Saturday, 25 October 2014

Here's to lots more dots: The Pale Blue Dots

I received a copy of Lots of Dots through the post the other day. It’s the new (long) player from The Pale Blue Dots. Actually it’s the first long player from The Pale Blue Dots. It was good to see that the thinking, the talking and writing has finally paid off. I was beginning to doubt whether any of this would ever surface and run its rings around the world.

If you don’t know already – because these things get around town – by word of mouth, internet ravings and rumours and releases – The Pale Blue Dots are Huw ‘Bunf’ Bunford and Richard Chester. Richard is one of my best friends – is my best friend. Good friends. We’ve spent some real good times together and I’ve always appreciated his musical ear(s). Bunf was known to me through the Furries – and that pretty much makes him a musical genius – there hasn’t been a band like the Super Furry Animals before or after. They captured that freeing of sound the 90s let in – briefly combining rock and roll with psych and soul all topped with chemical beats and treats. 

It was Welsh independence writ large for the masses with guitars and furry suits. And here it is again - without the suits but just as experimental.

As you know – I have had access to part of The Pale Blue Dots for some time and have been raving and raging about them for two years now. Ever since Richard sent me Additional (which is yet to see the light of day) a tune all awash with Jeff Lyne, flourishes and strings I have felt this band had a finger somewhere on the pulse of rock n roll (that's the widest definition of rock n roll - you could just call it music) So where to begin? I should do some sort of plodding Mojo review – two paragraphs and a press release. Give four stars and bang it up. But I think it deserves a little more praise than that – but then I am a bias fucker.

This is not an extension of the Super Furry Animals. It isn’t even a solo project – it’s a bit more complicated and I think this first long player reveals it. Its textures and hooks and riffs and rolls coupled with openness and playfulness. It’s the pleasure of listening.  It’s clear that there is an interaction between the two worlds – Bunf’s is different to Richard’s but that shared connection – that understanding is evident in the straight pop boogie of Devastation through to the wonderfully evocative Nebraska.

You can’t quite put your finger on it. It isn’t conceptual – yet there’s a thread running through it. We have references to West Coast psychedelia (Slow Reaction), through soundscapes and Asian melancholia mixed with the funky drummer (Tokyo Hotel Silence or Silent Tokyo Hotel – which had my daughter smiling  - she just loved the idea that the two pieces were essential the same with muddled words) coupled with ramalama Bolan/ Bowie infused boogaloo (Devastation) eighties production and early synth experimentation (Look into my Eyes)  to the wild plains and haunting twangs of the prairie as dusk falls (Nebraska).

And it all works together. From start to finish it evolves and lingers – causually working its way from the short term memory to the long term.

Its an experiment in getting inside your head.

Guitars are distorted and loud, it's full of clangs and chimes  - then things are suddenly strummed and simple – they are sounds in themselves. And you can see that both of these fellas love sound. You can see that they 'get' sound. They get down to 'sound'. (The Sound of the Crowd)

I guess we get a glimpse of what’s inside their heads. It’s quite dark at times. You might keep it upbeat but No Motivation references that sinking slide into busily doing nothing but sleeping. Put that with Slow Reaction – which from its opening piano riff lodges itself firmly in your brain and you’ve got a band struggling to articulate and do.

Except it isn’t.  Because here’s an album full of potential pop hits. Produced by Cian at the Strangetown Studios - there's a lovely space and groove to it all. I mean that I really do. As I said previously these are older fellas writing music for the masses.  There’s a touch of Nilsson, of Alex ‘Skip’ Spence, Jeff Lyne (and his dark eyes) Spector and early electro albums and of course if you really want to you'll hear a nod to the Furries. Bound to - really. Oh and Daf is playing drums.

It's a wide-ranging album and whilst the focus will be on Bunf - this is double labour of love - for both members. It surprises and asks for a response. When I first heard Reach for the Keys – I didn’t get it. It seemed so overblown and vibrating with empty halls and the echoes of children’s voices – with a rolling nursery rhythm beat. But as with all these tunes they have legs – they have feet – they grow. And it's haunting opening - sort of reminiscent of the Tales of the Unexpected - Roald Dhal making earworm pop - soon lodges itself in your brain. Bunf's simply delivery coupled with found sounds and talk - after a few listens I was happily singing along.

