Monday, November 27, 2006

Dummy Blog Album of the Week: 'Florida Funk' compiled by Jazzman Records

Deep funk, to appropriate the name of Keb Darge's immortal club night, is one of those scenes that just cheerfully hums along without anyone ever really taking any notice. It must be the only genre of music where, paradoxically, the rareties actually sell more than the classics – by which I mean, compilations like this one come out all the time and make great birthday presents for people you don't really know, but how many people, these days, actually buy albums by the Meters or the Ohio Players?

Florida Funk follows Texas Funk and Midwest Funk. Like its predecessors, it comes with several thousand words of liner notes, giving you the full story of all twenty-two of these bands, many of which only ever released one or two singles before breaking up. The compilers drove across Florida hunting down these records and interviewing their creators. Where do they advertise jobs like that?

I am not half-way comment on the selection here. When DJ Shadow and Dante Carfagna (who worked on this) finally bring out their long-awaited (and possibly mythical) Bible-length discography of funk 45's from 1965 to 1975, maybe I will be able mug up. Until then, some observations.

Most of these tracks are tremendous. There's a lo-fi grit to the recordings that perfectly brings out their swampy impudence. A lot of them have a James Brown-esque hypeman grunting and yelling, while a few have proper soul vocals. The musicians were, of course, masterful back then, even the ones in the small-town bands: listen to the drumming on Pearl Dowdell's Good Things or the saxophone on Little Beaver's Everbody Has Some Dues to Pay. (And even when it sounds like you've come across an amateur, like the drunk-sounding drummer on Frankie Seay and the Soul Riders' Soul Food, you can turn to the liner notes where the guitarist explains that they were 'just playing that “juice” pattern'.)

On the other hand, for a compilation that sells itself on digging up the very rarest old wax, it's disappointing to see a couple of tracks that have already been compiled elsewhere: Pearly Queen's Quit Jive'in is on several other anthologies, presumably because DJ Shadow sampled it on Endtroducing...; and James Knight and the Butlers' cover of Aretha Franklin's Save Me, which is nearly as good as Wanda Davis' cover of the same song on Midwest Funk, is on Soul Jazz's essential Miami Sound. Still, Florida Funk has the last laugh over Miami Sound by picking Vanessa Kendrick's obscure version of 90% Of Me Is You instead of the more common (and almost indistinguishable) Della Humphrey cover that the other compilation chose. I expect musket duels take place over stuff like this in the torrid world of deep funk.


Out now on Jazzman Records

Serena Maneesh, Water Rats, London, 24.11.06

Life can't be easy when your sister is about seven feet tall and looks like a beautiful cross between Edie Sedgwick and Legolas the elf. I expect no one pays you much attention. Especially if she plays bass in your band. Perhaps that's how Emil Nikolaisen, the frontman of Serena Maneesh, learnt to rock out.

Never has the term 'shoegaze' seemed so wildly inappropriate. Both Emil and Hilma kept throwing shapes for their whole set, even when there was nothing to dance to but tides of feedback – which was quite often, since these Norwegians do love their My Bloody Valentine. These days, if you want to see someone waving their guitar at the amp for five minutes while audience members hold back tears of pain, you have to see a post-rock band like Mogwai, so I couldn't be happier with a night of shoegaze revival.

Serena Maneesh, complete with violinist, played most of their excellent 2005 self-titled debut album, and, live, it all sounded much the same, but that didn't really matter. Really, with music like this, as with dubstep, the medium is the message – you want to be deafened and caressed at the same time, and you don't really give a shit about where each song ends and the next one begins. On Friday, the avalanche of distortion never quite crushed the hazy, Velvet Underground-style eroticism beneath, which is just how it needed to be. Sadly, the Water Rats is not a big venue, so it couldn't be that loud – I'd like to see them somewhere with a speaker stack as tall as Hilma.

