Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The 10 best albums of 2011

Its been another great year of musical discovery. Here are the ten records I enjoyed most...

    1. Whokill – Tuneyards

I, like many others, have spent much of the last decade moaning about the lack of decent guitar music. The majority of it is simply a re-tread of what we’ve already heard and therefore in my opinion effectively worthless. I spent a good chunk of this year really enjoying this album before actually realising that at its heart it is the most original guitar based album I’ve heard in years although its also so many other things as well (including making very effective use of a lo-fi sampler). At first listen the immediate reference points are post punk, dub, soca and afro pop but listen again and the guitar is as key an element as is Meryl Garbus’ wonderful voice (especially on the epic Po-wa which is one of the best vocal performances I’ve heard in years). This album doesn’t sound like anyone else and this lady is clearly one of the eccentric characters that make great pop music what it is.

  1. Space is only noise – Nicolas Jaar
The key components to music are generally considered to be rhythm and melody but this record focuses on something else entirely – atmosphere. Jaar isn’t doing anything particularly new on one level – trip hop based beats – but it’s the way he does it that’s so interesting – drawing individual glitchy sounds over the top of the mix to give you tingles and bumps. He draws from everything from American soul to Ethiopian Jazz and  constructs track in the style of a techno record but with much more warmth. This record is best listened to on immersive headphones while travelling or walking. Clearly a talented producer who is happy to forgo commerciality in the name of art.

  1. Let England Shake – PJ Harvey

 Yes it’s overheard, yes the critical consensus is dull but the simple fact is that Polly made a great (and somewhat timeless) record. This isn’t trad rock or indie, it’s a songwriter who has matured to the point that she is able to create an artistic vision and deliver it without ever once sounding like she’s trying to force the songs into it. Somehow bringing in influences as diverse as traditional folk, reggae, Eddie Cochran and the Doors to create something that is ultimately and undoubtedly hers. She like many is both disgusted by our nation’s history and in love with its beauty and this is a great commentary on the state of our nation (and you can’t say that about Coldplay can you?).

  1. House of Balloons – Weeknd
I’m not quite sure how I stumbled upon this – I had no real expectations of a great R&B album when I clicked on whatever link it was but this was ace. A sleazy trawl through a weekend of vice girls, coke and cars it made me feel dirty by just listening to it but listen again and there is some really interesting stuff going on here. First, the production is clearly in debt to the forward thinking UK producers – most notably Jamie XX – post dubstep sounds aren’t really what you think of when you think of this genre. Second, Abel Tasfaye’s falsetto voice is wonderful – overwrought, emotional and smooth – perfectly complimenting the occasional 80’s guitar. This album makes me want to go on a bender…

  1. Dedication – Zomby
I love dubstep in small doses but very few of its LPs stand up to scrutiny on repeated listens. Zomby’s take on the genre has previously been to focus on the euphoria of rave and channel it through a bassbin but this (his second album) was different. Much more subtle than its predecessor and more comparable to the electronica of Dan Snaith, Alam Bacab or Kieron Hebdon. Reassuringly short and packed with short pieces (they aren’t really what you can call songs) this is a lovely record whether sat on the night bus through Hackney or in a field on a hot summer’s day.

  1. Peanut Butter Blues and melancholy jam – Ghostpoet
Who would have thought that the best hip hop album of the year would be from Coventry? It’s not hip hop in the purest sense and he is clearly as influenced by guitar music and dance as he is Jay Z or Public Enemy. Like Roots Manuva or Tricky (both of whom he bears comparison to), he is a story teller. Cash and Carry me Home is about a drunken night of regret while Survive it is a torch song beyond compare. If you want to like UK hip hop but don’t get Tinnie Tempah I suggest starting here…

  1. King of Limbs – Radiohead
There will no doubt be a suspicion that I’ve included this out of blinded loyalty to one of my favourite bands. Many consider this record not to be a patch on its predecessor In Rainbows. I loved it from the off though. Yes, its short and understated but that’s what makes it so good. It’s not indulgent (the video to Lotus Flower revealing Thom Yorke’s humour), it cherry picks influences from the best music (Jazz, Afrobeat, Flying Lotus, David Bowie) and yet sounds only like them. The ballads are fantastic and I can’t wait to hear them in a live setting next summer.  The most important band of our times – we just need to continue to realise that.

  1. Jill Scott – The light of the sun
neo soul ladies are prone to. There are ballads but I’m pleased to report an album dedicated to female empowerment played out in such a fun way -jams with Eve and Doug E Fresh, Gil Scott Heron style monologues and a song about her ‘rolling hills’ – the girl back y’all!

     9.Locussolus - Locussolus

 I was very cynical about this one before hearing it. Harvey is one of those DJs so name droppingly cool that you expect 12 minute long jams of 80’s Balearic throughout. Imagine my surprise then when this actually revealed itself to be a selection of well-focused dance pop songs. True, some draw out over a period of time and ‘go off on one’ but with focus maintained throughout and the use of guest producers (Weatherall, Prins Tomas etc) keeps things interesting. I want it even steals a snatch of Venus which is just ace. Definitely worst sleeve mind….

    10.ISAM – Amon Tobin

 The most unique record on my list. Some of this record (Surge for example) arguably isn’t even music – more a collection of sounds. It is completely original (one of the main virtues in music for me) and yet isn’t in any way difficult for anyone prepared to give it time. The lightness of touch on tracks like Wooden Toy ensures it’s a work you can return to time and time again.

