Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Fight To Create


 

During my daily walk through Melbourne’s CBD, I am often reminded of something the author of Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk, once said in response to an overly-nasty critic: ‘It’s easy to attack and destroy an act of creation. It’s a lot more difficult to perform one.’


While passing by artists of all descriptions– street performers, puppeteers and musicians, to name but a few – I also inevitably witness the general public’s many reactions to these performers, which can often range from heartwarmingly positive to vocally dismissive. Yet, for those of us with an active interest in the creative process, it’s hard not to appreciate the time and effort that has been taken to perfect these crafts.


Having myself dabbled in certain art-related activities in my time (with varying degrees of success), I often wonder about the experiences of the creatively-minded souls that populate the city sidewalks, as well as those who prefer to chase their artistic dreams in less public forums. Do these artists fall victim to the same creative funks that I have sometimes struggled with? And how exactly do they keep inspired, especially in the face of uncertainty and self-doubt?


Over the years, these questions have mostly remained unanswered, due to the fact that I have never really bothered to ask. Lately, however, the urge to discuss such matters has risen, along with my own desire to take my creative endeavours a little more seriously. So, with a novel-sized list of questions at the ready, I decide to contact a few emerging artists from different corners of Melbourne’s creative community in order to better understand how they themselves deal with their struggles, disappointments, and – one would hope – triumphs.


One of the first people I touch base with isSunset Blush, a Queensland-bred, Melbourne-based solo musician who has been performing and recording across the city for over a decade. I am not only interested in what his own unique experiences have been during his time in Melbourne, but also how they compare to the younger artists I have organised to speak with afterwards.


When I eventually hear back via a late night email, there is one particular statement within the body of the email that immediately stands out: ‘Like in any job or industry, there are bad and good aspects. People come and go. It’s just up to us how we deal with it and how we adapt. Life isn’t always chocolates and marshmallows.’


I initially take this rather levelheaded viewpoint to be indicative of Sunset’s many years on the scene. However, less than a week after receiving his email, I am forced to reconsider this while catching up withLlewelyn Crist and Sean Coop, a couple of musicians who, despite being significantly younger than Sunset, seem to whole-heartedly share his mature outlook.





Their individual stories – particularly the ones revolving around their earliest days playing in their respective hometowns – contain examples of struggle and disappointment, yet are delivered in a way that is surprisingly upbeat.


‘I don’t know if they were hard scenes to crack,’ Llewelyn tells me over some beers. ‘It’s just that in my experience of auditioning for bands, there just wasn’t much going. There were bands who were looking for members for such a long time. It felt like such a tiny community that it’s hard for any of these band’s to just get started.’


Llewelyn’s thoughts on his hometown, which, coincidentally, also happens to be my hometown too, raises a valid question. Exactly how important is location when it comes to an artist’s ongoing development?


My query is answered only a few short hours later; via an email from another artist I have made contact with, Melbourne-based author Hannah Crawford. Hannah has just recently published her first novel – a violent fantasy by the name of Moment Rock – and believes, whole-heartedly, that Melbourne’s creative energy is largely responsible for her own progress as a writer





'There are a lot of meet-up groups to get involved in and so many events,’ she mentions before delving a little further into her own history.

‘I grew up in country towns in Tasmania and Victoria where their idea of art was a photograph of the local footy game on the front page of the newspaper. Poster bombing, arts festivals and pushing boundaries are still alien concepts in those communities, all these years later. Living in a city like Melbourne, where you can turn the corner and there’s a festival or [you can] share a train with Iron Man on the way to a comic convention, is invaluable for a writer.’

I can’t help but agree with her there. From my own perspective, it has been difficult to ignore the increase in motivation I have personally felt since arriving in Melbourne a little over a year ago. Still, my own change of scenery – as necessary as it was – didn’t suddenly make the realities of everyday living evaporate into the ether. There were still many other roadblocks that could potentially hinder any kind of creative progression on my part, the main one undoubtedly being that annoying little time-waster known aswork.


Further into her email, Hannah mentions her own work-related dilemmas that have, in the past, often suffocated her mind into a creative drought. Yet, to her credit, she has somehow managed to flip it around in her favour. ‘It’s also these jobs that have influenced a lot of my writing. I’ve had thirteen jobs in twenty working years and the characters and stories from all those years, even from the most dismal and mind-numbing jobs, are a seemingly endless source for my writing.’


