Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Album review: Swim – Caribou (City Slang)

The name change for a musician seeking to signify a change in their sound is so common that its become a cliché in itself. Think Eminem becoming Marshall Mathers, David Bowie adopting Ziggy Stardust or most infamously Prince changing his name to symbol in a vain attempt to reinvent himself.

In the case of Canadian Dan Snaith the change (actually brought about by a legal challenge from another musician) has been more incremental. True, there has been a shift in his sound since changing his moniker from Manitoba to Caribou but fundamentally he’s still making music that, while laptop cased, has at its heart both melody and human empathy.

His latest album Swim is certainly his most fully realised (and perhaps accessible)release to date. Like Animal Collective’s recent Merriwater Post Pavillion, he takes a vocal and incorporates it deep into a heady mix. The listener has to actively search out the melody but once located can’t help but feel a sense of smug satisfaction on ‘getting it’. This is music for those who need to persevere up to a point but not for those who want something resolutely underground.

Opening track Odessa is, by the rest of the albums standards, a fairly straightforward vocal number and not entirely representative. It wouldn’t be too great a leap to imagine this sung on Top of the Tops circa 1982 were it not for the nagging housy bassline and wierd sound effects, for the vocal is reminiscent of the Human League, early Dépêche Mode or even the Pet Shop Boys. None of these are bands I particularly like but this track is a wonderful combination of all sorts of sounds and utterly infectious.

Momentum is sustained with second track Sun which again has a housy feel. Where it differs from most house music though is that it doesn’t get trapped in repetitive drum 4/4 beats so common of the genre. The bass is allowed to breathe much more than in much electronic music while the vocal is used as a sound effect in itself to help drive the song along. About 4 minutes in trippy synths kick in and you can’t help but think that you want to hear it in a 10,000 strong dance tent at a festival.

Kaili builds and builds without the need for the sort of breakdowns so beloved of Daft Punk or Bassment Jaxx and is again built almost entirely around a vocal sample. To describe this as dance music as such would be misleading for it has more in common with the aforementioned Animal Collective or even Aphex Twin than it does the Chemical Brothers or typical Ibiza fare. What it does share with dance music though is tempo and energy which is so often lacking in much electronic music.

Found Out and Hannibal both picks up on themes that focus on the female mindset. In the case of Hannibal the vocal doesn’t actually come in for four and a half minutes - 'the thing that she says she can fall for she knows she’ll be there on her own' he sings. The dreamy, spaced out vocal adding to the sense of loneliness that the lyrics evoke.

Bowls meanwhile is an opportunity to introduce Tibetan instruments into the mix (not something you could imagine Calvin Harris doing any time soon). Snaith again uses the basic sound to create an infectious groove. Similar in pace to Hot Chip’s Over and Over this climaxes with eastern harps over piano riffs and various sound effects brought into the mix. It should sound cluttered but it never does. Like Four tet and Madlib, Caribou understands the importance of what is not there as what is.

Final tracks Lalibela and Jamelia are perhaps the most avant garde of all – backward masking, snatches of string instruments, steel drums and whispered vocals are weaved into the mix to create something both disorientating and homely.

This is a fantastic album. It manages to be both electronic but organic, is rooted in classic song writing but very original, speaking from both a male and female perspective and ideal for dancing too or for home listening. Contradictory perhaps, but aren’t we all? I urge you to seek it out.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Album review: A sufi and a killer - Gonja Sufi (Warp)

I was originally going to review this album upon its release about a month ago – I didn’t simply because I couldn’t get my head around it. It’s taken that time to fathom out exactly what is going on here. San Diego born Gonjasufi’s influences, to my ears, include the Stooges, Issac Hayes, the Beta band, the Muslim call to prayer, Frank Zappa and middle eastern funk and yet it doesn’t really sound like any of them. Snaps of beats and guitars are sung over in a voice that is at best earthy and to some ears at least, shambolic. Easy listening this ain’t.

Despite being on Warp records, Gonjasufi is a close associate of Flying Lotus and his Brainfeeder collective. Both Lotus himself and labelmate Gaslamp Killer have provided production on the album. If you’ve heard work by either of the two A Sufi and a killer is closer in sound to Gaslamp’s earthy beats than the cleaner digital sound of Flying Lotus. This isn’t really comparable to say Lotus’ LA LP or Hudsun Mohawke and other exponents of the ‘wonky’ sound as it’s become known instead drawing on the history of rock n roll to create something new.

