Monthly Archives: July 2012

Steve Von Till, Wino, Scott Kelly – Songs of Townes Van Zandt

Townes Van Zandt is said to have been embarrassed when Steve Earle proclaimed him to be ‘the best songwriter in the whole world’ and threatened to clamber up on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in his cowboy boots and tell him so. Such potent soundbites don’t disappear, though, and this one is wheeled out to accompany every new piece of Van Zandt – related merchandise. And right enough: as a songwriter, Van Zandt gives anyone a run for their money. In a genre that’s saturated with wounded troubadours, few have come close to capturing their grief and that of those around them as effectively and tunefully as he. As a recording artist, however, Van Zandt often paled in comparison to his more celebrated peer.

He was a reluctant presence in the studio and producers frequently struggled to capture his personality on record. No doubt at label behests to make his work more marketable, many of his albums were over-produced: laden with schmalzy strings and polished to a high sheen that simply didn’t belong. It’s why the terrible jokes and nervous laughter on Live at the Old Quarterand Live at McCabe’s are so integral to his legacy. The spit and sawdust setting, the simple yet skilful arrangements and the relaxed, unceremonious atmosphere placed Van Zandt firmly in his element.

To set out to record a full album of Townes Van Zandt cover songs, then, is something of a poisoned chalice. In reworking the songs, you risk making the same mistakes as his producers of yore, whose unwillingness to leave well alone arguably damaged the material itself (many of the most famous Van Zandt covers fall heavily into this territory). On the other hand, the requirement for a set of faithfully recorded updates is negligible.

Scott KellySteve Von Till and Wino, who have teamed up for Songs of Townes Van Zandt, have chosen to stick rather than twist. The trio of metallers have recorded three tracks apiece and for the most part, have eschewed frills, keeping things simple, tasteful and palatable. The problem is: anybody who is already familiar with the material will struggle to find a reason to return to this record.

Perhaps inevitably, none of the covers improve on the original, and only a few offer a viable alternative. Returning to the Dylan analogy, neither he nor Van Zandt could be classed as technically great singers, but both possessed hugely effective voices that are and were (naturally) perfectly suited to their own material. While Kelly, Von Till and Wino each has their own distinct delivery, they all fall short of capturing the emotional punch the songs demand.

Take Scott Kelly’s contribution. The Neurosis singer and guitarist has chosen three of Van Zandt’s most celebrated songs: ‘St. John the Gambler’, ‘Lungs’ and ‘Tecumseh Valley’ and in each case has attempted to make the track darker, mainly by slowing the pace and adding a tiny bit of drone-ish guitar. But tracks like these require little assistance: they’re already dark enough. His take on ‘Tecumseh Valley’ and ‘St. John the Gambler’ (both lifted from what was arguably Van Zandt’s finest studio hour, Our Mother the Mountain) come across as heavy handed – his growl becoming increasingly grating the more you listen to both.

His bandmate Steve Von Till fares better. His rendition of ‘If I Needed You’ betters covers of the same track by names as prestigious as Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett. It’s as plain and bare as Van Zandt would’ve intended and is by some distance the best song on the record. His other offerings, however, are less memorable, with ‘Snake Song’ in particular struggling under the weight of some dodgy sound effects, which swim against the stylistic tide of the rest of the album.

In the sleeve notes, Van Zandt’s bass player Wrecks Bell commends the trio for taking ‘possession from the first note’, a statement that couldn’t be further than the truth. Instead,Songs… is reminiscent of an earnest pub-cover. It sounds fine on the surface and for a while, you might find yourself tapping your toe and humming in time. When you come out the other side, though, it’s forgotten. Neurosis or Wino disciples aside, it’s difficult to see a place for this in anyone’s collection.

5/10
Written for Drowned in Sound
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Truck 15: the DiS preview

Of the proliferation of small, boutiquey festivals that sprung up around the UK over the past decade or so, Truck was always viewed as one of the most genuine and, well, best. It was a festival that came to be renowned for its warmth of atmosphere, value for money and for the organisers’ willingness to juxtapose the lineup – planting seemingly disparate names together on the same bill in the hope that they would stick: which for the most part, they did.