Incidentally, I hadn't realised that most of Serena Maneesh have side projects, so I'll be spending the rest of today listening to the likes of Silver, The Unmist, and Mourning Leaves. Plus Emil's played with Sufjan Stevens! One more potential buyer for my upcoming run of 'GAY FOR SUFJAN' T-shirts?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Dummy Blog Album of the Week: 'Tectonic Plates' compiled by DJ Pinch

The last big dubstep release of 2006 arrives from Bristol label Tectonic. Generously, they give us two CDs: one, for the DJs, unmixed, and the other, for the rest of us, mixed by label boss DJ Pinch. Together, they collect almost everything that Tectonic's put out in its short but impressive history.

A lot of Tectonic Plates is truly earth-moving. Skream's Bahl Fwd may be his best work yet: the synth melody flits out of the same flying saucer as Midnight Request Line, while the percussion sounds like Squarepusher taking on tablas. Loefah's System is brought alive by machete rave stabs and echoing drums – one of the best things about dubstep, and one borrowing from dub that it should never give back, is the paradoxical feeling of dancing to the faded after-image of a sound instead of the sound itself. MRK1's Slang sounds like one of those car assembly robots, a little plug of silence in between every precise beat, not a movement wasted. Loefah's remix of Pinch's Punisher follows the increasingly familiar template for a heavy, scowling, stripped-down club track but somehow makes it interesting again.

Inevitably, though, not all of CD2's twenty tracks are so good. Whither the next generation? Armour's Iron Man, with its rusty industrial textures, sounds like something left off Vex'd's Degenerate LP, and dubstep certainly doesn't need two Vex'ds; it wouldn't matter so much if Pinch didn't let it chug away for nearly five minutes at the end of the mix. Contributions from Headhunter and S.N.O. are better but they don't make much of an impression. Still, even the old guard aren't infallible: Digital Mystikz's Molten is perhaps their first ever weak track, with its damp wobbly bass that stumbles along after the beat but never quite catches up.

A few disappointing tracks don't drag down a very solid mix. But what Tectonic Plates shows, as if we didn't already know, is that dubstep has mastered the prevailing style, and it needs to move on. At the end of 2006, this stuff sounds great – but by the end of 2007, I want it to sound dated!


Out now on Tectonic

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Jarvis Cocker, Koko, London, 15.11.06

Perhaps it was too much to ask. Jarvis Cocker’s debut solo album is poised to top every Best Of 2006 chart going. However, tonight’s gig, only his third since Pulp were put on ice in 2002, falls disappointingly short of the record. It starts well enough with the punked-up Fat Children and a rousing version of Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time. All the old moves are there: a pipe-cleaner-thin Jarvis strings together a series of elbow jerks, limp wristed flourishes and nervous tics, the overall effect not unlike the Mr Muscle man trying to fight his way out of a paper bag. “It’s good to be back at what I have to call The Camden Palace,” he says. “Why name a venue after a drink that puts you to sleep.” It turns out to an unfortunate gag. The album is made up predominantly of slow songs and somewhat unavoidably, after an upbeat start, things slow down to a crawl. Jarvis gamely tries to deflect attention from the fact that the next song is going to be another downtempo number with extended and amusing between-song banter. It’s only partially successful and sag threatens to turn into a somnambulant slump. But then he rallies: while Tonight and From A To I loose the stately grace of the studio versions, Big Julie is fabulous; the rear guard action continues with a brilliantly loud Black Magic; and by the encore, Running The World, he’s turned it around. However, why he teases the crowd with the promise of an old song for “being good” only to cover Bowie’s Space Oddity is hard to understand: why play someone else’s crowd pleaser when you’ve got so many of your own? A Pulp song would have been so much better. Not a triumphant return to the live arena, then, but an adequate one.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Dummy Monthly #2

We've just sent out the second issue of Dummy Monthly, our all-new email newsletter. This time we've got interviews with Beirut and James Holden, reviews of Jarvis Cocker and Josef K, and much more - plus an exclusive DJ mix by Simian Mobile Disco which will only be available for a short time. Hurry! Update: if you haven't got the mix yet, you're too late. Subscribe now and next time you won't miss out.

