Tag Archives: indie

Pray for Rain – Pure Bathing Culture

At their current rate of evolution, Pure Bathing Culture are halfway to being a for-real pop band.

The Portland-based duo (they aren’t natives; they moved there from Brooklyn*) released their second, self-titled, album in late 2015 to moderate reviews. Critics seemed to prefer their first album, Moon Tides – a much more moody, textured, layered and atmospheric affair, one heavily indebted to the Cocteau Twins, Frankly I much prefer the songs I’ve heard from the new one; it’s a fool’s errand to try to sound like the Cocteau Twins, unless your singer actually is Liz Frazer. When they tried it, Pure Bathing Culture just sounded a bit twee and rubbish. And anyway, why try to recreate someone else’s already-perfected sound?

For their second album, Pray for Rain, PBC hooked up with producer John Congleton (Angel Olsen, Wye Oak and St Vincent among many, many others) and began to get serious. Congleton’s work sonically leaves me a bit cold. There’s something fake about the instrument sounds on all his records. Nothing sounds natural. But even despite the unlovely sonics of Pray for Rain, you have to say Congleton did a great job with these guys. The primary duty of a producer, historically at least, is to create something saleable for the record label, but the best producers are able to do this while helping the band to grow and develop, challenging and bettering themselves, and coming up with something that’s an advance on anything they’ve done before. In this regard, Congleton played a blinder.

Pray for Rain (the song, not the album) has a confident swagger that nothing on the band’s debut had. Singer Sarah Versprille is now singing in her natural range instead of half an octave above it and the effect is transformative (I can’t think of a single comparably huge one-record improvement in a vocalist. Not one). The arrangement and song structure is tight and focused, and the vocal drives the music rather than just existing within it. Daniel Hindman’s guitars are similarly emboldened – they’re still absolutely saturated in reverb, delay and all the time-domain effects contemporary indie can’t seem to do without, but the style is more idiosyncratic, less obviously derived from just one or two sources. The duo’s past musical endeavours, both in Vetiver and their early days as Pure Bathing Culture, seem a world away.

Now, when you compare them to a contemporary band that genuinely court the pop market and know how to make pop music, it’s pretty clear that Pure Bathing Culture still have work to do. Their melodies remain essentially static, and the songs don’t evolve so much as arrive, dwell in front of you and then stop. But they’ve come a long way quickly and are maybe only a record away from arriving at something really great. It’s now coming up to two years since Pure Bathing Culture was released. Perhaps that big step forward is being taken behind the scenes as we speak.

*I shouldn’t be cynical, but if you wanted to sum up the last five years in rock music in one short sentence, you could do a lot worse than “Indie band moves from Brooklyn to Portland”.

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Day of the Dead, Disc One – some thoughts

Not a fan of either contemporary indie or the Grateful Dead? This series of posts may not be for you.

This week I’ve mainly been spending my time (or at least my music-listening time) on Day of the Dead, a 5-CD compilation of contemporary artists playing music by the Grateful Dead, organised and produced by Bryce and Aaron Dessner from the National in aid of the Red Hot Organisation, a charity that raises money and awareness to fight HIV/AIDS.

The Grateful Dead’s approach to music was wholly unlike that of most other rock bands. Sure, they could do brief and straightforward takes on their songs live in concert, but the idea that they’d go on stage and do every song exactly the way that it was on record (or almost the same but with a slightly longer solo) was anathema to them. Songs were simply vehicles for the guys to be what they were: a major nexus of American music, connecting folk, blues, country, bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and the contemporary avant garde. Their songs are hugely malleable, so the fun of a compilation like this is in seeing how all the artists involved approach the project (and guessing who are the deep fans and who’s in it for the prestige and PR).

Things get off to a strong start with the War on Drugs’s take on Touch of Grey, the Dead’s big MTV-era hit. Musically, Adam Granduciel ups the tempo by a couple of bpm and goes for that mix of mechanised-sounding live drums topped by exploratory guitar that will feel instantly familiar to anyone who connected with Under the Pressure or Disappearing from 2014’s Lost in the Dream. It’s great, and the song’s a fine vehicle for Granduciel’s signature sound, but that doesn’t stop his vocal impression of Bob Dylan being absurd.

