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"Hello...put me on to Edenville... aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one"

Thursday
Jun052014

Wussy's Attica: track by track

Having told you repeatedly of the wonders of Wussy, I've been feeling oddly reticent about writing at more length about their latest album Attica. There's certainly a lot to say, but a lot has already been said - and said pretty well. The band may not have the most numerous fanbase in rock but they certainly have one that is thoughtful and articulate.

Exhibit A in making that case has to be an impressive essay by Charles Taylor in the LA Review Of Books, which convincingly locates Wussy's work within a broader and resonant take on life at a certain age in the USA of 2014. I'm going to focus on Attica's music rather than Wussy's wider positioning, but will take a quote from Taylor as a starting point for some song-by-song comments:

Wussy approach rock and roll as people who are past the age when they look to the music for salvation or as a soundtrack for their rebellion. But because they are fans, because this music has long been their chosen vehicle for expression, they test it to see if it can still provide a kind of transcendence, or at least a way of speaking that will make sense of the life around them.

That sounds right to me: Wussy are grown-ups who make their music because that is what they want to do, not because any financial expectations require it. Unlike some bands producing their fifth full album, they're not treading water and churning out another elpee's worth of tunes in a trademark style, desperate to live up to someone else's expectations. They have the space to stretch and experiment and have fun. And they sound unmistakably like they're singing from the real world, not some rockist cocoon or genre bubble.

So what have we got?

'Teenage Wasteland' is a cracking opener: a recollection of the transcendent power of music, delivered with a powerful, lush and layered sound, all underpinned by a simple one-fingered keyboard motif. Lisa Walker's lead vocal is simply gorgeous (if a little overladen with effects in the recording?), reliving the memorable moments with both excitement and control. Chuck Cleaver's backing vocals are spot-on: the two main voices fit so well together and this song features a number of those typically Wussy moments where the harmony is saying something different from the lead, as if they're a couple talking over each other, whether in excitement or disagreement... The song is focused on The Who's 'Baba O'Reilly' from the Who's Next album, with the lyrics name-checking Pete Townsend and Keith Moon, whose

kick of the drum went off like artillery fire,

but it could be about any great rock song that really made a connection with the adolescent you:

For one short breath it sounds like the world is ending,

Exploding in space and beginning again,

So far away.

And the real triumph of 'Teenage Wasteland' is to embody such a song itself, with the power to make this cynical 50-something bounce up and down grinning like a buffoon. So why am I quibbling about the effects on the vocal? Because they mean you need to turn to the lyric sheet fully to appreciate the evocative and well-crafted words, which is always a shame in hindering full communication. I get it, but not every listener will make the effort.

Chuck Cleaver's 'Rainbows & Butterflies' is next up. Grabbing you by the lapels, thrashier, noisy guitars, more distortion. It's a love song of strength and passion, where the conventional romantic imagery of the hookline is shot through with something darker, and borderline psychotic:

I'm gonna suck you, until the poison comes out.

I wanna sway you, if you're ever in doubt.

You'd be flattered to receive a Valentine's card from this character, but you might also consider changing the locks. The performance is tight and convincing and the song only just tops 3 minutes: punk lives, in both the discipline and attack.

'Bug' maintains the mood, introduced by a burst of studio chat and noise before the crunching guitars start up again, at a slower tempo, but just as relentless. Co-written by Cleaver and Walker, with Lisa taking the lead vocal, it's a song of obsession, if not quite love:

You're the drink, you're the drug,

You're the bug that's alive inside of me.

Excellent sequencing then takes us to the light and sprightly 'North Sea Girls', another of Lisa's songs, which first appeared on last year's Wussy Duo EP. It seems to be a holiday postcard from the European tour she had done with Chuck the previous autumn. In that context the song's arresting opening couplet is less bizarre than it might seem:

Today we gather werewolves

And storm the castle doors.

The other act on the tour was American Werewolf Academy and you can imagine them being rounded up, tired and hungover, for a sightseeing trip before the evening's gig. The song has a chiming crystalline quality from massed (but tightly controlled) guitars and keyboards, the pedal steel evoking shoreline gulls. As well as a description of new sights, it's an encouragement of new experiences:

Just go in, just go in,

Like it's summertime.

The last track on what will be side one of (hurrah!) a forthcoming vinyl release is Chuck's 'Acetylene'. It opens prettily with a solo fingerpicked guitar before diverting somewhere darker. Nora Barton's cello and the long sustained guitar tones, hovering on the edge of feedback, underscore a sad plea for a redeeming love which seems unlikely to materialise. Sweetly sung and a well-wrought arrangement.

