Friday, 29 October 2010

Live Review: Magnetic Man, The Trinity, Bristol

There are numerous examples of artists who have truly transcended their genre. No-one thinks of Massive Attack as just trip hop or the Chemical Brothers as big beat. They bridge the gap between their original genre and the mainstream to breakthrough to a new and much larger audience. As yet no-one has managed this in the genre of dubstep. Despite being one of the most influential sounds of the last decade its dark, bass driven sounds are some way from a guest appearance on Later with Jools Holland.

Without any shadow of a doubt, the act that are most likely to make this crossover are Magnetic Man. Essentially a supergroup of major dubstep producers, Benga, Artwork and Skream have united to create an album which has an ear on both the dancefloor and on home listening. When tickets for their UK tour went on sale back in the spring I knew it would be a hot ticket and snapped some up - this week their debut tour hit Bristol where I caught them.

Immediately upon arrival at the Trinity (a converted church) it was clear that this wasn't a typical dubstep crowd. There were teenagers through to fiftysomethings in attendance and I spotted AC DC and My Chemical Romance T-shirts as well as the regulation hoodie. What was most apparent was the large proportion of women - dubstep is widely regarded as blokes music but at least 40 per cent of the people here were female which I think bodes well for any assault on the charts.

The early evening DJs ripped up the usual selection of bass driven drum n bass and dubstep monsters. It was particularly good to hear Benga's classic Night getting an early airing.  Support act Katy B played more of a PA than a set - limited to just a handful of tunes. What she lacked in vocal force she made up for in sheer charisma, her melting pot of crustie dub, afrobeat, dancehall and rolling bass lines were all brought together nicely with strong pop hooks and she was thoroughly enjoyed by the crowd. Katy On a Mission was arguably the most enthusiastically received song of the whole night (not surprising when you realise over 6 million people have viewed it on Youtube) - expect her to kill it at the festivals next summer.

Magnetic Man hit the stage at about 10 and it soon became apparent to me that this is an act with a real dilemma. How do you maintain underground credibility while clearly seeking to reach a wider demographic? This proposition made for an hour of both strengths and weaknesses. The combination of slow burning bass monsters being punctuated with euphoric rave anthems and 'real songs' means that the band (collective?) are able to better pace the set than a DJ simply playing a series of one dimensional basslines, but, and its a big but, you can't help but wonder if they all actually believe in all the music they are playing. Earlier in the set in particular things feel a little disjointed - just as the crowd begins to dig the bass groove they find themselves faced with japanese style instrumentation - very nice at home but it leads to a lack of pace for an enthusiastic throng in Britain's bassline capital.

Things pick up in the second half of the set. I need air, a cheesy house number on record, certainly works better live with the audience shouting back the chorus with aplomb and the reintroduction of Katy B at the end of the set for Perfect Stranger is undoubtedly the highlight as she and Benga trade vocal and MC duties respectively. Katy is without question the star of the night and one wonders that if MM had used more vocalists (they used a fairly standard MC) the set might have been better balanced rather than be focused around one guest who takes all the glory (not that they seem to mind).

I suspect the Magnetic Man concept might not be around too long. All of its members are well respected producers in their own right and I wonder whether there is enough songwriting depth (which is needed if they are to progress to the next level) to sustain a longer career. Having said that a few hundred people left the Trinity last might having thoroughly enjoyed an evening of light and shade and for them at least that's enough.  For me, I think I'll find my dubstep kicks primarily elsewhere.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Madlib: An appreciation

Annie Mac famously argued that Flying Lotus was the Jimi Hendrix of the electronic generation. If that’s the case then Madlib is surely the Miles Davis. Always moving forwards, using mellow threads of ideas and invention to create tracks that leave others way behind. He is a DJ, mixer, remixer, rapper, producer and musician and is notoriously prolific – often releasing several albums a year.

Otis Jackson Jr (for that is he) was born in 1973 in Oxnard, California and has recorded as Quasimoto, Yesterday’s New Quintet and countless other aliases and has collaborated with Mos Def, De La Soul, Ghostface Killah, The Alkaholiks, Talib Kweli, MF DOOM and the late J Dilla to name but a few.

He began making music in his hometown with the group Lootpack in the early 1990s, an act who worked with another well known troupe the Alkoholics. His father, a respected jazz musician, started an independent label (Crate Diggas Palace Records) in 1996 to promote the crew and Lootpack soon caught the attention of Peanut Butter Wolf at Stone’s Throw who signed them up. Their debut LP introduced the signature Madlib style to the world as well as the character Quasimoto. A dark but amusing character that Madlib has turned to again and again throughout his career.