Aquarium could be the missing link between the last SFA album and these Pale Blue Dots. Creeping closer now it gives you the creeps. Bunf's vibrato is quite extraordinary. There's a fragility amidst the lush orchestration - as Bunf dazzles his partner with his 'Admit One Extra' pass and get's her in for 'free now baby'. Meanwhile Richard's layering the strings like the bastard son of Barry. Super continents collide my friend.

And what a great collision this is. It's good to have Richard and Bunf together.

You know I was worried about Lots of Dots dark unnerving cover – a little girl slaughtered as a lamb sits by her side. I mean what should I be reading into that? Or it could just be a broken ornament – found in any home across the land and tipped over through excitement and stupidity. You know it’s just a cover  - but there's an undercurrent to it - a subtext. Something which rings out on this (way to short) long player - take Look in to my Eyes - it's all in a look. Concentrate. Something's lurking in this song - something's lurking in this album and I like it.

You know we might miss the Super Furry Animals and I’m not holding my breath for a reunion – although it would be great.

But let’s give this credit.

Let’s give them all credit.

They can all write fucking quality tunes - Gruf, Cian, Daf, Guto and Bunf – with each other - apart - or here with Richard Chester.

I hope this release is the start of something new. I know there are more songs  - lots more dots - absolute crackers - but as first releases go - every tune is great in its own right.  And if me and my kids are singing these songs in the car - then I know you will be too.

They're having a blast. So let's join in.

Lots of Dots is released on StrangetownRecords on November 3rd.

The Pale Blue Dots are in session on Monday on Marc Riley's show from 7.00pm

You can listen to The Pale Blue Dots here. 

Monday, 6 October 2014

Music and myth: A night with Gruff

I saw Gruff Rhys the other week. I really should have written it up sooner – but it’s been fairly hectic and frantic and non stop stop stop recently. 

If  there’s one furry animal who keeps up the appearances then it’s Gruff – whilst the band remain in some limbo state of stasis – well their name anyway – as all the other members are busy doing this and that (more to come about later on) in a furry or not so furry vein.  Gruff seems to churn out Mercury nominated collaborative albums by the bucketload – and there seems to be no dip in quality whatever he turns his exquisite eye and hand to.

I had originally planned to go with a long time friend who’s recently set up shop in the southbank concrete jungle – all education plans and talk – but he couldn’t make it – he had however managed to get me the tickets though – that unexpected joy of being on a guest list made me feel twenty years old again. Except I’m 43 now – grey and much fatter – but with the easy grin of child when it’s all coming for free.

 Not that it would have made it any better.

You see Gruff is wonderful company in the intimacy of the Queen Elizabeth Hall.  All set up ready for a recital that looks part concert, part lesson what with the power point in tow (ok it wasn’t a power point – it was a slide show – all labelled and organised - but you get my drift).

There’s a wonderful laconic relaxed nature to Gruff – it comes from that assured knowledge that what he’s doing is genuine I think – this is not postmodern trickery of the masses – it is a wonderful piece of exploratory pop wedded to an ancient ‘man-made’ (possibly) myth of a Welsh tribe conquering the America Interior and the efforts of one man to find out the truth some way back in the 1800s. It’s the outward monologue of an offbeat mindset that is Gruff Rhys.

So our gig begins with a film. Beautiful shot in high contrast, all long pans and shaky cuts as a professor in safari wear gives us the background on the Welsh’s role in the making the land of the free. Narrated by Gwyn A. Williams the short film covers the origins of the notion that Welsh tribes first settled in North America in the 12th century. It propels you back to your own childhood of BBC documentaries and early morning Open Universities output. It is flawless in its attention to detail – long shots of a walking man on Welsh hills and American landscapes. It is also funny.

Gruff is that genial host – effortlessly cool and funny in equally measure – he’s performing in wolf headdress with cue cards – record player and acoustic guitar – he’s explaining the journey and creating our journey and what a journey it turns out to be. Songs interspaced with image and explanation of the horrors that John Evans or Jean Evans or even Don Juan Evans went through in his quest to find out where the Welsh went.  From the opening  C&W tinged Tiger’s Tale, that soon segues into the ensuing Year Of The Dog, the audience are held pretty much spellbound for the best part of two hours. It’s good company to be in.

