reviews december 2004

Karmadillo, Women Are Aliens From Venus, Men Are Monsters From Mars CDR
Karmadillo write songs and then strangle them to the accompaniment of a charango - a kind of South American guitar made out of an armadillo shell. These are not your usual pop song ingredients. These are not your usual pop songs. But they are pop (kind of) and they are songs (great ones.) There's more of a band on this release than the previous demo so some scratchy charm is lost at the expense of musical depth. It's a worthwhile trade-off this time but going too far in the production direction could kill the brittle magic of lines like "Veloceraptor, you stole my tractor/And then you ate my dad" delivered by someone you'd imagine must look like an acid-addled George Formby doing a Dracula impression. (He doesn't. Not remotely.)

John Francis, John Francis (Intense) LP and Poetry & Lyrics 1974 - 1995 (Release) Book
I don't like the way John Francis is looking at me from the cover of his album. I just plain don't like the way he looks in the polaroids on the back sleeve. This edition of just 100 copies follows a book of poetry written through, because of and in spite of, depression and addiction. Unsurprisingly, both are hard to love, hard to engage with, hard to get into, the poetry more so because it feels so much more personal, even though the author is separated by a pen from the reader. On the record there's the direct interaction with Francis but the distraction of the music (which is nothing special) that distances him from us, dilutes the intensity and pain of what he's saying. I can't help thinking that a spoken word release would give the words the space they need. Maybe Francis would agree, everything is set to a talking pace and his delivery is modelled on Lou Reed's spoken drawl, and sometimes hidden behind vocal effects. Then again, with a jewel like I Sit And Stare in his pocket, perhaps he should just kick the band up the arse a bit more often. Head and shoulders above the rest of the record, the side 2 opener was recorded down a tunnel by Velvets fans with a single riff between them on a mission to reach the end of the song first. Francis is intense and awkward, yes, but, when it works like this, something beautiful comes out. Even the picture on the front of the record seems to be a bit happier now. 147a Cowick Street, St Thomas, Exeter, EX4 1AS.

John Barrow, How Not To Make It In The Pop World (Trafford) Book
If schadenfreude is your thing, you'd do well to pick this one up. If not, you should read it for the heart-rending final twist. The serial disappointments suffered by John Barrow as he strives for pop stardom are bad enough, each preceded by what seems like the lucky break, the time, the band that's going to go somewhere, that's going to have a happy ending. Predictably, every one ends in disillusionment. It's a tribute to the man that he kept at for as long as he did - 20 years - playing with Crazyhead, Boy George, Fun Boy Three and Iggy Pop, but never for long enough that any of their good fortune rubbed off on him.

Saxophonist Barrow's style is pretty self-centered and insular. If you're looking for the reflective and informative tale of one man's path through a nothing-much career, check out Ed Jones's This Is Pop. Jones (ex of The Tansads) looks back on his struggles with eyes open, honest about his own actions and motivations, and those of others, with the benefit of hindsight and (sometimes) water under the bridge. Like the best autobiography I've ever read (David Crosby's) This Is Pop allows other characters, in this case Jones' long-suffering wife, to have her say as well. This gives a welcome extra dimension and perspective. Barrow's pages relive every minute in the shallow here and now. In his story bands, band members, managers, agents and record labels come into and out of view like people walking along the pavement past your front window. Things happen and we're just swept along with the flow of events, left wondering about the why, if not the what. The whole thing could do with more depth and some serious editing, but it's got to leave Barrow's plaintive voice intact because that, and the desperately sad, horribly ironic ending are what make it (doubly ironic, seeing as he never made it.)

Splatt, World of Splatt (Recombinations) CD
Here's something you don't often hear at the start of what you'll find out is a positive review: You don't need to buy this record. What? Why ever not? I hear you cry. Well sit tight and I'll tell you that it's because you can Blue Peter one out of thin air and plastic all by yourselves. This is what you'll need: a large record collection (or an adult with a large record collection - you might want to ask your Mum and Dad to help) and a semi-functional multi-disc CD player, some wire and a tape recorder. For the CD player try local second hand shops. I saw one in Cambridge Resale for about 20 quid the other week. If your CD player is more than semi-functional, fuck it up by sticking a screwdriver into the back of it and gouging at whatever you can feel.

