The Third Ear

Music and imagination

Album Review: littlebow – Three

When a group comes along toting flutes, harps and clarinets and allowing themselves to be described as neoclassical, it is all too easy to dismiss them as wispy purveyors of twee, unchallenging ephemera. But let’s get this straight from the beginning: for all its surface chamber-folk pleasantness, littlebow’s latest album is a thing of quietly experimental, even uncompromising, beauty.

Three is – you guessed it – littlebow’s third album, and their first on new label Rural Colour. It picks up where 2013’s rather wonderful Pi Magpie left off: opener The Last Summer Of The Century’s flute template circles and repeats, creating a liminal landscape that owes almost as much to 1970s pastoralia as it does to the techniques of modern composition. If hauntological serialism wasn’t a thing, it is now.

Other tracks show the influence of jazz – the shifting time signatures of The Damned Erudition Of Damian O’Hara,  for instance – while others, like the sweet,  harp and birdsong-drenched Some May Transition carry the distinct whiff of prog or krautrock, like a rural Faust jamming with Joanna Newsom. And in fact it is the addition of the harp – courtesy of new member Brona McVittie, who joins regulars Katie English and Keiron Phelan – that has really seen the group evolve. Already impossible to pin down, the range of influences has become even broader, and the sound has grown in multiple directions – it is fuller, folkier and more liquid, but it is also more percussive and often more immediately engaging.

McVittie brings something else to the table, something wholly new: her singing. This is heard to great effect on Too Green, These Widow’s Weeds, which mixes fluty jazz with traditional song. And to add to make things even more impressive, it’s sung in Manx, a welcome outing for one of the more frequently overlooked minority languages in these isles.

But perhaps the best two tracks on the album are its simplest and its most complex. The former, The Singing Sands, is a wonderfully gauzy combination of keys, plucked guitar and flutes, while the latter, The Swing That Creaks For The Child That Weeps, is an altogether more challenging beast. It sees littlebow at their most song-based. Or at least that’s how it begins. It soon develops into something that is at once highly experimental (the whole thing is a twelve-minute musical palindrome) and peculiarly immersive. The uneasy flutes combine classical motifs with an improvisational, free-folky sensibility. Bookended by childlike verses influenced by dream-pop and indie girl-groups, it is arguably their most exploratory and inventive piece to date, and probably their most beguiling. It forms something of a centrepiece to an album that is both gentle and bold, and confirms littlebow as one of the most innovative and unclassifiable groups around.

 

 

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Song of the Summer? Petite Meller – Milk Bath

If you have any interest in the joyful  power of pop music you’ve not had the pleasure of seeing and hearing Petite Meller, you need to get on board, stat. The frankly bizarre aesthetic – think Lolita meets Lady Gaga in a French postcolonial pastel-hued fever dream – is all part of the appeal, as are the lyrical nods to the more intellectual end of twentieth century psychology and philosophy. But above and beyond all this are the tunes. The French have a knack for making pop music that is both clever and fun, from Jacques Dutronc to Air via Vanessa Paradis, but Petite trumps everything. Latest release Milk Bath – from the forthcoming album of the same name – is a jaunty paean to, er, bathing in milk. Freudian, probably. And, like practically everything else she’s come up with, it’s one of the catchiest, most unadulteratedly fun songs you’re ever likely to hear, from its oddly sexy chorus to the jubilant African choir that kicks in half way through. It’s a beaut.

 

Oh, and there’s a lyric near the start that says ‘God exists between your dollars.’ On first listen, I thought it was ‘God exists between your udders.’ Now that’s what I call Freudian.

Review: Games Violet – Nixie EP

Games Violet (or Alex and Emma if you really want to try and humanise these monsters): a duo who sound like they spend too much time in each other’s company, and not enough time in the sunlight. Nixie came out a couple of months ago now, but I somehow missed it, despite loving the teaser that came out late last year.