Oh did I forget to say – Gruff recreated the voyage – with a puppet. A grey muppet of austere stature and utter melancholia – it’s black and white felt (as imagined by Pete Fowler) serving to reinforce the tragicomic elements of this ‘story’. Gruff brings him on to cheers from the sold out venue – like an even more surreal moment from The Muppets.  And then proceeds to show us where he’d been and which tube line he’d travelled on – via the wonder of technology and beautifully framed pictures beamed from his ipad to the vast screen on stage. It’s fair to say Gruff looks lonely out there – but it’s clear the audience are willing him on.

Gruff has this wonderful flick of his wrist – and images zoom in and break up in pixels and fuzz – or jump back as if alive – it brings the whole story to life. And once again it’s funny. Combined with sounds – such as when John Evans is arrested in Baltimore (“the home of crack cocaine and The Wire”) or is it St.Louis -  and it becomes something else – like a scene from a B film – all zooms and chops as sirens ring out and the intensity of the zoom whilst manic is timed for comic perfection. Gruff's deadpan delivery only adding to the inherent humor in the hall. 

At times I actually shake with laughter – at school I used to spend a lot of time laughing with the friend I’d eventually gone along with the gig with – a one Richard Chester – who’s about to release a wonderful set of tunes with another furyy – Bunf – but that’s for a later post – and this is not about The Pale Blue Dots – yet.  We used to cut pictures out of the paper and bring them in to make each other laugh at inopportune moments in PHSE or History – laughter in the corridors of comprehensives – it was a steel town we didn’t have much else – but our odd pictures of Dave Hill, or Ian Botham’s engagement, Les Dawson’s eye or James Brown’s orange leather jerkin would get us through the day (and night for that matter)

And there was a moment in Gruff’s procedings where he expertly linked the Acid Trip scene from Easy Rider to the same cemetery where John Evans had been buried. His choice of photograph and that causal throwaway comment just had me howling. The juxtaposition of Hopper and Fonda in that cemetery and our journey with John was comedy timing at is finest. Seriously he should have his own sit com – it was spectacle and stand up. Beautiful combined and timed.

But we nearly never got there – as apple’s ipad warnings ominously flashed up on screen – with Gruff at first unaware of the 10% remaining life of his ipad.  Thus we – the audience were not going to follow this tale the way it had been originally intended – indeed. “To add to the suspense [of the story], we don’t even know if we’ll make it to the end” Gruff tells us - it's a tense moment but we're here for the ride. With time definately not on his side - and an aborted attempt at charging that actually reduced the power - it was only the 'back up solutions' of an audience member that saved the images that are so intrinsic to this musical monologue.

In some ways the show falling apart only made it more special – more riveting – with the ipad dying in front of our eyes and calls for the technician to find the right charger – we didn’t know whether Gruff would have to fly solo even further – unaided – without photographic evidence. So the tale was told quickly and effectively – leaving time for the songs to be played in a batch – reflecting the photos we had briefly glimpsed. Saying that Gruff – told the story with the aid of a dubplate with beats – a 7 inch of slow jam – a beat (poet) explanation with added bass.

It would be good to have this narration with the album – but all you get are the songs. And what wonderful songs they are – conjuring up the west – the (lost) tribes he meets and the travels of our character, the last conquistador, in full technicolour. Gruff performs them simply here – guitar upturned in hand – and ipad applications double tracking voices – or replaying moments – it’s what we’ve come to expect from Gruff – multiple things happen at once – out of seeming chaos and random sounds -come tunes of utter wit and beauty. These are not Furry tunes done by one man – this is his art maaaaaaaaan. This is his thing.

And I guess when the narration takes a back seat and the set takes on a more usual format - the songs aren't in anyway diminished by the lack of explanation. Instead - Gruff simply sings and we clap.

Because that's the response you have. And he tells us to with his 'Applause' cue card.