And my favourite singles...
  1. Rolling in the deep (Jamie XX re-rub) – Adele
Two of the most significant musicians of the year combine to wonderful effect. Jamie XX doesn’t do anything particularly clever with the original recognising its strength but he strips it back, adds the odd touch of weirdness and bass and creates something that is great for both the dancefloor and home listening. Remix job done!
2.Street Halo - Burial
 This is exactly what I would want to be listening to in a dark nightclub at 4am – imposing and ‘diiiirty’ – the bass line just makes you want to blow your mind.
3.Ice Cream – Battles
 One can’t help but consider the scientific approach Battles bring to their records – this is so well constructed! Starting simply with a grunt it accelerates gradually until we are caught up into one of the guitar songs of the year (although the first half of the song is much better than the second). Should have been a huge hit – and the video is ace!

Friday, 25 November 2011

100 for Joe

It’s a while since I’ve been here so hello again.

My oldest son turns eighteen in a few weeks – it’s been a long and sometimes difficult journey but my boy becomes a man and his future looks good right now.

I wanted to mark this momentous event by doing something  significant for him. Sure there will be gifts and celebratory meals but I wanted to give him something he could cherish and to impart some wisdom. The obvious angle given my own interests (and his)was music. I set about compiling a list of what I considered the 100 greatest songs of all time – the tracks that changed my life and the tracks I think he needed to hear. It was easy at first – some came to mind immediately – Firestarter by the Prodigy completely blew my mind when it came out and I’ll never forget being reduced to tears upon hearing Sinnerman by Nina Simone the first time I heard it on 6 music. Interestingly though, after about 80 I began to dry up. Not through lack of contenders – I own as much music as anyone, but simply because only this 80 really made the grade. In desperation/peer approval I did as we all do these days and turned to Facebook! The response was huge – many, many friends responded and the only conclusion I can reach is that everyone has their own idea of what makes a great track. Some harked back to the tracks that shaped their own youth. I have one slightly older friend from the north of England who focused almost entirely on material from eighties Manchester, others were soul aficionados who threw Esther Phillips, Patti Jo and Ann Sexton into the mix and I was particularly taken by suggestions of subversive anti -establishment anthems(Spacemen 3, MC5)which play to the youth theme. Someone else reminded me that pop music is often well overlooked at these times and that this too needed to be reflected. One track (Slint) I included solely because the person who suggested it made such a compelling case as to why it should be included (I figured I might as well get some new music out of this whole experience too!) Thanks Dan.

So, is the list below the 100 greatest songs of all time? Of course not. It’s a highly personal list. That’s why you’ll find two tracks by Guns N Roses (the band that really started my musical obsession) and none by Public Enemy. You’ll find obscure Nigerian disco (Oby Onyioha) but no Jimi Hendrix. There is too much heavy metal (being brought up in the Forest of Dean is my excuse) and not enough post-punk (never much cared for it). Given my age, trip hop is over represented while punk barely gets a look in.  

Having said all of that, I’ve sought to provide a varied selection that tells my own journey from hard rock to trip hop and dance through soul, reggae and jazz. I’m convinced there are tracks on the list that you don’t know that you’ll love if you just go listen to them. Some are established classics while others are in solely for their weirdness (Monolith by Beta Band for one, Extreme Possibilities by 2 Player for another) and because I lost my mind to them and I hope others do too. I’m full of excitement in anticipation of what the next track is that will change my life. Please do leave your suggestions for what’s missing in the comment box below!

