Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The Past is a Foreign Country

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

As I wandered the streets of Brighton on Sunday I couldn’t help but think of L. P. Hartley’s words: how the sights and smells of a place can awaken the past, as it stretches and lingers and slowly creeps up from behind to pull you back to a moment in time, whether pleasant or painful, before it releases its fading grip and returns you to the present.

I’ve only recently returned to the city where I grew up as a boy, after spending four years in London. I’d been back on plenty of occasions during those four years, either for birthdays or Christmases, or just to get some respite from the manic ebb and flow of London life. But the difference between then and now is stark, not least because in those intermittent years I’d faced up to the fact that I’m gay. I’d gone to London to escape who I was, the closeted teenager mimicking friends, clinging to a semblance of what it is to be straight, and I’ve returned a gay man, full of hopes and aspirations.

Part of moving back to Brighton is to set the record straight (or should that be gay?); to enjoy Brighton through the eyes of the person I feel I should’ve always been but who I never allowed myself to be.

As I strolled through the Lanes or along Marine Parade, familiar sights and smells lit the blue touchpaper of the past, producing explosions of memories that shone brightly for brief moments before fizzling away: the streets where I’d ride high above everyone else on my dad’s shoulders; the gay pub where I had my first pint; the pebbles in front of a fishing storage hut where tears were shed by a confused 18 year-old; the vintage shops perused with an old girlfriend (now best friend); the pubs and bars I stumbled from with friends and brothers on nights lost to young abandon. All still fresh in my mind, yet altered by time.

But as I sat and looked beyond the swirling waves, beyond the Palace Pier and out to the point where the sea meets the sky, I knew everything would be okay. I knew those memories would remain in the past and that the vast expanse that stretched out before me held endless possibilities, and the chance to be free.

Top 20 albums of 2012 #5: Grimes - Visions

I still don’t know exactly what to make of 'Visions', the third album from Vancouverite hipster,Grimes. Other than it is brilliant. I still don’t know what to make about Claire Boucher’s strange creative process of locking herself in a room with no food, sleep or company (although one imagines plenty of creative inducing morsels were somehow involved) in order to free her mind and fill in the gaps where music should be. But it worked spectacularly because Visions is close to the top, if not at the top, of every 2012 ‘best of’ list.
No matter how many times you listen to Visions it’s still baffling in its depth, beauty and complete otherworldliness; new supernatural sounds lodge themselves in the back of your head, gnawing away at your subconscious until they jump out at you, making you wonder how you’d never heard them before. The alluring sense of not being able to place the album in any sub-genre of pop is a treat the can be enjoyed over and over. What is it? Lo-fi? R&B? Electro-pop? Kooky-weirdo-hovering around the ether-pop? Does anyone care? Probably not. But it’s the sense of something new and different that makes it so great.
And it’s fun. You’d be hard to come across a better single than 'Oblivion' in 2012. The hypnotic early-90s techno computer-synth thuds a perfect accompaniment to Boucher’s child-like melody. Listening to it is like being a kid again, gleefully playing 'Streets of Rage' on the Mega Drive for the first time and wondering why the baddies all have blue hair.
The whole album is a throwback to the raw sounds of the early 90s but with enough mod cons to bring it alarmingly to 2012 – think Vowels = Space and Time and Visiting Statue. It does what all good music should; it brings a sense of nostalgia whilst also paving a way forward for new memories or experiences.
Visions will always be lodged securely in my mind as a soundtrack to change, the various strange noises generating an insatiable excitement for life. Plus it also has that infectious vibe and buzz that causes your body to go into bouts of fitful movements, contagious in its ability to make you want to dance.
By . Tweets at @herbert_sam

