Friday, June 27, 2008

London record shops 1: Pure Groove

So here’s another Daily Growl occasional series. It’ll probably be less regular than Singles going steady, but hopefully a lot more frequent than Whatever happened to…. We’ll see. As the title may suggest, it’s quite simple – all about London record shops. The plan is to compile a sort of guide to record shops in the capital and and buy some good stuff along the way. Some of them will be shops I frequent, others will be new to me, which will be part of the fun. So here goes.

First up is Pure Groove, perhaps appropriately, since they’ve recently closed their long-standing Archway store and opened a brand spanking new one, more centrally in Smithfields, with a fresh new concept, a sparkly new website and an impressive list of instore performances.

I’m going to fit the review of the shop into a sort of template that I’ll probably use for the other shops I’ll write about in future. Let’s see how it goes…

The bare necessities:

Pure Groove, 6-7 West Smithfield, London EC1A 9JX

What type of music?

Pure Groove has its roots in dance music vinyl, but for as long as I’ve known it (two or three years) it’s been providing an eclectic range of indie music to the citizens of North London and beyond. Basically the sort of music that say, readers of Drowned in Sound or Pitchfork would like. Or maybe readers of The Daily Growl. Or me. They’ve also been known for championing new bands, particularly bands from London, and have given prominence to them on the website and in the shop racks.

What’s the shop like?

Clean and bright, pretty boxfresh, though that’s not surprising given that it’s been open for less than a month. There’s good natural light coming in through the huge front windows. Given the unique stock / display concept (see next question), there’s a lot of space in the main floor, with all the CDs and records along one wall, leaving space for seats, magazines and temporary art exhibitions – on my recent visits there were early 90s My Bloody Valentine concert photos hanging from the ceiling in big frames. The walls were decorated with some fresh graffiti murals. Actually, all that I’ve described might make it sound like an upmarket boutique, which may be slightly off-putting to some casual customers. Who knows? Aesthetically, I quite liked it.

Good stock?

This is the most interesting thing about the new Pure Groove. They have a new concept which will either make or break them. Rather than having racks of the latest CD and vinyl releases, with a bit of credible back catalogue stuff, they’ve gone for a display of a pre-selected ‘Pure Groove 100’, which is 100 releases – singles or albums, on CD or vinyl – which they have deemed to be good and worthy of selling. That’s it. Nothing else. All are neatly displayed on a large frame running along one of the shop walls, like a gallery display with the copies for purchase in narrow racks underneath. So no point going in and asking for the new album from whoever, because if it’s not in the 100, it’s not in the shop.

On one hand I admire this kind of retail audacity. It’ll probably go down well with either the kids who want to be reassured that they’re listening to the best cool new stuff, of the slightly older person who just doesn’t have the time to check out all the latest releases, and wants quality recommendations which are both good and will give them some credibility. The latter's probably a similar group to those served by the Rough Trade Album club. It’s also good to see a shop not only making clear statements about what think is good, but actively promoting new music that they believe in.

On the other hand, it may be commercial suicide, with punters being put off by perceived snobbery and lack of what they’re actually looking for. Although West Smithfield is more central than Archway, it’s still off the beaten track, and given that they’re not going to be relying on passing trade (unless there’s a load of Smithfield Market butchers with a taste in HEALTH vinyl) they’re presumably relying on being a destination shop, where the customers either want to be surprised and recommended something new and exciting, or already know what’s on the sale list. Maybe the staff are trained in negotiation skills, so that when the kids come in wanting Pigeon Detectives CDs, they leave thoroughly convinced that what they really needed was a Collapsing Buildings 7 inch.

Friendly staff?

Given the pre-set stock list, opportunities for interaction with the staff are more limited than other record shops, since there’s none of the “Do you have any X?,” or “where do I find Y?” questions. However, in having brief chats on both my recent visits with staff there, they seemed amenable and friendly enough, and quite proud of their new top 100.

Other stuff of note

Instore gigs are a real strength. In the absence of any live action at Rough Trade East of late, Pure Groove are certainly filling that gap admirably. From their opening night sets from Mystery Jets and Jeremy Warmsley, they’ve kept up the quality live action with sets from Lykke Li, HEALTH and White Williams among others. Upcoming there’s Edwyn Collins, Micah P Hinson and Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip.

They also sell a range of merchdise – mainly t-shirts, postcards and other stuff. I wonder how much of a market there is for We Smoke Fags necklaces though.

The website’s pretty good. They’ve dropped the old Pure Groove Digital download shop and replaced it with a load of decent free downloads, with an accompanying featured free download every other day. There's more web action with PGTV which shows clips of live instores and other performances.

Points off though for not having a CD player and record deck for listening to music on. It’s all very well recommending the 100, but do we actually get to hear it? OK, they might put it on the shop system if asked nicely, but what if it’s a busy Saturday afternoon? Or maybe they’re just not expecting to be that busy.

