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Archive for June, 2011

It’s hard to think of a band making an art of writing poignant political observations, outwith the shouty-shouty punk revivalists, the ever-shrinking mileu of rap acts that haven’t taken the devil’s shilling and folk and singer-songwriters who’ve always existed within a small coterie of people with a lot of say but few to listen to. It hasn’t always been this way and it shouldn’t be either. Music and politics has forever been associated, in the same way literature, poetry and paintings have been platforms for angst and agitation.

Art is, in essence, an extension of our thoughts, it is an outlet for all our hopes, beliefs and doubts. The state of the world being foremost among all human beings thinking processes, it is only natural that it surfaces in a painting, a paperback or a 7” EP. Perhaps more than most arts, music has been synonymous with politics – and when I talk of politics here I do not restrict myself to parties or movements but expand the term to single-issue campaigns or just the art of the political debate in your local pub. From Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit, a song written by a Communist Party member about the lynching of black people in the southern states; Woody Guthrie’s anti-fascist campaigns, through to the Beatles signing Back In the USSR or Revolution, or the Stones’ Street Fighting Man, music has attempted to reflect the issues and the problems of the day. Roots reggae was about stopping the violence and having justice and equality for all; punk was born of the economic deprivation of the 1970s and the conservatism of the music industry, and the 1950’s rock’n’roll movement gave teenagers a voice and an aspiration for the first time. That’s a broad sweep of radicalism that doesn’t even touch on Bob Dylan, Shostakovich, Marilyn Manson, System of a Down, Bruce Springsteen and Captain Sensible.

Keeping the right to freedom of speech

Let’s be clear, politics in music isn’t just a subject to challenge the writing skills, it is crucial to keeping the right to the freedom of speech alive. If we don’t use it we allow those who seek a compliant society of consumers to make more people rich a free ride. I’m currently listening to an album called Panic which came free with Mojo magazine. Virtually all the tracks are from British acts of the 1980s, an era of Thatcherism, the Miner’s Strike, the Hunger Strike in Northern Ireland, mass unemployment and the Falklands War.

Woody Guthrie

I now live in New Zealand but, despite its isolation and small population, it wasn’t without its strife as Rogernomics was the same brutal imposition on the working classes as monetarism, neo-conservatism or whatever term political commentators came up for an ideology that contained nothing more than an attempt to justify that being exceedingly rich was just and fair. This album comes with a quote from Morrissey – but no Smiths track – and contributions by Billy Bragg, The Redskins, McCarthy and The Three Johns, all of whom you would expect to be. Hell, if I had my way I would have included the Human League’s The Lebanon, and Culture Club’s War Song, both pretty dismal efforts but the message was bloody clear. Somehow, I just can’t imagine Katy Perry, Justin Bieber or Rihanna saying anything more than what’s between their legs while what’s between their ears rots away. Woody Guthrie, Joe Strummer and John Lennon will be spinning in their graves.

Even festivals have become nothing more than money-spinning enterprises. Michael Eavis, who started the Glastonbury Festival in 1970 as a platform for hippy ideals, is now bemoaning the current lack of political activism at Glastonbury, reflecting some people’s feeling that it was being taken over by middle class music fans out solely to enjoy themselves. Surely, Michael, having Beyonce, U2 and Coldplay as your top three headliners is kind of assisting that paucity? Ironically, there was a demonstration, against U2, at this year’s event, a large balloon with the words U Pay Tax 2? in protest against the band’s relocation from Ireland to the Netherlands for tax purposes. Bono’s stake in Facebook shows that money is a massive focus for U2, certainly more than politics as all their recent albums would testify. It almost seems as if the word hypocrite was invented for Bono, someone who meets world leaders to plead with them to drop the debt of poor nations, yet does his best to avoid paying tax to his own government and, through his obscene greed is part of the problem not the solution.

The time is now

But if ever there was a time that REQUIRED political protest it is now. The spectre of war abounds, on every continent, dictatorships from Fiji to Belarus thrive, where millions of people’s livelihoods are under threat, Arab regimes crack down with force on peaceful protesters, corruption is rampant, the rich have been given the green-light to steal from the poor and it’s all happening while we pillage our resources and hurtle towards ecological armageddon. It’s beguiling, but the corporate industry is part of the problem, churning out radio-friendly unit shifters, the lack of anything slightly contentious, presumably in their eyes, means less debate and more cash going through the till.