The album starts with a real middle eastern vibe reminding this listener of the many Turkish psych reissues of recent years. The early highlight is the sitar driven Ancestors which, of all the tracks on the album, is the one that sounds most like Flying Lotus. Directly following it is Sheep which sees Gonja singing rather bafflingly about being a sheep rather than a lion, one of a number of tracks touching on religious themes lyrically. Somehow it still manages to be a quite lovely foray into folk music of a sort. He then moves onto a number of pieces (many tracks are less than two minutes long which makes the term song somewhat redundant) which evoke the spirit of garage rock n roll and acid rock – my personal favourite is Cowboys and Indians which starts off as a Sabbath stoner riff before being overlaid with African harmonies. Following track Suzie Q meanwhile summons the spirit of Iggy Pop. The third quarter is my favourite part of the album, drawing on orchestral soul and even disco. The beat on Change sounds like it could have been lifted directly from Hot Buttered Soul while Dust and Candylane provide different variations on p funk style grooves. This isn't simply a retro trip however as the cut up beats and Gonja's unique singing style create a frazzled but innovative approach which recalls both the strung out blues of the Mojave desert (where he resides) and the sounds of the current LA abstract hip hop scene. The final part of the album again has a real acid rock vibe at its heart (although both the Chemical Brothers and hip hop are in there somewhere) with Gonja’s melancholy vocals providing an emotional pull. ‘This rogue path I’m on I know is the only way’ he mumbles on Holidays and one can’t help but feel this is his approach to not only his music making but also his life.

Final song Made is a lovely coda which gives way to a bizarre reinterpretation of Status Quo’s Pictures of Matchstick Men. Somehow this feels entirely appropriate – as if the spirit of psychedelic music of 60's London has been passed to the crazed fuzzy beatmakers of the West coast.

Despite the range of sources and the crazy vocals it never quite falls apart. Admitedly on occassion it feels like a little too many ideas are crammed in - a greater sense of space would be nice, but Gonja’s magpie like tendencies bring to mind some wildly eclectic mixtape made by your cooler younger brother. This is indeed a wonderful mess. Gonja Sufi’s achievement is that he’s managed to create something clearly influenced by what has come before and yet something completely new. What that something is I’m not exactly sure – this is a form of music which is truly unclassifiable and for that reason alone this could be an important album. I suspect it will appeal to music critics and musicians in particular – people who take their music really seriously (I note that this week Jim Goodwin of the Doves was raving about it) and as such its influence may take some time to be felt or perhaps it is destined to be merely a cult classic. Either way, if you are serious about hearing where music is heading (as well as where it has been) you should seek this out.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Studio report and interview: Dark Captain Light Captain

The oft repeated cliché is that bands have 20 years to write a debut album and 12 months to write the second. Some bands however do buck the trend and take a little longer on their follow up. One such example is London’s folky Dark Captain, Light Captain who released the critically acclaimed Miracle Kicker in 2008. This album really captured my imagination when I heard it as it seemed to take the ‘nu folk’ sound of recent years onto a more sonic plain with clear krautrock and beta band influences. The meloncholy lyrics also touched a nerve as they somehow seemed to be both heartfelt and uplifting at the same time.

Stand out track Jealous Enemies was a single of the week on Itunes and the album was listed in the Guardian critics choice of the year. The success since of bands such as Grizzly Bear and Noah and the Whale suggests the band have clear commercial crossover potential. I was intrigued to know what they are going to do next so got in touch with vocalist/guitarist Dan Carney to find out what’s going on and when we can expect to hear some new material.

So, how’s the new album coming along?

Slowly but surely. We've got about 8 or 9 tracks coming together, and about 4 or 5 which we've demoed and are mostly ready to go. We're funding it ourselves this time round, which is another reason why we're chipping away gradually! But whether we're in the studio or not, there's a lot of creativity when we get together, so all is generally highly satisfactory.

Who’s written the songs this time – it was a collaborate effort between you and Neil last time right?

The last album was myself, Neil, Giles and Chin (drummer) mainly - since then, we've become a six-piece, so it's more collaborative. I still write most of the words and a few clumsily executed guitar lines, Giles writes countless killer cascading riffs like some sort of unstoppable, gentlemanly machine, Neil takes care of the psychedelia in the style of a frisky electronic wizard, and everybody else adds little bits of magic once the structures and general themes are in place. Mike (bass player) has been loads more involved this time as well, with demoing, songwriting etc... Chin and Laura (brass) pretty much take care of their own parts as well, and superb they are too.

Where are you recording and who is producing?

As with the last album, we're recording mainly at Golden Hum in Stoke Newington with a marvellous chap called Daniel Lea. He released a great album a couple of years back under the name By The Fireside - check it out if you haven't already - and now does more soundtrack-type stuff as Land. We're also doing some bits and pieces at home.

How does it sound compared to Miracle Kicker?