My reservations aside, it’s definitely worth a visit. I found plenty stuff I wanted to buy, I parted with cash on both my recent visits and I will be back. Here are samples from some of the records and CDs I bought.

Download: Mystery Jets – Somewhere in my Heart
Download: Esser – Long Arms
Download: Fleet Foxes – Ragged Wood

Mystery Jets try but fail to capture the magic of the Aztec Camera Original on this Two Doors Down b-side, but hopefully this will raise the profile of Roddy Frames wonderful band with the kids. Long Arms is decent enough, but not a patch on the a-side, the brilliant I Love You. And here’s a song from the big-selling Fleet Foxes (number 11 this week, y’know). I should really do a proper review of this album, but can’t really be bothered. Suffice to say that I love harmonies and I love this album.

Radiohead @ Victoria Park, 25 June 2008

It’s been an issue at Radiohead gigs since the start of the decade, but I wondered again on Wednesday night how many people in the 20,000-strong crowd in Victoria Park last night really just wanted stadium singalongs. If they did, they got a chunk of these in a crowd-pleasing first encore, but generally it wasn’t a sing-along type of gig. Radiohead gigs never are now– after all, there have been four albums since OK Computer, none of them populated with group song moments.

I also wondered if there are 90s-period Radiohead fans who keep on going to their gigs, in the vain hope that Thom Yorke and co will recant their wayward ways and give us the big chords again. Anyway, given all this, and despite a few complaints about the crowd by other folk, we seemed to land fortunately next to some hardcore Radiohead fans – the sort who sing along and jump around to Idioteque. My kind of people.

I thought I had given up on gigs of this size. I haven’t been anywhere bigger than Shepherd’s Bush Empire for a few years now, but I made an exception for this one, because it was Radiohead, because I love In Rainbows so much and was desperate to hear them playing it, and because it’s nice to go to a gig less than 10 minutes walk from my house. For a show on such a huge scale it was unexpectedly hugely enjoyable. Maybe it was the lovely summer’s evening and the way the site was set up that got me into a festival mindset, even though I don’t even go to festivals this big any more.

Up on the massive stage, we had a dazzling light and film display, the thundering bass and crazy dancing of Idioteque, the rockingly reworked Myxomatosis and 2+2=5, and the whole of In Rainbows – all of which sounded amazing but 15 Step and Bodysnatchers were particularly spine-tingling moments for me. Heck, I even sang along to Karma Police, and I never sing along at gigs. That’s getting into the spirit of things. 11 years on from OK Computer, Radiohead are still a band very much at the top of their game. It makes me happy that a band of this size is still so consistently exciting, intriguing and pushing new directions. In fact the more they go on, the more distance opens up between them and their arena-inclined copyists. Despite being in the middle of a huge international tour, the performance was energetic and spot-on, and the only complaint that I could possibly raise about the whole gig was Thom Yorke’s dodgy red trousers. So good times in Victoria Park, a thrilling show and excited anticipation of Radiohead's next moves...

Download: Radiohead – The National Anthem
Download: Radiohead – Bodysnatchers
Download: Radiohead – Idoteque
Download: Radiohead – Karma Police

Set list after the pic (hard to beat this, IMO)

1. Reckoner
2. 15 Step
3. There There
4. All I Need
5. Lucky
6. Nude
7. Weird Fishes / Arpeggi
8. Myxomatosis
9. National Anthem
10. Faust Arp
11. No Surprises
12. Jigsaw Falling Into Place
13. Optimistic
14. Videotape
15. Everything In Its Right Place
16. Idioteque
17. Bodysnatchers

Encore 1

18. House of Cards
19. The Bends
20. Bangers & Mash
21. My Iron Lung
22. Karma Police

Encore 2

23. Go Slowly
24. 2+2=5
25. Paranoid Android

For more Radiohead tour-centric stats super-nerdishness, check out this. If you’re in Manchester or Glasgow, predict your set lists!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

If you do it again, I'm gonna freak out

This loose-limbed disco monster was one of my tunes of last year. Ever since it appeared on the b-side of All My Friends, it's been on steady rotation round my way ever since. This morning on the way to work I was reminded yet again of how awesome it is. So I thought I'd post it for your listening pleasure.

Download: LCD Soundsystem - Freak Out / Starry Eyes

In related news, I saw 45:33 for five quid in Fopp today. If you've not got it, you'd be mad not to.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Half-handed Cloud again

A couple of weeks ago I plugged the upcoming event this Thursday folks! – which is a collaboration between my friends David and Ping* aka The Henningham Family Press and Californian multi-instrumentalist and all round nice guy (I know, I met him last night) John Ringhoffer aka Half-handed Cloud.

