Monthly Archives: September 2009

The Mountain Goats – The Life of the World to Come Album Review

Few albums will send you rifling through a 2,400 page tome. But such is the gravity, beauty and heartbreaking sentiment within The Life Of The World To Come – a trip to the Bible seems obligatory. Each song is named after a biblical passage, the relevance more obvious in some than others. Occasionally, John Darnielle adopts a persona (a prisoner on 1 John 4:16), but it mostly seems unflinchingly autobiographical with consistently breathtaking results. Matthew 25:21 is a harrowing account of rushing to someone’s bedside to watch them die: “the last of something bright burning, still burning; beyond the cancer and the chemotherapy.” Darnielle’s voice comes as close as it ever will to wobbling on a track that will well up the eyes of the most secular listener. Whether you agree with the author’s piousness – affected or genuine – shouldn’t stop you from hearing this. Christian rock this is not, but it’s one of the best records of 2009.


Video: The Mountain Goats – Genesis 3:23

Written for The Skinny

He’ll Be Lightning – An Interview With Liam Finn

The second thing you notice about Liam Finn is his shy, unassuming manner. The first? Well, it’s his beard of course. At just a little over 5 feet 5, and sporting a gnarly, grizzly number that makes him look like he can sprout forth folliclely at will, Finn shares passing resemblance to Gennaro Gattuso, the former Rangers midfielder known for his snarling tenacity. Except, in Finn’s conversation, that’s a quality that’s absolutely lacking.
It’s all quite surprising, because since birth, Finn Junior has been as good as royalty in New Zealand. Son of Neil, nephew of Tim, sometime affiliate of Crowded House and a rolling member of the Seven Worlds Collide collective, one might have half expected to be confronted by an indignant victim of rockstar excess. But no, politeness is his thang: “Are you sure I can’t get you a bottle of water? I’m afraid we don’t have much of a rider, but…” 

With the release of his debut album I’ll Be Lightning last year, Liam Finn proved that the family gene pool has yet to be spoilt. It’s as enjoyable as anything his elders have churned out and given that he played every instrument himself, an arguably more accomplished record all round. But did he feel a pressure to step out of his family’s shadow?

“Not really. I know it probably seems that way, and it might seem like the right thing to say, but they’ve been very supportive. Plus I’m very proud of what they’ve all done. I don’t think I should be trying to shun that side of things, but I’m very independent. I’ve been doing my own thing for a long time now, and it’s just good to see the fruits of all the hard work. I was determined to do things my way and I think I could’ve chosen to do things much more easily than I have.”
As if to hammer home his last point, Finn explains how he made his way to Auld Reekie for this particular evening’s gig. “We’ve just come up from Whitley Bay today. We had a few beers, but I wouldn’t recommend it, but it was cheaper for us to get some hotel rooms there and travel to Edinburgh this morning. Gotta keep an eye on these things!”
Given his lineage, one would surely think that his future had been set out in the stars even before Finn first lifted a guitar. But he had other plans. “I really wanted to be a professional basketball player,” he says. His poker-face suggests laughter wouldn’t be a viable option, but he goes on to explain. “I know what you’re thinking… short-arse Kiwi, and I don’t look the part, but I was pretty serious about it for a while. I just love playing basketball and when I had it in my head that I wanted to do it, I was convinced.”
Alas, the NBA never beckoned and with such an obvious musical talent at his disposal, we should be appreciative of his diminutive physical stature. His self-effacing demeanour disappears when he hits the stage. With the exception of long-term musical partner EJ, his is an exhausting solo show: wired, charging from instrument to instrument, bellowing out his back catalogue spliced with vitriolic crashes of hi-hats. I wonder what has happened to the nice young New Zealander I encountered earlier. A humble bow après show, though, and a shy look returns to his face.


