It’s strange to be sitting here, in 2012, reviewing a Guided By Voices record – and it brings back all kinds of memories for me. To begin at the beginning, there’s no reason that anyone reading should remember Revolver Records in Bristol. The shop was tucked away in a doorway which led to a long passageway adorned with gig posters, into a cramped windowless room. The room was full of treasures – and presided over by the man with the loudest voice in Bristol, booming out his disdain for music which didn’t cut the mustard, or yelling praise for his latest and usually most experimentally unlistenable discoveries. It was here I first discovered GBV, clutching my copy of “Vampire on Titus” on the train home and not quite knowing what to expect. Then, almost ten years later and just before the turn of the century I’m stalking around Bristol again, but in a mess. My life as I’d planned it is collapsing around my ears, and my uncle and I – and he’s hardly a lover of cutting edge music – find ourselves in the Fleece and Firkin drunkenly watching GBV. Robert Pollard is smoking, slugging beer and high-kicking from the stage, the songs last mere seconds each, the band just keep playing – loud and messy but drifting occasionally into focus. It’s the perfect distraction from the chaos of real life. My uncle yells in my ear: “he’s almost like a proper rock star“.
So, just over twelve years after that fateful evening and nearly twenty years since GBV first pricked my consciousness, we have “Let’s Go Eat The Factory”. I confess I was a little apprehensive about making the purchase – just like I was when the shouty man at Revolver tried to make me do so all those years back. I’d not been a good fan – as the number of GBV releases multiplied and with a soap-opera of line-up changes, quality inevitably dipped and I’d lost track. Like all the best soaps it was possible to dip out for a number of releases and to return to find not much had changed. But I still found myself returning to the churning noise and buried tunes of those early purchases because, frankly, no-one quite did it like GBV on form. This release is marketed as being recorded by the “classic line-up”, which refers to that 1993-1996 or so collision of Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Kevin Fennell, Greg Demos and Mitch Mitchell. A collective of musicians content not to let technology or fidelity stand in the way of a wonderful tune – and one which had a thorough grounding in the pop and rock of the sixties and seventies rather than an education in the 90′s indie-rock scene with all its attendant posturing and eclectic referencing. Listen to the output of this GBV line up and you’ll find T Rex in the crunchy guitar riffs, John Lennon in the surreal but downtrodden lyrical preoccupations and a vocal delivery which often pays tribute to David Bowie.
Perhaps the most reassuring element of any reunion is not how many of those original features which once hooked you in survive, but how real and unforced they feel when delivered twenty years later? I’m overjoyed to say that “Let’s Go Eat The Factory” in all its ramshackle, chaotic glory, retains all of the incoherent brilliance which “Vampite on Titus” provided all those years back. It’s just as inconsistent, frustratingly patchy but ultimately gloriously experimental as those early 90s records. There are cuts which deliver straight out, medium-fidelity garage rock – but with Pollard‘s cynical, nasally Bowie-like croon overlaid they become tiny epics with nonsense lyrics, “The Unsinkable Fats Domino” and “Chocolate Boy” being perfect examples. Elsewhere they stray into the more experimental territory which has always confounded and amused, with “Old Bones” being an oddly Caledonian effort which shares a buried melody with “Auld Lang Syne” delivered on a cheap keyboard. There are also further deliciously odd synth-pop treats such as “Hang Mr. Kite” which adds an unexpected layer of strings to the reverb laden vocals. Only on “Doughnut for a Snowman” do we get hints of the later-period Rik Ocasek moderated, radio friendly GBV which never quite delivered. It’s a curiously gentle ballad, with an impenetrable lyric which is delivered with genuine feeling nonetheless. Compressed into a couple of minutes and shorn of any attempts at production, its a shimmery pop delight which makes you realise why they might once have thought a radio-friendly GBV could have worked. There are also a couple of acoustic tracks here, the like of which both Pollard and Sprout both toyed with in their more obscure solo efforts. These are fragmentary, brief and tantalising with “The Room Taking Shape” clocking in at under 45 seconds, tailing off just as it starts to get interesting. The only track to break the three minute barrier is “We Won’t Apologise for the Human Race” which closes the album in strangely pensive style. By GBV standards it’s an epic, with chugging glam rock guitars and stabs of strings which burst into an anthemic garage rock chorus. The relatively extended length is provided by a minute of so of squalling, tangling guitar fuzz.