Top 20 albums of 2012 #16: Grizzly Bear – Shields

How to follow 'Veckatimest?' Grizzly Bear’s breakthrough third album was such a sumptuous exploration of sound that it was critically acclaimed as one of the albums of 2009; the haunting, yearning piano of closing track, ‘Foreground’, is a poignant reminder of their near perfect creation. The song still has the power to stop you in your tracks and leave you in a crumpled heap. And that’s the challenge facing the Brooklyn quartet. How do you trump it?
It was certainly a question they asked themselves in their three year hiatus. Chris Taylor put out a solo LP as 'CANT', Edward Droste went travelling and got married and Daniel Rossenreleased a solo EP, ‘Silent Hour/Golden Mile.’ On return to Grizzly Bear duties their first efforts were scrapped in their search for a creative dynamic that had gone missing. Something must have clicked as they pained and laboured in Cape Cod, where they recorded 'Veckatimest' and second album, 'Yellow House'. The result of which is 'Shields'.
What’s particularly beguiling about 'Shields' is the use of time and rhythm. The music enthrals with a complexity and depth that is at first out of reach. Yet the layered soundscape entices you back for more listens, appearing within your grasp before being whisked away by a previously unheard chord or string section. The album’s capacity to tantalise is what makes it so charming; like meeting someone new for the first time, the little nuances you pick up on are made that much more powerful.
The four members have a background in classical and jazz, which comes across in the way parts of Shields sound painstakingly structured, where other parts sound free and improvised. ‘What’s Wrong’ being the perfect example; Christopher Bear’s faint drumming accompanied by soft strings delicately crafted at the beginning of the song evolves to searching piano chords and trumpet to close.
It is the ever changing time structures and rhythms that particularly evoke the feelings of a jazz quartet, even if it’s not necessarily obvious. ‘Sleeping Ute’ starts things off with a thunderous clap of drums amidst a pulsing, syncopated guitar riff with random synths and strings coming and going as they please. The track blusters through and then settles with a gentle acoustic coda, as Rossen pleads ‘but I can’t help myself’ over and over again. The dynamic shifts are then emphasised on ‘Speak In Rounds,’ a song not unlike ‘Southern Point’ on Veckatimest, with its chugging guitars and rollicking drums. The song rises and falls, quickens and slows, as the band’s resplendent harmonies (they all sing) hold everything in place.
It is perhaps the bold vocals and aching harmonies that make Grizzly Bear that bit different to other bands. On second single ‘Yet Again’ we’re treated to Droste and Rossen’s melodious vocals, the gloss on an already shimmering song. It’s as close to a traditional indie-pop song that Grizzly Bear will get. ‘Sun In Your Eyes’ ends the album in a gloriously defiant tone. It’s the album’s standout track; a gorgeous, uplifting song which resonates long after the last delicate piano chord is played, prompting the question, what’s next? 
Following Veckatimest was never going to be an easy task; setting the bar so high is usually a prelude to being let down. Yet Shields doesn’t disappoint. It lures you in and holds you with its glorious orchestrations and unexpected arrangements and it invites you back with its mournful vocals and deft harmonies. But most importantly it leaves you wanting more.
By . Tweets at @herbert_sam

Calexico - Algiers

For a band who are renowned for dipping into a vast plethora of styles, ranging from mariachi to country, gypsy jazz to indie rock, Calexico somehow manage to sound immediate and poignant, without sounded blurred or confused. Take ‘Algiers’, their seventh album. It could be easy to become tangled in the ever changing blend of styles, from the indie folk of ‘Fortune Teller’ to the bossa nova of ‘No Te Vayas’, yet Joey Burns and John Convertino’s music hopping is so seamless and subtle that it works.
As it goes it works rather beautifully. 'Splitter' is a rumbling folk-pop song, driven by chugging guitars and laced with keening horns, it does what every good folk song should, locking into that feeling of possibilities and adventure waiting just around the corner.
Algiers is named after the part of New Orleans where Burns and Convertino used to work, a place which Burns has described as “strong and bold, soulful to the core, but surrounded by a sea of darkness.” He could’ve been describing ‘Sinner in the Sea’, a haunting blues number where Burns sings with a devilish menace to the accompanying off-beat drums of Covertino – you don’t have to try hard to imagine it being played in a smoky rundown blues club in New Orleans.
The numerous styles explored and images evoked gives their sound a film-like quality. It probably explains why of the last three records released two have been film soundtracks; ‘The Guard’ and ‘Circo’ – two films so far apart that it only accentuates Calexico’s versatility, if that ever needed doing. It is their ability to enthral and entice that forms the strength of the album; the Spanish sounding ‘Puerto’ is held together by Burns’s alluring vocals, while the soaring slide-guitar and undulating strings sweep through closing track, The Vanishing Mind, ending the album on a tender, somewhat sorrowful, note.
Having been around since the mid-90s Calexico still have the capability to enrapture and captivate their listeners while sounding refreshingly original; not bad going for a seventh album.
By . Tweets at @herbert_sam