17th Century sounds like Prince on robot-ketamine. Courtship (the aforementioned teaser) is the sound of a beautiful stranger running the tip of a knife lightly down the boniest bits of your spine: kinda sexy, a bit tickly and fucking scary.

The title track notches up the weird levels. An evil syrup. It treks deep into the uncanny valley and narrowly avoids being penetrated in the arse by uncanny bears, DiCaprio-style. Then it’s gone, back into the digital woods to scream its soul out.

Gone is post-millennial nihilist pop par excellence – the musical equivalent of attempting to destroy a 3D-printed bust of  Søren Kierkegaard with a hammer made from your own earwax. It sounds like Lorde might have sounded like if she had given up on the idea of life before she had even been hauled shrieking from her mother’s dark womb.

And that’s it. Four twisted tracks. You probably don’t want more than that in one sitting, at least not without stronger meds. But fuck me it’s good.

Oh, and there is this video for Courtship. I don’t think you’re supposed to like it, but you can’t really help watching it. When the internet becomes sentient in the near future, this is what it will think all humans are like.

Review: The Pooches – Heart Attack EP

Nostalgia is an inauthentic manifestation of an idealised past. It is an act of cherry-picking. When we listen to T-Rex, as Mark Fisher points out in his excellent book Ghosts of My Life, we are not listening to the 1970s, or even an accurate historical document. Instead we are creating an appearance, inventing the 1970s as a one-dimensional event. In the endless postmodern recycling of cherry-picked cultural references we risk repeating our nostalgia – essentially becoming nostalgic for a time that we were nostalgic for something – in a narrowing spiral that is a cultural-artistic version of Yeats’s historical ‘gyres’. In this light The Second Coming could be read as a critique of (or rather a preemptive strike against) the wormhole of postmodernism, the beast ‘slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem to be born’ representing the collective cultural consciousness.

I use this argument to defend my dislike of like T-Rex and the Ziggy-era Bowie, not because they were guilty of fashioning nostalgia at the time (Bowie in particular was genuinely ‘new’ at various points in his career) but because the bands that aped them, and continue to ape them to this day, do such a good job of their mimicry that they sound like precise but lifeless simulacra of their heroes. I could justifiably enjoy the glammier music of 1972 but I don’t, and I’m certain that one of the reasons for this is the fact that, as soon as glam was born, it was copied and stopped being new, a process that is still going on.  Also, for all glam’s dystopian/utopian references, all its starman schtick, it always strikes me as a retrogressive musical movement at heart. Marc Bolan is particularly guilty, refracting the simple pop melodies of Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly through some spurious hippie-lovey-space-dust filter.

(Actually, the reason I dislike Bowie-as-Ziggy is also partly down to that ridiculous but cynical space-shit, but that’s another argument for another time. Hunky Dory, Low and Station To Station remain exciting and enjoyable albums for me.)

*

Glasgow band The Pooches sound like Belle and Sebastian. Or at least that’s what their PR people seem to want us to think. But Belle and Sebastian still sound like Belle and Sebastian, so where does that leave us? Do we condemn The Pooches as some kind of 4G ripoff version of Belle and Sebastian’s worn-but-working Nokia 3310? Well, no. Firstly, although Belle and Sebastian are influences, they are not the most prominent influences. The Pooches look further back – to C86, the Shop Assistants, the Field Mice, Orange Juice. A whole host of historical signifiers are present in their new four-song EP Heart Attack. The Velocity Girl brevity (average track length is about two minutes), the jangle of the guitars (itself lifted by 80s indie bands from the Byrds), the lyrical preoccupations with love and loss and the rain and sitting in your bedroom moping, the emotions that veer between childlike and childish. On Pierre there is the lilting, almost African rhythm favoured by Orange Juice (and more recently the Wave Pictures). The lead track marries some Felt-like guitar lines to a happy hand-clappy chorus. It all screams ‘hashtagTWEE!!!’ at the top of its voice.