Another artist who knows this pain all too well is Jessica Wegmann, a Melbourne-based photographer/graphic designer who, like Hannah, acknowledges that her work/art balance is far from ideal. That said, she seems somewhat optimistic that this will not always be the case. ‘Ideally I’d like to slowly cut out my normal everyday job hours down and keep working creatively, little bits of work here and there for photography and graphic design,’ she admits, before adding, ‘You need to always keep on moving if you don’t want to lose your passion.’


This ‘need to keep moving’ is a fact that most artists know all too well. And, in an age where lying around and waiting for some record executive or literary agent to come and discover you is no longer a realistic option, the best way to move forward with your artistic ambitions is by taking the reins and handling every aspect of the creative process yourself.

Not surprisingly, this D.I.Y attitude is something that every artist I speak with, possesses. For author Hannah, who had initially considered a few different avenues prior to the release of Moment Rock, the correct path only became clear to her the deeper she delved into the process. ‘I only sent out a few enquiries, one to an agent and three to traditional publishers. When I was sending the last one I think I’d already decided to go indie and do all the work myself.’


Llewlyn and Sean also found themselves taking a similar approach with their band, Mr. Wolf, which is possibly the reason they have managed to achieve so much during their eight short months together.

‘I go to venues and scope out bands within our genre,’ Llewelyn mentions to me after I bring up their upcoming gig at iconic Melbourne venue The Tote. ‘It’s good to know where you’ll be able to start. We’ve started doing open mike nights, and that’s… I mean, no one’s there, but it’s just a really good chance to play live. That experience is important.’


On the recording front, the guys have also impressively managed to release their first demo, the pleasingly-titled Schmuck. This leads me to enquire about a part of the artistic process I am admittedly rather hazy on – the all-important art of self-promotion, and, beyond this, the role social media plays in such promotion.





‘I don’t think that social media actually works as well as everyone says it does,’ Sean admits to me, with little hesitation.

Llewelyn agrees, adding, ‘If you’re small, no one’s going to give a crap about you. I mean, you might get a like from your mum…’


Their somewhat blasé attitudes are a good reminder that, beyond the cosy confines of Facebook and Twitter, there are numerous other options to take into consideration when it comes to promoting your own work.


Hannah, too, has found other online options to be far more effective. ‘Right now my favourite marketing tool is conducting giveaways on sites such as Goodreads. It’s a great way to get people reading your work.’


Still, not everyone is completely ready to give social media the old heave ho. From a photography perspective, Jessica has found Facebook to be not only a great way of getting her work seen, but also a place where she is able to obtain some valuable feedback, both positive and negative.


Sunset, on the other hand, still counts himself as an active member of the ever-popular Twitter-verse, though he is well aware of the dangers of over-promoting yourself. ‘Try not to come across as too annoying, or you will get ignored.’


With so much focus placed on the creation and promotion of current projects, I begin to wonder how the hell any of these highly motivated individuals find the time to give any kind of thought to their future creative plans. When I bring this up during our various chats, it is made abundantly clear that each artist knows full well the importance of looking ahead, and that doing so is essential in keeping their own creative fires burning.


For Llewelyn and Sean, it is all about taking baby steps, with their primary areas of focus being the organisation of further gigs and, eventually, the recording of their first Mr. Wolf EP. The one thing that isn’t exactly high on their list of priorities – at least at this stage – is the need for recognition.


‘If you’re wanting to do it to be recognised, then it will be hard,’ Llewelyn says to me towards the tail end of our interview. ‘If you’re doing it because it’s what you like doing, and do it regardless of whether you get paid or not… just wanting to do it for the sake of doing it, then you’re going to find your life a lot easier.’


It is refreshing to hear such words come from the mouth of a musician as young as Llewelyn. Ironically, it will probably be this very attitude that will one day see his band gain the type of recognition he cares so little for at this point.


