Friday, 16 December 2011

Challenging The Snobbery Inversion Index - Kurt Vile "Smoke Ring"

This album has been out for months. I've been reading about it for months. Now the end of year blog lists are spitting out their tempus fugit venom and Kurt Vile is being rubbed in my face again.

I can't really tell you why I've avoided it so hard. It's given me a real sense of the hole between those empty kind of words like hipster and some such. I don't know. Black and white photos - I don't know. A very real mistrust.
But I perused Piccadilly Records' Top 100 Albums of the Year this afternoon and I saw it was #2. It had also rated highly on The Quietus business. And no doubt a million other places. I saw the time had come to listen to the thing. Maybe I was worried it would be too cool. That I wouldn't be able to read the signals.

I shouldn't have worried about that.

This is one classy chassis of an album. I'm a few tracks in on my first listen and I like it. It has that feeling that a lot of gems from my own particular Golden Age of That There Indie had. It sounds detached from the blogosphere and emits the whiff of sixth form common rooms and living, breathing record shops. And posters when posters might have been the only way to obtain an enduring image of a hero.

And the guitar's a beautiful, rolling wash. A sweet distorted buzz. And tunes that sound like they've shuffled out of bed after a great party and greater, forgotten dreams. "On Tour" is just majestic and it's how I'd love to imagine being on tour might feel like, if you were on tour with harps. Far less likely to murder anyone if I was within this music.

And there's serious hair on the lad. Vagaries of fashion seem to trouble him not. Or maybe they do and I can't recognise them. Some wobbly Valentines-like noises. A touch of the Mascis or the Michael Hegarty. Fucked if I know the genealogy of what Kurt's been listening to. I was just concerned his name might have been a bit P.U.N.K. R.O.C.K.

Effortless and big anyway. I've not even finished listening to it properly yet and I'm looking forward to the rest of it. Those Top 2011 lists were right. Jam them to Hades.

Rating: Listened Anyway out of Spite.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Niki & The Dove - The Drummer EP

I need to seize every available moment, so Imma gone try be quick.

Saw some soul excitedly hoping that Niki & The Dove would be coming to MCR courtesy of Now Wave.

Now Wave has been very much on the money of late, so I thought I'd give it a go.

Not massively keen. Thought it sounded a bit like The Knife. Found out they were also from Scandanavia. Saw some live footage of them playing in an art gallery in east London. A little too "artistic". Not inspired.

Quite like "The Drummer" single track - but it's a bit too much of the dull-bearded-guy-prods-keyboard-while-kooky-woman-sings-in-a-weird-child/woman-voice-and-throws-angular-shapes. I don't especially like that. The eggs sit too firmly in the box.

Thought I would record these non-thoughts. Then did so.

Rating: Out of Enthusiasm

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Eighties Business: Real Estate - "Days"

Oooh, there's a powerful thud of the Eighties here.

A kick and a push and the decade has come back.

Lots of Johnny Marr swirl - or so it seemed at first. One of them there Richenbachers or somesuch. There's almost a hint of The Shadows or "Brothers In Arms" in the way they gently swing from one tune to the next. And there's that preppy, slightly dreamy vocal style that has been rolling its way across the Pond since this whole pop business kicked off and Churchill was King or whatever.

It's on Domino, which is encouraging. It's featuring on 2011 Albums lists, which means a little less because I don't know half the other albums - and anyway who listens to albums now? It even registered in the US charts, Wikipedia has informed me.

My usual bad habit: not listening to lyrics. But this album seems so much more about the geeetars. Gentle washing waves of soothing jangle. I'm cracking open my pipe and slippers. What lyrics I can make out when I really concentrate seem to be about girls and driving around. And what else is there to write about if you're fairly happy. And these guys sound happy.

Rating: Pleasant out of New Jersey

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Huw M - "Gathering Dusk": Soundtrack

Back once again, dripping with quickly-malformed opinions.

Saw this gent's new album advertised on that there blogosphere (may even have been a link from someone on Twitter, I forget*) and stuck out an investigative snout.

I'm trading in first impressions here and the call of the Xmas High St is strong, so it's a guerilla in/out post.

Two things supplied the hook. The fact that the tweet announced "beautiful sounds" and the fact that Huw M was obviously Welsh. A sucker for pop hiraeth, me.

Initial disappointment as folky fingers hit frets and a slightly wistful voice sang about "pretty flowers" and "some highs and lows" in rather neat rhymes. If someone's going to sing their heart out with an acoustic guitar in the high street of my imagination, I don't want something so sweetly packaged - I want a touch of lunacy, some barking at the inner moon. Or some outstanding melodic leap. Or a lyric that stares me in the eye and dares me not to admire it. Without the poignant backdrop of a heart-wrinkling dusk.

This tune from his earlier album, "Os Mewn Swn" was about "empty seats" ("Seddi Gwag") and this has a track called "empty rooms" ("Ystafelloedd Gwag"), which caught my think - a kind of empty emptiness, an emptiness without any detail to pique me from my own thoughts.