His first release under the guise of Quasimoto The Unseen was in 1999. The album, recorded while Madlib was on mushrooms, was met with critical acclaim and was regarded in hip hop circles as the album that showed a way out of the Golden Era of Hip Hop and onwards into unchartered waters. It was undoubtedly one of the albums of the decade and Quasimoto was named as Hip Hop Connection's Newcomer of the Year. The distinctive high-pitched voice of Lord Quas attained by playing the original beat at a slow speed, recording the vocals over that slow speed, then speeding the vocals along with the original beat back up to its original tempo really set him apart from his peers and most other modern music. The album contained a sense of humour which was both refreshing and lacking in much current hip hop and while not a huge seller, it raised Madlib’s credibility and there has been a buzz around him ever since.

It soon became apparent that Madlib was not only a notorious weed smoker but an obsessive beat digger with immensely varied tastes that covered genres as wide as latin, bollywood, psych, reggae, soul and jazz. In 2001, he took a turn away from hip hop per se, releasing his first Yesterdays New Quintet LP, Angles Without Edges. This moniker had a much more jazz influenced sound and was followed by a tribute to Stevie Wonder in 2002. This was a far sloppier and dirtier take on the interface of jazz and hip hop than say Guru’s Jazzmatazz series. His first album under the name Madlib, released in 2002, was a collection of old dub tracks. The second, Shades of Blue followed in 2003. The album features original Blue Note recordings, some remixed and resampled, and some replayed. The highlight is perhaps Ronnie Foster’s Mystic Brew which is time-stretched into double time.

2003 heralded the first of two collaboration projects. Working with the late hip hop producer J Dilla, Jaylib released Champion Sound. He then hooked up with MF DOOM for a record that features some of his best rhyming. The 2004 Madvillany album was well-received, topping many critics' year-end lists. For years, rumours of Madvillainy 2 and Jaylib 2 have circulated and there is talk that Madvillany 2 is imminent. His third two-volume Beat Konducta album, released in early 2009 Beat Konducta Vol 5-6: A tribute to is a 42-track piece dedicated to Dilla.

The 2005 Quasimoto album, The Further Adventures of Lord Quas was fairly well regarded but not really a patch on the first Quasimoto album by common consensus. It did however feature his hero Melvin Van Peebles (who he had extensively sampled on The Unseen. This was followed by a YNQ album called Sound Directions: The Funky Side of Life, marking his first collaboration with session musicians.

New Years Eve 2006 saw a a digital release Liberation with Talib Kweli while in August 2007 an instrumental hip hop album containing songs sampling the music of India(Beat Konducta Vol 3-4: Beat Konducta in India) was released. Another notable recording in the same year was Perseverance by Percee P which he produced in its entirety.

Yesterdays Universe completed the cycle of releases by Yesterdays New Quintet and introduced a new collection of artist names created by Madlib: The Jazzistics, The Young Jazz Rebels, Suntouch, The Jahari Massamba Unit, Kamala Walker & The Soul Tribe, The Last Electro-Acoustic Space Jazz & Percussion Ensemble, The Yesterdays Universe All-Stars, The Otis Jackson Jr. Trio, and The Eddie Prince Fusion Band. A number of these names have now got releases under their own names. The Last Electro-Accoustic Space Jazz record Miles Away is particularly good – playing homage to some of the greats of jazz.

He continues to move forwards – creating not only his own music but bringing out the best in others. He produced stand out tracks on both Erykah Badu’s and Mos Def’s recent albums (The Healer and Auditorium respectively). He is currently rumoured to be working with Kanye West on his new album.

In 2009, Jackson started Madlib Medicine Show, half based on unreleased original material, half based on mixes. This project consists of one record being released every month in 2010 - 6 original albums and 6 mixes – odd numbers consisting of original tracks and even numbers DJ mixes, prolific output by anyone’s standards. This has included his first foray into disco with Medicine Show 10.

In addition, he has undertaken a collaboration with Detroit rapper Guilty Simpson, called OJ Simpson and it is believed that he is currently working on the 3rd Quasimoto album, the 2nd Madvillain album with MF Doom, a project with Karriem Riggins in a Jaylib type of collaboration called Supreme Team, as well as other jazz records from the Yesterdays Universe imprit. There is no lack of material to emerge for sure.