They’re actually wrong, however, as many songs that have touched on modern day issues have sold spectacularly well – Edwin Starr’s War, for example, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Two Tribes, or The Special AKA’s Free Nelson Mandela. Perhaps coming from Britain, which has a tradition of radicalism in song, from pre-Industrial Revolution days, and being brought up in the 80s with the kind of stuff Panic has highlighted – and equally of punk and reggae -I have a sense of the elements that make up a good, hard-hitting political song.

Here in New Zealand, there’s little of that, the Springbok ’81 tour that saw rioting in the streets and on rugby parks, or Vietnam saw little direct comment. But, according to music writer Graham Reid, on his Music From Elsewhere site (http://www.elsewhere.co.nz/) the country doesn’t have that tradition partly because folk music hasn’t had the same connection with politics that it had in the States where Springsteen and Dylan drew on Woody Guthrie. But that doesn’t mean Kiwi musicians are in any way compliant, according to Reid: “We do, however, have an interesting history of songs about dissent from social norms, the anger and frustrations of being different, or feeling disenfranchised from mainstream society — which most want to reject anyway.” And that of course is another aspect of music’s radicalism, and something that needs an article in itself.

Hope among the ruins

Given the musical environment we live in, it’s hard to think of a Public Enemy emerging from the inner-city ghettoes or a pro-Indigenous rights/ anti-nuclear act such as Midnight Oil sneaking into the mainstream. And yet, despite the observations of Paul Weller and PJ Harvey that the right to political protest is being under-utilised, there are examples of acts doing their bit, sparking debate and raising issues. Harvey’s Let England Shake was a dissection of war, both current and historical, while Weller wrote, in his typically observant way, of a changing London, and in a sense of the world, on Wake Up The Nation. He has also defended The Enemy from those sniping at their use of social commentary. The Enemy are one of the closest protagonists of the independent, radical tradition, noting how Britain has become a nation of checkout girls and wage slaves, where there’s no left or right anymore and New Labour’s become another Thatcherite vehicle.

Redskins

My recent blogs give me further insight, of Gang of Four continuing their Marxist tendencies, a Cambridge band called Bomb Factory whose recent EP had an image of ‘terrorist’ with a supermarket bag instead of a balaclava, of Family Fodder’s dabbling in Angolan politics, and Ian Brown’s ruminations on the Afghanistan war. In the past decade, I’ve heard Neil Young declaring the US should impeach the president (Bush that is), of Steve Earle demanding Revolution Now, Muse’s vision of a man-made apocalypse and M.I.A referencing the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Tamil independence movement. Meantime, I’ve been alerted to a friend in England to an act called The Agitator, who is part performance poet in the vein of Attila The Stockbroker and part Redskins playing funk music.

There’s encouraging signs that music can retain that radical sense, that ability to shout at, and demand answers, from our politicians and business leaders. Though it is also conceivable that in difficult times, the general population just want to dance and not be bothered by such trivialities as war and famine. Ain’t that always been the way? However, while music won’t change the world, it can contribute to the free-flow of alternative ideas and challenging the apathy that is rampant.

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Who? The 3D’s

Title: We Bury The Living!! Early Recordings 1989-90
Label:
Flying Nun
Tell me more:
New life for the first two EPs, Fish Tails and Swarthy Songs for Swabs and 11 demo tracks, many of which were recorded in a porta-studio. 
The Lowdown:
The 3D’s came along as the so-called Dunedin Sound was resounding in the indie clubs and late-night radio shows around the western world, but, like all the bands (The Clean, Straitjacket Fits, etc) they had a distinctive individuality while having a penchant for cranking up the guitars. We Bury The Living has a haphazard running order, with the tracks bundled together, with no attempt to segregate each EP nor timeframe the demos. So I’m fast forwarding to listen to the debut EP as a whole, and doing the same with the follow-up. The songs reveal a band who quickly formed a unique, lo-fi/ no-fi sound, full of caustic tunes that chime to the passive-aggressive disharmonic fusion that had Nirvana, Superchunk and Pavement all calling their numbers. The EPs could have been merged into one mini-album while some of the demos should have been released in their own right.

Anything else? They were so-called because the original three members were David Saunders, Denise Roughan and Dominic Stones. Then came David Mitchell but there was no expansion of the name. Mitchell also designed their individualistic sleeves.

