Monday, 30 July 2012

London, Underground

I love this excellent essay by Laurie Penny about London from underneath, and the history that gets rewritten by the victors. Evocative, beautiful and a stark reminder of things we should not forget.

London, Underground


Friday, 27 July 2012

The increasingly poor decisions of Chris Brown and the mainstream music industry

On Monday I saw a teenage girl get punched in the face.

I was waiting for a train, and a young girl and guy were having an argument. He was pissed off with her and followed her along the platform. I don’t know what the argument was about, though it seemed like she had been to his house.

He said ‘’D’you want me to bang you in the face? Don’t think I won’t bang you in the face.” And then he punched her in the face, his fist meeting the side of her head.

I was sat next to her as it happened – she half-landed on me. It looked like he was going to go for her again, while she shouted that she knew where he lived, held up her phone and somewhat incoherently threatened to call the police. The guy’s friend was hanging about behind them, and as the fucker was leaving on his bike, his pal tried to persuade her not to inflame him any further.

I asked her if she was okay, and she said no. Another woman from the platform came over and reported it to the police (she worked for one or another crime unit, I forget the name), and asked the girl lots of questions, while ordering the other boy to stay put.

I don’t know how old her attacker was but I'd guess late teens. She was 16, and tiny. She came across as a pretty, shy teenager. He came across as a thug. She didn’t know his real name, just his street name.

The woman who helped her did fantastically. I was furious with myself for not snapping a photo of the guy before he ran away. But mostly I’m furious that between teenage kids we have this situation where boys think it’s acceptable to use violence to express their frustration and control the girls they know. And where their friends won’t stand up and say ‘that’s not fucking acceptable’, but will just exhort the girl to keep schtum. There has been plenty of coverage of teen domestic violence in the media in recent years, and the tone has varied from investigative to hysterical. But this was the first time I witnessed it, and I can’t get it out of my mind. I don’t think the girl would have contacted the police if the woman that helped her hadn’t phoned them.

And meanwhile teen idol, Grammy winner and girlfriend abuser Chris Brown is living the high life in full view of his fans, surrounded by girls at parties and still refusing to take responsibility for what he did. What did he do, exactly? He beat up his girlfriend and threatened her with further violence later on. But more than that, he beat up his girlfriend knowing that he and she were both megastars, role-models (willing or otherwise) for teenage boys and girls, shining examples of the lives that their fans would like to lead.

When you see your super-rich, hyper-famous hero being subjected to, or committing, the same shit that you experience in your life, and there are hardly any consequences, is it not likely that you’ll think “Well then, that’s just life. That’s the status quo and if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.’?

Domestic violence is hard enough to combat, and when it’s starting at an ever more tender age, that’s really frightening. We risk allowing a pattern where teenage girls grow up into women who think that being hit is just one of the grim facts of life. Women who will have children that potentially witness this pattern. It has to stop, and it needs addressing from top to bottom.

It’s not acceptable – AT ALL – to attack someone, and domestic abuse – from physically strong men to smaller women – is a particularly cowardly form of control and abuse. I don’t need to rehash this – we know it. But why are Chris Brown’s records still being played? Why is he still getting paid? I know he’s not the only famous person who’s ever committed this crime before, and I don’t condone the actions of anyone who’s behaved like this. But the sheer brazenness that he wears, his ridiculous stance of ‘Fuck the haterz, you can’t keep me down’, as opposed to ‘Oh shit, maybe they hate me because they think I’m a violent bully, perhaps I should address what I did and try to make amends somehow’, is jawdropping. The industry has looked sternly on him for a year or two, and now it's back to business as usual, because people are still willing to spunk their cash on him, and he's willing to take it.

How novel it would be if he thought ‘Hey, I have a responsibility, not just towards the woman I hurt, but towards the millions of teenagers who buy my music and will, in some cases, try to be like me. Maybe I should consider what my actions and attitudes tell them about male/female relationships, and about taking responsibility for your wrongs.’ How novel, but how unlikely it looks.