Last year’s event, however, took place under the cloud of poor ticket sales and there was some speculation as to whether we’d seen the last of Truck, at least on these shores and in its old format. When stories emerged of Truck experiencing financial bother (going bust, no less), they were greeted with real disappointment, with some pointing the finger at the seemingly exponential (read unsustainable) growth spurt the festival underwent, and others at the sheer saturation of festivals in its ilk.

That Truck’s been ‘resurrected’, then, is good news all round. It returns for its fifteenth edition under the fresh stewardship of Ralph Broadbent, he of Y Not Festival, who has replaced founders and long-term custodians Joe and Robin Bennett. It remains in its Hill Farm home, tucked away in rural Oxfordshire, and has reverted to two day format (although this year, it’s on a Friday and Saturday for the first time). The organisers have, on the face of it at least, heeded the cries of the mini-masses: the lineup looks to continue in time-honoured heterogeneous fashion, with a number of fairly big names joined by an interesting hodgepodge of smaller, more eclectic acts further down the bill.

We’ve selected the five acts we’re looking forward to seeing most, and created a Spotify playlist to accompany them.

Villagers

The musical vehicle for the sublimely talented Conor O’Brien, Villagers’ debut Becoming a Jackal picked up a Mercury nomination back in 2010, yet the Irish outfit haven’t come close to receiving the same adulation in the UK that they have in their homeland. Despite playing almost every instrument on the record, it’s O’Brien’s voice which lingers most heavily: packed, as it is with emotion and an impressive ability to run the scales. He gained the inevitable Oberstian references that come with the territory, but such comparisons are mostly superficial. There’s more classicism at play in O’Brien’s songwriting than his Nebraskan contemporary: the Paul Simon nods are much closer to the mark. It’s been a while since we’ve heard anything from Villagers, but with an album mooted for early 2013, expect some new material.

Frightened Rabbit

The Frabbits’ second album swept all before it in 2008 (indeed, only M83’s stellar Saturdays = Youth kept it off DiS’ top spot in that year’s album chart). On the heels of its success, those clever sorts at Fat Cat released an excellent live recording of Midnight Organ Fight – a visceral, shimmering beast. Despite the relative misstep that was The Winter of Mixed Drinks, then, anyone who has heard Liver! Lung! FR! or, indeed, caught one of their live shows, will know that their appearance at Truck isn’t to be missed. Last year’s plainer and rootsier free EP represented something of a return to form in the eyes of many. Expectations are high ahead of their major label (Atlantic) debut. This one should whet the appetite nicely.

The Low Anthem

What exactly can we learn about an album from where it’s been recorded? Well, let’s see. Rhode Island folkies the Low Anthem recorded their last album in an abandoned pasta sauce factory, and sure enough, Smart Flesh was slow burning and relatively easy to digest (although more adventurous types may have been put off by the lack of spice). Album number five is in the offing and has been recorded in (wait for it), an abandoned opera house. Whether we should be expecting some bombast from the erstwhile docile (but lovely) Low Anthem remains to be seen. There are few bands on the bill as suited to the farmland setting of Truck than this pastoral bunch, so here’s hoping the sun’s still shining for their Saturday evening, main stage performance.

Future of the Left

Few DiSsers will have missed the wildly entertaining coverage that greeted FOTL’s latest offering, The Plot Against Common Sense. Few manage to takedown a review without coming over all sour grapes, but Andy Falcous did it with some panache. Perhaps the finest caveat attributed to the record, though, came from Kev Eddy of this parish, whose ‘thank you, Future of the Left – you’ve saved rock music. Now to make it pay…’ summed up the strength of feeling that’s followed the band around on these shores for years. FOTL haven’t got many UK shows this summer, so their Friday night headline slot on the Barn Stage may convince some that a £70 weekend pass is the soundest investment of the season.

