Sunday, August 25, 2013

Saturday at Doune the Rabbit Hole

My calves were stiff this morning. Is that what happens when you drive a long way? It wasn’t very far, really (about 65 miles), but I’m still new to driving, and was quite tense on the way back in the dark with not wanting to kill people (us, mostly, the roads were quiet). So far, it’s not quite the flotation-tank experience I once imagined it to be, but it is very useful. Andy and I made the trip yesterday to the Doune the Rabbit Hole festival, to catch The Pastels, The Sexual Objects, The Monochrome Set, Clinic, and whatever else was on offer.

A continuous cavernous booming sound wafted up the slope to us as we got out of the car. We had timed our arrival in order to see Vladimir, and they seemed likely to be the source. Cutting across a field in a hurry, avoiding cowpats, we followed the sound and found them, in a box with the sides punched out, in front of an also side-less marquee. They worked really well in the context – surprisingly well, for lunchtime, outside. Their thing isn’t my thing, though. The one- and two-note melody lines (you know the notes, from Johnny Rotten), the maelstrom of sound, of squalling guitars, pinned by heavy, heavy drums. There’s no lightness, but there is power, they certainly carry off the posturing. And their cover of ‘Born Slippy’ is great – the one-note melody fits right in.

Foxgang were pretty cheesy, the best moment was a mock-impassioned chorus of ‘Nicola! Nicola! Nicola! Nicola!’, but mainly because that’s Andy’s wife’s name, and I was imagining her embarrassment if she’d been there.

Helicon made us both wish we were watching The Cosmic Dead instead – their freak-outs were too tame, the best of them nicked the bass line from Massive Attack’s ‘Safe From Harm’, but that was the only lithe thing about them.

Date Radley and Friends were the first nice surprise of the day: a folky voice that sounded a mite strident from a distance made more sense closer to, and it was good to find a band not intent on booming. One of the Friends was great on harmonica and clarinet, and there was some serious dressing up going on, too (Alice in Wonderland, thought Andy).

Washington Irvine seemed OK at first – again, not too boomy, and quite pop. I could only hear them with my left ear at first, the right being engaged by the band at the Low End stage, which was directly to the right of the main stage (AKA the Jabberwocky stage), about fifty yards back. Here’s the bizarre thing: the band playing there did the same clattering set three times a day, with almost no-one watching, and their only discernable effect was to disrupt the sound from the Jabberwocky stage. We were told they’d done this on Friday, and they were certainly bugging the hell out of everyone yesterday too, for most of the afternoon. I think someone said they were something to do with a cider promotion, but they carried on well past the point that it obviously wasn’t working. Another bizarre thing, though: moving further towards the centre of the area in front of the stage, cutting out a good deal of the interference, Washington Irvine became awfully dull.

The second nice surprise of the day were Machines in Heaven, a synth / guitar quartet who reminded me a bit of Moscow Olympics for their blissed out sound, which was all about the synths. There must have been drums under there somewhere, but it was the washes and the hooks which dominated. That, and the energy of the performance, which was at odds with the medium (or is that just a cliché?) Their songs seemed fluid, but controlled; the singer threw himself about, in fact, controlling things via his own equipment, and by signals and instructions to his band mates. It was very un-passive electronic music. Vocals were occasional, and he stood mostly behind a Technics keyboard with a Korg sticker over the last four letters. He picked up a bass for the last song, a full on assault of digital noise which drove away the little girl who had been happily dancing to the rest of the set (kids dancing was a feature of the day), and discarded it violently at the song’s end.

Panda Su was particularly badly hit by the inexplicable effusions of the Low End stage, because her songs are so quiet – a line or two or guitar and synth intertwined, with a spare drum pattern maybe. I like the songs, but not unreservedly. As with Vlamimir, there’s a lack of lightness, sometimes they are glum and little else besides. For instance, ‘Bee Song’ as it is on the I Begin EP is lit up by the simplest descending keyboard line, but that line never makes it to live performance, so it just sounds like she’s complaining about getting stung by a bee, rather than… I don’t know what. But the EP version suggests something the live version misses. Having said that, I’ve seen Su performances where she does manage to expand the songs live in the most minimal way – but any chance of that was lost in the background noise yesterday.

