Friday, 30 March 2012

reviews: liz green, pinkunoizu, lightships

Liz Green - O, Devotion!

Liz Green - O, Devotion! (***)

It’s been five years since Liz Green’s debut single, but the belated arrival of album O, Devotion! has only sharpened her talents. Bad Medicine reappears here with a facelift, and it’s comfortably the superior version: interim touring has softened Green’s vocal affections, while the introduction of moody brass adds new depth. O, Devotion! was recorded at Toerag, the all-analogue studio previously favoured by acts including Billy Childish and The White Stripes – appropriate, since, like both the aforementioned,

Green has an ingrained predilection for musical antiquity. She takes inspiration from traditions ranging from Dixieland jazz to Weimar cabaret, and Liam Watson’s sympathetically simple production plays to her strengths. But while Green’s signature sound is evocative, it lacks variety: forlorn finale Gallows should be a highlight, but by the time it arrives, interest has been deadened by a creeping monotony. Should she introduce greater diversity next time, Green could well achieve something remarkable.

Out Now

Pinkunoizu – Free Time!

Pinkunoizu - Free Time! (****)

Though based in Copenhagan, Pinkunoizu foreground multicultural aspirations via a Japanese name (‘pink noise’) and lyrical references to the Arab Spring. Their capacity for pretentiousness is pushed higher by chief songwriter Andreas Pallisgaard’s high-falutin’ talk of “the most incomprehensible mysteries of being,” and woolly lyrics noting “endless loops of American troops.” Cyborg Manifesto, meanwhile, bumps feminist credentials into the liberal-minded melting pot, just to really hammer home the breadth and depth of their cultural horizons – a recipe for eye-rolling if ever there was one.

Yet while some of their longer pieces might test the patience, there’s always some element in the mix to refocus attention – in The Abyss, for example, the extended guitar solo that awakens four minutes in; in Death is Not a Lover, some rather odd Gregorian chants. That they accommodate their diverse reference points so effortlessly merits an ovation, their layered jams producing exotic results from colourful influences.

Out Now

Lightships - Electric Cables

Lightships - Electric Cables (****)

Most Teenage Fanclub albums contain at least one standout penned by bass player Gerard Love: Star Sign, Sparky’s Dream, Ain’t That Enough, I Need Direction – you get the idea. But with three other Midas-fingered songsmiths competing for space on each, it’s unsurprising that records like Electric Cables exist as outlets to let off excess songwriting steam. Love captains Lightships with a delicate touch, assisted by a congenial crew that includes erstwhile Fanclub drummer Brendan O’Hare and Bob Kildea of Belle and Sebastian, and the results are suitably transportive.

On initial listen, opener Two Lines seems almost too vaporous and airy for its own good. But as subsequent tracks whisk the mind away to carefree summer days via languorous guitar tones and dainty flute melodies (courtesy of Tom Crossley of The Pastels), the haziness falls into heavenly focus. A fine collection of Love songs, beckoning repeated, lingering visits.

Out 2nd April

Monday, 26 March 2012

reviews: late night tales, father murphy, team me

Late Night Tales: Belle and Sebastian Vol. 2

Late Night Tales Presents Belle and Sebastian Vol. 2 (****)

In a 26-part history, Belle and Sebastian are only the second act to add a volume 2 to their Late Night Tales mix, and as before, they’ve cultivated something with appeal that far extends their core fan-base. With five of the gang contributing, the results are eclectic to say the least, and while an effort has been made to sequence coherently, some delightfully incongruous transitions remain (the segueing of Ce’cile’s strutting dancehall into Remember Remember’s delicately beautiful Scottish Widows is one such volte-face).

The genre-switching continues with their contractual cover version, in which the band play the tracklisting’s sole salute to the indie-pop realm from whence they came (The Primitives’ Crash) with a bossa nova swing, slotting in smoothly between a soulful Lovin’ Spoonful cut and Roland Vincent’s swinging LSD Partie. It might seem premature, but go on Late Night Tales, gie them a third crack; they’re rather good at this.

