Category Archives: MUSIC

Collected journalism in the fields of pop, rock, experimental, drone, country rock, folk, doom, stoner rock etc

Extended review – Oxbow: Thin Black Duke (HydraHead)

Oxbow: Thin Black Duke

There are times when a group or an artist releases an album so instantly complete and compelling that there appears to be no conceivable way in which they or anybody else will ever surpass it. Only the very gifted or the very lucky find themselves in such circumstances, and they are few in number.

In recent years These New Puritans set an unfeasibly high bar for themselves with Field Of Reeds, while Sunn O))) did likewise with Monoliths And Dimensions. Ditto Holy Other, whose majestic Held remains understandably his only full-length record. After all, what would be the sense in trying to better it?

The inevitable consequence of scraping the sky is that no matter how inventive, innovative or imaginative future works might be, they can never match the impact of their lauded predecessors.

Where San Francisco’s Oxbow differ from the above examples is that while Thin Black Duke, only their seventh album since forming in 1988, is a record its makers are highly unlikely ever to eclipse, if there is a group who could defy such colossal odds then, on this evidence, it is Oxbow. They sound equally like a band that has discussed and agreed upon every moment of every song and one that barely knows what note comes next.

This is a record that takes rock dynamics and tropes ­– drums, bass, guitar; verse-chorus-verse – and puts them in a vice. From the opening Cold And Well-lit Place to closer The Finished Line, the four musicians turn the lever steadily and assiduously until the very substance of the record is fit to collapse in on itself. Structures compress and contract, expand and elongate. Eugene Robinson’s vocal performances flit between manic and measured. The punk rock impulse that runs throughout becomes distorted – never diluted ­– by elements of metal, prog, jazz and, with the addition of orchestral parts scored by guitarist Niko Wenner, symphonic music.

If Thin Black Duke is unclassifiable, it is also unexpected that in 2017 a group formed at a time when post-punk, post-hardcore and noise rock was incubating a welter of innovative American bands should have the motivation and the energy to look for and discover an ultima Thule of rock music, a hitherto undiscovered piece of land in a world everyone thought had been mapped to within an inch of its life.

Guitar music of this stripe ceased to develop years ago as its exponents succumbed to creative stagnancy, caved in to financial necessity or simply grew up. The Jesus Lizard, Lungfish, Drive Like Jehu and many, many more: once upon a time you couldn’t move for crooked guitar music that entertained and energised, challenged and charmed in equal measure. While Thin Black Duke is categorically not a throwback to American underground rock in the late 20th century, it grazes on similar pastures and shares a disdain for torpor and a hunger for beauty amid cacophony with the best practitioners of it.

From the off the fluent guitar, demented vocals and Morricone-flavoured symphonic layers of Cold And Well-Lit Place seem like a puzzle designed to confuse, but stick with it and the dissonant trails and melodic motifs within Ecce Homo begin to serve as cloths with which to wipe clean your ears and acclimatise them to an atmosphere of courageousness last heard on Pony Express Record by Shudder To Think.

Perhaps as a counterpoint to the relative straightforwardness of Wenner’s riffs, which veer as close as comfort will allow to 1980s rock, on A Gentleman’s Gentleman Robinson alternates between the voice of a ranting loon, speed-whispering through the opaque lyric, and that of a drunk preacher, hectoring menacingly as piano expands the palette and contributes a sense of drama and disquiet.

Letter Of Note, however, is where you really start to be unsettled. Almost four minutes into a seemingly routine slice of alternative rock, albeit one with wonky orchestral flourishes and topped by perhaps Robinson’s most conventional performance of the album, Wenner and bass player Dan Adams jump off the path and lead the group down an alley of proggy, plucked weirdness, which serves as a cue for Robinson to leap into the limpid pool of red-eyed insanity and the orchestral players to spin off on a quest to uncover the most dissonant colours possible. It’s exhausting.

As a welcome contrast the first 30 seconds of Host are as stripped down as the preceding five minutes are multi-layered, exhibiting a yen for simplicity that wouldn’t be out of place in the Shellac For Dummies hardback. The song itself takes flight halfway in, throwing off its alt-rock cloak to deliver a cathartic uppercut as Robinson proclaims: “Love, lust, God, end/Debatable points all.”

