February 1, 2012

Death Becomes Her! PJ Harvey beguiles the State Theatre, Sydney

Ever since she exploded onto the music scene in 1991 with her debut single, Dress, followed by the primal howl of her debut album, Dry, Polly has continued to confound and confront.  Constantly reinventing whilst staying true her musical roots she has managed to guide her career path and stay within the alternative camp while still being recognised way beyond her possessive fan base.  Much of this is down to the company she has kept along the way, choosing a core element of skilled and honest musicians.  She has remained faithful to her mentors and created a tight-knit collection of artists that have in turn expressed their undivided loyalty.  So with this in mind, she is now embarking on her most visually austere and musically esoteric tour of her career.

The State Theatre – a flamboyant and ostentatious nod to the grand designs of Art Nouveau was the perfect venue for the ascetic staging of the bleak but beautiful, ‘Let England Shake’.  The contrast between setting and set was a stark reminder of the senseless plight of wealth and the omnipresence of death and humanity. The stage at the State theatre looks like a church hall with its sparse, jumbled and bucolic set up.  Polly’s elder statesman musicians, Mick Harvey, Jean Marc-Butty and fellow Dorset resident, John Parish all embellish the theme with Edwardian style garments.  Polly completes the quartet with her unique personality incorporating yet another striking image, this time in the shape of a medieval high priestess, head to toe in black with a flamboyantly witchy head-piece!  The lighting rather resembles a minimalist noir theatre production, all shade and sepia luminescence, the heavy use of searching spot lights simulating the second world war blitz.

The set was short and shorn of any rock numbers, the mood and sense of place was far more important than any musical tokenism.  Recent album, ‘White Chalk’s haunting ballads sit comfortably with the olde worlde folk of ‘Let England Shake’.  The instruments were played crisply with the organic sound emanating with more visceral energy than should be possible with such a sparse and humble set.  The Mellotron added texture while Marc-Butty’s drumming was both subtle and penetrating.  Polly’s vocals were piercing but in an ethereal and saintly manner rather than the devilish howl of old.  Most of her songs, especially the ‘Let England Shake’ numbers were sung in a trebley mid range that unsettled and evoked the 30s singing of Edith Piaf and Sarah Vaughan.

Many concerts inspire and amuse, while others offer catharsis through sound.  This spellbinding performance from Polly and her aged troops glimpsed a world of redemption through the majesty of expression and truth, a portal that lasted just one and half hours, but will remain embedded in our conciousness forever!

December 19, 2011

The Cream of the Crop for 2011

A bumper year for recorded music, more thriving artists than I can ever remember!  So many bands on small labels producing a myriad of styles and genres, usually within the same song!  We are definitely in a golden age of hybrid music.  Although in amongst all the cross-pollination and post-everything outre there is a refreshing beauty in anything retro or analogue with a strong old-fashioned melody

Here’s my top 5

5.  King Creosote and John Hopkins – ‘Diamond Mine’,  A poignant and bucolic peaen to a boyhood town and romanticized youth.

4.  Washed Out – ‘Within and Without’, Euphoric but melancholic, assured yet searching, chilled while infectious.  So many contradictions in one album!   Forget M83′ s good but overblown long player, this is the definitive sound of Chillwave 2011.

3.  Wild Beasts – ‘Smother’, Scandalous that it didn’t even get nominated for a Mercury Music Prize, ‘Smother’ is an exquisite album full of poise, tenderness, sexual intrigue and lust.  Wild Beasts entered the realm of consummate artists with an album that perfectly encapsulates the thrall of sensuality, with spin-tingling effect.

2.  PJ Harvey – ‘Let England Shake’, So much has been written about this album and deservedly so.  This is PJ Harvey’s masterpiece and will be remembered as one of 2011’s classic albums.  With its harrowing portrayal of war, deprivation and human sacrifice it tapped into the current global dissatisfaction while addressing an age-old truth.