Not ultimately sure yet - it's still developing. I've still not quite mastered the art of writing a happy song, so if you liked the melancholy feel of the last album I've a feeling you won't be disappointed. Musically it's bigger and better. We've spent a bit more time this album fine-tuning structures, words and stuff, so I think the songs are more coherent and are better at saying what they need to say. There's better choruses too. And it's probably a bit more varied in terms of different moods. That last sentence was taken from page one, chapter one of 'Things Absolutely Everyone Says About Their Second Album', available from all good bookshops.

What would you say are your main influences right now?

Musically I seem to have developed an aversion to any music recorded in my lifetime. Elvis, Neil Young, Velvet Underground, Fela Kuti, The Saints, old r&b and garage/acid rock, Fleetwood Mac, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, things like that right at present. In more up-to-date terms, Robert Wyatt, Jonathan Richman (big recent discovery for me), Alex Tucker, Caribou are all pretty constant. And I remain dangerously obsessed with Elliott Smith in all his forms. I'm also really enjoying Hatfield & The North as well, a reasonably bonkers (by my standards anyway) experimental prog/jazz/rock band from the Canterbury scene, active in the early '70s which featured members of Gong, Caravan etc... I seem pathologically unable to dislike anything with even the most indirect connection to Robert Wyatt! As I hurtle towards all-too irreversible old age I'm getting satisfyingly 'proggy'. But it's changeable as ever. Some days I just listen to hip-hop. When we're right in the middle of a few songwriting/recording sessions I find it helps if I listen to absolutely nothing though! We don't really sound like any of the people I've mentioned though, to be fair. Maybe a couple. So I guess this is more "stuff I like".

Non-musically, my lovely little girl, bad weather, tobacco, disappointment, endless reading, Walthamstow, drinking unhealthy amounts of proper coffee, hoping beyond hope that Tottenham Hotspur sign the Brazilian defensive midfielder Sandro even though I've never really seen him play, guilt, good and bad dreams, looking forward to this year's World Snooker Championship a lot more than I should be, getting distracted from working by great photography and art blogs, films, wanting to move far, far away and general trepidation about ever doing so.

Any new instrumentation?

Not strictly, but Neil's making a few new strange and unfamiliar noises with his laptop, plus we're getting pretty clarinet-happy at the moment, courtesy of Mike and Neil. Laura's lovely warm, comforting flugelhorn sound is much more of a feature this time around as well. It was only on a couple of the songs last time around, which was a shame because everything she does sounds bloody marvellous. We still use the same guitar tuning, but if I revealed what that was I'd have to kill you, before devoting my life to travelling around and picking off your readers, one by one.

Any plans for live dates?

Not at the moment - still in the last throes of songwriting/demoing, then we're hopefully back into the studio April-June to put the bloody thing to bed.

Got a name yet?

There are two names that I like, but in a fit of misplaced self-importance tinged with slight superstition, I'm not giving anything away I'm afraid.

When are we going to see it?

Not sure yet. Maybe by the year's end, but no-one's as yet agreed to put it out. The time felt right to get on with it though, so we'll have to wait and see. Couple of things cooking away - I'm sure we'll launch ourselves at the music industry when the time comes.

Describe the new album in 3 words

I don't know. "Some new songs"? No, too boring. "Quite new songs" will have to do for now.

If you’ve not heard anything by Dark Captain Light Captain I urge you to do so – here’s a taster and you can find their previous releases on Spotify and at your local record shop...

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Super Furry Animals - An appreciation

Much is written about perfect pop music but what is it? Girls Aloud? Arctic Monkeys? Destiny’s Child?

For me perfect pop music is music that is laden with melody but it also has to be ever so slightly subversive – acts that spring to mind are the Small Faces, ELO, the Clash, the Beatles and the Byrds. In recent years music has, in my opinion, become increasingly split between those who strive for chart success and those that couldn’t care less preferring to stay underground and plough their own furrow with few managing to bridge the gap between the two.

There are exceptions – Radiohead spring to mind as do Massive Attack, Supergrass, Goldfrapp and Beck but the masters of the art are surely Super Furry Animals. This is a band that take tanks to gigs but has top 10 hits, a band who record welsh language albums but headline festivals and a band whose lead singer gets nominated for the Mercury music prize for a concept album about John Delorean.

The Super Furries emerged out of post Oasis era Creation records in the late 1990's. They couldn’t be more different – while Oasis took the established template of male rock n roll (Beatles, Slade and Smiths) to create a safe but roof raising stadium sound, SFA were influenced more by the 1970’s era Beach Boys, Sparks, ELO and 1970s welsh folk to create their stunning debut Fuzzy Logic. It referenced Howard Marks, Shellsuits and Unicorns suggesting that real psychadelia was alive and well in Wales. The hooks of the guitar driven tracks God, show me magic and If you don’t want me to destroy you were infectious while the slower tracks most notably Gathering Moss were heartfelt. The lyrics were weird but intriguing enough to draw the listener in.