The Upper finds Oxbow abandoning rock altogether, favouring instead a piano-led waltz beneath Robinson’s spoken vocal until Wenner can hold back no longer and dives in with skronking and defiantly melodramatic guitar figures to mirror Robinson’s contribution. The penultimate Other People, however, both prefigures the comeliness of the ensuing finale and raises the noise rock levels to a new high, Wenner whammy-barring his Strat in unison with chimes, brass and strings. This is questing, heroically odd rock to gladden the ears of callow youths and jaundiced grown-ups.

Like all good things, though, Thin Black Duke has to come to an end. While beautiful, in large part due to Robinson’s echo-swathed falsetto, The Finished Line is harrowing in its desolation, the pace deathly, the orchestra pitched at extremes, until the calm which reigned at the song’s outset reappears. “Pointless, senseless, and now/Endless,” whispers Robinson as a fading guitar signal plummets to earth.

By rights no group should be peaking after 30 years of making music together, yet that is the situation in which Oxbow find themselves. Will they ever transcend Thin Black Duke? Such are the ideas and attention to detail on this record, you wouldn’t bet against them.

Watch the video for Cold And Well-lit Place below:

This article originally appeared on The Quietus website.

Review – Disco Inferno: In Debt (Rocket Girl)

Disco Inferno: In Debt (Rocket Girl, 2017)

Presumably named in jest, Disco Inferno were sensitive souls whose early-1990s experiments in deconstructing rock tropes and reassembling the components in new forms made them darlings of the weekly music papers. Alongside such peers as Bark Psychosis, Loop and late-period Talk Talk they breathed new life into the corpse of guitar music, inadvertently begetting post-rock in all its many guises while receiving precisely none of the spoils.

Comprising their debut LP Open Doors, Closed Windows and a clutch of vinyl-only releases, In Debt inevitably suffers on initial listening for its patina of unforgiving recording techniques so common for bands with limited funds at the time, the slew of cheap or hastily deployed effects failing to mask shortcomings in performance.

Persevere, however, and In Debt opens up like a bloom, providing clear context for the short-lived group’s ongoing legacy.

Across 17 tersely titled cuts – Emigre, Interference, Incentives – the group from the periphery of London outgrow influences such as Joy Division to point the way towards a future in which they would tilt fearlessly at bliss through a painterly use of spartan guitar (later augmented by sampling) welded to rhythmic adventurousness.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Review – Mark Mulcahy: The Possum In The Driveway (Mezzotint)

Mark Mulcahy: The Possum In The Driveway (Mezzotint, 2017)

Endorsements from such figures as Thom Yorke, Ryan Adams and Michael Stipe have yet to translate into significant success outwith the realm of critical acclaim for Mark Mulcahy, a singer-songwriter of rare vocal expressiveness and lyrical acuity.

If the release last year of the final long-player by his revered group Miracle Legion underlined an uncommon knack for kinked pop melodies then Mulcahy’s fifth solo album emphasises how durable that gift remains, given the gap of 21 years that separates them.

Bookended by ballads that could melt a heart of stone – the beatific opener Stuck On Something Else and the saxophone-smeared Geraldine – The Possum In The Driveway nevertheless has the power to disappoint, with ditties such as Catching Mice and Hollywood Never Forgives, however well-intended, merely coming across as flippant. Therein, you suspect, lies a clue as to Mulcahy’s continued presence on the margins.

That said, when you’re faced with songs as happy/sad as They Broke The Spell, you’re reminded of another great American outsider, Mark Eitzel, and the fact that biggest rarely means best.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Review – L Pierre: 1948 (Melodic)

L Pierre: 1948 (Melodic, 2017)

Pay attention, conceptualists: this record is aimed at you. For those unfamiliar with L Pierre, it is one of the banners under which Aidan Moffat, the Robert Burns of Generation X, releases music. (The “L” stands for Lucky; if you have a browser window open please be aware any image search results for Moffat’s original sobriquet will be NSFW.)