One could argue that Madlib has yet to release a masterpiece album (although The Unseen is undoubtedly one of the most innovative hip hop albums of all time in many people’s opinions) but to expect him to do so almost misses the point. For Madlib the quest is for constant innovation, taking threads of ideas to create something new and then to move on to something else. His ability to unearth the rarest of samples and use them to create a memorable melody is unmatched (see his use of an old Bollywood sample on Mos Def’s Auditorium for example) and his albums and mixes often take the listener on a bizarre and fascinating journey of snatched samples across musical genres. His quality control is undoubtedly questionable and his studio techniques could even be deemed sloppy at times (often using simple technology) but in a strange sort of way this adds to his charm as a human dimension is clearly at play in his work. Perhaps Stone’s Throw could improve his oerall catalogue by limiting his releases but to do so would restrict the man’s prodigious talent and so we see his work warts and all. Madlib is never boring or predictable and for that reason alone he is unique and to be cherished.

For an excellent mix of Quasimoto material by DJ Troubl go here

Friday, 15 October 2010

Interview with David Best, Fujiya and Miyagi

There are very few bands who are really unique - pretty much everyone has influences that filter through into their own sound. One act that I think is more unique than most are Brighton's Fujiya and Miyagi. OK, so you can occasionally hear the motorik bass of Can or Neu somewhere in their sound but this backing underpins hypnotic synth melodies and lyrical content about breaking bones, knickerbocker glories and photocopiers. The overall effect is one which brings to mind shoegazing, acid house, chanson pop, krautrock and synth pop into one glorious whole.

They've released three albums to date - each representing a massive step forward in sound. Debut, Electro Karaoke in the Negative Style was released in 2002. Transparent Things (2006)was undoubtedly one of the best albums of that year with its hooky melodies and hypnotic vocal loops and Lightbulbs (2008) saw another step change with the double a-side Um/Knickerbocker Glory receiving extensive airplay and critical acclaim. The band are currently recording the follow-up, tentatively named Ventriloquizzing. I was lucky enough to grab the band's vocalist and guitarist David Best for a quick chat.

It’s been a while now since Lightbulbs, how’s the recording of new material going?

We are really pleased with how this record went. We worked with a producer (Thom Monahan) for the first time. After we had demoed the songs in Brighton we recorded the record in Sacramento and at Thom's studio in LA. That was at the end of 2009 and this year has been spent mixing it and getting it exactly how we want it to sound.

The last album seemed to be a real move forward from Transparent things in that you seem to have developed your own identifiable sound (Transparent Things perhaps being more obviously Kraut influenced). Will the new material continue in the direction of Lightbulbs?

Well, that was the aim with Lightbulbs, we tried to make our influences less transparent. I don't think it was a complete success, but it was in the right direction. Hopefully this record really does sound like its own thing. In a lot of ways it’s very different from anything we have done before. It’s fuller sounding and more musical.

What are your key reference points for the new material? I see you’ve been watching Dead of Night...

I only saw Dead of Night after we had finished the record, but with the ventriloquist dummies we had made of ourselves it seems appropriate. There weren't really any musical reference points with this record. Maybe Iggy's The Idiot, but that’s mainly due to using the Arp Solina synth on a lot of the songs. I guess what I'm getting at is that the direction of the record was dictated by the sounds we used rather than by the influence of other specific records we like.

Lyrically you’ve always pulled in a wide range of subject matter – and a lot of it seems to be fairly observational of modern life. How do you write?

I've got lots of notebooks which I carry around with me and if I hear a nice phrase or think of a good line I'll put it down and come back to it later. Then fitting them together is a bit like a puzzle. I tried to write a bit differently on this record. Before, I'd get a title or an idea for a lyric then follow that to its conclusion. This was OK but I felt sometimes the results were a bit one-dimensional. If the listener can instantly get what the song is about, I think he or she is going to get tired of it quicker. On most of the songs from this record I tried to leave the words hanging in the air more. They are deliberately vague in places. I don't like preachy lyrics that tell people what they should think. It’s better to describe a situation or how someone acts without it being in front of a billboard with right or wrong painted on it.

Do you lay down tracks quickly in the studio or is it a meticulous process?

Initial ideas always seem to be pretty quick but turning them into records is a meticulous process. Steve and Thom worked really hard at this. I enjoy the initial idea more than the tidying up.

What kit do you use?

On this record we used an Arp Solina String Synth, a guitar triggering the Korg MS 20, Nord Wave, Mini Moog, Pro Tools, numerous guitar pedals and quite a bit of piano. There is also a cork rattling around a metal tin on one of the songs, which was Thom's idea. It strangely sounds really good.

Your cover art is clearly important to you – anything sorted for the new album yet?

Yes. An artist called Jirayu Koo has done the artwork for Ventriloquizzing. I think it looks great. Before Jirayu got involved I thought the the cover would look good in a Tadanori Yokoo style, but once we saw her work we thought her style would suit the record best.