Momentum was maintained with Radiator and Guerilla – albums that covered all bases including synth pop, techno, ballads, electronica, indie, folk and rock . By this time their cover art was evolving into a distinct brand via the excellent visual art of Pete Fowler and their videos were becoming notable for their use of abstract humour and attention to detail.

Rings around the world is considered by many to be their classic album. It’s certainly the most fully realised – an album that perfectly captured the millennial themes of Bill Clinton’s adultery, Global Warming and Christian fundamentalism and yet was never heavy going and always melodic. If you want an entry point I suggest this or Gruff Rhys’ excellent solo album Candylion which provides a folkier take on the SFA sound.

Phantom Power followed before the release of Lovekraft in 2005. This is undoubtedly my favourite SFA album – it is much more pastoral and less guitar oriented than their other work and brings to mind the mellow guitar work of 1970’s Pink Floyd. The first track alone is over 8 minutes long, starts with one of the band jumping into a swimming pool and ends with a Catalonian choir. The album as a whole brings to mind the Beatles White album which can’t be a bad thing (Its shorter too).

Since Lovekraft one senses that the band have tried to go back to basics with shorter songs and more guitar driven melodies. Hey Venus and Dark Days/Light Years contain some fantastic moments – including the frankly bizarre krautpop of Inaugural trams – a song about integrated transport systems that features a rap from one of Franz Ferdinand. Each of the band has also involved themselves in solo projects – most notably Gruff Rhys whose Neon Neon project with Boom Bip moved into synthesized pop territory and was critically acclaimed.

It is unlikely that Super Furry Animals are going to have a huge hit at this stage of their career (they are the wrong side of 40) but one senses that they just might and in a just world they would dominate the top 10 for months to come. Their hooks are fantastic and yet they are as experimental as any band around. They are also a fantastic live band with their gigs feeling like five in one (an indie bit, a psychedelic bit, a techno freakout bit etc etc) If you haven’t given them a listen do so – I suspect you’re gonna like it! You’ll find them on Youtube, Spotify, Itunes and lovely black vinyl. To paraphrase Dr Johnson a man who is tired of Super Furry Animals is a man who is tired of's one for starters...

Friday, 5 March 2010

Hidden Gem: Hype the Funk - EPS and 2-Vibe (1996)

I was brought up in the valleys of Monmouthshire. If you’ve seen the film Twin Town you can picture the scene – bonged up bored teenagers whipping round country roads in souped up fiestas with alloy wheels. The soundtrack for such shenanigans in the early 90’s was of course drum n bass. Being a good middle class boy I veered towards the ‘intelligent’ end of the spectrum personified by PFM and LTJ Bukem, dipping into Goldie and his Metalheadz and later of course Roni Size, Die and Suv and the Bristol crew...

My younger brother and his mates had what I considered less sophisticated taste – preferring the happy hardcore sound and the drum n bass records that evolved out of that scene. These records had harder edges and I would spend many a stoned day sat starry eyed in a mate’s caravan listening to spotty young lads ripping the cross fader across a cheap mixer and belt drive decks.

There was however, one record they played which really caught my attention. It had a spooky Tubular Bells type sample and a massive farty bassline which I just couldn’t get enough of. I soon discovered that the song was Hype the Funk by EPS and 2-vybe released on Urban Takeover Records. I knew the label already. Urban Takeover was run my Mickey Finn and Aphrodite and was defined by its heavy basslines and catchy grooves. The b-side of the 12 inch white label featured a hip hop tempo tune called Bigtime which was also great – I had to know more about this mysterious duo...

The song increasingly became a favourite and has been a staple in my record box ever since – despite being 15 years old. whenever I play Hype the Funk the room goes off – increasingly I’ve wanted to know more about it and how it came about and have scoured the web trying to track EPS and 2 Vybe down. I’ve emailed the label – no reply. I’ve emailed a man who claims to be the son of EPS who I tracked down via Youtube but as yet I’m yet to make direct contact. I know Mark and Tim are from Basingstoke and they like a bit of garage and RnB (although I suspect this might have been written a few years ago given that no-one nowadays admits to liking garage and RnB!). My quest goes on – and one day I will find you gents – until then I will simply share the record you made that had such an impact on me with others, some of whom won’t get it, some of whom will think it a bloody racket and just one or two of whom will think it a boss tune!

The embedding is disabled on youtube but simply type 'Hype the Funk' and you can have a listen...