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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘indie’

Changing tunes

Thoughts from the history of music

I mentioned the other day about having a backlog of ideas to write about without forgetting what they are. Some of them have been bubbling around for a few years now, when I’ve read a book or watched something on the telly. For example, a few years ago I was given a copy of the book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story Of Modern Pop by Bob Stanley. For the past thirty years or so, Stanley has been one third of the band Saint Etienne, who I’ve loved almost as long, and who right from their start in the late 80s have made pop music that cuts across categories, combining fantastically catchy pop hooks with lyrics that are pitched at just the right level between meaningful and slightly inane; but at the same time squeezing in London hip hop, club beats and art school sound collages. Their first album combines pop bangers like “Nothing Can Stop Us” with voice clips of Richard Whiteley and Willie Rushton; the second has excerpts from the 1960s British films Peeping Tom and Billy Liar, and a man ordering chicken soup.* Their songs “Like A Motorway” and “Hate Your Drug” are arguably the best attempt anyone has ever made to revive the 1960s “death disc” genre,** but at the same time they care as deeply about London psychogeography as Geoffrey Fletcher, Iain Sinclair or Patrick Keiller. In short, they cover such a broad area in their music, that it is not surprising Stanley wrote a broad, broad book.

Yeah Yeah Yeah is a history of British and American pop music from roughly 1945 to 2005 or so; the start and finish dates are a little vague, but it was intended to be the history of British and American pop music over the years that the 7” vinyl single was the dominant distribution format. Naturally, though, it is a history of pop music that doesn’t at all mention Saint Etienne; they are gracefully elided from the chapters they would naturally fit into. I wasn’t really surprised; it would seem a bit gauche to pretend to write about yourself in the same detached and journalistic style as the rest of the book. It left me thinking, though, how would Bob Stanley have written about his own band if he hadn’t been in his own band himself? It’s another of those impossible counterfactuals, one even more unlikely that most, but nevertheless I find it an interesting thought.

I personally became interested in pop music at the end of the 80s and the start of the 90s, something of a strange period that’s often considered a somewhat empty one, a period in which music was doing little more than treading water waiting for the 90s to start. Music from before that period is something I largely know about purely by the regular processes of cultural assimilation (aside from that covered in the folk-focused Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music by Rob Young). The Parents had a very curious, eclectic and limited record collection, which I naturally went through as a teenager, but it gave me a very one-sided view of things. The Mother seems to have been a sucker for the slightly-novelty single when she was younger: her 7”s included “Deck of Cards” by Wink Martindale, the original Doctor Who theme, and “Dominique” by The Singing Nun. She’s also rather liked rock or pop versions of older orchestral music; in the 60s she was buying “Grieg One” by The Second City Sound***, and at the start of the 80s she often listened to the band Sky, with their electronic versions of classical standards.**** Naturally, my knowledge of popular music from before “my own time” ended up being very strange, patchy, but with a deep knowledge of some curious corners. Yeah Yeah Yeah therefore was a fascinating synthesis, a map and a guide to a vast and complex landscape where previously I’d only seen the summits of the mountains peeking through the clouds.

The last portion of the book, though, I found less satisfying. Not just because Saint Etienne weren’t in it, but because in general my own musical tastes have tended towards the slightly niche and obscure, and those particular niches just don’t get swept. In particular I used to be a big fan of Belle and Sebastian. More recently I have gone back and explored some of their own influences, such as Felt, or some of the bands which recorded on the Sarah Records label. These are niches that tend to be seen as not just obscure but wilfully obscurantist, even though that is a very long way from the truth.***** I wasn’t surprised that my own particular hobby-horses were not deeply investigated, but it felt a shame that the 90s in general seemed to be quickly skimmed over. Possibly this was because Stanley felt unable to handle the days of the CD single; I wondered more, though, if it was a general reluctance to deal with the area he felt personally involved in.