Out Now

Team Me - To the Treetops

Team Me - To the Treetops! (****)

Oslo’s Team Me are overblown, over-excitable and, with the release of debut To the Treetops!, soon-to-be over here. The warmth of your welcome will vary according to the degree to which you find giddily-joyous symphonic pop delectable or detestable: the former camp should start pinning up the bunting post haste, the latter are advised to keep a wide berth. Handclaps and group-chanted choruses abound, threaded through dizzying layers of bells, strings, keys and other musical miscellany.

Their songs are often gratifyingly complex, but rarely sound it on first encounter, with seven minute opener Riding My Bicycle (from Ragnvalsbekken to Sorkedalen) an instantly-arresting case in point. But when things are boiled down to simpler structures and shorter durations, the results are no less impressive: the delightfully unsubtle Patrick Wolf & Daniel Johns bubbles over with candied energy, while tracks like Fool supply gratefully-received moments of calm. A potentially divisive, but supremely confident debut.

Out Now

Father Murphy - Anyway Your Children Will Deny It

Father Murphy - Anyway Your Children Will Deny It (****)

Shivering breaths, an unbearably tense riff, a forceful death rattle: Father Murphy’s latest album opens with the Italian trio on typically austere form. Opener How We Ended up with Feelings of Guilt’s sonic sparseness only accentuates its creepiness, leaving plenty of pockets into which the listener can project drama; as it peters out on ritualistic drums, we’re aflame in the wicker man and it’s only track one.

There’s impressive diversity to what follows: It Is Funny, It Is Restful, Both Came Quickly’s punishing industrial din amplifies the nightmare, whereas closer Don’t Let Yourself Be Hurt This Time is almost lullaby-like (baby-waking clatter aside). At the dark heart of the record is In Praise of Our Doubts, its epic torment – wails, chants, Satan’s own orchestra – somehow skirting round pomposity. That such regular flecks of humour do little to dampen the sinister presiding atmosphere remains Father Murphy’s most potent spell.

Out Now

Sunday, 25 March 2012

ladies and gentlmen... flood of love!

michael (of bottle rocket fame) is in a new band called flood of love. they're playing their FIRST EVER SHOW this tuesday at stereo in glasgow, supporting the amazing snakeheads. get yoursels along aye?

more info here...

Thursday, 22 March 2012

GFT programme note: The Kid with a Bike

On release from tomorrow, The Kid with a Bike gets two big ol' thumbs up from me - here's my short article on the film, written for the Glasgow Film Theatre.


In many ways, The Kid with a Bike is a typical Dardenne feature, with many of their hallmarks present and correct: the Seraing setting; the use of non-professional actors in prominent roles; a matter-of-fact realist aesthetic combined with elliptical narrative structure; and a thematic focus on childhood in all its confusion. As Jonathan Romney notes, this consistency is in part due to a repertory of regular collaborators both in front of and behind the camera, including cinematographer Alain Marcoen and editor Marie-Hélène Dozo on the production side, and Jérémie Renier and (in one extremely fleeting scene) Olivier Gourmet in the cast.[1] But in other respects, The Kid with a Bike diverges from expectations established as far back as 1996’s La Promesse: it is their first to be shot in summer, reflecting a more optimistic tone;[2] their first to feature a bona-fide film star in the luminous form of Cécile De France; and their first to use non-diegetic music, with Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto scoring a handful of key moments. In addition, the brothers have discussed the film in terms that seem at odds with the realist approach for which they are held as paragons. ‘We wanted to construct the film as a kind of fairy tale,’ states Jean-Pierre Dardenne in interview; at one stage, he reveals, the film was even titled A Fairytale for Our Times.[3]

It’s an unusual reference point for a number of reasons, not least because the fairy tale’s broadly-painted notions of good and evil don’t seem to allow for the kind of moral complexity for which the duo are rightly lauded. The actions of Bruno in L’Enfant (2005), to pluck one protagonist from a filmography full of equally-applicable examples, are a tangled mix of callousness, haplessness, abjection and, eventually, minor redemption; a knot not easily accommodated by the Manichean simplicity of the fairy tale. Nonetheless, the concept of ‘realist fairy tale’ is an intriguing lens through which to view the siblings’ latest feature.

