Thursday, 23 August 2018

Green Man 2018 - All About Far Out

Given the classic status I'd already awarded in my head to the last two Green Man festivals, there was always a fair chance that GM2018 would fall slightly short.  This it duly did, though shortfalls elsewhere were generally compensated by a truly inspiring line-up in the Far Out marquee.  Always the most energising of the Green Man's stages, this time it truly excelled itself to rescue this year's festival from what perhaps its first flirtation with mediocrity.

In line with much of this summer, it was a dry one this year, which was very welcome, though it does have its problems.  I've written in previous reviews of the danger of the festival being embraced as little more than a posh camping weekend by some middle class families and the better weather this year brought that out.  The Mountain Foot and Walled Garden stages both suffered from large numbers of patrons who downed seats, set up a picnic and didn't, it appeared, have a great deal of interest in the music that was set before them - it simply became a soundtrack to a pleasant weekend in South Wales. 

Thus the atmosphere at both of these stages became heavily diluted and only a few artists managed to cut through it.  At the main (Mountain Foot) stage, Cate Le Bon did it and, early on Sunday afternoon, a wonderful performance from Xylouris White combined majesty with discord and either made the picnickers sit up and take notice or else bugger off elsewhere.   More of this at the Mountain Foot stage and we might have driven off the sitting arseholes and reclaimed the slopes earlier in the weekend.

The challenge wasn't greatly different in the Walled Garden, though again some artists overcame it.  Stella Donnelly's performance, like Le Bon's, was fuelled by an underlying strength that belied the gentle acoustic veneer, while the riffs of Sacred Paws were genuinely uplifting.  The Surfing Magazines, late on Sunday evening, were genuinely enjoyable, although there is a problem both in terms of people getting the joke and in how they execute the parody.  Starting with a deliberately amateurish version of 'Roll Over Beethoven' might have been better had they kept it to one verse and launched into surf instrumental midway through.  As it was, only when the band left the parodic elements to gestures between songs in the second half of the set did they truly dish out the quality more than hinted at on their debut album.

Saturday afternoon at the Cinedrome dished up its usual series of quirky delights.  There was a welcome return to the Green Man for Islet and an uncompromising, percussion-driven delight of a set from the raucous and brilliant Charismatic Megafauna (left).   Accu and Perfect Body both made promising debuts at the Green Man Rising stage.  Otherwise, though, it was left to the Far Out stage to make this another memorable festival, a mission it rose to with spectacular success.

The always excellent Bas Jan made a game attempt to set the ball rolling on the Thursday night, though they were probably hindered in this pursuit by the fact that other stages don't open until the Friday, leaving them with a large audience comprising those who, like me, eagerly embrace their quirky stylings and those who appeared a little baffled and would probably have preferred the option to be somewhere else.

The Lovely Eggs (right) had no such problems early on Saturday afternoon, when a packed marquee saw them deliver on the relative polish of their recent 'This Is Eggland' album and demonstrate that the duo have lost nothing of their raucousness or gleeful DIY spirit.  The Eggs continue to expand their appeal while sacrificing nothing of what makes them so treasured by established aficionados.  They are a genuine national treasure and, thankfully, more and more people appear to be realising it.

From there, we never looked back.  BEAK> returned with a set that managed to improve on their previous GM outing, which is a feat in itself. Teenage Fanclub continue to make fine music but there was an extra relish in the performance of the classics during their Saturday night set: 'The Concept' almost took the roof off, while 'Everything Flows' was a glorious way to end it all.  Follakzoid, from Chile, delivered an enticingly hypnotic groove while Sorry confirmed their promise by showcasing the fine material that lies beyond that brilliant 'Drag King' single, although stage presence needs a bit of work - and if lack of stage presence is what they're aiming for then I'm afraid it doesn't do justice to the acerbic quality of their lyrics.   Great tunes, but they really could do with looking less like a bunch of reluctant BTEC Performing Arts students.

Then the show-stealers arrived on Sunday night without even being announced in the programme.   I hadn't seen The Wedding Present live for 27 years: before that, I'd watched them perform more than any other band and they reminded me here why I'd flocked so eagerly to their earlier gigs whenever the chance presented itself.  A late addition to the bill, as soon as they kicked into 'Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft' to start their set we knew we were in for something special.  David Gedge's arm's ability to drive that signature rhythm guitar riff hasn't declined with age and neither has a stage presence that managed, as always, to combine dynamism and what you sense is a genuine warmth for both music and audience.