The rise of streaming services is often given as something which has fundamentally changed the popular music landscape; and it is indisputable that the music scene today has changed completely from what it was 20 years ago. Personally, though, I feel the change wasn’t driven so much by streaming, but by communication; by MySpace letting every single band in the known universe put up their shopfront and become known across the world. It immediately broadened the scope of every music fan: the trickle of information about new bands that came from the weekly music press suddenly became an unstoppable flood. I, for one, felt that in 1995 I could at least be aware of all the bands in the genres I cared about, but by 2005 that was becoming completely impossible. I can also see how, if you were to write a book about pop music, continuing it past 2005 would seem impossible too.

When I reached the end of the book and read the acknowledgements, I wasn’t surprised. Yeah Yeah Yeah was put together with the help and influence of a number of key members of the ILX forums. Personally, I haven’t used ILX for more years than I really want to think about; but when I saw many named I recognised from ILX in the back of the book, I suddenly realised why some of the book’s arguments and standpoints felt so familiar to me. Of course, given I was a fan of Stanley’s music all along, given I have always been a fan of syncretic, holistic thought and of “reconciling the seemingly disparate”, I would have agreed with much of it in any case. As books go, this one will be staying on the bookshelf.

* One piece of trivia I only discovered when fact-checking this post: the woman on the sleeve of their first album, Foxbase Alpha, is apparently also the woman who says “Can I take your order?” on “Chicken Soup”.

** Yes, it’s a real genre. You probably know the most famous “death disc” track, “Leader Of The Pack” by The Shangri-Las. Incidentally Saint Etienne’s discography is awfully complex and only partially available on streaming services; “Hate Your Drug” was a B-side to the single “Hug My Soul” and an album track on some versions, but not all, of Tiger Bay—it wasn’t on the original UK release. For reasons I have never understood, the rear sleeve of “Hug My Soul” features a black and white photo of a kitchen with random items labelled in Icelandic.

*** If you’ve never heard of The Second City Sound, it’s OK: I suspect The Mother only knew of them because she lived in said second city and they were a local band.

**** Later on still, when she no longer came across new music herself, I managed to get her into William Orbit and The Penguin Cafe Orchestra: I figured they were exactly the sort of thing that would follow on from her previous musical habits.

***** Incidentally over the years I’ve seen many people say they thought Belle and Sebastian would have been a perfect Sarah Records band, if Sarah had still been around when the band formed. I don’t think is true at all; moreover, I feel anyone who says that can only have a wild misunderstanding of Sarah’s aims and purpose. That, though, is a topic too large to fit into this footnote.

Sound and music

In which we go to see The Boy Least Likely To

As soon as we get home, we’re out again. To a gig, at the Louisiana, to see The Boy Least Likely To, hard at work promoting their new album that’s just been released. We were slightly confused when we arrived, to see that according to the posters the gig was on Monday, March 24th, and we’d turned up on a Tuesday. After checking our calendars, we went in. Inside, there’s not much room in the Louisiana. It’s quite a cosy place, so cosy that we quickly spotted that a good chunk of the pub was taken up by support band The School tucking into their tea.

The first band that came on were The Fox And The Bramble, an electric/acoustic duo who dashed about the stage swapping instruments, and made slightly-twee twinkly sounds with children’s toys. I spent a while wondering which one was Fox and which Bramble; the internet says the name comes from Aesop, though.

They were followed by The School, as I mentioned. We’ve seen The School before, so we knew what to expect; but we were slightly disappointed. They didn’t seem as good as they did in November. The sound didn’t seem to be mixed quite right, with keyboard and vocals overpowering the rest of the band.

The Boy Least Likely To had sound troubles of their own. “Violin isn’t plugged in,” one of them shouted, after the first song. “Too much violin,” he shouted after the second. They are apparently only a duo normally, but on-stage they mysteriously expand to a full band, like one of those toys for dropping in water. I have to admit to not knowing very much about them; but the gig left me wanting to find out more. Their frontman smiled broadly, and flicked balloons back and forth with the audience in a genial way, never missing a beat.

New Year's Eve

In which we celebrate

Wednesday night was New Year’s Eve; and, for once, we went out. Counting on my fingers, I worked out, it must be about seven or eight years since I last went out to an event on New Year’s Eve, rather than just pop round to a graveyard or a friend’s house. Last year, I remember very clearly where I was at midnight: in bed, ill, groaning and wishing the bloody fireworks and cheering would shut up.

