So long, and thanks for all the shoes

As you'll have guessed, Betty is in a retired state, and is not scheduled to return. Please visit my newer blogs if you're in any way interested in the state of my head. They are, sadly, not mp3-heavy.

Come On Up To The House

Travels With My Pedometer



You Can Call Me Betty goes on holiday this week, and probably next with its author. You can have a fun song this week:

Kanye West ft. Jamie Foxx - Golddigger


The world is not my home, I'm just a-passin' through

Some artists do genre very well. AC/DC, for instance; Motorhead, these bands are rightly respected for sticking to type. Some artists are innovators, pushing things ahead that no-one had ever heard before.

Some people just are what they are, though. If I want to hear blues-metal, I may well turn to Back In Black. If I want to hear something innovative, I'll likely peruse the Warp or Leaf rosters. If I want to hear an old man sing gravelly blues spirituals, I'm learning to turn to Tom Waits. Because in all honesty, there's no-one really like Tom Waits.

I'm only learning now, mind. Why was this not something I had investigated before, I pondered to myself as I listened to Mule Variations. Particularly as some of the songs on there are stunningly lovely. I don't know. Who can fathom the hearts of men?

But learning I am, slowly. I'm taking a different approach to my recent, frankly quite scary, deep immersion in REM, this time I'm taking it one album at a time, quite gingerly. I'm beginning with Mule Variations, which was actually my first acquaintance of any sort with Waits - it was released on Epitaph in 1999, approximately the time I was running circles around my bedroom listening to NoFX and the Bouncing Souls, and Big In Japan found its way onto the Punk-o-rama vol 4 label sampler. This may have been the problem, given that it's possibly the weakest track on Mule Variations. Since then, people tried making me listen the likes of Swordfish Trombone and I just couldn't muster any interest.

Funny how things work out though. I was looking for something vaguely palatable on my mp3 player for office consumption (we have a fairly accepting office...) and happened across this, which I'd been leant a while back. It was a nice backdrop, these hymnal odes wafting across the late C20 open-plan stylings here, and soothed my troubled (at least, bored) soul.

It was the closing track that caught my attention. What a way to close an album. Come On Up To The House is in the spiritual vein, and it's an elegiac, hypnotically-repetitive song. It's all the better for the paucity of frequency coverage - it's really all about the voice. And what a voice! It's not the curling, sneering tone of the rest of the album, it's an entirely different beast: Waits can bellow. I mean really give it some welly like very few people can. I'm sure I've ranted about this before; it's all very well you mumbling into a microphone (I'm looking at you Gonzalez/Banhart etc.) but it's the ones who can really belt it out that are going to stick in the mind. Johnny Cash, Percy Sledge, you know the sort. Tom Waits absolutely hurls it out on this song and yet it remains beautiful, sweet and tender. What it means, who knows, but suffice to say this is a standout track on a very decent album, and is one of the most beautiful songs I've heard in quite some time.

I gave singing it a go this evening. Although I can apparently pull off a reasonably passable Waits, I could barely keep it up for one song, let alone a whole concert. The guy must tear up his throat, I bet he has those little nodule things.

Tom Waits - Come On Up To The House (Mule Variations, 1999)


I Coulda Been Somebody

Those songs that get stuck in your head, them's cheeky little scamps. Usually it's something you don't want in there, and so it's proved this week. Reverend & The Makers have been getting somewhat overplayed on my radio station of choice recently, and of course it's become ingrained in this cranium of mine. It's a catchy tune you see, reminiscent (to me at least) of some sort of horrific corporate merger of Arctic Monkeys Co. and LCD Soundsystem Ltd. Very now, or so I'm told.

In this respect, Heavyweight Champion Of The World hits it's mark admirably. It has that roguishly charming quality in its vocals, which come across like a slightly less spotty Alex Turner, and there's that insistent groovy beat that reminds of LCD's Our House. In fact, it's a little too right in some respects, almost like it was tailor-made for that sort of halfway house audience. For evidence, Exhibit A is the almost-certainly-written-by-band-or-PR of their wiki, detailing the band's Monkeys connections, their celebrity-spangled Sheffield (of course) club night, and the blindingly obvious John Cooper Clarke connection. The more one delves, the more artificial it all sounds, John McClure (Reverend himself) seeming to be a scenester-hit-the-gold-mine type. Maybe I'm wrong, I really don't know. The terse section describing the dismissal of a former guitarist and the improvements in sound of his replacement is a little too editorial, even for Wikipedia.

