You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Saturday, 24 September 2011


Twenty years ago today, Nirvana’s seminal Nevermind was released, I was three years old.

By the time I discovered it properly, Nevermind was 13 years old and Kurt Cobain had been dead for ten years. I was aware of Nirvana before then, in particular Smells Like Teen Spirit, which was, and still is, on heavy rotation across my choice of music channels.

But it was MTV’s flurry of documentaries, countdowns and interviews around the ten year anniversary of his death in April 2004 that really caught my attention. Within weeks, I had bought every album they released, along with DVDs and biographies of Nirvana, Kurt, Dave Grohl and Kurt’s diaries. On a trip to purchase my first guitar not long after, I trekked to the other side of London to hold Kurt’s guitar and wear his sunglasses at the Hard Rock CafĂ©. It would be fair to say I became fairly obsessed with Nirvana, they were my first musical love, and at the heart of that was Nevermind, their complexly simple masterpiece.

When I got to uni and started knocking out reviews and making magazines to amuse myself, Nevermind was the first classic album I reviewed. I thought about reusing my review for this blog, but having reviewed my own review now, it isn’t good enough to see the light of day again.

So what can I say about this album that hasn’t been said thousands of times since its release now twenty years ago? Probably not a lot. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t say anything. It’s a clichĂ©, but Nirvana mean a lot to me, and millions of others, because they taught us nothing if not that everyone has a voice and can use it.

Simply, Nevermind deserves to have sold every one of the 30 million copies it has to date. While hipsters and snobs say that In Utero is a better album, there would be no In Utero without Nevermind, as the whole rock scene even today would be different without it. It was a game changer, a breakthrough, and not just for music.

Musically, it is a strong album from start to finish. Every song is a blast of noise, distortion and power, yet always anchored with melody, hooks and catchy turns of phrase. The singles are legendary, from the obvious punch of Smells Like Teen Spirit, to the watery, chill of Come As You Are, to the bounce of Lithium. Drain You, Breed and On A Plain rank amongst the best album tracks ever recorded. Polly and Something In The Way showed they weren’t hiding behind the distortion, displaying quiet composure and depth that few of their peers managed.

The rhythm section of Grohl’s pounding drums and Krist Novoselic’s fuzzy, lively basslines keep the songs moving throughout the 40 minute runtime, counterbalancing the chaos of Kurt’s incendiary vocals and guitar. While many questioned the meaning of his lyrics, his ability to craft a memorable line or rhyme was never in doubt. And his delivery could knock you over or break your heart.

Technically speaking, while he may not have been the most gifted guitarist, he wrote some of the most famously catchy riffs in rock history, that a thousand kids could learn, and learn from. For a three piece, the guitar is solid throughout, always packing a punch and complementing his lyrics.

Sure, it’s a commercial alt-rock album, the songs follow a quiet/loud pattern that Cobain admitted he worried was too much like the Pixies, but so what, without Nirvana, the Pixies and hundreds of other bands would not be so well known today, which is a great thing. This album brought heavy rock back into the mainstream, and launched Grunge as a genre worthy of attention.

Away from the music itself and the effect this album has had on other music, it put Seattle on the map as a genuine hub for alternative music, which it remains to this day. It made heroes of the outcasts. And it spawned a thousand other bands, inspiring slackers around the world and giving them a real belief that they could become the biggest band in the world.

In many ways, it’s the sort of album, and the sort of band, that hard rock is crying out for as much in 2011 as it was twenty years ago.

For more from the players involved, hear an excellent 6 Music special here, featuring Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and producer Butch Vig.

For the final words, as Kurt sang, ‘Our little group has always been and always will until the end.’ I’m in the group, and this album is the group’s treasure.

Thursday, 15 September 2011


Friday at Moseley Folk Festival 2011 was a sundrenched day of acoustic delights and organic cider, soundtracked by Crystal Fighters, Gruff Rhys, Badly Drawn Boy and Villagers.

The high point was Villagers, the stage name of Irish singer-songwriter Conor O’Brien. As the sun began to set, he and his touring band gave a stirring performance of songs from his Mercury-nominated debut Becoming A Jackal, and previewed several songs which could feature on its follow up, expected next year.

After their hour-long performance, I chatted to Conor about the gig, his year of relentless touring and his plans for following up an acclaimed debut.

“It was a bit of a revelation for us. We've always had exciting shows in Birmingham, a few times in the Glee Club and once in the HMV Institute," he said of the show.

“We weren't necessarily expecting this show to be as good, considering the fact that it was a festival and not all of the audience were there to see us particularly. We were surprised and astounded at the response. A lot of love for Moseley Folk Fest.”

Amongst minimal onstage talk, Conor had announced that the gig was their last UK gig for a while, with just a handful of European dates left to play on the tour. 

“I'm writing a new album at the moment. I'm pretty sure I've got the title already. It's just exciting to have the time to write again after all of the madness. I forgot how good it feels to have time to digest,” Conor said.

“I’ve written quite a lot of songs, especially in the last few months,” he revealed, referring back to the new songs the band played, one of which was finished only days before the festival. “I want to make dance music, in the widest possible sense of the term. I'm sort of bored of introspective-sounding music. I'm sure I'll fall in love with it again, but I'm being pulled in a different direction. I think the lyrics will continue up the path but the music is going travelling. I'm listening to a lot of Meters and Allen Toussaint.”

On the question of following up a debut featuring an Ivor Novello winning song, Conor laughed off any notion of pressure.

“I enjoy it. No nerves, no challenge. Just a lot of little self-created challenges,” he said.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Mercury Prize.

It’s Mercury day again. What kind of blogger would I be without chucking in my two cents.

Last year’s winners The xx were the first winners since Portishead in 1995 that I actually agreed with, which may show you how my taste differs from the eclectic (or sometimes bizarre) choices of the judging panel.

Even last year The xx wouldn’t have been my first choice (Laura Marling or Villagers FYI) but still, they deserved it more than Speech Debelle or Ms Dynamite.
While I have enjoyed individual songs from quite a few of the albums nominated, Metronomy, Everything Everything, this year there are three artists from the 12 that I would be happy to see win. First up, and the album I would most like to win, is Anna Calvi’s self-titled debut.

Her blend of guitar prowess, theatrics and an impressive vocal range – from force of nature to gentle chanteuse – set her apart in a market dominated by female solo artists, and would make her a worthy winner.

Album opener Rider to the Sea builds nicely into a perfect encapsulation of her technical ability, while her soft, breathy vocals on No More Words show she can do sultry as well as she can power, which is then evident on Desire and Suzanne and I.

The second nominee I would be happy to see win would be James Blake. His album, also a self-titled debut, is innovative and yet soulful, sparse but emotive. The use of his own crooned vocals as samples, layered over trippy, dubstep beats, is an unexpected but winning formula. A win could see him conquer the mainstream.

Next up is a woman many have compared Anna Calvi to, somewhat due to Calvi’s work with producer Rob Ellis, PJ Harvey, who could become the first artist to win the Mercury Prize twice, with her brilliant Let England Shake album.

The war-themed concept album is a modern classic, and deserves to be recognised as so, however, the boost the award would give to Calvi or Blake makes me favour them.

After The xx, who were the bookies favourites last year, I reckon the panel will go obscure again, which I hope will benefit Calvi, but unfortunately, I doubt it. I will stick my neck out and say it could be Metronomy or Ghostpoet who triumph.