This year, though, as I said, we decided we’d go out. Find somewhere which sounded like Our Sort Of Thing, something new to try, and enjoy ourselves. And, indeed we did.

We ended up at the Cube Microplex, the independent cinema off Stokes Croft, for a night called Fascinating Virtue; and fascinating it was, with a stream of small folk-ish, indie-ish bands taking to the stage. One performer, Rachael Dadd,* had flown in from Japan that day, and flung a boxful of Japanese confectionary into the audience for us all to try. One landed right in my lap. We kept the wrapper:

Japanese wrapper

Other performers included alt-folk storyteller Jetfly, quiet harmonium-equipped duo love.stop.repeat, storyteller Hannah Godfrey telling a tall and beautiful tale in-between, and complex local five-piece Boxcar Aldous Huxley. The latter sounded like a cross between the Everything Is Illuminated soundtrack and the Decemberists,** had not only a harmonium but also a saw, clarinet*** and euphonium, and sang lively songs about such things as the Hellfire Club and how debauchery isn’t as good as you might hope; or the difficulties of being an astronaut in the 19th century. The stage acts finished with Men Diamler, self-proclaimed drunkest act of the evening, who went on to DJ by the bar for a couple more hours. We danced, energetically; skilfully in K’s case, not so much in mine.

K pointed out that often, when you go out on New Year’s Eve, it can be a bit of a compromise: you go out to something that you wouldn’t normally go to, just because you feel you should be going out somewhere. Fascinating Virtue was an event we’d be excited to go to any day of the year.

* I was tempted to ask her if she was related to the famous mentally-ill Victorian artist Richard Dadd, but I didn’t get chance. Which is probably a good thing, because I’d forgotten his first name.

** It was me who thought they sounded like the Decemberists, and K who thought they sounded like the soundtrack. K rather likes klezmer.

*** Any band with a clarinet in has to be a good thing. Except possibly for Supertramp.

Clever Girls Like Clever Boys Like Clever Music

In which we see Pelle Carlberg

We were hoping, when we moved here, that there would always be lots of exciting little gigs to go to, given that this city is always supposed to have an exciting music scene. Last night, we went to the second one we’ve been to since we moved to, to see one of our favourite Swedish indiepop acts, Pelle Carlberg. Swedish indiepop? Yes, indeed. A classic genre, I’ll have you know.

Not many other people seemed to think so, though. We were the first people there – indeed, when the first act, Made From Clouds, started, we were the only people there. “Have you heard of Flight Of The Conchords” he bantered, at the end of the first song. “This feels like the episode where Bret left the band and Jemaine was left on his own.” There’s nothing wrong with resembling Flight Of The Conchords to my mind, though.

Other people did start to filter in, although as usual at small gigs a lot of them were friends of the local bands, coming in for one band and disappearing afterwards. Pelle Carlberg arrived, too, and sat down next to us, to listen to his support. Slowly, people who had come to listen to him specifically started to appear.

The main support, who’ve been following Pelle round the country, were pretty good. Called “The School”, they’re an indiepop band of the Cardiff school, with cheerful melodies and tinkly glockenspiels. We bopped along in our seats, with smiles on our faces.

Pelle Carlberg himself tends to get compared to Belle and Sebastian. On the posters for this tour, certainly. Having a song in his set called “1983 (Pelle and Sebastian)” possibly doesn’t help that; and his gawky dancing style does remind me slightly of Stuart Murdoch. Generally, though, his songs are slightly more biting, less vague, about reality rather than hypothetical dreaming teenagers. After listening to him, you know exactly which airlines he refuses to use* or which journalists he doesn’t like any more. He’s very good at it, though, and moreover, very catchy. We might have been bopping in our chairs to The School; for Carlberg, we were bouncing about and singing along. As there were only about 15 other people in the audience, we think he probably noticed.** Rather than have a merchandising stall, Pelle had a carrier bag, and invited everyone to come up to him to buy stuff from him after the gig. We went up and bought a Pelle Carlberg cloth shopping bag, embarrassed and happy and giggling. On the side it says “Clever Girls Like Clever Boys More Than Clever Boys Like Clever Girls”, one of his best (and best-known songs).*** And then we walked home, bouncing and cheerful and whistling his choruses to ourselves.