Then there's that refrain, "be like everybody else." A cutting take on the make-do mentality of this generation, no doubt. It's a cautionary tale of not letting yourself get "caught in the rat race," the lyrics
describe the descent of individuals into suburban oblivion, the act of letting society get the better of you, of giving up your dreams. A brutal indictment, to be sure.

But let's look a little closer. Hardly subtle in its implementation, "I could have been a contender" is more Rocky than On The Waterfront. There's nothing at all new here, which makes me wonder what the point behind the exercise is if it's not a PR trip. Does Reverend offer any solutions as opposed to just ticking off those that have let themselves fall prey to this? Does he offer up any reasons why it's no good beyond the far from pithy sarcasm of the main refrain? Does he explain his point of view? No. He doesn't. If I wanted a warning not to let my dreams die, I'd probably go watch Joseph & His Technicolour Dreamcoat or something. Don't Let The Man Grind You Down has been said over, and over, and over again. It's the subject of Hollywood movies, and of pop-punk bands dressed up neat for the little girls. It's integrity for the pre-pubescent dressed up in a zeitgeist-y kind of sound.

On my mind this week has been Dostoevsky's "impudence of stupidity," from The Idiot.

"There is indeed, nothing more annoying than to be, for instance, wealthy, of good family, nice looking, fairly intelligent and even good natured, and yet to have no special faculty, no peculiarity even, not one idea of ones own, to be precisely 'like other people'... to have decent education but to have no idea what to make of it, to have intelligence, but no idea of ones own.

There is an extraordinary multitude of such people in the world, far more than appears. They may, like all other people, be divided into two classes: some of limited intelligence; others much cleverer. The first are happier, nothing is easier for 'ordinary' people of limited intelligence to imagine themselves exeptional and original and to revel in that delusion without the slightest misgiving.

Some men have only to feel the faintest stirring of some kindly and humanitarian emotion to persuade themselves that no one feels as they do. Some have only to meet with some idea by heresay or read some stray page to believe at once that is their own opinion and has sprung spontaneously from their own brain."

I work in an office. I take the tube each day to work and I sit at a desk, then I come home and make dinner. And you know what? I'm really happy with it.

Reverend & The Makers - Heavyweight Champion Of The World (single, 2007)


we are now fish and chips

I freely confess, I rarely give the time of day to bands that are popular for whatever reason - what, I don't mean that in an elitist way. I phrased it badly. I mean that, unless there is some very specific reason, I'm just not going to listen to a band that loads of blogs talk about it. Why should I? In the nicest possible way, what do their recommendations mean to me? What is it about any blogger that means I should pay any heed to what they're recommending to me? My logic goes that given to the huge amount of new music most mp3 bloggers have to wade through to be able to post every day, they just can't immerse themselves as deeply into music as the music warrants. I'm certainly judging no-one; goodness, I had the exact same problem when I was updating this blog daily. One has to pile through a million boring emails about bands you don't care about each day, and get sent a huge number of future drinks coasters from internet-canny little labels.

Judging by my Sitemeter stats, most people had the same idea about reading blogs as I did. But anyway, I'm digressing fairly copiously. I was going to post about the Cold War Kids, you see, maybe the epitome of blog-buzz. There's been waves and backlashes for a good while regarding this band, but it's only finally they're coming to my ears. Radio is, apparently, not dead at all. In fact it's healthier than in a long way with the advent of DAB, which means that you can now listen to what you want, not worrying about tuning and crackle and that. So I can now listen to 6Music, the BBC's exceedingly worthy effort at giving DJ's the control. And we thusly have nice music to listen to. Super!

Cold War Kids' new single, Hospital Beds, has been getting a lot of air time. They're not a great band, it's true. I certainly wouldn't buy the album off the back of this single. But there's something that nags about Hospital Beds. a melody or something that sticks to your mind. Weird. They've a number of features which actively annoy me, predominantly the whiny, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah-styled yelpings of the singer, Nathan Willett. It's very American-Indie at the moment, which immediately writes off whole swathes of similar sounding bands, in the same way that anyone attempting the now-boring, twitchy angular rock that Franz Ferdinand did, and Maximo Park ripped off, has immediately stoked my already heightened disinterest.

I listen to other songs via the Hype Machine. They're not good. But Hospital Beds is ok, and I wouldn't turn off the radio when it came on. s'ok, I guess. Meh.