Jim James plays Candyman straight, with a pretty evident love for the material. He transforms Garcia’s pedal steel solo into a heavily modulated fuzzathon, and sings the choruses with an audible grin. As ever, though, I could do without the omnipresent reverb haze he, along with so many bands, feels compelled to shroud his music in. I’ll never get what some people like so much about reverb.

Black Muddy River is a song from In the Dark, the same mid-1980s album that gave us Touch of Grey. On Day of the Dead, Bruce Hornsby (who played more than 100 shows with the Dead between 1988 and 1995, maintained a close musical connection with the surviving members after Garcia’s death and was part of the band when they did their farewell shows at Soldier Field in 2015) tackles the song with a specially reformed DeYarmond Edison, the group that split into Bon Iver, Megafaun and Field Report. Hornsby and (I assume) Justin Vernon sing the song beautifully, and the musicians (Hornsby most of all) play with a moving commitment and reverence. No one else involved in the record sounds as thrilled to be there and as determined to do right by the material.

Phosphorescent’s take on Sugaree, with a guesting Jenny Lewis, and the Lone Bellow’s Dire Wolf are both fine, but they both lack a little of the sly humour that is always inherent in Garcia’s delivery (a verse like “When I awoke the Dire Wolf, 600 pounds of sin, was standing at my window. All I said was ‘Come on in, But don’t murder me'” is darkly hilarious when Garcia sings it).

Morning Dew by the National sounds exactly like you’d expect. Matt Berninger’s doleful baritone is a good fit for such a bleak song. Courtney Barnett’s New Speedway Boogie has been overpraised, I think. The decision to recast half of the song in a minor key changes the melody and harmonies in a way that weakens it, though I’m sure the guys would salute the attempt to put a new spin on the song. More problematically, Barnett’s deadpan vocal takes all the fun out of the thing.

Ed Droste from Grizzly Bear does a good job with Loser, a hard song to get a handle on. Robert Hunter’s lyric is one of his most cynical and violent, and if a singer doesn’t commit to it, they’ll sound like a little boy playing at being a tough guy. Droste sings the song on the cusp of falsetto, yet I never doubt him. (That said, the song is called Loser, the implication being that for all his protestations, the guy has every chance of losing this time).

Anohni’s Black Peter, turned into orchestrated chamber music and given a typically tremulous reading, is weighed down by its own solemnity (again, the gallows humour of Garcia is missed), while Perfume Genius does an Art Garfunkel impression on To Lay Me Down. It’s as if he heard the title, asked himself where he’d heard the phrase “Lay Me Down” before, then decided to give the song the full Bridge Over Troubled Water treatment. As with Sugaree, the big-name backing singer, in this case Sharon Van Etten, doesn’t get to sing a verse. It probably would have improved matters.

Still, being as fair as I can, neither are big misses, and neither anger me. The big miss is of course Mumford & Sons’ horrific take on Friend of the Devil. Now, I wanted to like it. Honestly. I’d have been thrilled to like it, to have my preconceptions about Mumford challenged, maybe even overturned. Perhaps hearing them take on a beloved Grateful Dead song would allow me a way into their music? But no, it’s as awful as anything else they’ve ever done. I’m sure their presence sold a few more copies, and the money is going to charity, so I’m guessing that’s why they’re there. It can’t be because the Dessners like them. No one with working ears ever could.

So that’s Disc One. My picks are Black Muddy River, Touch of Grey, Loser and Candyman.

Back soon with Disc Two, where things get weird.

jerryJerry. Was he the greatest guitar player of his era? Very possibly.

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved, Part 4 – Garoux des Larmes by Throwing Muses

As drummer for Throwing Muses, David Narcizo has held one of the trickiest jobs in popular music for thirty years. Kristin Hersh’s songs are not, and have never been, simple; they are full of twists and turns, tempo changes, time signature changes and unusual feels. Narcizo has coped with it all; he’s even made it danceable. No doubt he’s been helped by the band’s series of quality bass players: Leslie Langston, Fred Abong and Bernard Georges. But still, he’s made a tough job look pretty easy and instinctive for three decades.