* Ryanair, in case you were wondering.

** not counting the members of The School who had stayed to listen.

*** It’s on Youtube; I recommend it.

Review Time

In which music and trains make us happy

Every month I promise myself to start Blogging Properly again, and every time I’m tired.

I still haven’t mentioned much about last Saturday: a mysterious midwinter pop festival, somewhere on a train between Ambergate and Pye Bridge.* We arrived early, and lurked around the railway station warming our hands by the fire.

First band. The Deirdres are some of the most enthusiastic people I’ve seen on the stage for a long time; they haven’t become cynical enough to hide their enthusiasm yet. They bounce about between different instruments, fight over the percussion, banter with each other and put themselves down, but their joyfulness comes through in the music. They’ll accidentally start Demo Mode on their Casio and apologise for it sounding better than they do; and Russell Deirdre has a picture of a steam train on his glockenspiel case, which has to be a good thing.

Second band. The Poppycocks have applied a lot more polish to their work, and have turned the amps up a bit whilst the audience weren’t looking. They’re bright and cheerful, with a hint of 1960s bubblegum and brocaded jackets; and waste no time getting The Deirdres to work on a few organised dance moves. “This song’s called The History Teacher, it’s about, er, a history teacher … so maybe for this one your actions can be books, turning pages, things like that.” Miles Poppycock had a badge on his lapel that he’d snaffled from somewhere around the railway station. Finding myself stood by him later on, I sneaked a quick look: it said “I’ve been on the Santa Special!”**

Headliners: The Icicles had come a long long way, indeed, so much so that everyone in the audience was invited to sign a Christmas card for them. As we were lurking around the gig early (see above), we got to sign it first! So if any Icicles are reading this, we’re the couple who had plenty of space to write long messages like “Thanks for coming so far”.*** Their tour manager, on the merch stall, is a very friendly chap too. We walked off the train into the empty marquee, to find them in place and almost bursting to play. “Do we just start? Is anyone else coming?” “Nah, everyone else is staying on the train,” I said, and after a few seconds’ confusion they kicked into their first track.

As for the music: it’s the sort of thing that I’d never say no to, sweet vocal harmonies over jangling guitars, and good enough for me to buy the albums straight after the gig. The song about Gretchen Icicle’s cat***** was a bit too sweet and romanticised, at least if her cat is anything like mine, but you might call it a kind of romantic lullaby. I wanted to mention the music first, because every other review of the Icicles probably mentions their matching and home-made stage outfits first – in fact, I enjoyed myself during the first two bands by spotting members of the Icicles, by spotting the hems of their stage outfits peeking out under their winter jackets. That’s not important, though – it’s important as part of the experience,****** but not compared to the music. The whole experience – dark winter cold, the 1950s steam train, the fire-lit footplate – gives the festival an amazing atmosphere; but the music is what we were there for.

Other people who were probably there: The Autumn Store, and this chap on Flickr.*** I was planning to take the camera myself – but discovered too late that all my batteries were dead. Arse.

* It was K’s idea to go. Thank you!

** This is a British railway museum, and it’s December. Of course there’s going to be a Santa Special.

*** Or words to that effect

**** I checked very thoroughly to see if he’d caught either of us in the background anywhere. He hasn’t.

***** I was a bit misled, as I saw a song called “Gedge” on the setlist and thought: “ooh, a song about The Wedding Present.” But, no, Gretchen Icicle’s cat is named after David Gedge instead.

****** The Deirdres, too, had themed stage outfits, customised appliqué t-shirts with their names on; and they make them to sell to the fans, too. The Icicles sell badges made from their fabric offcuts.

I Love You, You Imbecile

In which we like Swedish music

Why is it that Sweden has so many good bands? Why is it, in particular, that it has so many good indiepop bands? I don’t understand it. It’s a shame more of them aren’t better-known in England; I wish I knew more about them, to tell you about them. I’m sure Dimitra could compile a list of 103 excellent Swedish indiepop bands who started in their teens and have only ever released on vinyl,* but I can’t, and I wish I could.