But there are indeed some beautiful sounds - some gorgeous echoing piano and stirring cello business on "Chwyldro Tawel" (Quiet Revolution). But even when things really get going I'm reminded of "Barafundle" or some other magnificent Gorkyness that Huw M doesn't quite touch. Or a bit of Sufjan Stevens without the fragile sense of an emotional cliffhanger. Or Sweet Baboo without the pain in his gut.

So, all in all, probably not one I'm going to chase through the streets very much in future; but sweet and Welsh, which might be enough some of the time. If only it was powerful enough to pull me inside under its own strength.

Rating: Jaunty out of Kilter.

*It may've been Huw Stephens, I think - the looming, bespectacled ginger John Peel of the Taff Valley.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Warm Up: Wild Beasts - "Smother", The Music of the Moors

There's definitely a feel of the moors about this music. Not the marauding north African Othello types, you understand; but those windswept ones that you get in books. The moors with those scowling, moth-black clouds that the rain sweeps down from. Those moors with the wind-bent trees and the hint of real animals, even if they're only rabbits and the like nowadays.
The strongest whiff this music gives off is Kate Bush - all "Cloudbursting" and "Wuthering Heights" - powerful dyed-in-the-woad British music that you almost imagine being carried across the wind in neolithic times. (Or at least you do if you're limited in the imagination like I am.) Tiny creatures with dark musical impulses beating sharply under their fur.

There are touches of Elbow as well. Especially in the delivery of the vocals - "Burning" in particular. Another Moors band, capturing the chinks of sunlight crackling through the clouds to anthemic effect. It's stupid to describe this as Northern music, but I can't help myself. It's babbling brooks and slippery rocks and racing clouds in a way that wouldn't quite make sense anywhere else - not even Wales or Scotland.

"Two Dancers" had left me in two minds a little bit. I thought the vocals were a bit too dramatic, a bit too arch. This is rawer. There's a dark emotional neon in the middle of this, maybe a bit like The Arcade Fire. But with a kagool and a bird-spotting handbook and the occasional weezy keyboard. Powered by the hot soup running through the middle.

And when it stretches its legs on "Bed of Nails" (in an almost Joshua Tree fashion) it really opens up its lungs and leaves me standing with my ears gasping for breath.

Rating: Otter out of 12

PS I decided the other day I was getting so off base with new music at the moment, sitting in my car listening to C90s of The Jungle Brothers and The Doors, that I would listen to 500 new albums across the course of 2012. (Mayan Apocalypse allowing.) I then thought I might record my impressions as I was listening on the auld, neglected blog. Purely for my own damp satisfaction. So I thought I should try and get the habit started now. And rewarding it has been. More to come....

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Viisi adjektiivit Suomi-tyyliin

Howdy, chums of Nordia and the Hyperborean sector!

Been a long time, been a long time - as Led Zep might screech.

I've not done any Insidious Junkboxes since the Autumn, largely as a result of a reorganisation of the front room at The Shed Above. Not a reorganisation of my making, I might add. It may have to wait until after the wedding and the new homestead in Firswood.

Neither have I had many stimulating thoughts of late; nothing of any great cultural import or insight. Well, what's new there, one might ask? Assuming that anyone would read that to ask about it. The thing is I haven't even had the illusion of cultural incision to tease my fingers to the keyboard. Nothing that can't be safely contained within a tweet or two.

But now I sit at a wee table in Room 211 of the Hotelli Milton in Jyväskylä in central Finland and I've a few observations to share with you "all".

It's based on a game that Lw and I (and its co-inventor, Bwrti Eryri) like to play when we go somewhere new - and Finand/Jyväskylä is very new for both of us. It's called the Five Adjectives - and it's quite straightforward. The only proviso is that you can't go for the obvious ones, ie Finland = expensive, Nordic or whatever you could up with without even having to visit the place. You need to show some insight, some creativity.

So, here goes - for Jyväskylä (and Finland, to a lesser extent):

This is the overarching theme for me that best covers several different aspects of Finnish life. From the moment we didn't have to queue for the FinnAir flight to Helsinki, we knew we were dealing with a culture that knew how to get things done with minimum fuss. But we hadn't imagined quite how functional everything would be - in both senses of the word.

In Jyväskylä at least, there is very little room for frivolity or antiquity. Everything has the sense of being shaped by a clean idea of purpose. The architect Alvar Aalto, a native of the city, seems to have had a very profound impact here - everywhere people live in boxes. This gives the town a curious, slightly anonymous feeling and makes it a little hard to navigate in terms of the usual landmarks.

But it's not just the architecture. The Finnish language seems remarkably sleek - no gender for nouns (in fact, no "he" or "she" at all), no "a" or "the", phonetic spelling. OK, there are a large band of word-endings and enough noun cases to choke a reindeer - but even that gives the grammar a machine-tooled sheen. There isn't even a word for "have", which suggests some egalitarian, non-capitalist haven, which would be too much to really hope for - even this close to the arctic circle.