'To The Lightning' lifts the energy levels at the start of the second side, with soaring vocals, chiming guitars, crashing drums - and even a theramin in the mix. Lyrically it's far from straightforward: there seems to be a relationship breaking up, with the singer embracing the power of a thunderstorm, finding the energy to move on. But what are we to make of Lisa's parallel narrative about 'Monica' inviting her to a meeting of Job's Daughters,

But hey I don't think I'll be there?

I hadn't heard of Job's Daughters before. Apparently it is an organisation for the young daughters of Freemasons, dedicated to good works. And there is a version of its emblem featuring as the artwork on the Attica CD. (It doesn't actually say Wussy or Attica anywhere, so this is what you need to look for if you mislay it...)

A traumatic experience in Lisa or Chuck's youth - who knows? It's always nice to have something inexplicable buried in a lyric, when the overall song works as well as this one does. There's definitely a strong internal logic at work, as it resolves in a gentle and lovely coda, the two voices coming together, apparently accepting their parting:

Bide your time

And when the time arises

Rise and shine 

And let me go.

The next track 'Halloween' holds that calm and reflective mood. It may well be my favourite song on an album with some strong contenders for that title. There's a lovely arrangement, blending accordion and pedal steel and mandolin, for a song that is a photo-sharp picture of a dreamlike recollection - which is not a straightforward trick to pull off. It references Neil Young's 'Sugar Mountain' and echoes that song's wry nostalgia and warmth. Despite its title, it seems to be set on an Ash Wednesday, the morning after a Mardi Gras, suggested in an immediately engaging opening (replete with a nod to Kris Kristofferson):

We're lost in the town, wiping fog out of our eyes,

A Wednesday morning coming down.

You're last out the door, trying to piece together

All the shit you saw the night before.

It's beautifully done.

Then the mic passes back to Chuck for 'Gene, I Dream', a fine portrait of a troubled relationship and a yearning for a fresh start, with added interest from the twist that it is not entirely clear who is who amongst the narrator, 'Gene' and the couple being described. Anyway, the chorus links with an upbeat arrangement to send you out feeling hopeful, even if the hopes will not ultimately come good:

Gene, I dream that life outside of here

Is so much more amazing

Than either one of us could ever imagine.

Next up is the title track, 'Attica!', the exclamation mark indicating that the word is being shouted in the street. I gather this is a reference to the film Dog Day Afternoon, where this word is indeed shouted during a bank robbery that goes wrong, and is referring in turn to the Attica prison riot in New York in 1971 which left 43 people dead. Sadly, however, I have not seen the film so am not the best person to steer you through the lyric. I'll get back to you when I've caught up... Anyway, nicely sung by Lisa and another carefully layered arrangement, featuring - I think - ebowed guitar.

On to 'Home', the penultimate track. Nice enough, but one of the lesser songs on the record, I'd say. Well played and sung and the theme of optimism through adversity chimes with much of the rest of the set, but nothing really to stand out, musically or lyrically.

Which gives 'Beautiful' even more force, I guess. This is one of Cleaver's very best, a bitter-sweet reflection on a failed relationship and the faults of a younger self. There's a soaring melody with intertwined voices ending in a glorious guitar solo, surging against a repeated keyboard pattern and rolling bass. There's a determined chirpiness in some of the lyrics and the symbol of a house fire, inevitably undercut by regret:

Our everyday attire, we lost it in the fire.

Now we're sifting through the cinders and the ashes.

Searching for a sign, the remains of yours and mine,

Suspecting all along

We may have saved it if we'd only taken time.

(A nice echo there of the yours and mine piles of household effects assembled by the warring protagonists of the Wussy classic 'Airborne'.) And as well as tension and beauty we have a final mystery: what exactly are we to make of the hookline?

I'm not the monster that I once was: 20 years ago I was more beautiful than I am today.

We are left pondering the meaning of beauty as the final chords fade: a bonus philosophical coda. Can't the appreciation of former monsterhood add to beauty, counterbalancing the odd grey hair or wrinkle? I'd like to think so, but maybe the song's narrators think otherwise.

Anyway, eleven songs that are well repaying repeated listenings: there's a lot of depth in the writing and immense skill and care in the way that the music has been put together. I am conscious that I haven't said much to single out contributions from bassist Mark Messerly, drummer Joe Klug and pedal steel man John Erhardt - that's mainly because they're all mostly interested in cohesion and collective sound, and contribute on a range of other instruments too. They all play splendidly, but this is very much a band album, with no individual grandstanding.

And what a band - I hope they make it across the Atlantic soon.

Saturday
May172014

Rockingbirds & record round-up

Another excellent evening at The Palmeira, courtesy of the ever-tasteful Brightmelmstone Promotions: the Rockingbirds did their Brit Americana thing to very good effect.

I was never at the Hope and Anchor or the Nashville in the seventies but last night felt I could have been. There was a definite Brinsley Schwarz pubrock air to this, er, pub rock. Ace pedal steel player Patrick Arbuthnot was even sporting a denim jacket with a sheepskin collar.