Jessica, meanwhile, is currently in the process of organising additional shoots and projects for later in the year. ‘I have a few people lining up for my next project that is in the works called …With Love, and I always have friends randomly messaging me saying they found this cool location and that I should shoot there, or people telling me I should work with a certain person who would be great for a project…’


On the writing front, Hannah’s short-term plans are equally inspiring. Outside of the on-going focus on her blog Brilliant Lucidity, there are also plans to participate in National Novel Writing Month later in the year. In addition to this, she will be releasing a collection of short stories titled Silent Fireworks, writing another as-yet-untitled second novel and working on a sequel to Moment Rock that is scheduled for the first half of 2016.

This level of ambition, along with the way she closes out her email to me, leaves an undeniably large impression. Explaining her idea of success, she says, ‘I’ve had all kinds of answers to this question over the years. Health, family, friends and love have all made appearances and they will always be a part of what I consider to be a successful life. Being able to make a living at writing, at something that to me has so many commonalities with breathing, seems an apt definition… at least for today.’


*


A week or so after these art-related interactions, it suddenly dawns on me just how many of my questions to them held negative connotations – What have the struggles been? How do you keep doing it? How do you find the time? Yet despite this, the eventual responses were resoundingly positive.


The reason is simple: Jessica, Hannah, Llewelyn, Sean, and Sunset have never really forgotten the all-important golden rule that following your dreams should be, above all else, fun. Taking this into consideration, it would probably have been in my best interests to simply ask if they still enjoyed what they were doing, as opposed to trying to gain a deeper understanding of their individual processes via my insanely long-winded questions. Sure, it would likely have resulted in a much shorter article, but it would also have more accurately illustrated the fact that an artist taking pleasure in what he or she does is the most important thing. Everything else merely exists as background noise.

This fact alone is something I myself have been guilty of forgetting at times, though after speaking with these artists, I am doubtful I will fall into the same trap again. For me, hearing about their experiences serves as a necessary reminder of the importance of enjoying the long and often challenging fight to create. After all, if you’re not having any kind of fun throughout the process, then really, what’s the point of even trying?

*

Hannah Crawford Links:

Moment Rock is now available via Amazon:
http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00UDV0K2O
Hannah’s blog, Brilliant Lucidity:
https://brilliantlucidity.wordpress.com/
Goodreads:
https://www.goodreads.com/HMCrawford

Mr. Wolf Links:

Facebook page:https://www.facebook.com/pages/Mr-Wolf/1583156205301783

Schmuck Demo: http://mrwolf1.bandcamp.com/releases

Jessica Wegmann links:

Jesster.artdesign:https://www.facebook.com/jesster.artdesign

Sunset Blush links:

iTunes:https://itunes.apple.com/au/artist/sunset-blush/id499619702

YouTube:www.youtube.com/user/purplesmurf327

 

 



The Death of Genre

 

A little while back, a number of publications prematurely jumped on a bandwagon I couldn’t for the life of me get behind – the so-called ‘death of the guitar in popular music’. It felt short-sighted and false; a piss-poor attempt by unimaginative writers to predict a future based solely on what was hot in the charts that week.

Thankfully, it wasn’t long before these ‘guitar eulogies’ clogging up the blog-o-sphere were rightfully dismantled by smarter writers willing to tell it like it really was. Not only were their arguments spot on, they also unintentionally revealed something exciting about our current musical landscape I hadn’t really given much thought to. In truth, no music genre, whether guitar-based or otherwise, is in the slightest bit of danger. On the contrary, audiences are now more willing than ever to step outside of their genre-based comfort zones to embrace wider selections of music. This is a welcome relief for music nerds like myself, who have for far too long now been negatively judged by our wider-spanning, somewhat schizophrenic musical interests.

A couple of years back, a metal-loving buddy of mine made a rather disparaging comment about the state of my record collection, failing to understand how anyone could possibly have Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Martha Wainwright and Mastodon positioned side-by-side on the same shelf. Flashing forward to the present, things are now very different. This same friend (who shall remain nameless in such a public forum) is no longer averse to mixing things up himself, sometimes taking in a little Joanna Newson between Cannibal Corpse records. Oh, how time distorts things.