Who? Arctic Monkeys

Title: Suck It And See
Label: Domino
Tell me more:
Surely, I don’t need to tell you about the Monkeys, the biggest thing to come from Sheffield since someone discovered the steel could make teaspoons, whose albums soar to number one in the UK and most other places, with tales of everyday life and the characters that inhabit their world? Wait, I just did.
The Lowdown:
The debut album was so good, and hit a wave with its matter-of-factness, wit and punchy lyrics that anything that followed was the equivalent of the American chasing after Usain Bolt. The Monkeys have moved on, as all the best bands do, even venturing into areas that may prove commercially insensitive, as Humbug, from 2009, was. On the first couple of listens Suck It And See sounds like their adventure in Indie-Rock, as if a sober Pete Doherty ghosted into the studio and left some ideas behind. Could it be … no, I dare not so their name ….damn I’ll have to now, but have they been listening to post-Madchester James?   Later listens suggest a broader palate, but you get the picture.

Regardless, Alex Turner’s words remain as potent as ever, if you’ll forgive the monotonous Brick By Brick. Turner’s come up with some gems like “Topless models doing semaphore” (Reckless Serenade), or “You’re rarer than a can of dandelion,” (title track).

Oh yes, and there’s those gloriously long-winded titles, like The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala and Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair.

 

Who? Seasick Steve

Title: You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks
Label:
Play It Again Sam
Tell me more: Much has been said about Steve’s life as a hobo and casual farmhand and manual labourer. But he has also been involved in the music industry in some form since the 1960s, generally as a session musician and sound engineer. It was only in 2004, aged 63, that he released his first solo album, and the third and fourth were released on corporate scum Warner Bros.
The Lowdown: I tried desperately hard to like You Can’t Teach …. but the blues-heavy feel and the minimalistic nature of it proved too challenging to someone who, admittedly, has never given the genre a proper crack. But I can certainly emphasise fully with Steve Wold’s worldy view, of emotional wealth over material wealth, and of accepting your personal limitations and rolling with them: “I might not be perfect but I‘m me to the bone/ I don’t need to change my style.”

And on Treasures, Wold comes across snooty people who look upon him as someone who wants to steal or beg for “one of your precious things that do not last.”

White beard will travel.

Anything else? Already a monster success, having reached No.26 in the Belgian charts.

Who? Thomas Tantrum

Title: Mad By Moonlight
Label: Stranger records
Tell me more:
Second album following 2008’s eponymous debut, from a fourpiece from Southampton, a rough port city on England’s south coast. TT revolve around Megan Thomas, the writer, voice and one of two guitarists. 
The Lowdown: It’s been a long time since plaintive, evocative indie pop came through the speakers of Porky’s stereo, maybe as far back as the late 80s, a time of The Sundays and The Sugarcubes. Their name, the album title, referencing mental health issues, suggest some form of angst, and some lyrics revolve around the subject of sleep, of insomnia, and occurrences during the night when we should be having sweet dreams. In a slight twist to that generic theme, Thomas emphasises with a friend too depressed to get out of bed, on Cold Gold.

Mad By Moonlight is an intriguing album, which requires a certain amount of patience. It is professional, evocative, the perfect sound for teenagers who’ve just discovered Thomas Hardy, but therein also lies it’s boundaries: there’s 12 tracks and after six I feel satisfied enough to press the pause button and start writing. There are good tracks beyond that point, but, by then the review has been typed, and subbed with nothing else to add.

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Who? Kate Bush

Title: The Director’s Cut
Label:
EMI
Tell me more:
Bush revisits The Red Shoes and Sensual World albums, from 1993 and 1989 respectively. These were from a productive period by the mysterious one, before she shuffled off into semi-retirement.
The Lowdown: In the Porky household, one uniting musical entity is Kate Bush, Mrs Porky strangely not liking the obscure-as-fuck British and Kiwi indie Mr Porky plays. Loudly. Receiving this we hunted around the sty and found on good old cassette a copy of The Red Shoes. Compare and contrast after all.