The question I’ve seen raised repeatedly by reviewers elsewhere, who’ve had the benefit of advance hearing of “Let’s Go Eat The Factory” is whether these 21 sprawlingly unrelated tracks really make an album? With few of them exceeding 180 seconds in length and many of them tailing off into oblivion early with a click of the portastudio, the album shifts along at a curiously stuttering pace I’d agree. However, it was always thus – and a listen to any of those “classic line-up” era records will deliver a similarly uneven, sometimes disconcerting experience. This is the great joy of this type of recording – the experiment is captured and delivered to the listener pretty much unmoderated. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but on other occasions GBV seemingly accidentally capture a classic pop song buried in the murky recording. This approach isn’t for everyone, but in my case it’s probably one of the reasons I got involved in making music, and certainly relates to my decision to write about it all these years later.
With some of the reunion dates cancelled and the band reportedly on the verge of dissolving again, it’s worth remembering that this line-up was never far from complete implosion. Conversely, there is more positive talk of another album in the can and more material to follow, and this work ethic always set GBV apart from the slacker mentality of the scene which they found fame within. Perhaps the trick is not to look at this as a reunion album, and to expose it to all the intense scrutiny and criticism that inevitably brings, but to consider GBV as something which has drifted in and out of existence for almost 30 years now, and shows no signs of disappearing while that ‘almost proper‘ rock star in Pollard continues to stalk the stage. This line-up though, captures the sense of unbridled energy and no-stone-unturned inventiveness better than most, and as a result “Let’s Go Eat The Factory” is full of tiny masterpieces.
This blog doesn’t generate huge amounts of feedback, at least not much that the spam filter doesn’t happily discard for me because it involves enlarging at least one body part. However the two issues it does generate some occasional heat around are its unremitting praise for things, and its geographical focus. I’ve covered the former in bitter tirades before – I don’t write about boring, dull or uninspiring things by choice. The second is tougher to explain, and is as much to do with personal circumstances as anything – but when I have defended the blog by mentioning the occasional forays south of the border, I realise that very rarely do I get further south than Lancashire. The county crops up again and again in my ramblings, and indeed it’s the place of origin for the enigmatic Benjamin Shaw. He’s now based in London, but this record is unmistakably something of the north. From it’s grim humour and its stark, wide open but sometimes mist-obscured soundscapes to Shaw‘s warm but broken vocal style, it’s never far from the challenging landscape of the county. You can take the musician out of the place, but perhaps you can’t take the place out of the musician?
The scene here is set by “How To Test The Depth of a Well” which musically consists of a queasy, damaged waltz punctuated by scraping violins and rattling percussion, while Shaw intones a mournful but redemptive list of do’s and dont’s culminating in the observation “You shouldn’t make up stupid songs just to get applause“. There’s nothing stupid about this it’s clear to see, and this quiet and almost distracted delivery is about as far from attention-seeking as it’s possible to get. Sometimes almost drowning in pops, crackles and electronic buzzes the song reverberates with warm humour and turns its ramshackle origins to clear advantage. “Interview” opens with uncertain, quavering vocals and another compelling violin dirge of the type which pepper the record and give it a melancholy timbre. Meanwhile a lone guitar plucks a melody which isn’t a million miles away from the Twin Peaks theme tune. The lyrics illustrate the curious talent Shaw has of taking a fairly mundane episode out of the context of everyday life, elevating the consequences and the apprehension to become the central drama in his songs. This particularly sorry tale ends just as abruptly as the protagonists job prospects appear to. When all of the elements of “There’s Always Hope, There’s Always Cabernet” drift into focus – like they do here and in countless other spots – it’s simply and unnervingly lovely.
Linking directly back to its place of origin, “Somewhere Over The M6″ is a minor epic. Drawn out over six minutes or so, and marching along at a funereal pace, Shaw sounds intoxicated and beaten here which makes it perhaps even more compellingly voyeuristic listening. I’m also struck here by a kinship with artists such as Thirty Pounds of Bone and Sweet Baboo who are ploughing similar furrows in a wholly different geography, and using music which sometimes sounds as old as the hills to express entirely modern sentiments. The addition of shattered, ill-governed intrusions of electric guitar build an uneasy drama here, and the extended squalls of noise which end the song blur into, and almost entirely make up the following instrumental interlude “An Exciting Opportunity”. Unhinged laughter and an apparently untuned piano bring in “Hey, Where’s My Deputy?”. A slightly dizzy, rather uncharacteristically summery melody supports Shaw‘s quietly introspective half-spoken, half-sung observations. It’s brief, perhaps even unfinished, but tells a complete enough story. In a curious way it’s got hints of country and western in its DNA, like hearing Hank Williams through damaged speakers on a market stall. The song finally implodes and disappears into a haze of tape hiss and feedback. A lyrically graphic depiction of childbirth – and oddly enough a strong case for home birth – provide the opening images of “Home”, a more traditionally constructed ballad built around a minimal melody and a distant, fractured vocal. A harmonium winds in to support the fragile guitar and adds a sense of timelessness – the themes and lyrical preoccupations are absolutely 21st century, but the music sounds like it could have been drafted in from a wax drum discovered in an attic somewhere. It’s perhaps the furthest that Shaw‘s songwriting falls from the more evidently directly personal, drifting rather unusually into the third person, but it’s no less bleakly funny and hard-edged for that. This all builds into a cacophonous, but satisfyingly dramatic ending.