Back then I had only heard the four tracks available off the Asthmatic Kitty website, but in the intervening period I’ve been lent a copy of his latest album Halos and Lassos and it’s been bringing me a lot of pleasure. 19 tracks in 29 minutes will give you an idea that Ringhoffer doesn’t lean in a prog direction. His songs are short, sweet and packed with tunes, various odd instruments and lyrics which take you from cars, to God, to sheep, to paper airplanes and beyond. It’s worth stopping and listening to what he’s singing about. And he plays the Omnichord. Anyone who plays the Omnichord is worth a listen in my book.

So, a great little album and it’s whetted my appetite for more. Thankfully the Asthmatic Kitty shop can meet that need. And though John’s back catalogue of experimental pop may be rich and impressive, he’ll be playing none of it down The Foundry on Thursday night. It’ll all be new stuff, and the whole music/printing/12 foot vinyl record-making thing is nothing if not intriguing. Should be a great evening.

Download: Half-handed Cloud – A Picnic Few Want to Attend
Download: Half-handed Cloud – Praise Awaits You

Friday, June 20, 2008

Whatever happened to… Ella Guru

In March last year, I wrote the only previous post in this very occasional series, but it was quite successful. Back then I wondered out loud what had happened to Lincoln, north London’s finest Americana outfit and slowly, over time some news came in, eventually from some band members themselves. If you’re interested in that story, you can read it here, but today I’ve got another band that seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth.

They are (or were) Ella Guru, a seven-piece group from Liverpool who did a similar line in melodic low-key Americana to Lincoln, or maybe like a slightly fuzzier Lambchop without the soul stylings. I first encountered them in 2003 via a 3-track EP in a nice cardboard sleeve that I picked up in Flashback Records on Essex Road. It had three songs, all of them great. In a way, it’s a perfect representation of the band – there are two songs which are quiet and lovely, slow and measured, with a sublime blend of instruments and male/female vocals; and there's one track where they up the pace a bit and deliver a rolling country-pop gem. On Ella Guru’s 2004 debut album called – plainly enough – The First Album, there’s a similar balance. Mostly downbeat and gorgeous, but with the occasional foray into more up-tempo country. It’s mainly an album for late nights. Even the tracks with names like This is My Rock & Roll and Got My Mojo Workin’ can’t muster a roar or a guitar solo, but of course this is a good thing.

Although there was a subsequent single Park Lake Speakers, it seems that The First Album was also the last album. The Ella Guru website is still there, but there’s been no activity on it since December 2005. There’s no Wikipedia page either (or more likely, it’s been deleted – I’m sure I saw one a while back) and since the name Ella Guru is taken from Trout Mask Replica, Googling them gives a load of Captain Beefheart links, as well as info about the artist who’s taken the same name. So very little info out there on what happened to this great band. I’m assuming that they’ve split up, but would be delighted to hear that they haven’t. Whatever, hit me with the news – I’m all ears.

Since the 3 Songs From Liverpool EP doesn’t seem to be available anywhere, here are all three tracks

Download: Ella Guru – On a Beach
Download: Ella Guru – On a Boat
Download: Ella Guru – Strugglin’ Horse in Hollywood

Download: Ella Guru – Park Lake Speakers

The last track above is from The First Album. You can download the whole album from emusic – I strongly recommend that you do.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Welcome to Our TV Show! Episode 5!

If it’s another month, it’s surely time for another Welcome to our TV Show. This month Jeremy and Fay have gone for a corporate tie-in and given us a label showcase. Happily it’s the ever-ace Moshi Moshi records that’s getting the WTOTS big-up and we’ve got three of their best – The Wave Pictures, Hot Club de Paris and Slow Club playing in the Warmsley-Buzzard lounge.

I need say no more about The Wave Pictures, because they’re already big DG favourites and I’ve said plenty already. Suffice to say that the acoustic version of Now You Are Pregnant is reliably excellent.

Slow Club have been only mentioned in passing here before, though their track Sunday was in my list of top tunes of last year. Their thing is cute ‘n’ charming boy-girl indiepop and even though they’ll probably never blow your socks off, they’ll certainly put a smile on your face, and usually that’s all you need. Their quirky little song When I Go is another of these mouth-turning numbers.

Hot Club de Paris are a band that I’ve never really listened to – not that they’re bad or anything, just that there’s too much music in the world, and sometimes even the decent gets overlooked. Here the amiable Scousers joke their way through a couple of false starts to deliver an acoustic rendition of new song This Thing Forever. Sounds good. I should investigate further.

Behold the videos:

Wave Pictures and Hot Club

Slow Club and some Fresh Prince of Bel-Air tomfoolery

And again, thanks to the good man himself, here are the mp3s.

Download: The Wave Pictures – Now You Are Pregnant (live on WTOTS)
Download: Hot Club de Paris – This Thing Forever (live on WTOTS)
Download: Slow Club – When I Go (live on WTOTS)

Not seen WTOTS before? Check out episode 1, 2, 3 and 4.