In no particular order
Gloria- Patti Smith
I Wanna Be Your Dog -The Stooges
Whatever Happened To My Rock & Roll - Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Lovesong - The Cure
Dear Prudence - The Beatles
The Rain Song - Led Zeppelin
Easy Money - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Everything In It’s Right Place - Radiohead
Suffocated Love - Tricky
Safe From Harm - Massive Attack
Standing In The Rain - Don Ray  
Enjoy Your Life - Oby Onyioha
California Soul - Marlena Shaw
Inside My Love -Minnie Riperton
Wise One - John Coltrane
Firestarter - Prodigy
Epic - Faith No More
Night - Benga & Coki
Motor Bass Get Phunked Up - La Funk Mob
Spacelab - Kraftwerk
In The Trees - Faze Action
Little Fluffy Clouds - The Orb
Monolith - The Beta Band
Gathering Moss -Super Furry Animals
Life On Mars - David Bowie
Northern Sky - Nick Drake
Sinnerman -Nina Simone
One of These Days -Pink Floyd
Eight Miles High -The Byrds
I Can See For Miles -The Who
Subterranean Homesick Blues -Bob Dylan
No Rain - Blind Melon
Come As You Are - Nirvana
Touch Me I'm Sick - Mudhoney
Revolution - Spacemen 3
Windowlicker - Aphex Twin
Extreme Possibilities (Wagon Christ Mix) - 2 Player
The Theme (Original Chill Mix) - Unique 3
Chime - Orbital                      
Voodoo Ray - A Guy Called Gerald
Come Together - Primal Scream
Made Of Stone - The Stone Roses
Sound of Da Police - KRS One
Zulu War Chant (The Funky Remix) - Afrika Bambaataa
Don’t Stop The Rock - Freestyle
Da Funk - Daft Punk
The Nervous Track (Ballsy Mix) -Nuyorican Soul
Melt -Leftfield
Concrete Jungle - Bob Marley & The Wailers
Ali Baba - John Holt
The clapping song - Shirley Ellis
Beggin' - Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons
Make me believe in you - Patti Jo
Ain't No Mountain High Enough (12" Remix) -Inner Life (Ft Jocelyn Brown)
Ain't Nobody - Chaka Khan
Can't Get You Out Of My Head -Kylie Minogue
Sweet Child O' Mine - Guns N' Roses
Sweet Emotion- Aerosmith
Detroit Rock City - Kiss
Jumpin' Jack Flash - The Rolling Stones
London Calling - The Clash
The Crystal Ship -The Doors
Your Time Is Gonna Come – Led Zeppelin                                                                                                                                                                                                
 He's a Superstar - Roy Ayers
I Heard It Through The Grapevine - Marvin Gaye
It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World -James Brown
I've Got A Woman - Ray Charles
Tutti Frutti - Little Richard
She Loves You -The Beatles
You Can't Always Get What You Want -The Rolling Stones
Tin Soldier - The Small Faces
If I Were A Carpenter - Tim Hardin
Ordinary Joe -Terry Callier
Suspicious Minds -Elvis Presley
Wichita Lineman - Glen Campbell
Welcome To The Jungle- Guns N' Roses
Stop -Jane's Addiction
Coup - 23 Skiddoo
Jeun Ko Ku (Chop 'n' Quench) -Fela Ransome Kuti & The Africa 70
Rock Steady - Aretha Franklin
Girl You Need A Change Of Mind -Eddie Kendricks
I Can't Go For That (Extended Club Mix) - Hall & Oates
Another Day - 4Hero
Who Am I (Sim Sima) - Beenie Man
A Roller Skating Jam Named 'Saturdays'  - De La Soul
Jayou- Jurrassic 5
Umi says - Mos Def
I Say A Little Prayer - Aretha Franklin
Tangled Up In Blue - Bob Dylan
Old Man - Neil Young
In The Ghetto - Elvis Presley
Whole Lotta Rosie - AC-DC
Take Me Out - Franz Ferdinand
Good Morning Captain- Slint
History  - The Verve
A Day In The Life - The Beatles
Golden hen - Tenor Saw
Buddy Bye - Johnny Osbourne
Super Sharp Shooter - Ganja Kru
Gangsters - The Special A.K.A.
Friday Night, Saturday Morning- The Specials
Light Flight - The Pentangle
The Man With The Child In His Eyes - Kate Bush

Friday, 16 September 2011

Hidden gem: Volume 1 - Manfred Mann Chapter 3 (Vertigo)

Many has been the pop star who has subsequently 'grown up'. George Michael managed it with a degree of class, Britney didn't. Of course its not a new phenomenon, both the Beatles and the Monkees alienated some of their fan base in the 60s as they moved into a more adult sound but perhaps less well known is the transition of Manfred Mann from Do Wah Diddy and Pretty Flamingo to jazz laced progressive rock.

Manfred Mann Chapter 3 wasn't strictly Manfred Mann. True, it featured the South African born keyboard player that gave the band its name but the original band had actually split up in 1969 only for Mann to form this new band with vocalist Mike Hugg. This was a much more experimental proposition who focused on the 'time no changes' approach of jazz players, most notably Miles Davis and John Coltrane. This essentially manifested itself in off-the-wall saxophone solos in the spirit of free jazz legends such as Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. Their sound wasn't jazz though and they set much of the template that would influence subsequent rock acts such as King Crismson, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Their debut album somehow managed to fuse all sorts of influences from jazz, rock, progressive, psychedelia and folk to create a recording whose influence can still be heard today.

The album kicks off withTravelling Lady, moody and slightly gothic. What is immediately apparent is the use of horns to propel the song forward - a saxophone kicks in towards the end and one can sense the free jazz spirit. Snakeskin Garter is more psychedelic in feel. It doesn't feature the most profound of lyrics 'she wore a snakeskin garter' but it successfully pre-empts the sexual subject matter of hard rock that would explode only a few years later. Devil Woman is another track that while not blatantly sexist, certainly pigeonholes women with its talk of 'your poisonous tongue and your poisonous lips' and 'spinning your web all round my heart' - very much of its time.

Korekuf is a six minute instrumental track, freeform in spirit but it does contain discipline and direction. One of my favourite tracks is Sometimes. This is gentle and acoustic at the outset and wouldn't have been out of place on the Stone Roses' debut. The best track on side one though is One Way Glass, a song  that has arguably laid the template for the whole of Primal Scream's career with its throbbing bass, funky drums and psych vocals. The euphoric horns at the end of the track leave you wanting to punch the air, its little wonder it has been used on a number of compilations including Pete Fowler's Sounds of Monsterism Island.

The second half of the record is perhaps slower paced and more melancholy. Mister, you're a better man than I is typical as is final track Where am I going? which is at best bittersweet and at worst maudlin with its lyrics of 'the dreams I used to chase, having fallen from my eyes'. Ain't it Sad is notable for its use of a funky folk flute (try saying that after a few bevvies) while A Study In Intimacy is one of the more freeform and almost Zappa-esque tracks. It fades out halfway through only to fade back in.

This is an intriguing record despite it selling poorly at the time (the band would split up the following year). You can feel the creativity surging through it and the drug fuelled openmindedness of the times. It hangs together well as an album while featuring strong individual tracks and its influence can clearly be heard in many post acid house rock bands - well worth a listen and ultimately a purchase.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Kieron Hebden: An appreciation

I sometimes find myself wondering who my favourite musician of the twenty first century is. There are a few contenders - Madlib or Mos Def from the world of hip hop perhaps or Damon Albarn or Thom Yorke - men who have transcended their indie roots to produce forward thinking and original music. Ultimately though it all comes back to a man who has worked with many of these other great acts - Kieron Hebden. Over the last decade he has been at the very forefront of  modern music - always a step ahead of the pack and yet able to create beautiful melodies that are accessible to even the most casual of listeners.

