6 July 2009

Rowland S Howard

Teenage Snuff Film
Cooking Vinyl, 1999

It reminds me of a song called 'Lay Me Low', five minutes of melodrama that I know like the back of my hand, from the album Let Love In by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. On that track, Cave sings about the impact his death will have on the world. It is ridiculously self-indulgent and, eventually, just plain ridiculous. It starts off with his friends and family mourning and then journalists writing their obituaries: "They'll try telephoning my mother/ But they'll end up getting my brother/ Who'll spill the story of some long gone lover/ That I hardly know." Then it moves into fantasy – motorcades ten miles long at his funeral, the sky storming and the sea raging to mark his passing. Oh, what nerve! To believe that the fucking Earth itself would shake at his loss!

The song that reminds me of 'Lay Me Low', and that I have been listening to all week, is 'Sleep Alone', from Rowland S Howard's solo album Teenage Snuff Film. Perhaps it's no coincidence they remind me of each other. Howard was the other main songwriter in The Birthday Party, the group that launched Cave's career. I have written before of how the two met, and how they parted over creative differences, leading to the end of the band. After The Birthday Party, as Cave's solo career took off, Howard remained comparatively underground, collaborating with arty punk artists like Lydia Lunch, joining Crime and the City Solution and later starting his own group These Immortal Souls. In '99, two decades after writing the famous track 'Shivers', he released his own solo album.

'Sleep Alone' is the final song on the record. It opens with a crash – all wailing guitar and high-pitched squeals of feedback over a pummelling drumbeat – and Howard's posturing as some sort of intergalactic Dirty Harry taking aim at the universe. "First I shot down the stars/ Because you said they ruled us," he sings, matter-of-factly, as if he was just doing a job, before reloading and moving onto the next target. "Then I took out Mars/ Yeah, he was the cruellest/ His lover followed suit/ By way of suicide/ And the others stood there silent/ As I dealt out peace of mind." After taking down the planets, one by one, he finally rests: "The sky is empty, silent/ The Earth is still as stone/ So nothing stands above me/ Now I can sleep alone." It is ego unleashed.

15 June 2009

The Drones

All Tomorrow's Parties, 2008

Most of my favourite songs by The Drones – and there are many – tell specific stories or describe particular scenes. The first one I ever heard was 'The Cockeyed Lowlife Of The Highlands', the opening track on their debut album, which just about blew my head off. It tells of a couple on the run after holding up a bank. "Margorie! It seems you're shaking, shaking, shaking so bad/ The pigs are gonna track us with a Richter scale!" yells one to the other. Then they get in the backseat, shoot up to calm down, and she kills him. (And while we're on that note, there is, I think, a lot to be said about the female characters in Gareth Liddiard's songs.)

Anyway, 'Luck In Odd Numbers', from last year's Havilah, isn't like that at all. It was the first thing I listened to in 2009 and, judging by how often I've played it since, it will be the last as well. I have no fucking clue what it is about. It is full of Biblical and geographical references – for example, it is the only song to actually mention Havilah, the name of the album and also a land of abundance spoken about in Genesis – along with the repetition of the numbers one, three, five, seven and nine. It goes on for eight and a half minutes, broken in two parts, and finishes in a deafening, wailing climax with the singer screaming out to God.

I have been trying to figure out exactly what it is about that song that led me to listen to it all week – which may sound ridiculous, like I'm over-thinking things for the point of it, but, you know, that is what I do – and, for the most part, I have been failing. Perhaps it's the rhythm and the sound, that epic sound of splintering guitars as large as the landscapes in the lyrics. Perhaps it's the beauty of the verses, like this one, that do nothing to explain what the song is about but tell a story in themselves: "And each chance I get to get close to you/ The shadows come and the late afternoon makes/ The warmth withdraw like a dive bell sinks/ And the air turns to octopus ink."

8 June 2009

Gogol Bordello

Gypsy Punks
Side One Dummy, 2005

Occasionally you just want to write about a band of gypsy punks. Gogol Bordello are a group of Eastern European agitators from the lower east side of New York who dress up in ridiculous costumes, play a mix of folk and punk and boast about taking over America. If you've seen the no-wave documentary Kill Your Idols, you might remember the band's enigmatic singer Eugene Hutz alongside the other humorous standouts – groupie turned grumpy singer Lydia Lunch and those two hedonistic dickheads from A.R.E. Weapons. Hutz was the one dressed like a cartoon carny, who offered a brilliant riposte to this decade's recycling of 1980s fashion: "Sure, it might seem like a good theme for a party on Saturday night, but you wouldn't want to base a cultural revolution on it."

Clearly, in Hutz’s opinion, that revolution would be much better handled by the gypsies. There's a song saying so on Gypsy Punks. In fact, there's ten of them. Of the other three songs, two are about parties and purple clothes and one is instrumental. It's not quite clear how seriously Hutz takes himself (it certainly is hard to as a listener), but you can hardly fault his good intentions, spat out in faulty grammar like a pissed-off ESL student: "I'm gathering new generation/ That's gonna stand up to it/ To this karaoke dictatorship!/ I make a better rock revolution alone with my DICK!" Take THAT, poseurs! That THAT, NME! Pow, wham!

