Thursday, 23 April 2009

Sun Kil Moon - Duk Koo Kim: In Depth

Fourteen minutes and thirty-two seconds of complete immersion in sound – yet the shortest fourteen minutes and thirty-two seconds that have ever passed this writer by. Moving slightly away from the otherwise stifling, intensely personal nature of the slowcore movement, Mark Kozelek’s Sun Kil Moon persona offers an expansive yet opaque bridge towards post-rock via lingering percussion, resounding bridges and impenetrably dense atmospherics.

‘Duk Koo Kim’, from Ghosts Of The Great Highway, is based around the tragedy of the South Korean boxer who died four days after taking on rival Mancini in a Vegas fight. Prior to the fight, he’d only once fought outside his homeland. The fight capitulated in a series of 39 straight punches, Kim on the floor helpless. He died four days later in hospital.

In Sun Kil Moon’s magnum opus, the death of Duk Koo Kim is related back to the transience of life and eventually, the fact that we’re all mortal beings; heroism is pitted against fallibility through a microscope. It’s an infinite series of contrasts, and the length and textures of the piece so cleverly take on the character of Kozelek’s mind. Set three-quarters of the way through the album, the persistence of the downbeat symbolises the whole ‘never giving up’ ethos behind ‘Duk Koo Kim’. The length of ‘Duk Koo Kim’ in comparison with the rest of the offerings on Ghosts enacts the aphorism to live for the moment, realizing your human limitations only through an enforced vulnerability.

Sonically, this is likely the slowest, quietest exposure of emotion you’ll ever hear. Quixotic and constantly urging itself on, you can take each minute on its own terms – only the broadly-focused ruminations run solidly throughout. The melodies delay their surrender, at the same time forcing their existences onwards. Never remaining in the same place for longer than their own lives, they’re allowed the space and time to resonate before morphing into something related. They find a place within the new layers added with every second resonation.

It’s a lyrical journey so understated and affecting that it’s induced tears of dismay/ despair/ disillusion/ self-realization in this writer and probably hundreds of others. “I saw a typhoon coming in close,” Kozelek almost cries; “I knew there I'd die alone/with no one to reach to” is next. And never has a feeling been so carefully constructed and portrayed than in the words “you never know what day could pick you baby/ out of the air, out of nowhere”.

The way Kozelek channels pain into something this sonically beautiful is incomparable; it’s the soul of his soul. The ringing guitars at about the eight minute mark are inspirational, even life-changing. They’re the moment you realise the lack of gaps between this and your own emotional composition.

This failure to give-in – just like the boxer, helplessly lying on the floor - is dressed up in a synthesis of chords, building up to the astounding cathartic multi-track guitar work at the end. And that moment is the realisation of Kozelek’s ingenuity, never failing to throw itself insistently, ruthlessly, against the listener’s senses like a persistent fireball of a voice inside your head.

It can be warm, autumnal or stark and wintry; escapist or head-on "deal with it". ‘Duk Koo Kim’ is an ultimately awe-inspiring chunk of positivism, about realising your own failures and making the most of the time ahead. Through the joy of space and time, the ringing-out of each chord, the building-up of each layer, ‘Duk Koo Kim’ takes you on a boundless journey of self-realization. Right here is the meaning of soul, and everything else just feels like a parasite.

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Sunday, 25 January 2009

White Lies - To Lose My Life...

Pound the drums like The Bravery did back on 2005's 'An Honest Mistake', sing a bit flat in a "dead robot" sort of way, and finally add a pastiche of a Depeche Mode synth line. Indie bands, please reconsider your options.

To Lose My Life... isn't so much extended gloom as it is White Lies moping as they stare at their own reflections. Despite the hype about White Lies being yet another heir to Joy Division's throne, on this evidence the west London three-piece don't even have the right to touch the tip of Ian Curtis's nose. Instead To Lose My Life...'s insistent, dense basslines stall at the point of futility.

"This fear's got a hold on me," sings Harry McVeigh in opener 'Death', but it just doesn't sound convincing or honest. "You got blood on your hands and I know it's mine/I just need more time" ('Unfinished Business') falls at the same hurdle, failing to portray any emotion and instead leading us to feel that White Lies' lyrical structures are merely marriages of convenience. All too often the result is vacuous, bloated and immature.

It seems that White Lies are chasing an expansive sound, but have instead ended up with a dreary, rather flat and over-polished record. 'Fifty On Our Foreheads', though, at least leaves us feeling nostalgic for '80s post-rock forerunners Talk Talk.

In case you didn't get that they're mortality-crazed, just take a look at the track listing ('Death', 'To Lose My Life') or the album artwork. It all seems awkwardly contrived - 'Farewell To The Fairground' could even be Eno-produced Coldplay in another guise.