Once you've got all the stuff together, wire the CD player into the back of the tape recorder (you don't need any speakers) load it with CDs and start it playing. If you're really lucky you'll have done enough damage that it'll skip and malfunction enough to remake the Splatt album itself. If not, grind the screwdriver around a bit more and fiddle randomly with the remote control. An hour later, your very own Splatt record will be ready.

Except of course, your record will sound like shit while Splatt have managed to melange themselves a masterpiece and you'll realise that to make a record out of bits of other people's records is an art in itself and, even when it sounds as disjointed as this, there's some method in the seeming madness. You'll think of the times you've listened to a techno record at a club and thought you could do better ("it's all computer software, you only need to press a button and a 4-4 pounder drops out") or listened to some manufactured pop on the radio and arrogantly assumed it was a piece of piss to make something that plastic and derivative and patently fake and you'll begin to doubt whether you're right.

Let me tell you: you aren't. But that shouldn't stop you trying. Splatt's record is good, and while you don't need to buy it, you should buy it, because what Splatt show you is that what's art and music is not clear cut and you can create art and music yourself with whatever tools you have at hand. Only it might take you a while.

Drop The Lime, 1 For The Team (Broklyn Beats) 12"
Chaotic cut-ups and, well, precious little else is the Drop The Lime thing on 1 For The Team. Drum'n'bass has gone back underground - no bad thing - and records like this are the result. Stripped back to the bare, spare minimum, tracks like Happy To CU and Scatoli are head-spinning in their rapid changeability and complexity, but somehow locked-down rock-solid on the beat for full dancefloor compatibility.

Bozilla, This is Not New Sound (EOTMC) CDS
The way to a Jimmy Possession's heart is through his robot. You want a good review? Get your 5-year-old nephew to recite "I'm a robot" over a budget beatbox, add a chorus about "a body-popping life as a robot" and send it to me on a purple CDR. Bingo. Bozilla cracked the formula first and so their glowing review mentions compatriots Ex-Rental and Motormark as well as the general frantic electro pop thing.

Man Playing Kazoo, Black & White & Grey CDS
I'm absurdly pleased that they didn't spell grey as gray. I can't begin to imagine why. The best of the three on this demo is Packed. It's a riff you'll have heard at a hundred gigs ratcheted up by the gleeful way it's wrung out of the distortion and nicely contrasted by the obligatory but still well done quiet bit. So it's nothing you've not heard before, but at the very good end of the scale, and they spell grey right. That's edging towards a recommendation round here.

Pale Man Made, Show of Hands (Pinch) CDS
They say that the snooker player Barry Pinches is a fan. I like Barry Pinches. He's got a face only a mother could love, but he wears his Norwich waistcoat (a disgusting harlequin kind of thing in canary green and yellow) with pride. Show of Hands is at the heavier end of the indie spectrum with the confidence to last long enough to make you realise it's something worth a second listen.

McGazz, BBC Hip Hop (Press Hat & Cigar) CD
McGazz is one of My Legendary Girlfriend. On his own this time, he's opted to go down the electro pop route and ended up in the early 80s with a primitive synth and tape loop sound that's part early Human League, part later Human League and part all the bands that cite Human League as their major influence. It's all good, but Prestel is the one you'll be returning to again and again. Deviating from the schema with a straighter electro beat and a farting bass foundation, he lays a couple of minimal melodies and a vocoder on top and leaves you thinking how Kraftwerk could have been if only they'd spent their lives on the dole watching Ceefax through the night.

Acarine, Screw Your Head On (CNR) CDS
They sampled The Long Good Friday on the last single and they obviously wanted to use Taxman on this one. Now if you get on the wrong side of a gangster, they'll break your legs, shove them up your arse and drop you off a bridge whereas Apple records will break your bank, sue your arse off and drop you off at court with a selection of their tame musicologists and a phalanx of legal professionals. Acarine pride themselves on their hoolie credentials which is why they'd rather stand up to Bob Hoskins and pals and steer clear of an appearance in the witness box and losing 95% of their royalties. So the Taxman riff is reinterpreted by session musos and the duo rap over its brass stabs in a grim and grimy British way.