The ‘kid’ of the title is 11-year-old Cyril, played with remarkable intensity by Thomas Doret in his screen debut. The ‘bike’ is Cyril’s most prized possession, sold by his father Guy (Renier) after abandoning Cyril to foster care. Angry, tenacious and almost always in agitated motion, Cyril strains his young body towards two hoped-for reunions: with his bike, and with his father. When he escapes the care centre to search for the latter, the camera follows closely, but can barely keep up with his determined sprint. When the boy’s pace slows, the camera moves closer still, positioned at his diminutive level, cutting adult figures from the frame.

Later, when his bike is returned to him, there is the same dashing movement, but even faster, and more fluid. As Manohla Dargis astutely notes in The New York Times, Cyril’s focussed trajectory ‘brings to mind one of the laws of motion: A body in motion travels in a straight path until acted on by an outside force.’[4] Local hairdresser Samantha (De France) provides the necessary counterforce; when they collide in a doctor’s surgery, Cyril clasps his arms tightly around her in an attempt to resist being taken back to the centre. ‘You can hold me, just not so tight,’ the smothered Samantha whispers – an act of consolation that subsequently becomes a promise, when she agrees to foster Cyril at weekends. Her kindness is deliberately never given any firm psychological motivation, and Cyril undoubtedly gives his benefactor sufficient cause to question her commitment, in one scene leaping from an already-in-motion fairground ride with the cry ‘I’m going alone!’ So why does she persevere? To adopt the directors’ own phraseology, in the fairy tale reading, Samantha is ‘the good fairy’, whom the plot places in opposition to ‘the bad guy’: drug-dealer and petty criminal Wes. Cyril first encounters Wes in woodland, where his red clothing (a signature colour for Cyril, from tracksuit top to ginger hair) explicitly underscores the fairy tale connotations of this encounter between child and predatory ‘wolf’. But painting the plot as a battle between influences good and bad for the soul of an innocent is too simplistic; what to make, for instance, of the scene in which Wes is shown caring for an elderly relative, hinting at a more complicated context for his criminality? Or, indeed, the character of Guy, who abandons his son not out of malice, but a fear of inadequacy, his fecklessness characterised not as cold or cruel, but pathetic – as lost as his son, only far less courageous.

For all the fairy tale reference points, The Kid with a Bike’s depiction of human behaviour – often messy and unexplainable – is as its core as sincere and naturalistic as their past works. To return to the question of Samantha’s personal motivations, another of Luc Dardenne’s comments suggests the brothers’ compassion for their protagonists is, if anything, more emphatically felt than ever. ‘Kindness has a mysterious aspect’ Luc states, ‘but wanting to find Samantha’s reasons is tantamount to minimising her kindness. Because kindness, certainly more than Evil, scares people. Kindness isn’t rational. Samantha feels called upon by this kid, and she responds to his call. She chooses him and he likewise chooses her. That was enough for us.’[5] Despite the mention of ‘evil’, his words indicate that, more than just a fairy tale for our times, The Kid with a Bike is a profoundly human tale for the ages.

Dr Christopher Buckle
Researcher and Journalist
March 2012

[1] Jonathan Romney (2012), ‘La Comedie Humaine’, Sight and Sound April 2012, p. 43

[2] Domenico La Porta (2012), ‘Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne: Directors’ Cineeuropa, accessed 20/03/12 at

[3]The Kid with a Bike, accessed 20/03/12 at

[4] Manohla Dargis (2012) ‘Seeking a Father, Finding Humanity’, The New York Times, 15 March 2012, accessed 20/03/12 at

[5] Frédéric Bonnaud, tr. Jonathan Robbins (2012), ‘Radical Kindness’, Film Comment, accessed 20/03/12 at

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

father murphy @ nice n sleazy, 14th march

For all their irreverent chat, Fat Janitor don’t mess around. Pummeling Nice n Sleazy with dense hardcore, the Jannys’ bracingly raw sound is effective if unsubtle, their relentlessly noisy riffs spiked with baw-kicking feedback.

With their debut album due shortly, Citizens offer a cleaner, less aggressive take on many of the same genre ingredients, with more varied and melodic results. Their approach is no less invigorating, but they accost the room’s collective lugs in more diverse (and arguably more satisfying) ways.

But as good as both supports are, there’s relatively little in the way of overlap with tonight’s headliners (unfaltering intensity aside). As Father Murphy huddle solemnly onstage, the inter-bill contrast is brought into sharper focus; where the opening acts were unyieldingly heavy, the Italian trio experiment with textures – silence to shrieks, quiet clicks to cacophonous rackets.

