Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Indie Heaven

The Broken Family Band – Welcome Home, Loser (Track and Field)

Strawberry Fair, Midsummer Common, Cambridge, 2003 – The Broken Family Band have just completed a rollicking, spirited headline set and the elated crowd are refusing to let them leave the stage. ‘Love you…’ says lead singer Steven Adams. Then the moment of distinctive inspiration – ‘no you hang up, no you hang up!’ There could not have been a more apposite introduction to this very special band (how did I live in Cambridge for so long before I finally found out about them?). Adams’ performance and songwriting blend lacerating humour and devastating pathos more successfully than virtually any other tunesmith currently at work in British music. Their fanbase have remained loyal and passionate for a number of years now – it is hoped that ‘Welcome Home, Loser’ (their second full album, but fourth release including the two mini albums) is the record that will justly bring them to wider attention. You would have therefore thought that, between them, Track and Field and the distribution company would have got their act together in getting this record into the major stores by the morning of release, instead of sending me on a wild goose chase around London, but that’s another story (I eventually found it in Rough Trade Covent Garden, where I had the satisfaction of being congratulated on my choice of purchase by their ever-knowledgeable and friendly staff – I love that shop).

‘Welcome Home, Loser’ doesn’t disappoint, although it doesn’t quite branch out as much as I had expected it might. It’s certainly their best and most consistent collection of songs so far, and most rework the established formula to increasingly powerful effect. Two of these songs (‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ and ‘Where The Hell Is My Baby?’) have been live favourites for a couple of years now, and many more have been performed regularly more recently, so it’s very difficult to talk about first impressions when writing about this album. It already feels homely and familiar, and it’s satisfying to finally have a recorded document of these excellent songs. What certainly stands out is the production, which is noticeably more polished and considered than the fairly organic ‘live’ sound of previous efforts. I initially felt it might have blunted some of the bite of the songs – but there’s still some very aggressive playing on display here, which more than justifies Steve Adams’ contention that BFB are as much a punk band as a country band.

The BFB certainly know how to play a good hoedown – and there are a couple of fantastic examples on ‘Welcome Home, Loser.’ ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ makes for a wonderfully energetic opener, with Adams revelling in the dark irony of its title and lyrical theme. Later on, we get the hilarious ‘Honest Man’s Blues’, liberally laced with Timothy Victor’s breakneck banjo playing, and blessed with the best opening line of recent memory (‘If you work in a whorehouse – you’re gonna get fucked!’). There’s also the swung majesty of ‘Living In Sin’, an uproariously funny narrative of the sexual allure of the dark side (‘You’re a devil woman/Your heart is black but your body drives me craaaazy!/ You’re a sick, satanic lady/You’re full of hate and you know I love that’).

Elsewhere, there are perhaps the two greatest examples of Adams’ juxtaposition of poignancy and wit on the genuinely touching ‘John Belushi’ and ‘We Already Said Goodbye’. There are also the aching and affecting hangover laments ‘Cocktail Lounge’ and ‘O Princess’. In ‘The Last Song’, there is also a touching and perceptive exposition of the songwriting process itself.
The band break free from the formula on a few tracks – notably the almost funky (and thrilling) ‘Yer Little Bedroom’, which seems like the heavier flipside of ‘Gone Dark’ from ‘Cold Water Songs’. They also indulge themselves with the negligibly brief ‘Roman Johnson One’, which comes across as an indie equivalent of the infuriating skits that tend to pepper hip hop albums. We’ll forgive them that, though, particularly as the wonderful aforementioned ‘The Last Song’ follows it. There’s also an epic closer in the form of ‘Coping With Fear’, perhaps unsurprisingly built around the thinnest harmonic and melodic ideas on the album, but not entirely without merit thanks to Adams’ relentless overstatement of its theme. Yet, despite the slight need for this band to veer away from their signature sound, there is the nagging sense that extended instrumental breaks are not necessarily the best way forward.

These are small niggles though and ‘Welcome Home, Loser’ is predictably a treat, comfortably the most fully realised BFB album yet. It’s an essential purchase for fans and as good a starting point as any for the uninitiated.

M Ward – Transistor Radio (Matador)

I should really begin by offering the caveat that this album is so clearly after my own heart that this review cannot possibly be considered objective. Not only am I a sucker for albums that sound as old as the hills – and this one is imbued with a resonant, beautifully timeless quality, but I am also enticed by the dedication to ‘the last of the independent and open format ones of your kind’. It is an album inspired not just by radio, but by the classic form of open minded, intelligent music radio that, with the death of John Peel, we may sadly have lost (a small aside – witness Radio 1’s crass decision to replace the Peel programme with three narrowly focussed ‘specialist’ programmes. Surely the whole point of the Peel show was that we could hear all this stuff within the same two hours??).

M Ward seems to be channelling his energies against two prevailing trends here – the first is the submission of the music-loving radio presenter to formats and directives from business executives. The second is drive that artists have to be original, and the corresponding fear of anything that might sound old or traditional. In addressing these concerns, Matt Ward has produced what promises to be one of the most intriguing albums of 2005.