Rihanna has a part to play here. She was 100% blameless for getting hit; that blame lies squarely with Brown. She has said in the past that she doesn’t want to be a role model. Sorry, Rihanna – at this point, tough. It comes with the megastar territory; girls dress like you, they want to sing like you, and they want to live and succeed like you. She could contribute positively by drawing a hard line where domestic violence is concerned, but she doesn’t seem willing to do that. I don't know if she identifies as a feminist, but in this respect she certainly doesn't behave like one. Her fans look at her and see a woman who seems strong and powerful in every other way, yet is happy to go back and record songs (I won’t comment on rumours re: her personal life because I don’t know what’s true or not) with the man who beat her up and never tried seriously or publicly to make amends, yet chose to publicly gloat about his victory over the ‘haterz’. (In light of that, the right to privacy doesn’t come into it.) That’s not fucking cool.

I don’t know if that guy and girl on the train platform are Chris Brown and Rihanna fans. But I know millions are, and now I can bear witness to the hard and ugly fact that there are teenage boys who hit girls to control them. And I know that two of the biggest pop stars in the world are, right now, sending out the message that hey, that’s life, and there’s no good reason for it to change.


Thursday, 26 July 2012

Gifts for boot heels to crush

How do people live without Jeff Buckley?

I come back to him again and again. He's like red velvet cake - his voice, his songs, the production, those keeling, swooning melodies; the first taste is like total immersion - you know that sort of 'crumple' gesture you make when you bite into the most beautiful cake you've ever tasted, and sort of collapse with satisfaction? But it's so rich that after a certain point I'm gripped by the urge to turn it the fuck off and never listen again, my taste buds saturated, my brain sickened by gluttonous consumption. And a week later, I crave that voice again. When he sang Lilac Wine, he might as well have been describing his own voice.

There's just no-one around like him. I remember the early 00s when, alongside the New York new-new-new-new-wave stick insect invasion, there was an unfortunate infestation of winsome singer-songwriters who, intentionally or otherwise, held up Buckley as an influence.

Singing in a falsetto and plying their heartfelt, male fragility like recycled loo paper didn't make them like Jeff. No one is like Jeff.

There's something so sly, creepy, sold-your-sold-to-the-devil about his melodies - they swoop down on you, then sneak behind you and surprise you again. This is a man who could spin out a faithful and convincing - !! - rendition of Nina Simone's The Other Woman. He thundered, vengeful and tyrannical, through Nightmares By The Sea and Dream Brother, he slumped in decadent, drunken self-pity in Lilac Wine, and Morning Theft, the song that popped my Buckley cherry, gifted to me on a compilation ten years ago... shit, man. What a song. A full and unflinching breakdown of the end of a relationship - self-recrimination and love declaration, all entwined together.

There are other songwriters out there who work the whole male-ego/desire-vs-shattered-masculinity thing - Matt Berninger is a very good example, though what he does is aesthetically far more conventionally gruff and male. But no-one swandives with such elegance, such glittering, bewitching, guileless style. The thing I loved best about Jeff Buckley was that although he told all these stories of doomed love, intoxication, prostration at the feet of the one he adores, and seething fury at the world around him, he always seemed to come across as a guy who would just be fun to go for a beer with. None of this shitty Pete Doherty method singer bullshit, getting snapped tangled around the bottom of lampposts in a heroin stupor and using one’s 'job' to justify being a fucking idiot. He didn't die from an overdose or snort all his talent up his nose. He just fucking drowned, died way too young, and it was sheer bad luck.


Living in the future

Yesterday I taught my boyfriend how to use a record player.

It's not that he's not good at this sort of thing. He is better at technology than most - indeed it is his bread and butter. But I had to tell him which part of the record you place the needle on. This is the world we live in now. A record where boys have never played records.

He can now say with pride that the first vinyl record he ever played was Fear of a Black Planet. There are worse places to start.


Monday, 23 July 2012

Doesn't seem to be a shadow in the city

London is scorching. The asphalt is melting and finally I can leave my umbrellas in the hallway. I'm glad the last week of my 20s are finally going to feel like summer.

Yesterday we schlepped to Nunhead for a friend's barbecue. Nunhead has many hills, and in summer it seems hotter than anywhere else in south London, but the trip is usually worth the aches. I can't think of too many better ways to spend a sunlit Sunday than sitting in someone's back garden with meat cooking, drinks cooling, Aerosmith and Thin Lizzy Spotifying, and good people talking about European festivals, the problem with 'girl bands' and the wonder of Springsteen. I've lived in Peckham for three years now, and one sensation I will always associate with it is that hazy, can't-quite-see-out-of-the-lower-corners-of-my-vision, sunbleached late afternoon feeling that takes you over as you walk home after drinking in the sunshine. I never felt it anywhere else; picnics in north London never left me so hazed out, even if they went on twice as long. Perhaps Peckham has its own microclimate. It's almost exhausting but it feels like friends and not at all like work, and I know I'll always remember it.

Thirty is an odd one. I don't really care about life landmarks like this - I'm more concerned with banking treasured memories than marking off milestones But I can't deny it feels a bit odd. I feel accelerated; I feel like I have to hurry up and Get Things Done. I've always been scared of missing out, not having all the fun I could, letting the good times pass me by. So much so that in my mostly-legal hedonism I've probably not achieved some of the serious shit I could have. I want to be the girl with the most cake, both had and kept; I have no interest in putting away childish things or retreating into grown up greyness, but I know I need to put more time and push into painting, find a better-paying day-job, and generally figure my shit out. Suddenly I realise that the kids coming up from behind are ten years younger than me. Bruce Springsteen was 26 when he made Born to Run, and that was his third record. I have some catching up to do.


Saturday, 21 July 2012

I seem to lean on old familiar ways

There is truly nothing more satisfying than getting home from work in the afternoon sun, sitting on the floor of your living room and playing old records. Fuck TV, seriously.

Yesterday a blissful afternoon was soundtracked by Carole King's Tapestry, the Pretenders' Extended Play, Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years, side two and three of a big Supremes anthology, the 12" of Salad's single Drink The Elixir, The Modern Lovers and of course, of COURSE, Born In the USA.


Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Show a little faith, there's magic in the night

I burbled ineffectually the last couple of posts about my rock n roll heroes, and I'm dissatisfied. In the last 6 days I saw bands I've loved my whole music-loving life, bands I never thought I'd see, bands I never thought'd even play again. And either side of that week, I'm listening to their music (mainly Springsteen and Simon). Those songs - particularly Springsteen - are words fleshed onto bone, the simplest elements brought alchemically to life like the tin man with a heart; four chord rock turned into hymns, words you've heard a thousand times before that still jerk your neck and make it prickle. There's electricity in those songs. And I'm no songwriter, I'll never be able to do what he does; but I know what I can do, and that's to write something complete and honest about last week.

What I'm trying to understand and express is the effect he and his band had that day - and before it. At 6am on Saturday morning, I sat across a McDonalds table faced with a cardboard breakfast. Two women from Birmingham sat opposite me. One of them was raw with irritation; she spent the night under a tree, she was cold, the tinny chart r'n'b leaking through McDonalds' speakers was scratching at her nerves, and she had hours to go before she was where she wanted to be; front row, looking up at her hero. Why would you put yourself through that? Why did I race round the park in the rain the night before, trying to find a lurking group of strangers who'd write a number on my hand, and then turn up for a register at dawn the next day? Why'd I sit and stand in the rain for hours before the show? I hate the rain. Why'd I do that?

I remember being 19, and there was a band I loved. Every foolhardy music fan has that band they'll abandon judgment and sense for, and this young band, with their egos and their hair and their churning, growling, squealing heartbreak songs, were mine. I saw them up and down the country from back room to festival field and back again. I bought everything on every format, I painted and drew them relentlessly, seeking the perfect representation (oh, glory - seeing one of my paintings used on their record artwork later on!), I talked to them every chance I got, I interviewed them just because I could, sitting in a bar listening to my hero talk and then writing pages of rapture about his band. One time I ended up in a hotel room with him after a festival and a bottle of vodka. Then, I was too nervous and naïve to let things go where he wanted, so we just slept, and now I'm glad of how uneventful it was. But the thrill of being in that room with him, just me and my hero, asleep next to me, the feeling that anything could happen; that teenage feeling was the core of it.

Then I grew up, got jobs, worked 'properly' in music, understood about licensing and tech specs and financial breakdowns and riders and how to wreck an XLR cable by coiling it badly, and the grey exasperation of haggling with the door girl over guestlist entry for a band you've only come to see because you've been told to review it. That teenage intoxication that made other cities seem so much closer when your heroes were touring, that made possibilities trump logistics every time... that seemed a long time ago.

And my whole life, Bruce Springsteen was a remote figure, a titan in my dad's record collection and a staple in mine, someone I'd always defend to anyone who dared slate him. Hungry Heart made every bad day better, those opening chords bumping hips together and my hands flying up and scraping the ceiling at his opening 'YEA-HAAHH!'. But this month I rediscovered him completely, went back and listened to all the songs I knew and more that I didn't, and absorbed them like it was the first time. Devoured live videos, bootleg clips; it was the only thing I wanted to listen to. I didn't want to hear new bands; like a kid behind a library shelf after midnight I wanted to hunker down in the dark, warm, dusty comfort of that back catalogue, aided by the others I love that surround it (Allman Brothers, Roy Orbison, Aerosmith, Eddie Cochran, the Supremes; the songs I loved that never sold me out by going stale).

Something about that music; it had, and has, the compelling power that you imagine religion has over other people. I think about centuries past, when God was solid and terrifying and you grew up believing or else, or about the evangelical African churches in railway arches behind my house, where normal people go to shriek and clutch each other, unified by conviction and release. And something in Springsteen's lyrics, the same motifs repeated, mutated, repeated again, something in his authoritative, roaming, jovial stage presence, whether an archaic 1970s performance or recent show; it was like watching a veteran priest order his flock, there was a determination and a purity about it. (Recall Bruce yelling up the hype for Clarence - "Do ah have to say his name??? Do ah have to speak - his - name???") I'm not religious, I left behind a Catholic upbringing years ago, but I remember church every Sunday, and I never felt this fervour there. That fervour, that's what I was running towards when I was 19, and now.

I'm 29 years old. I work a shitty day job. I make £20 grand a year shuffling paper. I have to be somewhere at 9am every day, and I can't afford to throw caution to the wind any more. Yet something sparked into life and set a motor running; 7 days before the show, it became the most vital thing in the world to get Springsteen tickets. It became a matter of survival. I chased down every lead I saw, called every number, and walked home in the rain last Tuesday with a precious orange ticket in my pocket, checking every few minutes to make sure it was still there. And that weekend, I HAD to be in the front row. I sat for 3 hours in the rain, and stood for ten hours after that - my feet stopped hurting after five. Those two women from Birmingham were opposite me on the front row of the catwalk, and behind them, thousands of people knew every word. All I wanted was to touch the arm of my hero, and the next day I went back and spent another £60 I don't have, really really don't have, on a Paul Simon ticket because I couldn't bear for the weekend to end, for that dizzy feeling to slip away. And of course how delicious - seeing my two childhood heroes in the same weekend. And then I got itchy thoughts about Springsteen's next shows; was Dublin really so far away? How much were flights to Oslo?

Reality caught me by the scruff of the neck and yanked me back, and so Bruce is playing in Dublin tonight and I'm sitting at my desk in London, writing this instead. But that teenage feeling... it's still tweaking my ear, sitting on my shoulder and reminding me that maybe he'll be back next year, and I'll be in the same room, or park, or field, as my hero again.


Monday, 16 July 2012

Glory Days - or how Hard Rock Calling ruined my life

I have used up my purpose in life.

Last week I saw Faith No More at Brixton Academy. I saw Yeasayer do probably the smallest show I'll ever see them play. I saw the once-mighty Soundgarden flex their muscles again on Friday night at Hyde Park - and it was screaming and corrosive and brilliant - I fought my way to the front, broken wrist 'n' all, and they fulfilled every hope & expectation. I saw the great, beautiful Boss on Saturday night, and on Sunday afternoon, unwilling to spend my Sunday lost in a Springsteen anti-climax, I found tickets for Paul Simon, and watched him and Ladysmith Black Mambazo play as the sun dipped below the clouds behind us.

I don't think anything will ever be as good again. How can I surpass it?

Bruce was incredible. I've never seen him before and the whole experience was an act of endurance, a day of making friends, and a satisfying of hopes. A fan-organised number system meant the early-comers scored front-row places, and I collected my number at 11pm the night before after Soundgarden. Home, curry, washed the moshpit right out of my hair, 90 minutes sleep, and I was up & out again to get my name checked at 6am. We queued til 12, huddled on the ground under umbrellas, and once in I got a spot on the catwalk barrier. Disappointing support line-up, but John Fogerty of Creedence, introduced by Bruce (who duetted with him later) was a phenomenal, bluesy force of nature.

Bruce's set was long and lovely, opening with a stripped back Thunder Road (just piano and Bruce on harmonica). None of my favourites (Seeds, Hungry Heart, Rosalita, the chunkier songs off Magic - my request for I'll Work For Your Love was fruitless) were played but Johnny 99 was fast and heavy and superb, Wrecking Ball and Death to My Hometown were roared sing-alongs that united the crowd early on, and Tom Morello redeemed his below-par acoustic set by joining Bruce for a few songs and absolutely slaying on guitar. Oh, and Paul McCartney showed up for a couple of songs - you'll have read all about that in the news so I won't rehash it here. Born in the USA lacked a little something but Born to Run was perfect, as were My City of Ruins and a reassuringly boisterous Working on the Highway. Slightly broken hearted that we catwalk folks were the only barrier people that Bruce didn't spend time with (apart from the people at the very end) but my god, he was astonishing.

The whole time he was on, Patricia Arquette's line from True Romance was reverberating in my head... "You're so cool... you're so cool... you're so cool."

I didn't know if he'd hold my attention for the full three hours but he could have played for six and I'd have been overjoyed. I didn't even mind the rain. (And this is coming from a girl with 25 umbrellas, for different kinds of rain.) It was worth the hour's sleep and the 6am street-traipsing and the queueing and the 10 hours sans loo or alcohol and the cold and the mud and the beer and the blood and the cheers. It was even worth Lady Antebellum's set, which redefined the word anodyne. I will be a Bruce fan forever.

Paul Simon was a much more relaxed experience. We got a little drunk, found ourselves a roomy spot in front of the sound desk and danced like damn fools. Ladysmith were peerless, it was such a treat to see them (they weren't with him at his Roundhouse show last summer). So perfect to hear Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes the way it's meant to sound. I was giddy and delirious with joy from start to finish, and The Obvious Child hasn't left my head since then. I've had 5 and a half hours sleep since Friday, I'm still beaming like someone's mum, and I'm barely standing.

Speaking of Paul Simon, here's my May 2012 review of the Graceland reissue, originally published on The Line of Best Fit.

Paul Simon - Graceland, 25th Anniversary Edition - May 2012

“Ugh. I hate Paul Simon.”

Those were a friend’s words last weekend. An argument followed in which I indignantly defended the great (little) man; a timely debate, given the re-release of this seminal record.

It would seem that whatever will be will be reissued, and few records are so deserving of a reappraisal as Graceland. Formed in the shadow of South African apartheid, and crossing cultural picket lines by being recorded there with a host of native musicians, Paul Simon’s seventh studio album drew political revulsion from its critics and support from the UN Anti Apartheid Committee, delighted Paul Simon fans old and new, described a generation, won a Grammy, set up home in critics’ “Top 100″ lists and soundtracked innumerable childhoods. My earliest solid musical memories are a Buddy Holly cassette played endlessly on my first Walkman, and my father’s Saturday morning couch commando tendencies, regularly taking pole position on the sofa to re-watch Paul Simon’s gargantuan Central Park show. I loved Buddy, but Paul Simon’s music was something alive and real, clever and grown-up and mystifying. The seven year old me burbled the chorus to ‘I Know What I Know’ relentlessly, with little clue what the words meant. Small and naïve, I had no sense of Graceland’s cultural importance and the protests it provoked. It infiltrated my childhood so simply and solidly that I thought of Paul Simon like I thought of Paul McCartney; a fixture, a dependable presence, an uncle I surely just hadn’t met yet.

Arguably one of the most trailblazing, loved world music records ever – yet primarily, a pop record – Graceland doesn’t patronise its audience or its influences. Simon’s fascination with and respect for the rhythms and infectious sounds that drew him to Johannesburg is evident and the result is a heady, complex collection of songs. The anniversary edition includes Under African Skies, Joe Berlinger’s documentary about the recording and touring of Graceland in the dark days of South Africa’s war on its own people, with Simon returning to visit the friends he made all those years ago. As it shows, the melodic structure of this groundbreaking record was built by many hands, assembled from collaborative jam sessions and the South African musicians’ ideas and natural styles, as well as the shades of Americana that Simon was also exploring at the time, with the remarkable lyrics sewn into this tapestry after all else was done.

“Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.”

There’s no sense of the diverse components, from mbaqanga and Ladysmith Black Mambazo‘s remarkable a cappella performances, to Creole zydeco, being watered down for easy consumption; they’re already accessible, a cascade of gorgeous melodies, irresistible rhythms, voices that dance and lock together to become a complicated percussive instrument in their own right. “Our music is always regarded as third world music”, opined producer Koloi Lebona in Under African Skies, applauding Simon’s stance; his decision to bypass the concerns of the anti-apartheid movement and ignore the boycott still divides opinion, but it’s beyond doubt that Graceland did much to transport a fresh array of music styles to the mainstream and dispel tired clichés about African culture, and its influence is still keenly felt today. Ladysmith Black Mambazo became a household name after Graceland was completed, and many of the artists involved toured the record together globally.

The political story of Simon’s best-loved record provides the narrative thread to the film, but most striking is the burgeoning friendships between Simon and the musicians he approached to help him write and record the record. From initial meetings, strangers fundamentally separated by colour, language and a sediment of mistrust, to a studio full of new friends, dancing and grinning and creating something wonderful, it’s an infectious and engaging story – particularly considering the widespread misery and fear that threatened the African musicians outside the studio.

As for the record itself, it was a potent return to form for the songwriter after the disappointing flop of Hearts & Bones – the remnants of his abortive reunion project with Art Garfunkel. Graceland combined bewitching, surprising music with his trademark lyrical dexterity; he was once more at the top of his game.

“She comes back to tell me she’s gone…as if I didn’t know my own bed. As if I’d never noticed the way she brushed her hair from her forehead.”

Paul Simon is the master of the nuanced lyric, the tiny indicator that reveals the heart of the matter. As Quincy Jones notes in the documentary, “He’s got that curious mind”. A writer’s writer, his wordplay is faultless and he deploys flippancy and wit with devastating mildness. The songs skip and trill and shrug; melodies become casual little jams and riffs, phrases rolled around reflectively before revealing unmistakeable purpose. You can never accuse him of bitterness, but his observations are shot through with the loudly unspoken. After the opening four-shot explosion of ‘The Boy in The Bubble’ and Forere Motloheloa’s peerless, famed accordion groove, its expectant pace is given unsettling resonance by lines about “lasers in the jungle” and a “bomb in the baby carriage” – whether Simon is referring to Johannesburg’s troubles, Vietnam or any other upheavals of the last twenty years, the effect is arresting. Even at his most flip, there are little spots of yearning – ‘You don’t feel you could love me, but I feel you could’ – those notes reaching and clutching at human contact and understanding. And ‘Crazy Love Vol II’ is, lyrically, a painful story of a life passed by, a tragic lack of ambition, the weary using-up of time and the realisation of mortality, yet is delivered with the characteristic, smarting joy that radiates from his musical arrangements; from the opening, fluttering fall of guitars that gleam like steel drums, its bright, futile hopefulness cuts deeply.

Is the melody itself, lightfooted and flippant, a wry extension of the double-edged Jewish humour that permeates his lyrics? Or does it just serve to remind us that our problems are just distractions, the sense that even if the little things don’t work out, there are bigger things to spend one’s time on? That if the big things tank too, there’s still hope if nothing else? These are the questions that Simon’s music poses but never answers.