While the title of “The Birds Chirp and The Sun Shines” displays a fair bit of irony, there is a sense of bitter triumph in this. Shaw‘s vocal is oddly confident, in contrast to his lyrics which are resigned and beaten-down. The track trots along with a little more pace than those which precede it, driven by a crazy shimmer of violin and a simple melody. Somewhere, mid song Shaw observes that he”…never wanted to stare into the abyss” before appropriating Kool and the Gang‘s exhortation to “celebrate good times, come on!” for his own purposes. This pretty much sums up “There’s Always Hope, There’s Always Cabernet” for me – yes, it’s dark and it doesn’t seem to hold onto any of the optimism it’s title implies, but there’s plenty of scope to enjoy the gloom while we still can perhaps. Finally, the sprawling and ambitious “HULK” arrives to close proceedings. Led by an echoing piano and a multi-tracked vocal which strains at the confines of the low-budget production, there is a hint of the damaged genius of Brian Wilson about this performance – the difference being that Shaw‘s feet are firmly on the ground without a surfboard in sight, his songs anchored in a particularly British strain of dark, bitter delight in misfortune – most notably our own.
It’s always good to know that I can still be surprised, despite my advancing years and growing cynicism, and despite a sometimes pretty bleak musical landscape this early in a new year. So when I received the email introducing Benjamin Shaw full of self-deprecating northern humour, I was perhaps unprepared for just how this strange little recording was going to affect me. But from the outset this is clearly something pretty special which repays the effort of listening – and to fully appreciate how these songs are built from layers of found sound, recording artefacts and gently uncomplicated instrumentation it’s necessary to don headphones and completely immerse yourself. But be warned it’s also full of rough edges, sharp corners and exposed nails to snag your jumper on – all of the things in fact, which the health and safety experts warn you about.
You can purchase Benjamin Shaw‘s debut album right now from Audio Antihero as a physical CD or digital download.
I realised recently that one reason this blog will never be wildly popular or highly regarded – aside from my contrary tastes and over-complicated ramblings – is just that I’m too damn slow! I could of course pretend that this is some sort of defiant refusal to play the industry game, choosing to do things at my own pace. But it isn’t – it’s pure laziness and navel gazing, with a dash of irritating real life getting in the way too. No amount of new year’s resolutions are likely to get me to pick up the pace, but perhaps it’s time to not worry so much about how timely these reviews are, and just get on with listening to interesting music? With that in mind, here are a couple of things which keep cropping up in my playlist just now – one which from the tail end of last year, and one so new it’s not even available yet.
There Will Be Fireworks – Because, Because EP
In keeping with the theme of my ponderous pace, I remember stumbling almost accidentally across There Will Be Fireworks majestic first album, far later than the rest of the world, and being amazed that something so striking and explosive could have escaped my attention for so long. Regular readers will know that I spend much of my time apparently stumbling around the internet with my fingers in my ears, so probably won’t be surprised. But that record was packed with swooping dynamics, huge crashing guitar endings and vocals which veered unsteadily from whispers to hysterical screams. In short, it was the kind of record I’d normal have been banging on about for ages. This is the first recorded output from There Will Be Fireworks since 2009, and reflects the journey so far towards their second album. The EP hints at perfectionism and slow, steady progress – there’s nothing rushed or unfinished here – and while it’s a close relative of that first blast of a record, there are subtle changes afoot.