1.  Bon Iver – Astoundingly this album managed to achieve the near-impossible, a cut above the debut album – which many considered a classic in its own right – while creating a new template and never repeating the same trick twice.  An impressionistic tour de force that shimmered and radiated with a myriad of sounds.  This was an album that was undeniably 2011.  Making use of all things digital, the emotion was wrought from woven textures and distorted vocals.  Understanding was ambiguous,  this was all about feeling and the sense of time and memory, embellished with the beautiful spacial arrangements.

December 17, 2011

The Sound of 2011

2011 has been a year of reflection, looking back with nostalgic eyes while trying to forge a new musical terrain from the myriad of influences.  Nope, this is no astrology reading but a review in the year of music,  heavily affected by the continual burden of the global debt where the meek and the mild are deemed responsible rather than the rapacious corporate world who deny everything and continue to feast on the rotting consumer corpse.  Sorry, let’s get back to the main agenda………!

Nostalgia blew heavy over us with the 20th anniversary of an array of landmark albums, certainly many more than presently released, creativity was in fine form back in 1991.  ‘Nevermind’ was the major re-release of the year but U2’s ‘Achtung Baby’ was arguably just as groundbreaking at the time , although not as cool!  The re-release of U2’s seminal album certainly got less fanfare than Nirvana’s, a symptom of U2’s current fall from grace.  Other notable 20 year anniversaries were: Primal Scream’s ‘Screamdelica’, My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Bloodless’,  Massive Attack’s ‘Blue Lines’ and Metallica’s ‘Black Album’.  Plenty of room for nostalgia with a line-up as strong as that.

Twenty years later we find ourselves on a similar paradigm, same old financial malaise, impending recession, global wars, widespread anxiety etc.  Much of this spiritual and existential tension was imbued into many of our daily soundtracks adding and soothing in equal measure.  Artists ventured into darker waters, introspectively or retrospectively.  From the radio (Arctic Monkeys, Lana Del Ray, Elbow) to alternative experimentalists (Nicolas Jaar, Oneohtrix Point Never, Dirty Beaches) there was angst and soul searching expressed everywhere through the medium of sound.  Regardless of the genre, the search for understanding and a wistfulness towards the past was palpable.  Memorable stand-outs were; Fleet Foxes (Folk), Metronomy (Pop), James Blake (Electro), Girls (Indie) and tUnE yArDs (Afro-Dub-Pop)

It was also the year of the female (noted in a previous blog).  Adele’s ’21’ sold like hot cakes; Florence & the Machine,Kate Bush, Feist, Lana Del Ray, Zola Jesus, PJ Harvey, Lykke Ly, Katy B and a whole host of other wailing banshees and shadowy chantuese dominated the music news but none more so than the death of Winehouse.  Notable  highlights were the ambient, circular sounds of Glasser, the dark electro funk of Planningtorock and another gem of an album from the not as young but still incredibly young to write such developed and narrative compositions, Laura Marling.

Watch this space for my top five albums of the year………….

November 17, 2011

A vintage crop for first Harvest!

Harvest Festival – Parramatta Park, Sydney.  13/11/11

Once the bastion of the counter-culture movement summer music festivals have inexorably turned into corporate parties of late.  A playground for the bourgeoise, where product placement and profit margins rub shoulders with homogenized cultures and increasingly formulaic music.   Harvest Festival promises a new dawn, music reconstituted as music, not packaged as a lifestyle choice.

What of the inaugural ‘Civilised Gathering’.  Weather was kind, officials smiled, queues were acceptable, toilets endurable, beer (low strength) was tolerable – it was Coopers – Independent brewer – after all.  The park was pleasant, although an elongated site rendered one half of the festival quiet and superfluous – however much the organisers extolled the importance of the art and theatre spaces, The Secret Garden and Bootleg Alley – while the back-end was overloaded with sound clashing stages – all three were almost side-by-side.  Only the experienced, the canny and the lucky escaped the sound spillage.  The juxtaposition wasn’t fatal and helpfully assisted the capricious or the curious.