Jesus, Baby! was a four-minute performance by Davy Henderson and some other Neu Reekie folk, altogether gentler than the Sexual Objects, and rather lovely, with a bit of stop / start and some vocal harmonies and crooning. But mainly, it was a hilarious gesture, to summon a crowd for a single song. Jesus, Davy!

‘Dum dur du dum, dum dur du dum,’ go the drums while I’m trying to buy some tea from a hippy stall and the guy’s taking forever over it and has accidentally put green tea in with the mint because he got carried away, and actually the whole first song is over by the time he’s done. Still, The Monochrome Set. Played a monochrome set. They’re a band I’ve never investigated, so I know two songs, but they have such a solid aesthetic that it barely mattered. The drummer wore a fez, and it might be this association which made the band’s clipped rhythms sound slightly Egyptian. They were great rhythms, anyway, lean and infectiously danceable. The guitarist wore a novelty suit with a pattern made from cut up bits of the iconic BBC test card, and told us it was too hot, being nylon. So why are you wearing a stupid suit then? Stagecraft, I guess. ‘Jet Set Junta’ came early on, and with that and the band’s theme song I was out of prior knowledge, but they kept playing and I kept bopping. But I’ll be finding out more now.

The John Knox Sex Club were great: a bit like the Bad Seeds, a voracious, vicious take on folk tales that others spoil with veneration.

Teen Canteen amazed me by having a lead singer who sounds almost exactly like Ronnie Spector. Not quite as rich perhaps, but a brilliant pop voice, very specifically in that early ’60s Spector mould, even down to the vibrato. Who uses vibrato these days outside opera halls? They announced one song as a forthcoming single, and as well as The Ronnettes (enormous compliment), it made me think of Aqua (not so much, but there’s that line in ‘Barbie Girl’, ‘Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky panky’, with which it shares a tune). Looking forward to the single, anyway.

Speaking of The Ronnettes, you know how there is a joy in some recordings, which is probably the best defence of records as a medium, now that money no longer makes them unassailable? And how ‘Baby, I Love You’ has an almost frightening quantity of that joy? Well, there’s no stylistic connection, but I always linked The Pastels’ ‘Classic Line-up’ with that record, and Stephen’s voice on that recording with Ronnie’s. Again, there’s no literal similarity in the sound, but the warmth that pours out… it’s the same stuff. ‘Here comes that sound, pulling everything around’. It’s a clever song too, because it’s about the feeling it evokes. It’s been a long time absent from The Pastels’ live set, as they explored different territory, but the last few gigs I’ve seen they’ve played it – perhaps because it chimes better with the feel of Slow Summits than with Illumination or Two Sunsets. Yesterday’s gig was a bit of a challenge for them because Tom lost his passport and got left behind in Paris after they played at Rock en Seine, as Stephen announced after a walloping opener of ‘Baby Honey’. They had to leave out the songs which rely on Tom’s flute, which shifted the balance of the set towards Stephen’s songs. Katrina sang on ‘Check My Heart’, ‘Nothing to be Done’, and an impromptu ‘Over My Shoulder’ (to fill in some time while John replaced a broken guitar string), but the rest was all him: ‘Wrong Light’, ‘Fragile Gang’, ‘Summer Rain’, ‘Different Drum’(!), ‘Classic Line-up’ – it was a great set. It being a festival, there was a man dressed as Wonder Woman down the front wigging out to it all.