So what exactly has changed in the past few years that has led to the evolving attitudes of the music-loving masses? It’s hard not to consider social media playing at least some role in all this. Think about it – we are now subjected to so much content while scrolling through our news feeds that coming across links to tour announcements, reviews, album streams and interviews is damn near unavoidable. With a simple click of a mouse, new music can be discovered in seconds, and soon enough artists that at one time may not have even been on our radars have found their way into our ever-expanding music collections.

This encouraging shift in our listening habits has also been reflected in the line ups offered up by some of our biggest annual music events. While it’s no secret that forward-thinking festivals like St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival have always delivered healthy doses of diversity, this year’s instalment- which included the likes of Caribou, St. Vincent, Perfect Pussy, Dune Rats, FKA Twigs, and Royal Blood, to name but a few – may have been their most compelling yet.

National radio station Triple J is another fine example of how far we’ve come as an audience. Compare, if you will, the annual Hottest 100 Countdown of today to the very same list a decade ago. Back then, it was primarily rock acts such as Wolfmother, Foo Fighters, The White Stripes and End of Fashion filling out the highest positions. While there is nothing innately wrong with these bands (Dave Grohl and Jack White are practically Gods in my eyes), they obviously fall within similar musical genres. Today, however, we are seeing a multitude of styles infiltrating the very same countdown, with artists as diverse as Lorde, Arctic Monkeys, Daft Punk and Vance Joy all making appearances in the top spots.

Based on the albums that have connected with listeners so far this year, it doesn’t seem as though this trend is likely to change anytime soon. The first four months alone has seen artists and bands as varied as Kendrick Lamar, Gang of Youths, Viet Cong, Courtney Barnett, Alabama Shakes, Blur and Father John Misty all releasing albums to huge acclaim. While each is quite different stylistically, they all share one important thing in common: quality tunes that have instantly found their audiences; and in many cases shared audiences.



Once again, what all of this illustrates rather clearly is just how off the mark anyone proclaiming the death of any genre in 2015 actually is. Perhaps those harbouring such negative, backward-thinking viewpoints may find it beneficial to remove their ears from commercial radio stations blasting the same five songs ad nauseam, and instead pay some attention to what is going on beyond that generic-sounding world.

Music-wise, we are more spoilt for choice than we have ever been. As a result, people are listening to music for the right reasons, and not just because – as was the case during my gloomy high school years – a band or artist is ‘cool’ or ‘in’. What matters now is how a certain piece of music connects with you personally, regardless of whether or not it happens to be classed as EDM, hip hop, folk, blues, punk, post punk, new wave, no wave or metal.

Most importantly, my record collection has never looked better. Hell, I think it’s safe to say even my metal-loving buddy would now agree with me there.

 

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Don't Stop Listening: The Necessary Separation of Art and Artist


Around the time of the release of Kanye West’s magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, I attended a Christmas party populated by a few like-minded music nerds. During the evening, a friend cornered me for a discussion revolving mostly around the music she had been recently getting into. Lowering her voice considerably, she moved in closer to drop what she thought to be a shocking revelation - she actually liked Kanye West’s new album.

‘You mean My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy?’ I asked.


‘Uh huh,’ she confirmed nervously.


‘Uh, yeah… so do I. I think it’s great!’ I stated rather matter-of-factly.


For a moment she looked offended, as if I was somehow mocking her. Upon realising I was actually being genuine, her expression then morphed into something resembling outright confusion.


‘Really?’ she asked, baffled.


Our exchange at the time struck me as a little odd. I wondered why exactly she had been so apprehensive when it came to admitting to her enjoyment of the album. In the weeks following our drunken chat, I found myself in similar discussions with friends who were either a) into Kanye but not exactly willing to advertise it, or b) dismissive of the music without giving it a chance. Then it hit me. The reactions had nothing to do with the music at all, but rather with the man behind the music. The ego-fuelled rants, the endless showboating and the badly-timed stage invasions had seemingly taken their toll, even on those who at one time considered themselves to be massive fans. 



In a way, it was understandable. Hell, even Istruggled to work up the energy to give any kind of shit about the man or his music for a short while. But then I heard ‘Runaway’ and quickly backtracked, deciding that I was not going to let any amount of Kanye-related douchiness take away from what really mattered – the music. Had I not learnt the importance of separating the music from the artist at the time, I may well have deprived myself of one of the best albums of that year.