But it's The Swamp that brings me to my knees - as we lay John Evans to rest - Gruff sweetly sings the line, 'I'm not scared of dying, I'm just scared of making you cry' - it's poignant but not mawkish - it's soul singing of the highest order. So two hours later we're still there - wanting another and another - and Gruff doesn't disappoint - with some nods and winks to his own back catalogue - not the Furries - just his own.  Candylion and Honey all over - end the show. 

As harmonies build and soar - Gruff runs from the stage - one final command card in his hand - we applaud.

And he thanks us.

For a brilliant and technically accurate review of the concert you should read this:

There's also an app and DVD and soundtrack and lots and lots of things - you can find a link to those via Gruff's site

And here's a wonderful song from Gruff

Thursday, 11 September 2014

He will be missed

Robert Young has died.

I woke with the usual resistance to rise – cold morning and grey skies. It’s Thursday – not quite the weekend – it can be a hanging around day if you’re not careful. When I was younger it was the arrival of early hours hedonism  - but today I got up  - I washed – missed breakfast and replaced it with nicotine - a habit of youth so sadly not shaken yet.

I get to work – I work – I work.

Check the phone – sometime past ten o’clock.

Tagged in a post from the wonderful Jo – news seems to be emerging that Robert ‘Throb’ Young is dead.

I haven’t seen the man in 24 years but I’m genuinely shocked. And gutted.  And sad.

You can begin all this rock n roll casualty talk if you wish. And it may well be true – but check the record – check the record – check the guy’s track record.  He was the guitarist with Primal Scream. No solo projects. Nothing to distract him – except rock n roll. Primal Scream were a much maligned monster when I first met them – it had turned out all heavy and leather and the bowlheads wanted fey and inferior music. I wasn’t one of them. I loved the sheer power of The Scream’s new take on rock n roll in an age of jangly guitars and emerging grunge. Throb and Innes had bottled that MC5 magic - a double guitar assault with Bobby G in the middle - it was all effortlessly cool. They were wearing leather - their shirts were open - chelsea boots and chains. This wasn't anorak city.

Our little known band then – and little known band now  - managed to convince Paul at The Adelphi that we should support them – so he let us. We were third on the bill and got paid £25 quid or possibly £50. Our name wasn’t even on the poster.

We played in t-shirts freshly bought from Crusher – who was their touring manager and merchandise man and pretty much go to geezer.  We finished and The Scream had seen us – they liked it and asked us down to Sheffield the next night.

I know I’ve written this before. But indulge me. It just might get me writing again.

So we drove at speed to reach Sheffield – cars full of us and little else. It was a date with the screamteam. We’d been booked by them – not the venue – they would make it alright. I felt like a kid – these ‘adults’ of rock n roll asking us to play were little more than the big kids at school themselves – they were super cool.

The Scream – were open, honest, wild and full of promise.

And I’m hanging on to those memories.

That's Throb's guitar. The Williams Sheffield Take Two
So eagerly under prepared  we arrived in Sheffield. The third night ‘on the road’. We had no amps – little room for guitars and drums – but we we’re young and up for it. Toby leant Paul his kit. Henry leant ian his amp and Throb lent me his Les Paul – there was no rock star selfishness in the man. He wanted others to have a good time, to have a party.  Suddenly this two-bit rock n roll band (that’s us – not the Scream) were transformed by Marshall amps, solidly constructed guitars and drums. A mighty fucking racket for the rabble of fans. We used to have a song at the end of our ‘set’ all two chord stooges and feedback. Howling guitars and anarchy.

And I’m hitting this beautiful guitar’s pick-ups – driving that feedback out as the booze flowed through me.

Turns out I might have hit it too hard.

But Throb doesn’t mind. A broken Les Paul – it can be fixed – but not tonight. A little mild panic sets in – you know I only met the guy yesterday. He declares it ‘rock n roll’ and straps on the Flying V – effortless – cool – smoking throughout the gig. 

Robert Young made young girls and men fall in love with him.

As Gillespie and Innes said in their statement following his death Throb always saw the stage as a place to conquer. "When we go onstage it's a war between us and the audience" He would conquer it and everyone in that room. Bring then down with his battle sound. This wasn’t a man borne out of malice. He was always open. As my brother said to me – he made him feel welcome.  So I’ll remember the vodka, the hair, the embraces, the acid house parties, the screamadelica shenanigans, the talks, the recommendations and the women.