The concept is this: for his fifth and final L Pierre long-player, Moffat has visited YouTube and sampled a rip of the world’s first 12-inch 33rpm vinyl album, a 1948 recording of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor by American virtuoso Nathan Milstein. There are no digital versions of the album, no track list and, most disarmingly, no sleeve.

As a comment on nostalgia, technology and the imperishability of vinyl, 1948 is a measurably more succinct if less rewarding offering than such books as, say, Retromania by Simon Reynolds. As for the music within the grooves, Moffat says it best himself in the accompanying notes. “I think,” he writes, “it sounds quite lovely.”

And it does, equalling its intellectual heft with a dream-like aesthetic that, while faithful to its source, reanimates the tenderness and vivacity of Mendelssohn’s1844 composition for a thoroughly different epoch.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Review – Trans Am: California Hotel (Thrill Jockey)

Trans Am: California Hotel (Thrill Jockey, 2017)

When mainstream TV schedules reach their logical conclusion and producers are shortlisting musical candidates for Celebrity Human Centipede, it’s unlikely Ed Sheeran will need to worry about losing his spot to Phil Manley, Nathan Means or Sebastian Thomson. After 25 years as one of the American alternative rock scene’s most compelling and influential bands, Trans Am’s latest long-player is released tomorrow as a strictly vinyl edition of 1000 copies – worldwide.

No matter, because California Hotel is the archetypal Trans Am record – a postmodern mish-mash of electronica and guitar-hero abandon, equal parts Led Zeppelin, John Carpenter and Sade (those comparisons are courtesy of the press release, incidentally, and spot-on), and impossibly entertaining.

Whether your bag is vintage synths (Ship Of The Imagination, Expansions), balls-out dream rock (I Hear Fake Voices) or, er, more vintage synths (the straight-faced 1980s soul/R&B tribute Rules Of Engagement) there is much to savour within the eight succinct tracks on show. And if you dig drums – proper, drop-dead, primal drums – Seb Thomson is unarguably one of rock’s best ever.

Like its 10 predecessors in the Trans Am canon, there are flaws in California Hotel, but, as ever, the glories eclipse them without breaking sweat. Naughty but niche.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Review – Ulver: The Assassination of Julius Caesar (House of Mythology)

Ulver: The Assassination Of Julius Caesar (House Of Mythology, 2017)

More than 20 years since their inception, Oslo’s Ulver have thrust their tentacles into a warren of genres – black metal, prog, noise, orchestral, electronic; everything, it seems, barring reggae. Those of you anticipating a tranche of Norwegian riddums will have to wait, however – this is pop music.

By pop, however, it should not be inferred that this is in any regard a lightweight collection. Quite the contrary. With studio necromancer Youth helming the mix, the eight synth-streaked tracks that draw on such themes as the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, the death of the Princess of Wales and Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan coalesce into a dark, churning whole, equal parts menace and bliss-out.

From the opening throb of Nemoralia, named after the ancient Roman festival of torches, through the Depeche Modisms of Rolling Stone and tragi-pop of Southern Gothic – redolent of peak Pet Shop Boys’ symphonic impulses – the first half lays bare a group unafraid of the epic gesture, an impression cemented by the magmic finale Coming Home, which culminates in a fizzing sub-bass haar gilded by way-out sax from veteran Hawkwind co-pilot Nik Turner.

Pop, then, but not as we know it. Hail Caesar.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Interview – The Lilac Time

The Lilac Time
The Lilac Time, 2015: Claire Duffy, Stephen Duffy and Nick Duffy

YOU might remember his “very brief brush with pop stardom” courtesy of Kiss Me, which – at the third time of asking – peaked at number four in the UK singles chart 30 years ago.

You might remember him with Alex James of Blur in the short-lived Me Me Me (their one single, Hanging Around, breached the top 20 in 1996). But you might not know much about the extraordinary pastoral folk pop Stephen Duffy has released on and off since 1987 in the guise of The Lilac Time.

Which, if true, is a shame. We will get to The Lilac Time in due course but first there is a tale to tell, “the longest story ever told”, he laughs down the line from the home he shares with his wife and colleague Claire, their daughter and their two dogs in Cornwall. “It’s impossible – I say I’m going to do an interview and then I have to try to remember all of it.”