Nadine Shah – Dreary Town

The highly anticipated 'Dreary Town', Nadine Shah’s second EP within the space of six months following the hushed success of 'Aching Bones', was never going to be a cheery record. Shah’s predilection for the lachrymose has helped her in becoming a songstress to look out for: her haunting melodies and sorrowful yearnings have encouraged parts of the music community to proclaim her as “the female Nick Cave” while tipping her for a future Mercury Prize. Praise which is fully justified on listening to the three tracks of Dreary Town.

The title track could slot easily into a Mike Leigh film. Its carousel piano melodically chimes as Shah’s doleful descant defiantly declares, “I’m not going to follow you to the ground, darling I’m leaving this dreary town.” Given its title and brooding melodies it could be easy to mistake the song as one that imbues a sense of disappointment and regret, but, and this is what makes Shah so enticing, it is more a song about a determination to break free from a relationship and a town and move on to “greener pastures waiting to be found.” Much like a Leigh film a sense of possibility drives the song but it is hidden behind the mournful airs of the piano and Shah’s voice.

The opener, 'Bobby Heron', is a sea shanty ballad about Shah’s great-grandmother’s only son who died at sea. With its eerie accordion and the manacle-like rattle of the tambourine the song shows a stripped back side to Shah’s gift as a songstress. Hailing from Whitburn, a small coastal village not far from Newcastle, it is understandable how Shah conjures the image of a ghostly fog rolling in off the North Sea, bringing with it the loss of a young man.

Covering a jazz standard like 'Cry Me a River' on your second EP is always a bold statement, especially if the EP has only three songs. Most listeners would already have a preferred version from the innumerable makeovers that it has already received, from Julie London’s 1955 original to the recent nauseatingly dramatic Michael Buble rendition. Yet Shah’s adaptation is beautifully understated. The song’s simple piano backing and trembling strings allow her voice to flourish: its vulnerability is redolent of Jeff Buckley’s sonorous lilt. Packed full of anguish and suffering, Shah’s warble is her most devastating asset – it is the kind of voice that silences a room, arresting the audience with its aching charm.

With Dreary Town Nadine Shah validates the claims that she is one of the acts to look out for in 2013. Now all she needs to do is back it up with an LP and, hey presto, a Mercury nomination should come a knocking.

By . Tweets at @herbert_sam

Oscar Peterson tribute live in London

“Even he managed to smile at that one,” quips James Pearson pointing up to the solemn bust of Johann Sebastian Bach, the imitable German composer a surprising guest presiding over a tribute to the imitable jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson, as part of the London Jazz Festival. Pearson and fellow pianist, Tom Cawley, had seamlessly duetted on Art Tatum’s ‘Tiger Rag,’ a song, which upon listening to back in the 1930s, lit a flame in Peterson to play the piano. Its ferocious boogie became a major influence on Peterson’s own style and is one of the reasons why two pianists are needed for this performance – as Pearson jokes, “it’s easier with four hands.”
With its opulent chandeliers and busts of classical composers, Chappell of Bond Street at first seems an odd venue to celebrate the musical life of one of the great jazz pianists. Especially given that the James Pearson Trio is the house band at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, a more traditional setting for the kind of evening in store. Yet the sea of pianos that spread out before you as you enter the building (the downstairs is a music shop), along with a further six more cast adrift upstairs, gives the impression that this is about letting the music speak for itself, and with Pearson and Cawley bashing at the pianos this quickly becomes the case.
Joined by Sam Burgess on bass and Chris Higginbottom on drums, Pearson enthusiastically directs the band from behind his Bosendorfer piano. ‘C Jam Blues’ and  ‘Out of Nowhere’ open proceedings with each member of the band revelling in their own solos, each looking suitably relaxed as they do so. The songs are interspersed with a history lesson into the life of Oscar Peterson and other jazz greats. Pearson at one point gives a lesson in ‘grunt-ology’, the habit that some pianists have of grunting the tune as they play it, going on to do impressions of Keith Jarrett and Oscar himself, before signalling to the band that the next tune is on the way.
Keen not to hog the limelight Pearson hands over responsibility to Cawley to demonstrate the double octave runs (improvising the same melody with the left and right hand) that became so synonymous with Peterson, causing much open-mouthed incredulity from the spoilt audience. The best moments of the evening are when Pearson and Cawley battle it out at the piano, each trying to out-do the other in their improvising, often leaving the audience, along with their fellow band members, chuckling in appreciation.
But it’s Peterson who the audience have come to remember and the second half of the gig is mostly dedicated to his own compositions. The infectious jive of ‘Hallelujah Time’ gets everyone’s toes tapping, while the rumbling piano on ‘Hymn to Freedom’, inspired by the civil rights movement, creates a cacophony of noise which reverberates through the venue. It only leaves time for ‘Satin Doll’ to be played with both pianists pulling out all the stops to leave the audience satisfied and smiling, alongside a certain German composer. 
By . Tweets at @herbert_sam