The record opens with “Harmonium Song”, which sets off with a steady rhythmic single note piano refrain and a gorgeous drone. The understated vocals provided by Nicky McManus are supported by little bursts of controlled guitar. It’s an unrelentingly grim tale of loss and being lost, which builds to an ending drenched in mournful Joy Division synth sounds which finally fall away leaving just that nagging, stark piano motif. Next, “This Feels Like” builds around simple acoustic guitars and a sinuous bassline. With vocals further up in the mix, the lyrics merit closer attention – densely packed couplets and neat observations which set this apart from almost all of the band’s obvious comparators. But the images of passing time and vague regret are never far from the theme, with lines like “the message reads like your first school bible/meaningless, dull” hinting at off-screen sorrow. Vocal dynamics are at the heart of the equally simple “From ’84″ too, with lupine howls and yelps of frustration. This is pretty much as close as There Will Be Fireworks get to a straightforward love song – but through their dark lens it’s all frustration and unrealised opportunity. Finally “In Excelsis Deo” is a Christmas song by all accounts, serving to illustrate just how out of touch this blog is! It couples the introspective, acoustic themes of the rest of the EP with an increased tempo and a choir of backing voices. Lyrically it’s hardly “Frosty The Snowman” – with casual, dark observations like “I’m drunk and hearing voices in carparks” reminding that Christmas isn’t just full of happy excess. The increasing tempo builds to a sudden flourish of strings and a tumultuous crash of guitars which the band have resisted until the very end of the EP. Ususally, I’m no lover of festive novelty songs which can only be dusted off once each year, but this is quite different – and it will get filed away in the library for future use alongside Withered Hand‘s superb 2011 effort.
There’s a strange sense of being teased by this EP, with the explosions and dynamics reserved for the very last seconds – but that’s perhaps no bad thing. The triumph of the first album was in it’s dynamics and epic shifts of tone and mood, and perhaps this EP serves to prepare the ground for more of the same on album two, bringing the quality songwriting and intense lyrical observations to the forefront. The message seems to be that There Will Be Fireworks aren’t just another quiet/loud/quiet post-post rock outfit – this is something a bit different and a bit special. It’s a bit late for Christmas, but it’s not too late to enjoy this slow-burning gem of a record.
The four track “Because, Because” EP can be purchased from Bandcamp or iTunes.
So Many Animal Calls – Traps
Despite setting out to write about rare examples of the traditional single format in these posts, I find myself straying towards the far more common EP these days, and in the process breaking all of my own rules. I can understand this, and given the relative ease of digital releases it makes abject sense for bands to get as much representative output available as possible. But the single still has a place – the chance to make an announcement, signal a change or just get a couple of songs out there which are too good to hold back. I suspect that final case is the drive here, and it’s encouraging to find I finally have some real, old-fashioned singles to consider, including “Traps” by So Many Animal Calls. This band sit in a category of acts which I read about much more than I’ve actually heard so far, despite being a very well regarded EP into their career. There’s always the nagging worry in those cases that the story is more interesting than the music, but it’s hugely pleasing when the reverse is true and you realise that the hype is well worth believing.
Lead song “Traps” is a strange collision of the precision, turning-on-a-dime dynamics of post-hardcore and a gorgeously melodic brand of abrasive, intelligent pop which seems deeply unfashionable these days. It’s an unlikely mix perhaps, but somehow, fused together they produced a proper old fashioned pop single with strident choruses and blasts of harmonic guitar. It’s the kind of thing which has lured me back from my more obscure musical wanderings for years, and which has more often been the preserve of bands across the pond. But Glasgow’s So Many Animal Calls seem to have nailed this genre by pure musicianship and hard work, making the band’s self-coined ‘failpop’ tag completely inappropriate. There’s nothing slack here – Sean McKenna‘s vocals are clear and pure, with a seemingly infinite range and a genuine melancholic ache bursting to escape. The whole complicated structure is supported by a superbly tight rhythm section including Ross Coll‘s liquid bass. As the parts tumble into place, and the song builds through chorus after naggingly memorable chorus, I find myself grinning like an idiot and feeling like reliving my distant youth. Flip side “The Best Way To Be Broken” is a different prospect entirely, but no less well crafted. Kicking off like a soft-rock piano ballad it drips regret and experience far beyond the years of it’s ridiculously young creators. A couple of verses in and the solo piano is joined by swooning bass, military drums and chiming guitars which finally explode abrasively into life. It’s like the theme tune from Cheers undergoing a genetic mutation before your ears, and once again it’s very, very good.
So Many Animal Calls ability to manage the dynamics of a song is remarkable – particularly in the sense that they’re not afraid to leave space and silence between their explosions and epic choruses, and they never seem tempted to go for the overblown or overwrought. I can’t help but feel this is an early step on a potentially very exciting journey.
