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

Friday, 25 November 2011

Three for all.

My Three for all this week features three female vocalists at completely different stages of their careers.

Up first, as I have just bought tickets to see her next year, is Florence + the Machine. Having never really joined in the hype around Florence with her first album Lungs, finding her cover of You’ve Got the Love particularly annoying, she has nevertheless changed my opinion of her with new album, Ceremonials.

The two singles released in advance of the album, What the Water Gave Me and Shake It Out, were both outstanding, the first a gothic epic in the same vein as Heavy in Your Arms, the song she contributed to the soundtrack of the last Twilight film, the second an uplifting example of Florence’s vocal range becoming an instrument itself, supported by organs and thumping drums.

The song I am choosing to spotlight though is album track Breaking Down, a piano-led song that would almost sound upbeat if it weren’t for the affecting lyrics, which Florence teases with subdued, whispering delivery. These, backed by further layers of her vocals and a choir, create the rich and atmospheric sound that is a feature of the album. A perfect pop hymn.

Next is the first track from Kate Bush’s outstanding new album, 50 Words for Snow.

I’ve liked Kate Bush for a while without really knowing too much about her, but the build up to the release of this album has been prominent on 6 Music, and opener Snowflake has been played several times, which is enough to compel you. It’s not a song you can easily shake off, as across its runtime of nearly ten minutes, its dramatic imagery floods your mind and stays there. While it may not make sense to some, she has somehow captured the sound of winter, whatever that may be.

I’m not sure anyone has written a concept album about snow before, despite it being an endlessly fascinating subject to take on. As even The Snowman showed, its fleeting existence can be heartbreaking, and figurative for so many other subjects, obvious ones being love and death. The darkness, the isolation, and the bleakness of a winter snowstorm is all captured within this sparse ballad of hushed vocals and piano. First person lyrics tell us of being born in a cloud and falling, longing to be caught. It’s a strangely desolate viewpoint.

Will Florence, or anyone else around at the moment for that matter, still be making music as original and captivating as this in 30 years time? It doesn’t seem likely.

This song, and album, was made for winter. In an interview, Kate Bush said that if she hadn't finished it soon enough, it would have had to wait to be released until next winter, so enjoy it while the nights are dark and long. It’s the perfect soundtrack for a winter walk under a dark orange sky, as snow silently falls around you. If it snows this winter, that’s what I’ll be doing.

Last up is an artist who is a musical toddler compared to Kate Bush. Elena Tonra aka Daughter, has been a revelation for me this year, despite only releasing a handful of songs across two EPs. This Londoner possesses a spellbinding voice, both delicate and forceful, and uses it to tell tragic tales of love and loss.

Her His Young Heart EP may be my most played release of the year, featuring four flawless acoustic songs. It can be listened to on Soundcloud here. And, as I’m generous and can’t pick just one, here are all four songs from her equally stunning new release, The Wild Youth EP, for you to enjoy.

I devastatingly missed her play in Birmingham in October with Benjamin Francis Leftwich, but hope she will return to the second city soon. She is one to watch for the future as 2012 will hopefully yield an album.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Three for all.

Has it been a week already? My second 'Three for all' comes hot on the heels of my interview with Q Magazine’s Editor Paul Rees, who discussed the use of lists in modern music journalism, and what goes into creating a list such as Q’s Top 50 Albums of the Year. If you haven’t read it already, it’s an insight into the UK's second biggest music monthly.

My first recommendation this week is Down by Summer Camp, the second single from the retro indie-pop duo’s excellent debut album Welcome to Condale. The only problem with the first track released from your album being one of the best tracks of the year, which Better Off Without You undoubtedly was, is that you then have to follow it with something. But Down sees the duo upping the tempo and replacing the Footloose-y groove with fuzzy garage guitars, as they continue to delve into life in the imaginary LA suburb their songs inhabit.

They have a fascinating knack of placing melancholy subject matter, lyrics of failed relationships and wasted lives, over buoyant music laced with twinkly synth moments, to create something infectious and defiantly upbeat.

Elizabeth Sankey and Jeremy Warmsley funded their debut album through Pledgemusic by selling items from signed merch and private gigs to homemade brownies and even a sparkly jumpsuit worn by Elizabeth at Reading festival, and it’s a good thing they did, as it’s one of the year’s best.

Having missed Birmingham out on their most recent tour, they have now announced a date at The Rainbow in March, which I can’t wait for.

 Down by Summer Camp

Up next is James Vincent McMorrow’s stripped-down cover of Steve Winwood’s Higher Love.