The arc of Duffy’s narrative breaks with tradition, in as much as it begins at the top: co-founding Duran Duran almost as soon as he’d stepped through the doors of Birmingham Polytechnic in his hometown. “The first person I spoke to was John Taylor so art was a thing of the past virtually immediately,” he recalls. “But that was the thing. Keith Richards, John Lennon. Go to art college, start a band, steal the PA. We did our first gig in the lecture theatre, a beautiful old Victorian building. Obviously they’ve knocked it down – it’s Birmingham.”

Three gigs later and Duffy walked, leaving co-founders Taylor and Nick Rhodes to their own devices (and a vastly inferior frontman, but let’s not go there). “It would’ve been fun to have done more but they were ambitious in a way I wasn’t,” he concedes. “I went off and started another band then completely caved in and did Kiss Me because when all your friends have been on Top of the Pops it’s like, ‘I’ve got to do something here.’ The Beat, Dexys Midnight Runners, The Specials – every time you turned on the TV there was somebody you knew.”

Success wasn’t quite as instantaneous as that sounds, however. “You thought: ‘I’ll put out a record and I’ll be on Top of the Pops.’ But Kiss Me was around for three years before it was on Top of the Pops. I kept on signing with different record companies and saying: ‘Can I move on now, please?’ And they’d say: ‘No. Record another version of Kiss Me.’ But it worked in the end.”

Duffy’s instinctive distaste for the easy option kicked in without delay. “As soon as it was a hit I thought: ‘I can do what I like now’ and started The Lilac Time. And Virgin, the record company, said it didn’t want anything to do with it.”

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Taking their name from a line in River Man by Nick Drake, Duffy, his brother Nick and their friend Michael Weston found another label and embarked a journey shot through with a bloody-mindedness that persists to this day. “Halfway through the 1980s it was if I’d spent all the time pretending the 1980s weren’t happening, escaping from the big drum sounds and the synthetic thing, trying to make small, intimate acoustic music,” he says. “When we started it was only 12 or 13 years since Nick Drake had died and many people thought we were insane, playing the acoustic guitar. Now there’s a greater appreciation of it. We were only 30 years too soon.” Duffy, now 54, laughs at the thought.

The music industry at the time was anathema to the folk-obsessed adventurers, who billeted themselves in an 18th-century farmhouse in Herefordshire with no mod cons. “We were signed to PolyGram, this huge international record company, and they kept saying: ‘Go to America and let’s record some drivetime hits.’ And we were in this farmhouse without a phone, without any heating. We’d walk across the fields to the pub to use the phone box outside.”

The music business now is unrecognisable to its 1980s incarnation, Duffy says. “Even unsuccessful record companies seemed to have millions and millions of pounds knocking around. When you were at school they said: ‘Whatever you do, don’t go into music because there’s no future.’ Then you went into it and there was all this money sloshing around. Now, when they’re actively encouraging people to go into it – you can do degrees in the music business and there’s all these Opportunity Knocks TV shows – there’s no place for these people to go.” Kiss Me, he says, “made something like £12,000 in radio plays in a month, and it went on for ages – the money kept coming in”. On top of royalties, he says, the 1980s was the era of the colossal advance. “You could buy a house with it.”

The Lilac Time’s attempt to maintain a bucolic lifestyle with one foot in a resolutely Londoncentric industry ended after four albums in 1991. Eight years passed wherein Duffy released a triptych of solo albums, collaborating with Alex James (“I always knew he was a Tory”) and Nigel Kennedy along the way, before The Lilac Time regrouped. “By then we were on an independent label and we were like: if we get back together now we can do it as we wanted to do it. And we’ve pretty much stuck to that.”

Besides co-writing and co-producing Robbie Williams’ album Intensive Care in 2005, an experience of which he is proud but which “confirmed I wouldn’t have been comfortable with the rigours and repetition of success”, Duffy has masterminded a further four Lilac Time albums since their reformation, with a glorious fifth, No Sad Songs, ending eight years of public silence. “There was a fair bit of time where I thought: ‘We’ll make music for ourselves,'” he says, “but then it got good and that terrible moment comes where you think: ‘I have to share this with the world. It would be criminal to keep this to myself!’