It seems spurious to revisit the past – why not produce a new one is my and many others’ cry – but Bush clearly feels the need to, as she says in the sleeve notes, “use the correct key to open a door”. In some respects that is understandable, for example for Flower of the Mountain, she was permitted to use text from James Joyce’s Ulysses, and has adopted them, something she was barred from doing for the original, called The Sensual World. It’s still a beautiful, ethereal track but, like much of The Director’s Cut it’s slowed down, with Bush no longer sounding like a sprightly early-30s woman. To be honest, it irritates it me, I feel like it needs to move up a gear, that it seems stuck in a leisurely groove. Moments of Pleasure retains the mellow pace of the original, but it feels like it has shunted into a truck driven by an elderly lady on a country road.
Rubberband Girl, a hit from 1993 is still the rousing, chorus-heavy passionate track I loved then, and I love now, with a resemble to a demo version of the Rolling Stones’ Honky Tonk Women.
The changes are sometimes technical (using the programme Auto-Tune, for example), tinkering with the lyrics and other changes, more of which are to the casual ear, minor than they are major. And while this writer finds it a largely pointless exercise Mrs Porky loves the new tone, the loss of what might affectionately be termed the eighties-ism and a stripped-back approach.

Anything else? Among the many contributors are Trio Bulgarka, a vocal ensemble who have been singing traditional Balkan music since 1975 and came to Western Europe’s attention during the World Music phase of the mid to late 1980s.

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Who? Rayographs

Title: Rayographs
Label:
Desire records
Tell me more:
This all-girl trio have recorded just two singles, both released on 7”, Hidden Doors at the end of 2008, and Francis the following July. Two years on, we have to presume they’ve been away touring like bitches and developing their sound.
The Lowdown:
Rayographs strike me as a mix of PJ Harvey, Lush and post-punk acts like the Au Pairs, with a feminine-masculine-feminine feel but with literary and film influences to boot. It’s eerie yet understandable, off-putting but intriguing, powerful while melodic. The contrast in emotions runs riot on their debut, a track like Providence Rhode Island being an uneasy listen, but My Critical Mind, is a beautiful half-spoken, near monotone ramble that is surprisingly beguiling. It’s sister track is Falconberg Court, where Jess Tierney eschews signing and speaks into the mic, as Astrid Steehouder and Amy Hurst play a uniformly ethereal backdrop that both hides and highlights Tierney’s approach. And so it goes, there are surprises at most turns, some of which requires a number of listens, some of which require the need for the ffwd button, but it’s never predictable.

Anything else? Their name comes from the surrealist photography first established by underground legend Man Ray to create stark and beautiful images.

Who? Middleman

Title: Spinning Plates
Label:
Blip records
Tell me more: Slightly eccentric British indie Pt 876. Originally from England’s Midlands, Middleman self-produced this in their new home of Leeds, the album reflecting a time when “they found themselves completely overwhelmed trying to juggle day jobs, bad management and trying to keep control of their own music.” In terms of rock’n’roll adversity it’s no Altamont or your drummer being found in the bath stone cold of an overdose, but we can still emphasise lads.
The Lowdown: Middleman spit out lyrics as if they’re competing in a rap contest while pounding guitars bang your head, the bass rifles its way into your nether regions and you’re left feeling as you’ve just heard The Streets having graduated from the School of Indie. The title track is also the lead single, reminiscent of early Arctic Monkeys, in its observance of the work-laden consumerist society: “My 9 to 5 is 8 to 6, and by the time I’ve made the trip to work and back, sat in traffic, I’m exhausted.” Nothing quite matches this, with overblown fluff like Chipping Away coming across as a poor man’s Smiley Culture – mid-80s cheepy chappie cockney reggae goes dancehall for the uninitiated. Meanwhile, I feel transported back to a disco circa 1998 as all sorts of electronic keyboards make me feel slightly queasy.

Anything else? All good for television, as some tracks have found their way on programmes like The Gadget Show. The cover you see is from the promo edition: Porky is keen on having the alternative artwork to the one you’ll seen everywhere else.

Who? F In Math

Title: Couch EP
Label: Flying Nun
Tell me more:
A connection with seminal Kiwi three-piece The Mint Chicks? Now, Porky’s interested. Indeed, F In Math is the solo vehicle for Michael Logie who was once the bassist for the Chicks, who’ve now been taken down the slaughterhouse. Math, however, is largely an electronic band.
The Lowdown: The Couch EP is another tantalising collection of bouncy keyboard-heavy tunes featuring delicate, laboured vocals/ vocoder splintered by early synth rhythms. The first three tracks go to form, laidback beats that tend to work, with Fish of Pre-History being the standout. Then Logie ramps it up a notch or three on Don’t Look Down with keyboards ditched in favour of chugging basslines. Meanwhile, Paint the TV is about someone “all alone” who just watches television all the time, which conversely comes across as sad and inspiring in equal measures.

Anything else? F In Math’s own particular version of Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds is a live extravaganza if you can imagine how it’s played.

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