To Lose My Life... isn't a White Lie, more a compilation of clich├ęs piled up in the shape of a crucifix.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Lady GaGa - The Fame

NYC's Lady GaGa is courting fame on both sides of the Atlantic, and probably the ocean in between. The lead single from The Fame, 'Just Dance', is currently sitting at No.1 in the US and UK charts. And why? Well, that's the puzzling bit.

'Just Dance' recalls Timbaland's 'The Way I Are'. It's robotic, but rather than Timbaland, it features Akon - he of the chipmunked voice. It's cold and soulless, anonymous and futile. The rest of the up-tempo material on The Fame begins to take a familiar template: a stark electro opening leading into a saccharine-coated Neptunes-esque "club tune". This is never more noticeable than on 'LoveGame'... oh, and 'I Like It Rough', 'Starstruck' and 'Money Honey'.
Stefani Joanne Germanotta (she wasn't born Lady GaGa, you know) is unashamedly - hell, even with attempted gusto - going for some kerrazy hybrid of pop, glam rock, Ashlee Simpson, electro, disco, Gwen Stefani, gouda, Uffie, bump'n'grind and Hilary Duff. Ambitious? Well, actually it's not - it's an incoherent, unintentional parody of the worst bits of everything it's trying to imitate.

'Paparazzi' is so well-trodden it's got us with pegs over our noses; and when those candy-pop harmonies combine with contrived synth flinches, we're questioning humanity. Elsewhere, 'Boys Boys Boys' sounds like a Pussycat Dolls filler song: "I like you a lot lot/Think you're really hot hot."

'Eh, Eh' recalls Ace Of Base. Opening like Uffie and closing like Will.I.Am producing 'Believe'-era Cher, The Fame will be a vision of a dream to some, but unfortunately not to us. A guilty pleasure moniker is derisive at best, but it's with this epithet that Lady GaGa is set to take over 2009.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Camera Obscura @ KCLSU

The venue is atrocious, or, rather, the crowd should be ashamed of themselves. They talk all the way through the really rather decent support, Mockingbird, Wish Me Luck, whose orchestral indie-pop is only a tad too twee to command, and then eke their dull murmur for the duration of the headline set. But it all becomes irrelevant as Tracyanne Campbell leads Camera Obscura into a dreamlike segue – one which in part, I don’t want to break down.

But alas, for those that haven’t seen Camera Obscura live, it’s necessary. The band don’t enter the stage until gone ten as there’s some dodgy techery going on – and it takes them around one and a half songs to get into their stride. They don’t look like they’re having fun for only the first ten or so minutes, but after that, the mood soars. It becomes a ‘best of’ set of sorts, tracks from each of their albums getting an airing. Material from Let’s Get Out Of This Country gets the biggest reception, the brush kit and twee march of ‘The False Contender’ and the abundant drums on ‘If Looks Could Kill’ framing the instruments in their most all-out, superlative form.
Equally, the finicky, intricate guitars on ‘Teenager’ impress – not knowing quite what to expect live, it’s a lovely surprise that the rhythms are so free. The feel of the music is, in a way, much more contained on record. Yet on stage, there’s the attention to detail as well as the general tendency to just go with it, let go. Or something.

Be it the tiny inflections and unison handclaps on ‘Come Back Margaret’, or that true sense of warmth on ‘Eighties Fan’, it’s unimaginable to think that anyone here in the crowd hasn’t been reduced to a drooling fangirl by the halfway stage. Traceyanne’s remarks, just after ‘Lloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken’, that she feels like she’s on a boat – only in the sense that everyone here is part of some overriding, unified sense of presence. The casual fans take heed as soon as the organ chimes begin for that song, a real sense of magic.

Onto the new material – the band have been recording in Sweden, apparently, and if anyone puts the videos on YouTube, they’ll be in for a beating (not so apparently). ‘French Navy’ (“about the colour”) isn’t so much of a departure, more a massive leap forward – the reverie for the past is whipped up with some Orange Juice jangle on this surfy little number. And ‘Swans’ is, quite simply, vintage Camera Obscura – somewhere between a torch anthem and the theme to the closing scene in a B-movie, one to lose yourself in.

The new stuff is extremely exciting, that’s for sure, and save for the mid-set lethargy of ‘A Sister's Social Agony’, it’s a super performance. And the thumping, spasmodic, inner Mogwai creeping out of set-closer ‘Razzle Dazzle Rose’ sets off the post-gig vibrations perfectly – this writer walks away with a romantic fuzz all around her, following her for the next few days and more. A glorious, luminescent romanticism that could probably exist of its own accord, worryingly.