The crepuscular mood is interrupted twice by mobile phone interference pulsing erratically through the PA, but otherwise they foster an unbroken, reverential atmosphere, in which applause is held back till the set’s end so as not to disturb the carefully placed clangs and moans.

As Reverend Freddie preaches inscrutable sermons over Chiara Lee’s accompanying keys, drummer Vittorio’s loose and inventive percussion holds the elements in place, whether tolling cracked cymbals or punctuating the Rev’s discordant guitar drones with sharp intakes of breath. Though challenging and unorthodox, they’ve a confidence and clarity of purpose both rare and rewarding.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Sunday, 18 March 2012

march playlist

1. yo la tengo - autumn sweater
2. boat - tv scientists
3. the magnetic fields- god wants us to wait
4. cloud nothings - stay useless
5. ballboy - you can't spend your whole life hanging around with arseholes
6. paul simon - me and julio down by the schoolyard
7. sultans of ping - where's me jumper
8. talking heads - wild wild life
9. carly simon - you're so vain
10. bleached - searching through the past
11. missing persons - walking in la
12. kim wilde - view from a bridge
13. future bible heroes - don't you want me
14. grimes - oblivion
15. joy division - transmission
16. ben folds five - underground
17. team me - patrick wolf and daniel johns
18. patrick wolf - the magic position
19. camera obscura - swans
20. belle and sebastian - crash
21. husker du - charity, chastity, prudence and hope
22. the lemonheads - dawn can't decide
23. django django - default
24. del shannon - runaway
25. the beach boys - help me rhonda
26. orange juice - rip it up
27. the pogues - sally maclennane
28. stereo total - holiday inn
29. janelle monae - tightrope
30. the beastie boys - sure shot
31. the delmonas - peter gunn locomotion
32. johny kidd - shakin all over
33. billy idol - white wedding
34. nirvana - molly's lips
35. the undertones - my perfect cousin
36. stiff little fingers -
37. x-ray spex - identity
38. super furry animals - something for the weekend
39. mansun - stripper vicar
40. presidents of the united states of america - lump
41. the four tops - i can't help myself
42. larry williams & johnny watson - a quitter never wins
43. fats domino - i'm walkin'
44. the creation - biff bang pow
45. the brooks brothers - warpaint
46. the white stripes - blue orchid
47. bruce springsteen - we take care of our own
48. the cure - just like heaven
49. the b-52s - 60608-842
50. cindy and bert - der hund der baskerville
51. gang of four - outside the trains don't run on time
52. fleetwood mac - don't stop
53. stevie wonder - signed, sealed, delivered
54. aretha franklin - see saw
55. idlewild - little discourage
56. the smiths - william it was really nothing
57. buzzcocks - ever fallen in love with someone?
58. the nerves - one way ticket
59. the cars - just what i needed
60. kenickie - punka
61. david bowie - suffragette city
62. the rolling stones - sympathy for the devil
63. new order - true faith
64. duran duran - hungry like the wolf
65. cyndi lauper - goonies r good enough
66. the pogues - dirty old town

Saturday, 17 March 2012

bottle rocket is ALMOST NOW

here's our tasting platter: the buffet starts at 11:30pm!

Friday, 16 March 2012

dvd review: special forces

To watch Special Forces is to war with your own incredulity. Individual tolerances for cliché are rigorously tested as an elite team of French special ops parachute in to the Afghan/Pakistan border region to rescue a French journalist from a rogue Taliban leader. Director Stéphane Rybojad and cinematographer David Jankowski take their cues from the Michael Bay school of military-fetishisation, with formation helicopter swoops and unnecessary scenes aboard the CDG aircraft carrier showing off the hardware, while a macho cast of warriors line-up to fulfil the combat genre’s standard squad-roles: the stoic leader, the moody lone-wolf sniper, the joker prone to shouting “I love my job!” midst fire-fight, and so on. Initially, it’s possible to enjoy Special Forces at the level of a Gallic Tears of the Sun – daft, but entertainingly earnest in its laudation of the armed forces as conflicted humanitarians at heart. But as the plot holes mount up, even this modest benchmark grows hopelessly out of reach.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

