Monthly Archives: March 2010

La Folie – Risus Sardonicus Album Review

The success enjoyed by Gogol Bordello over the past decade has inspired a sizeable amount of inferior impersonators. The incorporation of “gulag” instrumentation (organ, accordion etc) into standard rock band format doesn’t necessarily indicate sophistication or cleverness. In many cases, it’s quite the opposite. Take La Folie’s debut album as a case in point. They’ve fully embraced the gypsy punk aesthetic, perhaps expectant of distinguishing themselves from more conventional peers, but end up sounding trite, tired and annoying. No track encapsulates what is awful about Risus Sardonicus (a symptom of tetanus that causes the sufferers face to spasm into a grin, something you won’t do much of whilst listening to La Folie) better than the album closer, Madame Palm. The jam finishes on the nine minute mark, about eight minutes after it should have. In trying to instil a carnival-like atmosphere, La Folie end up sounding clownish. Sitting through eleven tracks of this is hard, exhausting work.


S&B Spotify Playlist: March 2010

It’s been a bi-polar kind of month for me, half of which was spent in Manchester, superconnected and the other half, cut-off from the rest of the world in an wi-fi-free Fermanagh (also without my hard drive). It’s funny how quickly I’ve become reliant on my computer and the internet for music. I guess it’s sad, really. I’ve fallen out of the habit of buying cds, granted for financial reasons, but if I were to make a quarter year resolution, then it would be to start up again.
Quarter of a year. It’s not long passing. And this year, I think, has been exceptionally top-loaded with great albums and it’s only going to get better. I had the privilege of interviewing The National yesterday for The Skinny. It’s ahead of the new album, High Violet, which is excellent. I think it’s too early to say whether it’s as good as Alligator or Boxer, given that they were both immensely slow-burning albums, but so far so good. In anticipation, I’ve included Fake Empire from their 2007 classic.

I’ve also been hammering David Thomas Broughton’s album, The Complete Guide to Insufficiency, pretty hard. I see it as a halfway house between Panda Bear and Nick Drake. His subject matter tends to be a tad maudlin, but his voice is overflowing with emotion – as powerful as Antony Hegarty’s. What amazes me is that his debut set was recorded in one take. If you listen to it, you’ll know what I mean. It was recorded in a church, which I think adds a sense of potency or reverence to the sound quality that’s even palpable without knowing where it was laid down. The Complete Guide is five years old now and he’s due to follow it up this year.

I’d never heard of Kath Bloom before this month, when I saw her recommended on a message board, but she’s been releasing records since the 70s. My personal highlight from her new album is here. When I heard this track, I fell in love with her voice. It reminds me of Johnny Cash’s the older he got, in the sense that it’s weary, slightly out of tune at times, but somehow conveys infinite wisdom.

In keeping with the comeback, I’ve included my own highlight from Gil Scott-Heron’s return, the title track from I’m New Here. It’s a cover of a Smog song and when I first heard he was doing that, I was confused and wary: I’m a huge Bill Callahan fan. But it sounds great, and when Gil sings the chorus, his voice doesn’t sound a million miles away from Callahan’s.

Since I’ve spent half the month cut off, I’ve had to make do with the contents of my mp3 player (it’s not very big). I’ve been listening to lots of Electrelane and their first two albums in particular. I think it’s fair to say they got more accessible as they went along. The Valleys, from the Power Out, is the best thing they’ve ever recorded. It’s an operatic choral number that kinda comes out of nowhere. What impresses me most, is how the girls from the band manage to hold their own with the choir. I always thought the vocals on Electrelane tracks were relatively weak. How wrong I was.

There are a few newish tracks here, but most of it is mined from the archives. I wrote about the tragic death of Mark Linkous earlier this month so I won’t do it again. I’ve included a few of my favourite Sparklehorse tracks in the mix too.

Enjoy: Scrawls & Bawls March 2010 Playlist

1. David Thomas Broughton – Unmarked Grave
2. Sparklehorse – Eyepennies
3. Kath Bloom – Like This
4. Jason Lytle – Yours Truly, The Commuter
5. Tindersticks – The Organist Entertains
6. The Unwinding Hours – Solstice
7. Sam Amidon – 1842
8. J. Tillman – Steel on Steel
9. Sparklehorse – Saturday
10. The National – Fake Empire
11. Gil Scott-Heron – I’m New Here
12. Owen Pallett – Lewis Takes Action
13. The Mountain Goats – This Year
14. Uncle Tupelo – Screen Door
15. Local Natives – Wide Eyes
16. Electrelane – The Valleys
17. Sparklehorse – Wish You Were Here

BBC 1: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Published by Vintage Classics

First published in 1953

337 Pages

First things first: I haven’t seen the Hollywood version and having read the book, have no desire to. Too many “classics” are getting the Beverley Hills treatment and absolutely do not want to see Leonardo Di Caprio massacre a brilliantly created character in Frank Wheeler. Equally, the thought of Keira Knightley’s wooden beak all over the movie adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, one of my favourite books, is enough to make me shudder. In fact, I struggle to think of a film adaptation that’s better than the original. I could say The Shawshank Redemption, of course, but I think the film’s almost unrecognisable from the novella by Stephen King, such is the artistic liberty they were permitted to take.