This is not the only instance of me having to play the ‘separation game’. My enjoyment of The Flaming Lips has also recently come under threat, thanks to a drastic change in main man Wayne Coyne’s attitude in the press. Once known for his overly-friendly, down to earth persona, Coyne seems to have somehow transformed into a bit of a shit-talking egomaniac of late. Whether this can be attributed to a newfound appreciation of bad drugs, some deranged version of a mid-life crisis, or the horrible influence of his new bestie Miley Cyrus, his behaviour can’t help but leave a bad taste.


Despite this, I have in no way been willing to let any of it dictate my enjoyment of the music. The Soft Bulletin is far too good an album to not listen to on a semi-regular basis. And I’ll be damned if I am going to let anything as minute as some diva-like rock star bullshit ruin the feelings of euphoria that go along with listening to ‘Do You Realize?’ for the millionth time. 



All of this is hardly anything new to music fans. There are countless examples of musicians acting like spoilt children and coming damn close to ruining their legacies in the process. History is full of them. I’m sure to this day Morrissey fans still give their Smiths records the evil eye upon hearing another one of his famously long-winded, misguided rants. And how about those long-suffering members of the Kiss army that still happen to be out there? You can only imagine how the poor bastards must feel anytime Gene Simmons opens up his tired old yap. And let’s not forget U2’s overly-loyal fan base, who are regularly forced to deal with the trauma that goes along with seeing Bono’s smug face popping up all over the place to remind us all just how much better he is than the rest of us.  


For the most part, it’s something we simply have to learn to ignore if we want to continue to enjoy the music. That said, it would be wrong of me to not also mention the rare occasions where an artist’s personal life cannot help but destroy any potential joy their music may have, at one time, brought. It’s extremely hard to imagine anyone with even the slightest conscience being able to hear a Gary Glitter track again without feeling at least a little bit queasy. And can you honestly tell me that the mere mention of the name Chris Brown does not make you want to immediately rush out to locate Rihanna and give her a big ‘ole hug, while simultaneously cursing the fact that such a monster can still be allowed to sell records and receive awards? I didn’t think so.


At the end of the day, if the actions and/or words of the artist is not hurting anyone, and the only real crime happens to be that their head is perhaps wedged a little too far up their own behind, then there’s really no reason to not sit back and continue to enjoy the music in the same way you always have, especially if said artist is giving us albums as strong as Yeezus and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy every couple of years.  In these cases, does it honestly even matter what they happen to do or say once the music stops?

 

 

 

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

My Favourite Albums of 2015 (Part III): The Best of the Rest

For the third and final installment of my favourite albums of 2015 list, I’ll focus on the ones I always expected to be great... and thankfully did not disappoint. 
 
While there’s always a chance the artists you love will one day create a massive dud that will forever leave a bad taste, this luckily hasn't been the case for those listed below.
 
I won’t go into too much detail regarding each selection, either because a) I have already done so elsewhere, or b) they have already been the subject of endless articles/reviews in music publications/blogs across the globe (what the hell more could I possibly say about Kendrick Lamar that hasn’t already been said). 
 
Anyhoo, without further ado, here they are (in no particular order whatsoever). Enjoy!
 

 
Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy


Titus Andronicus is a band with what I consider to be a bulletproof discography, thanks to the fearlessness and intelligence of their mad punk-rock genius leader Patrick Stickles. His band’s latest – a 93 minute punk rock opera revolving around manic depression – is one of their best yet (second only to their sophmore masterwork The Monitor, imho). The record, as a whole, might be a whole helluva lot to take in initially, but multiple listens will reward you in all kinds of amazeballs ways. Brilliant stuff from an always brilliant band.
 


Father John Misty -  I Love You, Honeybear



Former Fleet Foxes member come witty wordsmith J.Tillman aka Father John Misty had aleardy established himself an important name in the modern musical landscape with 2012’s Fear FunI Love You, Honeybear, however, saw him reach previously uncharted levels of excellence. While for most people it may seem too early to refer to his followup as a bona-fide classic, I’m going to go and say it anyway. Because it absolutely is. In fact, if this record was a person, I would marry it and have twenty of its babies. There’s no other way to express my love for it – it is such a funny, inventive, beautiful, sad piece of work. Absolutely everything I hoped it would be and more. 
 