future islands @ captains rest, 7th march

Sacred Paws start proceedings with an exuberant, pulse-raising set of afrobeat-influenced lo-fi pop; consisting of Eilidh of Golden Grrls on drums and Rachel of Trash Kit on guitar, the duo’s intricate busyness belies their simple set up, with all components firing off on unpredictable trajectories and staying in constant motion throughout. By comparison, self-described “pastoral punks” Way Through are a pricklier proposition. Another drums/guitar two-piece, the Shropshire duo revel in wilfully tricky time signatures, shuffling together pop hooks and noisy feedback surges, with resulting echoes of, amongst others, Hot Club de Paris and Pixies (particularly in the Black Francis-esque vocal range).

Yet while both supports make a real impression, they can’t help but be side-lined in the memory banks by the headliner’s mercurial frontman. Normally we'd try to avoid meeting the piercing gaze of buckfast-swigging, wild-eyed eccentrics, particularly so if they’re incessantly slapping themselves in the head and/or growling like a theatrical grizzly bear. But in the case of Future Islands’ Samuel Herring, we can’t look anywhere else. From the moment he bounds onstage, he’s a gravitational presence, sucking all eyes towards him with a mix of daftness and danger.

Despite admitting to feeling “pretty beat up” (less due to the face slapping, more to do with being 21 gigs into a tour without a day off), opening number Give Us the Wind is a spellbinding demonstration of the Baltimore trio’s compelling idiosyncrasies. Other highlights include Walking through That Door and an emotive Before the Bridge, but the longer they play, the clearer it is that Herring’s unorthodox vocal style (part Ultravox, part Tenacious D, part Les Miserables) could turn any old muzak into a hypnotising tour-de-force.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

sunny day sweepin' the clouds away

bottle rocket is brought to you this month by the numbers ‘17’ (as in the 17th of March), ‘11’ and ‘30’ (that’s the start time) and ‘3’ (as in how much it costs to get in after 11:30pm).

bottle rocket is brought to you this month by the letters ‘b’, ‘r’ (obviously), and, er, let’s go with… ‘P’.

Possibilities include Pavement, Primitives, Pixies, Pulp, Prince, Pastels, Patti Smith, Prefab Sprout, Pet Shop Boys, Pains of Being Pure at Heart… and probably plenty of perfect pop, perhaps including Punka, Perfect Skin, Picture This, Pretty Persuasion, Pressure Drop, Pablo Picasso, Party Hard, Pictures of You, Pleasure Palaces and Piece of my Heart?

Requests from elsewhere in the alphabet belong on the facebook wall!

*bottle rocket*
*17th march*

Monday, 12 March 2012

we can still picnic presents: mao disney

Nearly eighteen months into its existence, arts collective We Can Still Picnic remains difficult to pin down, with club nights, radio shows and pamphleteering amongst the activities keeping its members and affiliates busy. Their record label wing – originally a digital home for previously out-of-print albums by the likes of Nectarine No. 9, but also home to Wake the President’s (rather ace) Zumutung! – acquires further facets tonight, with the unveiling of Mao Disney: Fluxing the Aesthetic, a handsomely-presented tasting platter of ‘neu Scotland.’ Or, as Bjorn of Wake the President puts it, just “eight bands that Erik, Douglas and I like” – five of whom grace the CCA tonight for its launch.

Having since given the compilation several spins, we’re kicking ourselves for arriving too late to see Aggi Doom; a misjudgement we won’t make again. Instead, our evening begins with a low-key set from The Sexual Objects, who, despite being the most experienced and possibly most respected act on the line-up (when you consider their members’ collective history), tonight feel very much like a warm-up to more exciting bands to come, their all-acoustic set-up lacking the punch Henderson’s louche, retro-baiting songwriting usually delivers.

There’s a sharp upswing the moment POST plug in, their instantly-appealing concoction counting indie-pop, post-punk and a smattering of disco amongst its ingredients; from where we’re standing, it works a treat on an enlivened and appreciative audience. With momentum established, Casual Sex accept the baton with aplomb; frontman Sam Smith (previously of Mother and the Addicts) is humorously nonchalant one moment, sharply focused the next, and We’re All Here Mainly For the Sex’s dark funk is a highlight not just of their set, but of the whole evening.