Old numbers I knew, like 'Jonathan Jonathan' (a heartfelt tribute to Mr Richman) and 'Time Drives A Truck', nestled up to pleasant newer ones. I have to report that Gram Parsons' 'Return Of The Grievous Angel' was the strongest song of the night - but then it would be in most people's sets. The Rockingbirds' strengths are in their excellent guitarists, cohesion and overall warmth, rather than knock-out writing and singing. They're a lot of fun and well worth seeing.

Meanwhile, some notable records to recommend to you.

I'm still waiting for my CD copy of Wussy's Attica! and will say more when it arrives. But if it's possible to wear out a download, I may well do before then. Glorious stuff. I've also been re-listening to their second album, Left For Dead, courtesy of a very well-produced vinyl reissue, pressed in limited numbers for Record Store Day in the US. You'll have to get Shake It Records to post it to you from Cincinatti, but it's worth it...

I'm similarly listening to an advance MP3 of Two Wings' A Wake, which is due out at the end of the month and sounding very good. I'm looking forward to seeing them play in Brighton on the 27th, and to having a fullsize version of what looks like another lovely piece of cover art from Hanna Tuulikki.

They're competing for listening time with others that I've already mentioned: Ryley Walker's All Kinds Of You, The Hold Steady's Teeth Dreams and Powder Blue's Dream In Black.

Let me add one more to the list: Thus Owls' third release (and first on vinyl) Turning Rocks. They're less out there than when I first encountered them at The Great Escape in 2011, but still distinctive and intriguing. It is a great shame that they appear to have dropped the colon from their name, but then again that has made the first sentence of this paragraph easier to read... Here's a taster

 

Sunday
May112014

Great Escape 2014

Just a paddle in this year's Great Escape festival, after the immersion of recent years.

I knew that other commitments would keep me from wandering the streets and bars of Brighton for the full three days, but I had to sign up when The Hold Steady were added to the bill. I then caught half a dozen other sets and snippets of a few more - but I'm not your source this year for a real overview or 'best of' list.

 I've been following The Hold Steady's records since picking up Separation Sunday six or seven years ago but haven't had the chance to see them live before. I was doubtful whether a 45 minute festival slot might not suit what can be a discursive narrative style to front man Craig Finn's songs, but I needn't have worried.

They were tight, focused and powerful, using every minute to good effect. The opening chords of the next song rang out before the crowd had time to acknowledge the last. Finn was pumped up and bouncing, striding up to the edge of the stage and shouting off-mic, clearly enjoying being free from the constraints of guitar duties now Steve Selvidge has joined the band.

The set was a seamless blend of the punchiest stuff from this year's Teeth Dreams - including opener 'I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You' and the lovely 'Big Cig' - with some irresistible older classics. Six albums in, they're a band with a back catalogue to kill for: 'Constructive Summer', 'Sequestered In Memphis', 'Your Little Hoodrat Friend' and 'Chips Ahoy!' all featured, and all sounded as fresh and crunchy as ever. The last of these - a tall tale of a girl who can foresee the winners of races - was briefly introduced with:

This is a song about a boy and a girl and a horse...

and that was about as chatty as Craig allowed himself to be, before a slightly longer paean to the joys of going out and joining a rock crowd, instead of sitting at home with electronic devices, as he led the way to 'Spinners'. Another of the stronger songs from the current album, it's a movingly uncynical portrayal of the ups and downs of a single-again girl going back to the city scene:

She's two years off some prairie town.

She dresses up and she spins around.

Little looks and smaller talk.

Heartbreak hurts but you can dance it off.

It was really good to see a band so full of fire and enthusiasm at a stage in their career when they might have hoped to be bigger. Finn's lyrics are intricate, perceptive and clever - but also often very funny. I still smile whenever I think of the hapless narrator of 'Sequestered In Memphis' being interrogated about the aftermath of a one-night stand:

In bar-light, she looked all right.

In daylight she looked desperate.

But that's all right - I was desperate too.

I'm getting pretty sick of this interview...

If I'm not preaching to the already-converted, why not give that song a try?

I'd already got my money's worth from The Great Escape after three quarters of an hour from The Hold Steady, but what else can I tell you?

Finnish heavy metal band the Von Hertzen Brothers were exactly what that description will bring to mind, and were not for me, I fear.

I very much liked Ethan Johns' work on Laura Marling's last album and he obviously has a fine pedigree from producer father Glyn. But I was left unmoved by his tasteful but formulaic Americana, 'there's a red moon on the rise', etc. 

I had better luck on Saturday afternoon. One of the joys of festival-going is hearing styles of music you don't normally listen to, and Poland's Rebeka - a synth and beats based electro-pop duo - were certainly in that category.

They won me over with a high-energy set, dramatic vocals (occasional echoes of Donna Summer?) and strong stage presence.

