Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Live review: Patti Smith, Serpentine Sessions, Hyde Park, London

The Beatles, Miles Davis, Kraftwerk, Fela Kuti, Bob Dylan and David Bowie are generally regarded as the most influnetial musical artists of the Twentieth century.

There are particular characteristics that they share. Each challenged the prevading musically orthadoxy at the time and all sought to reinvent themselves constantly to stay one step ahead of the pretenders. They were also all men.

One wonders which female artists deserve to be considered within this elite. Both Bjork and Kate Bush would have their advocates as would Nina Simone, but for me the strongest case can be made for Patti Smith. This was a New York poet who, upon seeing Bob Dylan, set her lyrics to music and provided a template for punk in the process. During a career of 35 years she has constantly reinvented herself, retained a loyal fanbase and, in recent years at least, has arguably entered the rock aristocracy.

I felt priveledged therefore to be able to finally see her live. The Serpentine sessions at Hyde park are clearly an attempt to squeeze more cash out of the set up for Hyde Park Calling the previous week and if i'm honest the post-work vibe failed to create any real festival atmosphere. Thankfully the crowd were up for a bit of hero worship from the off and Ms Smith and the band were equally up for it.

Regardless of her enthusiastic welcome she felt the need to play two tracks from her legendary debut Horses within the first handful of songs - dedicating Redondo beach to Morrissey who was apparently backstage. The irony of her dedicating what is essentially a reggae tune to the ex-Smiths frontman (who notoriously claimed he loathed the genre) wasn't lost on me. What was clear from the outset was that her voice is as strong as it ever was, her phrasing ensured that we could hear every word and when the lyrics are as strong as hers this is an absolute pleasure to behold.

Another thing that soon becomes apparent is that she maintains a political edge - referencing current affairs throughout the set in order to breath new life into old songs and simply to make the audience think about what is going on in the world. She speaks about the Gulf of Mexico oil leak , Price Charles' living costs and most notably the evils of plastic surgery and botox in the introduction to a frenetic Horses late in the set. This might sound a bit 'serious' for what is essentially an open air gig but its never overbearing and simply highlights what a unique individual she is.

Halfway through the set she hands over to her right hand man, guitarist Lenny Kaye who leads a punk cover of a Jim Caroll poem. This is a particular highlight with its life affirming lyrics and reiterates what a great band she has behind her. Less successful perhaps are a couple of covers - Play With Fire and Perfect Day. The latter in particular is spoiled by lack of rehearsal (to be fair, this is the first night of the tour) as Patti twice manages to miss her cue.

The final third of the set is predictably chock a block with classics - Because the Night, Horses and the inevitable closer Gloria pretty much take the roof off the tent and 3000 people trudge happily home.

I've seen a number of so called legends in recent years. Some (Dylan, Stevie Wonder) were immensly dissapointing, others (McCartney, Bowie)provided an excellent nostalgia-fest but none of this generation seem as relevant and still capable of greatness as Patti Smith. If you get the chance get to see her I suggest you do so for she is a truly inspirational and life affirming being and what other rock star can you say that about?

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

10 websites for great music

It goes without saying that the advent of the internet age has made seeking out music much easier and yet at the same time much more difficult. While accessing the latest hip hop from Sri lanka or heavy metal from Kenya has never been simpler the sheer amount of music available makes it even more difficult to dissern what is actually worth listening to. One can spend countless hours online not only listening to music but talking about it, meaning that essentially anyone can be a self-made critic. This means yet more time is required to determine whose views you actually trust. Having spent several hours, days and weeks in such dialogue I feel fairly well qualified to signpost you to some sites where I think you will find music of the required quality. Its inevitably biased towards my own taste so if you can recommend other good sites please leave a link at the end of article for others to benefit from your knowledge! In no particular order my ten favourite sites are...

1. - So much more than a music blog, this site was set up by Jeff Barrett (who founded Heavenly Records), music journalist and author Robin Turner and friend Andrew Walsh. It dwells on the simple things in life - water, birdsong and friendship and uses this framework to weave in a love of films, books, music and art. While its articles are excellent the real highlight is signing up to their newsletter which ensures you are sent occassional musical compilations based around particular nature-based themes. To give a recent example a compilation of songs about birds which featured Aretha Franklin, Fleet Foxes, Mark Lanegan and Horace Andy. For those who appreciate being both excentrically British and the finer things in life.

2. - do you want to know what is really hip right now? Fact magazine probably have it covered. Focusing particularly on the electronic end of the spectrum (although they do cover guitar acts as well up to a point) they gave early coverage to Lily Allen, Flying Lotus, MIA, Florence and the Machine and Sinden (who also writes for them)to name but a few. They do a quarterly round up of the 20 best albums of the previous three months and upload a DJ mix every week. If London (or any other city for that matter) clubland is your thing, this site is for you.

