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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Monday, September 29, 2008

Underground Railroad Sticks And Stones

On the right track...
Sticks And Stones
Underground Railroad
One Little Indian

With so many indentikit-indie bands doing the rounds these days it’s good to come across a combo that manage to refresh, recharge and reinvigorate the palate. Although they’ve only been around for five years, Underground Railway have covered a lot of ground in that time. Formed in France, the trio of guitarist Marion Andrau, drummer Raphael Mura and bassist JB Ganivet relocated to live it up in London’s bedsit land, released their debut album, Twisted Trees, last year and after touring Europe opening for Dinosaur Jr., ended up in Seattle earlier this year to record with producer John Goodmanson.

It’s a partnership that has paid off, with Goodmanson, best known for his work with Death Cab For Cutie, seeding the material with an atmospheric gloss and raising the band’s game somewhat. There’s a broader musicality that comes without compromising their Spartan brand of shock and awe dynamics.

Whilst several tunes hop aboard the verse-chorus merry-go-round many do not, moving off from one place and ending up somewhere very different. Poems For Freaks sits brooding and largely static for most of its three and a half minute life-span before erupting into an idiot-glee resolution that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Blur album.

Whilst there’s a necessary equality in the way the work is shared out in a rock trio, inevitably perhaps it’s always the guitar that grabs the limelight and in this respect, Underground Railroad are no different. Andrau’s daubs and rushes at the strings of her guitar like some crazed fauvist; stroboscopic chord-slashing, haunting ripples of nightmarish notes and clusters of jagged hooks all provide the record with an embarrassing surplus of bright, sometimes garish colours.

Cooking up a cocktail of guitar noise is always going to invoke Jesus Mary Chain or Velvet Undergound and whilst such echoes can be found in tracks such as Stuff In Your Pocket, there’s also the terrifying pop-clarity of the Beatles/REM style mash-up of Kill – surely one of the best singles of the year! Irresistible thumping avant-pop.

This review originally appeared here.

Words And Music IX: Underground Railroad

The new album by Underground Railroad has been on heavy rotation here. The break-out at around 3.20 in this video gives me the shivers!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Old And New

This morning I was up and about before the crack of dawn and feeling gloomy. Sometimes it’s hard to identify the factors which make one feel blue or exert influence in our lives. What presents to us on the surface is rarely the root cause of the trouble. If we want to get to the heart of the problem we have to dig deeper.

The answers, if we can bear to look for them, are nearly always found in ourselves, in our attitudes and actions

There’s something profoundly uncomfortable about accepting that we are often the authors of our own misfortune, we are little automatons of habitual behaviour, who blithely trundle about our daily business ticking boxes and by and large driving on automatic pilot.

Every day the sun comes up and with it an opportunity to do something different, to alter the direction in which our daily routines take us. It’s the rub between the old and the new, between auto-pilot and consciously taking control.

In recent weeks I’ve been starkly reminded that time is both abundant and in short supply. It’s not how long you’ve got that counts. It’s what you do with it, how you chose to live, the quality and degree of your engagement, that is what counts.

Later in the day Debra and I took the Metro from Whitley Bay into Newcastle...

specifically to the booking office at Newcastle's Central Station. No matter which way I played it the online booking came up with train tickets that were way too expensive. Debra's long held belief is that you will always get a better deal from the same company if you bowl up in person and talk to a human being directly.

She was not wrong.

A price difference of nearly £50 was revealed between what the nice woman behind the counter was offering and the best the, ahem, "Great Deals Online" were urging me to take up in the convenience of my own living room.

Tickets for future travel successfully purchased, we headed out into Newcastle where old and new rub along together and a grudging, almost resentful way...

The other reason for coming into Newcastle was a visit to the Tyneside Cinema. We were going to see Jar City.
I'd read somewhere that a third of Iceland's population had seen this police procedural movie - the everyday story of rape, murder and genetic disease coming back through the generations to wreak havoc and cause all kinds of recriminations and repercussions. Old and new coming into close proximity of one another. Bleak doesn't quite cover it.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Street Life CXXXIX

Obama On The BackFoot

It was a little after 5.30 a.m. when I sat down at my desk and tuned into to MSNBC to watch Countdown with Keith Olbermann (which I’ve become addicted to in recent weeks) and from there, the McCain/Obama debate. My scorecard showed McCain was the better performer of the two.

Whilst the old bruiser never landed anything like a knockout blow he appeared to be the more forceful of the two, consistently moving the topic onto his preferred ground and firmly parking his tank on Obama’s lawn in the process.

This doesn’t mean Obama didn’t make some good points or inflict a few jabs here and there, but at a time when the Bush regime is in chaos, it should’ve been a walkover but wasn't.

There’s no doubt that Obama is the better speaker of the two, but since when did candidates get elected because the swing vote constituency decided to throw in their lot with the more eloquent of the pair on offer?

Watching the interview with Joe Biden on Keith Olbermann’s show I got a sense that the VP hopeful thinks it’s going to be easy against Sarah Palin. If he’s not careful he’ll come across as too condescending, too much the elder statesman, which will let her do her hockey mom “Washington outsider” thing.

He needs to go in hard on the gap between the reality of what she says and what she’s done. Joe Biden needs to be like Joe Friday "just the facts, ma'am."

