It seems fitting that what is very likely the last review on Songs Heard on Fast Trains should feature a number of performers who have cropped up throughout the life of the blog in various guises. Like this blog itself, they’ve marked some changes over the past several years and are probably sounding just a little more world-weary and damaged than when they set out on the journey too. But, that’s perhaps no bad thing as it provides the seed for a pair of simply recorded but hugely engaging collections of music. Writing about music is something I’ve always done – and probably always will do somehow, somewhere – but it’s clear that this particular vehicle has run it’s course and is now causing irritation and dismay more often than it informs or delights. I know when I’m beat – but thankfully these folks don’t have any intention of sloping quietly away while there is music to be made. Thus this split EP, delivered on the defiantly outsider medium of the cassette, presents two distinct views into a music scene which remains healthily challenging and richly inventive.
If there was ever music fit to soothe such tricky moments of departure, Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo probably wrote it. Proceedings open with the lazy, mock self-congratulatory backslapping of “You Are An Excellent Human Being”. The delicate construction is built around a swaggering bassline and washes of ghostly steel guitar both courtesy of Robbie Lesiuk, which provide a canvas for the laconic vocals of D.King. Coming on something like a central-belt Will Oldham, King‘s lyrics veer from cynical irritation to surreally descriptive passages while his vocal switches seamlessly between an Elvis Presley sneer and howls of genuine frustration. It’s an odd, unsettling prospect at first but this blend of fragile, blasted country-pop and acidic Scottish wit comes together in a strangely addictive fashion. The stuttering “Let Redemption Sway You” follows, and is oddly like the Rolling Stones at their edgy, enervated late 1960s best, its distant lead guitar playing a respectful second string to a shuffling, urgent rhythm. This swiftly becomes a stripped-back gospel number, a chorus of voices transported directly from the Flying Burrito Brothers back catalogue accompanying D.King in his role as edgelands preacher, living on the margins and barking his message at unsuspecting passers by. Adam Stafford‘s influence is more apparent on “No Match for the Monster” which spirals around a thunderous, distorted bass and beat-box rhythm. King‘s vocals here are a mutant megaphone growl, snarling through a confusing, paranoid blues. His lyrical preoccupations tumble over each other, as the apparent after effect of weekend excesses are described as “lying dormant in an ecological cage” before he becomes rightfully enraged at “the atrocities committed by the British Empire“. This is a twisted, angry and rather beautiful mess of a song, low in fidelity but high on ideas and bursting with snippets of lyrical brilliance. Somehow too, it reminds me of a rather less uncomfortably nihilistic Royal Trux in it’s sprawling, damaged bluesy delivery. Finally, “Indecent Love” is a comparatively clean and shiny thing built around gently strummed acoustic guitars and fervent handclaps. Via a brittle echoing meander of steel guitar, King swaggers through the closest thing he manages to a good old fashioned love song. It’s just as warped and uncomfortably deranged as the other songs here, but using a more conventional structure manages to worm its way into the memory.
While country music doesn’t seem any closer to resolving its intractable image problems, Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo manage to smuggle its soul out of the bloated excesses of the Grand Old Opry and install it somewhere in downtown Falkirk. The resulting tumble of blasted ballads, twisted spirituals and good-time rock and roll are proud to come from the wreckage of that once proud genre but are delivered with a cynical sneer which all those emerging hipster rock bands can only dream of perfecting. Ultimately, the “Control Horses” EP is self-assured, grimly humourous and dangerously addictive listening.