Dummy Blog Album of the Week: 'No Certain Night Or Morning' by Home Video

The problem with Brooklyn electropop duo Home Video is so glaringly obvious that it seems gauche even to mention it, like if you were at a party and a girl walked in with a baby mole clinging to her leg. But here goes:

They certainly do sound a lot like Radiohead.

Specifically, singer Colin Ruffino sounds almost indistinguishable from Thom Yorke. And it's not just the natural timbre of his voice – he flattens it into a nasal dirge much like Yorke does on songs like Everything In Its Right Place. Keyboardist David Gross also takes a lot from the Kid A era, combining those Arctic synth harmonies with a little bit of New Order's foundry disco.

Home Video's debut single That You Might and debut EP Citizen both came out on Warp Records, and since Warp is one of Thom Yorke's favourite labels I did even wonder for a moment if Home Video could possibly be a contract-dodging Yorke side project. Home Videoteque? But it just wasn't quite as strong as I (correctly, it turned out) expected a Thom Yorke solo effort would be.

The rule is, of course, that the one old band a new band won't list under 'Influences' on their Myspace page is the old band they actually ripped off, and naturally there's no sign of Radiohead on Home Video's Myspace. Sure, it could be that they genuinely aren't into Radiohead - but they must at least be aware of Radiohead's existence, so why don't they make more of an effort to set themselves apart? That said, after a million bands that sound like Radiohead's The Bends era, it's nice, I suppose, to have at least one that sounds more like their unpopular recent work.

Anyway, none of this is a reason to ignore Home Video, because Citizen was great, and No Certain Night Or Morning is nearly as good; by which I mean that all the best tracks on No Certain Night Or Morning were already on Citizen. The stand-out is We - named after Yevgeny Zamyatin's 1921 dystopian novel? - which, despite featuring some particularly egregious Yorkisms on Ruffino's part, builds a sense of almost apocalyptic regret out of the most minimal of materials, its tumbling synth chorus like a suicidal I Feel Love. All Home Video's melodies, in fact, sound extraordinarily distant and attenuated and chilly. The result is that, when they bring in even the quietest little fake string section for the chorus, the contrast feels like strobe lights going off.

And when these vampiric Junior Boys try out other genres, like rock on Gas Tank with its live drums and bass, or techno on Melon with its 4/4 pulse, these lonely textures spoil the fun in the most exquisite way. Even the remix of Penguin by The Loving Hand, aka Tim Goldsworthy of the DFA, doesn't – can't - party as hard as the average DFA product. I'd love to hear a remix by James Holden or Ricardo Villalobos, which would wallow in, not resist, Home Video's sadness, and at the same time punch up the dancefloor potential that never quite comes through on No Certain Night Or Morning.


Out now on Defend Music

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Duran Duran get Sexy Back

The news that 80s pop stars Duran Duran have completed three tracks with Timbaland may be as big a surprise to some as the time Ice T declared his love for Phil Collins on British television. But is it really that odd that the world’s hottest producer should want to work with the band who once sang ‘You’re about as easy as a nuclear war?’

Timbaland is in his mid 30s, so the young Timothy Mosley would have been a teen when Duran were in their prime. What 14-year-old wouldn’t have been impressed by a band that made soft porn videos (Girls On Film), sound-tracked James Bond films, swanned around on yachts in videos (later owning their own vessels) and picked models out of magazines to date or marry. Let’s face it, hip hop in 2006 is pretty much modelled on Duran Duran’s 80s lifestyle. Diddy was certainly observing their antics and he and Biggie Smalls sampled their hit Notorious (a single produced, along with The Reflex, by the Timbaland of the 80s: Nile Rodgers).

Justin Timberlake apparently brought the project to fruition after presenting the Duranies with an MTV award and gushing forth praise. So keen was he to work with his heroes that they had to knock him back from their 2004 album Astronaut as they didn’t want the reformed original line up to be overshadowed (so they worked with Jason Nevins instead).

