Archive for March, 2008

Live: Cud, The Barfly, Brighton

March 16, 2008

I was all ready to write a review that was full of pathos and dry, dark, Didion-esque humour. I had my opening line set up: “this is where the indie bands go when they die.” It was going to be a tragic if affectionate portrait of a middle-aged, second division rock act reeling around in their twilight years, a piece full of telling details and unsparing prose. But I can’t do that. Because it wouldn’t be honest. Because last night was just too good, too free and unburdened, too much like old-fashioned, light-hearted, unqualified FUN.

At the same time, there’s no point in pretending that I went for any other reason than nostalgia. Cud were an important band in my youth; between the ages of 16 and 22 I saw them dozens of times, and I have hundreds of stories and memories attached to them and their songs. I was in the right time and place for them; they formed at Leeds University in 1985, when I was 14 in nearby Halifax, and for the first few years of their existence they were a massive northern cult, only gradually filtering through to the bemused London media.

Like their contemporaries Pulp, Cud combined an art school love of the camp and the kitsch with a self-deprecating sense of humour, style, drama, showmanship and a huge romantic streak, along with bellowing post-punk pop tunes that fused half-inched Radio 2 melodies to caustic slabs of juddering guitar noise and an increasing dose of funk.

I’m not going to try to make a case here for Cud as overlooked sonic innovators, or to try to argue for their place in the history books alongside the musical greats. I know full well that you had to be there. But if you were, they were great. Never the paradigms of dull, sexless, under-achieving indie rock they were often held up as (blame the name: there were plenty of other, more worthy candidates for that honour), Cud were always an exhilirating live act with a brilliant frontman in Carl Puttnam, a singer with a voice to rival Tom Jones and a lyrical wit and dexterity that would have done Wilde proud, as revealed in lines like “I was a teenage stamp collector, I’d lie on my back and you’d stamp on my face.” Ned’s Atomic Dustbin never had song titles like ‘An Epicurean’s Answer.’

 Tom Jones and Oscar Wilde- Carl’s physical presence and dress sense was also somewhere between the two, while musically Cud pioneered the indie-dance crossover at least as effectively as the Roses or the Mondays, but in their own unique fashion. And, as last night proved, they simply had an embarrassing wealth of brilliant songs.

As for me, well, unashamedly digging out a period t-shirt (Senseless Things ‘Pop Kid’ logo), and combining it with the ripped black jeans, black baseball boots and leather jacket I’ve pretty much been wearing for the past 20 years, I looked as though I’d gone out in 1989 without a change of clothes and hadn’t been home since. Even my hair is back to its teenage length, though somewhat greyer, and the Barfly had Olde English cider on draught. I can’t remember the last time I encountered Olde English in a bar; it was probably around the same time I last encountered Cud. If you’re going to relive your youth though there’s no point in half measures, or half pints, come to that. 

The support act, bizzarely, were an Eat tribute band. Eat, you will recall, were sort of a second generation Stourbridge band, a Wonder Stuff manque, but with somewhat more hard rock bluster, and have been duly consigned to the margins and footnotes of rock history. Why would anybody… aah, okay, it’s the original singer from Eat, Ange, backed by two younger guys on bass and acoustic guitar, and a drum machine, playing some of his old tunes. Which is fair enough, I suppose. They’re called Doolittle, a name which, to anyone of an age to remember Eat and Cud, must automatically trigger Proustian associations with the seminal and indeed generation-defining 1989 Pixies album of that title. It’s a loaded and in some ways inspired choice.

I must admit that I never really bothered much with Eat at the time (though my student band did record a demo using their amplifiers), but I seem to remember that Ange was generally regarded as a motormouth rock god in waiting, whose arrogance was almost justified by his talent. He was a good-looking chap too, who posed naked on one of their record sleeves I think. Now somewhat humbler, but with a trace of the old swagger, he looks… craggy, but still with an impressive mane of curly hair. He’s in fine voice and on last night’s showing has written some excellent songs, particularly the penultimate ‘Tombstone.’ Maybe I should have paid more attention when it mattered… but I said I wasn’t going to do pathos. Let me just say that Doolittle are well worth seeing if you fancy some brooding, low-key folk rock, and leave it at that.

