reviews may 1999

Whistler, Whistler (Wiiija) CD

"Rare American shoes" has been the best single so far and now sits like a jewel at the heart of Whistler's debut album, glittering and causing the other songs to sparkle in the reflected light. The sound is acoustic pop, downtempo and oh-so bittersweet with lyrics like "Shall I speak like a retard Emily? Then will you think you understand me?" ("Emily") delivered in a Heavenly manner on silkily picked guitar and sadness strings. Searching for comparisons, the best I can come up with is that Whistler sound like all those lovey/sunshine Sarah bands might've done had they had more sadness and better instruments.

Caligari, demo (Peach Fuzz) TAPE

The Wild Flowers were geographical and musical contemporaries of the much more successful Mighty Lemon Drops, playing guitar pop music with a vision of dusty plains in the American Mid-West. Stirring, melody-based rock in the same way as REM and their influences were, but twisted by the romantic prism that is the Atlantic Ocean. Caligari are twice-reflected then, taking the British version of the US sound and turning it into their own. Of the bands their press release lists, I'd say the Cure (in the 80's) was closest, but the Wild Flowers is spot on. 3014 Woodlawn Ave, Falls Church, VA 22042, USA

Jacknife Lee, Muy Rico (Pussyfoot) CD

The high point of this bringing-together of a couple of eps and a handful of new tracks is a tune going by the spectacularly unattractive name of "Spermy daydream." It's a hodgepodge of big beats and humorous acid chuckles, a spiritual cousin of Flat Eric in the nodding stakes and Fatboy Slim for the floor. Also particularly worthy of your ear's attentions are "Cookies", a disco-for-today mash up of seductive vocoder vocals, brass fanfares and several pauses filled by the title and "Sweet potato" which funks the Ironside/Dirty Harry groove like a (state) trooper, the inner city has never sounded so goof. All this from Garrett Lee of the sorely underrated Compulsion (R.I.P). Don't let it happen again.

Speedranch/Jansky Noise, Welcome to execrate (Leaf) CD and Various, Where the f**k is Mr. Million? (Trash) LP

It's a corny old cornfed cornball cliche that's trotted out periodically by reviewers like myself when confronted by something a bit wide of the norm: writing about music is like dancing about architecture and, like all cliches, it's hackneyed but contains some truth; it truly is hard to describe music with collections of letters. But what happens when you haven't even got music to write about? What do you do when the sound is so alien that even if words outlandish enough to describe it existed, the accompanying dictionaries would barely fit through your front door? Forget dancing about architecture, writing about some records is like etch-a-sketching about topless darts...However, in the interests of completeness, here we go:

Consisting of around 20 tracks blurred into one lengthy mix, "Execrate" is half the work of Speedranch and Jansky Noise and half compilation. On the comp side we have Stock, Hausen and Walkman, 2nd Gen, Mix Master Mike, Faultline and others but it's difficult to distinguish them from the bespoke material as all those chosen offer, or are treated with, ambience/noise of some description (or no description---see above). The kind of noises that Cabaret Voltaire might have made had they not lived in post-industrial Sheffield but in a haunted metal graveyard infested by ants with heavy boots...and Autechre.

"Where the f**k is Mr. Million?" comes from a similar mindset (Speedranch and Jansky Noise actually contribute a track) it's raison d'etre being that "trashiness comes...when the very idea of tuneful thoughtful constructed sound makes you want to vomit." This philosophy manifests itself in the form of a double vinyl trawl through breakbeaten-up distortion and overloaded samples, sprawling ambience, disaffected starkness and feedback, pounding intensity and gabba-meets-jungle beatfest. Christ knows what they put in the water in Brighton, but it's leading to some superb experimentation. Album highlights include Milky Boy parading his (small) collection of profanities in a track that might've been called "Born lippy" but was instead christened "Fucking ass'oles"; "Wanted in 13 states" by the splendidly-named Chuck Shite and Carlos Ortiz which is metal beating'n'bass with peripheral dub undertones and the really quite sick fart-turns-solid radio phone-in set to a shifty, troubled jerk/funk called "Prunes" by Duff Paddy. It's what Ninja Tunes might sound like if Coldcut were Mike Paradinas and Salvador Dali. Trash: 1-5 Union St, Brighton, BN1 1HA, Leaf:

Super Furry Animals, Northern lites (Creation) CDS

Kevin Rowlands and a steel band---the stuff of nightmares for mere mortals like ourselves but clay in the hands of sonic sculptors SFA who somehow carve a corking Northern Soul tune out of it.