I’ll wager a stunning pop record (with stuttering beats, mad FX, odd grunts and exclamations) will emerge from the sessions. I would have put less money on Nelly Furtado becoming a cutting edge pop sensation a year ago.

“We are in a very good space,” a beaming le Bon has said. The only fall out from the collaboration so far appears to be that Duran Duran have lost guitarist Andy Taylor as a result. Taylor was always the square peg in Duran, he always looked like he’d rather be in Billy Idol’s backing band than poncing around with the artier others. The news that Duran were to be working with a former member of the Mickey Mouse club obviously didn’t go down too well with the rocker. Apparently their website mistress also quit replacing the home page with the following message: “Duran Duran without Andy Taylor is like anal sex without lube.” Let’s hope they’re in for a smoother ride with Justin and Timothy.


Mike McGonigal, author of the forthcoming instalment of the 33 1/3 series on My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, confirms on a messageboard that Kevin Shields is still working on the long-anticipated remastered box-set of MBV's early EPs - with unheard tracks!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

TV On The Radio, Koko, London, 10.11.2006

'People think that we wear monocles and take bubble baths and read The Great Gatsby, you know?' said TV On The Radio's David Sitek in a recent interview. 'Nothing could be further from the truth.' But if they'd actually done all that on stage last night, I probably would have been happier.

TV On The Radio are not a bog-standard indie band, so why give us a bog-standard indie show? Return to Cookie Mountain, my third favourite album of this year, was chaotic and volatile – you felt that if they'd recorded those same songs the day before or the day after, the results would have been totally different. Even much older songs like Satellite, bolted to computerised bass and drums, sounded like they could blow a gasket at any moment. So when TV On The Radio play live and sound just like on record, you feel a little bit betrayed: they're not as spontaneous as you thought.

There were one or two moments of promising disorder: singer Tunde Adebimpe began the show beat-boxing and whistling; later he sang through a megaphone; David Sitek hooked wind-chimes to his guitar; and best of all, during Let The Devil In, gawky support band White Circle Crime Club came out on stage and started banging on percussion. (Guitarist Kyp Malone, meanwhile, barely spoke, barely moved, and never smiled.)

But we wanted more. Blast out feedback until we whimper. Lock into a groove until we fall into a trance. Play with your electronics until half of us slouch off to the bar. Go acapella. Bring out a harp. I wanted this show to be like seeing My Bloody Valentine and Sun Ra's Arkestra at the same time, or at least to be shooting for that. TV On The Radio are an experimental band – so why not experiment? Even the magnificent Staring at the Sun, the inevitable last song of the encore, felt predictable, although people were cheering so hard it was hard not to enjoy it. From another band, this would have been a great gig, but from (probably) my favourite guitar band of the twenty-first century, it was a let-down. (And they didn't play Hours!) Then it was out early so the indie kids could come in for Club NME – I considered joining them, as a kind of aversion therapy to get over my fear of teenage girls with green eyeshadow and precision fringes, but instead I went home in the rain to read The Great Gatsby in a bubble bath wearing a monocole.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Balkan Beat Box & Miss Platinum, The Glashaus, Berlin, 6/11/06

When a new friend in a foreign country offers to take you out, you accept. However, I can’t say I was terribly excited about seeing Balkan Beat Box and Miss Platinum. It was the description – dub reggae crossed with Eastern European gypsy music – that put me off. Assurances that ‘Balkan beat’ is the next big thing in Berlin were drowned out by images of white people with dreads throwing a party in a squat.

Actually, both bands were brilliant. Balkan Beat Box are one of the stars of the scene and their entrance from the rear of the auditorium had a triumphal quality. Wearing pig masks and marching to a military snare roll, they led a procession through the crowd (a capacity 500 on a Monday, incidentally). When they launched into their first song, the audience reaction was deranged. The drug of choice on the Balkan beat scene is vodka, consumed neat in Slavic quantities and tossed off in a single motion that ends up with the shot glass sailing over your shoulder. It showed. Every time Balkan Beat’s two saxophone players launched into a chorus the Glashaus looked like the set for the video of Jump Around by House Of Pain. The energy was totally irresistible.