It’s an audacious album indeed that is book-ended by an acoustic, instrumental take on Brian Wilson’s ‘You Still Believe In Me’ (from ‘Pet Sounds’) and ends with a picked guitar interpretation of JS Bach. Yet these two tracks work brilliantly in their respective positions because they give a clear idea of the breadth of Ward’s vision. He is completely unafraid to delve deep into musical history, and to refashion established texts in fascinating new contexts. His reading of ‘You Still Believe In Me’, in forsaking the original’s lyrics, forsakes some of its innocence and naivety, and instead achieves a kind of wistful melancholy akin to Bert Jansch or Nick Drake.

In between these interpretations of familiar pieces are a clutch of songs that are subtle, sensitively executed and arranged with considerable care. They demonstrate Ward’s versatile manipulation of sound – in the diverse ways he plucks his guitar, in the way he varies the tone and sound of his voice to suit the mood of the song, in the considered instrumentation and production. ‘One Life Away’, shrouded in mysterious static, actually sounds like the early 1930s blues tracks to which it clearly aspires. It achieves the strange of effect of sounding strange and fresh simply by sounding distinctly old fashioned. ‘Fuel For Fire’ is sweet and sad, whilst ‘Four Hours In Washington’ realises the primal restlessness of insomnia and frustration with its clattering drums, pointedly basic strum and exaggerated vocal phrasing. ‘Big Boat’ has a rudimentary quirky charm. ‘Paul’s Song’ successfully employs reverb to create a haunting mood.

Mostly these are short songs that don’t outstay their welcome – all are memorable, some are peculiarly affecting. Whilst this is clearly an album inspired by the musical past – it inhabits its chosen territory so brilliantly that it cannot be considered backward or conservative (although it may be reactionary in the strictest sense – a reaction against current musical and cultural trends, for sure). It sounds nothing like the rather bland conservatism of, say, Josh Rouse. It radiates warmth, wisdom and experience. This is one radio station you won’t want to tune away from.

King Creosote – Rock D.I.Y. (Fence)

Oh me oh my, this is great - a modern day folk album that manages to effortlessly combine plaintive, sincere emoting and the odd wry, humorous treatise. It comes from an entirely different perspective from the M Ward album, seeking not to hark back to the distant musical past, but to create something resonant with all the resources of modern technology, whilst retaining a homespun simplicity. This is one of those lo-fi, home-recorded classics. Its arrangements recall Badly Drawn Boy’s ‘Hour Of Bewilderbeast’ in their delicate intricacy, whilst the overall effect is something akin to Arab Strap crossing paths with Hot Chip. Each song sounds complete and entirely satisfying in itself. Taken as a whole, ‘Rock D.I.Y.’ is a touching collection of compacted kitchen sink epics that lingers in the memory long after it has been prized away from the stereo. At just over 30 minutes, it’s a brief album – but is says so much more in that time than numerous bloated indulgences that push the limit of the CD’s capacity.

King Creosote has actually been at work for years, releasing as many as 23 albums on self-released CDRs distributed at gigs. His last officially sanctioned album (‘Kenny and Beth’s Musical Boat Rides’) made it into Rough Trade Shops’ Best of 2003 list, a high accolade indeed, and his tracks can also be found on the various compilations released by the wonderful Fence Collective, also home to James Yorkston, Lonepidgeon, Pip Dylan and many other fascinating associates. On the evidence of this set, Creosote cares not a jot for recording quality, or for virtuosity, instead favouring the one-take capturing of songs once favoured by Bob Dylan. His songs are left at their bare bones – some rustlings of piano keys, a rudimentary strum and occasionally a drum machine, but yet they sound as rich and full as if they were densely orchestrated.

Much of this is down to Creosote’s highly distinctive style of songwriting – setting his endearingly frail voice in a variety of settings that neatly complement his unusual anti-poetry. His more languid moments, often characterised by an accordion or sustained piano chords, are particularly moving. ‘Crow’s Feet’. ‘Circle My Demise’ and ‘The Someone Else’ are among the sweetest, saddest songs I’ve heard in a long time, their deliberately skeletal melodies imbuing them with wisdom and melancholy. This is by no means an album for the adolescent miserabilist however, as Creosote also produces upbeat, pulsating pop songs with admirable gusto. Throughout, he sustains an understated mastery of the couplet – and the ingenuity of these songs often rests on their bizarre almost-but-not-quite-non-sequitors (two of my favourites are ‘You’re growing old and growing tense/I was past the age of 35 before my face made much sense’ and ‘Let’s leave the lemmings to do their thing/let’s you and I avoid Burger King’. The songs all have narratives that emphasise the ordinary and transform everyday experience into something magical and transcendent. This is exactly what the best songwriting can do.
‘Rock D.I.Y.’ is a brilliantly understated, unassuming collection of uniquely oddball pop songs, which maintain their own kind of peculiar dignity. For those more than a little tired of Elvis’ current stranglehold on the mainstream pop charts, bow down to a different King.

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