The first thing I noticed when I picked up Revolutionary Road was an endorsement in the inner sleeve from one of my favourite authors, Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut calls it “the Great Gatsby of my generation”. Now, it’s been a while since I read Gatsby, but I think I see where he’s coming from. This is a commentary on status in Middle America; people aspiring to something greater; people trying to outdo their peers and neighbours; people thinking they deserve better, because they’re better than those around them. Less keeping up with the Jones’, this book is about shitting all over the Jones’ perfectly coiffed lawn. In that respect, I would also draw a comparison with Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller. Whilst there isn’t a character in this as tragic as Willy Loman, Revolutionary Road too exposes the flaws in the very concept of the American Dream.

It’s the story of a young, handsome couple, the Wheelers, and their efforts to escape the banality of plush New England suburbia. It’s about the dynamics of their own relationship and how their dissatisfaction with their own lives really stems from their displeasure with each other. Their relationship is a war of attrition. They fell for each other under a mask of his deceit, which he has kept up throughout their marriage. He is callous, manipulative and calculating. He always thinks one step ahead of his wife, colleagues, neighbours and employers.

As you read on, though, it becomes clear that he is of limited ability and far from the great man he believes himself to be. He has gotten as far as he has on a wing a prayer and a whole load of hot air. He is one of the best characters I have come across in a long time: both pitiable and despicable. Wrapped up in the smug, clean-shaven, suited and booted persona of Frank Wheeler, I see a lot of contemporary politicians. Richard Yates does brilliantly to capture a whole breed in one smarmy character.

But what really struck me about Revolutionary Road is just how much of it I see in my every day life. The Wheelers’ existence is built upon putting on a show, keeping up appearances, as is that of the rest of the characters. People hear what they want to hear. Few are prepared to upset the applecart. In fact, the only person who isn’t afraid to speak his mind is John Givings, a certified lunatic. As I move into my late twenties (eek) I see far too much of this. Teenage abandon is, well, abandoned. People are nice, as a rule. Yates captures the anxiety that comes with getting a little older and getting trapped in a life you don’t want brilliantly. People inhabit a world of trite courtesy and phoniness. It’s not how you are, but how you are perceived to be.

It’s a cliché to say “you don’t know what goes on behind closed doors”, but it rings particularly true here. As a society, we’re obsessed with fly on the wall documentaries and real-life dramas. But few are as effective a reminder as Revolutionary Road that adversity befalls everyone. Everybody has their problems. Appearances can be deceiving. Woven in amongst these observations is a great story: slow paced and methodical. This is a great book and it comes highly recommended.

Welcome to BBC

I read a lot of books. Lately, I’ve been getting through a few every week. When I finish reading a book, I normally have a little think about it, discard it and open a new one. Recently though, I’ve been thinking I should write about them, which is what BBC is: Barney’s Book Club. I don’t envisage these pieces being reviews: more my own commentary on the books. I won’t write about every book I read, just the ones I feel I have something to say about, something people might find interesting.

I also don’t do much contemporaneous reading. I return to authors I enjoy and read books recommended by others. These are rarely the latest bestsellers and rarely anything published in the recent past. That’s not to say I purposely seek out unheard of tomes: quite the contrary. Many of the books I read are considered classics, and thus, it may be tough to shed any fresh light on them. I’ll just write what I’ve taken from the book. If it’s good, I’ll recommend it. If it’s not I won’t.

That’s about it. The first one will be coming soon.

Rest In Peace Sparklehorse – A Tribute to Mark Linkous

This is the third time I’ve sat down to write this post since I heard the news that Mark Linkous – to all intents and purposes, Sparklehorse – shot himself in the heart over the weekend. It seems as though every time I switch on the radio or television, every time I visit the BBC News website, every time I pick up a newspaper, there’s another tragedy. Global disaster after disaster rain in on us and in the age of Rupert Murdoch, RSS feeds and incessant tweeting, death is big business. The reaper seems to loom ever larger, and for that reason, I’ve become sadly desensitized. Life’s only inevitability, the act of dying, has become less than human as we find ourselves inundated with death lists, tolls and updates. People have become statistics. That is tragic in itself.