Initially influenced like so many before him by Hendrix and Zeppelin (and later drum n bass) he emerged from the post-rock band Fridge in the mid 1990s having studied at the almost legendary Elliot Comprehensive (also home to Hot Chip and Burial) in South London. His first solo record, the jazz influenced Dialogue was released in 1999 but it was second album Pause in 2001 which really brought him to wider attention with his fusing of electronica and a folkier, organic style. Whereas Boards of Canada had captured a similarly emotive feel with their referencing of nature documentaries, Hebden tended towards real instrumentation and bedroom sampling and soon found himself at the forefront of the 'Folktronica' movement. This was consolidated on perhaps his best album to date Rounds in 2003. Probably my favourite album of the noughties, Rounds brilliantly builds abstract electronica around acoustic guitar hooks. Random beats and sounds are thrown over the top to combine experimentation with a distinct homeliness. First track A Joy features a 909 synth with random beats thrown over it to create a disorientating, and yes, joyful noise - quite unlike anything that has come before or since.

Rather than embrace the mainstream, Hebdon's next move was to record with legendary jazz drummer Steve Ried. I recall seeing the two of them play together in London and being blown away by what was essentially a set of just one track of about 40 minutes in length. This was more than just a current artist seeking to sit on the coat tails of a living legend, it was clearly a collaboration of mutual respect and the two men collaborated extensively until Ried's untimely death in 2010.

Next solo album Everything Ecstatic was released in 2005 and contained more magical moments as well as some excellent accompanying videos. By this stage Four Tet was a much sought after remixer and the Ringer EP in 2008 revealed a more minimal stripped back sound (Detroit techno influenced to these ears). This preceded the euphoric There Is Love In You in 2010. This album was perhaps a little patchy (and included a bizarre hidden track) but undoubtedly included some of his very best work including  the Orbital-esque Love Cry and tribute to his favourite London nightclub Plastic People.

In recent years he has worked closely with Burial and with Thom Yorke amongst others. In 2011 they dropped Ego/Mirror which was an excellent 12 inch showcasing the talents of three of the greatest musicians of recent years. Hebden regularly drops low key12 inch vinyl releases which are remarkable in their consistency (check recent release Pinnacles for just one recent example). A hotly anticipated Fabric mix is due in September 2011.

As we enter the second decade of the new millennium, Kieron Hebden is more influential than ever. Check electronica album of last year Swim by Caribou or the more esoteric sounds of perhaps the world's biggest band Radiohead for just a couple of examples of the influence of the Four tet sound. Hebden himself admits that he refuses to sit still - always seeking to be more adventurous with his sound. Its impossible to know where is sound will turn next.

What is really noticeable about Kieron Hebden is his good taste and quality control. He doesn't  compromise in any way and the attention to detail on everything from his remixes through to his artwork is immediately apparent. He somehow manages to reference  folk, free jazz and hip hop and yet couldn't really be defined by any of them. He manages to bring warmth and colour to electronic music and is undoubtedly unique - long may he continue to be so.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Why record companies should be happy giving music away...

As someone who loves music and wants to see the artists who made the music getting their payday, illegal downloading provides me with a moral dilemma. I remember reading about the Motown stars and the Small Faces not receiving the royalties they were entitled to and being outraged and yet the new model of musical acquisition means this sort of situation is inevitable doesn't it? If I paid for all the music I listen to I would be spending hundreds of pounds a month on records I barely listen to yet there is no doubt that I am increasingly accessing music for free which I might previously have paid for (some of which I never even get round to listening to).

The fact of the matter is, whether the record companies like it or not, we now have a whole generation of people who don't expect to pay for their music.  The result is that we consume far more music per capita than we used to but we don't covet it all. The last time US album figures actually increased was January 2006.The popularity of Spotify and other music streaming sites shows that the vast majority of listeners simply want access to a track at a particular time rather than necessarily owning it. Fopp and HMV inevitably get hit as do EMI and Parlophone but its an oversimplification to suggest that the music industry is being destroyed. Independent labels continue to thrive and the UK continues to develop new and exciting artists. Revenue streams (live gigs, TV adverts) are different than they might have been ten years ago and labels are having to work harder to sell product (see the deluxe double vinyl or the Deluxe CD re-issue for examples of the brave new world) but look only as far as Katy B, Adele or The Vaccines to see that artists are still coming through and still making a good living.

Listening habits have changed. I still buy CDs and vinyl but I'm a lot more discerning about it. I might listen to 15-20 albums a month through various routes online and elsewhere before picking the one or two that I want to own. These often tend to be the ones that not only sound good but are lovingly packaged too. The labels I spend my money with are Soundway, Analog Africa, Soul Jazz, R and S, XL and Domino - labels that do it for the love of the music, not the love of the money.

At the end of the day, people have a set amount of money that they are going to spend on music (especially in these tough times) but there is much too much product out there to actually be able to buy. People will buy something if they've had the opportunity to try it and if they can be sure its good value for money (and that isn't just about the quality of the music), the sooner the industry realises this the sooner we can all move on.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Album review: Section .80 - Kendrick Lamar (Top Dawg)

Forget East and West Coast, its the South that has ruled hip hop in recent years. Meanwhile, over in Cali Dre has been working on his latest album for what seems a lifetime while Snoop is verging on being a nostalgia act with his live performances of Doggystyle for the masses. How refreshing it is then to discover a fresh new talent coming out of the US's most famous state.