Kurt Vile – b’lieve I’m goin’ down

Kurth Vile seems to receive increasing amounts of critical respect with each new release, and it’s easy to see why – his albums, while never really that much different from one another, each possess their own unique kind of magic. There’s a  hypnotic quality to the records that draw you in while somehow releasing you from whatever kind of foul mood you happen to find yourself in at the time. b’lieve I’m going’down is no different – a completely absorbing work of musical genius that feels taylor-made for lazy Summer afternoons. Keep ‘em coming Kurt!
 


Best Coast – California Nights
 
 
My thoughts on this sunny pop-rock gem can be found here.



Alabama Shakes – Sound and Colour



This great band somehow got even better on their follow up to Boys & Girls. Brittany Howard truly possesses one of the most face-meltingly awesome voices in rock. If you have yet to jump on the Alabama Shakes bandwagon, it’s time to do so.
 


Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly



Yeah, I can’t really add anything here that hasn’t already been said 1000+ times before. A great album that rewards multiple listens, and one of 2015’s undisputed masterpieces. All hail Kendrick!




Wednesday, 30 December 2015

My Favourite Albums of 2015 (Part II): The Ones That (Almost) Got Away


In the second part of the year-end list nobody asked for, I’ll be focusing on the bands and/or artists I have either just started listening to or didn’t even know existed prior to 2015. I’m going to be honest here – most of these were discovered thanks to Spotify playlist recommendations. Yes, I know, I know – streaming services are the devil. Blah, blah, blah. I get it, I really do. Yet, I have little doubt that, if not for these recommendations, I would never have given these albums a shot in the first place. And that would be a massive bummer.

I also should note that the albums listed below are only a select few of the many I liked this year. The ones chosen are simply those that have stuck with me the longest. 
 
Anyhoo, enough rambling. Let’s just move onto what matters  - the music itself. If you like the sound of any of these, I recommend you give ‘em a listen. I doubt you’ll be sorry.
 
 
Ezra Furman – Perpetual Motion People
 
 
 
I’ll start with Ezra Furman’s Perpetual Motion People because it is the only album on this particular section of the list I didn’t discover via Spotify. Rather, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to review the album for Aphra Magazine a month before it’s official release. And boy, was it a revelation. I won’t go into why, as I’d just be repeating myself (for my specific thoughts, you can check out the review here). All I’ll add is this - Mr. Furman is an infuriatingly underrated artist – one I am shocked isn’t making more appearances on the endless parade of ‘year-end’ album lists.
 
If you haven’t given this record (or any of his previous records, for that matter) a spin, I implore you to do so. If your taste buds are not located squarely within the depths of you anus, you should get a kick out of it.
 
 
 
Royal Headache – High
 
 
 
Um… how exactly the fuck did I miss Royal Headache the first time ‘round? Have I been sleepwalking through the last few years? Maybe. Whatever the case may be, I have now made damn sure to catch up on everything they’ve put out into the world up to this point.
 
While I had heard the name ’Royal Headache’ bandied about since their formation, I often thought I was hearing about another band entirely ( ‘Royal Blood’ – who are themselves not too shabby). I certainly wasn’t aware that the name I was hearing belonged to one of the best punk bands to emerge from this country since the heyday of The Saints.
 
Since my first exposure to the group back in August, their two near-perfect albums have been a consistent presence in my life… and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. 
 
Sadly, I don’t think I’m alone in being embarrassingly late to the Royal Headache party. If you do happen to be in the same boatthen it’s something you may need to rectify, ASAP. 
 
 
 
U.S. Girls – Half Free
 
 
 
U.S. Girls (aka Meg Remy) is another project that is already a few albums in, yet somehow only became known to me recently. Better late than never, I suppose. 
 
To me, U.S. Girls is the way pop music should (but rarely does) sound in the year 2015. It’s weird, melodic and catchy in a way that nothing else out there is at the moment. Pitchfork probably said it better than I ever could in their review of the record back in September: ‘The album sounds like your favourite golden-oldies station beamed through a pirate-radio frequency, seamlessly fusing ‘60s-vintage girl group serenades and smooth ‘70s disco into dubby panoramas and horror-movie atmospherics.’
 