I’m almost tempted to start posting “Obscure Swedish band of the week” on here, though. Recently I’ve been listening a lot to the latest Pelle Carlberg album, In A Nutshell,** which is very very good, and very very catchy; cheerful tunes and sharp lyrics. When someone comes up with song titles like “I Love You, You Imbecile”, how can you not love their writing in return? Not to mention “Clever Girls Like Clever Boys Much More Than Clever Boys Like Clever Girls”. And, as for the catchiness, I’ve been loudly singing “Middleclass Kid” to myself all morning. Go out there and listen to him, because he makes intelligent, witty, and extremely listenable records.

* I’m exaggerating. Sorry, Dimitra. But not by much. I did have one band in mind that she’s told me about in the past, a teenage brother and sister I think, but I’ve completely forgotten everything she told me other than that they were very very good.

** Which K told me about. Here’s your footnote!

Going Up In The World

In which we note someone's spreading fame

The band Camera Obscura are clearly going up in the world. I noted, a few months ago, that one of their songs had popped up on a Tesco advert. Never mind about that, though: today, they were on the front page of The Guardian, up above the masthead. Admittedly, only because a Guardian reader had written in with: why weren’t Camera Obscura listed in your recent “1000 albums to hear before you die”* list? It’s better than not being there at all, though.

True Camera Obscura fans, of course, will be spending next weeked at the Midland Railway Centre, in Derbyshire. Their bass player, Mr Gav “King of Partick” Dunbar, is doing a DJ set there, in a heated marquee at Butterley railway station. Now, to my mind, that’s how you judge you’re doing well. Never mind the Guardian front page; once you’ve got your marquee heated, you know you’re on the up and up.

* not to be confused with the entirely unrelated book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, of course.

Commerciality

In which we recognise some music

I was pleased and slightly surprised the first time I heard the band Camera Obscura on the radio. I was even more surprised the first time I turned on the radio at random and heard a Camera Obscura song playing.*

We were sat, lazing about watching telly, the other night, and the adverts came on. There was an advert for Tesco clothes. With, I was rather amazed to realise, a Camera Obscura song as its backing. “Bloody hell,” I said, fainting slightly. However famous they keep on getting, I’m not sure I’m ever going to get used to it.

* it was on Radio Two, at about 4am on a Sunday morning; I was driving a friend home from a club and had just dropped her off at her house.

The Last Days Of Winter

Or, an encapsulation

Still recovering from my awful, hacking-cough cold. For The Mother, who thinks I have had bronchitis continuously since August, this is more evidence that I am leading a terribly dissolute lifestyle and need to stop having sex, stay indoors watching TV, and go to bed at 9pm every night just like she does.

In lieu of a proper entry, it’s time for One-Line Album Reviews. Hurrah! In which, I try to come up with pithy lines about some of the albums he’s bought recently.*

The Victorian English Gentlemen’s Club, The Victorian English Gentlemen’s Club: you can’t hum it, the same as you can’t pronounce the name after a few gin and tonics very easily; but it’s some good, chunky angular music to listen to in the car.

The Aliens, Astronomy For Dogs: Like The Beta Band doing rock, which isn’t too surprising really. Rather good.

Gossip, Standing In The Way Of Control: A bit much hype involved, which (also) isn’t surprising really. It’s not a bad album, but they’re not as good as, say, The Kills.

Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, The Chronicles Of A Bohemian Teenager: Note to self: unlike TVEGC (see above), do not put this on in the car. You will fall asleep, probably at a busy motorway intersection, and kill hundreds of innocent pensioners on a coach en route to Southend.

And that’s most definitely enough of that.

* thus ruling out all the dronerock the Dronerock Fairy has been sending this way. Although the forthcoming Blonde Redhead album is rather good. Erm, so I hear.

Come And Play In The Milky Night

In which we listen to Stereolab

That’s the title of a song I’ve been listening to a lot lately, by Stereolab. It’s a beautiful lullaby of a song, sung in a way that makes it almost an instrumental, structured almost as a round, with a single verse which starts in the middle of a musical phrase. I’ve liked it for a long time, but just recently I’ve been listening to it quite often. It sounds like whirling stars.

I have a cunning Christmas present plan – but I’m not telling you what it is.

Anyway: what do you want for Christmas?