Cold War Kids - Hospital Beds (Robbers And Cowards, 2007)


A Joy

Back after a Bank Holiday-based break...That Keiran Hebden, he's a wag isn't he? After (at least) three fantastic albums as Four Tet, one's which pushed the boundaries of accessibility to the very limits, he went and spaced out on us. Now, I consider Pause, Rounds and Everything Ecstatic to be the very epitome of what I want out of my electronica. Electronic music of any sort; could be house, techno, ambient... could be Dutch gabber for all I care, what I want out of it is the same approach hebden takes to his creations. They're insanely creative, chopping found sounds, samples and loops in all the most unexpected ways, but somehow manage to create the most catchy melodies you can imagine.

Of course, after Everything Ecstatic was in the bag, the former Fridgeman stepped out of the box a little, which I suppose is fair enough. Working with someone like Steve Reid must be a wonderful honour - for someone so clearly a jazz, funk and soul devotee as Hebden is, Reid is pretty much the Daddy of the percussion world. And yet the resultant albums (The Exchange Sessions I and II) were, while worthy, difficult. Is this a bad thing? Probably not. But the Keiran Hebden I'm used to can hang a tune on the slightest hook, and it seems as though the ardour of improvisation, such second nature to Reid, didn't come naturally, especially when allowed such lengthy freedom as these albums displayed.

Tongues though, from this year, is more tightly controlled, more structured, and for me at least, a step in the right direction. I'm well aware that I'm guilty of the same My Band faux pas that I've almost certainly castigated others for; but nonetheless Keiran Hebden had a rare talent for making fairly complex, 'difficult' music accessible, and that fell by the wayside a little on the Exchange Sessions. Tongues is still not perfect, and it still lacks the time so clearly poured into the likes of Rounds, but it's considerably more focussed and accurate, and benefits from that. Seeing Four Tet in the live setting shows what he can do given carefully-prepared source material, and Tongues is definitely more like that.

But it still doesn't come close to Four Tet. It's a shame, and I guess doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things, but for now I'm posting Four Tet rather than Hedben/Reid. It's possibly the pinnacle of Four Tet's output - his most focussed album, Rounds, and his most sublime track, She Moves She. It comes after the opening Hands, which introduces the listener to the Four Tet experience admirably, and it's big of beat, bold of interpretation, and beautiful of execution. This track sums up Rounds particularly for me, and Four Tet in general.

1. Open with drum loop.
2. Introduce Balinese-sounding tuned percussion and what sounds like a shamisen riff.
3. Do not over-egg.
4. Introduce a big schwack of out-of-place noise.
5. Listen as each element combines unbelievably finely.

Four Tet - She Moves She (Rounds, 2003)


D'you know?

I'm sadly a little unplugged from the zeitgeist these days. I don't get a chance to listen to much/anything on the music blogs I read, and find myself less interested in doing so. It's a little sad in some ways, others not so much. I found that when I was doing the blog full-time before, I rarely had a chance to listen to albums for days on end and to revel in the new depths they revealed. Time out = good, and the little bit of writing I do these days is exactly right.

That said, today's artistes wouldn't have needed the extra time for me to know that their album was something special. The Twilight Sad release their first album next week, entitled Fourteen Autumns And Fifteen Winters. Sounds a little adolescent? Maybe so, but not without good reason. The standout track (actually that's a misnomer, most of the other songs are every bit as good. This one just happens to be the most... lyrically significant, I guess), Last Summer, At Home I Was The Invisible Boy extols the virtues of a stable upbringing with such depths of sadness that he could for all the world (bar his gruff-yet-tender Glaswegian drawl) be the fourteen year old he claims to be.

The sound is somewhere between Mogwai and what Hope Of The States were aiming for. Emotionally-charged, but not in the stripy-jumper, floppy haired kind of way. I've used all these comparisons before in my review, but they really do take the same sort of real-life grit and bit-back emotion of Arab Strap and inject into it some post-rock posturings. It's the best album I've heard this year, which is already saying something quite big.

I'm in something of a quandary now though; part of me wants to write on, eulogising the band with all sorts of hyperbolic, excessively gushing and fawning. Part of me however wants to just leave it at that and let the music speak for itself. Not out of laziness, but out of respect for a rather lovely piece of music, that oldest of artforms.

The Twilight Sad - That Summer, At Home I Was The Invisible Boy
(Fourteen Autumns And Fifteen Winters (Fat Cat), 2007)


Thou Shalt Not Quote Me Happy

Bit of a curveball this week, I had something else all lined up then I was forwarded a link to a certain MySpace and finally got round to checking it out. I'd heard of Scroobius Pip and Dan Le Sac via such esteemed internet agitators as Music Like Dirt and The Daily Growl (the best British music blogs out there, if you ask me). But it wasn't til today that I finally listened to Scroobius Pip vs. Dan Le Sac, a track that's just been released and is blowing up on shows like John Kennedy's and Rob Da Bank's. It's Thou Shalt Not Kill, basically a rant delivered by the bearded, be-capped Scroobius Pip in his Stanford-Le-Hope brogue, against the tackiness of modern life. It's devastatingly accurate to the point where as switched-in as you think you might be, you're bound to find yourself in there somewhere.