 

Low Cut Connie – Hi Honey
 

 


Philadelphia band Low Cut Connie first grabbed my attention with the…uh… rather interesting cover artwork of their third album Hi Honey. Based on that alone, I just had to know what the band sounded like. I’m so damn glad my curiosity got the better of me. Here is a group that is living proof that the often argued point of Rock n’ Roll being a dead genre is complete and utter bullshit.
I have no idea if Low Cut Connie have ever made their way over to this side of the pond, but if and when they do, I will be the first in line. This is music for boozy nights in smoky bars. In other words, music that is well and truly up my alley.
 


 
Radioactivity – Silent Kill

 

 
 
Silent Kill is the second record by the previously unheard of (by me) Texas group Radioactivity, which the internet tells me consists of members of other bands that have been hanging around the garage punk scene for the better part of a decade. Like Rock N’ Roll, Punk is another genre some have stupidly proclaimed to be dead. What crap. I have lost count of the current bands doing interesting things within the consistently expanding genre of punk. Many, like Radioactivity, are offering up vital reminders of just how great and fresh the genre can be in the right hands.
 
If you are a music fan who misses the glory days of bands such as The Ramones and The Jam, then stop whinging already. Radioactivity are here to fill that horrible void in your punk-loving hearts.
 
 
 
 
To be concluded…
 

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

My Favourite Albums of 2015 (Part I): Old is New Again


 
It has been another year overflowing with the kind of musical swill many of us have now sadly become accustomed to. As I write this, an unstoppable scourge of generic, over-produced trash is poisoning our airwaves. Worse still, there’s very little indication that any of the ghouls responsible will be fading into obscurity anytime soon. In fact, the horror show that is corporate mainstream music culture is now being embraced not only by the unadventurous pop-music loving masses, but also growing numbers of confused writers within the ‘alternative’ music press who have, for whatever reason, decided to give in to it all and start bowing at the altar of these ‘artists’.

But anyway, I’m getting slightly off course here. Believe it or not, it is not actually my intention to spend the length of this post bitching about the sorry state of the music industry. On the contrary, my aim is a far more positive one - to shine some much-needed light on the bands and artists who have made it possible for me to say without even the slightest amount of sarcasm that 2015 has also been a great year for music. Yes, that’s right –there is actually, at present, a metric fuck-tonne of awesome music out there – almost too much for an unmotivated sod like me to write about at any great length here.

Still, I feel it’s only fair that I dedicate at least a little bit of time to these artists and say a few words about the albums they unleashed onto those who cared to listen. And due to the number of releases I really, really dug, I feel it may be best to separate them into three very specific categories:
 
1) those successfully returning to the spotlight after insanely long hiatus’s

2) those I had no idea even existed 12 months ago

3) those on unstoppable winning streaks

For this particular post (the first of a planned three), I will focus on the older artists returning with new albums after far too long in the wilderness. What is particularly special about this group is the fact that the bands/musicians created records that demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that it is actually possible to successfully return after an extended break, remain relevant and grow old gracefully. Who woulda thunk it?

Anyhoo, without further ado, here they are, in no particular order…

 

Desaparecidos - Payola

 

Okay, so Conor Oberst and co. can hardly be considered old, per se. But screw it, they’ve definitely been off the radar long enough to justify their inclusion within this particular section of the list.

Payola (the group’s second LP) had the wonderful distinction of being the record released this year that took me most by surpris,. It’s not because I didn’t expect greatness from Mr. Oberst - hell, over the course of his career he has rarely, if ever, put his name to anything that was’t worthwhile. Still, releasing an album with an old punk band that, to put things in perspective, haven’t had a record out since NSYNC were infecting the charts – didn’t exactly fill me with excitement… for whatever reason.

My slight curiosity about the whole deal, however, quickly became something much more the second I hit play that first magical time. Payola immediately announced itself as Conor’s strongest work in over a decade - a fun, timely, catchy, angry, exciting, filler-free masterpiece that, six months on, still hasn’t lost any of the charm I knew it had upon that first listen.