You strike me as quite unique. E.g. You don’t really sound like anyone else at the moment. Is there anyone else you rate right now?

Thanks. I've been listening to Matias Aguayo's ay ay ay quite a lot. I like Jamie Lidell and I am always interested in what Beck does. I'm enjoying the new Arp record too. I do mainly listen to older things though. I'm getting a bit obsessed with Terry Riley's music, especially the more electronic sounding stuff like Lifespan and Persian Surgery Dervishes. That Jacky Chalard record on Finders Keepers is another current favourite, as well as the Shangaan electro compilation and Charanjit Singh's ten ragas to a disco beat. I don't know if that’s reflected in our music or not. I suspect not. When we were making Lightbulbs I was just listening to RnB and 60s soul music, and Lightbulbs doesn't sound anything like either of them.

Any live shows planned?

We've got a handful at the beginning of December in London Paris and Lisbon. We won't be touring properly until next year once the LP is out.

What’s the scale of your ambition for the band. I assume you aren’t too bothered about Radio 1 daytime airplay for example!

I want the group to do well and for people to hear it, but I think if you make a good record that will happen anyway, and if you don't it won't. I'm not the best at self-promotion I must admit.

Fujiya & Miyagi are set to release their fourth album 'Ventriloquizzing' in January 2011 via Full Time Hobby and headline London ICA on the 1st December.

Download new track 'Sixteen Shades Of Black and Blue' here:

Friday, 1 October 2010

The 20 best psychedelic folk songs

The golden era of acid folk was the late sixties and early seventies when the folk musicians who had come to prominence earlier fused their sound with the predominant sound of the day – psychedelia. Arguably America led the way, first with Dylan going ‘electric’ then the artists of the West coast such as Moby Grape and Crosby, Stills and Nash. The UK soon followed with Donovan and then Fairport Convention’s Meet Me On The Ledge taking the traditional folk sound and injecting it with modern instrumentation to create a new fusion which appealed to a younger market. Others soon followed - The Pentangle, Mellow Candle, Trees, and Mr Fox were just a few who were happy to incorporate jazz, rock and psychedelia into their sound with varied results. There are countless examples - many acts disappearing after an album or two but here are twenty of my favourites - do leave yours in the comments boxes below. I've sought to cover both the US and the UK/Irish scenes. If you want to secure some of these tracks relatively easily pick up one of the following compilations - Folk is Not a Four Letter Word (Volumes 1 and 2)- Various Artists, A Monstrous Psychedelic Bubble exploding in your mind (Volumes 1 and 2) - The Amorphous Androgynous and Feel the Spirit compiled by Mark Pritchard.

20. By the Sea - Wendy and Bonnie

Famously sampled by Super Furry Animals for the track Hello Sunshine. Californian Wendy and Bonnie released their debut (and only) album Genesis when aged 17 and 13 respectively. The album reflected dominant sounds of the time (Simon and Garfunkel, Mamas and the Papas etc) but the label they were on (Skye) went bust after the album's release and, like so many folk artists of the time, this remained buried treasure until a new generation discovered it.

19. Spin Spider Spin - Peggy Zeitlin

Johnny Trunk deserves the credit for tracking this one down. It featured on his Fuzzy Felt Folk compilation a few years ago. Half child's lullaby, half creepy horror song it certainly grabs your attention. Its actually from an American child's education recording and no-one - not even Johnny - has been able to track Peggy down.

18. Mendle - Mr Fox

Fuzzy guitar and Hammond organ combine to create a frenzied recording allegedly about the killing of a woman in an occult ritual. Mayhem somewhat reminiscent of the band's own career. They only lasted two years due to the fact that driving force Bob Pegg had an affair with his children's nanny (his wife Carole was the band's vocalist) who in turn was the girlfriend of the bassist Barry Lyons - messy. Still, this is an excellent example of the darker side of the folk sound.

17. Me and my woman - Roy Harper

One wonders if Roy Harper had died early whether he would now garner the same respect as Nick Drake. Undoubtedly an excellent songwriter and a huge influence on other musicians of the time. This track is from 1971's Stormcock album an album revered by Johnny Marr among others.

16.Stargazer - Shelagh McDonald

The story of Shelagh McDonald is fascinating. A Scottish vocalist, she recorded two albums before abruptly disappearing for the next thirty years. She eventually re-emerged in 2005 claiming that following a bad LSD trip she had been living a nomadic lifestyle living in a combination of houses and tents. This is the title track of her second album and is quite beautiful.