The best songs on Gypsy Punks are meant for partying and, like everything about the band, they announce themselves fairly loudly. 'Dogs Were Barking' is a raucous Eastern European wedding celebration, while 'Oh No' documents a neighbourhood party made all the better by an electricity blackout – when it turns all bucket-drums, acoustic guitar and frolicking revellers. The last track, 'Mishto!', is a blistering cover of a traditional folk violin piece, heavy on the kick-drum, that sounds something like a novelty cousin of one of The Dirty Three's more thunderous numbers (in a good way, I promise). Normally I'd try to offer some witty insight at the end of this column, but, well, Gogol Bordello really do just sound like a childish Ukranian punk band playing folk covers. Which is why I love them.

1 June 2009

The Riptides

PolyGram, 1987

Sometimes I wish there was space for a subtitle to this column, but I never get around to actually organising it – so you'll just have to use your imagination to pretend this week's is called "In Praise Of Liner Notes". Toby Creswell is the writer behind the recent Great Australian Albums series on SBS, which covered, in wonderful detail, classic records by The Triffids, The Saints, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and, ahem... Silverchair. Anyway, Creswell was also the editor of Rolling Stone in the late 1980s and, after that, one of the founders of Juice magazine and the author of a biography of Jimmy Barnes. I've never met him, but I'm told he is a very nice man.

I first heard The Riptides on one of those compilations of local rock and roll history that I keep crapping on about – Tales From The Australian Underground, I think it was, or Do The Pop, both of which I am still listening to and enjoying – and last year stumbled upon a live double-LP of theirs called Resurface at a second-hand shop. On the inside sleeve is a wonderful review by Creswell, describing his experience of hearing them for the first time. It begins: "We were in a bar called the Australian Heritage in Kings Cross, Sydney. There I was drowning my sorrows on cadged drinks and the last thing I wanted to hear was a surf band from Brisbane..."

Then he describes how the band, seemingly all of a sudden, had kids dancing on chairs and on tables and how the stage was set up in front of a giant window looking down over Rushcutter's Bay and how it fogged up and turned white from all the sweat. It's meant as no disservice to the music to say this story is the best thing about Resurface. It captures something that microphones simply can't – the feeling of being there, of getting swept up in the moment, of being miserable in some dingy bar in Kings Cross in the winter of 1980 and having your night turn around in the best way imaginable. I have read it more times than I've actually listened to the record.

25 May 2009

Belle & Sebastian

If You're Feeling Sinister
Jeepster, 1996

Occasionally, this column chooses itself. Whenever I am very sad, or very happy – or, as has been the case for the last two weeks, both – I end up listening to a song from Belle & Sebastian's second album If You're Feeling Sinister called 'Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying' over and over for days. The song isn't actually as tumultuous as the title would suggest – there's nothing in it to suggest why the protagonist needs to get away, or what from. It's just a story, a gentle and introspective story about reading books and thinking about lovers, with a rhythm that suggests that it is already set on the road – a sort of soft back-and-forth lilt like a train carriage in motion.

When it is playing, the song seems to be endless. It doesn't have any clear beginning or end, and certainly no logical progression between the verses. When I visited the band's website today to double-check the lyric sheet, I was surprised to see that it fit onto a single page. One verse describes getting wrapped up in the pages of a clichéd book with the same kind of fancy and suspension of belief that allows me to play the song itself so many times: "Oh, I'll settle down with some old story/ About a boy who's just like me/ Thought there was love in everything and everyone/ You're so naïve!... Still it was worth it as I turned the pages solemnly, and then!/ With a winning smile, the boy with naivety succeeds!"

I have admitted before to my guilty love for twee pop songs, and this is surely the twee-est of them all – like watching a Wes Anderson film or reading a Salinger book at home in bed with a cup of tea and a cosy blanket. But also, perhaps, it is time I stopped using the word "guilty". I have been thinking lately about sentimentality and the dramatisation of everyday affairs and the search for meaning in the smallest of things – in my favourite writers and critics as much as in pop music – and, I think, I am finally happy to say that I will most always choose that endeavour over the alternatives. Then again, I could just be being a bit emo this week.

11 May 2009

Art Brut

Bang Bang Rock & Roll
Banana, 2005

Art Brut appeared a few years ago, about the time Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand were still the next big things (instead of the last big things), with an album about loving rock 'n' roll and hating rock 'n' roll and failing to get an erection and still being in love with a girl that you dated in tenth grade. The lyrics were completely deadpan, half sung and half spoken in a thick English drawl by frontman Eddie Argos, who mocked himself and the group at every possible turn. The album opened with a single called 'Formed A Band', about, um, yeah, forming a band: "And yes, this is my singing voice. It's not irony. It's not rock and roll. We're just talking... to tha kids."

