Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Butcher Boy - React Or Die Album Review


Butcher Boy's second album picks up where they left off on album number one with another exemplary effort

The follow-up to Butcher Boy’s well-received debut album finds them in familiar, but still exquisitely-crafted territory. React or Die is tuneful, rustic and soothing in equally handsome measures. However, the band draws a line between the traditional folk sounds of their Celtic forefathers and Glaswegian twee contemporaries like Belle and Sebastian or Wake the President; the mandolin intro to opening track When I’m Asleep predates vintage, setting the band’s uncompromisingly old-school agenda from the start. In that respect, Butcher Boy aren’t unlike the Fleet Foxes: too preoccupied with crafting wonderful melodies to worry about tempering them with excessive knob-twiddling. Smiths comparisons are not wholly inaccurate (the lyrics on This Kiss Will Marry Us recall Morrissey at his best, and the guitars of A Better Ghost wouldn't be out of place in a Johnny Marr songbook) but fail to tell the full story of a band quietly and confidently carving out their own unique and impressive niche.

4/5

Originally written for The Skinny, here

Friday, 27 March 2009

Wildbirds & Peacedrums - The Snake Album Review


Put simply: The Snake is a trip

Only after repeated spins of their second album is it clear how appropriately named Wildbirds & Peacedrums are: the tribal tubthumping of Andreas Werlin being the latter and Mariam Wallentin’s primitive, visceral vocals undoubtedly assuming the role of the former. Backed by a cacophony of harmonicas, deep woodwind sounds, gospel choirs and plinking xylophones, the Swedish duo combine here to offer an otherworldly experience that’s sometimes confusing, initially frustrating, but ultimately excellent. Wallentin’s voice is the focal point and is constantly captivating; the only lucid sound to pierce the murk of dense psych-folk, it recalls Patti Smith’s iconoclastic psychobabble. Some of the tracks, like So Soft, So Pink are slow-starters, but persevere and they reward with wonderful, haunting melodies. Final song My Heart, perhaps the straightest song here, stops resonating in your ears in time to steal the show and feels destined to be recounted as one of the tunes of the year.

4/5

Originally written for The Skinny, here

Video: Wildbirds & Peacedrums - My Heart (Live on Dygnet Runt Chat Show)



Wednesday, 25 March 2009

I Don’t Know Why I Love You, But I Do…





I haven’t had a television for a while now. But if I were to buy one, one of the main reasons would be to watch Match of the Day. I, like many, have been known to schedule my Saturday night around the show - which is crazy really, because for many reasons MOTD is truly awful.
Not having much of a yardstick to measure it against, I might not be in a position to properly gauge, but I am still fairly confident MOTD is one of the smuggest, most infuriating and most poorly produced programmes on television just now.

The BBC has always been liberal with the taxpayer’s cash. Handing Steve McClaren a huge wad of cash to offer his views during Euro 2008 on 5 Live was, I know, perceived as a kick in the teeth to many England fans. Here, after all, was the man who had failed to guide his country to the Finals, maddening millions with half-baked observations on those that had actually made it there. Hadn’t he pocketed enough from his failure?

As an Irishman (living in Scotland at the time) I admit chuckling at the irony. It was a glitch on the otherwise commendable record 5 Live has for recruiting expert opinion. MOTD, however, is a different matter entirely. In Mark Lawrenson, Alan Shearer and Alan Hanson, they have possibly the most ill-informed panel ever to have graced our screens, collectively possessing all the insightfulness of a blind goldfish.

I was of the understanding that part of a pundit / commentator / co-commentator / broadcast journalist’s job was to offer expert, authoritative opinion. At the very least, a basic understanding of the rules of the game should be expected. However, I recall on at least one occasion, “Lawro” having to ask John Motson how many substitutions were permitted in a game he was co-commentating on. Whilst he may not have the opportunity to make such slip-ups on MOTD, it gives us an idea of this cretin’s credentials.




Xenophobia is something public bodies are constantly striving to eliminate. Yet on the sofas of MOTD, it is alive and well. Case in point: Kevin Davies earlier this season took Frenchman Gael Clichy out with a near knee high challenge. From whatever angle you look at it, it was a red card: a career threatening challenge.