“The other reason I felt obliged to share this is that it is a lot happier than the last record. When I hear Keep Going now I think: ‘My god, he’s depressed.’ So No Sad Songs is like the happy ending. We all like a happy ending, don’t we?”

No Sad Songs is released on April 6 on Tapete. Watch a video for the new album’s title track below.

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Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group. A longer version of this article was published by The Quietus website.

Review – Sir Richard Bishop: Tangier Sessions (Drag City)

Those familiar with Sir Richard Bishop’s 36-year career spanning Sun City Girls, solo excursions and Rangda (in cahoots with Ben Chasny and Chris Corsano) will welcome this gathering of seven extemporary compositions, recorded in a rooftop apartment while the American guitarist was visiting the Moroccan city to perform a concert.

Tangier Sessions is an extraordinarily intimate confection, a document of an improv virtuoso tracking each and every memory within the wood of a 19th-century guitar that called to him like a lorelei from a luthier’s shop while Bishop was living in Geneva.

Instinct, fluency, fearlessness: Tangier Sessions braises these elements to the point of unctuous, Middle Eastern-hued beauty, leaving room for contrasting flavours in the jittery, borderline math-rock of Safe House and the baroque romance of the closing Let It Come Down.

The album was recorded after sundown and the cool plaster and tiles of the recording location provide a silent but palpable accompanist to Bishop’s twangs, thrums and flourishes, which hark back to the late John Fahey as well as sideways to contemporaries such as RM Hubbert and James Blackshaw (albeit the latter on amphetamines).

All told, this is as enchanting a solo acoustic guitar record as you’re likely to hear this year, and proof that travel broadens the mind – in more ways than one.

Listen to Frontier from Tangier Sessions below.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Review – Six Organs of Admittance: Hexadic (Drag City)

You have to hand it to Ben Chasny: he’s a grafter. Prolific barely begins to describe the American guitarist’s odysseys in psych rock with Comets on Fire, psych folk under the alias Six Organs of Admittance and myriad side projects. Then there’s his newly launched label, Hermit Hut.

Now he’s invented the Hexadic system, a methodology that purports to disconnect musical composition from the conscious mind to generate new means of expression. Gary Barlow this is not.

So, what of the results? First impressions are that Hexadic bears no resemblance to previous records by Six Organs – or anyone else, for that matter. Second impressions are that Chasny has wilfully chosen to deploy frequencies and volumes that would make any sane recording engineer reach for their ear defenders. Third impressions are that few musicians almost 20 years into their career possess a fraction of the cojones it takes to conjure the diabolic car crash of Maximum Hexadic or the post-Armageddon fracture of Future Verbs, never mind the fug of chaotic blackness that permeates everything here.

A more beguilingly heavy record is hard to imagine.

Listen to Wax Chance from Hexadic below.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Interview – Hiss Golden Messenger


MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger
MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger: ‘I do what I do and I do it well.’ Photograph: Remedy

“Help yourself to scotch,” says MC Taylor, motioning at an unopened bottle of Whyte & Mackay. Most of the backstage rider looks untouched, truth be told, and just as well – Taylor and his entourage are about to drive from Edinburgh to Dublin with a five-hour pause for sleep and a shower in East Kilbride.

The American, who dishes out a stew of country soul, sad-eyed porch songs and southern rock under the alias Hiss Golden Messenger, is sitting in a dressing room at the Usher Hall, where he and his three colleagues have just met wholesale indifference from the twentysomething crowd gathered to worship at the altar of Devon singer-songwriter and double Brit award-winner Ben Howard. After more than two decades in music, the 39-year-old is unfazed by the response to his band. “It’s cool,” he says. After all, he adds, “The shows are huge.”