Miss Platinum is a 22-year-old from Hungary and she appeared on stage wearing a rustic frock topped with a white apron. She’s a big lass and it looked like she’d come straight from the cheese counter at the Co-op. Thankfully, the music owed less to dub and more to hip hop, with Eastern European horns and melancholy melodies that recalled the Sicilian funeral scene in The Godfather. The end result was like The Streets if Mike Skinner came from Budapest, not Birmingham (and had a fantastically ample rack). Miss Platinum releases her debut single, I Want A Mercedes Benz, in the UK in December.

“It reminds me of when I first went raving,” said the German friend. Meanwhile, it reminded me of the first time I went to a drum’n’bass club in 1994 or when I saw Babyshambles play a secret gig in a dingy East End pub – a visceral thrill all the more exciting because hardly anyone knows about it yet (Miss Platinum doesn't even have a Myspace site!).

“Do you think the Borat thing will make it seem like a joke?” asked the German. Leaving aside the geographical objection that the Balkans and the Central Asian steppes are hundreds of miles apart, yes, Balkan beat does sound like the kind of made-up shaggy dog genre that Nathan Barley might play down at Trashbat. Until you hear it, that is.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The saddest thing I've read all day

'[EMF's] bass guitarist, Zac Foley, died on 2 January 2002, due to an overdose of non-prescribed drugs. He was aged 31. EMF played just four more gigs in late 2002, before deciding to split up for the final time.

In 2005, Kraft Foods used EMF's Unbelievable in their Kraft Crumbles advertisement campaign. The surviving members of EMF reconvened to re-record the tune. The original song's chorus, "It's unbelievable," was replaced with a more "crumble-centric" chorus, declaring "It's crumbelievable."'

Imagine the mood in that recording studio. Crumbelievable indeed.

No fuss and no fight?

I've written something for the Guardian's new Arts and Entertainment Blog about Crazy Titch's conviction for murder, the full story of which can be pieced together from here, here and here. What I didn't have space to address is that creeping sense of guilt and complicity that a lot of grime fans, including me, will feel. The more over-the-top brutal a lyric is, the more I enjoy it - and I can't be the only one who, when drunk, will occasionally draw for their imaginary mekkle, pull out the gun-finger, shout 'Brap!', and merk any wasteman in the area. Grime violence is great fun - until a crisis like this, and suddenly the joke's over. This dilemma is familiar from dancehall: it's just about possible to ignore chat about 'bunnin' the batty man', or to treat it as metaphorical, or whatever, until the next time you read about a non-metaphorical gay man getting non-metaphorically lynched.

Update: Jaimie Collinson of Big Dada has written a cogent reply to my piece.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sufjan Stevens, The Barbican, London, 3.11.2006 + Dummy Blog Album of the Week: 'Ys' by Joanna Newsom

In my dream version of Heat magazine, the front page would be Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens caught drunkenly swordfighting (in between 'Paul Auster: look at me now!' and 'Slavoj Zizek's most emotional interview EVER'). They are made for each other, really: they both did creative writing MFAs and never penned the Great American Novel but instead ended up writing lyrics that mix intimate confession with flights of magic realism; they both command a symphony orchestra as expertly as they play their harp or their banjo; they both mix the idioms of folk and pop with an uncompromising experimentalism; they both seem to possess ambition as boundless as their talent. They're both chung tings. They both make me weep like a bitch.

The Barbican, where I saw Sufjan Stevens on Friday, is also where I saw Joanna Newsom solo last year, and where I'll be seeing her again in January (with the London Symphony Orchestra!) It warms my heart that oddities like this can sell out a big venue months in advance – OK, they're not doing three nights at the Millennium Dome like Justin, but it's something. My girlfriend pointed out that if you want to pick up a winsome indie boy with a copy of Pale Fire in his manbag, you'll never find a better hunting ground.