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Bob Dylan - Tempest

In some ways writing a Bob Dylan album review is a thankless task; there are the fans who will unerringly proclaim that every Dylan album is a triumph, the equally staunch groups of doubters who feel he’s past it and never recovered from his dip into holy waters, then there are the newcomers who will most likely become fans by listening to 'Highway 61', 'Blonde on Blonde' or 'Blood on the Tracks' before hearing the rasping squawks of Dylan’s voice on his more recent LPs. He also probably doesn’t give two cents to what an obscure writer across the pond thinks of 'Tempest', his 35th album, but then he never did really care what anyone thought.
But 50 years on from his first Dylan shows that his fire still burns bright, even if his voice doesn’t. As he growls on 'Early Roman Kings', "I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings."
Musically Tempest has the same blend of expertly constructed blues, folk, rockabilly and western as all of his albums have had since 2001’s 'Love & Theft'. Dylan’s voice has been shot for a while now, as anyone who’s seen him live recently can attest, where guessing the song over his gravelly rasp is becoming increasingly difficult. Yet his old snarl suits the blues. None more so than on 'Tin Angel', a track with a shuffling, sinister backing which has Dylan at his raging best as a tale of murder and revenge unfolds; "it would take more than needle and thread, bleeding from the mouth he’s as good as dead."
'Duquesne Whistle' breezes in with a country swoon before it launches into a bluesy number with a bit more swing and a bit more punch. It seems that something has angered Bob considering the video has him stalking the streets of an American suburb, mob in tow, as some poor chap is dealt a thrashing. And an angry Dylan can only be a good thing. Fuelled by this, his lyrics, and let’s face it they’re the primary reason for listening to Dylan, are bold, fun and vitriolic, something which was missing on his last studio album, 'Together Through Life'.
The driving rocky blues of 'Pay In Blood' has Dylan enjoying himself with his sneering snarl taking on a mobster-like menace that would put Tony Soprano to shame; ‘the more I take, the more I give, the more I die, the more I live,’ and ‘I pay in blood but not my own.’ It’s a devilish ditty that shows that Dylan hasn’t lost any of the venomous contempt that made Mr Jones quake in his boots. But to compare Tempest to anything from the time of 'Ballad of a Thin Man' would be foolish – it wouldn’t do justice to either era – and would detract from what is largely a brilliant return to form.
On 'Modern Times' Dylan was ‘thinking ‘bout Alicia Keys,’ this time round he’s name checking Leonardo DiCaprio on the title track, a 14-minute ode to the Titanic in the guise of an Irish-tinged country waltz. It’s hard to imagine someone else taking on such a task, particularly once you realise that the song spans 45 verses. But after all these years that’s why Dylan’s still in a league of his own when it comes to writing verse.
It’s a shame that, sentiment aside, the one song that doesn’t quite hit the heights is 'Roll On, John' – a late tribute to his friend, John Lennon - with lines like ‘I heard the news today, oh boy’ and ‘come together right now over me’ it’s a tender lyrical tribute, but musically it drifts and lacks resonance.
At 71 Dylan’s voice might sound more like a bark but with Tempest he shows the bite’s still as strong as ever.
By . Tweets at @herbert_sam
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