Thou shalt not take the names of Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer, Johnny Hartman, Desmond Decker, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix or Syd Barret in vain.

Thou shalt not read NME.

Thou shalt not question Stephen Fry.

Thou shalt not watch Hollyoaks.

Thou shalt not return to the same club or bar week in, week out just ’cause you once saw a girl there that you fancied but you’re never gonna talk to.

Thou shalt not put musicians and recording artists on ridiculous pedestals no matter how great they are or were.
The Pixies? Just a band.

When I say "he say, she say, we say, make some noise" - kill me.

Thou shalt think for yourselves.

Good grief yes.

And am I in there? Sigh, of course I am. I say "is it" all the time. This is a searing portrait of British life at the moment, even more accurately, of the elitist, smarter than thou indie scene. Not just that, but of anybody that thinks they're better than that. It's not railing at a scene, or scenesters, it's railing at everyone, pretension in general, and everyone's guilty of that.

Plus it rocks.

Some of it is so accurate - one line perfectly encapsulates what I've been thinking this week: Thou shalt give equal worth to tragedies that occur in non-English speaking countries as to those that occur in English speaking countries.
It's so true: look at all the coverage of the VA Tech shootings, horrific as they were: then compare TV minutes/column inches to the well over a hundred dead in Baghdad just a day or so later. Thirty die a day in Iraq, yet we skip over it with not a thought to it.

Listen to Scroobius Pip and learn about yourself a bit. Plus it rocks. I'm not going to post the track, go buy it you cheapskate, but watch the vid at least...

Buy it from here.


Sorry 'bout the mess

Low's new album is different. There's no way around this fact. The Great Destroyer was break enough for most Low fans, the burst of sound at the opening of Monkey taking the band's devotees right out of their comfort zone.

Certainly we were used to a bit of heavy intensity in the music. Trust came before TGD and just listen to Canada. Things We Lost In The Fire had the brooding Whitetail (a revelation at last summer's Don't Look Back show, by the by). But nothing prepared us for the noisy interjections of Everybody's Song, or the maelstrom dynamics of When I Go Deaf. These threw us, those who had come to love Low as slowcore pioneers; for all the ridicule and justified scorn that that label attracts, at least we were safe.

But what do you know, I love The Great Destroyer. It's an astounding body of work, rich, organic, intense and with some of the band's finest songs. So what were we to expect from Drums & Guns? More of the same? Would Dave Fridmann have progressed to pastures new, would he have drawn them down the neo-psychedelic route that Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips once trod? Would he have vanished to allow a return to the stilted silence and breathing space of Low's earlier works? As it turns out, none of the above.

Pretty People is a statement of intent at the front of this new record, but it's not representative. Yes there's that noise there, but Drums & Guns is an album of beats, of percussion, of taking the band's wonderful vocal talents and juxtaposing them with an entirely new sound. Nothing on this album bar the singing sounds like Low. It's incredibly brave and more than a little foolhardy, but having listened to Drums & Guns through the pain barrier now, I'm falling into the camp of... it works.

I'm taking Always Fade as my case study. It's not Low, surely, you cry. It has an almost... funky... bassline. Almost. It has a beat built from strange blocks, reverb, echo, delay, fancy things. It shouldn't work. But its cohesion comes from the fact that this is still Low, it's still Sparhawk and Parker, there are always, but always going to be melodies you can hang your hat from, they're so hooky. There's one interval on "always fade..." that just lifts up your heart. It's melodies like this where I have to check myself if I'm out in public to avoid overly expressive eyebrow syndrome.
But my favourite part of the track, and maybe the album is about a minute and a half in, where the percussion loop topples over itself and ends up building up to cover every single semiquaver in the bar. This is taken even further later on when the delay and reverb shoot up and the sound almost collapses in on itself. It sounds like thunder.

It turns out that Drums & Guns is an album of hidden delights. Maybe you do have to work for them, but when you ifnd them it's Low: it's beautiful.