What was Lawrenson’s reaction? To call the Arsenal player a ‘Jessie’. Davies was eulogised as a ‘hardworking pro’. The tackle was adjudged to have been a ‘good, honest English challenge.’ I am quite confident if the roles had been reversed, the ‘experts’ would have been up in arms over the nerve of Johnny Foreigner. Similarly, when Kevin Nolan almost took somebody’s leg off with a late challenge recently, he was described as ‘not that kind of player.’ Funny how it’s always the players that supposedly ‘aren’t like that’ making exactly those sorts of challenges.


The bias is blatant to the point of embarrassment. Last weekend, Steven Taylor of Newcastle (a player with a nasty, nasty streak but frequently defended as ‘an honest pro’) punched Russian playmaker Andrei Arshavin square in the face. What was the pundits’ reaction? Well, nothing of course. The editing crew at MOTD felt this assault wasn’t worthy of 30 seconds footage. It reeks of base level jingoism, the likes of which are unseen since Jackie Fullerton’s last commentary on a Northern Ireland game.

You would think Alan Shearer would know better, having only recently retired from a career during which he suffered numerous horrific knee injuries. But he’s obviously been given his brief. His insight is pathetic. Is stating the obvious enough to justify his undoubtedly handsome salary? I think not. When Andy Townsend wheeled out his Tactics Truck on ITV’s Champion’s League coverage, I cringed, but at least he was showing some tactical nous.

Alan Hanson has long since become a parody of himself. The rate at which he pedals his clich├ęd, hyperbolic ‘quotables’ is excruciating.

“Phenomenal.”

“Shocking.”

Nobody’s asking you to adopt a Thom Yorke-esque approach to punditry, Al, but do have a bit of perspective, man. If Hanson was indeed shocked on the regularity he purports, one would expect his hair to be a more brilliant tone of Linekar.

Surely there is not a program on television which gets so many of the basics wrong? Surely, there is nothing else out there in which the individual rudiments – the analysis of football matches, in this case - are all so annoying, hackneyed and prejudiced?

So why the Hell do we all love it so much?

For the rest of the season, I have decided to challenge Bagpuss Lawrenson. His results predictor on BBC Football’s website can’t be too difficult to beat. Can they?

The video below shows a slightly alternative stylee of punditry. Messr Eamonn Dunphy:

Monday, 9 March 2009

Le Reno Amps - Tear It Open Album Review


Aberdonian quartet Le Reno Amps' third outing is a polished, entertaining listen


The desire to overcomplicate things is all too often the bane of the music world. Le Reno Amps address this problem in their mission statement: simple melody will be at the core of their music. On Tear It Open, the Aberdonian quartet have met their own criteria and delivered upon their promises, without jeopardising their most engaging quality – variety. This is an imaginative, theatrical and enjoyable album that casts its net wide, without settling anywhere long enough to be classified. Opening track Outlaws sets the tone: its tremolo-heavy guitar riff is equal parts spaghetti-western and The Shadows. The occasional dabble with electronica pays dividends too; the synthesized intro to The Gilded Road sets the record up for the grand finale its onslaught of crunching guitars duly delivers. Some tracks, like Slow Decay, don’t scale such heights, though this fails to take the sheen off a polished and entertaining listen.

3/5

Originally published in The Skinny

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Book Review: Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

Catch 22

Joseph Heller

There’s a scene in Joseph Heller’s Magnus Opus in which the main protagonist, a 256th Squadron bombardier called Yossarian, emits a respectful whistle at the very simplicity of the self-contradictory military clause, Catch 22. “That’s some catch,” he muses in admiration. Throughout the course of this extraordinary book, the reader is likely to be found extolling similarly on the story within. Despite its relatively straightforward plot, Catch 22 manages to be one of the most complex, engrossing and multi-faceted works to have emerged from the 20th Century, suggesting that in eight years of writing it, Heller made extremely good time.

The story centres on a group of US Air Force pilots stationed on an Italian island, Pianosa, towards the end of World War II. With colleagues perishing on a regular basis and moral within the camp plummeting, the troops and particularly Yossarian begin to search for ways to avoid completing the ever-increasing number of missions they have to fly, only to be continually foiled by an omnipresent clause: Catch 22.

Perhaps a reflection on the influence this book has had on the literary world and it’s standing within society at large; Catch 22 is a concept we are all familiar with. Its original premise, seen within the novel, is simple. Of course, one would be crazy to fly any more missions in the face of such danger, and crazy pilots should surely be grounded. But in showing concern for your own well-being, one displays a soundness of mind clearly lacking in an insane person and is therefore fit to fly missions. Catch 22.

It returns in various connotations throughout, but its hypothesis remains the same. Heller’s tome is a damning indictment of bureaucracy in the face of suffering: oppression and manipulation of Orwellian proportions.

The writer’s view of society is undoubtedly bleak. His impressions of the government are cynical and uncompromising. Heller, perhaps embittered from his own time as a bombardier, openly questions the accepted “virtues” of honour, loyalty and patriotism. Would-be heroes are cast as fools. The true heroes of Catch 22 are the cowards: those who defy authority, ultimately Yossarian and his unlikely accomplice, the Chaplain. Indeed, the Chaplain’s struggle with his faith highlights more disillusionment in Heller’s psyche: his uneasiness with religion adds another bow in the mutinous literary arsenal of this novel.

The dark tones are accompanied by irrepressibly black humour. Rarely does a book capture the gallows humour of a people on the brink of despair so vividly. Heller’s use of paradoxes, his frequent contradictory style and his repetition of scenes and phrases, from the viewpoints of different characters inject Catch 22 with a unique depth of comedy. It is sometimes slapstick, see Yossarian’s penchant for naked marching, but more often satirical and mocking. Heller uses simplistic dialogue to wage war on the powers that be, to devastatingly funny effect.

Questioning how well it has stood the test of time is rhetoric: half a century after its publication, Catch 22 remains as potent and relevant as ever. Heller’s strong anti-war sentiments are echoed in the writings of countless others, with their calls falling on ears as deaf as their 1961 counterparts. The moral dilemmas of battle remain the same. The civil unrest that shrouded the world around the time of Catch 22’s release is mirrored today and Heller captures that mood brilliantly and hilariously. You shouldn’t need this book to tell you that war is a terrible thing, but with the world’s finger edging ever closer to the self-destruct button, why not have a chuckle whilst you wait?

Friday, 6 March 2009

An Introduction to Super Adventure Club


They thrilled us silly with their debut album Chalk Horror! last year, as crazy an album to have crossed these ears in years - Finbarr Bermingham has a word with Super Adventure Club to find out what lies ahead

Gordon ‘Sting’ Sumner, Jim Bowen, Ron Jeremy, Art Garfunkel, Stephen King… no, it’s not the line-up for the next Celebrity Big Brother. This illustrious lot were all schoolteachers in a past life. Not the most rock ‘n’ roll profession in the world, you may think, but there’s an Edinburgh outfit which might have something to say about that…

Who are Super Adventure Club?

Super Adventure Club are Mandy, Bruce and Waz: a curious but dazzling trio of hyperactive noiseniks from Edinburgh. Having previously played together in a band called Stepdads, Mandy and Bruce were the founders of SAC, but hopes of early success were dashed when their drummer left after just one gig. “Bruce had enough and wanted to call it a day,” recalls Mandy, “but I was too stubborn to give up, so he left it to me to find a new drummer."

Obviously impressed with what he had heard, Waz wasn’t long in accepting the invitation extended to him by Mandy. He explains, “I was playing for a couple of other groups up until then that hadn’t taken me to where I wanted to be musically, so I agreed to come along and try out. I’m still here, so I think it’s in the bag.”

With two music teachers (Waz and Bruce) and a former music student in their ranks, they’re a highly qualified bunch – a rarity in the days of MySpace superstardom. When asked about the potential to combine his two professions, Waz is philosophical:

“The pupils have probably got more of the ‘rockstar’ mentality than we do. They’re young and full of the dream; we’re jaded and know the whole rockstar thing is bullshit. My favourite part of the job is telling people they’ve got it all wrong! I tell them, if they want sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, they should just go to a rock club. Anyway, a teachers’ band can’t be trendy can it?”

Who do they sound like and where do they fit in?

SAC’s debut album, Chalk Horror! came out last year and is a crazy, intense sonic assault, vacillating wildly between strung-out post-hardcore, psychedelic guitar noodling and milder bass grooves. Super Adventure Club are hands down one of the most unique and exciting new bands in Scotland – to attempt to pigeonhole them would be nigh-on cruel. Naturally, then, we gave them the opportunity to do it themselves.

The range of influences the band enjoy are eclectic, not to our surprise. “I’m influenced a great deal by entertainers who put on a good show and who don’t just tear through their tunes,” says Waz. “Guys like Freddie Mercury, Alex Harvey or Bowie. I also take a lot of inspiration from the genuine on-stage intensity of bands like Sick of it All or Fugazi.”

Bruce, the chief songwriter for the band, continues: “Pavement, Wilco – Nels Cline is my favourite guitarist – Frank Black, Frank Zappa, Tom Waits. At the moment I’m really into the new Zu and Farmer’s Market albums.” His sentiments are echoed strongly by Mandy, who also admits to having a soft spot for Deerhoof and The Flaming Lips.

Despite having a wealth of musical know-how and no shortage of ideas, a large part of the band’s lyrical content could be perceived as tongue-in-cheek, perhaps unsurprisingly given that they take their name from an episode of South Park. Lyricist Bruce develops the point: “We take the music really seriously and the composing process is what I enjoy the most. But when it comes to lyric writing, I often feel compelled to use things that have annoyed or amused me as subject matter. I’ve had a pretty nice life so far, so I’d just feel like a chancer if I got all deep and meaningful in the songs.”

Where can we hear them?

The band’s aforementioned debut album came out last year and proved to be a favourite amongst critics – not least within these very sheets. “We were really pleased with the reaction we got from the album,” says Mandy. “It's our first release and we got lots of great feedback from it. It's all DIY, the artwork was designed by a good friend of ours, we recorded with another good friend at uni then Bruce mixed and mastered the album.

The ethos of Chalk Horror! remains, and it is a prevailing theme that’s all-too-often overlooked in today’s image-obsessed music scenes: fun. Super Adventure Club sound refreshingly like a band having the time of their lives, but was it as much fun to make the record as it is to listen to? “Everything was recorded live except the vocals,” explains Bruce, “so it was kind of like a really intense rehearsal. I enjoy recording – it's the mixing process that can drive you mad because you could keep striving for perfection forever, so you have to know when to leave it alone.”

So what does the future hold for the band?

The year gone by was a hectic one by anyone’s standards. While balancing full-time teaching jobs, the band managed to released Chalk Horror!, play radio shows and gig as though they were jobless troubadours. As Waz explains though, if it’s the quiet life they’re after, they’re unlikely to find it in ’09:

“We’re still not sure if we’ll do an EP, a single, another album or maybe a children’s popup book. So 2009 is the year to make that decision and follow through on it and maybe even a little tour somewhere too. There are another couple of possible things in the pipeline too but I’d have to kill you if I told you. The basic plan is to keep writing and keep playing our music to the people who want to hear it and hopefully that’ll keep us and them happy.”

Interested? Should be... check out the excellent Super Adventure Club here: www.myspace.com/superadventureclubmusic


The article was originally published in The Skinny: http://www.theskinny.co.uk/article/45185-super-adventure-club-the-mill

Video: Super Adventure Club - Hip-Hop Hot Pot Noodle




And photo credit to Markus Thorsen.

Monday, 2 March 2009

William Elliott Whitmore – Animals In The Dark Album Review


Iowan horse farmer William Elliott Whitmore's fifth outing is an insipid collection of outlaw country (Johnny Law), downbeat porch-songs (Hell Or High Water) and overwrought lullabies (There's Hope For You). With his growling delivery and vagabond narratives ("I miss my home and family/The hills and the road"), comparisons with Seasick Steve are inevitable and for the most part, justified. But where Seasick peppers his tracks with anecdotal humour, the thirty-year-old Whitmore is morose and lacklustre. What ensues is an unconvincing, clumsy album that's enjoyable in all-too-brief glimpses, such as Who Stole The Soul, but spends the rest of the time wallowing in a melancholic stupor.

2/5
Essential Track: Who Stole The Soul
Release Date: February 16

Written for Q Magazine

Therapy? - Crooked Timber Album Review


Since arriving on the coattails of the grunge explosion in the early '90s, Therapy? have been ploughing a stubborn furrow, oblivious to public opinion and unmindful of changing fashions. Album number 13, however, finds the Northern Irish rockers strangely in vogue. Crooked Timber is a darker, heavier companion to the FM-friendly alt-rock the nation has been lapping up in recent years. Andy Cairns' heavily accented vocals take a backseat to crunching guitar riffs and a dense, breakneck rhythm section. Tuneful and hard-hitting, if a little laborious at just under an hour long, Therapy? could be set to profit from the success of such fresh-faced heirs as Biffy Clyro.

3/5
Essential Track: Blacken The Page
Release Date: March 23
DR2 Records

Written for Q Magazine