The music was embellished with a predominantly music loving crowd, not always a certainty at any festival filled with day trippers!  Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and the Family Stone brought the funk early, sun and cider assisting the chunky bass licks and dirty grooves.  TV on the Radio pulled a large crowd for their own particular brand of cerebral indie soul & funk,  after a bright start the layered and complex sound  lost its way at times with a fidgety, distracted crowd, although a storming finale of: ‘Red Dress’, ‘Staring at the Sun’, ‘Repetition’ and ‘Wolf Like Me’, stirred the crowd into a frenzy of pogo dancing and eventually won everybody’s rapture.  Bright Eyes soon followed with their set full of introspective Americana.  Tales of nostalgia, political injustice and world-weariness swooned the sparse audience, most notably the majestic, ‘Landlocked Blues’, passionately recited by the engaging, Oberst.  Death in Vegas ushered in the evening with their recently re-tooled trance – inspired electro pop, Richard Fearless taking lead duties for the first time and singing with such an effete style it was hard to discern whether he was actually conscious.  A total miss-direction from Vegas and an embarrassingly cringe worthy set, especially on a stage named, ‘The Red Tractor Stage’.

Then came the battle of the headliners.   Well, originally only one headliner was conceived, but through contract wrangling and counter argument a very bizarre incident played out.  Flaming Lips turned up 45 minutes late, Wayne Coyne annoying the crowd instantly with his contrivance to over compensate.  Why does he feel the need to stop every song half way through to rally the crowd?  If the energy is right the audience is never in need of a prompt, the former tripper should know this more than most!  Meanwhile Portishead, official headliners, wait on main stage – 25 mins – for Flaming Lips to finish………Many driven away by Coyne’s constant irritation or a greater need to watch an enigmatic Portishead were rewarded with a set of intense and ethereal splendour.  A pin could be heard in the outer field, the craft and consummate professionalism were matched by the sonic thrills.  Comprising songs from all three albums, the spine of the set hung heavy on the more recent industrial rock driven, Third.  But it was the contrast between the melancholic beauty of Dummy with the apocalyptic storm of their later work that startled most; undoubted highlight, the moonlit delicacy of ‘Wandering Star’ followed by the earth shuddering ‘Machine Gun’.  Gibbons voice entranced while Barrow led the way with the aural assault, set closer, ‘We Carry On’, managing to sound chaotic, taut, precise and loose all at the same time.

A day that was high on promise delivered spectacularly.

October 29, 2011

Stone Roses highlight tout problem

The million pound bid on Ebay last week for a ticket at the newly reunited Stone Roses show at Heaton Park created a frenzy of internet activity, and while clearly a joke, not sure why some news channels took is seriously, it does raise an important issue that keeps getting ignored by the policy changers.  It was only a joke or at best a statement about the ridiculous nature of the second-hand ticket market, but it did serve its core purpose, to create headlines.


Let’s sort this debate out once and for all…….The fundamental reason behind ticket re-sales, and the reason there’s a loophole in the law, allowing for touts to flood the market and profit over the genuine fans and the tour promoters, exits because ticket holders are not allowed to refund back to the venue under any circumstance.  This creates a rapacious second-hand ticket market that grows bigger each year, denying fans the chance to buy tickets on an even playing field while simultaneously driving up the price of seeing live music.

Three easy steps to remove the problem:

  1. Each ticket distributor sets up a site where users can re-sell their tickets for the original price only, plus a small commission to cover the commission costs of the ticket outlet – for operation fees, plus postage and packing.
  2. All tickets for major gigs (1500+)should require a photo of the ticket buyer.  This has been tried and tested at certain events, notably Glastonbury, with unparalleled success.  Many people would argue that the major stumbling blocks for such an initiative would be cost to the ticket distributer or promoter and the dread of queuing for twice as long.  Easy to dispel those worries;  If $1 was added to each ticket it would more than cover the cost of setting up such a system, besides we’ve got the technology let’s use it!   No one likes queuing any longer than they have too, so let’s not change that!  Photo ID tickets will act as a deterrent, not many people will get checked but it will definitely make people think twice about buying an expensive ticket on Ebay if they know there’s a chance they might not get in!
  3. Last but not least, let’s legally stop reselling on the internet, with anyone caught facing hefty fines.  Once the first two steps are in place there’s solid justification for tightening up the laws around ticket touting and there’s also no excuse and loopholes for the touts to argue for their free market
This might be a template of idealistic endeavor but if nothing changes and the touts have free rein it will only serve to ramp up the initial prices of the tour promoters, knowing that their product can fetch a lot more on the black market, giving them carte blanche to increase prices across the board.  Quality live music could eventually became like opera or premiership football, elitist and regularly only affordable to the higher social classes.
October 15, 2011

Fools Gold! Rumours persist on the Stone Roses reunion.