As for Cud, it’s like they’ve never been away. Alright, so guitarist Mike Dunphy, now a deputy headmaster, has opted out of the reunion shows, but his place is ably filled by the youthful Felix Frey, sporting a splendid black beard that makes him resemble a young Warren Ellis of Bad Seeds/Dirty Three/Grinderman infamy. Drummer Steve Goodwin, now to be found playing alongside Felix in Lazerboy, may be flecked with grey and noticably pained and breathless during some of the more powerhouse drum parts he once executed so recklessly, and bassist, cartoonist and recently, childrens’ comic editor William Potter does seem to be turning into Melvin Hayes. But Carl Puttnam- singer, frontman, father of two and AWOL Oddbins employee- is resplendent in leather kecks, a tight, ruff-fronted purple shirt, shades and a handlebar moustache framing his magnificent collection of chins. And his voice? Well, as he demonstrates on ‘Vocally Speaking,’ with its ironic refrain, “I’m as limited as my vocal range,” those famously powerful and expressive lungs have plenty of life in them yet. Besides, being older suits Cud; it was always the joke that Carl was this speccy, geeky and rather portly fellow playing the part of a rock n’ roll love god. Now that he’s balding and middle-aged it works even better. It never seemed quite right that he was young.

Significantly, the rapturously-received set concentrates on songs from their first two albums, i.e. the good ones: When in Rome Kill Me and Leggy Mambo. There’s only a reluctant airing for their biggest hit, ‘Rich and Strange’ from airbrushed major label debut Asquarius, and nothing at all from the fatally compromised fourth album, Showbiz. 

What we did get were solid gold Cud classics like ‘Only a Prawn in Whitby,’ ‘Strange Kind of Love,’ ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ ‘Purple Love Balloon,’ ‘Now!’, ‘Hey Boots,’ ‘You’re the Boss,’ ‘Love in a Hollow Tree,’ ‘Wobbly Jelly,’ ‘Eau Water,’ and ‘Not Exactly D.L.E.R.C.’ My only criticism is that they didn’t play for another hour, and it’s a testament to their songwriting riches that  so many other favourites went unaired: wither ‘Slack Time,’ ‘Push and Shove,’ ‘Hey! Wire’ and many others?

They encored with their Mission Impossible styled version of Jethro Tull’s ‘Living in the Past’ and, of course, traditional set closer ‘I’ve Had It With Blondes.’ If I was doing pathos, I would describe this song’s refrain of “things get worse when you get old” as poignant. But I’m not. And it isn’t. So I won’t. Because, on last night’s evidence, they don’t.

Not at all.           

Medicine and Duty- Flags and Cannons

March 15, 2008

medicine-and-duty.jpg 

This Brighton-based improvised music trio, made up of guitarist/bassist/keyboardists Matt Colegate and Jack Cooper, along with drummer Andy Pyne, evolved from the acclaimed Raised By Wolves and are part of a collective of forward-thinking, experimental acts that also includes Burning Idiot Noise and Puffinboy. Medicine and Duty, however, is arguably the most far-out and unhinged of all of them, operating in a wide-ranging sphere that puts them alongside such cosmic fellow travellers as Sunburned Hand of the Man, Merzbow, Lightning Bolt and Boredoms, and in the tradition of illustrious antecedents from Sun-Ra and Ornette Coleman to Can and Faust to This Heat and James Chance and the Contortions. It’s far-reaching shit.

Cannons and Flags opens with the startling, foghorn warning signal of ‘Going Down With the Ship,’ an urgent piece of no wave skronk built upon an insistent, one-note guitar drone spiked with virulent Teenage Jesus scrape shards of high-pitched unpleasant surgical noise. Barely audible beatific vocal harmonies attempt to sooth our terror as the pummelling drums kick in and we feel ourselves lurching towards the unfathomable depths of the vast dark universal ocean, where Cthulhu doubtless waits.