“I just love playing live. It’s what it’s all about, being a musician. The recording part can be okay, even fun sometimes. But if you’re a serious musician, if that’s what you class yourself as, then that’s where you should be able to come into your own. It’s liberating. You’re on the stage, in front of all these people who have come to see you sing your songs. What more could you ask for?”
An interview for The Skinny

Nancy Elizabeth – Wrought Iron Album Review

Sometimes an album is beatified by a dominant sense of isolation. It happened with Bon Iver’s debut LP, and Nancy Elizabeth has hit on comparably secluded gold dust on her second effort. But whilst For Emma… was cast with anguish, Elizabeth seems blissfully removed from reality and its tribulations on Wrought Iron. Written between the peripheries of the Faroe Islands, a derelict Spanish school and the Lake District, this is a sparse album, dusted with piano, breathy vocals and harmonies, and touches of acoustic guitar, horns and accordion. Opening track, Cairns, recalls the sumptuous instrumental intro on Tindersticks’ The Hungry Saw and sets the tone for eleven tracks of crystalline splendour. The album peaks with Lay Low, but there are highlights throughout. “I need no-one to tread the water with me”, sings Elizabeth on Feet of Courage, and judging by the brilliant fruits of her labour, we have no reason to doubt her.


Written for The Skinny.

Various Artists – Crayon Angel: A Tribute to the Music of Judee Sill

Inconsistency plagues a tribute album that really should have been something special.

There are few rock and roll stories as tragic and downright fucked up as that of Judee Sill. She fled home as a teen, having lost her brother and father in separate accidents and wound up on the streets, carrying out armed robberies to feed a heroin habit. She learned to play the church organ in a correction clinic, hit the big-time on Sunset Boulevard but following latter-day relative commercial failure, relapsed and died from “acute cocaine and codeine intoxication” in 1979.

Her work was hugely personal, with heavy religious overtones and although celebrated and influential, has been arguably overshadowed by peers like Joni Mitchell and Carole King. So whilst it’s pleasing to see illustrious names like Daniel Rossen (Grizzly Bear), Beth Orton, Bill Callahan (Smog) and Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy) turn up on this tribute, the hodgepodge selection lacks balance and coherence. With a little extra due dilligence, the compilation, tracklisting and artist selection could have been much more sharper.

Sill’s breakthrough song, Jesus Was A Cross Maker, sounds gloriously rejuvenated by the silver tongued Frida Hyvonen, whilst fellow Scandinavian Nicolai Dunger’s take on Soldier Of The Heart sounds overwrought and self-indulgent. Of the star turns, Orton’s rendition of the previously unreleased Reach for the Sky may well have met with Sill’s approval, as would Smog’s typically pensive For a Rainbow. Final Fantasy takes a reasonably successful idiosyncratic stab at The Donor but conversely, The Colossal Yes’ version of The Phoenix is barely listenable.

When songs are so intimately penned, they should be handled with reverence, and whilst this album will hopefully gain Sill worthy recognition, the choice of artist is clumsy. As tributes go, Crayon Angel could have been much more fitting than this.


Video: Judee Sill – Jesus Was a Cross Maker

Don’t Move! – The New Pop Sound Of…

The seismic effect bands like The Kinks have had on contemporary music can’t be overstated, to the point where one wonders just when it starts to become a negative. That idiosyncratic, quintessentially English sound is a noose round the neck of dozens of up-and-coming bands; for every Libertines, there are twenty Don’t Moves. The New Found Pop Sound Of… is not a wholly dreadful album: it just doesn’t warrant such a weighty adjective. However, it’s mundane, it’s formulaic, it’s trite and, at 13 tracks, it’s ten songs too long. While the band try to mix things up from time to time (the sitar-like sounds on She Only Went To Hang The Washing Out, the organ on Don’t Tell, the occasional burst of accordion) this is as bog-standard a pub rock record you’ll ever encounter. Even in the purposely grey days of The Smiths, the soundscapes of Albion rarely sounded so depressing.