Kendrick Lamar is a 24 year old Compton resident and like the Pharcyde or Tribe Called Quest before him he is happy to turn to jazz for his samples. However, rather than creating some 'golden age' hippy vibes his subject matter can be fairly harsh.

This is actually his third album. I'll put my hands up and say that I haven't heard the first two, however I might well be seeking them out having listened to Section .80. Its a very good record with intelligent rapping and interesting subject matter while being light touch so that things don't get ground down in some post millennial angst (see Tyler the Creator or Roc Marciano for just two who have fallen into this trap recently).

Its a shame that one of the weakest moments comes so early in the record ' I call a bitch a bitch, a ho a ho' Lamar claims in the tasteless Hol Up - a tale of sexually assaulting an air stewardess on a plane. Its a poor reflection on a man that clearly knows better. No Make Up is much more female friendly and showcases his skills as a rapper much better - it has a slight RandB feel with its sped up vocal and layering techniques. This lightness of touch is also captured in the skit-ish Chapter 6 which immediately brings to mind the palm trees of Venice Beach.

Kendrick isn't afraid to get political. Ronald Reagan Era is just one example of acute political sensitivity while Keisha's Song is the emotional heart of the record with its lyrics about a sexual abuse. Lamar highlights the crack riddled streets that exist in modern America without feeling the need to boast about his own masculinity. Throughout the rapping is superb and Lamar is an MC with real personality in his voice (think the first time you heard Quasimoto or Q-Tip - it was just 'different') Rigamortis is a brilliant showcase for his freestyle rapping over the jazzy melody and is  most impressive.

Admittedly at 16 tracks the album is a little too long but this is quality West Coast hip hop without the Ghetto posturing. Its gritty and urban but in the way The Wire was - with an underlying feel of reality and intelligence. This is not a perfect record but it highlights a major talent, which if channelled properly could create more great work.  

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Live review: The Green Man Festival, Crickhowell, Breacon Beacons

My festival of choice was pretty much made for me this year. Glastonbury sold out quickly and Bestival clashed with my son's starting school (oh to be growing up...) V and Reading are for people 20 years younger and the Big Chill clashed with something else so a return to the Green Man it was...

The Green Man has well established itself in the festival calendar in recent years with its niche as the subversive folk festival. Yes, you'll catch the latest alt-country act or folkie troubadour but you'll also find dance music or funk too if you want to dance through the night. I went for the first time two years ago and was struck by its friendly vibe, attention to detail and high quality music control.

This year we left home earlish Friday morning to a soundtrack of Wooden Shjips, Bigstar and Neil Young - its an hour and a half from Gloucestershire - just far enough to feel like an adventure. The parking was easy enough and we walked through the campsites to get a good pitch - the site is stunning with the imposing Brecon Beacons providing the backdrop to the main stage. As we make our way through the site one is transfixed by the huge array of quality food options - no greasy burgers here but plenty of North African Borek, Roast dinners or the near legendary Cornish fish goan curry. The bars too are of the highest quality with an array of wonderful local ales and ciders being consumed with enthusiasm by the marauding hoards.

We start by making our way to the intimate Chai Wallah's tent which is an excellent vantage point from which to begin our adventure. The first act we see are fairly typical of what you can expect in Chai Wallah's - a group of young lads who look like Hanson but sound like authentic Jamaican reggae. Four men dressed as old ladies raise their inflatable zimmer frames with joy...We stick around for the Alternative Dubstep Orchestra who do exactly what it says on the tin with massive sub bass interplaying with jubilant brass - not unlike some of Masssive Attack's more dubby material.

Its to the main stage though and Bellowhead who usher in the festival proper. I was very sceptical given their supposed feel good 'cross-over' folk and I'm not sure I could stomach a whole record but for this time and place they are perfect with a jubilant set of orchestrated sea shanties interspersed with everything from funk to disco - terrific fun. It's then over to the Far Out stage for Pilooski, 2 Bears and Horse Meat Disco. Two Bears in particular rip things up with Pseudo Echo's Funky town and invitations for everyone to 'do the bearhug' - a tent full of inebriated punters are only too happy to oblige.

Saturday morning gives the opportunity to explore the site again. Off the main stages there are small but enjoyable pleasures to be had - buy a machete perhaps from Friends of the Earth, or spot a New Orleans Voodoo Man complete with pinkie rings on the way to the toilet. Again we make our way to Chai Wallahs - the funky heart of the festival - which is hosting some gentle folk from the heart of London's Broadway Market. I head off to see Josh T Pearson being interviewed and get to ask a question. 'What do you think of the state of America today?' this correspondent asks. 'Um, uh, I don't know really, I've lived in Paris for the last two years' doesn't really give much insight. We later catch the bearded troubadour in the Far Out tent, his electric guitar distorting over his oak soaked voice.

Early evening and its back to Chai Wallah's for an extraordinary performance from New Yorkan Joe Driscoll, essentially a one man soundsystem who highlights the overall ethos of folk spliced genres. Folky Hip Hop anyone? A steel guitar version of I Want You Back over a funky breakbeat lifts everybody before Joe calls in his friends from other bands who have played the tent earlier in the day. A fiddle rendition of Can I Kick It is interspersed with reggae toasting and mass hysteria. We take some time out, chilling to Destroyer - an ever so slightly psychedelic take on Hall and Oates but there is only one band to see tonight and that is Fleet Foxes. The main stage is rammed and the Foxes prove worthy headline material with their west coast harmonies bringing everyone together under a cracked moon in peace and love. The second album tracks are OK but its the oldies that hit home the hardest. By the end of the set tiredness has begun to set in and I resist the temptation of Warp DJs to get some much needed sleep.