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Curved Air Second Album

More than one string to their bow
Second Album Curved Air
Whilst their live reputation was built upon electric-violinist Daryl Way’s lengthy extemporisations on "Vivaldi", their 1970 debut, Air Conditioning, was a curiously mute affair. Happily their 1971 follow-up offers an altogether more satisfying integration of Way’s fluency and Francis Monkman’s keyboard/guitar assaults, with Sonja Kristina’s brittle waif-like vocals providing an appealing contrast to the instrumental testosterone.

Never quite in the first division of bands on the progressive scene, there’s nevertheless some first rate stuff presented here. With the surprise hit of "Back Street Luv" propelling the band toward a wider audience via Top of the Pops, it was always slightly atypical of their overall style.

The band are better represented by the eerie "Puppets" - laced with icy mellotron - or the 12 minute "Piece Of Mind," Monkman’s scholarly, often ambitious setting for what rock, classical and electronic music might achieve and produce if housed and harnessed in one place.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Gordon Brown Swims With The Fishes

Watching the Leader’s speech is something of a throwback to a time when I was more politically engaged than I am now. Out of some misplaced sense of duty I haul myself to the television in case an epiphany is in the offing or at the very least, a good laugh. These set pieces never really tell you anything you don’t already know. They’re a bit of theatre, a bit of knock-about and have-a-go at the opposition.

So with all the usual "speech of his life" ballyhoo, Gordon Brown takes to the stage and posits himself behind a lectern instead of indulging in the current fad for wandering around the podium. He's every inch the serious man for serious times the party keeps telling us we need.

The trouble is he only looks comfortable when pouring over bottom-line figures or graphs outlining production figures or even, God help him, opinion polls which have him as the most unpopular Prime Minister since Neville Chamberlin. Gordon does “serious” very well indeed. If only it were enough.

His real problems start when he smiles - a chilling conflagration of teeth, muscles, and menace that makes you think Luca Brassi would probably be a much nicer and more trustworthy kind of bloke.

It’s a grin of someone who has been told to smile more by his handlers but has only had time to read the user instructions once and can’t quite remember how the thing works.

At his best politically when kept out of the limelight, he now stands underneath the unforgiving spotlight of attention looking like someone who has pissed his pants but is determinately putting a brave smile on the situation.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Alnwick and Alnmouth

A phone call from Lesley and Debbie and I are off like a dirty shirt to Alnwick and a trip to Barter Books.

From here we wandered over to Alnmouth and its discreet charms and rewards...

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Out of the blue

Say hello to suprise guests Adrian and Andrea who called in on their way from Scotland last night. Eagle-eyed visitors will notice that I spent nearly three weeks in their company whilst on tour with King Crimson. I'd been out during the day so hadn't got their email or phone message saying they were going to be passing through on their way back home. So there I was preparing the evening meal when the phone goes and it's Ade asking me if there's anywhere in Whitley Bay where he could get some fish and chips!

A nice and completely unexpected visitation.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Woven Hand Ten Stones

A righteous noise...
Ten Stones
Woven Hand

Since 2002, guitarist and vocalist David Eugene Edwards (late of alt-country outfit 16 Horsepower) has been operating as Woven hand. Rattling with command and vigour right from the off, perhaps more than ever the alt-country linkage is something of a misnomer as the dominant force throughout their fourth album proper is a skewed assemblage of experimental austerity, electric folk ambience and an almost old-fashioned brooding rock, brimming with strength and passion.

Throbbing at the centre of this remarkable music sits Edwards' booming voice, like some kind of dynamo from which all manner of raw and unpredictable energies spin off to electrify and entrance.

Often shouting out his words like a demented snake-oil preacher, the lyrics are suffused with enigmatic imagery, religious symbolism and a grim deadpan focus that the likes of Jim Morrison, Nick Cave and Ian McCulloch have all channelled.

The brute force of "The Beautiful Axe", whose stirring chorus ''Joy has come, is risen with the sun… beautiful the axe that flies at me'', radiates a defiant grandeur that exceeds the low-leaning, grit-filled production.

Serious stuff, for sure, although the inclusion of Jobim's "Quiet Night Of Quiet Stars" suggested they don't take themselves too seriously. This bossa-nova staple is laced with woozy mellotron and given an ambiguous tonality that wrenches the song from its usual reverie into the darker, malice-filled David Lynch-like twilight of unease.

"Kingdom Of Ice" throbs with hurdy-gurdy drones and Pascal Humbert's charged arco-acoustic bass stokes the machine with grease and gravel in equal measure. The disparate sources that are drawn upon in the making of this record is another key factor in its runaway success. "Kicking Bird" pounds away with like the kind of Bo-Diddley-on-speed vibe that oddly evokes U2 but which our flag-waving, slogan-toting pals could only dream about pulling off.

Ten Stones is not so much a bunch of songs as a series of reckonings with past ghosts and inner demons; a death-match confrontation framed inside a corral of crashing guitars and mountainous drums that slam against each other with titanic intent. Raw, uncompromising and visionary, this is magnificent rock music striking out from the sea of mediocrity that is much of the indie rock scene these days. An essential must-hear/must-have record, Woven Hand creates powerful, potent and thrilling waves.


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