In a week when the John Lewis Christmas ad once again proved that no matter how good a song is, a soulless and bland cover of it can still become popular, this cover gives hope that some musicians can take a song and add something to it, rather than taking away. Ironically, McMorrow has added by removing, stripping the song to its bare bones with a less is more aesthetic.

I noticed this song from another ad as it goes, a Love Film ad, and it wormed its way into my consciousness over a number of views until I had to google who it was. This folk troubadour from Dublin is very much in the vein of Bon Iver, which is both good and bad, but this cover is a haunting and heartfelt version. With its falsetto vocal and echoing piano, it’s a million miles away from the number-one hit of the 1980s. It’s how a cover should be.

 Higher Love by jamesvmcmorrow

My third and final song this week is from a band close to my heart, literally, as I work with their drummer, and what would be the point of having a blog if I couldn’t give them a mention?

Is I Cinema are a five-piece from Birmingham, and The Unnamed is one of several new songs they have recorded to follow their 2010 debut EP ‘Is I Cinema, You Are Physics’.

I’ve seen Is I Cinema live five times this year, and seen this song develop over a number of months into this finalised version, which was recorded over a weekend at Magic Garden Studios, Wolverhampton in September 2011 with Gavin Monaghan (Editors, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Scott Matthews) producing.

They’ve been described as indescribable by better writers than me, and I’ll admit to finding it difficult to encapsulate all they do in a single sentence.

This song builds from a sparse opening of delicate vocals and keyboards, to a crescendo of atmospheric, layered guitar and swirling synth sounds, anchored with pounding drums and pleading lyrics.

 The Unnamed by is i cinema

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Paul Rees.

The world loves a list

Lists are everywhere these days. You can’t pick up a magazine or visit a website or watch TV without seeing a greatest 100 this or a top 50 that. Making lists can even lead to a role in an Oscar-winning film, just ask Liam Neeson.

Lists are made about anything and everything, from the banal to the bizarre, the funny to the fascinating. We are all obsessed with, somewhat unnecessarily, ordering things and seeing how others do the same, especially when it comes to music.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, Desert Island Discs, the ever-popular radio programme in which a guest is asked to pick only a few pieces of music to be stranded with, is the second longest running factual programme on the radio, first being broadcast in January 1942.

Lists on music aren’t new, though the Internet has given people a voice to answer back, and they often do, with vitriol, ridicule and adulation, depending on their own viewpoint.

So how important are lists in modern music journalism? I spoke to Paul Rees, Editor of Q, about his own thoughts on lists, how the magazine uses them and what goes into producing their most important list of the year, the Top 50 Albums of the Year.

“My personal opinion is that done right, lists can be fascinating, provocative and useful. Done badly, they're lazy and boring,” Paul says, alluding to the problem of lists being used as quick and easy filler, hence their domination in modern journalism.

However, Paul admits to finding bad lists almost as engrossing as good ones. “I will still watch something as wretched as, say, the ‘100 Greatest TV Comedy Shows’ at Christmas, ostensibly to vent my spleen at the epic stupidity of the world at large for their choices. But also, even then, to be reminded of and relive flickering moments of magic,” he admits.

So, other than finding a sense of superiority in knowing that we, the reader or viewer, are right and they are wrong, what is it about lists that make them endlessly readable?

“I think lists simply carry an enduring fascination to people that isn't specific to journalism – but the media as whole and indeed life in general,” he says.

“It's one of the reasons Desert Island Discs is eternally popular: the notion of finding out how a person pares something down and the attendant debate it sparks is an engaging process. Q tries to make lists that are either useful, like the 50 Albums of the Year, and/or entertaining. Like everyone though we have been guilty in the past of over-using them,” he admits.

Paul has a rare viewpoint, having been on both sides of the judgement as someone who both compiles important and widely-read lists, and reads those of others. Does this position lead to a desire to please and avoid criticism from others, or does it only increase your conviction?

“In any event, you're never, ever going to please everybody. And that would also defeat the object to a certain extent,” Paul says.

“All lists provoke the same reaction, I suspect. People agree with anything that validates their own viewpoint and fulminate when it doesn't – and, often as not, do both together.

“I remember us copping an epic amount of flak one year for the temerity of having a Coldplay record as our album of the year. It was a record that had been bought, and enjoyed, by several million people. The implicit suggestion being that they, and we, were all wrong.