It’s a subtle, steady miracle that Taylor is here at all. After years of unrewarded toil in hardcore punks Ex-Ignota then indie-rock outfit The Court & Spark, he “didn’t want to be in a band any more”. So he relocated from San Francisco to North Carolina, where he put his masters degree in folklore to good use and earned a living cataloguing customs and stories. He and his wife Abby also had a son, Elijah, during whose infancy Taylor crafted what would become the debut HGM album proper – Bad Debt, a snapshot of one man and his guitar playing quietly into a tape recorder so as not to wake his dormant baby.

“It came after a long string of making records on which I was trying to maintain my personal relationship with music but making concessions I was told I had to make in order to succeed, whatever that meant,” he says. “Ultimately I was at the end of the road. None of that stuff worked, none of the people who gave me that advice is even in the music business any more. They weren’t even musicians.” He smiles wryly. “So I had to figure out a new compass.”

Cut off from his past contacts, the new father simply pleased himself. “And it’s ironic that it’s the record where I feel I found myself musically in a very profound way and the record everybody connected with in a way they did not with other records I’ve made.”

Five years and three long-players on, the live iteration of Hiss Golden Messenger numbers between one and five, depending on the continent. Nip on to YouTube and search for their rollicking appearance last year on The Late Show With David Letterman and you’ll be treated to a brass section and backing singers swelling the ranks to nine. There’s more than a flavour of Little Feat to the rendition of Southern Grammar from Taylor’s latest album Lateness of Dancers, a live radio version of which was released last week and brings the band to Glasgow on Monday, though there’s more to Lateness of Dancers than lissom boogie.

The album is both rootsy and voluptuous, half of it scratching forlornly at the soul while the other half coasts along on a sea of fluid grooves. It’s a record of instant heft and gravity, yet one striped by sunlight and optimism. “I’m glad you feel that way,” he says. “There’s not much to the record but it’s good that it comes off as lush.”

Lateness of Dancers was recorded in a friend’s barn in rural North Carolina and in Taylor’s mind will forever be hitched to the season in which it was created. “For me, it echoes the red and golds of the fall,” he says. “We were very conscious of where we were – the barn is surrounded by pasture and chickens and big trees, and they were all turning colour. It felt good to be there. The music felt like it was in its natural habitat.”

There are palpable similarities on Lateness of Dancers to the Celtic and Caledonian soul of 1970s Van Morrison and his ilk, which kidnapped American roots music and reintroduced it to many of the tributaries that initially fed it as a consequence of the Scottish and Irish diaspora. “There’s definitely a connection to Scots-Irish fiddle music,” says Taylor animatedly, “and stuff that would’ve travelled over into the Blue Ridge mountains and would’ve taken on a vague new shape. That’s in our neck of the woods.

“Maybe that’s why I have such an affinity for the music from the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. I love it and feel connected to it, and that’s maybe why when I come to Scotland and Ireland I’m excited. It’s like all the stuff I’m interested in– the way a vocal melody sits against a chord progression, the way harmonies work in Scots-Irish music, the unaccompanied singing tradition – that’s all stuff I feel close to at home.”

It’s a home young Elijah Taylor now shares with his little sister Naomi. The two children and their parents feature in a touching video for the ravishing country rock of Mahogany Dread from Lateness of Dancers, a song in which MC Taylor mulls over his dual roles as father and musician. “I had some misgivings about that,” he says. “I didn’t just say, ‘Yep, go and get the kids.’ But that song is so connected to my life at home. I felt it was going to be a cool thing to have in 20 years when I can show Elijah and Naomi themselves as tiny people.”

To cap off a period in which his group released a slow-burning classic album and enlivened living rooms throughout the USA thanks to the endorsement of David Letterman, the MC Taylor-produced Follow the Music by 80-year-old bluegrass singer and banjo player Alice Gerrard is up for the Best Folk Album Grammy on Sunday night. “The heat has been turned up,” says Taylor, “but I’m realistic about it.” No pressure, then? “I don’t feel pressure,” he says. “I’m almost 40 years old. I do what I do and I do it well. [Music] is such a personal thing for me that if people like it, great. If they don’t like, they don’t have to listen to it.” Or in other words: it’s cool.

Southern Grammar EP by Hiss Golden Messenger is out now on Merge.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.