Low - Always Fade (Drums & Guns, 2007)


Staring At The Asphalt Wondering

I'll tell you why I missed this blog. It was exactly for moments like this week. This week, being Easter week, has involved time away from the drudgery of the morning cattle-train to work, the repetitive strain-inducing numskullery of the modern workplace and the sardine-esque commute home. So opportunity was taken to visit somewhere Lovely, this week being Oxford.

As Oxford was approached, the Park & Ride bus was left and we disappeared into the covered market for lunch at the wonderful little upstairs of Georgina's. Recommended for the film posters all over the ceiling as well as the very summary of Oxford life that passes through it's little door. When we entered, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers were playing. This was soon passed up, thankfully, for the more cerebral and atmospheric tones of Ben Gibbard as The Postal Service. The album was Give Up, and it commenced with The District Sleeps Alone Tonight.

And that, that is the reason why I missed writing a blog. Because where else would I have the opportunity to wax lyrical about a song from several years ago now, for no reason other than because I can? Here is where.The Postal Service were in fact relatively unfamiliar territory; this song was about the depths of my knowledge of the twosome. Which is curious, given the number of similar sounding acts that have floated my boat in the last year. The District Sleeps Alone Tonight is the sound of an emo icon mixing with electronica, to not entirely unsuccesful effect: it has that wordy, breathy, upfront vocal. It has the apparently disconnected, almost nonsensical lyrics that you'll find in any good example of the emo genre, and the bizarre middle-of-sentence pauses that characterise the style of singing. Rangy, I might call it.

But it also has a cute, detached guitar part, and glitchtronica beats courtesy of Dntel's Jimmy Tamborello. What sets it apart from everybody else is the glorious chorus. It makes no sense, of course - "You seem so out of context in this gaudy apartment complex" - but it doesn't matter. It soars, it lifts above the clatter and chatter of Georgina's at lunchtime.

I said I couldn't really explain why it'd taken me this long to get round to getting into the Postal Service: after all, this song could probably slot fairly easily into the last album by my beloved Clue To Kalo, and has similarities to the minimalist beauty of Casiotone For The Painfully Alone. Emo buddies separated at birth, I have no idea. Lovely stuff the lot of it though.

The Postal Service - The District Sleeps Alone Tonight (Give Up, 2003)


Young Shields

I admit it: I'm a total hog of the office stereo. It's caused fractions before: I'll never forget the bloody aftermath of a particularly heated Jimmy Cliff vs. Cher exchange with one unenlightened individual. I can be remarkably stubborn, and although my populist sensibilities take over if I'm putting an album on, putting my mp3 player on random is bound to cause some upset.

I recently filled it up. This means that I've had to start going through and deleting those promos to which I've never given the time of day (Our Brother The Native; Television Personalities; Plastic Constellations. I can't take the approach of many bloggers and listen and appraise everything, sorry), and to those albums I frankly just don't want on there any more (Arctic Monkeys, I'm looking at you). Which means I have an ever more streamlined approach to the shuffle button. Increasingly, everything on my Zen is fantastic, everything has its place, everything is important. Listening to my mp3 player on random some days is a near-religious experience, darting from one end of the experimental electronic atmosphere to the poppier side of Tropicalia, via some Undertones or some Tanya Donnelly or some Johnny Cash. It's really good, I promise.

Quite regularly though, there'll crop up songs which, for whatever reason, are just not appropriate for office consumption. Not for any lyrical content, but for sheer wilfull unlistenability. I know my limits, for the most part: I know that if I were to throw on Keiran Hebden's collaborations with Steve Reid I'd get many a scratched head: electronic free jazz is certainly an acquired taste. But occasionally something will come up that's a bit beyond most of my colleague's usual listening practice: the lengthy, spacious minimalism of Murcof perhaps, or the keyboard swathes of M83. What came on this week was a My Bloody Valentine remix of Mogwai Fear Satan.

This ticks many boxes for me. Firstly, the artists involved. In Mogwai you have one of my favourite acts ever, the mind-meltingly loud sonic terrorism of the band's early approach very much evident in the original of this track. Mogwai always cook up a winning formula, dynamic and abrasive and beautiful. Then you have a band which has been slotted into an increasingly rigid category, "shoegaze." My Bloody Valentine are more than that, in fact it could be argued that far from rigid, MBV are the most expansive band you could ever hope for. For while they fit themselves, just about, into pop song format, they create a sound that has never been equalled or approached, which veers so far off into skull-scraping monsters of noise that it cycles back round into beauty again.

