Meadows in the Mountains festival, Bulgaria

Meadows in the Mountains is somewhere between a festival and a party, deep in the mountains in southern Bulgaria. Blessed with beautiful scenery, beautiful people, and beautiful music it’s quite an experience. With fewer people than the average Northern line platform at rush hour, it’s an intimate, friendly affair no one there will forget.

 
[Pictures originally published at Clashmusic.com]

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Viv Albertine @ Nambucca

VivAlbertine
 

Achieving some degree of fame or notoriety while barely out of their teens, guitarist Viv Albertine, singer Ari Up, bassist Tessa Pollitt and drummer Palmolive forged in The Slits an uncompromising, all-girl punk sound. Refusing to blindly follow punk’s musical memes, debut album ‘Cut’ was infused with Ari’s love of reggae and portrayed the women on the cover as wild, naked and covered in mud – naked defiance towards society and the male-ego-dominated music business. After six years and two albums The Slits split in 1982. Albertine trained in film, made a career for herself as a director, got married, and had a daughter. You know, life stuff.

And then life stuff happened. In interviews Albertine has been fairly candid about how the disintegration of her marriage and re-evaluation of life as a fifty-something fuelled the creative process that produced 2010’s Flesh EP and last year’s debut album The Vermillion Border. “I buried Viv Albertine from The Slits, I absolutely squashed her,” she said last month of her 18-year marriage. But some things cannot be kept down.

Stepping on to great cheers, Albertine is resplendent in a short, sparkly black dress and knee high boots. “Do you like my boots? They’re Biba,” she says. “Can you see them at the back? No of course you can’t, don’t be silly,” she scolds the affirmations from the darkness, to laughs.

Re-learning her skills after twenty-five years, Albertine’s songs are disarming, deeply personal, often brutal and frequently funny. She is utterly without pretention and seems quite at ease on stage, despite decades of absence. Her guitarwork is jangly and ringing, atonal chords played right up at the neck. While she admits that she’s not the best guitarist or singer, her songs bare a compelling honesty.

On ‘Don’t Believe‘, written after the death of her estranged father, she contrasts the indubitable existence of the physical world with the vague promises of love and healing we repeat emptily to ourselves through tired, linguistic clichés: “Time does not heal, time’s not on my side/Time will tell you nothing, and time cannot fly/I believe in glass, I believe in heat/I believe in rust, in aluminium sheets/…but I don’t believe in love.” The rallying cry ‘I Want More’ speaks of both women finding fulfilment away from expectations placed upon them, but also as a gasp of realisation from someone waking up to middle age to find the ground has shifted underneath them. Even when she restarts ‘Life’s Too Short To Be Shy’ twice (because “I can tune my guitar but I can’t tune my voice”) the audience egg her on. “It’s OK, I don’t really care,” she says. “I’m definitely not shy any more.”

She ends on the wonderfully titled ‘Confessions Of A Milf’, a lyrically acid take on marriage (“A man needs a maid, a maid of his own/A maid needs a muse, and a room of her own”) that winds itself up into a mantra of frustration: “Cleaning, shopping, faking, cleaning, shaking, baking, fucking, faking…”

Quavering voice, music and lyrics that are not always easy listening, Viv Albertine 2.0 will not be to everyone’s tastes. But here she is, now 57, responding to life as she knows how, because she wants to, and without giving a fuck what anyone else thinks. Just as she did 35 years ago. And it doesn’t get much more punk that.

[Words and pictures originally published at Clashmusic.com]

FIDLAR @ The Garage, Highbury

FIDLAR’s tracks are propulsive, catchy rackets drenched in cheap power-chord riffs and calls to drink beer, smoke weed, grab a skate board and flick everyone the bird. “Fuck school, fuck going to work, fuck all that,” says singer Zac Carper helpfully. “Start a band. I mean, if we can do it…”

 
[Words and pictures originally published at Clashmusic.com]

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Moulettes @ The Roundhouse

 

Bassoon – you don’t get many of those in bands these days. Moulettes are nothing if not the exception to this and many other rules – swashbuckling genre raiders armed with cello, double bass, violin, autoharp, harmonium, glockenspiel and more besides.

Riding the same alt-folk wave that has brought many other contemporary acoustic artists to the fore over the last half of the 2000s, Moulettes however stubbornly refuse to fit into even the most vaguely defined classification – perhaps the closest might be one of the choices of genre available to those with that venerable relic, the MySpace page: “melodramatic popular song”.