The Wave Pictures album Instant Coffee Baby is out now. It's ace, like I said before. Hot Club de Paris' new album Live at Dead Lake is out this week - download from emusic. Slow Club don't have anything out at the moment that I can see, but you can download their 2007 single Me and You from emusic. They've also done a wonderful cover of The Mae Shi's Run to Your Grave - get it from funfunfun.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Wildbirds & Peacedrums

Here’s something for folks who like their music a bit stripped down and raw. Regular readers of this blog will know that I often like my music unencumbered by unnecessary embellishments, but Wildbirds and Peacedrums take this ethic to (almost) its natural conclusion. Their template is simple: voice and drums. That’s it. But what a voice. Its owner is Mariam Wallentin, graduate of Gothenburg’s Academy of Music and Drama, and she’s got an amazing range – she can do everything from soaring soul inflections to tortured wail. And the drums, hit by Mariam’s husband Andreas Werliin are pretty impressive too.

I don’t need to give you any more info about the couple/band, because there’s heaps on this Drowned in Sound interview. What you do need to know is that their album Heartcore is a remarkable thing. It was actually recorded a couple of years ago, but only came out here at the end of April on The Leaf Label. If anyone was waiting for it, it was worth it. For the rest of us, we can be grateful that it’s got a release and we can hear it in all its rhythmic, haunting and soulful glory.

Sure enough, Andreas and Mariam throw the odd extra instrument into the mix – glockenspiels, sitars and zithers are used – but it’s still beautifully simple. From the gorgeous downbeat ballad I Can’t Tell in His Eyes to propulsive percussion of The Way Things Go it’s all stirring stuff. It may be a bit what Bjork would sound like if she lost the numbers of her hotshot producers, or what if Shara ‘My Brightest Diamond’ Worden would end up with if she was stranded on a desert island with only a drum for company. Highly recommended.

Download: Wildbirds & Peacedrums – I Can’t Tell in His Eyes
Download: Wildbirds & Peacedrums – Pony

Buy Heartcore from Amazon or download from Bleep.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Singles going steady 26: Franz Ferdinand

It seems impossible now, but there was once a time when there was no myspace, when if you heard about a band you were interested in you had to go and actually buy their music to find out. And if they didn't have anything out, you had to go to see them live to discover what the fuss was about. Even more incredibly, this was the situation in the summer of 2003, when I started reading some exciting blurbs about this new band from Glasgow called Franz Ferdinand (along with that picture up top). They had just signed a record deal with Domino and hadn't released anything yet. So when they announced their first proper London headline show - A Night of Music and Dancing with Franz Ferdinand - at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden, I was there for sure.

When me and my friend got there at about half 8, there was no-one in the venue. It was the right night, just that folks hadn't got round to turning up yet. We supped South African beer and watched bemused as support act Simon Bookish threw some crazy shapes along to his laptop. Then a smattering of excitement across the crowd when four dapper chaps took to the stage in front of a projected black and white film. The music had many familiar touchstones - Talking Heads, The Fall, other new wave stuff, but was spun in a fresh and urgent new way. The set was short but thrilling and I knew I'd be hearing more from them soon. And no doubt seeing them in much bigger venues.

Sure enough, the first single Darts of Pleasure was released that autumn and I snapped it up quickly. It was as good as I recalled from the gig. The following January Domino released Take Me Out, with I bought along with thousands of others following a good few months of hype. It was a huge hit, and deservedly so. Though Franz have been consistently good since, they've never really topped these first two singles, which have surely become an aspirational template for thousands of skinny boys with guitars ever since. The next time I saw Alex Kapranos and co, it was at Brixton Academy, part of a triumphant sell-out national tour. Though I've consistently enjoyed their music, nothing has ever topped the excitement of five years ago.

You know the A-sides of these singles too well already. You probably know the b-sides too, but here are some of them anyway.

Download: Franz Ferdinand - Van Tango
Download: Franz Ferdinand - Shopping for Blood
Download: Franz Ferdinand - All For You, Sophia

Buy Franz Stuff from Rough Trade, or download from Bleep.

As you've probably read, the new album's been put back till next year, but they're still tearing up small venues across the country on their current tour. Check out some photos from the Macbeth show in London a couple of weeks back. Here's hoping the third album's worth the wait.

More singles going steady.

Glasvegas - Geraldine

It seems at first like a heartfelt love song, about someone who will be there, even through the hardest times to help, (“I’ll be here at your side to console”), rescue (“When you’re standing on the window ledge, I’ll talk you back from the edge”) protect (“I will be the angel on your shoulder”) and even, against the odds, try to change (“I will turn your tide”). But then there’s the twist. “My name is Geraldine, I’m your social worker”.

It’s the new single from Glasvegas and it’s their already established blend of the confessional lyrics of James Allan and the band’s Ronnettes meets proper old fashioned fuzzed up noisy indie guitar sound. Business as usual there then, except this time it’s their major label debut, after a couple of very limited – now fetching a mint on ebay – 7 inch singles. And as such it’ll have a lot of money thrown at it to make it a hit. No doubt it will be. Good luck to them. I may not be as excited by Glasvegas as I was last year, but they’re still a decent band who sound like no-one else at the moment.