Okkervil River – our life is not a movie

Okkervil River

Okkervil River are undeniably one of the finest rock bands of the past ten years. The Stage Names and Black Sheep Boy are two of my personal favourite albums of all time. So imagine my delight when I got to speak to lead singer Will Sheff down a crackly phone line just in the mouth of Christmas 2007? This short but sweet interview was published in The Skinny in January 2008

Whilst it’s undeniable that revelations write headlines, it’s also incontestable that sometimes such revelations can be uncomfortable. It will come as no surprise to any fans of Okkervil River that their lead singer and chief songwriter Will Sheff is an articulate, informed and topical conversationalist. Nothing groundbreaking there, but the extent to which his conversation mirrors his art is comforting and perhaps explains why, even in interview, it’s more like speaking to an old friend than a distant stranger.

2007’s brilliant semi-autobiographical release The Stage Names deals with literature, film, theatre and performance, all subjects the affable Sheff is ostensibly well versed in and glad to discuss at length. “I always wanted to make movies, way before I started singing or playing an instrument,” he explains. “I love a film that creates its own world, like David Lynch’s work. But there are also some very silly movies that do the same. Take Slap Shot (a 1977 movie based around the tribulations of a mediocre hockey team). It was a real inspiration when I was writing The Stage Names – how often do you see sports movies that aren’t either fantastical like Field Of Dreams, or based around some sort of massive success? The same goes for any fictional work about rock bands. I think the record shows more realistic scenarios… it’s about just plugging away and trying to confront why we are doing this. It highlights the massive frustrations that inevitably come before success.”

Success is not something that has eluded Okkervil River of late. Sheff admits his life and career have changed immeasurably over the past year. “Some of the things I was terrified about before are gone now, I don’t have to worry about them,” he offers, although he’s adamant that the stress and work it took to put the band in its current position almost outweighs the benefit. Relentless touring (February’s gig in Cab Vol will be their second Scottish date in a little over three months) seems to correlate in tandem with the increasing amount of music piracy which means bands have to fight for their money these days. “Even if you’re Coldplay you’ve got to work hard these days. There’s so much that goes into our records: love, care and affection, that we can only be exhausted, but very proud.”

With such a hectic schedule, Sheff has little time to himself. “I just get to steal a week or two here and there, not very often though.” It’s again unsurprising to learn that he likes to spend these stolen weeks reading and relaxing. The band name itself is taken from a Tolstoy novel and their latest album features a track written about tragic American poet John Berryman – quick and easy proof of the way in which Sheff’s cultured nature manifests itself. He personally, however, is uncertain as to how inextricable the link between his two loves of literature and music is. “It would be remiss of me to say you couldn’t just like a rock song without being up on the literary knowledge that’s behind it. While I like to read, I don’t like to put on airs. I’m just a rock singer!”

Maybe so, but at this point in time, at the top of his game, rock singers don’t come much more refined than Will Sheff, and bands don’t get much better than Okkervil River.

Video: Okkervil River – For Real

To Beard or Not to Beard… The Kings of Leon

Remember when the Kings of Leon were good? Well, with the help of The Skinny, I got to speak to Caleb just before the rot set in with the dawn of the U2 years . I’m unsure how I managed to get so much information from him, considering most of the conversation was centered around our mutual love for beards and barbeques. Alas, this comes from The Skinny’s November 2007 edition.

The Kings of Leon’s schedule is incessant and gruelling. “It’s the never ending tour,” frontman Caleb Followill tells me. He sounds knackered yet acceptant; even humbled by the opportunity. “This is the greatest life,” he proclaims in his lazy Southern drawl,“ and we are so blessed to be able to do what we love everyday.” It may well be “the greatest life”, but touring seems to be the only life the quartet know, in between their odd pitstops at home in Nashville.

