FLOOR TOM: CAMPUS A LOW HUM 2010, Bulls, New Zealand

Photograph by Rachel Brandon
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

During a talk on the first day at Campus A Low Hum, Flying Nun founder Roger Shepherd is asked why he started the label. ‘Ignorance and blind enthusiasm’ he replies. The same response could be the motto of CALH 2010. Ignorance of the limitations that many bands embrace, and a blind enthusiasm for the overall intention of the festival; don’t be a douche bag. The love organiser and ‘Campus Principal’ Blink engenders amongst the Campers is no small wonder. At Campus, intention is everything and the freedom felt there is a rare pleasure which begs the question, why does this only happen in New Zealand?

From the outset, this was always going to be a different festival from previous years. Though there is a 60% increase in tickets made available, it doesn’t feel noticeably bigger. A move away from indie rock and pop bands to a harsher, more experimental and electro edge, goes down nicely with the punters. Acts such as Golden Axe, The Ruby Suns, Dan Deacon, Signer, Monster Mash and Shocking Pinks all push buttons for sounds and get crowd-amping results while crowd-faves DZ are a hard rock duo who sound as electro as pedals allow. Deacon proves himself one of the most appropriate acts possible for Campus; his constant focus on personal happiness and physical involvement with his music feels less like rays of sonic sunshine, and more like being hurled bodily into a sun. His Phys Ed. class is, predictably, a hilarious and raging success.

Blink went for a change not only in musical angle and venue but in format as well. Three days of great bands is still the priority but the school theme is pushed to the max with life drawing classes, ‘study break’, art rooms, a room set aside for book defacing, lectures from musical stalwarts and class photos as well as a roller disco and a Leavers Formal with King of the Prom proving to be Jens Lekman.

The Australian contingent is as large as last year but is not celebrated in the same way. Australian bands bring the belligerent piercing rock (the rain-battling brain-rattling Witch Hats and winners of most popular band t-shirts Ouch My Face), the experimentalism (the room-clearing blasts and wails of Bum Creek and Thugquota and the audience-charming success of Parking Lot Experiments all of whom use the venues in inspired ways).

Kiwi indie rockers Cut Off Your Hands and Surf City provoke the biggest moshing of the fest but barely turn an Australian head, while a three-piece Batrider prove leaner is meaner with loping sleazy rhythms and brutal howls from guitar and throats. Gaywyre are a relentless speed-metal revelation with pant-wettingly hilarious-yet-fearsome vocal acrobatics and Connan Mockasin is some sort of Kiwi Bowie with chorus and reverb as prominent as the catchy melodies. Unsurprisingly The Dodos and Jens Lekman deliver pitch-perfect sets, so tight they almost seem out of place amongst the Antipodean blitheness.

Successes of the fest include the wayward hoedowns of John The Baptist and Orchestra of Spheres who are possibly the only band to boast Theremin, gamelan, organ bass pedals, a biscuit-tin-bodied banjo and actually overcome the novelty of their instruments to deliver cracking tunes. Americans Polka Dot Dot Dot had the crowd won over before they handed out free ice cream, and Melbourne’s Love Connection, East Brunswick All Girls Choir and Denim Owl arrive barely known and leave with hundreds of new fans. The Ruby Suns continue to stay 10 steps ahead of the competition with intricate tribal drumming, dense synths, a bold fluro colour scheme, and a hundred-odd balloons the audience keep aloft during their crowd-rousing set (as pictured above).

What becomes apparent at Campus, besides 2010 being the year of the floor tom, is the safety the campers feel and what they do with that freedom. Obvious examples (drinking vast quantities of alcohol and taking more drugs than anyone would realise) aside, there are constant acts of creativity. The Renegade Room (where bands can book times to play gigs) is always busy, people relocate PAs to begin new venues, and others make outfits for the Leavers Formal or design band posters for Renegade gigs. Witch Hats invent stupid names for the canteen ladies to call out when collecting meals, and every musician jumps up with at least one other band at some point. Mistakes don’t exist.

This isn’t to say that it’s paradise. The venue (a long-disused school) is borderline condemned (no hot water, no beds, few toilets and sporadic electricity), rain mars early gigs and the nights are damn cold, but potential hazards (an empty swimming pool) are turned into winning ideas (a kick-arse venue!). Ignorance, blind enthusiasm and the unsullied spirit of unsupervised 20-somethings all the way.