In the end, I suppose it's also one of the slight drawbacks of the festival this year that so many of the artists I enjoyed were those I'd seen before, either years ago or more recently.  That said, it would be great to welcome back the Weddoes to a Green Man line-up in the future, and the same goes for the other artists listed in my top ten below.  But please can we give some thought to how to alleviate the periods of sterility at the other stages next year?

1. The Wedding Present (Far Out, Sunday)

2. The Lovely Eggs (Far Out, Friday)
3. Teenage Fanclub (Far Out, Saturday)
4. Charismatic Megafauna (Cinedrome, Saturday)
5. BEAK> (Far Out, Friday)
6. Bas Jan (Far Out, Thursday)
7. Islet (Cinedrome, Saturday)
8. Xylouris White (Mountain Foot, Sunday)
9. Follakzoid (Far Out, Sunday)
10. Cate Le Bon (Mountain Foot, Saturday)

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Montague Armstrong - Hammond Hits (Linear Obsessional)

The arrival of the Hammond organ in the thirties was initially met with derision by major exponents of the keyboard art.  The lack of pure synchronisation of notes, or even something close to it, led many classically-trained players to pooh-pooh the instrument and, although it achieved a period of eminence in the middle of the century, the growing use of the synthesiser in the seventies once again consigned it to the margins of popular music.  The Hammond company finally closed its doors in the mid-eighties.

Thankfully it never died out completely though and, in the hands of Montague Armstrong, the idiosyncratic Hammond tones have received an infusion of new life that resonates with virtuosity, character and personality.

Jude Cowan Montague has appeared in my Dandelion Radio show in other musical guises and it is she who handles organ duties here, with Matt Armstrong's bass adding delightfully apposite support.  If you failed to tune in to the quirky delights of album opener 'Herstmonx' in my show last month, then you're advised to rectify it by checking it out this month, where I'm featuring the, on balance, perhaps even more delightful 'Flimwell Lights'.

But in truth I might have chosen any of the tunes on offer here.  The collection as a whole hangs together to evoke a bizarre and wonderful concoction comprising the sounds of seaside piers and working men's clubs with nods to everything from sixties ska stylings to the more personable elements of prog rock.

When the definitive history of this wondrous instrument is eventually written can I suggest there is enough here to add to a timeline that features the names of Booker T. Jones, Matthew Fisher and Winston Wright the name Montague Armstrong?  Should this collection receive the attention it fully deserves, this would seem entirely justified.

Get it on cassette or NYOP download from the Linear Obsessional bandcamp site here.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Baker Island - Always, 1995 (Philophobia)

There's always something about the sound of Baker Island that manages to combine the new and familiar, which I suppose is the chief reason why they stand out from the many outfits working in an indie pop idiom.  The new EP works off that premise to give us 'Always, 1995' - the triumphant final track from last year's Restless Legs album - alongside three previously unreleased tunes
What makes this Newcastle band a consistent delight is their ability to take a central indie pop motif into interesting new places and the three new tracks here are no exception.   The screeching, rusty nail on metal opening to 'Badly Assembled Focus Group' is the gateway into a majestic piece of guitar pop.  It's followed by the brief, chiming 'Stretch Model' before the EP's finale 'Low Cost Locust' offers a straight fist-fight between pop melody and discordant noise.  Despite that, they somehow work off a template that appears to owe very little to early JAMC or MBV while still crafting something wonderful.
Although it's been around for some time, it's the title track that I've chosen to feature in my Dandelion Radio show this month, purely for the reason I usually select tracks for the show: it's so good and it worries me that people might not get to hear it.  If you missed it first time around, consider it also a reminder that you should also get round to checking out Restless Legs while you're about it.
It's available in cassette form from Wakefield's Philophobia label, though last time I checked there weren't many of those left.  You can also download it from all the usual places, including the label's bandcamp site, where you can also find a digital copy of the album

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Sir Robert Orange Peel - Snapchat (Metal Postcard)