There’s more? You bet! The Sexual Objects were on next, at the Fruit Stand stage, Davy having discarded the smart wheat-coloured leather overcoat he wore for Jesus, Baby! and strapped on his beloved (I presume – he’s got to love that thing) red-and-white Jazzmaster guitar. Before they started, he kept asking the sound man to turn up the monitors, saying ‘as far as they’ll go. Just turn it up until it really hurts’. That’s probably sweeter if you bear in mind that it was very small stage, with a small vocal PA. They sounded great though: crunchy, wild and controlled. Davy marshalling his troops was a bit like the way the leader of Machines in Heaven did it, actually – imperious. This was a set of mostly Cucumber material, which has been well honed by now, but there were still areas for messing about and improvising within the structure – like the breakdown of ‘Merrie England’, which I’m guessing is never the same twice. So, you know, ‘Here Come the Rubber Cops’, ‘Full Penetration’, all that lot. There was a new song, less up-against-the-giant-amplifier than the rest (will we see a mellower second LP, or was that misleading?) They thought they’d finished, when a woman with dreadlocks came up with a great way of demanding an encore: ‘That’s sad. Nobody wants that.’ So they did a few more songs. ‘Don’t make it sloppy!’ Davy instructed his band. And they didn’t.

Clinic were headliners on the Jabberwocky stage. I think I last heard of them in 2001, when Walking With Thee came out, but actually they’ve done loads of records since then. I was never that attached to Clinic, for some reason. Internal Wrangler was a fun record, and one buzzing with a certain fast tempo. When they slowed their songs down for the second album, I couldn’t see the point. Their set yesterday was very good, and in fact the Walking With Thee tempo seems to be the one they stuck with, both for drum and drum machine songs. The drum songs had a motorik feel, the drum machine ones zipped along on even more relentless beats. There was plenty of energy, and the crowd loved it, getting closer to a moshpit than we’d seen all day. By the end, though, I still wasn’t that attached to Clinic, though I enjoyed the Internal Wrangler songs they encored with. I get the feeling there’s something I’m missing.

Not with Rozi Plain, though. She began by reassuring us that whatever pitch of excitement we’d been wound to by the other bands, she and her band were there to wind us right down again. I had forgotten how funny she is live. Funny peculiar and funny ha ha. The band sounded beautiful, particularly the drums, sculpting out spaces for Rozi’s reverb-heavy guitar to hang in. Her delivery is so relaxed, it’s hard not to get drawn in. Someone kept shouting for ‘Humans’. ‘We will play “Humans” at some point,’ was her response at first. Straight after they did play it the woman shouted for it again. ‘Now we’re going to play “Humans” again’, said Rozi, deadpan, before playing something else. Two or three requests for the same song from the same person later someone else shouted, ‘Shut up, Charlotte!’, and Rozi chimed in, with an emphatic shake of the head, ‘Yes, shut up, Charlotte!’ Still good-natured, remarkably. Nothing could break that spell. And ‘Humans’ was great when it came. I was humming it all the way to the car.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

People and Places: Passion Star and Spare Snare

[In a lame attempt to rationalise a box of CD-Rs recently, I found my precious home-made Passion Star CD, comprising a live recording I made in 1996, and their 1994 cassette Soap. It’s incredible from start to finish; at least, the live recording is, and the tape is very, very sweet. In 2006, just because I missed them, I wrote an article for Tangents, pairing them with Spare Snare for some reason, and pinching the to-and-fro structure from Julian Barnes’ Arthur & George, which I was reading at the time. Anyway, it seems the Tangents archive is down at the moment, so, because I still miss them, here’s the piece again, all 1822 words of it (1822 web words seems more now than it did seven years ago.) I can’t really file-share the recordings here, but if anyone’s interested, give me a nudge.]


Once there was a band called Passion Star, whose drummer was at my school, and who played every so often in town, drawing a pub full of underage drinkers. What was unusual about them was that they didn’t rock: they were three seventeen year old boys trying to be The Sundays. Their sound was crisp, sensitive with a shrug. It was 1993, the year after Blind came out, and of course Blind is the best record ever made, so who could blame them? All the same, it wasn’t a tactic adopted by many, and it presented the problem of... how do you sound like that? You’ve got to be cocksure to be so fey. You’ve got to be able to nail a tune, too - there’s no posturing to fall back on in Sundays-world, no 12 bar blues patterns. So instead: tapped out hi hats threaded with mobile bass and sketched in by guitars which were brittle but never angular. Topped with a bravely high vocal, less strident than it was to become, almost modest at this stage. Singing, on set closer ‘Carolyn’ - and this is what killed me - ‘Carolyn, you are my life / Please be my wife’. I’ve no idea how grounded this was in a real situation, whether there actually was a Carolyn standing in the audience, chattering away, having her sleeve tugged by a friend saying ‘Shh! Shh! Did you hear that?’ Whether or not, it’s the most romantic thing I’ve heard in my life.