“By the way, I hasten to add that this flak came from other folk in the media – not readers. The readers/online users generally debate the whole of a list: the merits of what’s on it, what’s missing. That being precisely what you’d hope for – that on some level the content engages people.”

As alluded to, end of year lists are the most important in music journalism, Paul says of them, “I think they’re important in the sense that it's Q's chance to crystallise our view of music – and, increasingly so this year, that of the artists we write about and the readers.”

While creating a list yourself may be difficult, imagine trying to make a list that encompasses a magazine’s whole outlook on music, while also taking on board the individuality of each member of staff. As passionate as fans are, journos make a living from being obsessive and opinionated, and one who has championed a band in reviews and features throughout the year may feel a personal involvement in seeing said band placed high up the list. Is compiling a list that the staff are happy with even more difficult than one that readers are happy with?

“In my experience, compiling year-end lists for magazines is an enjoyable experience. Everyone has their say, debates can be heated, but it’s rare indeed that people don’t recognise the fact that the list should – and ultimately does – reflect the magazine’s view over individual choice.

“With Q, the list itself is compiled from mid-October by polling all the magazine's staff and its writers. That process is concluded in mid-November and the results of the poll are then debated by the editorial team. We take a final view on the standings. In my experience we haven’t had anyone take issue with the final outcome of any such poll.”

Paul’s favourite album of the year? “Bon Iver - Bon Iver. Without a doubt. A work of beauty.” To see where Paul’s choice makes it on this year’s list, buy the 50 Albums of the Year issue, available on 29 November. After wholly agreeing with their choice last year (The Suburbs), I’m keen to see which side I will fall on this year. And my own list will appear nearer to Christmas. Thanks Paul.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Three for all.

Because I was raised properly, I learned to share. When it comes to music, I live to share.

Over half of my Facebook statuses are links to songs on Spotify, Soundcloud or YouTube that I hope someone, somewhere listens to, though I doubt it. I’d say 90% of all my statuses and tweets are music related.

A friend recently mentioned she would like to know more new music. Without her saying anymore, I made her three CD’s worth. Across them there were just under 60 songs, with no band featuring twice. The total run time came in at a just under 4 hours and honestly that was only because of the limitations of CDs. It's an obsession really. It’s the reason I enjoyed being on student radio so much.

So, to satisfy my need to share further, this is the first of a new feature where every Friday, I will aim to share a few songs I’ve been enjoying that week. My Friday 'Three for all'. Clever eh?

First up is I See New Things Every Day by Pandas and People. I saw this young band in Kings Heath on Wednesday, and their brand of indie pop is certainly catchy, in the same vein as Two Door Cinema Club. They’ve already had exposure on 6 Music and recorded their debut album, also available on Soundcloud, so keep an eye out for this exciting four-piece from Redditch.

 I See New Things Everyday by Pandas and People

Next up is Sidewalk Safari by Chairlift, which I heard on 6 Music this week. I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of them before, but this Brooklyn based electro pop duo have been around since 2005 and have a successful album under their belt, with a track featured in an iPod advert in 2008, which is a pretty big deal in this day and age. This track, the opener from their upcoming third album Something, is an offbeat frenzy of synth noise with excellently delivered and disturbing lyrics, including ‘I am bad with bows and arrows, I’m not so good at guns, poison seems old fashioned […] but I do know how to drive a car faster than a man can run’.

Last up this week is Waiting for My Chance to Come by Noah and the Whale. Since their ‘fun fun fun’ hit 5 Years Time got overplayed in 2008, I haven’t given them much attention, hearing more about frontman Charlie Fink’s troubles getting over Laura Marling (which I admit must be difficult) than their music. But seeing this song performed on Jools a while ago and hearing it on the radio a bit, it’s a really good tune. And the album it’s taken from is a solid listen too.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Anna Calvi.

The perfect gig?

I had the pleasure of seeing the rather wonderful Anna Calvi at Birmingham’s HMV Institute on Friday night (4th November). During the gig, in a semi-mesmerised state brought on by her spell-binding presence, a thought entered my head that slowly grew into this very blog. The idea crossed my mind that the evening was one of those occasions when all the elements that make up live music had come together to form something rare, something special. The perfect gig.

As I walked away from the venue, I mentally listed all the things that have to be in place for a gig to be great in my eyes, and as I put this gig through the gauntlet of my own expectations, it came out the other end smiling.

So what are the elements that all play a part in making a gig special?

The first is obvious, the music. Seeing an artist or band you care about on top of their game is the foundation of a great gig, with the ability to play the songs as they sound on the recording or make them even better required to impress.