Download: Glasvegas – Geraldine (radio edit)

Pre-order Geraldine from Rough Trade.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Beep Seals

I thought that I’d like The Beep Seals when I heard that Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub had produced their debut album. I was right. It’s easy to see why they asked Norman to be the producer, as the Manchester band are cut from a very similar West Coast-pop-and-harmonies-loving cloth as the Glasgow elder statesmen. They thought that Norman would be just the person to get the harmonies right, but according to the man himself in a recent interview, he reckoned that they had it all pretty much worked out and he spent more time in the pub than guiding proceedings.

Although they’re a relatively recent outfit in their current form, the various members of the Beep Seals have a bit of history in Manchester bands – Ian, Phil and Jack were in the backing band for football and quiz show-friendly tune-maker Jim Noir and Sam used to be in the decent but never-quite-made-it Alfie. They got together as The Beep Seals in 2006 and have been making sweet music since, though the album Things That Roar is the first full-length fruits of their creative endeavours. The tracks that I’ve heard from the record are all effortlessly tuneful, soaring guitar pop, which as a big Fanclub fan is very much up my street. And yes, the harmonies are just right. Top quality stuff.

Download: The Beep Seals – Biting Glass
Download: The Beep Seals – Chariot Song

Things That Roar is out on 23 June. Pre-order from Heron Recordings.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Mumford and Sons

Here’s some new folky goodness for you. Not folky as in the beardy sense, mainly because the kid in Mumford and Sons are probably too young to grow beards. Led by one Marcus Mumford, this west London band peddle a sparkly, breezy, bluegrass-infused folk-pop that’s very similar to Noah and the Whale, or at least what Noah and the Whale sounded like before they headed off in a more shiny pop direction. But hey, there’s plenty of room for both of these bands, particularly when they’re playing such fine music and providing the young folks with happy alternative to spiky guitars and skinny jeans ‘n’ Converse posturing. And for a band who have only been together for about six months, they've arrived remarkably fully-formed.

They've got a new four-track EP out on Chess Club Records on 7 July. All the songs are good. Here's one of them.

Buy the Lend Me Your Eyes EP from your local good record shop (no click to buy links yet).

More White Williams, yeah

It’s been just over a week since White Williams was on here, but it’s worth doing another post, because in the time since the last one, I’ve acquired a copy of Joe Williams’ debut album Smoke, and it’s a total cracker.

It’s chock-full of echoey electro-pop goodness with nods to Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Prince, krautrock, that classic 80s synth sound and even a dash of glam rock. And although Lice in the Rainbow should satisfy those who like a bit of experimental pissing about, the rest of the album heads steadily in a pop direction, with the odd curveball thrown in. There are plenty of hummable tunes on here – In The Club and New Violence have been reverberating round my head all day, with no sign of stopping any time soon. This is a good thing.

Download: White Williams - In the Club
Download: White Williams - Headlines

Smoke is out now on Double Six records. Buy from Rough Trade or download (the US version, which has more tracks) from emusic.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Half-handed Cloud and the Henningham Family Press

Here’s a post on behalf of my friends David and Ping*, who are the Henningham Family Press. They’re putting on an event with Half-Handed Cloud at The Foundry on Old Street on 26 June.

It’s not a gig as such – they describe it as:

“a collaborative music and silkscreen printing project. This project will culminate in a live printing and sing-along event at the Foundry. Half-handed Cloud and the Henningham Family Press will transform the venue’s basement into a 12-foot wide vinyl record player, and use it to perform some new material - never before seen or heard. This event brings together the pressing of a print and the pressing of a vinyl record”

If you’ve not heard of Half-Handed Cloud, he’s also known as John Ringhofer, friend of Sufjan Stevens and sometime member of his backing band. He’s also recently been a touring member of Danielson. John is signed to Asthmatic Kitty who have released his seven albums and EPs, and last time he played in London, Sufjan guested on drums and percussion. This time his famous friend won’t be in tow, but the night at the Foundry promises to be an intriguing one. Hope to see you there…

I’m not very familiar with the music of HHC, but hope to remedy that over the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, here are a couple of tracks. There are more of these free at the Asthmatic Kitty website.

Download: Half-handed Cloud – Animals Are Cut in Two
Download: Half-handed Cloud – We're Very Greatly Loved

Buy HHC stuff from AK. Here’s nice flyer for the event, printed by David and Ping* on their press.

You’ve either got it or you haven’t

There are any number of young bands out there, featuring choppy new wave guitars, incessant drumming and attractive female vocalists. Most of them are a bit rubbish. Stricken City definitely aren’t. Just don’t ask me why. They’ve just got something the others haven’t.

Download: Stricken City – Tak o Tak
Download: Stricken City – The Traveller

On the other hand, I don’t think So So Modern have it. I’ve given the Kiwi band’s spiky electro guitar pop from their new compilation album a few listens now and though they come close, they’re not quite there. They tickle, but don’t really satisfy.