Throb and a young Rob Dillam (pre Adorable)
I’ll remember Robert Young.

And if running round the past and fitting me into the story makes me seem sad – a touch too nostalgic – then so be it. Hearing the news that he was dead forced me back there.

They're great memories.

I’ll miss Throbert Young. 

I’m turning down the Marshall to zero tonight.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Should you be in here 'reading' that?

I recently befriended Alan McGee on Facebook – you know were not friends – I met him a couple times – sold him some fanzines at a House of Love gig  - took him to the Gardening Club after an Adorable gig – all taxis and handshakes – and now he’s on facebook - it’s a social medium – you can distribute information and to be honest – McGee’s always been an entertaining fucker at the best of times.  Anyway he took to posting ( and he likes to post) about Shaun Ryder some weeks back and it just chimed with what I’ve said about him and reminded me what a character he is - Shaun - not McGee - i'll write about that later. 

Ryder is a genius. I don’t think there’s anyone in the last thirty years who can touch him.  You can tell me who you think matters – I’m prepared to listen – but right now I’m writing this about Shaun and those twisted insights into living and surviving that he gave us.

I never saw the Happy Mondays  - never saw The Roses either.  I was baggy just not into the whole gig spectacular. I’d fixated on tunes on 12 inches being played by DJs in warehouses. I never took my top off but I was wide eyed to it all. And throughout this The Mondays would be in the background – twisting my melons man – talking so hip. I first heard about them via the music press – pressed up on a Record Mirror 7 inch vinyl or talk of John Cale mixing it up with these youth from estates in Little Hulton  - that was probably 1987 – I wasn’t quite ready for the screech and funk of it then. My Manchester passion was still miserable and maudlin  - you’ve got to blame Morrissey for that – or even The Pistols – because without that legendary Free Trade Hall gig – blah blah blah.

Listening back to those early tunes on possible the best titled album of all time’ Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out)’ it’s got the funk and reference to the nu-soul scene of the early eighties but played by lads with knocked off gear and tracksuits forming indie bands to get inside clubs and deal more drugs. Yet within the cacophony you can already hear Ryder just teasing out the stories of what it’s like to be working class, dispossessed, having fun and the constant grind of daily life. There’s a work ethic to this album. You don’t just turn this out on a night – do you get me? The Happy Mondays wanted to be big – wanted to be famous – there’s not much point otherwise.  Don’t misunderstand me – this isn’t social realism – it’s picareseque hyper realism – bending boundaries and minds.

But just that opening line from 24 Hour Party People,

How old are you?
Are you old enough?
Should you be in here watching that?

Already there are images conjured – connections made – there’s deviance and pleasure – it’s late night – or it’s early morning – either way – should we be here listening to this – are we old enough?  Home truths writ large in Manchester tones – that’s The Mondays. And I do like (the Happy) Mondays – shall I tell you why?

Shaun Ryder is underrated. He doesn’t always give ‘good interview’ – he coarse and wired, grumpy and tired – bongoed and bouncy. He’s all eyeballs and grins (oh wait a minute that was Bez) There’s a great deal out there on the internet about this Shaun and that Shaun. And references to lyrics and poetry and W.B Yeats and Whitman. And I ought to be careful here – because whenever you attribute knowledge and intellect to anything you also get people thinking you’re being sarcastic or being playfully postmodern with your wit – trying to catch someone out. There’s an article on the website sabotage times about Ryder and poetry and all the comments merge into a diatribe about people not understanding the author was taking the piss. Which I don’t think he was – and if he was – why? You shouldn’t be ashamed to make comparisons and discuss – and if you don’t want to do that – you’ve still got the tunes.

I don’t buy that dumbing down of the working class intellect. You know Ryder wasn’t a nine to fiver – he wrote lyrics for a band – he crafted words and depicted life – he wasn’t playing you as mugs he was authenticating the voice of an addled and e- generation – the product of education systems in the seventies and eighties that would rather hit you than fill you full of awe. You had to find that yourself – and that meant traipsing through the mire of part time love and infatuation, heady times and edgy vibes. Shaun pulled this stuff from his head – not because he wasn’t (stinkin’) thinkin’ but precisely because he got the script.