 ‘A Better Place for Now’ recalls Holy Fuck in the way the untutored analog electronics and primitive guitar klang gradually revolve around the stuttering drums until a heavy, hypnotic, killer kraut dancefloor groove emerges. Urgent calls for prayer in some lost ancient language begin ‘Distinguished Gentlemen Be Aware’ -a language that is nevertheless disturbingly familiar on some subconscious, atavistic level. From electronic squiggles, free form tribal drum rolls and percussive tapping it grows increasingly disturbed and frenetic, never settling, always in motion and up in the air, simulating the jangled effect of several days’ sleep deprivation.

‘Mechanical Surgery Solutions’ is the sound of some hideous industrial machine or Kafka-esque torture device, the needle cutting intricate patterns deep into the victim’s body. Yet it’s an oasis of sinister calm after the preceding number, generating dread white English dub sonics almost in the manner of Cabaret Voltaire. Gradually the rhythms coalesce into something more assertive and menacing, and then it’s time for ‘The Tour Guide,’ in which a diatribe in what I now recognise as the ancient language of Mu (or is it some obscure Lemurian dialect?), is rhythmically chanted in the manner of turn-of-the-millennium art rockers Life Without Buildings. Guitars and drums interject and weave around this fascinating vocal discourse on the flora, fauna, history and architectural magnificence of the lost continent.

The chants and wails grow ever more ecstatic on the title track, a frenzy of orgiastic drumming and wild, Dionysian celebration that is nevertheless continually undercut by subdued, melancholy piano chords. It’s as though even in the hour of their greatest triumph, the people of Mu are still tragically aware of their imminent demise, along with that of their entire culture. Which of course is just as it would have been with a race of people so advanced that they occupied several different time streams simultaneously, and in both directions.

Indeed, ‘Last of the Lives’ begins with a sombre and spartan memorial tattoo for those brave Lemurian warriors prepared to go down with their country. Electronic noise stabs are arranged around appropriately seasick guitar wails, and as the music grows ever more hectic, impassioned and uncontrolled a hypnotic voice tells of the unimaginable courage and suffering of those hundreds of men, women and hermaphrodites who all died with their third eyes open.

‘Mars Battalion March’ is a spiky, sparse and brief interlude of quirky reflection before ‘Life Like Life Support’ once again evokes Holy Fuck with pummelling drums and repetitive electronic whistles and belches that may be a last ditch attempt from a dying civilisation to communicate with our alien brethren from beyond the stars. The results though are scrambled and overloaded- joyous to listen to, but as we know, historically tragic. This song uses the metaphor of the competing stimuli of a man with several hearts beating in different rhythms simultaneously, while hooked up to an erratic life support machine, to convey the intensity and chaos of those final, desperate days of Mu.

But then again, what if all of this is completely wrong? on ‘Theories Demolished,’ guitars, keys and drums all lock into a primal ur-kraut groove as the eloquent lyrics urgently refute all of my pat interpretations, ironically using the formal court language of High Lemiurian to devastating effect- a way of speaking, of course, that was expressly evolved in order to observe the intricate protocol of a decadent empire, so full of ambiguity, allusion, double-meaning and now-impenetrable subtleties that the speaker is never definitely committed to one opinion or point of view.

 ‘Baby Please’ is a temporal anomaly- stray bass notes escaping from a Joy Division rehearsal circa 1978, in a disused mill complex still haunted by the vicious ghosts of dismembered Victorian schoolchildren. And suddenly we’re in howling, churning hardcore territory, beyond the valley of At The Drive-In. Whatever it is, she ain’t doing it.