The Dreaming Spires

It would be rude to conclude a preview of Truck 15 without giving a quick nod to its creators. For while the Bennetts have relinquished the festival’s organisation to Y Not, they’ve kept a musical toe in the water and will be performing as the Dreaming Spires – an appropriately titled tribute to the part of the country to which they’ve brought so much. Debut album Brothers in Brooklyn is a solid blast of open road AM-friendly American, with shades of Petty and Chilton.

Spotify Playlist (play it on shuffle)

Written for Drowned in Sound
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Meursault – Something for the Weakened

It’s been a fascinating few years for anyone following the progress of Edinburgh’s Meursault. The band’s 2008 debut Pissing On Bonfires / Kissing With Tongues was a masterful cauldron of ideas that buried beautiful melodies beneath stratospheres of scratches and fireworks. It sent critics scrambling for superlatives and set the bar sky high. So much so that the response to its follow up was, relatively speaking, underwhelming. In retrospect though, the scruffy, lo-fi All Creatures Will Make Merry seems a more realised, focused record. Perhaps Meursault decided that it was better to bottle all the disparate ideas, shake them about a bit and pour out something a bit more consolidated, but no less interesting or enjoyable. And hey presto: it worked.

Their third leap along the evolutionary path (because it most certainly represents progress) is the most drastic yet. The general direction is the same: album number three is more consistent, structurally, and the melodies are more nuclear still. For the first time though, the band has released a cleanly polished set of songs, as nature intended them. The electronics have been discarded in favour of a more analogue setup: keys and strings are to the fore.

And then there’s The Voice. When these ears first bore witness to a Meursault live show, they were stunned into submission by Neil Pennycook’s booming, beautiful vocals, which filled the venue, leaving us to wonder if he’d had a megaphone lodged in his larynx. On album number three it’s been bumped up the bill and unleashed in all its glorious technicolor. Meursault the capricious art project has given way to Meursault, the band. And boy, do they scrub up well.

It shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise. Arguably the most enjoyable moments of the first two albums were the simplest: the plaintive ‘A Small Stretch of Land’ from the debut and ‘Weather’ from All Creatures… being fine examples. Indeed, if fault is to be found in their earlier output, it’s in the band’s erstwhile penchant for gilding the lily. On Something for the Weakened, though, it seems Meursault are satisfied to let the core song do the work. The wonderfully straightforward opening track ‘Thumb’, then, is an appropriate harbinger. Over a strummed ukelele and gentle backbeat, Pennycook repeats the mantra: “We will not be weakened any more”. It’s more resigned than defiant, but sets the tone beautifully.

‘Lament for a Teenage Millionaire’ originally appeared on the first album as a jittery, fuzzy electronic stomp. Here though, it’s reworked as a gorgeous folk song, swept along by a banjo, some strings and a lilting piano riff. Pennycook’s voice, previously submerged in a maelstrom of synths and beeps, is bare and broken. It’s this visceral outpouring, inescapable on stage, that defines Something for the Weakened. On ‘Settling’, you can almost sense the frontman’s veins rupturing his neck as he bellows, sardonically: “Ha, fucking ha”, while on ‘Hole’, amid some lovely harmonies, you can just about see his eyes welling up with tears.

Just as some lamented the scratchy production of All Creatures Will Make Merry, you can bet that there’ll be those who bemoan the slick production and relative uniformity of Something for the Weakened. Such is the cross a band as changeable as Meursault have to bear. Thankfully, though, they’ve always been aware that unbroken eggs do not an omelette make and this is the strongest set of songs the band has offered up to date. So pick up the record and enjoy it, but just don’t expect Meursault to rest on their laurels for too long.

8.5 / 10

Twin Shadow: Born in the 80s

PHOTO BY TUOMO LAMPINEN

 

As he gets prepared to unleash one of the albums of the year, George Lewis Jr., aka Twin Shadow, outlines his musical manifesto

George Lewis Jr. is a serious man. “I don’t do irony,” he says, setting the tone early on. “I don’t really believe in it.” As the conversation unfolds, it’s clear there are some subjects to be treated soberly. There’s his music, of course, and by extension, his fashion. “Unless I’m going to really psychoanalyse myself and ask why I dress and why I wear clothes as a human being, I’m pretty sure they come from the same place.”