Multi-instrumentalists and singers Hannah Miller and Ruth Skipper front the band, alongside violinist Georgina Leach (absent tonight), Oliver Austin on various forms of percussion, guitar and voice, and Jim Mortimore’s double bass. As might be guessed from such a diverse set of instruments, this ain’t no three-piece garage rock band. Their sound is thick with three, four and five-part vocal harmonies, layers of played and plucked strings, guitars and that oleaginous, glissando bassoon. Songwriter Miller draws upon a wealth of influences: the folky prog-rock of the likes of Pentangle, the tones and intervals of Medieval early music, gypsy, klezmer, and the story-telling and dark humour of the folk tradition – even if musically they fall well outside what folk traditionalists could stomach.

And my god, can they play. At some point, classically trained players of orchestral instruments must ask themselves where they might direct their talents outside the classical realm. The quality of musicianship here is tremendous (most of the band have been borrowed by the likes of Seasick Steve, Mumford and Sons, The Unthanks, The Holloways), with the tightest timing and clever composition weaving together ideas and rhythms, reinforced by the leading ladies’ powerful voices and, especially in Skipper’s case, theatrical tendencies.

Handclapping, finger-snapping and Skipper’s formidable beetle-crusher boots are all used as precision instruments, particularly on ‘Unlock The Doors‘, and ‘Sing Unto Me‘. ‘Requiem’ showcases a more proggy style with clever rhythm changes, but without ever becoming disjointed. ‘Bloodshed In The Woodshed‘ and ‘Cannibal Song‘ see them at their most darkly humorous, the former listing all the potential means of reckoning a jilted lover intends to deliver upon her man (“Trip wire/small fire/bathing with a hair dryer”), the latter a pre-dinner discussion with the narrator’s unfortunate soon-to-be ex-lover (“Oh, oh my lover/No longer will you love another”).

Hugely talented, imaginative composers and wildly enthusiastic performers, even during the slower numbers or when the occasional prog excess causes longer songs to drag, Moulettes are a real treat to watch and hear, and it would be a hard heart indeed that wouldn’t be moved to smiles and a bit of a jig. With a piratical swagger they carry off centuries-worth of musical booty and, like the sailboat that traverses their eponymous debut album’s cover, sail off into the rarely-traversed but delightful seas of Baroque-prog-folk-chamber-pop.

 

[Words and pictures originally published at clashmusic.com]

Moshi Moshi Hub Sessions @ The Roundhouse

Three more disparate artists one could not imagine: multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter James Spankie supported by a string quartet, the self-described “small fat Welshman” Sweet Baboo playing lovely, sardonic songs, and steel-pan drum legend Fimber Bravo, with Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip on keyboards repaying a favour from Fimber’s steel-pan appearances on One Life Stand. I ran out of memory cards in the end and just danced to Fimber’s rhythms. We got him back for an encore and he said “Give yourself a big hand, I’ve never had an encore in 20 years”.

 
[Photos originally published at Clashmusic.com]

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Laetitia Sadier @ The Water Rats

Laetitia Sadier, stepping out from behind the serried banks of Moogs and synths that for 20 years has made up the kraut-rock-dream-pop of Stereolab, played a short set of some of her solo material from two albums, The Trip and Silencio. Stripped back to guitar and voice, it wasn’t at all like Stereolab, but Sadier’s French accented, lush singing voice, wry humour and strident political lyrics are still as they ever were.

 

[Photos and words originally published at Clashmusic.com]

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Laetitia Sadier @ The Water Rats

Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab playing at The Water Rats
Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab playing at The Water Rats

What would be the collective noun for shoegazers? A drone? A wash? A ride? All suggestions applicable to Freak Scene, this roving, regular night of shoegaze and noise-pop whose name harks back to the longhair experimental bohemian undercurrent of the 1960s and 70s at least as much as the unrestrained fuzz-blast of the eponymous Dinosaur Jr track.

Originally from Poland, first act The Enters tear through some especially Ride-esque smears of tremolo-powered overdriven guitar threaded through with propulsive drums and extremely danceable basslines, leaving heads nodding excitably. Lionface are hard to pin down – a singer who sounds like Mariah Carey, perhaps thinks she’s Arethra Franklin, but who resembles Lucia Holm.