Sunday starts with blazing sunshine, fully exposing the beautiful backdrop. I fill a flask with Tequila, orange and lime and head into the main arena for some sunbathing. James Blake might seem like an odd choice for the Green Man and especially on the main stage in daylight. Many are underwhelmed by his operatic vocals and slow leftfield beats but I thoroughly enjoy the dub spliced sounds. Limit To Your Love is accompanied by enormous sub bass which rattles the ribcage. Its Laura Marling though that most people in the main arena have waited to see. She really is a precocious talent with her husky voice and bitter but tuneful songs making perfect sense as the sun begins to dip. Three albums in and she already has a strong body of work.

We take some time out to a minimal (and dare I say boring?) Low Anthem before choosing Gruff Rhys over Iron and Wine. The eccentric Welshman's delayed set is predictably fun with his gorgeous melodies bringing everyone together in applause. Ending the set with a 15 minute song might sound like commercial suicide to some but Gruff brings so much humour out that its a joy.We spill out of the tent to watch the Green Man himself go up in flames accompanied by fireworks - a magical end to a magical festival. Andy Weatherall brings it all home with a funky dance set but by then I'm on my way back to my tent.

The weather was wonderful, the food and drink a real treat and the music (despite looking a little bit weak on paper) perfectly complemented the mood of everyone on site. The Green Man has something special - it doesn't feel part of the mainstream at all but a lovingly crafted fun fair for those who understand that music, nature, peace and love have all the answers. I for one will be back next year.

Friday, 12 August 2011

The 10 greatest protest songs

We are constantly told that the protest song is dead. Certainly, in recent years there has been a dearth of openly political content in popular music but student demonstrators recently found solace in Lethal Bizzle, only two years ago Rage Against the Machine were the Christmas number one while Arcade Fire’s tunes are full of implied criticism of Government so I don't think it’s the death knell of protest just yet.

Having said that, the heyday of protest was undoubtedly in the 1960s and 1970s as various minority groups asserted themselves and this was reflected in the music. Just a quick word on scope - I've included only songs that protest rather than those that reflect a particularly miserable time - hence no Ghost Town and no Shipbuilding. Also, I've eliminated numbers which simply express pride in a particular identity rather than protest e.g. Spasticus Autisticus by Ian Dury or Respect by Aretha Franklin. Anyway, here are 10 of the very best songs of anger- if you disagree leave your choices below the article...For more excellent commentary on protest songs check out the recently published 33 Revolutions per minute by Dorian Lynskey.

10. Harrowdown Hill - Thom Yorke (2006)

"We Think The Same Thing At The Same Time, We Just Can't Do Anything About It, We Think The Same Thing At The Same Time, There Are So Many Of Us That You Can't Count"

One of the few musical commentaries on the New Labour years. While Noel Gallagher was off to meet Blair at Downing Street, Thom Yorke was writing this tune about the pressure put on Government Scientist Dr David Kelly during the run up to the Gulf War and his subsequent suicide. A commentary on the force of power over evidence…chilling

9. Killing in the name of - Rage Against The Machine (1992)

'Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses'

An anti-establishment diatribe, but perhaps even more importantly the defeater of Simon Cowell inspired pop when it went head to head with X-Factor winner Joe McCedderly for Christmas number one. It unashamedly wears its heart on its sleeve in its anger, suggesting that members of the US police force are members of the Ku Klux Klan and featuring 17 fucks - a call to arms for teenagers everywhere.

8. Fight The Power - Public Enemy (1989)

Public Enemy's whole career was essentially a collection of protest songs but this is probably the one that best articulates their anti-establishment credentials. Famously used in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, it begins with a vocal sample of civil rights activist Thomas "TNT" Todd 'Yet our best trained, best educated, best equipped, best prepared troops refuse to fight. Matter of fact, it's safe to say that they would rather switch than fight.' The whole track is a proud reflection of Afro-American culture and was voted the greatest hip hop song of all time on VH1.

7. Masters Of War - Bob Dylan (1963)

Supposedly a protest singer, Dylan has repeatedly denounced the label, but this is one of a few of his tracks that undoubtedly carry a protest message (The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll is undoubtedly another).Taken from the traditional Nottamun Town and as relevant today as it was then - rich men build arms and send younger, poorer men to their deaths. Dylan's anger is clear as he wishes death on the protagonists and promises to watch their funeral caskets when they die. Ouch…how did he go from this to advertising Victoria's Secret?!

6. War - Edwin Starr (1970)

'War…what is it good for…absolutely nothin'

Has any line got across so important a message so simply? Probably not. Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong it was originally recorded by the Temptations before Starr made it a hit reaching the US number one for three weeks.

5. Zombie - Fela Kuti (1977)

If there is anyone in the world of music who was really a revolutionary, it might well be Fela Kuti. He verbally attacked his own Government on numerous occasions, Zombie being just one example (a commentary on what he saw as a mindless military). In return they killed his mother and destroyed his compound. He responded in return by delivering his mother's coffin to the army barracks and writing Coffin for Head of State. Brilliantly angry and dancy and how many songs can you say that about?

4. Ohio - Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (1970)

Written by Neil Young and a proper 60's counterculture classic. This tells the story of the killing of 4 students at Kent State University by the police following an anti war march. Its long drawn out story - the misery and sadness reflected in the music. 'Tin soldiers and Nixon coming' left the listener in no doubt who's side the band were on and who was ultimately responsible….

