Saturday, April 17, 2004

I've had an adventurous week, finding familiar faces in exciting places, if not entirely unexpected ones. I've also been forging new contacts and making movements of my own. I've still yet to reap any reward - but I can justifiably feel a little better about my situation at the moment.

Anyway, at least I'm a new face, rather than one trying to atone for past sins. Morrissey has had a strange decade since the release of the widely panned 'Southpaw Grammar'. He now seems to be finally emerging from his wilderness years, as defiant and controversial as ever. He has reconciled himself with the NME, granting them a full interview, and the release of his new single 'Irish Blood, English Heart' and new album 'You Are The Quarry' is tantalisingly imminent.

I've never been an obsessive Smiths or Morrissey fan, but have rather quietly admired the stature and influence of this eloquent spokesman with exceptionally dry wit. At his best, he is an original and incisive lyricist, with a distinctive singing voice that eschews technical methods both in terms of pitching and phrasing.

It always struck me as bizarre that he was demonised for racism only after brandishing the union jack whilst supporting Madness at Finsbury Park. Race and race relations have been a consistent theme in his solo work - from 'Bengali in Platforms' on his very first album (central lyric: 'life is hard enough when you belong here'), through to his unapologetic new single. His most contentious song, 'The National Front Disco' featured a repeated chant of 'England for the English!'. The album from which it was taken, 'Your Arsenal', was largely well received on its release. Morrissey justified it by claiming he was speaking in character. Yet even in this week's NME, however, he expresses sympathy with the ill-informed populist view of the immigration issue. It is a question, he says, of how many people you continue to let 'flood' into the country, whilst expressing sympathy for the persecuted. I have a problem with this rhetorical language. By implication, it demonises all economic migrants, and ignores the fact that Britain has depended on immigrants for a number of years. What it does indicate, however, is that Morrissey is probably not a racist. I can't imagine him inciting violence against ethnic minorities or anything like that. What he is is someone with a very romantic idea of England, and someone with a strange interest in the development of racist views. In following this interest, he may have merely perpetuated the ignorance he purports to be writing about.

I find it hard to resolve this problem with my undeniable appreciation for his best music. The new single is punchy and crisp, produced by Jerry Finn, who crafted the crystal clean FM punk sound of Blink 182 and Green Day. Yet whilst those bands, despite their penchant for toilet humour, sound sanitised and unremarkable, 'Irish Blood, English Heart' sounds firm and unrepentant. The strange meeting of cult indie hero and mainstream production values appears to have worked a treat. He is, of course, still barking on about the flag. He dreams of a time when he can stand by it without feeling racist or partial, and then goes on to lambast the monarchy. At least in my mind, the Union Jack and the monarchy are intertwined, so I can't help feeling there are inherent contradictions in his worldview. Nevertheless, it's refreshing to hear an uncompromising record which seems to have helped him to regain his position as critical darling of the British music press. Many are saying the new LP is his best since 'Vauxhall and I'. That album, with its charm and intelligence, was as good as anything The Smiths ever produced. Despite his continued courting of controversy, there is much to look forward to and I'm keenly anticipating his homecoming gig at Manchester's MEN Arena.

When I said there was no new music to buy, clearly I was lying. I've been on a bit of a spending spree this week. First into the bag is a delightful EP from Toronto's Hidden Cameras. I've been ranting on about this band's considerable charms for well over a year now, and I've been lucky enough to interview them and enjoy a drink with them in one of Cambridge's premier gay bars (if that isn't a contradiction in terms). They describe their music as 'gay folk church music'. That may make it sound inaccessible, but in reality, it's joyous and inclusive pop, so long as you're open minded enough not to be offended by upfront lyrics about man-on-man action. They manage to combine lo-fi production values with huge, almost excessive arrangements with consummate success. 'The Hidden Cameras play the CBC Sessions' is really a collector's item - a limited edition vinyl only release of six tracks recorded for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. It includes their signature tune 'Music Is My Boyfriend', not available elsewhere and a marvellous version of B-Side 'Worms Cannot Swim Nor Can They Walk' performed completely solo by songwriter and mastermind Joel Gibb. The remaining four tracks are faithful, if slightly more ragged performances of songs from their debut LP of last year, including the sprightly, delightfully catchy anthem 'Breathe On It' and the melancholic charm of 'Boys of Melody'. Wonderful stuff, but probably best to start off with 'The Smell Of Our Own'. Both are available on Rough Trade and there is a new album proper scheduled for release later in the year.

I may well have fallen in love with 'Our Endless Numbered Days', the new album from Iron and Wine. Its rudimentary cover painting, its smelly cheap card sleeve and its stark, finger-picked acoustics exude a defiantly rustic quality. Its a collection of excellent songs, performed in a hushed and restrained style, and with deceptively simple arrangements. The guitar playing is consistently excellent, and Sam Beam's soft, delicate voice imbues the music with an endearing vulnerability. The songs tread over old ground in American folk music, largely concentrating on death and mortality, but with a poetic muse that is somehow both honest and elusive. Melodically, it's fresh and inspired. Musically, it has both activity and breathing space.

Until now, other members of the post-rock ensemble Fridge have remained in the shadow of Kieren Hebden, who has eclipsed the success of his band with his solo output as Four Tet. Now, Adem Ilhan has stepped out of the shadows with a distinctive and affecting solo projects. 'Homesongs' is a collection of recordings made in Adem's warehouse studio, and mixed in collaboration with Hebden. These are sparce folk-tinged songs underpinned by delicate laptop interventions that never feel excessive or intrusive. The lyrics are sometimes a bit twee, but there is genuine emotion on display. This is an album that occupies its own unique space, far from both the math rock intellectualism of Fridge and the pastoral, jazz inflected electronica of Four Tet.

No comments: