Saturday, 19 November 2016

Gaga's back

Lady Gaga's new album, Joanne, is a strong contender for album of the year I'd say. We are in November after all, it's relatively safe to say these things...

From the ferocious, autobiographical, high octane pop of 'Diamond Heart' through to the haunting 'Angel Down', this is a typically sophisticated pop album from Gaga, one which draws strongly on the imagery and sounds of Americana.

Take the twangy guitar samples mixed in with crunchy beats of 'A-Yo', or the much more atmospheric American Gothic balladry of 'Sinners Prayer', the more subtle country power balladry of 'Million Reasons' (which, thankfully, emerges more 'Don't Toss Us Away' than 'Stand By Your Man') or - best of all - the full on berserk cowboy baiting pop blitzkrieg that is 'John Wayne'. This song is either the best Shania Twain piss take ever or a divine marriage of Americana and glitchy electro pop. And she makes it sound effortless and so, so easy...

Which is always the issue with pop, really: Gaga is full on pop, but below the surface, there have always been clever things going on.

There's a vague sense of unease in 'Diamond Heart', with it's lyrics of defiant go-go'ng on one hand, but the line "Some asshole broke me in, wrecked all my innocence" on the other, and vulnerability and tenderness in the lament for her dead aunt in 'Joanne', and then there is the powerful state of the nation dramatic pop opera that is 'Angel Down', which more than any of the other songs on this album hints at a disconnect with modern life.

There are songs to dance to here, none the least 'Diamond Heart', 'John Wayne', and the gritty electro moody minimalism of 'Dancin' In Circles', which sees Gaga touching herself "to pass the time" while muttering "Funk me downtown". There's also the surging, diamond hard pop of 'Perfect Illusion' and the boozy girls night in anthem that is 'Grigio Girls', an ode to the powers of friendship and Pinot Grigio, with a a suitably catchy sing a long chorus.

And then there is 'Hey Girl', Gaga's duet with Florence Welch. This is a slinky Prince and the Revolution style affair, which is structured almost like a phone conversation between the two of them. It has an agreeably positive message of female solidarity and, while not such an obvious musical link with the other songs on the album, it does work, with a real sense of collaboration rather than competition that enhances the message of the song.

The collaboration with Welch seems particularly apt when you consider that both women turned 30 this year, both felt the need to take some time off before starting work on their current albums, and both seem to have a strong sense of family, and absent family members, that influences their work on occasion.

While I would say that 'Hey Girl', 'Grigio Girls' and 'Sinners Prayer' are some of the strongest moments on here, it's the work tape version of 'Angel Down' that will reduce you to tears. While the finished version is haunting and elegiac, the work tape is much more stripped down, angrier, and grittier. It is very 2016, and it feels like the song to end the year on really, in so many ways, for so many reasons.

There is footage on YouTube of Gaga performing 'Angel Down' from a balcony at the final Hilary Clinton rally in early November, which adds an extra poignancy in many ways. If we take the year from November 2015 through to November 2016, we can see that it begins with France and ends with America. It feels no accident to me that my two favourite albums of that year are Chaleur Humaine and Joanne.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Noga Erez - Dance While You Shoot (Official Video)

This is the debut from a new young Tel Aviv artist, who has not long signed to City Slang. The dystopian video was filmed in Kiev.

According to the press release:

"She describes the hypnotically percussive “Dance While You Shoot”, as being about the globally–relevant realisation that 'you can’t live without the government that ensures your basic needs, but at the same time takes your money, keeps you in the dark about the real, important matters that affect your life directly, while drowning you in manipulative media, ignorance and bureaucracy.'"

It's a bit of a grower I think, but I'm getting a lot from it, in much the same way that I got a lot from Georgia's 'Move Systems' last year I think.

More to come from this lady in 2017 I believe.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Louder Than Words 2016

Starring role for the desk again...
Having spent most of Friday writing notes for my book proposal, I headed out slightly later than I'd planned and spent 20 minutes at the bus stop waiting for a 191 to turn up.