Cliff Richard and the Dark Side, Summer Holiday (Advanced Lawnmower Simulator) CD
Got to love it for the name alone even if the idea initially seems to be to play the Summer Holiday soundtrack while a variety of large and smoky two-stroke engines run in the next field. After a couple of false starts, the butchery spins out a few more (or less) successful variations with Bachelor Boy being the high point, processed somehow like it's spiralling around and down a plughole but still recognisable.

The Cosmic Moon, Play In Random Order (Burning Emptiness) CD
I don't want to blow my own trumpet (mind you, which bloke has never wished, in moments of loneliness, that he could blow his own trumpet) but the participants in this beautiful collaboration have both appeared on past Robots compilations. Moon and The Cosmic Nanou (on the CDs with #10 and #13 respectively) share an ear for the way in which sound can be sculpted around space. In Moon's case it's the machine noise of daisy chain effects and guitar drone and post-production experimentation. For the Cosmic Nanou it's a more pure, more organic feeling for how individual elements coalesce into a whole. Play In Random Order (an instruction that works well) combines the two, leaning one way and then the other, sometimes dubbing out, sometimes chiming and then falling away, sometimes pulling you in and sometimes holding you away. And the shapes? Like a William Morris piece, but in sound.

The Furious Sleep, The Furious Sleep CD
They used to be The Visit and they made a couple of demos and we liked them we saw them live and they rocked hard and we interviewed them and then they became The Furious Sleep and they made a couple of demos and we liked them too and we asked them play live for us and they did and they were great again. And then they went and made an album and they sensibly decided to keep it to seven tracks and around 40 minutes and we like it on CD but, to be honest, we wish it was on vinyl and on 70s Elektra with a psychedelically foggy photo of the band in big flares and tight shirts with cravats on the cover and we'd just bought it in a charity shop and it had dog-eared corners and ring-wear but the record itself was pristine and we were playing it for the first time and it was blowing us away. And if we can't have that then we'll just have to dream while the CD plays.

The Clientele, Lacewings (Unpopular) 7"
Two songs recorded live that make you want to go and see them next time they're anywhere nearby. Warm, gentle, polished and rather beautiful and hard to believe this is a live recording. The crowd's applause and band's acknowledgements reassure you that it is. Great cover too, by the way. (Laurence)

Fibi Frapp, How Fast Is Your Heart Beating? (My Secret Garden) CDR
Synth pop. Two words that may induce a groan from some, but hang on - there's guitars on this as well, and it really is very good. Honest. Four songs, the first two most commendable offerings; but it's the next two, Longing and New Song that see the band stretching out inventively and showing their class. Synth pop.Very good synth pop, as a matter of fact. (Laurence)

Various Artists, The Way Things Change Vol 6 (Red Square) 7"
Latest in a series of seven-inchers lathe cut on what appears to be coloured asbestos (this one's deep burgundy) in hand made sleeves, each with a track from six different bands. Most of the bands you won't have heard of but there's an impressively high standard maintained throughout. Volume 6 has a distinct guitar slant to it, the highlight perhaps being the All Girl Summer Fun Band's rougher demo version of "Becky" which beats the pants off the more polished version some might be familiar with. Any volume from this series is worth getting hold off though. (Laurence)

Empress, Tea For Two (Misplaced Music) 7"
Never really "got" Empress until this delight. Gently hypnotic whispered songs constructed from minimal repetitive piano and guitar figures, possibly heard to best advantage when in late night candlelit repose. You might be disappointed to hear that the title track isn't the Vincent Youman's 1924 classic but that shouldn't impair due appreciation of the record. (Laurence)

The Playwrights, Dislocated (Unpopular) 7"
Urgent, driving sound from a band who could "make it big" should they care to do such a thing. The guitar sound reminding your wizened old reviewer of Josef K, (cue for bewildered scratching of head from younger readers.) In addition to the conventional rock instrumentation, blue-print xylophone, cornet, and melodica find themselves involved - but thankfully not in a "gee, aren't we clever?" sort of way. (Laurence)

My First Band, Where The Sidewalk Ends (My Secret Garden) CDR
Five songs that will only detain you for six minutes and fifty one seconds. And that's almost seven minutes of your precious time well spent. Two young Swedish gentlemen making their contribution to the lo-fi home recorded delightfully squint pop world canon, and doing it rather well. (Laurence)

Lo-Cut & Sleifar, Miwsig i'ch Traed a Miwsig i'ch Meddwl (Boobytrap) CD
Music for the feet and music for the mind, in case you were wondering. It's Welsh. Typing Welsh is an absolute nightmare and pronouncing it is worse, but only one language comes close to Welsh for innate perfection in hip hop and that's French. The beauty of French is the syncopated natural flow and the casual abundance of rhymes, the soft, soft sibilants and the lazy way that words just weave around the beats like silk round a rock. And Welsh is that rock. It's direct, solid, hard. In Welsh the words just are the beat: jagged, abrupt consonants squeezing out the vowels in a strict grammatical rhythm.