Once, maybe a year or two later, there was a band called Spare Snare. There still is a band called Spare Snare, for that matter. They have a new album out, on their own Chute label, Garden Leave. It’s their seventh, and it’s brilliant: surly, sweet, recorded ‘in Jan’s living room’ and the drums ‘in Jan’s hall’. I’ve promised to leave writing about it to Andy, who has an actual review copy, so. Spare Snare didn’t sound like The Sundays, or anyone. There’s a song on Guided By Voices’ Vampire On Titus which kind of does, actually, but apart from that - unique. Lo-fi as fuck in the beginning, on their barely competent, intermittently poptastic Live At Home. It took me a while to get it. The barely competent thing was where I got stuck, but it was part of the package: for ages, Jan would play gigs with only two strings on his guitar. Garden Leave has no guitars on it at all, only a mandolin made to sound a bit like one. 2004’s Learn To Play... is, well, called that. Live At Home (‘pronounced give’, they printed on a later sleeve, in case anyone thought they’d been trying to be cool) starts almost agonisingly slowly, ‘Thorns’ with its hung-over slide guitar, and ‘Shine On Now’ with that irritant two string fuzz hanging there like a taunt. They once gave out button badges which read ‘No Social Skills’, and this is the essence of it: if we’re a bit messed up in our actual lives - not massively, not basket cases, just normal - then why would we polish the music that comes out of that? That would be a lie. People may lie to us and to each other; society may be entirely constructed around the creation of smooth and deadly surfaces, but we decline to be part of that. We’re not going to lie. That’s what Spare Snare stand for.

The pace picks up, grudgingly, on its own terms, making way for pop classics ‘As a Matter of Fact’ and ‘Bugs’ (‘I’ve got bugs on my mind / I’ve got bugs on the wall’ - somehow this manages to be glamorous). It’s a record which dares you to like it, and doesn’t much care what you decide. By the time I went back home from university for a holiday, I’d decided, on balance, against.


Coming back from town one day, I saw a poster for a Passion Star concert on the railway bridge. I’m not aware of anything else having been advertised in that way, ever, so it was doubly a surprise. They were still going, three years on? It was hard to imagine, they’d been such a part of an earlier time (when Belly ruled the earth, before Oasis ruined everything), and so delicate it seemed inevitable they’d be blown away. Was it possible that Carolyn still hadn’t noticed Richard’s coded message?

The gig was in the back room of a hotel, and pretty packed it was too. Before the main set, Richard got up with his twelve string and did some songs. His voice had made the leap from determined but timid ambition to formidable self possession, and he blazed through these four new songs (I didn’t know for a fact that they were new, it just seemed as though he was spilling them out, hadn’t had time to rehearse them with the band, and needed them to be heard), all of them breathtaking. They really were. I taped the gig, and on the strength of it have prowled around many another with a tape / minidisc recorder hoping for this amount of spontaneous thrill. It’s hardly ever happened again (Bill Wells Trio managed it, and Jad Fair). Again the subject matter - even the words themselves - walked a tightrope between emotion and cliché. Asking for ‘just one smile’, declaring ‘I’ll be taken / I’ll never be fakin’ / Just give me back my life again’, describing ‘a quick sudden anger’, volatile, desperate, intense and unquestionable. Brilliant pop, like The Beach Boys’ ‘I’m So Young’ revved up and with just a dash of Eitzel longing in the tank.

When the band joined him, the non-timidness continued. The new drummer could do dynamics and stuff: they could now rock, in a tender sort of a way, and the Sundays-isms were reduced to an echo and a way of making the best songs out of the worst situations. It was a happy occasion: bassist Adam announced, to cheers, that they were to sign a record deal the next day. At least two songs were introduced as ‘the next single’, and it felt as though good things were around the corner.