Then you have the song, a 16 minute statement of future intent that closed Mogwai's debut, Young Team. The one occasion I've had the privilege of watching a Mogwai show was opened with this. If ever the expression Wall Of Sound was fitting, it wasn't for the blustery pop of Phil Spector or anything like that; it was made for the banked guitars or Mogwai Fear Satan, the just-when-you-think-it-can't-get-any-louder build-up. It says everything you need to know about Mogwai.

So: the tag team, the dream pairing of Mogwai and MBV. Some remixes work, some don't, this is well-established fact. This works because it takes a song barely on the edge of listenable and plunges headlong with it into realms of fear and fantasy - like Ian McKellen taking out the Balrog if you like.

And while it's not perhaps office stereo material, here you have a frightening, and frighteningly beautiful question being asked of each listener, of what is beautiful to them, of what they can understand and tolerate. It's cerebral and powerful.

Mogwai - Fear Satan (My Bloody Valentine Remix) (Kicking A Dead Pig, 2001)


Your Canned Philosoph

There was a brief publishing phenomenon a little while back (probably loosely based on Sex & The City, as were most things at the time) in which self-help guides appeared explaining to women when to give up, i.e. when a man was Just Not That Into Her. Some of today's pop stars could do with a similarly frank treatment at times, don't you think? Someone could have done with sitting David Bowie down and saying: Tin Machine. No. Just as an example.

Which brings us on to Frank Black. General perception is that Charles Thompson's alter-ego's output has been in a slow, not-quite-graceful decline from the very start of his career, starting with some of his defining moments on Come On Pilgrim, through his progressive megalomania in the Pixies, via some decent solo albums, onto some mixed-bag albums with the Catholics and finally on some theoretically interesting, but ultimately dull new solo records. Well, that's not quite accurate, and there's a sting in the tail. So let's delve a little deeper shall we...

I'm suffering a fairly long-term Pixies burnout. I was obsessed for a while, venturing as far as an undergraduate dissertation. Oh yes. But I've since not really listened for a long while, and have been less than enthused by the former/current frontman's latest work. I'm one of those who'll argue the finer points of Come On Pilgrim as the Pixies' finest hour, although I also consider the rest of their releases indispensable. But as so often with this kind of arrangement, people (you know... people...) have a tendency to dismiss post-legendary work. Which is a shame, because FB's eponymous first solo album was fantastic, probably the equal of the Pixies' parting Trompe Le Monde, and it was followed by the wonderful Teenager Of The Year, a lengthy album filled with insanely inventive and catchy pop songs.

It was followed by the first dip in creativity the man had ever had, with the patchy (although often inspired) Cult Of Ray, the last solo effort for a while as after this, the Catholics were assembled for a series of straight-to-2-track rock'n'roll numbers. Here's where my opinion coincides with 'them', the proletariat: these are more patchy still. As always there are some great tracks, and are worth putting some time and energy into to appreciate, but it was almost like an overload of material, like a self-editing button had been switched off. The Catholics split after 2003's Show Me Your Tears (for me an upturn) and Frank went into creative overdrive starting with Honeycomb in 2005. For this he drafted in an incredible roster of seminal musicians: the likes of Steve Cropper, Billy Block, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldman all appeared, hosted by the production, um, talents of Jon Tiven. Many are of the impression that it was this self-proclaimed "polarising and controversial" individual, with his flat, lifeless production, that sucked the soul out these songs.

This was where the analogy at the start comes in: somebody needed to sit down with Frank Black and tell him that, while there's a place for smooth, confessional country-soul singers in this world, it's not the role Frank Black was born to fill. He's just not very good at it. His limited vocal range and timbre let him down at all the worst points, and it was shame to have to drag up the occasional time-change or non-standard key shift to try and justify the presence of the track.

Honeycomb was described by it's author at the time as his Blonde On Blonde, a divorce album and a sidestep in style. It's no Blonde On Blonde, let's get that straight, and the divorce elements vary between the bizarre duet with his ex-wife Jean on Strange Goodbye and the hideous saccharine of Violet, possibly the worst thing Black's ever put his name to.

The album was followed by more of the same (Fastman/Raiderman) and its scheduled follow up, Grand Duchy, is an album with gf Violet along similar lines. I'd never been less enthused about Frank Black until this last weekend, when details of another album pencilled in for June arrived. Now, I'm not going to post a track out of respect - maybe later - but this is different. It's stripped down. It's rock'n'roll. It's raw. The album will be called Bluefinger, and it's Frank Black hitting that magical mystery land between the punishing bite of the Pixies and the energising and fascinating pop of his early solo career. The bass is on the edge of completely cracking up, the drums pound, and Frank whoops and hollers like a dog on heat (possibly the theme of this album, if you catch my drift), the barely disguised innuendos flying past his lips in a maniacal scream. It's exciting stuff, and the album as a whole has an interesting balance to it: the rolling punk of Threshold Apprehension and Tight Black Rubber is balanced by the more expansive second half, Angels Come To Comfort You, or You Can't Break A Heart And Have It being prime examples.