3. Burnin and Lootin - Bob Marley (1973)/Police and Thieves - Junior Murvin (1976)
Impossible to separate these two as they are very similar in feel and delivery. Both reflect the difficulties of the Caribbean communities in the 1970s in Jamaica and London but feel strangely fitting at the current time. Burnin and Lootin was used in the opening credits of French cult Classic La Haine while Police and Thieves sound tracked the Notting Hill Carnival Riots and was covered by the Clash.

2. A change is gonna come - Sam Cooke (1964)

Famously adopted by Barack Obama during his election campaign, this Cooke number saw his move from writing love songs to explore a much deeper seam in relation to the civil rights movement and he used gospel, soul and blues to tell his tale. Other tracks (notably Don't Call Me Niger Whitey by Sly Stone) also touched upon racial injustice but this one did it with real class. Cooke claimed he wrote it off the back of hearing Dylan's Blowing In The Wind….
1. Strange Fruit - Billie Holliday (1939)

"Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze."

Subtlety is something sadly lacking from most protest songs but this example shows that you don't need to be sloganeering or shouting to get your point across. Written by communist Abel Meeropol, it tells in vivid terms the lynching of black men in America's deep south and was perhaps the first real attempt to tell the story of injustice in contemporary song.Holiday was regularly prevented from playing it in her live shows. Some have argued that the song was instrumental in America's black population's articulation of the struggles they faced which would culminate in the civil rights movement years later. Deeply powerful.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Live review: Pentangle, Royal Festival Hall, London 1st August 2011

Hot town, summer in the city. A steamy August night and the twenty-somethings of London town sit sipping lager gloating on the roof terrace of the Royal Festival Hall enjoying their place at the centre of the universe...

Inside its a slightly more refined affair as acid fold legends Pentangle reunite for one of just three gigs (the others being the Cambridge folk and Glastonbury festivals). Fitting indeed that they choose the Royal Festival Hall given their recording of some of the album Sweet Child in this very place. The audience is less male and less beardy than you might imagine. True, there aren't many teenagers hanging around, but there is a fair smattering of all ages 30 up and the ladies are out in force too, showing the wide appeal of the recent folk revival

Things start in a fairly subdued fashion before the original line up of Bert Jansch (guitar), Danny Thompson (double bass), Terry Cox (drums), John Renbourn (guitar) and Jacqui McShee (vocals) play their 'only hit' Light Flight second song in. Its a little ramshackle to be honest but there is no doubting the quality of McShee's vocal as the second half of the song is carried by her famously ethereal wail. This begins a sublime run of material through to the interval. Mirage is the next song with the band's jazz influences coming to the fore before The Hunting Song takes things to another level again with Jacqui's exquisite voice providing the gel to bring together the disparate sounds.

Mainstream it isn't - there are few gigs for example where the mere entrance of a sitar or a bango generates warm applause. The audience is worshiping at the alter of funky folk and is sympathetic to the odd strained note here and there. Part one ends with the haunting Cruel Sister and one can't help but be impressed with the overall shape of the show - this is a band, whilst trading on past successes, that retains a spirit and sound worthy of their legacy.

Sadly the second half of the show doesn't quite match the first. The band re-emerge to play a series of blues jams which, while displaying the diversity of their influences, struggle to hold the attention - especially when Jacqui is offstage. The double bass solos in particular lack variety, pared back to single notes and we are slowly battered into submission by soporiphic soloing. Terry Cox's drum work with its jazz shuffle is better but its only when McShee re-emerges and promises us more tales 'of doom and gloom' that things pick up again. The Wedding Dress Song (learnt we are told from Peggy Seeger) is a rare moment of joy as Anderson plays his bass with a bow. As things wrap up with Pentangling the audience shows its appreciation to the extent that the band return for a brief encore of Rain and Snow bathed in red and yellow light.

Few can doubt Pentangle's influence in the world of English roots music. At their heart is a commitment to authenticity and experimentation and in Jacqui McShee they have one of the great voices of any genre. The rest of the ensemble are no slouches either despite their age. They deserve the late acclaim they are receiving for their continued commitment to music of depth and beauty.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Album review: Dedication - Zomby (4AD)

I've written before about the lack of decent long players in the realm of dubstep. Many albums are simply too hard on the ear and not varied enough to warrant repeat listens. I was very pleasantly surprised therefore when Zomby's new effort reached my Iphone. Not only is it varied but its light of touch and, dare I say it, uplifting in places - not something one might say about most releases in the genre.

Dedication is similar to the likes of Mount Kimbie in the way it draws in from a range of urban sounds and regurgitates them. Zomby's ongoing love of rave (first showcased in his slightly underwhelming debut Where Were U In 92? is again at the fore but this time more focused. It has a more human element than some of his previous efforts.

The first thing to say is that this is a record that covers a lot of ground in little time. It's 16 tracks fly by in a 36 minute exhilarating ride (once again the case for the short, focused album is made). Many tracks blend seamlessly into each other but each has a distinctive sound and Zomby has learnt the importance of providing differing moods and textures to keep things interesting.

Witch Hunt kicks things off and is punctuated by gunshots but its far from a bleak listen. Natalie's song meanwhile uses snatches of vocal (again very Mount Kimbie or maybe even Geogaddi era Boards of Canada) and is closer in spirit to rave than any bass driven sound. Even its lyrics 'move together...closer' verge on the euphoric. At various times the more abstract drum and bass acts (Photek, Omni Trio etc) come to mind as synths are introduced over soothing waves of bass (Alothea and Riding with Death are good examples). Black Orchid is a wilder trip - similar to some of the sounds on the Brainfeeder label with its juddering beats reverberating across the speakers from left to right.