The three siblings in the band spent their early years on the road with their father Leon (hence Kings Of…), a United Pentecostal Church Preacher, a restless and nomadic existence. When asked how he remembers his childhood, Caleb is open and honest. “It was normal to us. We didn’t know anything different. Of course you want certain things, we all wanted to have nice things when we were kids and we didn’t get the opportunity. We couldn’t afford things the other kids had. And you know we wanted to go to school, we wanted to have some friends. We didn’t always wanna be together.”

Their rags to riches story may not yet have reached its fairytale ending, but their experiences to date certainly seem to have given the Followills some measure of control over their future. When speaking of his formative years, Caleb’s voice is loaded with emotion but void of resentment. “Looking back now,” he reflects, “it moulded us for this life. A lot of bands can’t survive cos they can’t take the constant moving around and the instability of this lifestyle. But for us, in a weird way, it was preparing us for what we’ve got now.” The dynamics of a successful band are always intriguing, but the relationships within Kings of Leon make them a particularly fascinating study.

Followill concedes it’s inevitable that they get at each other’s throats but is quick to point out “it’s okay though, we can get in fights and speak our minds but at the end of the day we’re family and that’s what families do.” It is this familiarity that will give the band longevity he feels; the sparks will only serve to bring them closer. But the dynamics weren’t quite so fluid back when their artistic career first came to gain some recognition.

Having announced their arrival on the scene with Youth and Young Manhood at a relatively young age (Jared was only 17), it was perhaps inevitable that they would indulge slightly. Caleb, though, believes they were out of control. “We did so much partying at the beginning and we ended up missing so many opportunities as a band; we were either too wasted or too tired. For a while it looked like it was almost the end of it.”

“You’ve got to choose your battles.” An inquiry into their relationship with current tour partners Black Rebel Motorcycle Club however, results in a mischievous chuckle, suggesting their wild days are not dead and buried just yet. “I thought they’d be wild! But they got their heads screwed on pretty good. We’ve been playing a bunch of casinos and once I start-drinking whiskey I can get ugly and nasty. Especially when someone’s taking my money. Man I gotta watch myself around those boys; I don’t think they appreciate that kind of behaviour much.”

If their proclivity for a dram was a feature of the ‘old days’ they were unwilling to shed completely, other characteristics did not prove so auspicious. The disappearance of Kings of Leon’s trademark flowing beards earlier this year was an arresting development in itself. Was the image change timed to coincide with their considerable progression of sound from their country roots?

Well, yes and no, it would seem. “We wanted to see if people would have anything to talk about after they were gone. In the beginning, with all the bands coming out, they wanted to have something to attach them with. Luckily for the press and everyone, not only was our music sounding like we were some scruffy country band, you looked at us and that’s what you got.”

If anything, since the shearing their popularity has soared. Followill coyly concurs. A gamble paid off then, and evidently in more ways than one. “I got laid more after losing the beard,” he laughs. Surely, The Skinny put it to him, being the lead singer of the Kings of Leon is enough by itself?

“It’s just everyone thought I was a lot older. A lot of older women were going for my little brother and I was like “Hey, don’t forget about me. I’m still young!” His long laugh betrays any perceived modesty, “Beard’s back now though, getting cold. Guess it’s a lonely Winter for me!”

Video: Kings of Leon – Milk (Live at Lollapalooza)

Growing Old Disgracefully – The Return Of The B-52s

Along with REM, they put Athens, Georgia on the map and had a part in the rise of College Rock. With a new album on the way, Finbarr Bermingham caught up with B-52s founding member Cindy Wilson to talk about the past, present and of course, the Love Shack..

Athens, Georgia: population 175,085. A mid-sized Southern city that 30 years ago was famous for, well, not very much. Now though, to anybody with even a passing interest in the history of contemporary American rock music, the words ‘Athens, Georgia’ immediately jump off the page. Towards the end of the 1970s this sleepy college town became perhaps the most fertile and important outpost in music, the centre of the burgeoning post-punk universe. Spearheaded by New Wave bands like REM, Widespread Panic and the B-52s, the creative hubbub of Athens showed the rest of the USA that you didn’t have to be in New York or LA to make it in a band. So integral was it to the evolution of indie music stateside, they’ve taken to calling it the “Liverpool of the South”.