Singer Iwona Skwarek drew things to a conclusion with:

We are quite wet now so we have to finish

but an enthusiatic crowd at the Green Door Store were ready for more.

Earlier, I'd caught a couple of bands in what seems to have become a traditional Canadian session at the Blind Tiger Club. A man from Alberta Music praised the federal and provincial governments for the amount of support they provide for this sort of activity: apparently Canada is 37th in a list of the world's countries by population and 8th by music exports...

Anyway, Calgary's Boreal Sons had a nice manner and some carefully wrought songs - though the lyrics were a bit too overwrought and sensitive for my taste (shirt cuffs brushing dust motes from window sills and the like).

But my top discovery of this year were the band that followed them: Powder Blue, from Saskatoon. They were billed as psychedelic rock and I also caught elements of shoegaze, Krautrock and even Jesus and Mary Chain-style surf in the mix. It's a tight, drony, layered sound, shorn of any luxuriation in melodic soloing. I found myself mesmerised by Amber Kraft's drumming - an object lesson in precision, attack and sheer brutality. She put me in mind of Free's Simon Kirke in his pomp, both for the sound and the way she disappeared behind a curtain of hair, absorbed in pulverising the kit. And full marks to keyboard player Elsa Gebremichael for a pretty good effort when the pair swapped instruments for one number.

Anyway, the band have an excellent mini-album out, Dream In Black - available on appropriately powder blue vinyl, as well as on cassette. Pretty cool artefacts, I'd say.

There's a taster below. 'Go On Forever' sounds attractively like it could do just that.

Friday
Apr252014

A little more Wussy

I know I go on about them, but Wussy's Attica is already sounding like the album of the year, a couple of weeks before it has even been released.

I'll do a proper review when I've got the actual artefact – CD only, sadly, I gather from the record company – but I've been listening to the preview pretty solidly in the last few days. 'Teenage Wasteland' isn't actually my current favourite song (check out 'Halloween' for that), but it's a glorious opener and this video captures so much of what I like about the band: restrained power, noise and beauty, aching vulnerability, no grandstanding, obviously enjoying themselves

when the kick of the drum lined up with the beat of your heart...

 Gorgeous.

Thursday
Apr242014

A limping fox – and Dan Stuart

As I was walking home from last night's gig, a fox passed me on the opposite pavement and I noticed that it was carrying one back leg off the ground, unable to put any weight on it.

Blasé as we may now be about urban foxes, it's still a thrill to share the Brighton streets with wild beasts. But, as I walked on, the injury bothered me: it can't be much fun getting by like that – pain, lower life-expectancy, no chance of calling in at the PDSA for a plaster cast or splint...

Then it struck me as a pretty good metaphor for my feelings about the Dan Stuart gig I'd just seen at the Prince Albert. As half of the creative heart of Green on Red, alongside the mighty Chuck Prophet, more than twenty years ago now, he certainly counted as a big beast – at least to gentlemen of a certain age. (I note that his website promises that he'll buy a drink for anyone under 30 who comes to a show on the current tour; and at one point last night he surveyed the crowd and exclaimed 'There are females here!' – though there weren't that many, it must be admitted.)

I treasure memories of seeing Green on Red at the Zap Club, under the arches on the seafront - exactly 23 years before today's show. Stuart recalled that visit to Brighton too: apparently it was the first time he and Chuck had taken ecstasy...

The 2014 incarnation was just the second night of the current tour and Dan and his sole accomplice, guitarist Antonio Gramentieri, seemed still to be getting the measure of each other and the set up. Dan noted that he's more used to playing with a full band and missed the backbeat. For the audience, it's odd to have a different Telecaster-wielding guitarist next to him, and as talented and generally nice as Antonio seems to be, of course he isn't Chuck. Dan seemed to be blaming the audience for being quiet - which is seldom a good sign - drawing the response:

'It's Wednesday night',

which continued, with the expository pedantry which seems to come naturally to Brighton punters,

'and there's been a Bank Holiday, so it feels like Tuesday...'.

Anyway, there were good things on offer, with older classics mixed in with newer songs – an early rendition of 'Keep On Moving' and a lively take on '16 Ways' were particularly impressive. During one lull, Dan invited requests and I obliged with 'You Couldn't Get Arrested', only to be answered with: 

I swore I wasn't gonna play that fucking song once on this tour.

He tried it anyway, somehow managing to forget the change to the third chord (of a three chord song), but still ending up with a convincing version.

If Eden On The Line awarded stars, this would be 3 out of 5, I guess: I'm glad I saw it, but the gig never fully caught light and was essentially for established aficionados only. When Dan made clear soon after eleven that there would be no encore, I breathed silent thanks – and headed for my vulpine rendezvous...

For non-aficionados, here's some of what the fuss is about

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