Adam Stafford is no stranger to writing experimental and challenging music which deviates from the usual structure of the rock song, as evidenced on the entirely acappella “Awnings” project. Here on “Slam Your Doors in Golden Silence” he takes on the challenge of writing four pieces for film, dispensing entirely with his distinctive vocals. In distinct contrast to the Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo side, these accompanying tracks are a more restrained affair, but remain surprisingly accessible. “Where Cuckoos Will Spend The Winter (Will Soon Be Revealed)” is essentially built around a trio of guitar lines – a pensively plucked rhythm which plays host to a delicately pretty repeated motif and a wandering, echo-laden solo. These intertwining themes enter and leave the piece with the spaces filled by a shifting buzz of feedback which is never allowed to get out of control. “Working Hard to Breathe” centres on two jangling, nagging guitar notes while a glacially slow bassline shores up the piece. Perhaps the most distinctive link to Adam Stafford‘s more familiar solo material is the twisting lead guitar lines which dance around these elements. The sinister hum which shifts around the reverberating bass and guitar of “Vessels Shifted” has something of a David Lynch quality to it. An unsettling soundscape, with snatches of indecipherable speech in the background which have the uncomfortable air of a fevered, long-forgotten Reichsparteitag speech. Finally “Temperatures Will Respond” twinkles into being – a cascade of glassy, high-register guitar notes accompanied by plangent and sinister bass. The elements of the piece coalesce around the simple melody, additional guitar parts joining to shore things up as they build towards a cliff-edge, heart-in-mouth ending.
There is an overly simplistic view that instrumental music – and especially music written for film – is as simple as removing the words from a traditional composition. Of course it’s not, and the discipline and restraint shown throughout these four pieces betrays Stafford‘s skill as a film-maker as much as his musicianship. The best soundtracks are able to augment and support what occurs on-screen without dominating or distracting the emotional focus. These pieces manage that ably, but also stand up as beautiful, intricate and often delicately celebratory pieces in their own right. It’s a side to Adam Stafford that his songs and lyrics often obscure, and if it moves you to look at some of his filmmaking too then it’s work is done.
“Control Horses” and “Slam Your Doors in Golden Silence” will be issued as a split EP on limited edition orange cassette with an aqua case on August 23rd via Wiseblood Industries.
Things have been a little quiet hereabouts lately, which is no reflection on the quantity or quality of music which is around. It’s more to do with the inevitable intrusions of real life and the ongoing crisis of confidence which besets me when I try to put fingers to keyboard. But then, something comes along which absolutely compels me to write – and this is just such a record. The next in a series of remarkable releases by Gerry Loves Records returns to vinyl after a dalliance with the cassette, and also preserves their approach of splitting a release across two artists. From the moment the record is unpacked that sense of something special begins, with a wonderfully understated old-school folded sleeve with photographs of each artist mounted on their respective side. I’ve written before about the sense of event which comes with receiving a physical release, particularly one that maybe you’ve anticipated for a while, and this does the job perfectly. This time around Gerry Loves have chosen to work with two solo talents who might be more familiar from their band related incarnations. Rick Redbeard is the voice behind the mesmerising and complex Phantom Band, but taking a more spartan approach here becomes the acoustic troubadour displaying a side less seen of his vocal talents. Meanwhile, Adam Stafford formerly of Y’All Is Fantasy Island is less of a stranger to releasing his own music – but he too appears to have taken a different approach to the pair of tracks featured here.
“Now We’re Dancing” is a gorgeously woozy waltz, shuffling in with delicate guitars and ticking woodblocks Redbeard‘s voice is arresting from the outset. Redolent of an on-form Bill Callahan or Sean Byrne the delivery is carefully paced, there is a touch of familiarity from the Phantom Band but the slower pace and gentler instrumentation allows the depth, clarity and emotional gravity of his voice to be fully heard for perhaps the first time. As the song rolls along, delicate flecks of electric guitar and a wash of accordion support Rick‘s rich and emotive vocals. Lyrically, there is openness and simplicity in the storytelling here, laced with a wry humour and the knack of turning in a memorable chorus. The second, downloadable selection here is “All Of My Love” – a similarly paced track where Redbeard adopts a gently gloomy, electric blues which perfectly pairs with his lyrics of aging, regret and frustration. At points where his rich, deep voice echoes around the sparse corners of the song and he spins lyrics such as “I lived a lifetime of burial/before I was called to arise at your feet“, there is a strangely ancient, biblical quality to things. As the slow-burning lament develops it gains funereal drums and a gnarled electric guitar line which build towards an emotionally drained, tear-stained ending.