I came very late to Evil Hand‘s release “Huldra” last year, and regret that I didn’t get a chance to write about it’s strange atmospherics here until it was much too late. And here again, in these first hungover weeks of the new year when most right-thinking people are still licking the wounds of the first week back at work rather than thinking about new releases, “Rain Check” arrives. There is of course, every danger it could again go undetected too, slipping under the radar while we’re all contemplating our waistlines or trying to figure out if the recycling collections will ever get back to normal. But in another sense it couldn’t be better timed – the post-festive comedown is never easy, and in these straightened times even less so perhaps. So what is the perfect sound track to this time of year? What lets you wallow in just enough of the winter darkness before lifting you with it’s almost absurd optimism? Perhaps Evil Hand has had a damn good go at writing that very record here. Evil Hand is of course Derek Bates – one half of Bottle of Evil who recently graced these pages with their “Inside Looking Out” EP, a record which has only grown in my estimations since first hearing. What is less clear is quite how to describe “Rain Check” – it’s either a long EP or a short album. In a sense it doesn’t matter because it stands alone as a collection of regret-laced noisy tunes and curious musical experiments, beginning with “A Drop of Sunshine” with distant vocals buried in doomladen guitar chords and a wash of white noise. Next, “Good For Nothing” is a wistful piece with hints of late-sixties guitar pop and traditional folk ballads, like an out-take from a lost Gene Clark album. It’s gentle melody and half-whispered vocal shimmer over a backing of hollow electronics and replicated voices, with the whole thing melting beautifully together.
I confess I’ve never been much of a fan of the Beach Boys, though I’ve always respected Brian Wilson‘s songwriting craft above their over-sweetened bubblegum delivery. But by 1971′s “Sunflower” the dark heart of the songwriter was beginning to overtake the gleeful harmonies, and “Forever” is a surprisingly gloomy faux-country oddity. Evil Hands‘s take preserves both the forlorn lead vocal and the gentle melody, but couples it to a tremelo-heavy, note-bendingly joyous musical backdrop. On what I regard as the record’s stand-out track “Three Faces”, Bates manages to accomplish what My Bloody Valentine have been fruitlessly trying to repeat since 1991 on a tiny fraction of the budget, by fusing skittering beats, washes of effect-laden guitar and a gorgeously delicate tune. As the first vocal section of the song fades into it’s own noisy sheen an extended instrumental coda strikes up, building layer on layer of blissful melody and squalling feedback. It’s a short, unfocused and confusing piece in some respects – but the simple fact is that it’s utterly beguiling. Likewise, the jittering pop squall of “Sonograph” – a dizzying clash of guitars and tweeting electronics, with a low-slung Mary Chain like vocal embedded deep in the mix, and which builds towards a fuzzy, psyched-out ending. The record closes with a couple of more experimental pieces, culminating in the mighty “Iceberg”. Clocking in at nearly seven minutes of David Lynch soundtrack style rumblings and washes of sharpened guitar sounds which dissolve into static. Then, perhaps when least expected, the track is invaded by what appears to be the entire 1970s staff of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Strange, analogue synthesiser drones which have teleported in from Blake’s Seven or Doctor Who sit alongside echoing atmospherics. Played loud, it has a curious effect. I used to it to quell some irritating neighbours to remarkable effect. It’s a curiosity rather than an essential part of the EP for sure, but it demonstrates the breadth of Bates‘ interest, musicianship and vision.
So, another year of my rambling about music kicks off with a release made in such an understated way that it would be easy to miss – it’s to my great dismay that it took me so long to find Evil Hand‘s previous work, and I’d urge you not to commit the same error. This is in parts dreamy and ambient, and in others noisy and challenging – but throughout there is a thread of pop sensibility winding through these songs which I find completely irresistible. Here’s to 2012. Happy new year.
Evil Hand‘s “Rain Check” is available as a free download from Bandcamp, where you can find 2011′s “Huldra” album, again absolutely free. More of Derek Bates work can be found via Bottle of Evil.
... Songs Heard on Fast Trains - documenting a collection of personal musings on music which fuelled and sometimes inspired my travels between 2010 and 2012. You'll find lots of pointless introspection and turgid reflection here - with some interesting MP3s (for evaluation purposes only of course) and the occasional new discovery thrown in for good measure. It's also fairly likely that I paid good money for the majority of music I wrote about here.