It was my friend Rachel's leaving do at Kro, at the opposite end of Oxford Road to the Palace Hotel, where the annual Louder Than Words music literary festival was being held, and I left Kro a bit late (definite theme developing here...), meaning I missed the beginning of Brix Smith Start talking about her memoir The Rise, The Fall and The Rise. The section she read from her book, from a chapter about her childhood called 'The Pink Mansion', made me want to read it, and she was a good interviewee: Sparky and possibly a little nervy, but intelligent and interesting, not given to holding grudges (always refreshing). After the talk, she played an acoustic set with Steve Hanley, and they did two Fall songs ('2X4' and, I think, 'Hotel Bloedel') plus two new solo songs, both very sad and slightly harrowing but incredibly powerful, and finished off with an Adult Net song. She was quite shrewd, I thought, to stress that the two Fall songs were being performed in their original, stripped down, state as she had written them, and that they wouldn't necessarily sound like The Fall as I expect a lot of Fall fans were in attendance. I am something of a Fall dilettante myself, but I have seen/heard a lot of Fall stuff as I listened to the Peel show for years and my friends David and Sara are big Fall fans. Going back a few years now, when we used to do late night jukebox on YouTube at Sara's flat in Salford, we always inevitably descended into a Fall wormhole at some point.

After the talk/set, David Nolan very kindly directed a number of us to the loos, and I spent about 20 minutes trying to find my way back again.

It was nearly time for the 40 Years Of Punk panel when I finally got back. The panel was comprised of Richard Boon, Derek Ridgers (Photographer, who took really excellent pictures of the audience at the Roxy, amongst other things), Martin Ryan (who did Ghast Up fanzine with Mick Middles) and David Nolan (who wrote I swear I was there, a forensic investigation into the myths and realities of who was really at the legendary Pistols gig at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester). It was chaired by Mick Middles, who'd also interviewed Brix Smith Start. The energy was a bit up and down, but it was interesting. I liked the fanzine bits the best, particularly the anecdote about Martin Ryan lugging a duplicator home from Ashton on the bus. It was also weirdly heartening to hear mention of the Fall's gig at Hazel Grove Youth Club which, although they couldn't have known it, was particularly apt given that David Wilkinson was doing a talk on Post Punk the next day, and it was a friend of his mum who had put on the Fall gig in Hazel Grove. There were contributions from the audience including Steve Shy, CP Lee, and a lady called Denise who may or may not have been the same Denise that features in the Electric Circus/Manchester scene bits of Brass Tacks. Parts of it did perhaps come across as four blokes chatting in the pub, and I was definitely one of the younger people there on this occasion, but it was still good. I liked David Nolan's perspective on music journalism: He'd come from a crime reporter background where detail and facts have to be meticulous, and as such felt music journalism with its myths are as good as facts approach was having it too easy. Couldn't help but agree with that really.

I arrived at the Palace Hotel fairly early on Saturday, and as such went on a fools errand to 8th Day for a drink. They weren't really up and running yet though so I headed back to the hotel empty handed and went straight up to Palace Suite 4 for the Punk or Professor panel, which was made up of Mick Middles, Simon Morrison (University of Chester), Martin James (Southampton Solent University), and Lucy O'Brien (University of the Arts, London). There was also a student from, I think, the Chester course, but I'm not a 100% certain. Mick Middles clearly felt outnumbered, but he bore it well. The audience was very young for this one, in fact, I was probably one of the oldest people there, which makes a nice change.

It turned out to be a less contentious discussion than I thought it would be, but still really lively and interesting with a good energy. One of the discussions was around whether it is actually possible to teach music journalism, and I think this was answered very well, and it helped to de-mystify a lot of how these kind of courses are taught. The politics of what a degree course should or shouldn't be was also brought in, which I liked as I think it's central to the overall theme of why have a degree in music journalism, but also applies to Higher Education in general. I stuck my oar in a bit at the end during the Q&A because the issue of class had been very briefly touched on, so I pointed out about journalism in general becoming more of a middle class profession, the impact of unpaid internships etc. (If you think this shift upwards in the background of journalists in the UK isn't a problem, consider recent analysis in the broadsheets and tabloid press of Ken Loach's film I, Daniel Blake) I did try and get something in about quality control and how early, raw works of writing and music are possibly being exposed to too many people too early on because of the internet, but I don't think I articulated it very well.

Shot of my bookshelf, part 1
Next up was David Wilkinson and The Aesthetics of Our Anger, which had originally been intended to be a panel discussion about the impact of punk, anarcho punk, and post punk. In the end though it turned out to be David talking about his book Post Punk, Politics and Pleasure, which has just come out. Of the other two panellists, one was poorly and the other one, when texted ten minutes before the event was due to start, revealed that he was stuck on a train "Somewhere between Birmingham and Manchester that hasn't moved for over an hour."