Flipping sides, and on “Vanishing Tanks” a knot of chiming guitars accompanies Stafford‘s clear, clarion-call vocals and looped beatboxing, providing a remarkably full sound despite it’s simplicity and sparsity in terms of instrumentation. As such it provides the bridge between the complex acapella oddness of his self-released “Awnings” project and the more accessible guitar-led songs from last year’s “Build A Harbour Immediately” album. Stafford is in fine voice throughout, especially on the almost gospel-like refrain of “won’t let you walk your way out of here now” which is eventually left to close the track alone as the guitars shudder to a halt. The lyrics are otherwise impenetrable and strangely intriguing, weaving a narrative of dissociation and discomfort. The download version of the single pairs this with “Russian Glass” which shudders in with a beautifully dizzy mess of new wave guitar noise and chugging bass. Again Stafford‘s vocal takes centre stage, reaching melodic highs and dipping to meet the hollow, reverb-drenched guitar solo which arrives. It makes for a shimmering, almost spectrally epic tone to proceedings and there’s a sense the track could have continued beyond it’s three minutes or so, if not constrained by the format. There is a soulful quality to both of these tracks which extends the subversion of musical styles which began on the last album, and if this pair of tracks hint at further new material, seems likely to continue.
Yet again there is a sense that Gerry Loves Records have captured a snapshot of the moment with a release which manages to be both reassuringly earthbound and edgily experimental all at once. These two artists, while plotting very different courses through the current musical landscape, seem to share a determination to do things pretty much how they want to with little sense of being like anything else happening just now. Across the four tracks here you’ll find blues, gospel, spirituals and scratchy punk rock, all tumbling over each other to allow Stafford and Redbeard to express their musical ideas. Releases this packed with innovation don’t come along very often, and when they do they’re rarely this accessible and well-crafted.
The split single is available now from Gerry Loves Records and comes complete with a download code which allows you to obtain all four tracks. You can also see live videos of both Adam Stafford and Rick Redbeard‘s tracks.
Around this time of year, it’s going to be hard to peruse any blog without bumping into an ‘end of year list’. I’m undecided on their value in some ways – they are naturally pretty subjective and limited by individual bloggers’ tastes and attitudes. It’s also going to end up a summary of the content of the blog over the past twelve months if, like me, you write fairly exclusively about music you find interesting or inspiring. Then there are the rules – what qualifies, what doesn’t – a veritable trainspotter’s delight of technicalities, sub-clauses and exceptions to twist their favourite releases into the framework. In short, it’s a complicated and confusing time of year for the christmas party gig-addled blogger.
But since the mainstream press will be full of their own backslapping efforts to appear to be defining the zeitgeist, I’m a little less concerned about this happening on blogs and podcasts. It redresses the balance a little, and reading these lists on sites with which I generally find I’m musically compatible provides an opportunity to check what I’ve missed. It was this sort of thing which led me to Timber Timbre and Aidan Knight in the past. If nothing else I hope that this list points someone to something they’ve missed and they give it a spin too. I’ve said it before, but this blog is after all the internet expression of yelling at your pals that you “just heard something amazing!”
So what are the rules for the Songs Heard on Fast Trains list for 2011? Pretty simple, this is a list of full-length releases which I’ve listened to most, returned to most often and which I’ll carry forward as essential listening into the new year. It’s a very personal, highly skewed list I have to admit. There are some very honourable omissions, and because for the sake of my sanity the list has only twenty places, because as an arguably fairly normal human being there are things I love more than others – but this doesn’t stop me loving them too. The order of the list is based on nothing more than the impact the releases have had on me – there is no science here, aside from a cursory glance at last.fm to see if my suspicions on what I’ve listened to most are founded in fact or fantasy. There could equally be a list for singles and EPs, gigs or other stuff – but there are still interesting records being released in 2011, so I might get distracted and write about those instead.
So, without further rambling or self-justification here is the list. It’s been a strange and interesting year for me, and the music below has been the soundtrack. Here’s to the next one!