So when he tells The Skinny that it once took him four hours to do his hair, it’s fairly clear he isn’t joking. How long does it take him to get dressed in the morning? “It depends,” he says, deadpan. “Sometimes I’ll get nerves and I’ll know that some beautiful girl’s going to be at the show and it’ll take me an extra hour or something. But it really depends on my mood.” But boy, does it show. Lewis is a spectacular looking man. He’s tall, elegant and infuriatingly handsome. His dress sense draws a dandy line between Prince and the Cat from Red Dwarf. He looks, walks and talks like the epitome of cool. Seriously cool. Serious, and cool.

“I hear it’s pretty shitty over there at the minute,” he says, semi-sympathetically from his sunny Madrid base, as he receives a report on the climate malaise enveloping the British summer. “That’s too bad. I hope that it’s good for my show, and then gets bad for the Olympics.” He’s in Spain to kick off the European leg of his tour. His second album under the Twin Shadow moniker, Confess, is set to hit the shops in mid-July, right about the time Lewis rolls into town. He’s excited to bring his new songs to the stage and if his forthcoming dates are half as exciting as his latest record, we’re in for a treat. “This is the Wild West of the world!” he says, when asked what we can hope to expect. “You can do whatever you want!”

Lewis’s disdain for irony extends to his lyrics, which, he says, are always unflinchingly honest. Yet, it was left to a friend to dream up the title of the album. “When he said ‘Confess’,” explains Lewis, “it made sense, because it seemed like a culmination of what all the lyrics seemed to be about – kind of letting out an honesty. It’s challenging to tell the truth and to say what you want.” The music onConfess, too, is more direct than what we’re used to hearing from Twin Shadow. Building on the synth-based platform of debut Forget, the record maintains the elements of funk and soul, but is rockier enough to recall – sometimes even simultaneously – TV on the Radio and Bruce Springsteen. It’s ironic, given that the record was partly inspired by a move away from New York City to the glistening surrounds of Los Angeles, a place that allows Lewis to indulge in his newest preoccupation: riding his motorcycle all day long. “It only rains about once a year,” he explains. “It’s perfect.”

Whereas the first record earned Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear a production credit (although George is adamant that his input was mainly to tweak a near-finished product), this one is Lewis’ baby, from start to finish. “It was certainly exhausting,” he says of the effort required. “But I’ve found that I prefer to be responsible for everything. I like to feel at the end of the day that everything is up to me and I don’t have to depend on anyone else. That’s very important to me.”

Indeed, this need for control is what led to the inception of the Twin Shadow project a few years back when Lewis was living between Berlin and Copenhagen, working for a theatre company. He’d spent his formative years playing in punk bands – a fact that’s hard to to come to terms with, given his standard getup, and one that raises a wry chuckle even from the man himself. “Yeah, that was me,” says he. “It’s hard to believe in bands anymore, because we’re very different people nowadays. We spend a lot more time alone – everyone’s on his or her computers and things like that. It just made sense, in a way, to create music alone. It’s a cultural thing which is happening; which has happened.”

If there’s one consistency to have bridged both records, then it’s the manner in which they’ve been received: with universal praise. WhereForget helped give Lewis the independence, freedom and wherewithal to do as he pleased, Confess looks set to bring him to a much wider audience. You will struggle, however, to find a single review that doesn’t mention the 1980s, either implicitly or via an obscure, sepia-tinged cultural reference. It almost certainly initially stems from Twin Shadow’s sonic template: drum machine, synthesiser, and Morrissey-esque vocals.

Yet, there are many things about George Lewis Jr. ‘The Package’ that reinforces the aesthetic. There’s the enormous, immaculately sculpted hair; the pornstar moustache; the image of him speeding down the Californian freeway atop a Harley Davidson in a tight leather jacket and, of course, the front cover of his new album, with his mug beaming back at you, kitted out like an extra from the Rockers. While Lewis insists he’s keen to distance himself from the comparison, in reality, he seems to be doing everything he can to perpetuate it.