Cindy Wilson was just 19 when she helped form the B-52s (this year they decided to drop the apostrophe from ‘B-52’s’: “it’s just a little change, it doesn’t have much significance,” Wilson explains) alongside her brother Ricky, who died in 1985, and 22 when they made it big with Private Idaho and Rock Lobster. When The Skinny speaks with Wilson, now 51, it seems somehow fitting that she’s cruising down the freeway in her sister’s car, on her way to the beach. Over the years, the B-52s have for many symbolised a sunnier, fun alternative to the moodiness often ingrained in much popular music, even within the alternative. Wilson explains: “It was all a bit heavy at the time. To tell you the truth, when we first played outside of Georgia, in New York, they didn’t know what to make of us. It was totally the opposite of what was going on there, it was dark, and there was no dance scene.”

The vigour and zest they brought to the erstwhile largely colourless scene is what has come to define the band: loud, brash and even shamelessly cheesy. It is easy to forget that under all the fluorescent layering and caricature branding, there is hiding a band of massive influence and innovation. “It’s really cool people kind of thank us and tell us that they are inspired by The B-52s, that’s always great,” admits Wilson. She nominates Scissor Sisters as the latter day pretenders to their throne, and the camp New Yorkers are certainly heavily indebted to Wilson and co. But their inspiration runs deeper than that. Their pioneering dance rock / call-and-response songwriting and sprechgesang vocals of Fred Schneider is audible all over the place, perhaps most notable within the likes of The Rapture, LCD Soundsystem and even newer compatriots such as The Boggs.

The danger that exists when bearing such a brazen shell is that the contents will be overlooked. The B-52s of their often brilliant early albums is habitually overshadowed by the B-52s that appeared in the god-awful Flintstones movie (as the B.C. 52s) and that recorded the theme tune to Rocko’s Modern Life. Wilson insists, though, she is not bothered with misperceptions. “We were never the kind of band to take ourselves too seriously,” she shrugs, coming perilously close to stating the obvious. “We just have a good time, there’s a lot to be said for being able to laugh at yourself.”

Out of this carefree attitude was borne their biggest hit: Love Shack from 1989’s Cosmic Thing. A celebration of free love and the party lifestyle the B-52s adopted, it propelled them to the top of the charts almost a decade after they burst on to the scene. A news story ran a few years back claiming that the Love Shack about which the song was written had burned down. Cindy, though, is philosophical about the roots of the song. “That certainly did make for a good news story, that place was actually Kate (Pierson’s, the other female singer in the B-52s) old house in the country. We did have a lot of parties there, but I don’t think that was the Love Shack. We had Love Shacks all over the place if that was the case. The Love Shack, I guess, is in everyone’s head. I think everybody has their own personal Love Shack!”

As their old friends REM celebrate a return to form with their new album Accelerate, The B-52s are anticipating the release of their first studio album in 16 years. Funplex doesn’t try anything new. In fact, it seems to be an album slightly bereft of ideas. Wilson claims she is “just as excited about Funplex as I was about The B-52’s all those years ago. It is great, modern music, and I think it is up there with our best work.” Whether it compares favourably to their eponymous debut, for example, is debatable, but with their influence ostensible in so many more positive avenues, The Skinny is sure the legacy of The B-52s will stay with us even after their own quality wanes.

This piece was originally published in The Skinny in April 2008

Video: B-52s – Love Shack

Some old stuff… I Met The Walrus

There are a number of interviews and reviews I’ve done over the past few years which haven’t made it onto this blog, either because they weren’t very good, or because I was too lazy. Probably a combination of both. I’ve decided to backdate it with a selection, which I hope some people may find interesting. Again feel free to comment.

In the meantime, enjoy this incredible piece of animation which was passed to me by a mate.

I Met The Walrus