Finally, Wake the President take to the stage to close the event with a dependably vigorous, but disappointingly short set (one Mao tune?). They open with a new song, which gets only a fraction of the attention and appreciation it deserves; those impressed by the progress demonstrated on Zumutung! will lap it up should it become a more permanent set fixture. Later, the likes of This Is New and the ever-shiny Miss Tierney are fired off with conviction, yet the results never quite feel like an end-of-night celebration; for a record launch, enthusiasm seems buttoned down. But this most minor of quibbles shouldn’t detract from the bottom line: an excellent venture, executed excellently.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

another month, another skinny

grimes on the cover, and reviews with meshuggah, lambchop, christopher doyle and die hard (amongst others )inside.

oh, and this stuff, by me.

- 'strange powers' (interview with mr stephin merritt of the magnetic fields - read here!)
- the machine room - 'love from a distance' ep review (read here!)
- emir kusterica and the no smoking orchestra live review (read here!)
- father murphy - 'anyway your children will deny it' album review
- the magnetic fields - 'love at the bottom of the sea' album review (read here!)
- the wedding present - 'valentina' album review (read here!)
- lee ranaldo - 'between the times and the tides' album review (read here!)
- special forces dvd review

Friday, 9 March 2012

reviews: the magnetic fields, the wedding present, kelvox 1

The Magnetic Fields - Love at the Bottom of the Sea (****)

Following the profile-raising 69 Love Songs, Stephin Merritt largely ditched the synthesisers that had characterised great swathes of the Magnetic Fields’ previous output, embarking on a ‘no-synth’ trilogy that culminated in 2010’s Realism. Love at the Bottom of the Sea restores electronics with a vengeance, its opening seconds sounding more like Michael and Janet Jackson’s Scream than a ukulele-playing ABBA-fanatic has any right to.

Despite a lengthy tracklisting, the album is a trim 35 minutes, and brevity is an asset; try to extend expertly-crafted Faberge pop like Infatuation (With Your Gyration)’s prefab-OMD or the breezy Andrew in Drag and you risk extinguishing their sparkle. That won’t stop some dismissing Love… a slight work, but with 69 Love Songs as a career benchmark, anything produced under the Magnetic Fields banner is bound to seem humble by comparison. Taken on its own merits, Merritt’s added another chapter to a songbook without peer.

Out Now

The Wedding Present – Valentina

The Wedding Present - Valentina (***)

They’re a long way off Fall-figures, but for their eighth studio album, The Weddoes have undergone another line-up change: two more personnel subbed out, and erstwhile drummer Graeme Ramsay moved into a more central position. In addition to taking up guitar and piano duties, Ramsay co-wrote all but one of Valentina’s tracks, and as such deserves a fair share of credit for it surpassing the patchy El Rey.

Back a Bit…Stop and The Girl From the DDS are, respectively, fine representatives of the band’s boisterous and contemplative sides, the latter especially effective thanks to new bassist Pepe Le Moko’s German-sung counterpoint vocals. But ultimately, fluctuations in the cadre matter little: like Mark E. Smith’s stranglehold on the Fall’s identity, The Wedding Present remain The Wedding Present so long as David Gedge’s droll lyrics and delivery stay put, and his undiminished knack for skewering cliché ensures even Valentina’s less distinctive tracks hit home.

Out 19th March

Kelvox1 – Grazed Red

Kelvox1 - Grazed Red (***)

Depending on how you look at it, Kelvox1 either occupy a genre-less zone of glitches and groans; or, paralactically, they’re saturated with genres, with post-rock, dub-step, krautrock and even the faint ghost of an alt-eighties pop song inhabiting their pockmarked soundscapes.

Either way, their music is voluminous (Grazed Red consists of just two tracks, the shorter of which tops out at thirteen minutes) yet minimalist, and rewards focussed listening: Hanged Man’s repetitive bass-line and clanging beat underpins a steady degeneration into scrapes and whines, while Steven-Grazed Red’s mechanical hiccups and distant vocals grow bleakly centreless.

Both tracks are hypnotic if encountered in a certain state of mind, but if initial impressions are unfavourable, trust your instincts: there may be depth to what Kelvox1 do, but the main components are there on the surface to be embraced or rejected. With music this eerily austere, many will understandably select the latter option.

