Thursday, 16 December 2010

Selfish

Something's been bothering me of late.  It's the thought that, in essence, pretty much all musicians are selfish bastards.  Why do I make such a ridiculous accusation, you may say, when the light of their art shines on the drab corners of the world in which we live?

Well, when you think about it, being able to play music to any sort of reasonable level involves a lot of practice, a lot of time spent doing what you hope to be doing in front of an audience at some point.  The problem is, for most of us, that audience is fairly likely to be extremely small.  Wouldn't it be better all round if all that effort was channelled into something useful?  Like, clearing snow off the streets, doing shopping for people, something, anything?

But, you cry, the pleasure those songs bring to others.  Hmm, I mutter darkly.  One person's pleasure is another's poison.  I've quite often sat listening to some people and violently wished for a portable teleport or for a time-speeding device, i.e. it has brought the polar opposite of pleasure.

The trouble is, the more you focus solely on your craft (and probably yourself), the better you'll get.  It's a vicious circle.  Even the God-like Neil Young, in the excellent biography Shakey (which I'm reading at the moment), is not immune.  A long-time friend of his commented:
Neil's a real artist, but he's a ruthless motherfucker.  He's on his trip all the time.  The wheels are always turning.
That's probably the way it has to be though.

------- Sudden Subject Change --------

On a totally different topic, have you been visiting the excellent Atheist Advent by Ben Young?

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The First Time

So, I was in London t'other day, playing with Andy "Big Hair" Thomson's band Fuzzystar for the Sparklehorse tribute gig.  If truth be told, I can't remember the last time I enjoyed myself so much whilst retaining all my clothing.  Not having played the electric guitar for literally years prior to the gig, I was a bit nervous. 

The adrenalin was pumping somewhat as we took to the stage, and I had that weird realisation that you sometimes get when playing live, that each note and chord you play will boom out, and somehow become part of the atmosphere of the night.  We played an older Fuzzystar song "Falling In Love" first, then two Sparklehorse songs, "Piano Fire" with me on harmonica, and "Pig", which is a somewhat riff-laden heavy number.  The crowd seemed to like the first two, and we lit into the last like our lives depended on it, and rocked out.  And, if I may make so bold, rhythm guitar is what I do best.

My brother claimed to have been "nearly blown backwards" by the volume, and said it was "the loudest gig he'd been to since The Ramones in 1980".  George and the Doc liked it too.  Result!

It made me think, just how utterly different that experience of playing the guitar is, to launching your newest acoustic song down at the Blazer.  I did just that a few weeks ago, and I had a slightly different attack of nerves before that too.  This time, I felt faintly ridiculous;  I mean, what was I thinking?  The song had seemed like a good idea when playing it in my room, but in the harsher environ of a pub, it seemed stupid.  I felt mild nausea, and almost didn't play the thing.

In the end, people actually seemed to be listening to it (which is almost as disturbing as people not listening), and no-one publicly denounced me as a pretentious buffoon.  Result again!

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Gingers in Music

I was speculating the other day if there really was any prejudice against people with ginger hair or not, given that this appears to be the country of their origin.  It seemed to me that although sometimes subtle, some prejudice did indeed seem to exist.

Then, I started wondering if that prejudice extended into music.  Is anyone's favourite musician a ginger?  Mick Hucknall, anyone?  Didn't think so.  In fact, I shocked myself by not being able to think of a single red-haired muso that I liked.


Now I'm getting worried that I am prejudiced.  Hold on a minute, I don't mind Ginger Baker, the Cream drummer, he was pretty good.  Not sure if he'd make that hypothetical pantheon of "favourite" musicians though.  Hmm.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

(Thats enough of that! - Ed)

I was thinking today, of the differences in writing a song, and in writing a novel or piece of prose.  There's obviously a fair degree of difference between the two art forms, but I'm wondering if there's something to be learned from writing.

In the world of publishing, as far as I dimly comprehend it, a writer has an "editor", perhaps a slightly older person, who is not entirely unsympathetic to your work, but who ultimately wants the writing to "succeed" in some fashion.  Usually for the financial gain of the publisher, but not always for that goal alone.

The writer submits a draft; the editor adds comments, such as "starts to wander a bit in the middle", "needs to be a bit shorter in this chapter", "are you sure the character would have said that at the end?",  the writer makes amendments, and re-submits.  (The reader should bear in mind at this point, that the above is based upon my loose understanding of such things).