That eponymous, game-changing title song shuffles and chugs into view like a locomotive, before that legendary line disembarks and knocks you flat – “The Mississippi delta was shining like a national guitar/I am following the river down the highway, through the cradle of the Civil War”. Seriously, if you are one of those that really doesn’t see just what a biblical, humbling piece of songwriting this is, go back and listen to it again. Listen to the swoon of the pedal steel, bury your face in those lyrics; spare, unembellished accuracies about fatherhood, the loss of love, the search for something vital to make sense of it, the importance of faith – if not in God, in something, anything else – all mused without pomp, backed up by the Everly Brothers themselves, and carried along by that warm, elastic guitar sound that just IS Paul Simon. Go back and listen to it. Now listen to it again. Get it yet? There you go.

Early demos of some of the record’s defining moments close this edition – a nimble alternative version of ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’ and raw, revealing demos of ‘Homeless’ and that trumpet-laden triumph, ‘You Can Call Me Al’. If you own Graceland, hand it on someone who hasn’t come to it yet, and get this instead. The pleasure of this edition’s ‘the Making Of…’ themed extras make it a worthy upgrade.

Was Simon wrong to ignore all the advice and go to South Africa? That question still begs an answer which Berlinger’s film never quite provides, though it ably tells both sides of the story. If the resulting record hadn’t been Graceland, an answer might be more glibly reached. The boycott was there to isolate a racist government and show them that the world wouldn’t play ball with a nation that terrorised its black population. There’s no doubt Simon was selfish to plough ahead without seeking the approval of those who organised the cultural boycott, prizing his next record over an international movement. But Graceland is a once in a lifetime achievement, and ultimately, the magnificent end did justify the means. Great art is seldom reasonable; there is often a tyranny at work, an unshakeable belief by its creator that what they are doing must take precedence over everything else. Given what was being fought for in South Africa, it was a hell of a risk to take, but Graceland is indeed fine, great art; a rarely-matched coming together of artists, strangers of different backgrounds and languages, and an introduction to strains of music that the ruling government had sought to curb through brutal means. A quarter of a century on, Graceland still dazzles.


Friday, 13 July 2012

Yeasayer @ The Lexington, 11.07.12

There’s just something extra classy about Yeasayer. The Brooklyn artpop troupe have elicited all sorts of adjectives from enthusiastic writers and fans, and in 2010 chalked up the none-more-modern honour of ‘Most Blogged About Artist’, but all of this is mere faff and distraction compared to what they actually do.

Tonight they’re at The Lexington to play a sweaty and intimate gig to showcase new material ahead of the release of their third record, Fragrant World, and the upstairs room has been enhanced by a wall of what appear to be timpani or satellite dishes. These turn out to be Clever Concave Reflective Devices for Yeasayer’s touring light show; trust this hyper-creative band, whose complex approach to music-making has won them a loyal following as well as all those excited bloggers, not to do things by halves.

Aloofness is an alien concept to Yeasayer; when singer Chris Keating isn’t shaking and beckoning to the heavens like an evangelist, he’s cuddling and patting the heads of his fans, or crawling on the floor among them. Such inclusiveness works in their favour; the love they collect from the crowd makes this a friendly setting to debut new tracks. The exceptional ‘Henrietta’ feels like an easy progression for them – a loping, dubby rhythm section overlaid with Keating’s paranoid freakout vocals and Yeasayer’s trademark trills and found-sound – but elsewhere their scattergun sound has been tightened considerably.

Fans and detractors alike both cite Yeasayer’s tendency to pile billions of influences and ideas on top of each other, and squash them down into something dense and rich – the musical equivalent of fossil fuel, if you will. With their ears pointed like receivers in 10 different directions at once, the band’s accomplished first album wove together 80s pop and soul, homespun freak-folk, globetrotting mysticism and Remain in Light-esque post-punk, yet a Promethean inventiveness made these old riches seem newly minted, and sophomore record Odd Blood continued this approach, though less cohesively.