The once radical act of cutting up and putting together a bunch of sampled voices has, like most activities carried out in the name of popular music, become generally horribly stale and predictable.   The genre, if it can be called that, desperately needs someone to raise it above its sterile condition, to recognise that the relative simplicity of the practice isn't an excuse simply to toss out any old junk and stick it on Soundcloud.
Sir Robert Orange Peel may well be that person.  His second album, which follows with almost impertinent haste on the heels of his previous collection, is a triumph of wit and audacity that works so well fundamentally because, hidden beneath the sampled voices and intoxicating rhythms that have an appealing ring of The Normal or Fad Gadget about them, is a shrewdly deployed obsession.
If this is sometimes veiled by arch references and cultural in-jokes, then that just adds a further layer to a highly enjoyable listening process.  You don't have to be familiar with The Fall to understand where the title of 'Europeans in Australia' comes from and you don't have to know anything about The Lovely Eggs to get the reference in 'Get your mince pies off my lovely eggs!' - a version of which first appeared in session in my Dandelion Radio show in January - and there's certainly a deep mine of enjoyment to be ploughed even among the uninitiated.
It's not all about celebratory references though.  If the potential AI issues brought forth in 'Alexa' have received significant coverage elsewhere lately, then the title track 'Snapchat' - which you can hear in my show this month - is perhaps still more disconcerting.  A world where mobile phones and social media don't merely become an aid to communication but the very focus of it is articulated by a female voice that relates to us, in a perfectly matter of fact tone, how she 'literally cries' when her phone is out of data.  
Meanwhile, 'I write in love and desperation', has chilling undertones of its own, offering another warning that, in a world where social bonds have become the very focus of existence, casualties are many and often lurk behind a façade of lucid ordinariness, demonstrated here by a narrator whose articulate words convey horrors that are both dark and all-too plausible.
None of this is to underplay the level of playfulness  that is always present in the work of Sir Robert, but this new collection has a depth to it that is an evolving feature of that work and allows 'Snapchat' to become far more than merely a one-off novelty listen.  It also hints of great possibilities to come.
Get 'Snapchat' as a digital download here


Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Jack Hayter - Abbey Wood (Gare Du Nord)

The title of Jack Hayter's wonderful new album comes from the road in which he lived four years ago but the symbol that lies at the heart of the album's first track 'The Mulberry Tree at Abbey Wood' - which I played in my Dandelion Radio show last month - is loaded with far great depth
In particular the tree - 'you know the one, there's only one' as its lyrics tell us - stand as a metaphor that's explored throughout the collection.  It's a collection that's rich with feelings of solitude, yet it's a resilient solitude, loaded with a defiant spirit that manages to survive despite hostile surroundings.
On the surface, it's an album about places, but really it's about the people who give those places their character, characters like 'Fanny On The Hill', who serves up a liquid dinner with 'whisky for pudding'
Or the narrator of 'I Sent My Love To Bendigo', who fights his war in the farmyard, in attempt to stop the army from taking his beloved horse to war.  His brother goes to war in order to end the fighting with his girlfriend over the issue, only to return, broken, to hang himself at Christmas.  Under its original title of 'Horsemeat For Dogs', we featured an early version of the track on an Unwashed Territories compilation.  Its redolence has not diminished in the year since.
Similarly 'The Arandora Star', the tale of the ship loaded with British-based Italian and German civilians that was sunk during World War II, offers much poignancy against a backdrop of the sad xenophobia of these times.    As with Woody Guthrie's 'Deportees', the power lies in the evocation of individual lives behind the tragedy - the Italian women who'd helped to build bombers in north Manchester among them - leaving again a sense of real people devoured by circumstances they had no role in instigating.   I'm playing the track in my show this month.
it's a powerful collection, but it's also infused with a gentle, kind spirit.  A celebration of people and places, no less who, like the Mulberry Tree, still stand defiant despite it all.  Among them, unquestionably, stands Hayter himself.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Hayato Takeuchi - EP (Bearsuit)

The Bearsuit label continues to enhance its reputation as our foremost purveyors of quirky and innovative oddities with pretty much everything they put out.  This release from Tokyo's Hayato Takeuchi continues this fine run, blending delightful pop melodies with departures into the bizarre over five tracks of some of the most engaging music you'll hear this year.

Exactly what you'd expect from Bearsuit, in other words.  Takeuchi once recorded under the name Bubbly Folks and recorded a track for the label's excellent compilation Tomato Sauce Lasers, Sausage Lassos two years ago.  The track he contributed then offers a hint of what's on offer here but it's Takeuchi's fondness for repeatedly bemusing, surprising and delighting the listener that makes this such a great listening experience.

The word 'repeatedly' is used advisedly because that's essentially how it begins, with the repetitive, hypnotic 'Etude G-12', but lest you think this experimental masterpiece will lay its mighty footprints across whole the collection, be prepared to be danced around in a kind of Mr Kite-like daze to the big top extravaganza that is 'Mr Henderson No Ai To Replica', a wonderful piece of whimsy that features in my Dandelion Radio show this month.

From there, you're not so much dragged back to earth as propelled into space ready for the head-journey that is 'Anata To Watashi No Kyoukaisen', which ends the album with a cosmic embrace that leaves you somewhere between the mind thrill of a Stephen Baxter novel and an encounter with The Clangers.

