Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Hidden Gem: Replica Sun Machine - The Shortwave Set (Wall of Sound)

I'm conscious I don't write about guitar music very much. Its not that I don't like it, on the contrary, there is nothing as thrilling as a fantastic new riff (Smells like teen spirit and Seven nation army being two recentish examples)to restore your faith in the mythology of rock n roll.

The problem is though that so much of it is so tired sounding - simply a rehash of what has come before. I can't be the only person that thinks the Libertines are simply an amalgam of the Clash and the Strokes or that Kings of Leon sound like a less good Lynyrd Skynyrd. The guitar bands that have stood out for me in recent years have been those that combine the classic guitar sound with other elements to create something new. MGMT or TV on the Radio's use of synth springs to mind, or Vampire Weekend's use of African highlife rhythms.

Another good example, if one that to date has had considerably less commercial success is South London's Shortwave Set. This is a band that not only combine modern and experimental sounds but also have excellent interplay between its two vocalists Andrew Pettitt and Ulrika Bjorsne. Like the critically aclaimed XX, they use female and male voices to create a musical chemistry over the space of a whole album.

The band released their debut in 2005 but it is their second album Replica Sun Machine, released in 2008 where their musical vision has come together most coherently to date. Producer of the moment, Dangermouse (The Grey Album, Gnarls Barclay, Dangerdoom etc)befriended the band and agreed to produce the record. His influence, while not immediately apparant,(there are no hip hop beats to the fore here)meant that the overall quality of production was far better than the average band's album.

The band's own songwriting (a genre they themselves refer to as Victorian funk)is a combination of pop melodies,fuzzy guitars, experimental synth noises, Walker Brothers-esque piano ballads and other sixties era psychadelia. If this sounds an odd mix then thats because it is. Having said that, the quality of the hooks means that the whole thing hangs together very nicely. Good songwriting is good songwriting and the use of effects which make the album overall more interesting, never detract from what is essentially a song-based collection.

Opening track Harmonia eases the listener in gently, slightly west coast in feel. Glitches n' Bugs meanwhile plays both vocalists off against each other and is quite lovely pop. Songs glide by in a gentle woozy haze but each lodges itself firmly in the listeners head. Replica starts with what can only be described as hippy chanting and a guitar riff reminiscent of the Who's Join Together while single (and BBC 6 staple at the time) No Social brings to mind Joe Meek or Scott Walker.

If there is a critism to make it is that perhaps we don't hear the soul of the band enough - the album is highly polished to the point that one can't hear a great deal of real emotion coming through. The nearest we get is perhaps on the final track The Downer Song, a slightly depressive tale of 'something wrong' although I'm no wiser as to what that something is. This is a minor gripe though. The quality of both songwriting and production as well as the heavy use of experimental sound make for a fantastic album. The band's third album is due to drop in the next few months and I for one will be very keen to hear it. If you like sixties style production and sound, good songs and well produced pop this record is well worth searching out.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Interview: Dr Smith of Cosmic Slop

There have been many DJ nights in recent years that mine the era of the late 1950's and 1960's. Cosmic Slop in Stoke Newington tap into this trend - freakbeat, psych soul, go-go and surf guitar are all part of their sound. Where they differ from most though is that they are happy to incorporate this with records from other eras as well. You are as likely to hear obscure synth pop, hip hop and even dance music in the mix as you are a northern soul classic. This creates an evening of real variety in which you can never be sure where its going - you might well hear a french chanson pop single next to some electro followed by some fuzzy guitar. Their nights pull in an educated friendly crowd who are happy to go with the flow and dance hard in the process.

Unsurprisingly, this has caught the ear of many. Last month the Guardian picked up on them as one of their clubs of the week and their mix tapes are gaining kudos in the virtual world. I caught up with one of the Slop's founder members and resident DJ's Dr Smith to find out more...

What was the record that got you into record collecting

At about 8 years old, I became aware of the Streetsounds Electro compilations. The tapes were passing around our estate and that really got me into HipHop. Before that it was Adam and the Ants and Madness so the music on those early comps blew me away. Soon after that, I cycled to Basildon and bought 'Tommy Boy Greatest beats' which was my first hiphop record.

How long have you been collecting records?