Fuzz Townshend, Bus (Fruition) CDS

"If I could just get the bus in time, I'd be a happy man" recites Noel (of Fuzz's band) over trademark happy breakbeats and acid trippy synthedelia. Once again, the Bentley drummer harks back in time for glorious production and once again quality pop is the result. Jacknife Lee turns up and makes the track his own in a lengthier remix on the b-side.

Sonovac, EP EP (Output) CD

Sonovac, a machine for hoovering up sound. Well, if it isn't, it should be. In fact, these 8 tracks sound like what's left when you suck away all but the bare bones of some twisted pop songs. Imagine the Human League played by skeletons in a virtually silent film with a plot in which nothing happens. Least fragmentary is "Maybe baby," a creepy casiotone tip-toe around the dark side of electro with the hint of a breathy come-on and, as it builds, some chunky scratching which almost turns into Doug E Fresh's "The show" by accident.

Wilks, Why do I feel this way? (Won't Stop) 12"

It's always easy to say Tricky when you've got a slab of slowish hip hop bearing a Bristol post mark on your turntable, but add a dash of Busta Rhymes and the understanding that what you need for quality hip hop is a beat and a rhyme and you're in the right neck of the woods for this, Wilks' second self-produced single. On the title cut, the basic track is augmented by the barest spooky effect (something being strangled played backwards) and on "Lord O Lord" it's an organ riff and half-sung chorus. Simple, yes, but if only more rappers would keep it this simple. 27 Grosvenor Rd, St. Pauls, Bristol BS2 8XF.

Badly Drawn Boy, It came from the ground (Twisted Nerve) CDS

Sounds like something Crowded House might've concocted had they a funky bone in their body. It's a Latino-flavoured pickled picked guitar groove, the Boy crooning away as his hips swivel in John Travolta's dancing trousers.

Bows, Blush (Too Pure) CD

When I say "Massive Attack," you immediately know that we're talking quality; grand, atmospheric orchestration and humungous beats. Opener, and single, "Big wings" takes off where "Teardrop" set down, Liz Fraser vocals sit in ergonomically-designed drum'n'bass percussion and an orchestra floats back and forth across the stereo frame. Not what you'd expect from Long Fin Killie although if you were to read the press release you'd have no idea that this is Luke Sutherland of said band with his solo hat on.

He's single-minded in pursuit of his sound as well. Other than a couple of short linking pieces the 13 tracks on offer all begin from the same basic thesis, but knead the elements together in different ways. Future 45 "Britannic" is dark, the beats more compressed and overpowering, a bulky sound that crowds the listener, shadowy and imposing. A real pulse-quickener, but it's followed by "Acquavella" which by its very name seems designed to soothe.

When I mentioned Massive Attack at the top, it wasn't because this sounds particularly like them, more that it feels as solidly crafted as the Bristol veterans music. Solo records can be embarrassing, but there's no need for Bows to blush (I thank you).

Magicdrive, Hotel Transatlantique (Lithium) CDS

More blitzkrieg pop fuelled by Magicdrive's twin obsessions: guitars and sex. Pick of the four is "Japanese schoolgirl" which tells the obvious story as whiplash-inducing bubblegum chords and choruses shoot past in an incredible headrush

Majestic Scene, Dry liver's teaspoon (Elegy) CD

How many bands---apart from The Move, I suppose---do you know who've credited the Fire Brigade on their record sleeve? Add one to the total. The Majestic Scene have created a spookily psychedelic album going by the incomprehensible title at the top which acrobatically combines the softly extended tunes of Aerial M, noisy Sonic Youth passages, out of context samples (recorded in Norway, can you get more out of context than that?) and strangely troubling lyrics. There's a grand feeling about this too, a sense of purpose in the ebb and flow, the marriage of punkish powerchords and drawn-out buzz, a touch of prog rock and a touch of restraint which prevents pomposity overpowering proceedings. If I had to sum them up in one word, a comparison to another band, it'd be Mogwai...and then some. or Elegy, Postbus 58290, 1040 HG Amsterdam, Holland

Burt, -2A+ (Proper Gander) CDS

Reads as "minus to a plus" in case you were having difficulty. Sounds like cockney punk skankers Bender (on Words of Warning, fact fans. LP still available) with a decent recording budget.. It's a great big riff, a dab of ska, quiet bits and the kind of huge shouty finale that ADF do so well.