Mockingbird, Wish Me Luck @ KCLSU
The crowd tonight are hellish; completely disinterested, proceeding to talk their way through the whole of Mockingbird, Wish Me Luck’s set.

The Bukowski-inspired Swedish eight-piece try to let their orchestral, handclap-infused indie-pop do the talking, but you can’t help but feel that they need to command the audience – silence them, in a way. But alas, there’s a limit to this.

Their LP, Days Come And Go, has a wonderful knack of framing the fun. And whilst the instrument swapping antics on stage do a little to convince, the songs are crying out for something more shambolic. The music is delightfully twee like some sort of Concretes/Jens Lekman hybrid, all the same – and there’s a Magnetic Fields’ kind of haze glossed all over it.

The trombone adds another dimension to the tweeness, and this lot have certainly got a way with the crescendo – each of the songs build up to a point where the flautist is piping away at a heartier rate, the guitars are denser, and the vocals are more impassioned. They bring to mind Aloha rather than Belle and Sebastian when they do that.

It’s more advisable to buy the record, for now, than see them live. ‘Pictures (Too Big To Fit In A Sight)’ and ‘Let’s Watch The Sunrise’ are both true saccharine delights.

It’s early days, and they all look so young, but there’s certainly a future ahead for Mockingbird, Wish Me Luck – they just need to release a bit more, and get the crowd onside.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Morrissey at Wireless, Hyde Park
Glastonbury’s younger, dwarf-like cousin has upped his bags and moved into Hyde Park for a holiday – bringing with him expensive gifts like super-amazing flushing portaloos. Not only that, but he’s brought with him the sun, and a fantastic line-up.

So, for The Rascals: the performance is a strange contrast between showmanship and technical introversion, almost too precise despite the fun the trio are having. The consistent sense of urgency does the trick in the short run, but it’s an unvaried set at least until Alex Turner makes a cameo on set-closer ‘Is It Too Late’ – which finally feeds the audience some much needed gusto.

Next up on the second stage is Jacksonville’s Black Kids. Their set’s a shambles, or more specifically, a mess of indistinguishable noise. Sure, ‘Hit The Heartbrakes’ wails some on record… but that and ‘I’ve Underestimated My Charm Again’ are reduced to screeching, out-of-tune cringefests live. Frontman Reggie Youngblood tries way too hard to impress, though Dawn and Ali’s 60s girlgroup harmonies do carry off live, redeeming the frontman a little. And it’s way too referential live. Shameful, and surely not down to the soundsystem because the same thing happened at Glastonbury last week.

Following that was Guillemots on the main stage, the diverse setlist taking in everything from the wistful ‘Made Up Lovesong #43’ to all-out dance on ‘Last Kiss’. Sporadic and not at all sitting right next to each other, they’ve a strange way of making it work. How unique a frontman Fyfe Dangerfield is becomes evermore apparent on ‘Standing On The Last Star’ - which is more stunning and skittishness live than can ever be imagined.

It’s now mid-afternoon/early-evening, and lapse ensuing, the PA announcement instructs the audience to “cry milky tears” in preparation for The Wombats’ arrival. Dubious. If dumbed-down, pappy, throwaway, foot-stomping, anthem-by-numbers indie-pop is your thing, then it’s a veritable feast. Doubtful though, with the high calibre elsewhere on this day’s bill. Perhaps I’m just irked about how The Wombats have followed me to every festival I’ve been to over the course of the summer. Against my will, may I add.

Aside, higher aspirations lead to the falafel stand – which sits happily alongside the burgers despite the believable rumours of a meat ban (!) – and then towards The National back on the second stage. Time constraints mean that I miss Beck’s set, which is a shame. But it’s more than compensated for by a fantastic display from frontman Matt Berninger, rich baritone in top form. ‘Slow Show’ is just perfect live, the whole set building and building and building into a giant climax of symphonic hyperbole. Boxer is such a stunning LP, which begs the question why The National haven’t been latched onto Arcade Fire-stylee. Not that the half full tent are complaining.

And now for the Moz; it’s vintage, quite simply. Three costume changes and a load of nipple sweat later, the night escalates into a brilliantly orchestrated 21-song set comprising new material, solo hits, and a select few Smiths’ favourites. With Bush-bashing and Kylie-commendations in almost equal part. Opening with ‘Last Of The Famous International Playboys’, it’s ‘What She Said’, ‘Vicar In A Tutu’ and ‘How Soon Is Now’ that get the heartiest receptions. The comeback era songs like ‘First Of The Gang To Die’ and ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ come off brilliantly live, as Morrissey transforms into a super-human being seemingly born for playing these massive gigs. There’s even a cover of Buzzcocks’ ‘You Don’t Say You Love Me’, shamefully lost on much of the audience. New material such as 'Mama Lay Softly On The Riverbed' impresses too, with impassioned jangling like any of his best cuts. Forget the ‘depressing’ moniker that’s attached itself to le Moz because he comes across naturally funny, and humbled by the minions. I want to invite him to a private book club, but that’s another story.