- King Creosote & Jon Hopkins – Diamond Mine
- FOUND – Factorycraft
- Edinburgh School for the Deaf – New Youth Bible
- Rob St.John – Weald
- Beerjacket – The White Feather Trail
- Conquering Animal Sound – Kammerspiel
- The John Knox Sex Club – Raise Ravens
- Adam Stafford – Build a Harbour Immediately
- The Shivers – More
- The Moth & The Mirror – Honestly, This World
- Song of Return – Limits
- White Heath – Take No Thought For Tomorrow
- Slow Club – Paradise
- Jonnie Common – Master of None
- Pensioner – Yearlings
- The Renderers – A Rocket Into Nothing
- I Build Collapsible Mountains – The Spectator and the Act
- King Post Kitsch – The Party’s Over
- Timber Timbre – Creep On Creepin’ On
- Lonely Tourist – Sir, I Am A Good Man
Some honourable mentions too, to Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat, Come on Gang!, Edward Gray, Martin John Henry, The Son(s), Happy Particles and United Fruit who made me struggle with the idea of this being a Top 25, or even a Top 30. No doubt these artists will be appearing in lists everywhere – and maybe here in the near future too.
For my last night up here I’d managed to find a pretty special event. These are busy times it seems, and with the huge amount of records being released in the next few weeks, along with the sheer number of great gigs tonight I almost wondered if I’d made the right choice at first. Nursing a headache and the beginnings of a cold, having managed to get soaked struggling over to the Southside earlier, I was feeling a little lacklustre and sorry for myself to be honest. Stereo was also pretty packed when I arrived, with a curious mixture of hipsters and diners. I decided to head down to the venue space early just to have a look around and a quiet pint away from the chatter and noise. It didn’t take long for me to realise that I’d made absolutely the right decision tonight after all, and I prepared for a very different kind of noise.
I’ve detailed elsewhere how I never quite got to see Y’all Is Fantasy Island and how that is matter of great personal regret. So I was pretty excited to see that Adam Stafford was one of Martin John Henry‘s chosen supports for this pretty special album launch show. Coming swiftly after the release of Adam‘s own record, which is packed full of surprisingly accessible if occasionally challenging songs, this evening couldn’t have been timed better. Tonight though, it’s just Adam stalking the spacious stage as he begins to manipulate the various gadgets and loop pedals. Slowly, surely the sounds morph into a tortured take on “Step Up Raise Hands” from his recent record “Build A Harbour Immediately”. Gone is the lo-fi funk riffing, and instead we have an epic, shoegazey noise built from vocal loops and slashes of guitar. Slowed to a glacial pace, the repeating sounds are damaged and imperfect, but they build into a strange sheen of noise. Then, as Adam‘s voice begins to impersonate a siren, it’s hard not to hear phantom sounds in the spaces and silences. Also from the record, but more immediately recognisable is “Shot Down You Summer Wannabes”. The treatment this time is near symphonic – and it’s clear that in Stafford‘s hands the loop pedal isn’t just an agent of soulless repetition. In fact working with it is an organic, physical process – visible particularly as he grows in stature to deliver soaring high notes and jerks erratically around the stage to his own vocal rhythms – pausing only to suggestively rub against the mid-stage pillar. This is an intense, intricate performance which creates so much complexity and texture from so little that it’s hard to believe at points that it is indeed just Stafford playing. As he leaves the stage after far too short a set, it strikes me there is something rather anachronistic about Stafford – impeccably turned out for the event, faultlessly polite, intelligent and inventive. Your everyday rock star he isn’t, and that is something to be celebrated.
I’d also been curious to finally get to see The Seventeenth Century. Following a couple of EPs of often delicate and rather restrained traditional songs, they came across immediately as surprisingly animated given their formal delivery on record. Having been holed up for some time working on a debut album, there is a sense that this rare live outing in recent times has an added edge. Songs take on longer, more progressive forms and “Banks of Home” delivers a spirited, aggressive and emotional take on folk music with more than a nod to more experimental, post rock soundscapes too. “Young Francis” retains it’s military air, but degenerates into a wild reeling ending, with the violin being sawed angrily until the bow sheds horsehair while the tune is anchored by some virtuoso horn playing. Having seen the band play like this, I hope that some of the energy finds its way into the album recording. The EPs have been fine, but their painstaking formality doesn’t fully convey how powerful and emotionally affecting the band can be in full flight. Tonights performance, in this respect at least, was something of a revelation.