The last track, ‘Whale Hunting’ is an epic finale. Great titanium-hulled longships set sail across uncharted oceans in pursuit of fabled magnificent beasts, each one the size and temprament of a modest post-war housing development. Here we have all the pathos and drama of that life or death struggle, driven by the martial drums of the whaling ships’ oarsmen and the haunting but deafening cries of the whales that the Lemurians hunted into extinction with laser harpoons and sonar nets, all of which are represented sonically on this song. Is it a metaphor for the state of music in 2008, sinking beneath the waves of corporate indifference yet paradoxically illuminated by the very technological innovations that threaten to destroy it? Probably not. But it’s worth considering.       

Flags and Cannons is a Foolproof Project- www.foolproofprojects.co.uk

www.myspace.com/medicineandduty

Live: Dead Meadow, the Freebutt, Brighton

March 10, 2008

Interstellar Hurricane. Silver Ray. Sister Machine.

Like an Overdrive.

Okay, so I don’t own any Dead Meadow records. Okay, so maybe I’m kind of guessing at the titles of the songs they played. It was something like that, anyway. I mean, it was that kind of thing. Like some kind of seared tuna mindmelt of all your favourite classic psychedelic hard rock moments- except actually nothing like them, either. Which is the ultimate paradox of the whole stoner rock phenomenon- and yeah, I think The Meadow, as we like to call them here, fit into that category- that while on the surface they seem to be nothing but revivalists, and actually strive real hard to give that impression, in fact the band that you think they sound like really only ever existed in your head.

So, on Saturday night Dead Meadow combined the heavy mystic sludge of Black Sabbath with the pulverising rhythmic swing of early Can. Something that could never have happened back in the day, but which now seems not just inevitable but essential. Drawing on hard rock, psychedelia, kraut, folk and metal in roughly that order, this is not music to work out your aggression to, but music to lose yourself in. This is heavy meditation.

 Mostly churning and slow, but occasionally stepping up a gear to a thrillingly mid-paced high, Dead meadow deal in rock as ritual, a pagan, molten summoning of spirits. It’s an evocation of the underworld, concerned less with sonic innovation, or even with songs as such, than with recreating the eternal moment, like ancient druids hauling us ass-first into their sacred groove.

It’s an increasingly valid function for rock to perform, and when it works, as on this occasion, it’s like opening a communal doorway into some primal, gnostic heartland. It’s the kind of thing that gets you talking about the rock musician as shaman, and the totemic significance of the power trio as representative of the magical power of three, the Celtic and Egyptian tradition of grouping divinities into triads- like birth, life and death- that long predates the Christian trinity.

 ‘This is like a sweat lodge!’ comments guitarist Jason Simon. ‘Sweat that shit out!’ Yeah, it’s hot, but it’s not just that. It’s all in the rhythms, the interplay between the instruments creating a complex cross-hatching of sounds, interwoven beneath the ecstatic, obliterating surface drone, the feedback OM… the hypnotic, repetitive fuzz mantra.

Jason’s guitar does little more than add texture, eschewing the lengthy, masturbatory solos that plague this type of music in favour of a wall of sound fed through banks of wah, echo and delay, and giving Steve Kille’s bass and Stephen McCarthy’s drums the chance to lock together and really move. The emphasis is on the rhythm section throughout, and McCarthy’s drumming especially is both exciting and exacting; there’s a deceptive simplicity and precision to his playing which always serves the greater cause, never giving in to the flashy, splashy, chaotic showmanship of the Keith Moon school which I’ve personally always found boring and unnecessary. 

A note too, on Jason’s vocals, which have often been criticised as sounding weak on record. I don’t know about that, but live they were perfectly suited to the form, communicating emotionally while remaining low in the mix, never dominating but simply functioning as another instrument- again, serving the greater cause.

Support came from The Bowlide Awkwardstra, who played a set of powerful, noisy improv that recalled my first experience of seeing Sunburned Hand of the Man, some years ago now- a dark invocation of primal forces, replete with wordless chanting, grunts and howls, powered by driving, circular drumming. Electric guitar and bass flanked a shifting array of brass, woodwind, percussion, electronic effects and whistles and bells, mainly played by John Cassavetes lookalike Dan Spicer.

Dead Meadow. The moment begins again.