Download: So So Modern – Vulture Kisses
Download: So So Modern – The Love Code

Download the new Stricken City EP for FREE from their website. Two more ace free tracks on their myspace. The So So Modern compilation Friends and Fires + 0000 EPs is out on 7 July on Transgressive Records.

Stricken City video action time!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

I'm in the Norman Blake fanclub

I love Teenage Fanclub. They’re the first band that I really got into, way back in the heady summer of 1991, and their sun-drenched harmonies were the soundtrack to much of my 1990s. So it’s hardly a surprise that despite the disappointments of the last couple of albums, I still hang on their every word, keeping a watch out for movements and any possible good new things.

These days they’re far from prolific on the album front, with only two albums this decade and not much on the horizon. But there is the odd flurry of activity, and right now there’s stuff to report. Firstly, the band are taking to the stage at Oran Mor as part of the Glasgow West End Festival playing three nights – one electric, one acoustic, and one called ‘live obscurities’, which seems to be b-sides and suchlike. This set-up is a little reminiscent of the three nights they played at the Camden Underworld several years ago. I went to the electric one, and it’s still up there in my top five Fanclub gigs ever.

Secondly, Norman Blake is out and about, playing solo shows, mainly in support of Manchester band The Beep Seals, whose new album he produced earlier in the year. It perhaps comes as no surprise that The Beep Seals specialise in the same sort of breezy harmonies that we love the Fanclub for, but more on them another time.

Norman was in Marc Riley’s BBC 6Music studio last Wednesday to play some tunes and have a bit of a chat. The songs are at the bottom of the post, but before that, a couple of further pieces of Norman news from the interview chatter.

He’s about to do a UK tour as part of Daniel Johnston’s band – a veritable indie supergroup put together by Jad Fair, which also includes Scout Niblett , James McNew from Yo La Tengo and Mark Linkous from Sparklehorse. How's that for impressive back-up!

And – wait for it – he even mentioned that Teenage Fanclub were intending to do some recording later in the year. Here’s hoping…

What of the songs?

The first is understandably a Daniel Johnston cover. The second an old Scottish folk song called Banks of Strathdon, and the third is a Blake original, though it too is the fruit of another interesting collaboration. Baby Lee has come out of Burnsong Songhouse, a songwriting project where songwriters are locked in a house in Dumfries and have to write songs together to perform at a show at the end of the week. Norman worked with Jo Mango and Ziggy Campbell from FOUND to create this wee gem. Enjoy!

Download: Norman Blake – Sad and Lonely (live on BBC 6Music)
Download: Norman Blake – Banks of Strathdon (live on BBC 6Music)
Download: Norman Blake – Baby Lee (live on BBC 6Music)

Norman photo from poketo's Flickr.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Bon Iver @ St Giles' church, 4 June 2008

Justin Vernon isn't much of a rock star. None of this 'aren't I great' posturing or strutting of any kind. Quite the opposite in fact. He seems quite humbled and bowled over by the response to his debut album as Bon Iver, the wonderful record with the romantic back-story that has had critics and fans slavering countrywide for the past few months.

There were couple of hundred or so of these fans in the beautiful St Giles-in-the-Fields Church on Wednesday, all part of the (over?) capacity crowd, many straining around poor sight lines to see the burly figure of Vernon on stage with his two-piece band. And what an amazing gig - full of both the expected and the unexpected. What we did expect was to hear For Emma, Forever Ago to be played in its entirety - after all, Bon Iver's repertoire isn't exactly huge. What I didn't quite expect was just how beefed-up and fantastic it sounded. I was ready for Vernon alone on stage with an acoustic guitar. Instead he was tooled-up with a rack of guitars, and his bandmates came with more guitars, multiple drums and effects pedals. The result? An amazing sound enhanced even further the church acoustics.

Justin was alone for only one song - Regard the Stacks (to give it its full name) - which was spine-tinglingly gorgeous, the church so quiet you could hear breathing. But elsewhere, the volume was cranked up, and sounded particularly impressive on the post-rock wig-outs at the end of Wolves and Creature Fear. In fact the last three songs - the aforementioned Re: Stacks and Creature Fear, followed by closing number For Emma, performed unamplified by Justin and the boys in the centre of the crowd, using the acoustics to full effect as they piled on the harmonies - are easily my live highlight of the year so far, maybe even longer.

The applause at the end, as it had been throughout was deafening, heartfelt and long. The standing ovation at the end was even more rapturous. No wonder Justin was bowled over. I wonder how he's going to take it when he plays Shepherd's Bush Empire in September to ten times as many people. He better get used to the praise, because even although this was a special evening that's never going to be replicated, if he keeps up this form he'll be unbeatable.

Download: Bon Iver - Re: Stacks
Download: Bon Iver - Wisconsin

Buy For Emma, Forever Ago from Rough Trade or download from emusic.