3. - a chat forum - although a word of warning, don't post on this site unless you REALLY know your music. The guys who inhabit this space are serious collectors so this isn't the sort of place to check out when Jay Z's latest is coming out. If however you want to know what the best Czech Psych records are or which of those easy listening albums in charity shops are actually worth picking up then you'll while away hours here. A lot of the guys on the site know each other and meet up at various nights across the UK and beyond in London, Bristol, Copenhagen etc

4. - New York based (and slightly bizzarely, Liverpool FC fan) DJ Prestige provides what is essentially a guide to funky sounds picked up in the city. He has a particular focus on 45's and provides some fantastic mixes for download from himself and mates. If you like funk look no further - a highly professional and enjoyable blog.

5. - Set up by Bill Brewster (author of Last Night a DJ saved my Life) this is a homage to all things disco with a slight veer into bealeric house. As with Verygoodplus the forums are buzzing (although this attracts a younger dancefloor-led audience) but it also carries excellent interviews and a free monthly mix. This site provides an excellent monthly podcast as does....

6. - this is a UK/US collaboration and focuses heavily on hip hop although it covers the whole beat spectrum from funk to dubstep. A good place to hear the latest releases and tunes from recent re-issues. Yours truly featured on their last broadcast.

7. - This one is tricky because its really hard to describe their music policy. It tends to cover odd indie, lo-fi, folk and electronica. Its always been a good place to go to actually hear or download new releases for free. For the sort of person who likes to hear stuff no-one else has heard!

8. - Again, disco heavy but both old stuff and modern. There is also a fair smattering of early house and hip hop. They tend to post a few videos which is nice. Good for those who want a new dancefloor monster (although its probably going ot set you back £30 when you try and buy it on vinyl!)

9. - A bit of a curveball this one. It doesn't update very regularly but has fantastic mixes. If you are the sort of person who would enjoy a mix featuring Gal Costa, Fleetwood Mac and Public Image Limited then check.

10. - Finally for the slightly less committed musical obsessive. Pitchfork is essentially an online Mojo or Uncut magazine. If you want to know what is the current darling album of the thirty-somethings (It's Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffitti by the way) then this is your place. For people who like Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, Animal Collective and Caribou (which, lets be honest, is most of us).

So there you have it - happy surfing! Leave feedback on your thoughts below or post your own favourites. Over and out...

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Hidden Gem: Morning Sun - Block 16 (Nuphonic) 2001

House music often leaves me cold. Its a genre which tends to prioritise style over substance and as such many records date very quickly. There are, of course, exceptions –Masters At Work spring immediately to mind as does the Nuphonic Record label which brought a number of excellent acts to the fore in the noughties including Faze Action, the Idjut Boys and Block 16.

These acts managed not only to create great dance floor singles but also whole albums which were coherent, not too samey and enjoyable. Faze Action’s first two albums are well worth seeking out in particular along with Block 16’s Morning Sun, released in 2001. This was an ambitious collection covering latin, dub, house and electro and brought together a varied collection of vocalists including Jhelisa, John Lucien and Bim Sherman.

Opening track Find an Oasis features Jhelisa and is fairly typical of the Block 16 sound, combining the cutting edge sounds of the London club scene with authentic latin rhythms. It transports the listener to both the acid jazz years of the early nineties and the more recent broken beat scene and eases us in gently. It is the title track of the album which really catches the ear first though. A strummed acoustic guitar interspersed with double bass and drum and Jon Lucien’s earthy vocal over the top. Morning Sun has soul, rhythm and melody and is an immediate riposte to those who claim that dance music lacks a human dimension. (Incidentally there were a couple of very good Pepe Bradock mixes of this track when it was released as a single).

Slow Hot Wind, as its name suggests, slows things down. It’s dubby and works around a Sergio Mendes sample. It has a late sixties feel as a result bringing to mind Roy Budd or the Blow Up soundtrack. Next track Ain’t got no Jibber Jabbercouldn’t be more different. An electro boogie monster injected with space invader samples – it could be a Planet Rock out-take if it wasn’t for the fact you knew it had been made in London post-millennium.

Side 1 finishes with Sweet Bassoon. This features a harp (well before Joanna Newsom and Flying Lotus brought them back into vogue) and is similar in feel to Santana’s Abraxxas if it had decamped to Havana.