Having seen Martin John Henry‘s nervous but engaging performance at Homegame, I’d been looking forward to the release of his debut album “The Other Half of Everything” for a while now and wondering just how that quiet, introspective set would transform on record. Well, for starters Henry takes the stage tonight with a full band – a proper rock band in fact which managed to churn out some impressively loud and focused backdrops to his intriguing and sometimes dark lyrics. Alongside the more traditional bass, drums and guitar set-up Martin operated a small bank of electronics which add a further dimension to the sound and drive some of the songs relentlessly forward. The band slips effortlessly from opener “Breathing Space” into the pensive and dramatic “First Light” which works up to some crashing chords before ending with a weirdly funky section. The band are clearly loving every minute of this, and seem to throw every ounce of energy into the performance. Having seen De Rosa once many years back and posthumously enjoyed their records, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons. If anything, the band tonight are a little tighter and sharper focused than De Rosa in a live setting, but Henry‘s songwriting is equally emotive and benefits hugely from this direct approach. Current single “Ribbon On A Bough” is far noisier and punchier here than on record, its singalong chorus and head-bobbingly catchy riff delighting an impressively large audience considering the competition in terms of gigs across town tonight. Finally “There’s A Phantom Hiding In My Loft” closes the set, a shimmering and epic final tune which showcases some of the electronic trickery too. Martin John Henry is still the humble character who quietly captured hearts with his songs in Fife, but tonight he’s earned the right to defiantly blast this new material at the world.
And so my short visit to Glasgow comes to an end – and what a way to see it to a close! With my ears still ringing, I pick my way through the Saturday night crowds, discarded fish suppers and general debauchery around Central Station and head home. It’s been, as ever, a bit of a rollercoaster ride through the local music scene over the past few days – and long may these trips continue.
In my wilderness years where I was almost entirely out of touch with much in the way of contemporary music, I’d often find myself wandering around Glasgow and spotting that Y’all Is Fantasy Island were playing somewhere – everywhere in fact, as they popped up in every corner of the city at seemingly regular intervals. I often thought to myself it was a ridiculous name for a band, but a strangely intriguing one too. Somehow it stuck in my mind and I resolved one day to follow up on the instinct and check them out. Indeed a couple of years later I finally found myself devouring their albums and hoping I got to see them play at some point. I never managed to, as the band unfortunately went on indefinite hiatus somewhere along the line and finally, quietly announced their demise during 2010. Aside from some instrumental work for films, this is the first solo record proper by Adam Stafford – the songwriter-in-chief and creative force behind almost all of YiFI‘s rather fine back catalogue. Again though, I approached this with perhaps a little trepidation – some of Stafford‘s output in the interim has been challengingly experimental or downright contrary – part of what attracts me to his music I’m sure in some ways, but not always an easy listen by any standard. However what hooked me into YiFI over and over again was his ability to deliver strange, sometimes complicated stories in the space of a song, and “Build A Harbour Immediately” is full of those moments.
The first hint of how this album might sound came with “Fire & Theft” which was perhaps an impossibly easy choice for the single with its infectious, joyous pop and sinister undertones. In many ways this is the most YiFI-like track of the entire album too, with it’s nagging, echo laden guitar hook running throughout. Touches of apocalyptic paranoia flit through the lyrics, sung in the weirdly chipper tone of the genuine fanatic, and topped with a curious sing-song chorus at the song’s ending. It’s a weirdly happy song which hints at underlying doubt and fear with it’s “steely voice to whip your bones” a clue about what’s to come perhaps? Meanwhile, “Cathedrals” is a gentler paced rumination on time, change and the complexities of relationships, taking a fairly oblique and perhaps longer view than the average throwaway love song. A duet of sorts, the complicated guitar parts are gently embellished with strings, which build towards a portentous but restrained ending. True to the track’s name, it’s hard not to envisage lofty ceilings, skyward swooping buttresses and shafts of light through stained glass with the atmosphere created here, while Stafford‘s voice occasionally drops to a low growl here before soaring to impossible heights in the chorus.