Pooches-EP-Artwork-640x640

This all points to one thing: nostalgia in its most derivative guise. But why do I like it so much? Is it hypocrisy on my part? Am I indulging in (one of the most horrible expressions you’ll ever come across) a ‘guilty pleasure’? I don’t think so. Against all odds this record feels current, and its currency stems in part from its universality. There is nothing universal about Bowie’s moonage daydreams and encounters with starmen. These things are anchored in a specific time which, despite every effort, can’t (and shouldn’t) be retrieved, or they are a rock and roll fever dream in the mind of one man. When The Pooches sing about loss or melancholy, they do so from a modern perspective, and it is not couched in anachronistic metaphor. Sadness is a valid emotion in early twenty-first century Britain. The sadness can have a sociopolitical roots. The current default emotional setting, particularly for young, urban, intelligent people, seems to be a kind of resignation mixed with ennui, all overlaying a hidden fear of a future in which prospects are severely limited.

So, these apparently ‘twee’ lyrical concerns actually stem from a particular political climate. The Pooches’ songs are urban in respect that ‘urban’ implies a historical imperative for music of the city to behave in a certain way, a way that reflects universal political and emotional concerns. When Sarah Records, C86, Talulah Gosh and The Pastels were speaking to a certain sub-section British music lovers they were doing so against a political backdrop that was anti-art and ultra-materialistic. That backdrop hasn’t gone away, and for that reason the music that quietly protests against it should never be dismissed as mere nostalgia. We need music like this.

Heart Attack is out on 29th January on Lame-O Records. You can have a listen of it here.

 

 

 

 

A Year in the Ear, Part 2: 2015’s Best Songs

First up, some great new rap. Like Left Eye never left.

 

Next, some Aussie bliss.

 

What would happen if Joni Mitchell rewrote Sultans of Swing?

 

If this is a joke, it’s a ridiculously catchy one. Colourful musical vomit, like your ears have been necking skittles and blue WKD.

 

More colourful musical vomit, but this has definitely got some traces of blood in it.

 

The G-funk revival is all set to be 2016’s big sound. Honest.

 

Super-soulful Isley Brothers cover from Mr Ocean.

 

Nao’s classy, hooky RnB has an experimental, modernistic twist that puts her in the FKA Twigs league.

 

Gallic house beats, horny synths and peppy, poppy vocals made Petite Meller’s breakthrough release one of the catchiest things around.

 

Some incredible, detached yet intimate dream pop from New York.

 

Like Tango in the Night-era Fleetwood Mac overseen by Ingmar Bergman. Accessible Scandi-cool. Ikea-pop, anyone?

 

Another one that taps into the G-funk thang, but more minimal this time.

 

Here is some woozy, experimental lap steel

 

Ought did some great things this year. This sprawling mutha is like the lost artifact from a collaboration between the Talking Heads and Steven Malkmus.

 

The fractured piano puts this on the ambient side of musique concrete.

 

Here on Spotify you can find some magickal spook folk…

…and staying in the realm of the uncanny, here’s a folky-doomy Sabbath cover from Marissa Nadler.

 

There was some bizarre, bendy pop coming out of France this year.

 

And finally this terrifying, nauseous, lovely, haunted effort by Games Violet.

A Year in the Ear: The Best Albums of 2015

26. Hawthonn – Hawthonn

Eerie, arty, site-specific post-psych from Phil Legard, the artist formerly known as Xenis Emputae Travelling Band.

 

25. Colleen – Captain of None

Lambent, onieric instrumental vignettes nestle beside clear-eyed lyrical pieces, the 15th century viola da gamba sounding like an instrument from the future.

 

24. Stick in the Wheel – From Here

Cockney folk-punk with a high-energy DIY approach that conceals some serious musicianship. Breathing new life into old forms.

 

23. Mountain Goats – Beat the Champ

The best concept album about pro wrestling of the year, definitely.

 

22. Wilco – Star Wars

Instrumental opener EKJ is basically Frank Zappa with a train to catch, and closer The Magnetized is like White Album-era Beatles on some heavy downers. This is the sound of a band having fun with their undeserved dad-rock image whilst proving they’ve still got the will to experiment.