Photo from David Emery's Flickr. Have a look at his photos of this gig - they're great. I took some, but they were far from great - too many heads in the way, including David's I think.

Psychedelic Horseshit

Over the past year or so I seem to have come across loads of great bands with bad names. You’ve got to overcome your initial prejudice through appreciating the music. With Psychedelic Horseshit it’s the other way around. You hope that the band’s music is really as good as their name.

The answer is a qualified yes. In talking about Psychedelic Horseshit we’ve got to remember to check all usual expectations of production values. I mean, I generally like my music stripped down and without unnecessary embellishment, but this is taking the piss. The Horseshit (as no-one calls them) share an aesthetic with their fellow Columbus Ohio natives and former labelmates Times New Viking (Matt PH did the sound for TNV on their recent UK trip) which is totally no-frills, hard-on-the-ears noise.

My favourite track off the forthcoming New Wave Hippies EP starts off like a cheap guitar playing inside a tin can, before switching into a decent fuzzy pop song, but even this can’t last – the beats soon overtake the song, everything gets out of kilter and it all collapses prematurely. I have to stress though that this is a GOOD THING. As long as you value some messiness in your music, the Psychedlic Horseshit boys are worth your time.

Download: Psychedelic Horseshit – Silent Speed

The New Wave Hippies 7 inch EP is out on 21 July on Half Machine records – get it from your favourite decent record shop. Download previous PH albums from emusic.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Living the High-Life: The Daily Growl goes all African

When Vampire Weekend released their debut album back at the start of the year, it had many critics reaching for words like High-Life. I wonder how many of the people talking about these words actually knew what they meant. I couldn’t claim to know, so for me to start talking about High-Life and whatever other African genres were being name-dropped would have been a bit fake.

But now I’ve think I’ve got a better idea, mainly through the excellent new compilation Nigeria 70: Lagos Jump, which was recently released on the rejuvenated Strut Records. It’s a great record, with some amazing songs from little-heard artists, all active in 70s Nigeria, where traditional rhythms clashed with rock, soul and jazz coming from Europe and the U.S. What we get is essentially funk, albeit a unique African take on it. Right from the loping grooves of Yabis at the top of the comp, through more exotic sounds, jazzy stylings of Peter King to the seriously ass-shaking funk from The Faces (no that that lot), there’s so much to enjoy here. I may be no nearer to really understanding high-life, but at least I’ve got some brilliant tunes to enjoy.

Download: Sir Shina Peters & His International Stars - Yabis
Download: The Faces - Tug Of War
Download: Bola Johnson & His Easy Life Top Beats - Ezuku Buzo

The second African album of the day is another story altogether. Konono No. 1 from Congo, have ignored the lure of James Brown funk and jazzy sax for something a lot more traditional and inventive. When people get all excited by whatever ‘DIY punk’ scene is the current vogue, they should have a listen instead to these guys. Septuagenarian Congolese musicians with amped-up thumb pianos and various piece of junkyard equipment, complete with pickups, used for percussion. Combine this with crazy African rhythms, spellbinding vocals and even the odd whistle, and you have the recipe for possibly the most organic techno music you’ll ever hear. The first internationally-available Konono No. 1 album was released back in 2005 by Belgian label Crammed Discs. Possibly capitalising on the success of this, there’s been a second and last year they released the live album Live at Couleur Café. That’s the one I have, and it’s great. I get the impression that live is where the action really happens.

Download: Konono No.1 – Zey Isa Langa
Download: Konono No.1 – Mama Na Bana

Buy Nigeria 70 from Amazon or download from emusic. Buy Live at Couleur Café from Amazon.

Shearwater - Rook

At 1:30 into On the Death of the Waters, the first track on Shearwater’s new album Rook, there’s a bit of a surprise. It’s not that I’m unused to the quiet/loud dynamic in music – plenty of bands do it – but here, it seems almost out of character. The gentle opening sets you up for what you think is going to be a piano ballad, but then the guitars and trumpet crash in, jolt you upright, then retire leaving the song quiet and lovely again.

It’s a good motif for the rest of Rook. It's an understated album, but one that has a few surprises up its sleeve. It’s epic, but never in an overblown way. It’s got a quiet determination and a steely core and thankfully no stadium-friendly choruses coming soon to an enormodome near you. That said, Jonathan Meiburg deserves some sort of recognition for this impressive work. The songs on Rook feel very carefully considered, and although there’s a melding of piano, strings and Meibug’s decent falsetto amongst a heap other instruments, you get the impression that there’s nothing extraneous here, nothing has been wasted.

That may give the impression that it’s a technically good, but still quite dull record. No chance. It’s really quite beautiful in many places, it’s often the most pared-down songs that are the best and it’s a record that rewards repeated listens. If this is the work of a ‘side project’, now that Meiburg has officially left Okkervil River to concentrate fully on Shearwater, imagine how good it’s going to get?