After this shaky start, David rallied well and did a very professional and in depth talk about post punk music and politics, taking in discussions of bands such as The Raincoats, Slits, Blue Orchids and The Fall, amongst others. The legacy of the sixties counterculture was also discussed, as was whether post punk has anything to say to people today in the current tumultuous  political climate. The post punk revival of the early 2000's was central to this, and David also talked about how social media creates bubbles of like minded people and that this insulates against the outside world and ensures that those in the bubble never come across anyone who disagrees with them. He's not the first to mention this, but it does feel particularly pertinent this year. Ending by describing the ways in which post punk can be used as a touchstone of inspiration was a good way to finish.

Somewhat ironically, or appropriately, as we all stood around chatting after David's talk we could hear the unmistakable sounds of dissent from outside. This turned out to be a protest march going past the hotel. The protest was against the treatment of Kurds in Turkey, and it was the first of three protests to take place in Manchester on Saturday. This reminded me of the way in which a number of cultural events I've been to in the past year have been marked in some way by a protest of some kind. Not against the event itself, just as a bizarre kind of counterpoint to whatever I happened to be attending at the time. The homeless protest camps were a going concern during last years Louder Than Words though, to be fair, they had been going on for most of 2015, and continued into 2016 until all the sites tried had been evicted and, in several cases, massive fences installed to deter all future attempts to re-take the site and put tents up again. There was also the Pro-EU March in Green Park in July on the same day as British Summertime, and now the Kurds in Turkey march. It may be a reflection of the times we live in, but it's also probably that I just don't get out much.

The second march of the day (some organisation called The 10th Day, which has something to do with Karbala and may or may not have had something to do with the earlier march) set off from All Saints Park at about 2pm I'd say because you could hear their drummers over Kristen Hersh being interviewed by John Robb. Hersh came across as quite shy and intense, but with a very droll sense of humour, which given the intensity of what she was saying about music creation and how it happens with her, did help lighten the mood a bit. I spotted Zoe McVeigh, formerly of excellent Manchester punk band Hooker, now of Liines, near the front, but I wish Karren Ablaze! had been there for this one, as I think it would have pushed a lot of her buttons, and the performance at the end was really raw. I found her as compelling as Brix Smith Start on the Friday night, but for very different reasons.

Next up for me was The Politics of Dancing in Palace Suite 6 with Simon Morrison, plus Matthew Collin, DJ Paulette and Martin James. This was a great panel, and it was about an area of music I know less about too, which made it even more interesting, though I was mainly there for Matthew Collin, who is stellar, and whose books I've got. What was interesting for me was realising, as they talked, that I actually knew, or remembered, more about the Manchester dance scene of the late 80s/early 90s than I'd actually consciously realised I did: I remember Flesh very vividly, especially considering I A) Never went to it B) Was far too young to have gone to it. It was definitely the subject of at least one really positive report on North West Tonight, possibly involving DJ's on an open top Megabus with dancing girls in fake fur pink bras and hot pants. Or possibly drag queens? Not sure if I genuinely remember this from the time or from the Queer Music event at Deaf Institute in 2010. Anyway, I thought Paulette made a really good case for Flesh as political, and she brought it full circle when they discussed the Orlando shootings. I also loved what Matthew Collin had to say about Kiki and new style voguing in New York (as opposed to old style voguing of a Paris is Burning and Madonna 1990 period. That said, that film about Madonna's dancers, Strike A Pose, also looks good) , and how that community had responded to the Orlando shootings.

Shot of my bookshelf part 2
I took the opportunity to talk to Matthew Collin afterwards as he was briefly on his own, and discovered that we both like This Is Serbia Calling best of his books. I told him I didn't really listen to much dance music (in the purist sense), but that I really liked how he wrote about it, and that I like that in the new book, Pop Grenade, he is discussing music and politics, and how it can go horribly wrong, not just right. It was a good note to finish the night on, as I hadn't planned to stay for Jukebox Fury. In some ways I wish I had because he was going to be on it, and said he'd be choosing a song from that Serbia era, which makes me wonder which of the many songs mentioned in the book he chose. I distinctly remember coming home from work and sitting enthralled in front of both BBC News and then Channel 4 news reporting the fall of Milošević, live, along with the sacking of the Serbian parliament and TV stations back in 2001. I literally sat, glued to my chair, for over an hour as it unfolded, and still reckon it's one of the most electrifying pieces of television I've ever seen. I didn't mention this to Matthew Collin though in case he thought I was weird.