 

21. Brad Gallagher, Bill Lowman and Alasdair Roberts – Missed Flights and Fist Fights

Scottish folk dude Roberts teams up with a pair of Chicagoan multi-instrumentalists for an album heavy with Jew’s harp, twisty guitar and good old fashioned bonhomie.

You can read a review I wrote and listen to a track here.

 

20. Algiers – Algiers

The history of black music collides with a raging, international psych-soul future dystopia. With beats. Lean, riveting and genuinely groundbreaking.

 

 

19. Kurt Vile – B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down 

There’s nothing new in the constituent parts of Vile’s slacker-rock, but the way he puts them together is fresh and, somehow, funky. And in Pretty Pimpin’, he’s managed to turn a song that sounds like a Lynyrd Skynyrd demo into one of the tracks of the year.

 

18. Amanda Feery and Michael Tanner – To Run the Easting Down

Shimmering drones, haunted handbells, muffled piano, arrangements that border on sound collage – this is the most avant-garde album to fall under the ‘folk’ banner this year. Influenced more by LaMonte Young and John Cage than by traditional music, it is immersive, time-consuming stuff, but strangely accessible.

Listen to a track and read a wee review here.

 

17. Belle and Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance 

It’s too big, and too much of a mixed bag, to be considered amongst their best work, but when it his the right note, it is a glorious proof that Stuart Murdoch can still come up with some of the best pop songs around.

 

16. Darren Hayman – Florence

 

Quiet, introspective and slightly jaded, Florence is one of Hayman’s strongest post-Hefner records. Here’s a review.

 

15. Jim O’Rourke – Simple Songs

Few songwriters can structure a song as well as O’Rourke does. Even fewer do it with such apparent ease. The production on Simple Songs demands that you do a bit of digging before the tunes give up their secrets but the reward is mighty. Consummate stuff.

 

14. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear

The intimate details might be too much for some, and there is no denying J. Tillman loves himself a bit too much, but we can forgive the former Fleet Fox for that. Honeybear is packed full of smart musical ideas and lyrical tricks, most of which come off. An album drenched in the sounds of 70s excess, but with a thoroughly modern, even post-modern, edge.

 

13. Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden of Delete

Following up the utterly incredible R Plus Seven was always going to be a tough ask for Daniel Lopatin, but he has achieved it by pressing the button marked ‘bonkers’ and bringing all his cleverness to to the table – along with his penchant for industrial metal, trance and digitised modern pop. Mad, but brilliant.

 

12. Trembling Bells – The Sovereign Self

Psychier and proggier than their previous work – elements of King Crimson and even Deep Purple rub shoulders with the old touchstones of Fairport Convention and Incredible String Band – Alex Neilson and co have crafted their most consistent and energetic record yet. They wear their influences lightly – there is nothing reactionary or reductionist about their music. Instead it sounds like the upgrade that folk rock was so much in need of.

 

11. Laura Cannell – Beneath Swooping Talons

Cannell uses ancient techniques – usually involving a fiddle or two simultaneously played recorders – to make music that seems at first to be all drones and dissonance, but contains vast, hidden pastoral depths and surprising melodies. It is bracing, elemental stuff.

Read a review and hear some mad shit here. 

 

10. Jessica Pratt – On Your Own Love Again

This sounds like a lost relic from 1970, unearthed in some cabin in the California hills. The songs are melancholy, fleeting and beautiful, and Pratt’s idiosyncratic voice forms the words almost as if they are entirely new to her.

 

9. Björk – Vulnicura

The best thing she’s done since the incomparable Vespertine. While that album dealt with the possibilities of a new love, this one attempts to deal with the remains of a recently ended relationship. The Icelandic snow queen is at her blippy, bizarre best.

 

8. Yo La Tengo – Stuff Like That There

Mostly a covers album, but what a covers album. Great takes on the Parliaments and Sun Ra, among others, and the sprinkling of original material is stunning too.