“Yeah,” comes his resigned response. “This thing comes up a lot. It’s usually the people who I really feel understand the music a lot that never once mention the 80s. They only take it in as songs and listen to the lyrics first and not the production. The production is just atmosphere – it doesn’t matter. It’s like asking what kind of camera you shot a beautiful scene on. Unfortunately a lot of intelligent people love to hate something because of a description that somebody they admire has written. So I hate to lose these people before they even try it [the music] out, because of people saying ‘it’s 80s this; 80s that.’ The truth is, I don’t even like the 80s… I couldn’t give a fuck about the 80s!”

It is, indeed, unlikely that Lewis remembers much about the 1980s. He was born in 1983 in the Dominican Republic, but left as a child after his mother was mugged at a service station. His parents have since returned to Hispaniola and his homeland has assumed more prominence in Lewis’s life. “There’s a thing about Latin blood,” he says, thoughtfully. “I truly believe there’s a spiritual connection to your homeland that’s unavoidable. When I go there, I feel like I’ve returned home. The people are so kind and very different from Americans. They’re real salt of the earth people.”

For many in the UK, the Dominican Republic represents a cheap Caribbean getaway: a land of white sands and turquoise coral. For the locals, however, the reality is much harsher – 10 per cent of the population live on less than $2 per day. Lewis, though, is a realist. “I don’t diss the resorts at all. It’s a tough country; a very poor, poor place. But the resorts are just as important to that country as the shitty parts. That’s how a lot of people there make a living.”

Upon leaving the Caribbean, Lewis’s family rocked up in Venice, Florida – a place he recalls in less glowing terms. We put it to him that Florida is like LA: a sunny getaway; a Tropicana of palm trees, patrolled by scantily-clad rollerbladers and perfect for riding his motorcycle. “No,” comes his curt reply. “It’s a strange place. It’s just like the South, but it’s more like the South than the South. When people think of the South, they think of ignorance, but at least it has culture and a lot of character. Florida has some character, but it’s just a bunch of ignorant people and lots of old people, lots of shopping malls and lots of alligators, just behind the shopping malls.”

Lewis goes on to describe the Sunshine State (to give it its euphemistic nickname) as “uninspiring” and “devoid of good music.” His memories, far from being filled with sunshine, are dreary and depressing. The KKK, for instance, once confronted him at a party at which he was playing guitar. He never goes back, despite the “load of friends who love to get married and call me up for their weddings.” Yet, it was in the jam bars of Florida that he took his steps into music and as unlikely as it may have seemed to him at the time, his first record, Forget, turned out to be an ode to his childhood home. “There’s no such thing as Florida music,” says Lewis, “but if there was, I think my music would be it. It’s music for people who understand how strange Florida is. When I listen to Forget now, I picture everything about the place. If you listen to that record in Florida, you’ll know what I mean.”

His adult years have been nomadic. At various points, he’s been “settled” in Boston, Europe, New York and now, of course, Los Angeles. “Nobody knows I live in LA,” he says, somewhat cryptically. “My friends all think I still live in New York, so it’s kind of a secret that I live in Los Angeles.” It’s the fear of boredom that keeps Lewis on the move: when somewhere stops interesting him, he simply packs up his stuff and heads for pastures new. So does he view himself as some sort of wandering minstrel; collating a scrapbook of stories and music from wherever he lays his hat?

“Well, I really believe in storytelling through songs,” he says. “Even in the 80s, they had amazing songwriters who were writing songs similarly to the Beatles or Harry Nilsson. They had that type of songwriting, but production that was of the time period – the drum machines and synths. I’m from the same songwriting schools as those people. I really believe in the complete song: not just a mood song, or a song that’s just about the beat or some repeated hook.

“I believe in storytelling and that’s something that isn’t done a lot these days. People think of it as being old school, but it isn’t: it’s something that will continue forever and ever. Storytelling will never change, but its popularity wanes and comes back again. I’m going to keep doing it until it becomes popular again and then they’ll say: ‘You know what? I guess he wasn’t so 80s after all.’”

Written for The Skinny