The early Throwing Muses sound lasted for two albums and two EPs, more or less: the self-titled debut, the Chains Changed EP (both 1986), House Tornado and the Fat Skier EP (both 1987). Stylistically, the songs from this era are characterised by their restlessness, their abrupt changes in feel, tempo and mood. Narcizo’s drums had to find ways to live in the quiet parts of these songs without overwhelming them while driving the heavier sections along (the songs would never have felt right if Narcizo had allowed Hersh’s guitar to carry him; no good rock music works that way). It would have been a challenge for anyone, but these guys were just kids, really: 19 or 20 years old. What they achieved is remarkable.

I’ve said before, I think, that I feel the standard of the average US drummer compared with the average drummer from the UK is higher, which (just hypothesising here) you could put down to the disciplines of marching-band snare drumming on one hand and jazz drumming on the other. In the UK, you have to go much further out of your way to learn these skills, so many don’t.

I’m not sure whether David Narcizo ever studied jazz, but I’d bet dollars to doughnuts he played snare drum in the school band, as 16th-note march-time feels make up about 50% of the drum parts on the band’s early records. My favourites are early single Fish, Reel (from Chains Changed), a Tanya Donelly song in which Narcizo switches between heavy tom patterns in the verses and his trademark snare march in the choruses (making both sound light and agile and funky through the addition of a stomping kick drum); and the rather gonzo Garoux des Larmes, from The Fat Skier.

Garoux des Larmes has probably the most intricate patterns of all Narcizo’s marching parts. The sticking is constant 16th notes, but the pattern is played over snare and toms rather than just snare drum (as it is on Fish and the chorus of Reel). Maybe highly trained drummers would consider this no big deal, but how you play intricate 16th-note patterns for several minutes at a time, with power, precision, steady tempo and a good feel, without ever getting your arms in a tangle, is completely beyond me. There’s a live audience video from 1987 that gives a good idea of what’s involved in playing this stuff. If you’re really familiar with the record, you’ll note the extra hi-hat work that Narcizo throws in here.

The band reached something of a crossroads on 1989’s Hunkpapa. Mania is an absolute career highlight, and for that alone the album is essential, but Hunkpapa had fewer marches and a heavier two-and-four sound overall; the band was evidently changing. The Real Ramona, the only record the band made with Abong on bass, was magnificent, and when Narcizo plays that huge opening fill on Counting Backwards at the start of The Real Ramona, it’s an amazing moment, but it’s also the moment that signals the end of the band’s phase one; the frantic march-time rhythms never did return. Red Heaven, University and Limbo saw Hersh turn up the guitars, and while Narcizo still played unmatched grip, he’d turned into a backbeat drummer, as the music demanded he should. All the records they made between their debut and Limbo have great moments (University’s my big of the Bernard Georges era), but Muses’s early music, thirty years on, remains immediately identitfiable, absolutely inimitable and still astonishing, and David Narcizo deserves just as much credit for that as Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly.

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Throwing Muses mk I: l-r David Narcizo, Tanya Donelly, Kristin Hersh, Leslie Langston

Left of the Dial – The Replacements

What’s this? Wasn’t I meant to be writing about British folk? Yes, I was. I’ve got half an entry on Bill Fay saved in my drafts folder. But this morning on my way to the office I listened to Left of the Dial and on my first day back at work after a holiday, low in mood and feeling unwell, it made me feel as energised as it did when I first heard it as a teenager. So that’s what we’re going to talk about tonight.

I’ve talked about my love of Tres Chicas here a couple of times before, even recently. They’re a little-known country-singing trio that made two records a decade ago. Even then they were all music-biz veterans. Lynn Blakey, the most prolific of the group’s three singer-songwriters, has been making records for over 30 years.

Blakey was a touring member of the Georgia indie band Let’s Active in 1983-4, and it was during that time that she met Paul Westerberg and inspired one of his greatest songs, Left of the Dial. Different sources tell the story differently, but this is what Westerberg had to say about it to Rolling Stone:

Left of the Dial is the story of this girl, a guitar player, Lynn Blakey, who toured with Mitch Easter’s Let’s Active. We got to be friends. She wanted me to write her a letter, but I never write letters. I figured the only way I’d hear her voice was with her band on the radio, left of the dial on a college station. And one night we did. We were passing through a town somewhere, and she was doing an interview on the radio, left of the dial. I heard her voice for the first time in six months for about a minute. Then the station faded out.