Pram, Space siren (Domino) CDS

Like a Buck Rogers update of Maceo and the Macs "Cross the track," Pram's "Space siren" blares out its two-tone warning as abandoned silver astrosynths tumble back and forth in the zero-G, shedding streams of bubbling notes and softly colliding. Who set off the alarm, and what's the danger? Who cares when it sounds this good? Remixed as "Space iron" by Mouse on Mars.

Cheech Wizard, Mad diary of a dairy maid (Elegy) CD

Another class album from the Elegy stable, this time weaving eccentricity into the twisted guitarstuff. At risk of sounding lazy---because they're Dutch---I'd say there's a lot in here for fans of the monumentally diverse and weird Evil Superstars. Like them, Cheech Wizard up and down tools as if it's going out of fashion. One minute a soothing pop song, the next a tune so pungent you can smell Satan's breath on it, then change again as a groove builds up into prog/funk fusion. A smorgasbord LP.

Isis, Could it be magic (Elegy) CDS

Imagine Barry Manilow was living in the gutter, playing drunkard pub rock for beer money in the evenings and dribbling down his shirt during the day. That's what Isis did.

Alternative TV, Unlikely Star (Sorted) 7"

As with the recent Overground LP, this is very much a game of two halves. "Unlikely star" is a tedious Casio demo with lyrics and unlikely to make a star of anyone (ho ho) but "Stockhausen in space" is a marvellous kickabout between twisted guitar, knackered beatbox and synthesised swarming bees over which a robo-Perry intones only to be replaced halfway through by a female Elvis. Incongruous, yes, but brilliant also.

Cable, From here you can see yourself (BMG) CD

A strange Europe-only collection compiling tracks from 'Downlift the uptrodden," "When animals attack" and, inexplicably, the as-yet unreleased "Sub-lingual." Quite why Cable would want to scupper the chance of their third album doing anything on the continent when they could've easily chosen from the first 2 and numerous quality b-sides in beyond me. But still...for collectors, "Oubliette" (ever my favourite Cable romp) is a radio session version and there's a hidden cover of Stevie Winwood's "Can't find my way home" and, of course, you can own half the new album a couple of months early.

Musically, it's interesting to observe how Cable have progressed over the last five years or so---in essence, not at all. Which isn't to say that nothing's improved, just that they're still patrolling the perimeters of the twisted guitar pop compound, permuting new arrangements of their atuneful duelling guitars and adding in some duelling bass and duelling drums for good measure.

Child's View, Funfair (Bubblecore) CD

6 tracks that run the ambient gamut between the more esoteric, ethereal moments of those golden early Pram records and the food-processor chopped-up beats and twisting drum'n'bass of Mu-Ziq, albeit a cog or two down the intensity scale. Unlike much ambient music, there's enough melody here to keep your attention even as your mind wanders. 5A, Wings 90, 74-4 Jyurakumawari Nishimachi, Nakagyo, Kyoto, 604-8402 Japan

Craig Armstrong, Houses in motion (Melankolic) 12"

From the "Plunkett and Macleane" soundtrack composed by the Massive Attack collaborator comes this contemporary hip hop cover of an old Talking Heads track. In a show of label solidarity, Lewis Taylor raps and Helen White of Alpha sings over the lazy rolling breaks, nagging, scurrying bass and a vaguely Wu-Tang sense of the orchestral which builds up and bubbles over. Real class.

Mukta, Indian sitar and world jazz (Warner ESP) CD

Rarely has an album title been more appropriate---even more so when you notice that the two discs are helpfully designated "acoustic" and "remixes"---than on this occasion. Mukta are 4 French jazz cats with a sitar obsession and tunes-a-plenty, displayed to max effect on "NGC224" where an almost rock sitar riff gets the groove going, a trumpet shadows it for a while before breaking into freeform parps and Coltrane-like deconstruction as a PE-style sprung bass and strict beats keep tight control on the rhythm. Mukta means "pearl" in Sanskrit (apparently) and this is truly a case of pearls before swine. We're not worthy.

Nightmares on Wax, Carboot soul (Warp) LP

We've had carboot techno so I suppose there's no reason not to expect carboot soul. Platformboot funk and bovverboot punk to follow, no doubt. But I digress; Nightmares on Wax, they say, but the only nightmare I can detect here is that recurring one where NoW realise that they're one small letter away from a former band of Pete Burns and Wayne Hussey. Jesus, a very close shave. There's nothing to disturb your sleep in the music, if anything it actually errs on the soporific: relaxed breakbeat at the perfect nodding tempo, you can drink you tea without spilling it, skin up without losing tobacco down the back of the settee and just about still read the newspaper. When there's vocals I keep thinking of Attica Blues, the hip hop base and effortless groove, but it's not a good comparison for the instrumentals which are often more overtly soulful, gentle, pacifist in their assault on your ears. Look out for "Les nuits" on double 12" too, the smooth jazzy LP opener comes in 3 flavours courtesy of DJ Spinna and NoW, with an excellent bonus cut featuring rapper OC.