But it’s the Francophone double-hander that the people have come to see. Like a sort of Gallic The Kills, Deux Furieuses are two girls blasting out a minimal but certainly effective, jagged sound on drums and guitar. By comparison, when she comes onstage alone, Stereolab frontwoman Laetitia Sadier remarks that her set will be a lot less after all that noise. “But that’s ok, we’ve had a lot of music tonight already,” she says.

It’s strange to see Sadier stripped of all her accoutrements: not just the protective shield of Moogs and organs used to such great effect in creating Stereolab’s indefinable Krautrock-lounge-pop, but even the post-Stereolab trio she has put together for her two solo albums, ‘The Trip’ from 2010 and last year’s ‘Silencio’. She might even feel a little naked onstage, clutching a Fender Mustang which she plays left-handed. Reduced to just voice and guitar, her songs are spare and still, filled out only by Sadier’s instantly recognisable voice. Even when assaulted from all directions by the hum and drone of Stereolab, her lush, melancholy tones and penchant for minor intervals always scored through – even more so here.

‘The Trip’ was a small and beautiful thing which while tinged with sadness (channelling the emotional impact of her sister Noelle’s suicide) was never maudlin despite its personal themes. The cover of Les Rita Mitsuoko’s ‘Un Soir, Un Chien’ is played as bubbling French disco on the album, but here stripped back to its smallest core the lyrical double meanings appear: “Quand tu l’as décidé, tu m’as laissée/Et je suis resté attachée/Et moi je resterai/Quand même.”

Sadier’s songs on ‘Silencio’ return to the more strident political themes for which she is known. How little has changed in the 20 years since her scathing criticism of power in the likes of Stereolab’s ‘Ping Pong‘, ‘Outer Accelerator‘ and ‘Nihilist Assault Group‘ – something she acknowledges as she allows herself a little bitter laugh introducing ‘Rule of the Game‘: “This is about how we have let the financial markets rule our lives – remember that one?”

It’s a quick set but memorable, holding this audience rapt and silent, mesmerised by the Shah’s voice, her intriguing Frenchness, her strident philosophy, and perhaps the sound of mellotrons and Moogs playing only in their heads.

[Words and pictures published at Clashmusic.com, February 2013.]

The Joy Formidable @ Rough Trade East

The Joy Formidable. Photo: Brian Whar
The Joy Formidable. Photo: Brian Whar

Their debut album ‘The Big Roar‘ was aptly named: a formidable wall of searing, layered guitars, drums and front-woman Ritzy Bryan’s voice pitching between a shriek and a whisper. The three-piece from Mold in North Wales have been touring hard over the last few years in support of the likes of Muse and White Lies, writing on the road and only taking time out to record their follow-up, ‘Wolf’s Law‘, in the appropriately wild state of Maine in the Northeastern US.

To the sound of a wolf’s howl, the band stride on stage and launch into ‘Cholla’, the second new album track to get a release. Named after a sticky cactus, the searing riff at its heart is just as catchy, but the noise hurricane that characterised much of their first album has been tamed somewhat.

“Hello! Are you alright?” says Ritzy when she comes up for air. “Yes? No?” The typically uncommunicative London audience are, well, uncommunicative. “Well, nevermind. We’ll try and cheer you up.”

Indeed, why so serious? The tell-tale opening bass line of ‘Austere‘ drags a cheer from the crowd, despite the quality of the sound system – in what is, admittedly, a shop – more closely resembling your mates’ band playing in the front room through your home stereo. “Puppets and gowns/We’ll ransack this town,” she sings softly, dropping down to a single string of fuzzy guitar, beckoning the crowd forward before overwhelming them with a wall of noise. As the song’s rhythm decays into aggressive hacking at guitar, bass and drums, onstage the band are having a whale of a time. Drummer Matt Thomas batters his skins as if equipped with more arms than is usual, bassist Rhydian Dafydd has a quick jab at the cymbals for good measure, and the tiny lady with a fringe as razor sharp as her riffs leaps about irrepressibly, her huge blue eyes opening wide enough to be visible from the back of the room. In fact her whole face is a semaphore for each song, cycling through expressions from serene to pained to a rock ‘n’ roll bass face and back again.