In this ever-changing musical climate, Morrissey is the eternal paradigm. And that’s the greatest achievement of them all.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

The Futureheads On... The Music - Part Four of Four

Though the business side of their career courts its own focus these days, it’s only fair that The Futureheads are given the chance to elucidate on that thing they’re known for: the music. Not only theirs, but the stuff they love, hate and love to hate.

I reckon ‘Sale Of The Century’ (on the new album) is my favourite thing you’ve ever done. Really ferocious, very Joy Division.
Jaff: We didn’t even want that one on the album!
David: It was a contentious one, I remember it well.
Jaff: Us two were outvoted. But lots of people are saying that to us about that one.

It does sound completely different to anything you’ve done before.
David: Yeah, you’ve got to take yourself outside of the recording world and let somebody else tell you what’s good or bad.

What are the setlists like now?
Jaff: Seven old, seven new, one from News and Tributes.

Why? Because the fans don’t want to hear the second album?
Jaff: Yep.
David: And ‘cause we can’t play it!
Jaff: It’s too hard.
David: We can play them…
Jaff: They’ve got a million vocal tracks.
David: We found that when we started playing the songs off this album it brought the energy down.
Jaff: They relied too much on precision.David: Like we’d play ‘He Knows’ and then go on to ‘Thursday’, and it was just…

Was it to do with the way the second album was produced then?
David: Yeah.
Jaff: And the way it was written. And the idea we had writing it was to make a record that’d sound good on stereos rather than…
David: …rather than gigs. It was arrogant.
Jaff: Oh aye. We thought we’d get away with that. We did it, and it was hard to do. We’re still very fond of the record but it’s not for live.

Did Youth’s production really change the sound of this album?
Jaff: Massively. He couldn’t really be bothered with fannying about.
David: Doodling, self-indulgence...
Jaff: We’d lay the song up on the morning, work on the bass for an hour – try this, try that – then do the bass, the drumming, the guitars, the vocals, the rest of the guitars, the rest of the vocals…
David: It was very quick.

David: Mostly because of the heat (the band recorded This Is Not The World in Andalucia).
Jaff: Aye, they were long days.
David: I was done by three o’clock everyday, go and have a few drinks.
Jaff: I had to drive.

You were out there in the mountains somewhere weren’t you?
Jaff: Aye, it were brilliant like.

This album feels a lot more, well, technical. Technically put together, structure-wise. I probably haven’t quite got the right word but…
David: No, I know what you mean. The first one was a lot busier.
Jaff: Our third record is a lot more traditional. We couldn’t start a song until the lyrics were finished and the chorus was finished.

Was the album all written before you got to the studios?
Jaff: No, we wrote 20 songs when were out there – it was pretty intense. We were there for three weeks so...
David: …there was time for the beach.
Jaff: Torremolinos!
David: It was brilliant.

Blimey, talk about polar opposites!
David: Yeah!

What are you both listening to these days?
Jaff: Let me try and think what the last thing I bought was… ah, the MGMT record. It’s very good. We just did a little tour with them and CSS.
David: I’ve been listening to The Rolling Stones the whole time. I hated them for years and now I love them. I don’t really listen to new music, can’t be dealing with all that crap.Jaff: Not gonna be as good as ‘Sticky Fingers’ mate, is it?
David: No, nothing can be as good as ‘Sticky Fingers’.

You sound like a 50 year-old man, Dave…
David: Yeah I don’t like any of this nu-rave business, I can’t be arsed with it.

What else can’t you stand?
Dave: Alphabeat!(Jaff gives him a sly look)
Dave: Do you like that one, Jaff?
Jaff: It’s great! It’s brilliant, it’s a classic!
Dave: I think we’re going in different directions…
Jaff: I’m definitely gonna play that one when I DJ, like. It’ll send the pulses up like David Bowie! If I’m gonna be brutally honest, there’s a trend in the UK at the minute for guitar bands. Not only do a lot of dreadful bands get signed, but a lot of dreadful bands get to be quite big. There’s a load of mediocrity on the live scene that’s come from record companies signing guitar bands and trying to make them pop bands. There’s a lot of dreadful ones. They all just write songs like (in stupid voice) “That’s nice/oh my god/got drunk/na na na” – the lyrics just sprawl on and on. There’s no rhythm, no melody, no metre, no…