I remember an earlier version of “Police No Speech” surfacing on a compilation which was stark and empty, with Stafford‘s voice unnervingly close to your ear. This version is sweetened somewhat by background flashes of steel guitar and a female vocal foil, but it retains the sense of unease in it’s genuinely disturbing lyric. The incongruence is disquietening, with the melancholy but delicate tune playing on as an uncertain but unspecifically horrifying tale unfolds – a break into a home by family members, grooming, burn marks on the stairlift, the smell of death and lilies. Just enough detail to make things uncomfortable, but not enough to sate curiousity – and here, in the techniques which deliver the spine-tingling chill of the best mysteries, Stafford‘s literary qualities shine through. Thinking back to some of the experimental post-YiFI work, much of this centred on Stafford experimenting with using his voice as the sole instrument. “Shot Down You Summer Wannabes” harks back to this having been a free single release a while back, and is entirely constructed from vocal loops with the addition of a strangely soulful lead vocal. It’s a neat trick perhaps, because if this epic, almost-gospel piece had been recorded with traditional rock band instruments, it would have been all too easy to end up with an overblown and cloying outcome. Instead we have a fragile, strange and engaging song. The soul undertones persist into “Step Up, Raise Hands” which is one of those songs which should be a chart-topping hit in another universe. It’s a surprisingly straightforward, but encouragingly low budget Motown stomp – but even here among exhortations to “dance like you’re born again” there are the dark edges which mark Stafford‘s often baleful presence as he threatens to “force my face into the crotch of the monograph“. A shredding guitar solo utterly defies the soul element for a moment, and I’m again struck by the joy of Adam’s singing – his voice much more assured given the space and stylistic variation of these songs. This is absurdly catchy, instantly memorable pop music. It probably wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but I’m damn glad it’s here!
“Build A Harbour Immediately” drifts in with delicate, duelling guitar melodies – one on target, the other out of focus and off-key. Stafford adopts a Dylanesque drawl here, which is then manipulated and twisted to become am eerie moan. Meanwhile an operatic backing vocal keens and soars before receiving the same distorting treatment. It’s a strange parody of prettiness – an uneasy form given to familiar elements. Likewise, it makes virtually no sense at all to describe something as an ‘acapella instrumemtal’ but that’s exactly what “Frederick Wiseman” is. On the surface, just a shimmering chorus of looped backing voices, doubling and building until a swooning lead vocal soars over the backdrop. Eventually the voice falls away, leaving the chattering loops to decay into sinister whispers, which remind me of the highly dubious Electronic Voice Phenomena that all the best ghost hunters claim to receive. Not for the first time on my eerily quiet morning train I find myself looking over my shoulder down the empty carriage. The preponderance of the word ‘crystal’ in band and song names just now is odd, but here it is saved to appropriately describe the epic closing soundscape of “A Vast Crystal Skull”. Issued in with a suitably shimmering, brittle opening things develop with a cinematic, road movie sweep. I first heard this track on a slightly miserable tilting run up the Clyde valley, with dark skies with fast moving silver clouds casting shadows on the valley floor provided curiously fitting scenes. Given space and freedom again here, Stafford‘s voice dips and soars, arcing over the atmospherics, most particularly the uplifting sweeps of slide guitar which spiral skywards.
The revelation across all of these varied and complex songs is Stafford‘s mutable, often powerful and hugely versatile voice. in the confines of YiFI it seems Adam often had a little less space to explore this, as he was forced to up the pace to match the harder-edged sound they began to develop, losing some of the finer vocal qualities. However, on “Build A Harbour Immediately” it’s given free rein to twist oddly, whisper strangely – and sometimes to just belt out a soulful tune. This collection of songs is almost disconcertingly diverse, often lyrical and packed tight with ideas which threaten to burst out of the songs which contain them. Close to some of his finest work here, Stafford is a remarkable songwriter capable of delivering chillingly observed and sometimes far from easy-to-digest stories, whether in the shape of tight, literate pop music or the more expansive and experimental elements he employs. I get a feeling that this going to be one of those releases which ends up all over the end-of-year lists.
“Build A Harbour Immediately” is available as a digital release and a limited edition yellow tape now from Wiseblood Industries. It will receive it’s official launch on 20th August at Stereo in Glasgow, alongside Paws, Miaoux Miaoux and Mondegreen at “Ayetunes vs. Peenko 4 – The Revenge“. You can also find the entirety of YiFI‘s output in a single download costing absolutely nothing here.