Ritzy Bryant. Photo: Brian Whar
Ritzy Bryant. Photo: Brian Whar

It’s textured, layered, pummelling noise. They’ve been called shoegaze, apparently because they use loops and pedals, but really their sound conjures up the wail of Dinosaur Jr. or the Pixies more than floppy haired folk from Oxford. But, especially in such a small gig, what’s apparent as they tear through closing numbers ‘The Greatest Light Is The Greatest Shade‘ and a tumultuous rendition of ‘Whirring‘ is how much fun they are having. How unselfconsciously they banter with each other and the audience, Ritzy offering her guitar to be struck by the front row during a feedback wig-out, Rhydian good-naturedly shoving her into the crowd as she leans too far off the stage, both accuse Matt of “not hitting the drums hard enough,” which could scarcely be less true.

“It’s so nice to see so many faces we recognise,” Ritzy adds. That people come back for more doesn’t surprise us at all. Their star is rising; it’s not if, but when.

 

[Originally published at Clashmusic.com]

Palma Violets @ The Boston Arms

Palma Violets
Palma Violets

This energetic South London four-piece’s reputation saw them on tour supporting Savages, 2012’s most hyped Joy Division impersonators, then get signed to Rough Trade without so much as a demo. Tonight, tickets marked for Steve Lamacq are among a pile of industry passes at the door; the venue is sold out. What have the Palma Violets got to explain the hype?

It’s garage rock – cacophonous drums, insistent bass, reverb-a-plenty and shrieked two-part vocals. Pete Mayhew’s organ offers respite and aspires to a broader sound some would call psychedelic, but too often here it’s lost in the mix. On stage Sam Fryer (vocals/guitar) and snarling, floppy-fringed Chilli Jessen (bass/shouting) bounce off each other, launching a blitz of guitar and strobe through a thick pall of smoke and reverb. It’s gleefully reckless; they don’t hit all the notes, they chuck themselves about. Fayer’s voice resembles Ian McCulloch in tone but without the Bunnyman’s finesse; every song arrives laced with whoops, yelps and screams.

Single ‘Best of Friends‘ has a winning chorus, Will Doyle’s catchy drum clatter of ‘Tom The Drum‘ stop-starts to raucous effect, while ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’ could be The Modern Lovers, whose more boisterous organ and bass-driven moments the Palmas sometimes echo.

The gig descends into entertaining chaos: articles of teenage clothing are hurled at the band, a shirtless girl clambers onstage and barely retains her bra, full scale stage incursions ensue, and Jessen indulges in some reverse stage diving by walking into the crowd to be raised aloft and thrown back onstage.

Nothing different then, just a classic recipe executed well with the infectious energy and unshakable faith of the young. These four are living the dream right now. Let them.

Soulwaxmas @ Brixton Academy

Soulwaxmas. Photo credit: Matt Wash
Soulwaxmas. Photo credit: Matt Wash

Soulwaxmas – the name hints at the calling-card humour of Stephen and David Dewaele, the globetrotting Belgian brothers behind electro-rock live act Soulwax and mashup artists 2ManyDJs.

It’s been 14 years since Soulwax’s breakthrough electro-tinged rock album ‘Much Against Everyone’s Advice‘, and 10 years since 2ManyDJs pretty much invented mashup with their genre-blending album ‘As Heard On Radio Soulwax Part 2‘, in which they went to extraordinary lengths to clear more than 40 tracks with copyright holders, creating an album-length mix of snatches of records cut up and stitched back together.

Now in its sixth year, their annual Soulwaxmas festive European tour sees the boys dispense a heady Belgian brew of techno, electro, and full-on party madness from both their guises, with support from fellow traveller James Murphy of DFA Records, Erol Alkan, and Hellmix among others.

Dressed in their signature immaculate suits for the occasion, as Soulwax the brothers are joined by Stefaan Van Leuven on bass and drummer Bent Van Looy to bang out an hour of percussian-heavy, bass- and keyboard-driven electro rock.

The electro-madness of the naughties seems a century ago now, when biting saw waves seemed to be present on practically every record, and Soulwax fall into the group that includes Death From Above 1979 that mix the rockist with the danceable. Maybe there’s a sense that this wave has passed as the fifth jagged electro build-up in a row ripples out across the crowd who leap about illuminated in the searchlights and lasers, hands in the air as the beat returns. But the band constantly reinvent and bring new twists to their tracks, as they did on their dance-erized ‘Nite Versions’ remix album, and big hitters like ‘Another Excuse‘ have the crowd gladly admitting: “It’s a mistake that we’re making/that we’re making”.