This morning, though, the news of Linkous’ suicide left my head spinning and it hasn’t come to rest all day. The strange thing is, I can’t help but think I shouldn’t be all that surprised. After all, this is the same guy that overdosed on Valium and anti-depressants whilst on tour with Radiohead in the 90s. He spent the next six months in a wheelchair after collapsing with his legs pinned underneath him for fourteen hours. The potassium buildup in his legs made his heart stop for five minutes. By rights, Sparklehorse should have been gone over ten years ago.

But he survived. Lately, he has spoken about how productive he’s been. His services as a producer have been in demand. Reportedly, he was close to completing another Sparklehorse record. When I interviewed Daniel Johnston last year, he spoke of how he hoped to work with his friend again and they had discussed another collaboration. Like Johnston, Linkous had been plagued with mental health issues and depression for many years. Johnston spoke of him in glowing terms as a friend and a musician. He told me he was one of the most gentle and kind people he had ever met. This sentiment, for me, has always been apparent in Sparklehorse’s music. There’s such a delicate, vulnerable, human quality to it that starts with his fragile, high pitched voice and seeps into the lyrics and the subtleties of the melodies. I’ve read it written today that Linkous was “too fragile for this world”. It’s a statement that’s constantly wheeled out whenever a tragedy like this befalls us, but in this case, I can’t help but agree.

The first time I heard the music of Sparklehorse was a collaboration with members of Radiohead, a cover version of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here from the Lords of Dogtown soundtrack. I immediately fell in love with it. Today, I still think it betters the original. From then, I sought out his albums and my love affair with his music deepened. Despite most of his later records garnering greater critical praise, I think his first album as Sparklehorse, the catchily titled Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, is his best. It’s one of the most underrated albums of the past couple of decades. My favourite Sparklehorse song is on this record, Saturday, which has one of the most gorgeous arpeggios you’ll find on a contemporary, indie track (as mentioned in previous posts, I use the term “indie” loosely. If asked to be more specific with my taxonomy, I would probably call Sparklehorse, and particularly Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot alt-country).

For a couple of months at the end of 2008, I revisited Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. I’d gotten myself into It’s A Wonderful Life and Good Morning Spider and had neglected his debut slightly. I had just moved out of a flat I was sharing with five mates and into a single room in a flatshare. I guess I must have been pretty lonely. I played the album relentlessly and it became a comfort. It is a crying shame that Linkous palpably struggled to find the same solace in his music that I, and I’m sure countless others did. He and Sparklehorse will be sorely missed. The internet is littered with tributes to him today, with everyone from Radiohead to Death Cab to The Flaming Lips paying their respects. In death, here’s hoping Sparklehorse’s music may have the chance to reach the wider audience it deserved in his lifetime.

Video: Sparklehorse – Saturday

Video: Sparklehorse and Radiohead – Wish You Were Here

Foals – Spanish Sahara

The sycophantic, hyperbolic ways of the NME have had a lasting and partially negative effect on my listening habits. Their bandwagonesque backing of Silent Alarm in 2005 put me off Bloc Party. I didn’t even give them a chance until the hype had died down. Subsequently, I fell in love with the album. I’m sure there are more good bands the slimy touch of the NME have tarnished for me forever. I may never know.

Fortunately, I bit the bullet with Foals. As with Silent Alarm, it took me a while for me to get around to Antidotes, but upon arriving, I was rewarded with an excellent album (although not quite as good as Bloc Party’s debut). So, even the NME’s championing of the video for their comeback single Spanish Sahara wasn’t enough to deter me.

It’s a slower burner than much of Antidotes… reflective, pensive, patient. Not words at all associated with Foals previously. But it’s rich in texture, exquisitely constructed and an absolute grower. Eventually it works up a head of steam, culminating in a triumphant crescendo. Again, using Bloc Party as a reference point, it reminds me of the change they underwent on A Weekend In The City, which also turned out to be a grower.

The video is beautifully shot too. I don’t remember Yannis Phillipakkis’ beard looking so full… perhaps representative of a new, more mature sound? Probably not… but enjoy this video.

Excellent Decade Spanning Mixtape from CMG

Coke Machine Glow is a website I read quite a bit. Their reviews are funny and intelligent, if sometimes a little long. I think what separates them from Pitchfork is that their reviews are often quite tongue-in-cheek and self-depreciating. They don’t seem to consider their word gospel, a critique often angled at P4k. Plus, they’ve named themselves after an obscure album from the lead singer of the Tragically Hip. Not many cool points to be earned there.

But CMG regularly release Fantasy Covers Podcasts, on which (I guess pretty obviously) they ask some of their favourite artists to cover some of their favourite tracks. Last month, they released Part One of a decade spanning mixtape / podcast paying homage to the 2000s, entitled Decalogue. It features covers of tracks by some of my favourite artists, including The Microphones, Songs: Ohia and The xx.

I know most people are pretty fed up of the amount of coverage the turn of the decade received, but this is well worth a listen, even if you never listen past the unmissable mash-up intro.