Music for the feet and music for the mind. Sleifar is ex-Tystion so you know you're going to get quality, and you do. Lo-Cut adds production and vocals and the two duel over tight loops at the speed of nod. No frills, but no filler. That's the feet taken care of. And the mind? Well, with everything except the curses and the shout outs to Public Enemy, Chuck D and the rest of the old skool so far off my linguistic radar it might as well be Martian, I'll have to take their word for it. But I wouldn't mind if they got a French rapper to rhyme over an a capella of one of these tracks. As it happens, Sleifar and Lo-Cut sealed this deal in Paris, so perhaps there's a chance?

Various, African Underground Volume 1: Hip Hop Senegal (Nomadic Wax) CD
A mixture of French, English and the Senegalese Wolof makes this much more of a journey than even the Lo-Cut & Sleifar record. But not as much of a journey as Ben Herson made to compile it. The record grew out of his college thesis and the trips he made to Senegal between 1998 and 2000 to observe the indigenous hip hop culture that managed to be conscious, political and spiritual but somehow avoid the violence that seems almost endemic in the original version. After finishing his thesis, Herson returned to Senegal with a portastudio and set up in a community centre where he recorded (and prayed with) rappers from across the country. The songs were released as a double cassette in Senegal and tracks from it are still being played on the radio four years later.

This CD sees the international release of the sessions and the amazing thing is how fresh they sound. As the best hip hop always does, these cuts steer clear of over-production, just sprinkling enough sugar to sweeten up the beats and no more. A couple of cuts stand out from the classy collection: Las MC blows more than flows over his Africans Don't Wanna Understand, a gruff chorus bursting out of a rap about the loss of traditional values in his society; Slam Revolution's Begguma (featuring BMG 44) drops a jagged riff of strings over half a bass line and a ticking beat while the crew juggle themselves around the mic, a whirlwind of traded verses and that blends raw throatiness and helium bendiness and French and English.

Ost & Kjex, Eaten Back To Life (Planet Noise) 12"
If you like to unusualectro now and again you could do a lot worse than Cheese & Biscuits (they're Norwegian) and Eaten Back To Life. Have You Seen The Moon In Dallas? Is a burble, a chuckle and a clockwork toy fed through a vocoder and arranged by a Sinclair Spectrum into something almost minimal. The remix by Maurice Fulton coerces the chirpy quirk into warm and funky 4-4 regulation but doesn't come close to the charm of the original. On the other side, Hasta Luego Machego is like acid or maybe trance gone badly wrong in a stunted growth kind of way. Everything starts and gets stuck, repeating and re-rolling. Just like their edible namesakes, this is great stuff after a bellyful of something ordinary and if you fancy the full menu, try the album also on Planet Noise.

By Coastal Café, Old Cartoons (Kitchen) LP
I almost feel like I've run out of things to say about By Coastal Café. When I first met them, it must be six years ago, maybe more, after receiving and loving a stream of demo tapes posted from Sweden, they were talking about the compilation of demos that was going to come out on Lissy's. From then until they split it was mentioned, less as time went on, but always as something that still would happen, just as soon as something else was sorted out. It never did, and so it's fallen to Kitchen to finally release what turns out to be a posthumous instead of a career-opening collection.

I almost feel like I've run out of things to say about By Coastal Café. When I first heard them it was the brevity of the songs, the economy of the melodies, the brashness of the unproduction, the childlike (but never childish) daubs of songs that seemed to just fall naturally out of them. And when I hear them again now, it's still exactly the same. Martin and Marilyn sit down with a guitar and a drum (maybe two) and a Dictaphone. One of them will play a riff, one of them will sing a word or two, one of them will start recording. A moment of magic captured for posterity. And now 21 of them can be yours.


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