Erol Alkan keeps things lubricated between sets, but it’s when they return as 2ManyDjs that Brixton Academy really takes off.

Armed only with their consoles, a considerable back-catalogue of extremely intoxicating dance remixes, and a video projection backdrop that announces the record using cartoonish animated versions of record sleeves, 2ManyDJs step forth to drink the festive crowd under the table. The opening cocktail of acid house classics ‘Humanoid‘ and ‘Mentasm‘ (complete with vast, grinning aceeed face above the stage) leads through Mr Oizo’s techno hand-puppet Flat Eric wearing a fez, Bowie’s ‘Rebel Rebel’ accompanied by undulating naked cartoon Bowies, The Rapture, walking Eiffel Towers, and the inevitable and roof-raising Soulwax Remix of MGMT’s ‘Kids’.

Dashes of one record are dropped into another, setting up the best flavours of both and mixing up memorable stabs and hits to create something new that is neither one nor the other. It’s a great trick, and it keeps on working.

With a final salvo of Run DMC’s ‘It’s Tricky‘ the brothers bid us a happy Christmas, and an explosion of glitter, confetti and broad smiles burst out across the auditorium. As the first night after the predicted apocalypse predictably failed to materialise, Soulwaxmas still shows us how to party like there’s no tomorrow, even when there is.

 

[Originally published at Clashmusic.com]

Band of Skulls @ Brixton Academy

Photo: Richard Gray

Undoubtedly Band of Skulls look the part. Pointy cowboy boots, check. Tight trousers, check. Leather jackets, beards, long hair. Then there’s the sound: pleasingly fuzzy, overdriven guitar; choppy, cut-up riffs; a twanging, bluesy air, and Russell Marsden and Emma Richardson’s dual vocals.

Opening with the slow, half-time riffing of the title track from this year’s album ‘Sweet Sour‘, the sound is dense, the stop-start guitars growing more growly with each verse until Russell takes his guitar off to rub up against the amp for a feedback-filled wig out, before leaping straight into the more considered but equally slow ‘Bruises’. The crowd are a sea of assertively nodding heads caught in the sweep of the stage lights during ‘Patterns’ from 2008’s debut album ‘Baby Darling Doll Face Honey‘, the vocalists calling out to each other and Marsden leading the crowd into singing the final verse: “A pattern, there’s a pattern/there’s a pattern there to follow” they sing. And they’re not wrong, as for track after track Band of Skulls’ set list rolls but never seems to rock. The three, muscular minutes of ‘Bomb’ and Matt Hayward’s clever, insistent drumming on ‘Wanderluster’ bring some needed bombast to a set that threatens to fall flat, but even that track interrupts itself to wallow in 32 bars of soft-spokenness, and is immediately followed by the long and directionless ‘Navigate’. The Skulls’ apparent requirement that each track have a breakdown (or two) creates drag that prevents things ever really taking off. It’s like the warm-up opening number that never gets beyond warm.

After 45 minutes it falls to ‘Hollywood Bowl‘ – the only track from their days as Fleeing New York still in rotation – to cause a stir. From here on they pick up the pace, from the clever rhythmic wordplay on ‘I Know What I Am‘ (“Flick flack/No slack/I got the wit that my enemies lack”) to the rock-out riffing of ‘You’re Not Pretty But You Got It Goin’ On’ and ‘Death By Diamonds And Pearls’.

Such Americana-influenced blues-rock is a well trodden path, in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Dead Weather, Queens of the Stone Age or The Kings of Leon to name but a few. It is admirable that not every track on their albums sounds the same, but at the same time they sound too much like everyone else.

“We’re Band of Skulls from Southampton,” deadpans Marsden, to cheers from the band’s fervent front row fans who have long followed them around the country. These days they play big venues, the Reading Festival’s main stage, win over the SXSW crowd or embark on US tours, but there is still a humility that recognises how speedy their ‘Twilight’ and ‘Gossip Girl’ soundtrack-powered ascent has been from club circuit toil to being heralded as the latest saviour of rock and roll. The trio have worked hard for ten years to get here, but now they have, do they know what to do with it?