Jan worked in Virgin, everybody knew that. Even so, it felt like a vindication and not nepotism when an entire stand of CDs announced Spare Snare’s 1998 album Animals and Me. This was the point at which, belatedly, I got it. Finally, a bit of ambition! Strange name for an album, but at least they’re trying to shift a few. Took it home, put it on.
Where the answers lie, I don’t know
Between you and me, I’m not sure
Figure out what is truth
Don’t get no clues from these books
Even stealing’s fair enough
’Cause all I wanted was my half
More or less the opposite of Passion Star’s grand romance, the Snare do description rather than aspiration; uncertainty and caution is their bag. Animals and Me makes this explicit. In the opening words, in ‘The Lies Count’, but most beautifully on ‘All I Wanna Do Is Touch’ (whereas Passion Star are after someone to ‘guide me through’), bruised, numb and a little like watching a tear descend a face which is usually hard as nails. The writing around the edge of the CD reads: ‘All rights reserved. Manufactured in the E.U. Fuck with us and we’ll kick your fucking head in.’ It’s a rearguard action which doesn’t wholly convince, now they’d made a ‘proper’ record which doesn’t undermine its own sound at every step. You love them for trying anyway, for being contrary buggers. But once you’ve let on that you’re capable of lines like ‘If I had a hi-fi, would you stick around? / Would you scratch my vinyl, make my tapes unwound?’ there’s really no going back. I saw them play these songs, unfortunately minus tape recorder, and it was so exciting. Possibly for the first time, their live sound was more ragged than the recorded, making the songs from their breakthrough LP even more thrilling. ‘We don’t do interaction.’ Yes! ‘Why don’t you stop complaining?’ Goal! The Snare have a surliness which makes me feel like a teenage girl watching The Beatles. I urge anyone who’s anywhere near Glasgow on 28th December to go and see them ‘promote’ Garden Leave at King Tut’s.

Around this time - again it’s a little hazy - Passion Star reached the apex of their stab at fame and, three singles under their belt (the first two, ‘Someone, Somewhere’ and ‘To Be The One’ are so great), did a national tour which took in Dundee. There were signs that things weren’t going quite so well: an extra guitarist who beefed up the sound unnecessarily, a picture on their third single which looked like someone was trying to appropriate them into being a boy band. There weren’t too many people in the audience (it was entirely un-advertised and far from home), so Chris marched us backstage afterwards and, after leaving his number on the wall for Lauren out of Kenickie in case they ever played there, instructed a downcast band that the best way to get a crowd in Dundee was to play on a bill with Spare Snare, get some local support in. They nodded, gave us some beer, grumbled about the new guitarist. They were supposed to come back a few months later but it didn’t happen, and the last I heard of them was that ‘To Be The One’ was to be featured in the film Shooting Fish. It was, but it got faded out too early, just like the band themselves. You can hear a bit of what I mean at Adam’s website (see link below). Some of this is post beefing-up, but the first ‘To Be The One’ single is a great record, and ‘Waiting’ is one of those four acoustic songs I was talking about.

Every few years, always by chance, I discover that there’s a new Spare Snare record, and the world seems a righter place for it. Learn to Play is my other favourite, and the Love Your Early Stuff comp is pretty unbeatable (and a better way in to the Live at Home material, I found). You wouldn’t have bet on them lasting this long, and if they’d signed to a real record label in the early days then they probably wouldn’t have. The long haul suits them, though, in a way it’s hard to imagine happening with the brightly burning Passion Star. Who’s to say which approach is better? Both give great pop. Why even compare them? Because, I suppose, they’re my ‘secret’ (though that’s nonsense - it just feels like it), they come from the places I come from, and because, if you haven’t, you really ought to hear them.

Spare Snare:
Passion Star mp3s:

[Both of those links still work, remarkably; The Snare, of course, are still going strong, and the album before last, Victor, fairly blew my mind. And actually, Tangents is still online-ish at the Internet Archive.]

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