Some things are better left alone!  An old school friend, a club where you use to get your kicks, a restaurant that once served your favourite dish.  Fond memories of a bygone age have a way of manifesting and re-imagining, entwined with the visceral energy of youth and the excitement of limitless possibilities.  Music, always the soundtrack to these wide-eyed times, with our favourite bands becoming our cosmic comrades, leading us to the forbidden fruit while simultaneously becoming our heroes, forever held in reverence.

Some bands are lucky.  An important/founding member dies before they get the chance to reform, sanctifying the legacy before the band can forever tarnish the youthful elixir and spirit that once made them the zeitgeist of their generation.  Dying young creates a myth that can’t be unravelled, however many people try.  No deaths, then split the band at the height of their youthful lustre, the more people it upsets the better!  They become frozen like a snapshot in halcyon times.  People love nostalgia, especially when looking back at their favourite band.

With persistent rumours about The Stones Roses reforming, speculation is rife that they’re going to make an announcement next Tuesday 18 October, it feels pertinent to ask the question, should they sell their soul for a pot of gold?

Clearly playing live is the raison d’être for most bands, now the main cash cow and the ultimate test of virtuosity.  For reforming bands that have famously fallen out acrimoniously the thought of performing together again after so many years is usually inspired by one thing, money!  The Roses can’t possibly re-live the energy fuelled excesses of their youth, or hope to rehash the crowning glory of their heightened success.  The musical landscape once belonged to them, 20 years ago, now it is a bitterly cynical terrain.  Failure to better their past glories will result in humility, embarrassment and at worst, dejection.  The rose-tinted spectacles will shatter to reveal a band that sounded, most of the time, a lot better on record than in the flesh.  Leave those memories alone, leave the legend intact.

October 5, 2011

RIP – Bert Jansch 1943 – 2011

The Jimi Hendrix of the acoustic guitar will be remembered as one of the greatest guitar players of the British music scene.  The folk revivalists virtuoso playing and excellent technique has influenced an array of music legends; Johnny Marr, Peter Buck, Nick Drake, Neil Young, Donovan and Jimmy Page, to name but a few.  His exceptional legacy will live on.

October 1, 2011

Bon Iver to play Sydney Opera House

Brooding indie Impressionists, Bon Iver, have announced their first tour of Australia since 2009.  Next March they will visit five cities, as well as playing the Meredith Festival in Victoria.  The highlight though will undoubtedly be 3 nights at the iconic, Sydney Opera House, in the main concert hall.  Led by singer and songwriter, Justin Vernon, the nine piece band will perform songs from their latest critically acclaimed self-titled album.

Still three months to go before the end of the year but Bon Iver’s latest long player will surely go down as the best album of the year, along with PJ Harvey’s, Let England Shake.  The textual diversity and visionary scope of the album is exquisite.  It’s not instantly revealing, but on repeated listens slowly unravels its charms, becoming a warm and comforting, if a touch baffling, friend.  Brimming with sonic splashes and melodic strokes the atmospheric music sit comfortably with the oblique vocals, rather like a Monet or Cezanne, capturing the true essence of the moment through the perception of  the artist.  It’s a wonderful album that reflects, light, movement and confusion through the delicate bio-rhythms of the music and through the intrinsic emotions of the singer.

The perfect musical backdrop for the acoustic precision and elegance of the Opera House.