 

7. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

Simply the most exciting thing to happen in hip-hop for over a decade. There are ideas everywhere, and the delivery is stunning. There are constant nods to the history of African-American music, particularly jazz and funk, but the message is vibrant and forward-thinking.

 

6. Low – Ones and Sixes

Low have become one of those trustworthy bands who couldn’t make a substandard record if they tried. But this is a high point even for them, maybe their best record since C’mon, maybe even better than that. The guitars, as ever, are like walls of ice. The drums are like cracks in that ice. Low found their signature sound a while back, now they’ve perfected it.

 

5. Ezra Furman – Perpetual Motion People

A truly important piece of work addressing body image and identity, but also an album crammed full of fun, clever pop songs. Like the Violent Femmes with a conscience, or a punkier Dylan for a spunkier generation, or a postmodern Modern Lovers.

 

4. Jenny Hval – Apocalypse, Girl

Avant-garde Norwegian feminist pop anyone? This could go so wrong, but with Hval’s intelligent lyrics, cool delivery and some arty musical settings, it is so, so right. This is necessary, spirited political pop music, spearing capitalism and chauvinism equally mercilessly.

 

3. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

Stevens’s most consistent album yet, and his most beautiful, shimmering and heartbreaking, deals mainly with the death of his mother. In the hands of lesser artists the theme could drag the listener down, but such is the lightness with which the most haunting lyrics are delivered that you get the feeling that hope and redemption are as certain as death and sadness.

 

2. Joanna Newsom – Divers

Newsom is still mesmerisingly clever and entirely unique. In years to come scholars will be dissecting her lyrics in the same way they do with those of Dylan, and practically no-one else. Musically she’s branched out a bit – the electric guitars on Leaving The City, for example – but at the root of it all is still that one-of-a-kind voice and the daring and complex way in which she constructs a song.

 

1. Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness

Holter is on a run of immaculate records. This one is less conceptual and more song-led than previous efforts, but the experimental and classical touches that define her are still present and correct. Melodies drift in and out of washes of sound. The effect is of a collection of dreamlike short stories whose meanings are glimpsed but remain just out of reach.

 

Scotland’s Top 60: The Best Bands from North of the Border (10-1)

10. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band

Alex Harvey was to glam rock what Shane McGowan was to folk, or what William Blake was to romanticism: existing within the broad framework of a genre, but individual, inspired and iconoclastic enough to completely transcend that genre without seeming to give a shit about it.  Already a veteran of the music scene (he began playing in skiffle bands as early as 1954 and once supported the pre-Ringo Beatles), he formed SAHB in 1972 from members of progressive rockers Tear Gas.  The SAHB sound was anything but prog though, drawing as it did from wild R&B and a bawdy, Brechtian theatricality that was simultaneously self-aware and bonkers. Harvey died of a heart attack in 1982, aged 46, but his music remains some of the most unique ever recorded, anywhere. And he was responsible for the best ever song about getting your dick bitten by a hooker.

 

9. Lloyd Cole and the Commotions

Literate art-pop was Glasgow’s thing in the eighties, and no-one did it better than Cole. The first Commotions album, Rattlesnakes, was a fully-formed masterpiece without a single slack moment. The lyrics bordered on the pretentious (references to Simone de Beauvoir, Leonard Cohen and François Truffaut decorate the songs) but the knowing nudge and wink with which they are delivered makes them more than bearable: Cole was always a cool and confident conveyor of words, even in his early twenties, and was enviably proficient at producing an instantly hummable melody. Two further albums followed, each with certified moments of genius, before Cole embarked on an excellent solo career which shows no signs of stopping.