On Sunday I caught the bus into Manchester alongside one of the sixth formers from Loreto who gets the same bus as I do during the week. She looked about as surprised to see me at the bus stop on a Sunday morning as I did to see her. Learning from Saturday, I headed straight for the bar at the Palace Hotel for a latte upon arrival. I think it was all a bit early for guests and staff as the bar was completely deserted and they hadn't put the float in the till yet. I got chatting to the lady behind the bar about Louder Than Words, as she hadn't heard of it but was interested.

The first event on Sunday morning for me was the Sleevenotes event upstairs in Palace Suite 4 with two gentlemen from Cherry Red, John Robb, and Daniel Rachel. The art of the sleevenote, and the commissioning process for such things, has always been a total mystery to me, hence going along. It turned out to be a really fascinating discussion, taking in such areas as why journalists view writing sleevenotes in a negative light, what makes a good set of sleevenotes, how sleevenotes have changed in nature from the age of LP's to the age of the CD reissue. The guys from Cherry Red were also sounding out ideas for their Manchester North Of England CD boxset, so there was quite a lot about how these compilations are compiled, how sleevenotes to compilations can be approached, what can work, what doesn't. It shone a light onto an area of music writing I knew very little about, and I really enjoyed it.
Fifteen minutes later, it was the turn of Daniel Rachel, who was in conversation with Richard Boon upstairs in the directors suite. They talked for a little while about his book, Walls Come Tumbling Down, and why he wanted to write it, then showed a forty minute film, Days Like These, that had been made of the Red Wedge tour, and that the producer, Lucy Hooberman, had recently found while having a clear out. Apparently it was never officially released, and hasn't been shown for thirty years. It was well worth waiting for. Although the aesthetic is very mid 1980s, the energy of the film overtakes any trappings of age or aesthetics, and it really is a truly inspirational piece of oral and musical history, whether you believe that Red Wedge succeeded or not.

As with the footage of the RAR carnivals that were shown alongside Daniel's event at the British Library, the film helped to bring the book alive or, rather, to provide the sounds as well as the energy. The bit where the practically teenage Angela Barton is singing 'Many Rivers To Cross' is amazing, just on its own, not to mention the Junior Griscombe bits, and both the interviews and music have a similar energy.

After the film, messrs Rachel and Boon returned to their table and discussed RAR, Two Tone and Red Wedge. I think what came across the most was Daniel Rachel's passion and enthusiasm for his subject, you could tell he really loved the music and had entrenched himself in the history of it all, the times it emerged from, and is a passionate advocate for the importance of that whole 1976-1992 period of political pop.

Some of the Q&A questions were quite hardcore: Penny Rimbaud, for example, was suspicious of the whole SWP recruitment approach, and Red Wedge and whether it helped create Blairism, and whether this has been a good thing or not, cropped up. Given the times in which we now live, and the highly polarising figure of Blair, this wasn't so surprising.

The last event of the day for me was Stuart Cosgrove talking about his books Detroit 67 and Young Soul Rebels. I haven't heard him speak before, or read any of his books, but I've always enjoyed hearing him on the radio, and he looms large in histories of the music press re his role at NME in the 1980s. As predicted then, he did a riveting interview with John Robb, in which he talked largely about the Detroit sound in 1967, especially Motown and the Supremes, but also the MC5. He also brought it round quite nicely to Northern Soul, which he wrote about in Young Soul Rebels, citing the Twisted Wheel (demolished in 2012, unfortunately) as the best of the Northern Soul clubs. He also touched on his next book, which is going to be on the Memphis sound in 1968. Cosgrove is a great raconteur, but it's more than that: He has a real passion for his subject, and conveys it well, making you care about it too. I am interested in Motown and Northern Soul anyway, and have a working knowledge of both, but the fact that I went straight to the Post Room after, bought both Detroit 67 and Young Soul Rebels and got them signed speaks volumes for the mans eloquence and enthusiasm I think.
The pile of books waiting to be read

In the Post Room, which I hadn't really been in much over the weekend, I met up with Bob Follen who recognised me from last year, and we had a nice chat. I bought some more of his cards, including a good one of Leonard Cohen which has a real sadness around the eyes. Bob hadn't made it this week, he just happened to have one made already, and it was very compelling so I took it home with me.

And so ended my second attendance of Louder Than Words! I will definitely be back next year.