The second side of the record is similarly varied to the first. Can’t stop is probably the most out and out house track on the album. It features vocals from Robert Owens and isn’t dissimilar to Gabriel by Roy Davis Junior for those of you that know that. Electrokution, as the name suggests, is another electro break (and a very good one at that)while My Sunshine brings to mind Dub Syndicate or Zion Train with its dub beats accompanied by the late Bim Sherman’s Irie lyric. The final track The Land is Yours, is arguably the most interesting track of all. Free jazz saxophones are scrambled over urgent beats and acoustic guitar to create a series of adjoining rhythms. A subtle Jhelisa vocal is played over the top to create something that is both experimental and slightly bewildering.

This record is an excellent example of what is good about the UK music scene. Taking influences from all around the world, placing them in a blender with the sounds of the day to create something new. If you like your dance music but don’t get on the dancefloor as much as you like and want to enjoy dance music at home this is a great place to start.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Hidden Gem: The Adventurers - The music of Antonio Carlos Jobim – The Ray Brown Orchestra. Arrangements by Quincy Jones

I bought this record off a guy called Ian who lives in Leytonstone. Ian and I met at Verygoodplus – a chat site for record nerds. Ian has some very nice records and from time to time I pop over and part with my hard earned cash for some fine slabs of wax.

I popped over last Sunday and got a Pentangle LP I’d been after for a while, some novelty easy records and this. He played a couple of choice moments and I was sold. I’ve always liked Quincy – his version of Superstition, his work with Jacko but if I’m honest I’ve never really sat down with whole albums – until now.

The Adventurers was a rather poor attepmt at a James Bond-esque blockbuster based upon a Harold Robbins book. In buying the soundtrack I urge some caution as there are actually two different versions in circulation - make sure you get the one with Quincy's orchestration. Quincy had taken it upon himself to re-record his own version of the soundtrack following its initial release.

What I like about this record is its sheer variety. Each tune stands up and yet, each inhabits a slightly different genre. This record touches on Go-Go, Southern funk, Jazz show tunes and TV themes yet hangs together very well.

First track Polo Pony is funky – almost Booker T-esque but most definitely an opener. You suspect the second track will see a drop in quality and yet its actually much better. Go Down Dying sounds like a 50’s goth TV theme. It sounds so familiar (partly because it was sampled by Bjork on the track Human Behaviour)but despite its simple production it has a deep groove which would sound fantastic in a 50’s style pussycat club with leopard skin walls. El Lobo’s March takes us in another direction again. It starts like an English folk recording before veering off. A couple of easy tunes follow to finish off Side 1.

The second side starts with visit to a sixties lounge bar. Coming and Going, it has to be said, is notable for the female orgasm shrieks over the top of some funky grooves. Better than J’Taime anyway...

Fat Cat Strut is yet another highlight. We visit the Mardi Gras of New Orleans for this one and it has a great drum breakdown towards the end.

So there you have it – it will set you back a few bob if you want it - £20-£30 perhaps, but, in my opinion worth it. Like a fine bottle of Bordeaux or a Cuban cigar some things are worth paying for. Thanks Ian

The 20 greatest pop songs

This blog has covered many types of music in its short life from Turkish disco to Australian funk. If one was going to be critical though you could argue that it isn’t always accessible to the occasional enjoyer of popular music. This week I seek to unashamedly redress that balance by presenting the top 20 pop records.

First though some rules. All the records selected are post 1980 – which for me is when the era of manufactured pop really began. OK so there were the Bay City Rollers, the Jackson 5 and the Osmonds but pop was really born out of synthesised pop and anyway I can’t really remember much pre Thatcher. Second, I’m only including acts that are undoubtedly pop acts – Charley by the Prodigy is a pop record but they can’t really be considered a pop act. See also Gnarls Barclay, Chemical Brothers, Basement Jaxx, Depeche Mode, Blur, Missy Elliott and Goldfrapp. Finally, every record has to be at least a top 10 UK hit – pop music is by its very nature popular and this is the measure of success I choose. That’s enough of the rules – let’s enjoy the music!

20. Don’t go – Yazoo

The combination of Vince Clarke’s synth melodies and Alison Moyet’s husky vocal provides an early 80’s classic. Famously championed by Diplo in recent years on his superb Fabric mix – it holds up well alongside full on electro.

19. Comfortably Numb – Scissor Sisters

It’s easy to forget that Scissor Sisters were born of the alternative New York scene and their arrival was genuinely championed by many in the music press. This was a real statement of intent – take perhaps Pink Floyd's most mind numbingly depressing song and turn it into a camp disco dancefloor number. The first thirty seconds at least are thrilling. I’ve often wanted to play this out but always lacked the guts!