What songs they play and the order they play them is equally important as how well they play the songs too. A well-balanced set list, with a mixture of singles, album tracks, covers and rarities can make a gig great. Refusing to play your biggest song or ignoring one of your albums completely (unless it’s been advertised in advance) is a sure-fire way of ruining a gig for someone, there are bound to be people there who want to hear it even if you don’t want to play it, and you’re nothing without your audience.

It’s not only the music they play or don’t play that is important, the way they act is another stickler for me. Certain bands can pull off arrogance, some cannot. Arriving onstage late can build suspense or annoy. Humility is a particularly endearing quality for me. It’s great to see a humble artist, who thanks the audience at every possible occasion, and look as pleased to be playing in Birmingham on a wet Friday as they did on the Glastonbury TV highlights.

Between song banter is a tricky subject too. I don’t mind an artist who just sticks to the music, it’s what we came to see, but a few good one-liners or amusing anecdotes can definitely make an impression. However, if you come out of a gig and say the most memorable thing about it was the talking between the songs (i.e. Badly Drawn Boy at Moseley Folk), that speaks volumes about the music.

There is also the fact that the band you go to see won’t be the only band you do see, and while expectations should never be too high for support bands, a surprisingly good support band, that does more than just pass the time, can improve the atmosphere and take a gig up another notch.

Unfortunately, and sometimes unfairly, the people on stage aren’t the only people who can make or ruin a gig. An annoying audience is a particular pet peeve of mine, to the point where the people around me annoy me so much I can no longer focus on the music at all.

A great audience for me has to be the right size and volume, and be attentive. A gig that has sold a few too many tickets can feel like a cattle market, a gig that has sold too few can be an uncomfortable experience, especially if you make too much eye contact with the disappointed people on stage. The audience have to be quiet, silent even, during the right moments of the gig, and be loud with applause and cheering to keep the band encouraged and enthusiastic.

An audience who know and appreciate the songs are great, as long as they don’t sing over the band, try to start too many clap-a-long or sing guitar parts.

On to the surroundings, choice of venue is difficult again, sometimes bands are clearly in the wrong venue but can hardly be blamed if they’ve never played a gig there before. Sound quality and acoustics vary in importance depending on the band. A band with quiet, intricate sounds need a venue with good acoustics, whereas a loud, distorted band can make an atmosphere in even the shittiest hellhole.

The venues with the best sound quality in Birmingham are the Town Hall or The Alexandra, but unfortunately not many bands seem to realise this and play the Academy or Institute instead, both of which are adequate venues.

So back to where we started, Anna Calvi at the aforementioned Institute and why it was a perfect gig.

Firstly, when we arrived the audience was small, giving us a choice of standing place and allowing us to get not only a place on a balcony, already unheard of, but a couple of seats on the balcony, with great views of the stage and little chance of pushing and shoving.

The support band Halloween, Alaska were good, enough to get me to find out their name so I could check them out later. Their music was well suited to the gig and they got the audience, which was by then a decent size, warmed up nicely.

Anna and her band, an excellent drummer providing backing vocals and a perfectly eccentric percussionist playing all manner of instruments, took to the stage at the expected time. They played a set perfect in length, between too short and too long, with all the songs I wanted to hear and a few interesting covers (Elvis Presley, Edith Piaf), played in an order that balanced her quiet/loud moments, building an atmosphere from the first notes.

Every song was a highlight, from opener Rider To The Sea, where Anna warmed up her fingers with some virtuoso playing, to a prolonged version of album-closer Love Won't Be Leaving ending the set before the encore of Edith Piaf cover Jezebel with its pounding beat ensuring the gig maintained its intensity to the last second.

Anna is an arresting presence on stage, in her male flamenco dancer outfit of high-waisted trousers and a red silk shirt, her hair slicked back, dark eye makeup making her eyes bright and alarming, and her Telecaster worn high up her chest. And she has the talent to match the theatrics. She hit every note heard on her record, while simultaneously coaxing some beautiful notes from either of her two guitars.

The venue suited her intricate, quiet moments of delicate guitars and breathy vocals, as well as allowing her more boisterous strumming and booming vocals to soar. You could hear a pin drop during the quiet moments, but the applause was raucous and lengthy when the songs ended.

Anna said thank you after every song and seemed to genuinely enjoy the performance as much as the audience clearly did.

This gig ticked all the boxes. The only thing that wasn’t perfect about the evening was my lack of a camera to document it, but we can’t really blame Anna for that. So what makes your perfect gig?