It’s pretty cool knowing the back story to the song, but if Left of the Dial were just a paean to Lynn Blakey, it wouldn’t quite be what it is, or mean so much to so many. It’s not even just a love letter to college radio. Above all, Left of the Dial seems to me to be about the endless movement of a young band on the road, the excitement, the hardships, the possibilities, the romance. It’s about the bittersweet feeling of knowing something probably won’t happen, but treasuring the possibility that it just might.

Westerberg’s great gift was to be able to harness that kind of romanticism to noisy, sloppy rock’n’roll (and then to let it show on the quiet acoustic songs – only Neil Young is Westerberg’s match at being able to switch from full-on rock to quiet acoustic and sound utterly himself when doing both), and for all that Left of the Dial’s parent album Tim was the most produced Replacements record to date, it’s still endearingly messy. After all, the Replacements were never about tightness or technique. They were about the excitement of a captured moment. While there’s a lot wrong in technical terms with the studio recording of Left of the Dial (the band always sounded slightly out of control, even at moderate tempos, but surely they didn’t want their guitar sound to be quite so tinny, or the drums quite as lacking in body?), in every important sense, Left of the Dial is perfect. Listening to it makes me feel like I’m twenty years younger, about to embark on all the adventures life in a rock’n’roll band can offer.

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The Replacements: l-r Paul Westerberg, Chris Mars, Bob Stinson, Tommy Stinson

July – Low (repost)

It’s the first day of July. Here’s an appropriate post from the archive.

It’s not the speed, it’s the space. Low’s music in its Steve Albini years wasn’t defined by tempo, but by the vast, empty physical spaces implied by the minimal arrangements, even as the band gradually moved beyond basic guitar, bass and drums and incorporated subtle strings and electronics.

Low’s approach to record making was bold in its early years, too, but with Albini at the desk and a slightly bigger sound born of more hi-fi instrument sounds, the group were confident enough to widen their sound further than ever before. July sees Alan Sparhawk’s and Mimi Parker’s voices mixed hard left and hard right respectively and the centre of the stereo spectrum occupied only by Parker’s distant-sounding drums, Zak Sally’s bass guitar and Sparhawk’s warmly distorted electric.

While I admire Low’s aesthetic and their consistency, I admit that I don’t usually find their work as thrillingly powerful as I do on July, and I’ve thought a lot about why that is. I think it comes down to something I’ve written about before in the context of Rickie Lee Jones’s On Saturday Afternoons in 1963:

I don’t know that I can make much literal sense of the lyric, but that’s relatively unimportant. The song’s power comes from the repetition of “years may go by” – the sort of micro-phrase that invites the listener to attach their own associations, positive or negative, wistful, nostalgic, regretful, joyful, whatever – over that piano riff and the supporting orchestration. Meaning is suggested simply by the way Jones hangs on to the word “years”. What may have happened in the time since the childhood being invoked here? A novel’s worth of possibilities is contained within that one word.

July works the same way. On the page, the lyrics don’t like like much, a 5-minute, bung-it-down job:

Wait — it’s late
We’ve missed the date
Gone, I guess
With the rest, the rest

They’ll never wake us in time
They’ll never wake us in time
Maybe we’ll wait ’til July

Now — at last
I hear them pass
Gone, I guess
With the rest, the rest

They’ll never wake us in time
They’ll never wake us in time
Maybe we’ll wait ’til July
Then August, September
October, November or December

Yet when Sparhawk and Parker intone “They’ll never wake us in time” in solemn harmony (a similarly vague, elusive phrase as Jones’s “Years may go by”), it becomes incredibly powerful. It’s a perfect marriage of melody and meaning, as if the melody, just played on its own, without words, would mean the same thing, and all the band have done is make explicit what the tune itself is already saying. And while lyrics that raise questions but give no actual context that may provide an answer may seem vague and lazy, July gets away with it because those bare statements in the chorus are sung in such beautiful harmony. Who are “they”? Who are “us”? Wake from what? In time for what? The marriage of words and music is strong enough to make you care.