September 21, 2011

Nevermind Nirvana – it’s 20 years since the release of Screamadelica

With all the recent archive footage, interviews, film releases, CD reissues and over all blanket media coverage it would be easy to believe that there’s just one major 20th anniversary this year.  Sure Nevermind single handedly propelled grunge into the mainstream and indie music became excepted by the masses and was never the same again.  But not every one was listening to grunge music back in the early 90’s? After all it was just a nihilistic, riff heavy type of punk rock, history reinventing itself for a new generation of disillusioned teenagers.

The real music revolution was happening on the beaches of Ibiza, in the warehouses of London and the clubs of Chicago.  Acid House filtered out of the psychedelic parties of the music and drug experimentalists of the late 80s and exploded into the mainstream around the same time Nirvana were asking to be entertained!  Imagine if Kurt had discovered ecstasy and not heroin?   The dichotomy could hardly be more contrasting, two burgeoning youth movements, one based on alienation and anger, the other based on partying and self-expression.  The acid house counter-revolution offered new ideas, hope and a bloody good time to those that switched on.  A brand new movement that had no past and no precedent, its manifestation belonged to the youth and like all-powerful underground trends it scared the shit out of the establishment.

Many will say that the acid house explosion was purely down to the drugs.  Without ecstasy it was pretentious, elitist, narcissistic and musically stunted.  The sheer longevity of house music and its many derivative forms clearly dispels those theories, although the arrival of Primal Scream’s masterpiece, Screamdelica, was the catalyst for musical acceptance and the album that crashed through to the mainstream, dragging millions of rock and indie fans into house clubs and dance parties.

Produced by electronic trailblazer, Andrew Weatherall, Screamaldelica effortlessly bridged the gap between Memphis and Madchester, integrating the anthemic and bluesy strains of rock with the rush and euphoria of house.  Although many other musical styles were deconstructed into the mix, including, gospel, funk and the blissed out rhythms of dub.

It didn’t sell bucket loads on its initial release, 23 September – UK & 8 October – USA, even though the music critics loved it.  It finished at the top, or very near, on the best album awards, for the year and decade, and has been widely recognised as one of the most influential albums of the last 20 years.  It didn‘t sell nearly as much as Nevermind but had Bobby Gillespie killed himself in 1994 who knows?   

September 10, 2011

PJ Harvey and Adele lead the way for the year of the woman

Just to confirm what an inspirational year the female species is having within the realms of the music industry, PJ Harvey wins the prestigious Mercury Music prize, becoming the first person to win it twice, the same week that Adele has stormed past 10 million album sales for her sophomore album, 21, becoming the first artist to reach those stratospheric global album sales since Norah Jones, nearly 10 years ago.

Adele’s success has been staggering, number one in 19 countries and tipped to sell over 13 million albums of 21 by the end of the year.  Combined with her debut album, 19, she will probably smash the 20 million barrier by christmas.  Not bad, considering most of those sales will be in one calendar year and the age of buying music is supposedly dead.

PJ Harvey’s success is based less on breaking records and more on confounding expectations.  Her artistic drive to be in a constant flux of recreation is admirable, while her infinite ability to provoke and astound, in equal measure, is inspirational.  Even more so considering she’s now in the age of artistic inertia, supposedly? Admittedly older artists are more than capable of compelling and innovative work but very few reach or surpass the heights of their firebrand youth.  Harvey has, without doubt, created her best work, a masterpiece and a true artistic statement.

Just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to female supremacy.  While Lady Gaga has dominated the headlines there has been a myriad of other chanteuse arousing the music press and captivating festival crowds.  From surprise Brit winner, Laura Marling to the heavily blogged experimentalist, Zola Jesus, the ladies have been at the forefront of everything that matters in music in the year 2011.  Not forgetting Bjork, still the vanguard for sonic pioneering and technological integration, with her new album Biophilia boldly going where no album has gone before, into the realm of digital composition regarding the celestial body.

Without doubt, the most unforgettable female artist this year will be Amy Winehouse and the tragic death of a wonderfully gifted but mentally tortured and physiologically addicted soul, whose sudden end will leave us the most potent reminder of the fragility of human life.

It may only be September, but surely this has already become the year of the woman.