In 1986 I had 21 records - there's a picture to prove it. I'm not sure if that qualifies as a collection but I guess it started there.

How did you get together with the other Cosmic Slop guys?

I knew Pat through his 'In the Pines' events and Chris through B-music. We all had the same idea about a night so it made sense to combine forces.

How did Cosmic Slop come about?

No one seemed to be doing a decent dancefloor night in the area so we made our own - We started the night for our friends really at a little venue called The Gold Bar in Stoke Newington - that burned down so we moved to The Drop.

Whats the ethos of the night?

The emphasis is definitely on the dancefloor. We're not really interested in 12 blokes standing around a rare record - there's other places for that but its not a night out.

What artists would a punter be likely to hear on a typical night?

I'm not sure there is a typical night but we play everything from Rock'n'roll to Acid House. So Ricky Nelson to Renegade Soundwave.

You play across the genres and across a wide timeline - is that intentional?

We really try and keep it broad-We all have varying musical backgrounds and I think that's a strength. Personally, I find it a little dull to listen to one type of music all night

You've been picking up some good press- is that important to you?

Its great that people are into what we do. The night started in a smaller venue and the idea was really to make a free night for us and our mates. Some good press has meant more people turn up but the ethos is the same really.

Any plans to move the night more central?

No. We all live in and around Stoke Newington and records are heavy!

Any more mixes on their way?
I'm putting the new one together now. Its probably going to be a cd release.

Previous mixes can be found here.

Mix 1
Mix 2
DR Smith VG Plus mix

What 5 records are doing it for you right now?

5 current plays would be..
Cottonpickin by Jim and the Invictas
DrRock by Kid Rock
Mony, Mony by Celia and the mutations
Yeah! by the Jets
Never come back by Kas product

Whats the future for Cosmic Slop?

We'll keep doing it as long as its fun. Its great to have guest djs down so we'll do more of that.

Cosmic Slop takes place at The Drop (underneath the 3 Crowns) 175 Stoke Newington High Street, London, N16 on the third Friday of Every month.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Album review: The Archandroid - Janelle Monae (Bad Boy/Atlantic)

They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. I was certainly guilty of this a few months ago when I failed to listen to Janelle Monae's first full album upon release thinking it would be another sub Erykah Badhu neo-soul album. Having finally given it a listen, I can confirm that in places that this is exactly what it is. Like The Love Below Andree 3000's contribution to Outkast's landmark double album Speakerboxx it takes a combination of stabbing electro beats and Barry White esque seduction ballads to create a hip hop sound for couples to listen to in the modern home.

However, Archandroid is so much more than that. It starts with a classical overture and at times sounds like the aforementioned Outkast, Elbow, Fairport Convention, Karen Carpenter and Ella Fitzgerald. Monae has created a record of immense ambition which effortlessly glides between dispirate genres and reveals herself as a major talent.

While many white female soul singers (Winehouse, Stone et al) gain kudos for 'sounding black' Monae manages to achieve the opposite - sounding like a authentic white folk singer, or La Roux or Debbie Harry. For some reason this provides a thrilling juxtaposition where Monae can turn her hand to pretty much any sound and sound like the real deal.

Big Boi guests on the single Tightrope and this is one of a number of examples of a savvy ear for pop. This approach takes many forms; showtunes, r&b, folk, lounge, campfire all in the mix but never too dispirate not to gel. The production throughout is impressive. Prince springs to mind - not so much for the specific sound but because of the ability to excel in all areas. An example of this diversity is on Oh Maker - a track that if sung by a man would be compared to Sufjan Stevens or John Grant. As it is the Carpenters are the obvious reference point were it not for a hip hop beat and an effortless falsetto. Another example is Come Alive (war of the roses) a spikey punky number reminiscent of the best of Blondie, Le Tigre or the Yeah, Yeah Yeahs.

Monae is happy to let tracks sprawl where need be which sounds drifting in and out and this combined with her ability to provide good tune create an album that will appeal across the board from a ten year old child to the most serious of record lovers (I note on Amazon fifteen people have 'reviewed' this and without excemption every one has given her five stars). Everyone will find something to love in this record and many will find much. There have been some fine debut albums this year - but this bears comparison with all of them and for sheer ambition and execution might well exceed them.