The most accessible track (as well as the most distinctively dubstep) is undoubtedly Things Fall Apart. For one it features a conventional vocal (from Animal Collective's Panda Bear). It builds gradually to greater intensity before the 50's exotica of the following track (Salamander) releases the pressure. My own favourite track is Digital Rain - this is quite beautiful, streaming playful arcade-game melodies over a slippery beat-  the sort of thing you might imagine Kraftwerk recording if they were still doing so. Wonderful stuff.

The end of the album notably sees the introduction of piano. Both Haunted and Basquait make use of the instrument and here, as elsewhere, the label of dubstep becomes irrelevant. This is instead someone understanding the range of electronic music and combining with real instrumentation to push boundaries. Just as things slip away were are confronted by final track Mozaik - this is a shock to the system, upbeat. Rather than let things fizzle out Zomby demands our attention before ending things suddenly.

If you don't particularly like dubstep but do like electronic music I suspect you might like this. The best music is often that which transcends genre and despite my own initial reservations this does exactly that.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Round up: 5 great albums you really should hear

I like to do a little round up every three months or so - an opportunity to mention records that might not have warranted a full review here or an opportunity to big something up if it didn't get enough attention at the time. After a slow start to the year there has been some really good stuff in recent months.

Firstly, those which nearly made the top 5. I'll not go into depth on Bon Iver''s self-titled second album as I reviewed it at the time, but if alt-country is your thing you'll like it. Its an ambitious mix of Crosby, Stills and Nash era Americana and 1980's soft rock and is a brave and impressive record. Another record I reviewed at the time was The Weeknd's House of Balloons - sleazy coke fuelled RandB - I know that sounds awful but rest assured this is quality stuff all the way and its free to legally download.

Others that are worth a mention are Metronomy's English Riviera which has had good reviews all over the place with its slightly 80's synth sounding take on Paignton and Torquay (again, its much better than it sounds) and the very recently released Horrors LP Skying which manages to sound exciting while sounding somewhat like the Psychedelic Furs. In terms of hip-hop I'd recommend Shabazz Palace's Black up - the best abstract hip hop this side of Madlib's Quasimoto LPs. Finally, check out Thurston Moore's Demolished Thoughts - produced by Beck - its a little obviously derivative of Beck's own work and of Nick Drake (the strings in particular recall the English troubadour) but its a very nice listen.

Here though are the 5 I really think you need to pick up

tUnEyArDs - Whokill

Absolutely bonkers this. Afro-pop, dub, post punk, jazz and folk all melded together by  Merill Garbus a native of New England. This is her second album (her first recorded using a handheld voice recorder only) The free jazz of Gangsta is a wonderful example of the eccentricity here with the sound ripping from speaker to speaker to leave the listener somewhat disorientated. In the spirit of ESG, Pere Ubu, Jah Wobble, Nina Simone and Fela Kuti but utterly original as well....lyrically its not afraid to touch upon issues of the day - race, gender, body image and her voice is immense - this lady is going to be a big star.

Diamond Mine - King Creosote and Jon Hopkins

Sometimes less is more. Reminicent of Barafundle era Gorky's Xygotic Mynci, you're unlikely to hear a more understated album all year. Some of the tracks are barely audible but this is a lovely piece of folk with no attempt whatsoever to crossover into the wider marketplace. The record was seven years in the making and inspired by Scottish fishing villages so this probably isn't for you if you like your heavy dubstep. Much of the joy here is not just the songs but the sounds placed into them - cups of tea, people chatting, birds singing - this is a record of great atmosphere and perfect if you are off to a fishing village for your summer holidays.

Gloss Drop - Battles

I feared listening to this record after seeing to described as 'maths rock' - has anything ever sounded so unappealing? I'm pleased to say that it doesn't sound as difficult as you might think and despite not having much in the way of vocals is thoroughly listenable. The drums in particular stand out and propel each song forward. Stand out track is Ice Cream which also has a fantastic video (below). These New Yorkers have been making idea packed music for years now and are worthy of your attention if you like guitar rock.

ISAM - Amon Tobin

If you are one of those people who only likes music that is pushing forward the boundaries then Brazillian Amon Tobin's latest LP is for you. He's eschewed the 'drill n' bass' sound of previous releases and created what he calls a 'sound sculpture' but this is challenging stuff with layers of off kilter beats thrown down into the mix of field recordings. One wonders if this will date quickly as at times it sounds like an alien invasion (although Surge has undoubtedly been influenced by car or motorcycle racing. ISAM does breed some humanity though (much like Boards of Canada in places) - check Wooden Toy as an excellent example...another excellent Ninja Tunes release...and a record the like of which I've not heard before.

Locussolus - Locussolus

Finally for one of dance music's great enigmas - DJ Harvey. A legendary DJ, his recorded material has never quite reached the same heights but this release on Uraguayan electronica label International feel is a thoroughly enjoyable listen. Its probably best described as cosmic house music and features remixes from Andy Weatherall, Lindstrom and Prins Thomas (whose remix of I want it brilliantly uses Venus to hook you in). The use of slower, dubby keeps tempo varied although as an album its perhaps a little disjointed.  If you like this sort of thing you've probably already got it but if you're looking for some 'quality house' look no further.