This is the best they ever did. If you’re new to the band, start with parent album Things We Lost in the Fire and work forward if you want to hear them add more stuff, or backward if you want to hear them at their most minimal.

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Low: l-r Sally, Parker, Sparhawk

High Highs – Cascades

When it was released earlier this year, in the second week of January, Cascades by High Highs seemed pretty but insubstantial. It made intellectual sense; I could hear what they were shooting for, and why radio programming directors would feel that this song would fit on their playlists, but it didn’t make emotional sense to me as I listened to it, hurrying to Hither Green station in hat, gloves and heavy overcoat, or scurrying up St Martin’s Lane towards the office in hat, gloves and heavy overcoat, or, well, you get the picture. It’s not a song that makes most sense during an English winter. After a couple of weeks of listening to it, I found myself getting a bit bored and I moved on.

Listening to it again more recently, when we’ve had some actual springlike weather (not this last couple of days, mind), I find it makes much more sense to me. Nothing’s changed musically. Those opening guitar arpeggios still smell strongly of the Alan Parsons Project as played by the Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie. There’s that all-encompassing reverb haze that is the unvarying production norm of contemporary indie. The drums are rigidly four square, with a disco pulse underpinning, again entirely in keeping with current fashions.

But Cascades’ washed-out late-summer mood makes much more emotional sense now. It’s a song for those days when the afternoons are still warm enough to send you in search of shade and a cold drink, but when the evening brings a refreshing coolness. Every day we get closer to summer, it feels more appropriate to me.

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A cool Adriatic evening, last September

Nada Surf live @ the Electric Ballroom, 11/04/16

Let’s start with the stop-press. I went to a gig last night and thought the sound was good.

Yes, that’s right. I have no complaints about the sound whatsoever. It was loud and full and rich and present, but controlled and not at all harsh, despite the volume. My ears were ringing only slightly immediately after the show last night, and not at all by this morning.

(Contrast that with the 48-hour tinnitus symphony I suffered through after last week’s Posies show at the 100 Club.)

Happily the show was every bit as good as the sound mix. Nada Surf’s thing – tightly written songs, vocal harmonies, guitars at that sweet spot halfway between jangly and crunchy – is not the most complicated thing in the world, but nonetheless they make it look so incredibly easy. All four members are very capable musicians. All of them pitch in with harmonies. Whatever tempo they’re played at, songs are dispatched without fuss, one after the other: bang, bang, bang. 18 songs in the set, four more in the encore, and a couple of acoustic singalongs by the merch table afterwards. Not much more than 90 minutes from first note to last. Guitarist Doug Gillard, formerly of Guided By Voices, added unshowy lead guitar and when he and Matthew Caws struck up the chiming harmonised intro of Jules & Jim, it was total Big Star-in-1972 jangle-pop heaven.

The set contained a good mix of material. New album You Know Who You Are is a bit of a grower, and a more than decent addition to their canon, but they didn’t go too hard after the new material, instead blending it in with established favourites. They opened with Cold to See Clear, but otherwise limited the new songs to the lovely Believe You’re Mine, Friend Hospital (repository of a couple of Caws’s dafter lyrics), Animal and Out of the Dark. Those aside, the songs were drawn more or less equally from Lucky, Let Go and The Weight is a Gift.

Personal highlights for me were Weightless (also a favourite of Mel’s), which saw the band switching impressively between its 12/8 main section and slow 4/4 passages, the aforementioned Believe You’re Mine and Jules & Jim, See These Bones (also a highlight of the Islington show – as Sara remarked to me, though, Caws is now telling the story of his visit to the Capucin monks’ ossuary in Rome as if he’s getting a bit tired of it), What Is Your Secret, Do It Again (cool bass riff, and massive cymbal-smashing awesomeness in the choruses) and Concrete Bed, essayed in the band’s trademark no-fuss style.

Nada Surf are a band I could see play many more times without getting bored. They’re so damn good at what they do, and I like what they do very much.

https://i0.wp.com/theupcoming.flmedialtd.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Nada-Surf-at-Electric-Ballroom-Filippo-LAstorina-The-Upcoming-4-1024x683.jpgMatthew Caws and Ira Elliot, onstage in London, 11/04/16 (photo: Filippo L’Astorina)