I have no idea what Desaparecidos are planning beyond this release.... I can only hope there are future plans, and that the space between this album and the next one is nowhere near as drawn out.

 

Faith No More – Sol Invictus

 

As surprising as the Desaparecidos release was, it was nowhere near as miraculous as the fact that, in 2015, we were given the gift of a new Faith No More record.

For close to twenty years fans like me didn’t for a second consider the idea of a new record from this legendary group even a remote possibility.  Even after a string of highly successful reunion shows in which the band seemed as though they were happy and invested, it still seemed like a far off dream. Yet, somehow, we finally got our follow up to 1997’s Album of the Year. And holy shit, was it good.

Sol Invictus achieved the impossible by not only retaining the bands ultra-unique personality, but also by bringing this personality into the present while somehow avoiding that overly nostalgic, bordering-on-stale feeling that has plagued so many bands before them.

So how did they do it? What the hell's their secret? Was it the luxury of having no record company interference? Maturity? Experience? Whatever the case may be, I hope this winning creative streak continues for these middle-aged rapscallions. After all, the world is undeniably a far better place with FNM around. 

 

Blur – The Magic Whip

 

Another band that dared to take the plunge and add another record to their so far bullet proof discography was Blur who, thankfully, were both smart and talented enough to only make a follow u that was worthy of their name.

The albums quality should’ve come as zero surprise to those who have followed Albarn’s career though out his years outside of Blur – the dude is prolific as hell and rarely releases anything that isn’t at the very least interesting.  

What was especially great about The Magic Whip was that it presented a band that was in no way interested in repeating themselves. Instead, they revealed another side of themselves to us,  one that was only interested in evolving and bettering themselves in the process. Somehow, they did it without losing that indefinable quality that made them one of the 90’s most-loved bands.

 

Dr Dre - Compton

 

Despite having an album on the boil for close to two decades, Dre’s eventual return still came as a total shock– mostly because we’d all given up on hearing anything new from him ever again.  And while the album we were all promised (Detox) never materialised, we perhaps got something better.

Compton - released just as F. Gary Grey’s Straight Outta Compton was hitting multiplexes - immediately silenced the doubters and rewarded patient fans. It was, from first song to last, a beast of a record that made it feel as though no time has passed at all since the now legendary 2001.

Like every other release on this list, Compton wasn’t the sad story of some strapped-for-cash old-timer trying to relive former glories, but rather a thrilling return to form that served as a crystal clear reminder (if one was even needed) the Dre is still in a league of his own.
It’s rare for a record to sound good enough to warrant a sixteen year gap, but Compton was just that - absolute proof that occasionally, good things come to those who wait…and wait…and wait...

 

 Refused - Freedom

 
 
Refused returned in 2015 to a somewhat mixed response. Such divisiveness wasn’t exactly a surprise - after all, if your last album was The Shape of Punk to Come, you'd probably have a difficult time pleasing absolutely everyone as well. Hell, even I wasn’t exactly an instant convert. The first single did next to nothing for me (at least upon first listen), and the bleak early reviews kept me well away for the first couple of weeks following its official release. I needn’t have worried. Freedom is the sound of a revitalised band that is still angry about… well, a lot of things. For my money, there isn’t a weak spot across its entire runtime.

Refused did the smart thing with Freedom by completely avoiding any attempts to rebottle their old sound. Instead, they made the record they wanted to make (even bringing a revered pop producer on board for a couple of tracks).

Again, not everyone agreed with my opinion on this surprisingly modern-sounding punk rock record, but at the end of the day, who cares - this post is all about me, after all.  And for me, Freedom is a total success.

 

Sleater Kinney - No Cities to Love

 

 

Last but not least, we come to Sleater Kinney.

What could I possibly add to the zillion glowing reviews and articles that have already been committed to print regarding the glorious return of this powerful trio? Not much, really. Cities to Love was as great as we all hoped it would be, while the live shows have, by all accounts, been going off (I’ll find out for myself in March). Best of all, Carrie Brownstein - kickass front woman, exceptional writer, comedic actor - has been everywhere in 2015. She can seemingly do it all.

Even though the album was released almost 12 months ago now, it has been making appearances on year end lists all over the place, which should be as good an indication as any of this records impressive quality.


To be continued …