‘Oh son I’m thirty – I only went with your mother coz she’s dirty - And I don't have a decent bone in me - What you get is just what you see yeah.’

I haven’t got the space or time to do this post justice – and to be honest you’d be better off just reading Shaun’s lyrics and listening to the tunes.

I once sat in a bar with Shaun Ryder – the only time I’ve met him – this must have been 1992 – The Mondays were on self-destruct and Black Grape had yet to be realised. Ryder was early afternoon barflying – Guinness stockpiled and alone.  I was with a great mate at that time – Phil Fisk – I’ve mentioned him before he’s a photographer – he takes pictures of people – they appear in newspapers and that – he didn’t have a camera on that day – he wasn’t a photographer quite then.

We didn’t want miss an opportunity to say hello. So we did.

Ryder was welcoming, funny, open and honest. We talked about the post office, music and this and that. He looked older than his years – the monkey was still on his back – but he was good company – you know the living dead don’t get a holiday. I had to leave – meet lost lovers and all that – but I left him and Phil – he didn’t shuffle off – he was into conversation.

And you see that through his lyrics – all part conversations with figures we can’t see. It’s there in Wrote for Luck – the opening line ‘I wrote for luck – they sent me you.’  And there’s nothing wrong in recognising the simplicity in the work as being on par with this poet or that one.

Its words after all – why are our masses so scared of thinking that others might think that we think?

You know the working class have a brain to – they use it a lot – they free think in hard times. And Ryder’s had plenty of hard times. It’s good to see him back – all new teeth and eating well – he was always going to come out the other side. He’s escaped his roots by taking a route through life differently to some of those other chancers on estates all over our ‘green and pleasant land’ – this wasn’t just a northern thing – let’s not forget Liam from Flowered Up –  yet his mind still stands firmly there on the concrete stones of Salford streets.

So I’m celebrating the lyrics – I’m raising them up to high art. I always was a pretentious arse at the best of times – some things don’t change.  Shaun is a product of his times –speaking truth in simple rhymes – but they stick – they take root. I know that Shaun William Ryder has laid down beside ya – filled you full of junk. Junk of the highest quality. He’s articulating the inarticulacy of the then and now. He’s putting words to the stuttering thoughts, clenched fists and fried brains of the Thatcherite revolution – you could say he was creating ‘banter’ before it became a catchall for loose talk and ignorant opinion.  He tapped into the terrace chanter and pavement talk  - all unifying but keeping out the mainstream. (There’s an interview in The Guardian where the journalist translates ‘you’re twisting my melons man’ for the readers – it was a joke – but you could sense he thought he had to) and this is continued through the sublime work of Black Grape’s first long player.

‘I don’t read – I just guess – there’s more than one sign – but it’s getting less’

Ryder appropriated, regurgitated and ran with thoughts, he took from others and re-presented yet made the work his own.  I remember the utter wonder of Lazyitis – when he drafted in Karl Denver – he's taken a phrase – one you hear in every home – my mother would often accuse one of us as having contracted the lethargic bug – but here’s Ryder melding Ticket to Ride, Sly and Essex into a repetitive delight. It’s that appropriation coupled with his flair and wit that make it his song  - his set of lyrics.

‘And I hope I don’t come top of the class, Got no brown tongue lickin ass, can't do what he's asked
Won't do what he's asked

This is by far one of the longest posts - and I don’t feel like I’ve even half started. You on the other hand have probably had enough. I just need to mention the line that sticks with me most – from the epic Stinkin Thinkin  - I need to write a post on the underrated ‘Yes Please’ album – the crack  and coke fuelled mighty Factory fuck up  - that produced one the most fraught and fragile long players of the 90s. It wasn’t all big guitars and mod haircuts. It was much, much, more.

But when Ryder sings and Rowetta repeats ‘A steady job in a small town, guaranteed to bring you right down, guaranteed to take you nowhere, guaranteed to make me lose my hair’

It chimes and reminds me.

Why I got out.

You know Tony Wilson compared Ryder to Yeats – I’m havin’ it. Even if some of you won’t.