15. Hey who really cares - Linda Perhacs

One has to wonder if any folk star from this era achieved any degree of financial success. Linda Perhacs was yet another who recorded one album, became a dental technician for the next thirty years and then was rediscovered. This ode to loneliness was a stand out track from her Parallelograms debut. In recent years she has started recording again and describes herself as 'equal parts mystic, musician, schoolteacher, earth mother and Pollyanna....'

14. River Man - Nick Drake

Nick Drake has gone from underrated folk troubadour to national treasure in the last decade. His sound, although generally regarded as folk, took jazz stylings in particular to create work of great beauty. This is an excellent example.

13. The Sea - Fotheringay

One of a number of tracks on this list featuring the unique talents of Sandy Denny who was also vocalist for Fairport Convention. This was her own post-Fairport band and this is one of her original compositions on the album. Denny later famously sang on Led Zeppelin's Battle of Evermore as well as having a mildly successful solo career before her death in 1978 after falling down a staircase.

12. Witches Promise – Jethro Tull

A controversial choice perhaps but Jethro Tull were one of the first to combine a traditional folk sound with the pervading classic rock sound. I discovered this track at university whole going through a prog rock phase and its always been a favourite – flutes ahoy!

11. Wooden Ships – Christine Harwood

A cover of the Crosby, Stills and Nash song. This version featured on her much sought after album Nice to meet you Miss Christine which featured guest spots from members of King Crimson, Rainbow and Yes. What really appeals about this version is the arrangements which lift it from standard soul or folk so something on a much more spiritual level.

10. Magician in the Mountain – Sun Forest

Like a number of the tracks listed here this track was made widely available by Global Communication’s Mark Pritchard on his influential Feel the Spirit Compilation. It has since also featured on the Amorphous Androgynous’ Huge Psychedelic Brain compilations. A number of the other tracks on Sun Forest's only album were featured in Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork Orange.

9. Meet me on the Ledge – Fairport Convention

The track that shifted Fairport's career from west coast copyists to the forefathers of British folk Rock. Their following two albums (Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief) are arguably two of the most important albums in British musical history.

8. Rosehip November– Vashti Bunyan

The story of Vashti Bunyan is well enough known not to have to repeat it here. This stand out track from her debut album Just Another Diamond Day has a real sense of loss and autumnul reflection.

7. Silver Song - Mellow Candle

Signed by Simon Napier Bell as teenagers, Mellow Candle's debut and only album Swaddling songs has been known to net over £500. This stand out track was covered by All About Eve among others.

6. She moved Thro' the fair – Trees

This traditional track was covered by many artists in the late 1960's/early 1970s as well as everyone from Boyzone to Rolf Harris later. It starts with a riff familiar to many fans of Led Zeppelin as White Summer and then moves into territory reminiscent of Belfast child by Simple Minds! Despite that its an excellent example of mellow folk rock and of how traditional English songs were being adapted for new audiences. The album its on (The Garden of Jane Trellawny) is one of two the band recorded and an absolute corker.

5. The Witch – Mark Fry

Like Susan Christie and Vashti Bunyan, Mark Fry had to wait for some time for recognition. He recorded his debut Dreaming with Alice in 1972 but the album was only released in Italy. Sitars and Lutes are introduced to the singer songwriter dimension of the record and its all produced in such a way that it has a really earthy but eerie quality - slightly reminiscent of Donovan perhaps. The reissued album on Sunbeam records is highly recommended.

4. Feel the spirit - Heaven and Earth

Like a number of the female artists here, Pat Gefell (now Dennison) of this duo still records. The accoustic guitar and flute really create a sense of being 'close to nature' without sounding twee. The note hit at about 2.57 hits a great peak before a funky drumbeat kicks in - folk funk at its best!

3. Winter's Going - Bonnie Dobson

Certainly one of the darkest songs on this list - essentially a story of revenge on an ex-lover. Bonnie was Canadian born but made her home in the UK, eventually working in the philosophy department of the University of London. This was a stand out track from her 1969 debut LP. The album can be picked up cheaply and also includes Morning Dew which was widely covered.

2. Paint a Lady - Susan Christie

Essentially a ‘lost’ recording until re released just a few years ago by the excellent Finders Keepers reissue label. Christie was from Philadelphia and had secured a novelty hit single with a track called I love onions before recording a superb album of folky country songs. This is the title track and it's lyrics paint a strangely colourful picture of the mundainity of the modern labour market

1. Light Flight – The Pentangle

‘Lets get away, you say...away from the city race’ As near as acid folk got to a hit single, Light Flight perfectly illustrated the desire to escape the pace and scale of urbanisation so desired by politicians of the day. Originally written to accompany TV series Take Three Girls. Jacqui McShee’s haunting wail soars over a funky rhythm section to create three and a half minutes of folk perfection.