Out 12th March

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Cry Parrot presents: Umberto @ SWG3. 25th February

We ascend SWG3’s stairs to the strains of Badalamenti, and find a Black Lodge stage mock-up (red curtains et al) at the summit. It’s a serendipitous start for an evening promising scares and chills, and Organs of Love fit the creepy atmosphere like a razor-fingered glove. As James T. Wilson hammers out off-kilter drones on the duo’s keyed instrument of choice, Sister Blister’s gothic laments battle through some sound issues to hypnotise the front rows of the venue’s makeshift cinema.

Tonight’s film selection has been kept under wraps, and while sleazy slasher Pieces is very much a cult (i.e. obscure) choice, its barmy opening causes more than one clued-up audience member to squeal with recognition. With dialogue removed, the plot is frequently incomprehensible (though we suspect the non sequitur ninja interruption is unfathomable regardless), but in a genre built on set pieces, key scenes count double. Each time the lady-slicing maniac revs his chainsaw, Umberto’s score injects the resultant bloodletting with visceral menace.

Tucked away in the corner, he’s visually inconspicuous, but the siren stingers that pulsate through the room are wholly unignorable. On occasion, a sly humour peeks through, with beats locking into an onscreen dance rehearsal for instance. But more often, Umberto’s sound is expertly sinister, sinking teeth into a superbly daft vintage horror flick, with enjoyably discomfiting results.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Merrittocracy (aka an interview with stephin merritt of the magnetic fields...)

I gibbered nervously to mr stephin merritt last month and wrote this here article about it for the skinny...

Stephin Merritt’s irascibility is the stuff of lore – spare a thought, dear reader, for the Chicago Time Out editor reportedly reduced to tears during a particularly sour encounter – but like most anecdote-based reputations, his prickliness is prey to exaggeration. Admittedly, our brief chat contains its share of confidence-shrivelling dead ends (Q: You don’t record many covers, so what attracted you to Franz Ferdinand’s Dream Again (for last year’s Covers EP)? “I liked the song”). But ask him about recent record purchases (Doris Day, The Louvin Brothers and a compilation of Indian horror themes entitled Bollywood Bloodbath), or the state of his myriad other projects (more on which shortly), and he belies his Eeyore persona by being as forthcoming and drolly amusing as any fan, or indeed, nervous interviewer, could hope.

Our call interrupts New York-based rehearsals for a forthcoming tour to promote latest album Love at the Bottom of the Sea – a frothy collection of short, sharp synth-pop compositions cut through with characteristically quotable lyrics ('I don’t know why I love you/ you’re not really a person/ more a gadget with meat stuck to it' is an immediate favourite). It follows a run of releases in which synths – the bedrock instrument of early Magnetic Fields records – were shelved, as Merritt carried over opus 69 Love Songsmulti-genre smorgasbord into a series of albums with more narrowly focused (and modest) musical concepts: the cabaret-flecked chamber-pop of i; the Jesus and Mary Chain-style fuzz of Distortion; and the largely unplugged ‘folk album’ Realism. “I was bored with the synthesiser being this old familiar sound, a sort of nostalgic sound, and I didn’t necessarily share that nostalgia,” says Merritt, only choosing to reintroduce the synth when a “new breed” emerged to refresh the palette. “I’m committed to being diverse with instrumentation. Playing and having fun and experimenting in the studio is an important part of recording.”

Ten albums as the Magnetic Fields is an impressive milestone by any standard, yet the stat barely scrapes the surface of Merritt’s prolific work-rate. His extended corpus spans Chinese operas, audiobook scores and much more besides, under guises ranging from self-styled ‘goth-bubblegum’ act The Gothic Archies, to occasional side-project The 6ths, which counts Lou Barlow, Amelia Fletcher and Bob Mould amongst its guest vocalist roll-call. Last year, a Merritt-curated Obscurities collection featured previously-unreleased material from a plethora of sources, including unfinished musical The Song from Venus, and Buffalo Rome, Merritt’s first band with long-term collaborators Claudia Gonson and Shirley Simms.