To my eternal self-satisfaction, I saw Stevens in the back room of a pub in 2003 when Michigan was still only available in import and no one, including me, really knew who he was. That, of course, was just guitar or banjo beneath Stevens' falsetto, which, as I put it at the time, 'fell over the room like an unexpected snowfall' – see, I was already smitten. Last night, however, the stage was full: piano, xylophone, oboe, horn, trumpet, flute, bass, and more, with the whole band wearing butterfly wings and Stevens himself wearing big hawk wings, plus projected visuals. It was a parade – although even better was when he sang quiet songs like John Wayne Gacy Jr. and I Think That Dress Looks Nice On You almost unaccompanied.

The finest moment of Stevens' faultless performance was when, during The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts, he went over to the pile of inflatable Superman dolls at the side of the stage and started hurling them into the audience one by one. They never flew very far – and that image, of a well-intentioned hero throwing himself into the unknown again and again, his optimism never quite defeated, could not have been more apposite – so many of Stevens' songs are about noble failures, whether it's Adlai Stevenson or Stevens himself.

I'd love to see Stevens try something like Ys, with just five songs instead of a dozen or two-dozen. The longest, Only Skin, is seventeen minutes, with thirteen hundred words of lyrics (i.e. quite a bit longer than this review - if, that is, you were to set it to music, a task we should probably leave for pious future generations). Newsom is almost more a librettist than a lyricist. As you can read in this fantastic Wire interview, the lyrics are all loosely connected to the Breton myth of the eponymous drowned city. Oh, and our favourite harpist has been working with Steve Albini, Brian Wilson-collaborator Van Dyke Parks, and a thirty-strong orchestra. The point is, even if this project had been a grand failure, it would still have been fascinating – but in fact it's a spectacular success.

Music writers, like figure-skating judges, are not supposed to give perfect scores. That's for our children to decide – a classic must stand the test of time. But I'm giving Ys 10/10, because, if this doesn't get 10/10, nothing will. (Although, bafflingly, I notice that Rolling Stone give 'this EP' two stars out of five! They are going to be embarrassed in the morning.) Best album of the year? Without a doubt. Best album of the decade? I'm not quite ready to say it's better than all of these, but give me a minute to work up the courage.

People worried that all these strings would make Ys a little too syrupy. And, like Stevens' Illinois, it does have the occasional hint of the Broadway Musical. But the orchestration here is no less subtle and emotionally articulate than Newsom's harp. She skips through tempos and time signatures so fast that, as she admits in the interview, it's a wonder the other musicians can keep up.

Newsom sings as beautifully as ever. Endearingly, she still squeaks like a dog-toy on the occasional word; I remember when I first played 'Bridges and Balloons' to my friend Raoul, his response was 'I hate this more than anything I've ever heard' and later 'This should be banned'. Well, each to his own. But the magical things Newsom does with little phrases like 'But Ursula, we've got to eat something' or 'Dumbstruck with the sweetness of being' is something no mortal human should have to miss.

For me, though, the greatest triumph is the lyrics. They make wonderful reading even without the music – my favourite is the comparatively straightforward 'Monkey and Bear', about a love affair between an organ-grinding monkey and a dancing bear who are plotting their escape from servitude. Newsom has listed Nabokov and Hemingway as her favourite authors, and those aren't the names I would have guessed - not fairytale enough - but it's clear she has learnt from the masters.

Ultimately, I barely feel qualified to review this album. It's a work of art that may take me years to grasp. Music writers, like detectives, are also not supposed to get emotionally involved in what they do. So writing that I nearly burst into tears in Sainsbury's listening to Ys is as bad as standing up in court and admitting I slept with the suspect. Well, so be it. As you will all know by now, I'm a maverick who doesn't play by the rules (except, of course, those of grammar, which I will defend with my very life). Burial is all very well, but this... I can't imagine how this album could be any better; I can hardly imagine how any album could be any better.


Released 6/11 on Drag City