Bluefinger is the first time I've been excited about a new Frank Black album for about 4 years, and it's motivated me to break out the older stuff. So I'm posting from Teenager Of The Year: wildly diverse as this album is (songs like Big Red contain more ideas than most bands have in a lifetime), I'm breaking out The Rock. It's difficult to pick out a highlight on this record, but I'll plump for Thallasocracy, a deceptively straightforward, head-down, riff based monster. Being Frank Black, it's far more complex than that, the lyrics combining Caesar, Inuit and Romanov with short, sharp pop-pop-pop sounds and huge E-string bass riffs. It's got Eric Drew Feldman's signature synths all over it, and Lyle Workmans' explosive lead guitar. It's a beaut. If this doesn't get you excited for Bluefinger, you're probably already dead.

Frank Black - Thallasocracy (Teenager Of The Year, 1994)


Here I Am, In Your Life

Picking a favourite REM album is like picking a favourite child, or a favourite Jolly Rancher, for some people. It just can’t be done. Even the most ardent fan is a little cagey on the subject, usually muttering some sort of apology for not having a preference. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus even: some will never veer from their faith in Automatic For The People as the be-all and end-all of alternative rock, some will swear by earlier works like Murmur. New Adventures In Hi-Fi seems to cause some controversy, some fans bemoaning a lack of inspiration and a seeming apathy, some kneeling before the likes of E-Bow The Letter and Electrolite as (rightly) classic examples of the Georgians’ oeuvre.

Myself, I’m still learning. REM is quite the hot topic around YCCMB Towers, with much love up for grabs. So while I’ve heard a great deal of the music, I can’t claim a definitive opinion of any sort.

Not that that’s ever stopped me before. Green is my favourite REM. It’s living proof that major labels need not be the restrictive, binding influence they’re imagined to be, Warners' allowing REM to get away with some of their most goosebump-raising moments on this record. But REM were always accessible – their songs, while in no way lowbrow are impossible to resist, and certainly not difficult – on first listen at least. There’s great depths. There’s pop aplenty on Life’s Rich Pageant, for example, and plenty of solid, almost traditional songwriting on all their prior releases. That’s why they were so well-positioned to go on and become the World’s Biggest Band, for a while – accessible, yet credible enough for indie kids to fall in love with.

Green was the starting point, the move away from IRS that signalled that bigger things lay in store. It starts with the brash Pop Song 89 that, along with Stand, was the commercial draw that chances are were pushed as singles by Warner – Stand in particular draws some ire amongst diehards. But it’s the acoustic numbers that pull me in: starting at track 3 with arguably one of the band’s greatest ever songs. You Are The Everything is Peter Buck’s finest hour as a mandolin hero, and one of Michael Stipe’s as a singer and a poet. There’s undeniable emotion here, in the construction and rhythm of the words as well as Stipes’ delivery, cracking every now and then with held-in sighs.

World Leader Pretend, Orange Crush, The Wrong Child, I Remember California, these all pass by containing more moments of beauty in each one than some bands manage in their entire career. The latter, particularly, is for me the epitome of the wistful nostalgia that REM do so wonderfully (cf. E-Bow?), and The Wrong Child slays with one cry of “okay.” But I’ve been thinking about this post all week, and try as I might, I can’t put Hairshirt out of my head.

I’ve no idea what the song’s about. "I am not the kind of dog to keep you waiting, for no good reason at all. Run a carbon-black test on my jaw." Not the slightest, but I am convinced just from listening that it’s something vitally important, a bruising, savagely real take on something to remain nameless. I don’t know if it’s the suspended mandolin chords, or Stipe’s forceful grace notes on “here I am in your life,” but it really tugs. The phrasing is so unique, so REM, and it has but sparse accompaniment (on mandolin again), which is all that’s necessary: REM are not so much a band intent on the overblown, so quiet suffices when it’s time for quiet.

It quite genuinely caused some fraught decision-making to pick Hairshirt. After all, You Are The Everything is one of the classic indie pop songs of the last twenty years, I Remember California is so wonderful as well, but I think I've made the right choice, just about.