It's great, in other words.  Get it here.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Green Man 2017

As usual, the end of my long enforced summer absence ends with this short celebration of what was, as usual, the best long weekend of the year.

Last year Green Man managed to raise its already very high bar even higher.  If there was a concern that 2017 would see an understandable fall in quality due to those impossibly high standards, the festival managed to defy any such worries to once again meet and even exceed expectations.

The latter was certainly true in the case of the Green Man Rising stage.  My minor concern that this stage was the one area of the Green Man that could be safely ignored by the discerning festival goer was, this year, brushed aside in some style.  The inclusion of excellent bands like Saps and Hotel Lux had already ensured this was the stage's best ever line-up even before the extraordinary Madonnatron (below) stepped up on Sunday evening to deliver one of the festival's most glorious sets.

Now that Einstein's Garden's Solar Stage seems sadly more preoccupied with the gimmicky and pseudo-educational, GMR might now be ready to replace it as the place to go for quirky and innovative offerings.  Let's hope so.

Madonnatron weren't the only all-female band to make an impact this year.  Serafina Steer brought her new trio to the Saturday afternoon Cinedrome and managed to mesmerise with songs about such worldly matters as changing your Facebook photo - it's something only Steer can probably get away with, along with the false starts and 'oops I went too fast' declarations.  She'd delighted us at the old courtyard stage years ago and it was great to see her back with a new project that clearly promises much.

By that point the always wonderful Hinds had dazzled the Far Out stage on Friday night with their idiosyncratic brand of indie pop.  The 'Sexy Thing' intro and elements of mock choreography emphasise, if it needs emphasising, that Hinds are very aware of what they're about when it comes to challenging preconceived ideas of the girl band aesthetic and they pulled it off magnificently.

Indeed, by the time PJ Harvey headlined on Sunday night, there had already been so many highlights if seemed difficult to see how even Polly Jean could trump them.  Moddi's return to the Walled Garden on Friday night had been as poignant and unsettling as it had magical; Alasdair Roberts had once again made the same stage his own the following night and Michael Chapman's return to the festival to make fifty years as a performer was ever bit as special as we'd anticipated. 

Bands like WH Lung and Doomsquad had delighted us at the Far Out Stage and the fact that this most vibrant of all GM stages now appears to have no problem attracting a few thousand to its afternoon sets is yet another thing to celebrate, giving bands like the excellent Kikagaku Moyo the audience they deserve.  By the time Julian Cope wandered onto it on Sunday evening to deliver a memorable set of oddball humour and solo renditions of old songs it had already done enough to cement again its status as the jewel in the Green Man's increasingly glittering crown.  And yes, I stayed to see much of the Sleaford Mods set there but have to report that I still see them as an interesting curiosity rather than the national treasures so many appear to regard them as.

Anyway, PJ Harvey still delivered magnificently.  She's become more adept than anyone at ignoring conventions and doing things her own way and the gradually evolving mood she created through careful selections from recent albums and her now considerable back catalogue left us - again - with the impression that this was something no other artist in the world could quite have pulled off.  She left out early classics like 'Sheela-Na-Gig' and 'Rid Of Me' and didn't play anything from the 'Stories of the City...' album that brought her to the attention of so many people, opting instead for the a rendition of the understated 'White Chalk' and the naked blast of energy that is '50 Foot Queenie' before finishing off, not with the easy choice of spectacular favourite but with the beautiful, understated 'River Anacostia'.

It was mesmerising.  And yet, when choosing the festival's highlight, I'm going to say it was beaten into second place by the raw, savage attack delivered by Thee Oh Sees in the Far Out tent on the Saturday night.  As has been the case in recent years, the buzz generated by the crowd in that place at that time was very much part of it, but the LA four-piece rode it magnificently, producing a set that managed even to rival the one produced by Battles in that slot last year.

High praise indeed.  But then this was a Green Man Festival that once again delivered something worthy of the very highest praise.

Green Man 2017 - A personal top ten

1. Thee Oh Sees (Far Out, Saturday)
2. PJ Harvey (Mountain Stage, Sunday)
3. Hinds (Far Out, Friday)
4. Kikagaku Moyo (Far out, Friday)
5. Moddi (Walled Garden, Friday)
6. Madonnatron (Rising, Sunday)
7. Serafina Steer (Cinedrome, Saturday)
8. Alasdair Roberts (Walled Garden, Saturday)
9. Michael Chapman (Walled Garden, Sunday)
10. Julian Cope (Far Out, Friday)