Download: Shearwater – On the Death of the Waters
Download: Shearwater – Lost Boys

Buy Rook from Rough Trade (album of the week) or download from emusic.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

White Williams

White Williams is getting quite the buzz at the moment, though perhaps it’s for that very reason that I never got round to listening to him till today. It’s not easy to cut though hype and associated nonsense to discern is something is actually worth your time to take a listen. Two reasons for giving time to Williams though.

The first is that he’s doing a gig for the reliably ace Upset! The Rhythm, and it’s a general rule of thumb that anything they put on is worth checking out – even if it’s just having a listen to the artists. The second is that an mp3 hit my inbox yesterday. Despite the terrible name, it’s a good tune.

Download: White Williams – Fleetwood Crack

Other good stuff by the man Williams to be heard at his myspace and Hype.

Domino offshoot Double Six are releasing his singles and album Smoke.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Johnny Flynn - A Larum

Although Johnny Flynn’s music is nothing like Vampire Weekend’s, I had the same problem with listening to both records for the first time – a certain over-familiarity. Just as the New York quartet’s debut was littered with tracks that had been previously released or been found kicking around the internet, so Flynn’s first long-player has songs culled from a good few previously-released singles as well as the odd tune I’ve heard elsewhere. But equally, as before, this didn’t really hamper my appreciation of the album.

I first came across Flynn over two years ago, but then I only knew him as Emmy the Great’s violin player. Since then I’ve watched him emerging as an increasing impressive artist in his own right, assembling his band The Sussex Wit (featuring both his sister Lillie and Matt Edmonds who used to be in Fireworks Night), and releasing 7 inch singles on Young and Lost before being snapped up by Universal for their Vertigo imprint, which released Johnny’s debut album A Larum last week. Since signing with Vertigo, the Sussex Wit’s name has disappeared from the record sleeves, but they’re still there in the ID3 tags and the CD booklet. Fear not, Johnny hasn’t dropped them just because some marketing man thought their name was a bit archaic-sounding.

Having been an avid consumer of Johnny’s music I’m predictably going to say that A Larum is good, and it is. There’s an almost effortless blending of American and English folk traditions to combine something that has its roots in dusty old places, but is also resolutely pop. Tickle Me Pink is one of my most-posted tracks on this blog, but here it is in the finished polished article, still sounding brilliant, like something Johnny Cash might have done if he’d spent more time in rural England. Elsewhere, the songs crackle and pop with youthful energy as Flynn and the 'Wit rattle through their rootsy, catchy tunes. Current favourites amongst the 'new' numbers include the mournful trumpet on Hong Kong Cemetery, the happy hoedown on Sally, and the fact that song which sounds like it might be about a footballer starts with "You're one of these elephant hunters from Ebbsfleet".

It’s not a Johnny Flynn review without mentioning that he’s also an actor, who’s appeared in Shakespeare productions at the Old Vic (even reportedly drawing the theatre’s director Kevin Spacey to one of his gigs). Some people are just too talented. Amusingly, I’ve also got Sweeping the Nation to thank for the factoid that Johnny is also the half-brother of Jerome Flynn, though I’ll not be expecting a cover of Unchained Melody in a gig anytime soon.

Download: Johnny Flynn – Sally
Download: Johnny Flynn – Wayne Rooney

Download a live version of Tickle Me Pink at my recent WTOTS post. Buy A Larum from Rough Trade.

Singles going steady 25: The Diff'rent Strokes

This week, Woolies announced that it was going to stop selling CD singles. Should this be a big deal? Given that the shop in question was the UK’s biggest singles retailer, it’s being seen as another nail in the coffin of the physical single. I don’t really mind the demise of the CD single – I quite like the thought of going into a proper music shop (as opposed to one that I’d go to for cheap homeware) and seeing only vinyl. Then things would have come full circle.

But despite the imminent death of this crappy format, I’m going to continue on with my trawl through my CD singles tower, because there are many gems to be found there. Though I’m not sure this is one of them.

The what-the-hell-is-this expression on Mrs Growl’s face said it all when I played this CD the other night. What was coming through the speakers was a Bomtempi muzak version of The Strokes’ Last Nite, followed by similar preset-based versions of three other classics from This Is It. That’s about all I can say about it. I was unsure about posting this, as I don't know if it’s just a piece of cheesy junk to be tossed into the charity shop pile, or a curiosity worth keeping for future reference. Heck, I can’t even remember buying this thing – what was I thinking? But here it is, and you can let me know what you think. Top or tosh? Silly or sublime? Wonderful or worthless? With reference to the latter – if you think I’m mad, you should check out the dude who’s selling a copy for over twenty quid on Amazon marketplace. Now that’s real lunacy!

Download: Diff’rent Strokes – Last Nite
Download: Diff’rent Strokes – The Modern Age

If you actually like this, you can go to Amazon marketplace, where the lowest price at the time of writing is the none-too-cheap £5.99.