With that in mind they seem to have decided it’s time to pick an allegiance – new songs like ‘Reagan’s Skeleton’ and ‘No Bones’ reflect a love of all things disco, from the late Donna Summer’s vibrating, still-futuristic pop-ecstasy and the electro-hedonism of the Communards to a more focused, pulsing Moroder / Depeche Mode sound. Drummer Jaytram’s titanic percussion is punchier, roaming between four-to-the-floor directness and sunny, pealing Caribbean steel drums and cowbell.

They’re right to progress from the sound of their last two records, and maybe they’ve opted to hone their sound rather than spread themselves too thin, but in places it feels like the old Yeasayer alchemy is missing. The starker songs satisfy but don’t electrify, leaving you wishing for some kind of volte-face or miracle moment, for the music to pick up its own stretcher and walk (like the climactic end-hook in Odd Blood’s ‘O.N.E’ as the vocals leap surprisingly into a celebratory falsetto). But the charm and fervour of their live performance keeps up the momentum and, adrenaline-dosing the crowd frequently with interspersed favourites like ‘2080’ and the TVOTR-esque ‘Madder Red’, they remind all present what a vital force they are.

Originally published at The Line of Best Fit.


"Where can I begin?"

I have always liked Bruce Springsteen. Growing up in the 80s, certain facts were immutable:

- Margaret Thatcher was Bad
- Paul Simon was Good
- Bruce Springsteen.

These were simple facts inherited from my dad when I was small. (Troublingly, after I recently told him I'd finally got Born In The USA on vinyl, he opined that "Bruce Springsteen is good, but a lot of his stuff sounds the same." I THOUGHT WE WERE GOING TO HAVE A GROWN-UP FATHER/DAUGHTER MUSICAL BONDING MOMENT. Upsetting. If this trend continues he'll tell me he doesn't like Jeff Buckley after all, or that Graceland isn't the greatest record ever made in the history of people making records.) (Also, no it doesn't. It's all different. Every song has its own beating heart. And it's all brilliant.)

But my love for the great man, America's last old-time hero, the best thing to come out of New Joizey, and yes, that tired old nickname, The Boss, has reached new and epidemic levels in the last month. It reached its climax this week as I frantically decided, somewhat bloody late, that I needed to go to his Hyde Park show this Saturday, and my life would be over if I could not get a ticket. Much Gumtree-grazing, 30 emails, one costly ticket scam, two calls to the police, £200-ish down and one glazed, happy look later, I have a ticket. I HAVE A TICKET. I only hope it's legit (it looks it.)

In anticipation and enjoyment of this lovely, lovely fact, I have been drowning myself in his back catalogue for weeks now. Today I discovered Magic.

My little bruv put I'll Work For Your Love on a compilation for me a few yrs ago, but only yesterday did I finally hear the record it came from. Oh GOD. Oh god. It's so wonderful. I didn't know he could do this with his voice. He sings like Richard Hawley! Oh god. Girls In Their Summer Clothes is as graceful as anything he's ever written or performed (and I really liked Secret Garden). You'll Be Coming Down is as beautifully brutal as The Cars' Who's Gonna Drive You Home, which I always thought was a stunning but really unkind song. I love how flooded this album is - I'm a sucker for glorious technicolour, movie-moment, hero-gets-the-girl/hero-swandives-to-his-death-heroically production, the kind that hauls shameless tears down your face.

And I'll Work For Your Love - that crashing, comforting 'this is how life's meant to play out' piano cascade and the chorus's graceful, egoless declaration of intent - it's so Bruce, it's almost a fucking cliche, except that he's so wonderfully good at being him that it's just meta-Bruce - like looking down a corridor of eternal mirrors. If mirrors had arms like rocket launchers, a Fonz-like manner and a really cute arse.

And just because I have no decorum, let's take a moment to celebrate the glorious spectacle that has been Bruce over the years.

Teehee. Mirrors.

I would be happy to find this in my Christmas stocking. That's probably not a euphemism. (He is only 5'9, after all. He'd probably fit.)

Name one other person who can wear medallions like this and get away with it. Other than Mr T.

Still hot. Still got it.

The ultimate bromance. R.I.P. Clarence Clemons.