God/Monster, Various EPs (Stone the Kubist) CD

Stone the Kubist consists of two people; Underwood writes 8 songs a day under a bewildering array of aliases and in a frankly astounding variety of styles, stuffing the release schedule full of class earfood, especially in the drum'n'bass area, and still finding time to guest on guitar at Cuban Boys gigs; Skreen B answers the email and sends the post out. So it's thanks to both of them that I can inform you that no two of the eleven tracks released under Underwood's God/Monster persona are even remotely similar; from the fuzz guitar Kraftwerk cover ("Pocket calculator") through Tanita Tikaram's (I had to look this one up) "Twist in my sobriety" as disturbing electro pop, "God/Monster 4" and its dark breakbeat-meets-Halloween edge or "Yu-gung"'s lo-fidelity junglish gloom beats.

Olivia Tremor Control, Black foliage (V2/Flydaddy) CD

It's been three years coming, and it feels like it when the first 15 tracks stream past like the contents of Pandora's Box revelling in their long-awaited freedom at the hands of Indiana Jones. Except that in this analogy I'm the intrepid explorer whereas in fact this should be OTC's epithet as it's they who are tunnelling back into musical history, connoisseur archaeologists exhuming fragments of 60s pop that were lost beneath the petrified slurry of 40 years of corporate music business output. And what finds they are, exquisite gems dropped by ancient kings like Brian Wilson or Lennon/McCartney or perhaps one of their myriad acolytes or maybe the unknown garage psychedelics and crazies who walked the earth in those times.

If you take the trouble to read the myopia-inducing sleeve notes, you'll find that this is an album that favours recycling---of tunes, riffs, moods and melodies---so that a refrain will occur throughout, twisted or replayed to reinspire and tangentialise the songwriting process, to fill in gaps between songs with experimental relaxants akin to their Black Swan Network material, and to give a rounded cohesion to what is essentially a collection of way-out pop musics that might have been created by an infinite number of monkeys---with an infinite supply of hallucinogens. The high point of the first half is "I have been floated," a tumbling piano stutters as a theremin warbles, strings vibrate in sympathy and Abbey Road Studios dusts a little magic over the top. After a lengthy half-time ambient break the album winds down in fine style as the tempo slips and the space-age retroisms get correspondingly more room to breathe.

Scrutineers, Porn EP (Bluefire) CDS

The Scrutineers, you will be pleased to learn, on this record reject the delights of the top shelf, and unconvincingly advocate monogamy, to the sound of a "Taxman" meets surf/ska pogo. Reminds me of the Ludicrous Lollipops---remember them? Three other tracks follow and, truth be told, don't really live up to the opener. PO Box 16, Aldershot, GU12 5XY

Slow Smile, Fluffy handbag (Rice Pudding) CDS

3 new tracks at long last from Slow Smile, the one-man operation that achieved no little notoriety by covering Take That's "Back for good" in an outlandish guitar fashion last year. Pick of the new songs is "Don't believe the hyp(ocrites)," a potent blend of Timbuk 3's "Future's so bright" and scathing politics that rampages through its 2 minutes like there's a rocket up its arse and Linford Christie running behind with a match.

Skinflowers, Man of blood CDS

The debut CD from the Skinflowers is something of a surprise...because, unlike the series of demo tapes that've eased out of their Gloucestershire HQ over the last 18 months or so, you can actually tell that this is the same band as last time. No great stylistic advances then, but a consolidation and exploration of the sound. "Man of blood" is so Radiohead it almost hurts, but thickened up and heightened by strings that sweep like the proverbial debutante's staircase and "Hey man, where you going?" is less polished, a demo, but unlikely to be much improved by the addition of studio sheen if the haunting quality is lost. Best, though, is "Waiting and keeping promises" which blurs the loud/soft formula (and the raw/honed fight between the two brothers who comprise the band) into a continuously varying contour of almost-goth and powerchord choruses. Bonus hunters will find 3 free tracks hidden at the end. 6 Hurcombe Way, Brockworth, Glos GL3 4QP

Various, Taking a chance on chances (Slampt/Troubleman Unlimited) CD

In the R.E.D. corner, representing the UK, Slampt records, the home of fuck-you independence. Yes, laydeez and gennulmen and opposing them, from the U. S. of A, representing the anti-pop underground, Troubleman Unlimited. This will be a 20-round bout, 10 bands from each country chosen not for their fashionability but for the way in which they make a glorious trashy mess of pop music. No punches will be pulled, no holds are barred and, for one night only, by popular demand, yes laydeez and gennulmen, the gloves are off!