REM - Hairshirt (Green, 1988)


Black is back, all in, we're gonna win

Two months is a long time hey? Apparently I am distracted easily: making podcasts is easily second-rated by real life, as well as blogging. But I've missed it, I've missed writing about the music that really moves me: writing about new music is great, and I've made some real discoveries, but what if I need to vent on about something I've dragged up from thirty years ago? Maybe if I aim for one post a week rather than once a day, magazine-stylee. Interesting...

I'm starting up again with Bob Marley. You say that probably enough has been written about Bob Marley, and you'd probably be right. But regardless, Bob Marley seems to be the one ubiquitous artist that retained his excellence in all things. For example, every genre has its icon with their millstone: the glorious, burning soul of 60's Stax have been brutally filtered until When A Man Loves A Woman and Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay are no longer people's introduction to the music but their entire knowledge. Pink Floyd's monstrous canon has been passed over in favour of Another Brick In The Wall. You get the idea.

But Bob Marley... Marley has maybe One Love as the only thing approaching a millstone, and that song even the clammy fingers of Magic FM dare not suck the soul out of. It's a joyous, celebratory song but unlike others on the same level, it's lost none of its original point, none of its optimism and charm. It's become an unofficial national anthem, it's soundtracked countless tourist board adverts and has kept its simplistic beauty.

But today I want to think about a song easily the equal in terms of uplift. From the Burnin' album of 1973, Hallelujah Time slots almost incongruously between the choppy, righteous call-to-arms of Get Up, Stand Up and the biting political comment of I Shot The Sheriff. It's gorgeously mellow, wonderfully positive and has the most beautiful chord progressions of any reggae song I know. Its springtime imagery conjures up not just gambolling lambs and bluebells,
but more importantly children - after all, Children Are The Future. It reminds me that spring in Jamaica is most likely far brighter and sunnier than over here, the dank gloom of March breaking just occasionally over London's hazy atmosphere, something that every now and then becomes really important. While I can happily indulge in Jamaican food to my hearts content over here, it's only for a couple of months in summer that it works best, outside, barbie'd up.

The song stands out for me on record packed with incredible songs: rather than the tightly packed, taut skanking of earlier releases, this sees the Wailers kicking back and allowing the songs room to breathe, and it has its companion piece in the classically laid-back Duppy Conqueror. The album goes to show the breadth of life that's present in this sort of music, and particular that of Mr Marley - from political polemic to social comment to religious moments. So break out some rum, grab some guava jelly, have a listen, unwind and cheer up, and appreciate the lovely, lilting tones of Bob Marley - for a man up there with Che Guevara in terms of student-based ubiquity, there's much to fall in love with.

Bob Marley - Hallelujah Time (Burnin', 1973)


Turn to face the strange...: podcast #5

...Ch-ch-changes ahoy. As I sit here with a KitKat I wonder how to start. From today, You Can Call Me Betty is going podcast-only, so no longer will I be continuing with posting mp3s etc. I've come to the conclusion that actually I don't really have time to do this as well as I'd like, evidenced by the sparse posting patterns of the last few weeks. I have other things which occupy my time, so I'll be concentrating on writing reviews at NoRipcord and Don't Worry About The Government (when Tom pulls his finger out), and creating a better breed of podsafe, new-music-tastic podcasts for your listening enjoyment. You will find the podcasts posted here and, for a while at least, at yccmb.blogspot.com
I've very much enjoyed writing though, and hope to invest as much into the podcasts as I have into the blog, not least of which is some stonkingly ace music, as always. You should be able to tell that by the tracklisting below, so have a listen, then see ya later alligator.

So: blame work, blame having a life and stuff, but as you know it, this is the end of You Can Call Me Betty.

Ta ta!

The Music
Jeff Buckley - Last Goodbye

Podcast # 5: Chrimbo Dinbo

1) Absentee - We Should Never Have Children (from Schmotime, Memphis Industries, streamable from Absenteemusic.co.uk)
2) Kristin Hersh - Sno-Cat (from The Grotto, 4AD, download at throwingmusic.com)
3) Adem - These Are Your Friends (from Homesongs, Domino, stream at Domino Records)
4) Herbert - Moving Like A Train (from Scale, !K7, stream at matthewherbert.com)
5) TV On The Radio - Province (from Return To Cookie Mountain, 4AD, stream on MySpace)
6) Daedelus - Viva Vida (from Denies The Days Demise, Ninja Tune, stream on MySpace)
7) Harvey Girls vs. Feedle - Hazy Heat (Victor Scott remix) (SVC Records, download from victorscott.ca)
8) Max Tundra - Labial (from Mastered By Guy At The Exchange, Domino, stream on MySpace)