There are so many funny lines on Bang Bang Rock & Roll that I could fill the column with them twice over. But it isn't a novelty record. One of the best tracks is 'Bad Weekend', a counterpart to the earlier 'Good Weekend' (which is about finding a new girlfriend: "We wanna be lapsed Catholics/ Got the contraception but haven't got the knack yet"). The chorus of 'Bad Weekend' is: "Popular culture no longer applies to me." Other lines poke fun at the NME and the fact that there's nothing good on the television. Anyway, I found a live recording of it this week. At the end, Argos stops singing and delivers a long-winded rant. And this is what he says:

"Normally, at this point in the set, I'd tell you all to go home and form a band. But maybe you're like me, and not very musical. So you don't have to form a band. But at least write a fanzine. Or an article for a magazine that I'd like to read. Or a book I'd like to read. Or a sitcom I wanna watch. Or a film I'd buy a cinema ticket for. I don't wanna sound like a hippy, but you can't complain about it! You can't complain about it unless you're doing something about it! So when I come back here in a month's time I'm gonna grab you by the arm and say: 'Where is it? Where is this thing you're supposed to have made?' And if you have nothing for me... if you have nothing for me, then I will be very disappointed."

4 May 2009

Ugly Casanova

Sharpen Your Teeth
Sub Pop, 2002

A few years before Modest Mouse released their fourth album, the moody and wonderful Good News For People Who Love Bad News, Isaac Brock indulged in a side project. He recruited Pall Jenkins from Black Heart Procession, a band who sound exactly like their name would have you believe – all slow, thumping marching beat drums and melodrama – a singer from another indie band, a drummer with a fondness for using found objects and, finally, a fifth musician called Tim Rutilli, who was known for the strangeness and gravity of his work. The others drove to pick Rutilli up at the airport in the middle of the night, where he had flown straight from his grandmother's funeral wearing a brown suit that he stayed in for the next four days.

The ramshackle band was christened Ugly Casanova. Because the story of their getting together wasn't weird enough, Brock invented a character called Edgar Graham who, so the story went, had broken through a backstage window after a Modest Mouse gig to introduce himself to the band and play them his music. He had then started opening for them on tour, playing a few rough songs before stumbling off stage filled with anger and shame. After the tour ended Graham disappeared, leaving behind a collection of demo tapes and scribbled notes that, Brock later decided, should be fleshed out by him and his friends "until such time as Graham resurfaces to take credit for his work and add a bit more to whatever understanding of him still exists".

The result – of whichever story you want to believe – is a sort of American Gothic mix of pop songs built from bizarre scrapes and clangs and rhythms that sounds like they were whistled out on the top of a moonshine jug. The vocals are the most striking – they move between squeals and shrieks and wails. Then, when you're least expecting it, a song will come where Brock gives up all pretence and sings in a plaintive voice that sounds like a friend retelling a sad memory. He is almost completely naked on 'Smoke Like Ribbons', among the whistling and the twangs of the banjo and the fiddle: "Songs were pulled like ribbons from the window of the car/ Lost along the shoulder of the highway..."

27 April 2009

Modest Mouse

Good News For People Who Love Bad News
Epic, 2004

What fantastic mood swings. The fourth album by indie rock band Modest Mouse, Good News For People Who Love Bad News, starts off with an ambling song about leaving home. It's full of those useless but interesting philosophical thoughts that fill our minds when they're idle or distracted, and rhymes about the change of seasons, and the feel of the breeze, and words and music. "I like songs about drifters and books about the same/ They both make me feel a little less insane." The insanity does come, eventually, but for the moment it's kept at bay. The second track is an upbeat pop song about a life without sadness or regret that repeats the mantra "it's all okay" and sounds like skipping down the street.

And then, about a third of the way in, there's a track called 'Dig Your Grave' that would win a contest for the most vicious 13-second song in existence, should there ever be one. It has just two lines: "I'm already digging/ I hope you're dead." It's followed up by an ode to nihilism with lyrics about firing shots into mounds of dirt and staying out all night drinking. At around this point you realise there's something strange going on musically as well. The songs seem overly referential. They sound like tributes to the band's idols – 'Dance Hall' mimics Pere Ubu (in fact, I discovered this album after asking someone in a record store if they were playing the new Pere Ubu record), 'This Devil's Workday' does the same with Tom Waits, 'The View' with Talking Heads, and so on.

I suppose that makes it sound cheap, but frankly, the songs are so good it matters very little whether they're tributes or not. The last third of the album returns to what you would say is a take on the band's own style of music, a sort of revisiting of the dreamy indie rock – one part outer space, one part trailer park – they mastered on The Moon And Antarctica. The last song is called 'The Good Times Are Killing Me' and, I'm sure, you can figure out what it's about: "Have one, have twenty more 'one mores'/ And oh, it does not relent/ Jaws clenched tight, we talked all night/ But what the hell did we say?" It sounds like falling asleep at daybreak, before the high has faded.