The vault-raiding also yielded alternative versions of pre-existing tracks, including an up-tempo digital overhaul of is I Don’t Believe You; I ask whether this is typical of his working methods. “When I write songs, I’m generally not thinking of the arrangements, unless it’s for a show,” he replies. “When I’m writing for a play, I know what the instrumentation is going to be ahead of time [and] I generally know who is going to be singing the song I write, but for the band, I don’t know any of that.” Does this mean there’s a certain amount of fluidity to Merritt's writing process? Do ideas sparked during preparation for one project ever eventually work their way into others, for instance? “I’m never working on both at the same time, so they’re pretty independent,” he responds unequivocally. “I strongly dislike working on more than one thing at the same time.”

It’s difficult to take such a claim at face value when you consider the number of irons Merritt has in the fire at any one time. Some of these unfinished works he’s tight lipped about: “we’ll see” is all we get regarding a status update for the aforementioned The Song from Venus, recently likened to Chinese Democracy by Lemony Snicket author and 69 Love Songs accordionist Daniel Handler. But about other projects, he shares tidbits: when pushed for information on a recent Royal Shakespeare Company commission, Merritt names Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play La Ronde – about sexual and moral relations in turn-of-the-century Vienna – as the primary inspiration, though “it’s not at all recognisable now, so I’d say it’s an original work rather than an adaptation.”

In addition, a new Future Bible Heroes record is on the horizon (“right now I have 22 backing tracks to work with”), while a third 6ths album was only recently abandoned (regrettably, he’s “back to square one with that” for the time being). Amidst it all, less time-consuming labour is slotted in wherever it can be accommodated. Earlier in the year, Merritt made an unexpected foray into computer games, providing narration for Space Cruiser – a one-night only ‘cooperative mission-based game’ that took place at New York’s Natural History Museum. In a decked-out planetarium, 200 participants jointly navigated a spacecraft through an asteroid field, aided by a Merritt-voiced on-board guidance system. “I said I’d do it if it took less than an hour,” Merritt laughs, “and it did – it took 45 minutes. It was fun, I’d never done voice over before. I got to be all computery…” Unprompted, we’re treated to a sample of his robot impression. “There is. A fire. On. Flight. Deck. One,” he mechanically intones, more staccato and bassy than ever. “That sort of stuff.”

To squeeze in so much, yet (apparently) avoid overlap not only requires considerable forward planning, but a dogged work ethic to boot. I ask if he finds deadlines productive in themselves. “Oh, I love deadlines, yes, deadlines are very productive. When recording 69 Love Songs I had a one year deadline, self-imposed. I decided that I was going to do the entire recording in one year, and at this point I hadn’t written all the songs yet either, I had maybe half of them, and decided to write the other half and record the whole thing in a year.” A triple album in 365 days is no mean feat, to say the least. “I was two weeks late – but only two weeks,” he states with a hint of pride. “Coincidentally, I took a two week vacation during the recording, so, it pretty much was the year.”

2010 saw the release of documentary Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, which offered insight into its subject’s writing habits over a ten year period. During filming, Merritt decided to relocate from New York to Los Angeles, citing a long-held desire to ‘break into’ the closed-shop world of Hollywood scores. Has he made any progress in that regard?Um, it doesn’t seem to matter where I live,” he laughs, before offering a more pragmatic reason for the relocation. “Really, the point of moving was to have my studio be in a larger space. I now have a three bedroom house in LA that I couldn’t even imagine being able to afford in New York.” He continues to split his time between the two cities, but despite regular coast-to-coast travel, he still finds the prospect of heading out on tour a miserable one. Will Irving (Merritt’s Chihuahua, named after late composer and lyricist Irving Berlin) accompany him on the road this time? “No, he’ll stay home,” Merritt sighs. “We did tour with him briefly when he was a puppy, but it did not work out very well.”

Sensing impatience with the topic, and with only minutes left of our interview slot, we consider it prudent to change subject; for reasons unknown, we opt for politics, and attempt to canvass Merritt’s opinions on the on-going Republican Primaries. In the lengthy pause that follows, we’re given ample time to regret our non-sequitur introduction of one of polite conversation’s no-go topics, but, eventually, he formulates an answer he’s comfortable with: no comment. “I’d like to keep my passport” Merritt states for the record, “so let’s not discuss that.” With UK shows scheduled for later in the month, his caution is generous; after all, there’s few more sure-fire ways of dodging undesirable tour commitments than a withdrawn travel permit.