And, apart from the boxing showbiz, that's pretty much the deal. US and UK bands alternate through the length of the record, Slampt donating some familiar names---Small Black Pig, Missy X, Bette Davis and the Balconettes, Sally Skull, ISF and Milky Wimpshake (excellent live the other night in support of Spraydog, by the way)---with the pick being house band RED Monkey's scratchy awkwardness "R.E.D.", BD and the B's Doors-on-a-budget tin pans and screaming "White food" and Witch Knot's "Me punk", a nonsensical nursery rhyme of playground chant and several instruments doing their own interpretation of Frank Zappa playing a banjo with his fingers tied together.

Troubleman's selection is more mysterious, only Assembly Line People Program and Peeches ringing any major bells. The rest consist of Atom and his Package, Monorchid, Russia, Young Pioneers, Computer Cougar, Replicants and Full Boney. Top of the Class badges go to Russia for "Bear's blood," a subterranean Yummy punk explosion obviously powered by monkey glands, Computer Cougar's "Stunt pilot"---pogo trash agitation---and Replicants' "Set shoot develop flash" in which, they claim, no computers were used, although you suspect they're lying. It sounds like dusk over a radioactive dump, skittering mutant animals, geiger hum and the mournful sound of abused machinery.

In the sleeve notes, Mike from Troubleman says "I am sure you not like every band on this record" and he's right. But only just. PO Box 54, Heaton, Newcastle, NE6 5YW or 16 Willow St, Bayonne, NJ 07002, USA

Luna, Superfreaky memories (Beggars Banquet) CDS

It's Dean Wareham's voice, equal parts Lou Reed, Lee Hazelhurst and the depths of his own soul, that lifts Luna above the class of also-rans. "Superfreaky memories" is almost nothing---an old House of Love 45 at 33---transformed into almost everything by his breathy enunciations. Five minutes gone by in a second. Kraftwerk's "Neon lights" also shine on the B-side, the synth lines realised by beautifully shimmering fuzz guitar.

The Creatures, Say (Sioux) CDS

This tribute to Billy McKenzie is an underplayed gem of conga and tabla, underground bass, vibes and Siouxie's unmistakable processed vocal drifting in and out of focus, seductive and haunting, it's a dream made real.

Plaid, Peel sessions (Warp) 12"

From January 1998 but sounding like they it hatched only yesterday, Plaid's Peel session comprises three reworkings and one new track. "Scoobs" is an icy dub with spiralling android melodies; "Eph" is like an electro Frankenstein version of "Popcorn" played by Kraftwerk's robots; newie "Bo bootch" ladles atmosphere onto a lazy superecho breakbeat and snaking synth bass and "Cold" is minimal techno with bubbling acidity of the Plastikman variety. Virtuoso electronics.

Syndrome, Waves TAPE

What does it say about a band when they choose to open their demo with a cover of Blancmonge's "Waves"---number 19 in February 1983, pop fans---yet make it sound more like the Mission at the end of the last decade? The stronger of the two tracks here is actually an original, "Unknown generation," which again betrays a Hussey influence. We're not talking gothic here, although there is a grand, almost theatrical edge, it's the vocals, the driving bass-led punch and that guitar. Surprisingly, I like it. 24 Watermill Close, Ham, Richmond, Surrey TW10 7UH

Coastal Cafe, 39 TAPE

If there was a calibrated scale of fidelity and your average Portastatic record registered around the zero mark, this tape would be more negative than the Arsenal back four. Recorded with either scant resources or regard it contains three song fragments---barely making 60 seconds apiece---that shine through the bursts of static and antiproduction in such a charming way that you just can't help but love it. The childish "Sunny cherry blossom morning" rejoices in fractured repetition and eccentric toy beatbox; "Oklahoma beauty" couples cautious battery-powered keyboard with barely present picked guitar melancholy and "Heart go wild" is kindergarten 60's bubblegum harmonies over a single chord and eggbox drums. As I say, utterly charming. Marilyn and Martin Lilya, Kapellv 19, S-35262, Vaxjo, Sweden

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