18. Prince Charming – Adam and the Ants

Adam had a great image for a pop star. I remember getting a skull and crossbones earring free with Look In magazine and wanting to smear a white line across my nose. This was probably his finest moment.

17. Karma Chameleon – Culture Club

Another great 80’s star – Boy George had a voice to almost match the aforementioned Alyson Moyet. His voice had real soul and he was always too cool to fall into the sleazy soul singer trap which afflicted Mick Hucknall some years later. This was a genuinely subversive and ‘mature’ number 1. Church of the poisoned mind was another great track.

16. Move your feet – Junior Senior

So bad its good. Cheesy, camp and poppy but somehow infectious with a great chorus. Stamp-stamp-stamp-stamp-stamp your feet.....I remember one of these guys being pretty fat and the other very camp...

15. Sweet Dreams – Eurythmics

I overdosed on Eurythmics when I was a kid as my mother, like so many others, could relate to Annie as a ‘strong woman’ and played them to death. It was only when Coldcut played the opening synth riff at Bestival a few years ago that I realised that this was an absolute classic.

14. Toxic – Britney Spears

Catchy innit?! The rest of her career is pants though..(except Baby one more time). She went off the rails a bit once she met Justin...

13. Rock your body – Justin Timberlake

Talking of whom...His first album was probably the most exciting pop album since prime time Jacko. There were a number of highlights but I think this one edges it. The breakdown in the middle where he freestyles is great. Great beats too.

12. Holiday – Madonna

We had to have one from Madge. Hung Up was a recent highlight for sure but it’s essentially an ABBA song so instead I’ll go for this from the other end of her career. Great bassline (sampled by Avalanches). I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had an empty dancefloor early evening, played this and all the ladies hit the floor.

11. Stool Pigeon – Kid Creole and the Coconuts

Again, born from the New York underground but went global in 1982. Kid Creole and the Coconuts were from the Bronx and incorporated Caribbean sounds into their pop disco template. Pop perfection.

10. Don’t stop moving – S Club 7

Jo was my favourite. These guys had a good career at a time when pop had really lost its way (Westlife? Steps? Blue?). I’ve seen this one fill the dancefloor at many a wedding and seems to appeal across the generations.

9. Controversy – Prince

Another artist with many tunes which could be included. This is a personal favourite – I love its sense of urgency.

8. Freak like me – Sugarbabes

Essentially a mash up by Richard X who took Tubeway Army’s Are Friends Electric, put the babes over the top and took it to number 1. Who is in this band now?

7. Tally Ho – AR Rahman feat. Pussycat Dolls

Pussycat Dolls are rubbish really but this is an absolute killer. Essentially a bollywood tune and catchy as hell- a rare example of catchy pop music in the new millennium.

6. American Boy – Estelle feat. Kanye West

Another recent highlight. Oozes summer and perfectly illustrates the New York/London love in. Estelle is a real talent, I look forward to seeing where she goes next.

5. Bootylicious – Destiny’s Child

The obvious choice is Beyonce’s Crazy In Love but this is a bit of an overlooked gem. A great example of the introduction of Rn’B flavours being introduced to the pop mix. A top 5 hit in all the key ‘territories’ it sampled Stevie Nicks’ Edge of Seventeen. There was a great mash up of this with Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit.

4. Beat It – Michael Jackson

Thriller – too contrived. Billie Jean – Too clever and overplayed. I’ll plump for the Eddie Van Halen powered Beat It. I played this at a wedding the week Jacko died and the reaction almost ripped the roof off. A unique talent.

3. Groove is in the heart – Deelite

A real one hit wonder (in the UK at least). Maybe a bit too credible for this list but it is unashamedly pop. A mutli-national band (Croatia, Japan, US) drawn together in New York they sampled Donald Byrd’s Bring down the birds to create a wedding disco staple. Lyrics were written by Q-Tip and bass was provided by the mighty Bootsy Collins.

2. Sounds of the Underground – Girls Aloud

Pretty much everyone loves Girls Aloud and I’m no exception. In a world where pop music has become increasingly bland and ballad led Girls Aloud and their production team Xenomania are the masters of the up tempo dancefloor monster. This, the first of their 19 top 10 singles, has a spoonful of drum n bass, some dance guitars and five lovely voices – perfect pop indeed.

1. Can’t get you out of my head – Kylie Minogue

Just how good is this song? Brilliant- period. It manages to be cool and effortless yet catchy as hell. Co-written by Cathy Dennis it has hints of Kraftwerk lite and a wonderful video. Kylie is the perfect pop package. Confide in Me and Slow were great singles too but to not include this would be criminal. Disagree with this or any other choices? Leave your comments below...