Turns out that even this is built on a bit of a well-meaning lie. No-one actually speaks the offical, written language that was developed between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries from parts of the eastern and western Finnish dialects. No-one except newsreaders anyway. The process of language-building gathered in intensity as the Suomi wriggled their way out from under Swedish and Russian rule and the language was required for courts, business and technology as well as discussing crops and cracking jokes. But it was more important that there was one working language to express this solidifying Finnish nationality than it was to honour these regional differences. Function over continuity, see? Bam!

I'm not too happy with this word, as it might project the image of tanned, hunky and/or svelte Titans padding their way about on rippling lawns. This doesn't quite capture what I've seen. Some of the Finns are rather too varied in build to fit this model, but they all seem to want to make the most of the sunlight hours while they have them. It's just that instead of British concept of outdoor summers (pub gardens, garden centres and music festivals), they want to pull on the vest and lycra shorts and go for a run in the woods.

I thought about "health-conscious", as the town is full of apteekit (ie chemist shops) and the only person I've seen smoking on the entire Uni campus has been Lw. I don't think you could say the same of any UK campus. I doubt even Loughborough could boast that. But the "healthy" tag doesn't quite cut the mustard either - this isn't California. There's no prune juice and no hint of New Age quackery. Just an awful lot of lycra.

I even thought about "wheeled", as the number of people on bikes, rollerblades, rollerblades with ski-sticks, skateboards and every other foot-powered contraption known to Finn is really quite impressive. You have to keep a keen eye all around you to try and make sure that you aren't wandering into the path of some speeding cyclist. I seem to be the only person under the age of 50 that huffs about at a snail's pace - on the campus particularly. "Jyväskylä: the City that Never Walks." But then, "wheeled" would cut out the joggers, so that can't be used either.

So I'll settle for "athletic" rather than "sporty" - purely because it all seems so non-competitve. No football in the park, just frisbee. They seem a bit of an individualist bunch (if you'll pardon the oxymoron), the Finnish - more about challenging themselves. Functionality again, perhaps?

This is maybe more dependent on the fact that it's been hot, sunny weather all week - and unusually so for this time of year, we're told. The rest of Europe seems to be getting soaked in rain and Jyväskylä has been warmer than Rome for days.

But the fact is Jyväskylä sparkles. The lake in the middle of the city, Jyväsjärvi, sparkles. The white University buildings sparkle. The glass-covered balconies sparkle. And because the sun doesn't even set until after 9pm, they sparkle for a long, long time.

I'm going to miss the sunny sparkle and the views across the lake when I get back to the red-brick and neglected waterways of Manchester on Friday night.

There are trees everywhere. Flying over Finland, all you could see were trees and lakes of different colours (not all of them very healthy). The airport was surrounded by trees. The lake is surrounded by trees. The white University buildings peak out through a forest. The trees are in charge here. And not just evergreens either, there's a healthy cluster of young oak trees throwing down in the park in front of the town hall - and sexy, slinky silver birches all over the place. It makes Germany look like the Bull Ring car park.

We'll be taking the train to Helsinki tomorrow before we fly back to Manchester. I expect to see a great deal more forest before then. Dendrophilia overload: Ultrasylvania. If Dracula ever decided to get away from it all, he could summer out here quite pleasantly, stalking about in the woods, ripping out joggers' throats as they go through the fourth circuit of the evening. (Although I suppose the permanent sunshine might cause him some difficulties.)

5. ?????
I'm still an adjective short at the moment. We thought "shy" or "quiet" might be a possibility - especially as almost no-one on the whole 'plane spoke a word on the flight to Helsinki. But people have been quite chatty on the whole - not exactly bursting with questions, but happy to talk. And in English, of course, which sets my cheeks burning with a little shame. The phrasebook has remained wedged in my pocket.

Obviously, there's "expensive" - and it IS expensive here. £3 for a 70cl bottle of Pepsi. £20 or so for CDs. Between £5 and £7 for around a pint of beer. And this has meant our activities (especially the drinking and eating) are not quite at the usual holiday levels. But it would be wrong to say it's curtailed our fun in a big way. And reindeer liver would probably be even more expensive at home. I just hope I can manage to locate some bear sausage before the end of the week.

So I'm on the look out for another impression to word up. If I come up with one, I'll let youse know.


Your pal, Coc x

PS One slightly bizarre sight (which could be considered a little frivolous) was a floating sauna on the lake last night. Not ship-shaped at all - just a wooden hut idly wandering along the water. No birch twigs in sight, but plenty of topless men - one of them wearing a captain's hat. There were beer bellies and there was beer being poured into them - so maybe that knocks adjective 2 out of the water as well? Or maybe they were Swedes.