You can download Part One of Decalogue here and I’ll post the other part when it becomes available.

Here’s the tracklisting:

. The Hood Internet :: “Decalogue”
:: (0:01 – 6:19)
:: featuring, in order: 2000 – Dr. Dre vs Radiohead; 2001 – Missy Elliott vs Daft Punk; 2002 – Ludacris vs The New Pornographers; 2003 – Kelis vs The Rapture; 2004 – Twista f/ Kanye West vs Arcade Fire; 2005 – Three Six Mafia vs Sufjan Stevens; 2006 – T.I. vs Peter Bjorn and John; 2007 – Rich Boy vs LCD Soundsystem; 2008 – Lil Wayne vs Hot Chip; 2009 – Jay Sean vs Phoenix

2. Rich Aucoin :: “Human After All”
:: (6:20 – 8:59)
:: originally by Daft Punk, from Human After All (Virgin; 2005)

3. Ned Collette & Wirewalker :: “Come On Let’s Go”
:: (9:00 – 12:43)
:: originally by Broadcast, from The Noise Made By People (Warp; 2000)

4. Yellow Ostrich :: “Cannibal Resource”
:: (12:44 – 16:04)
:: originally by the Dirty Projectors, from Bitte Orca (Dead Oceans; 2009)

5. Touching Earth Made of Steel :: “Party in the Spirit World”
:: (16:05 – 20:05)
:: originally by Miley Cyrus (“Party in the USA”) and Daniel Johnston (“Spirit World Rising”), from The Time of Our Lives (Hollywood; 2009) and 1990 (Eternal Yip Eye Music; 1990

6. The Luyas :: “Motion Picture Soundtrack”
:: (20:06 – 22:56)
:: originally by Radiohead, from Kid A (Capitol; 2000)

7. Mesita :: “Winter on Victoria Street”
:: (22:57 – 26:09)
:: originally by the Clientele, from God Save the Clientele (Merge; 2007)

8. Boats :: “The Glow, Pt. 2”
:: (26:10 – 31:25)
:: originally by the Microphones, from The Glow, Pt. 2 (K; 2001)

9. João Orecchia :: “Two Blue Lights”
:: (31:26 – 35:04)
:: originally by Songs: Ohia, from Didn’t It Rain (Secretly Canadian; 2002)

10. Neil Haverty (of Bruce Peninsula) :: “Teeth in the Grass”
:: (34:59 – 37:30)
:: originally by Iron & Wine, from Our Endless Numbered Days (Sub Pop; 2004)

11. Lackthereof :: “Biblical Sense (White Wine mix)”
:: (37:31 – 43:04)
:: originally by All Smiles, from the Biblical Sense EP

12. Dog Day :: “Ponytail”
:: (43:05 – 44:55)
:: originally by Panda Bear, from Person Pitch (Paw Tracks; 2007)

13. Dirt Dress :: “Healer”
:: (44:56 – 48:59)
:: originally by Chromatics, from Night Drive (Italians Do It Better; 2007)

14. Vitaminsforyou :: “Shelter”
:: (49:00 – 55:20)
:: originally by the xx, from The xx (Rough Trade; 2009)

15 Sewing Machines :: “Clam, Crab, Cockle Cowrie”
:: (55:21 – 59:42)
:: originally by Joanna Newsom, from The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City; 2004)

Ukraine’s Got Talent. Yes It Does

I’m not a fan of talent shows: X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, Popstars… anything like that. Mostly, because it’s very rarely that the audience is presented with anyone with much discernible talent. Sure, for the most part they can sing – but in a conveyor belt kind of way. The winner of one show is often a carbon copy of a previous winner, or of the current flavour of the month, riding high in the charts.

If they were actually dedicated to uncovering unique talents, unreplicated and unlikely to be, then it may be more interesting. I might actually watch from time to time. This clip baffles me. I can’t decide where I stand on it – whether this girl should be catapulted into superstardom, given space at the Tate, or plonked down at Trafalgar Square in a sandbox to earn a crust. But she’s definitely unique.

Kseniya Simonova is a sand animator from the Ukraine. She only started doing her thing properly after her business collapsed in the financial crisis of 2008. Last year, she won the final of Ukraine’s Got Talent after spending 8 minutes creating a series of sand drawings depicting the life in the USSR during the Great Patriotic War against Hitler’s Third Reich in WWII. The video below is breathtaking.

Not only is the girl scarily gifted, but she attempts to do something absolutely unheard of on the British equivalents. She invokes a sense of history, courts areas of controversy and races from cultural and historical touchstone to touchstone, bringing members of the audience to tears.

How can anyone still be content with being subjected to Jedward or one of Simon Cowell’s latest protegees after watching the clip below? And to think, we got Rolf Harris…