 

8. Donovan

I’ve heard interviews with Donovan, and he doesn’t sound like a particularly pleasant chap. There’s nothing nasty about him, but his annoyingly high opinion of himself seems a bit misplaced in light of the fact that one of his most famous songs – Mellow Yellow – is basically about giving drugs to his fourteen-year-old girlfriend. Add to that the fact that he looks like a cross between Jimmy Page, Steve Bruce and Bungle the Bear and you wouldn’t think he had much to boast about. But then you remember the songs. Not the shitty Dylan-aping singles of 1965 (Catch the Wind, Colours, The Universal Soldier) but everything after that until 1973’s Essence To Essence. We’re talking eleven top-notch studio albums in eight years, plus a whole load of unreleased songs and excellent live recordings. The guy worked with Jeff Beck, the Beatles, various members of Led Zeppelin, Nicky Hopkins, Rod Stewart, Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson and jazz flautist Harold McNair. He covered William Shakespeare and was covered by King Crimson. He was a major influence on the young Vashti Bunyan. Most importantly he recorded some of the most enduring songs of the era, from the hip jazz-folk of Sunny Goodge Street and the funky psych of Barababjagal to the pastoral Isle of Islay and the elliptical, Maharajah-baiting Epistle to Dippy.

 

7. Trembling Bells

Alex Neilson is everywhere. From playing drums for just about everyone on the experimental folk scene, to freaking out with modern jazz/mixed media combo Death Shanties, and when he isn’t touring or recording he finds time to write for The Wire. The Trembling Bells are as close as Neilson has come to breaking into the mainstream. Their sound ranges between folk-rock, country and, most recently, heavy psych, and Carbeth is one of the great debut albums of the last decade.

 

6. Alasdair Roberts

Like Alex Neilson, Roberts is super-prolific and willing to try his hand at various forms. He veers between traditional and contemporary, acoustic and electric, solo albums and wide-ranging collaboration. Taking folk as a starting point, he has worked with country singers, poets and free-folk improvisers. He also has a huge knowledge of folklore and traditional music, among other things, and talks eloquently on these subjects, as this interview I conducted with him in 2013 shows.

 

5. Cocteau Twins

Elizabeth Fraser is one of the most extraordinary vocalists in modern music, and Robin Guthrie one of the most accomplished composers and multi-instrumentalists. As solo artists they have been responsible for admirable bodies of work, but as the core of the Cocteau Twins they created an entire new musical landscape. Fraser’s inimitable vocals, which often resembled glossolalia (particularly on the mindblowing Victorialand), were a work of art in themselves, and Guthrie’s settings  were so unlike anything else in the musical climate of the 1980s that it is remarkable that they ever got a record deal. They never made a bad album and their work sounds unique to this day.

 

4. Lonnie Donegan

Quite simply one of the most important musicians of the twentieth century. Without him no Beatles, and probably no punk. Forget the novelty songs (although some of them are great, and can be seen as precursors to the Beatles’ more humorous tunes), it is the high energy proto-punk-folk of his readings of American standards like Pick A Bale Of Cotton and Rock Island Line that really revolutionised – and democratised – music in the 1950s.

 

3. Incredible String Band

Responsible not only for some of the best songs in the folk idiom, but also for introducing any number of exotic new instruments to the British scene (and discovering, nurturing and in some cases lending their talents to many young musicians, not least Vashti Bunyan), Robin Willliamson and Mike Heron survived questionable religious leanings and accusations of hippie daftness to record some of the weirdest and most wonderful music to emerge from the counter-cultural experimentation of the 1960s and 1970s. Even their drug free, Scientology-era albums (notably Changing Horses and U from 1969 and 1970) were stunningly odd. The perfect example of two excellent and obviously competitive songwriters egging each other on to ever fancier and freakier feats of excess.

 

2. Vashti Bunyan

Just Another Diamond Day, Vashti Bunyan’s debut album, is one of the most perfectly formed works of art that I know of. It took her thirty five years to record a follow-up, but when she did she proved that the first one was no fluke. Technically, she is English (born in Newcastle), but her long residence north of the border and the way in which the Scottish landscape seeped into those early songs, qualifies her for this list, in my mind at least.

 

1. Belle and Sebastian

The best Scottish band ever. But you knew that, right?