However, the important part is the process not only of re-writing, tweaking words around and all that, but to listen to someone else's thoughts on the thing.  Someone whom you trust, but who is outside of the creative process in question.  I've been doing that with a new song recently, and it's been very beneficial.  I've been hearing how certain lines are hackneyed, pompous, and over-used.  And, they are.  I've been lazy, and they need to be altered.

I have suggested changing a word or phrase in a song to different songwriters over the years.  It's resulted in precisely zero changed songs.  I remember Lou Reed remarking that re-writing lyrics was "not his favourite thing", but he did do that on his album "New York", and the result was critically lauded.

So, singer/songwriters, get off your precious soapbox ass about your lyrics! (That's enough of that - Ed).

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

A chart challenge

I sometimes play a game with myself of a Sunday teatime, as I'm making the tea; I see if I can stand listening to the Radio 1 chart show for an hour.

If you try this, be prepared for people glaring at you and demanding to know why you're listening to "this shit" or some such.  I usually do it to see what the fashions for production/sound engineering are, and if there's any discernible trends in music.  Occasionally, even though I don't like a certain song, I can understand why it's become relatively successful.  At other times though, it's success is entirely baffling, and I assume it's had a good video or other assistance (e.g. been used in an ad for yoghurt!), of which I'm unaware.

The music, though not usually to my taste, I can withstand for an hour.  The real challenge is the presenters.  Can you withstand their inane egotistical babbling for an hour?  Can you tolerate their fawning puff-piece "interviews" with "stars" who already know their record is number one?

It's a hard road, but if you make it, then I doff my glossy-plumed cap to you.  Probably best to be making something fairly involved for tea, like a massive curry from scratch, in order to not focus completely on it, and thus lose your mind.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Ego wall

I've gone off my music a bit recently, and I've been wondering why.  I've started wondering if it's because I've actually achieved a lot of what I wanted to do, albeit in a very small, non-commercial manner.

So, what have I done exactly?  Well . . .

I played electric guitar in a fairly straight ahead indie pop band (Scatter)

I played acoustic guitar in an acoustic duo (Jim and Nelson/Flowers For Algernon, Mk I).

I played harp, by which I mean harmonica - note: not harpsichord, as was claimed in Visual Opinions ("Nelson Wright played the harpsichord and gave a wonderful texture to the piece") - in a Blues Band (Sawmill Buddhas, Mk I)

I played djembe and bass in Norman Lamont & The Innocents (Mk 3?), and also guitar in Norman's "Roadblock Band"

I played bongoes, djembe and an occasional full drum kit with the G (along with the aforementioned Obi-Norm-Kenobi)

I played bass with The Sawmill Buddhas Mk II

I played all of the above, apart from drums, in various incarnations of Flowers For Algernon.  I played piano once for them too.  Not that I can.

I played fairly distorted, reasonably loud and dirty electric guitar in a sort of heavy pop band (The Hairy Apes).  "Surprisingly heavy" opined Mr Cakes at the time.

I played acoustic guitar and mandolin with Norm in The Wright Brothers.

I've also done quite a few collaborations, e.g. I've played guitar with Jill Hepburn, and Ben from The Honeyshot, harp for David Ferrard, electric and djembe for Ms Fi etc.  I've doubtless done more than that, but I can't remember right now.

I currently play djembe and harmonica with The Storm.

So, I've been in an electric band, an acoustic band, an acoustic electric band, a two, three, four five and six-piece band, a folk-pop band, a blues band, a rock band, a pop band.  I've written songs, I've written lyrics, I've arranged songs, written second and third guitar parts, sung backing vocals, got to know how the basics of how a studio and sound engineering works.  Speaking of which, I've also done live sound, recorded sound (not very well), created music websites,   organised music nights, designed logos, posters and fliers, handed out fliers in the streets, and flyposted.

Until relatively recently, the one thing I hadn't done was to play solo.  It's not the most obvious course to pursue when one is 37, not least because the notion terrified me.  Now though, I have managed to do that, and I've got to the point where I can tell that at least some people in the room want to listen.  I think the culmination of this phase was playing a solo set at the Blue Blazer (along with the excellent musicians Fi, Dr S and Norm that is), something which I found unthinkable even a year ago.  It's not exactly the Albert Hall, but for me, it meant the achievement of something.

So, what now?  As much as I like playing the acoustic, I'm starting to miss playing the electric.  There lies a whole other world though, one typically beset by the demons of transporting amps and drum kits, practice room fees, wasting hours at soundchecks, and a load more hassle for potentially no more gain. 

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Last Picture Show

I ambled along to The Picture House in Edinburgh on Sunday with the Doc of Rock, to see a very un-rock-like band, Beirut.  I'd never been to this venue before, and was interested to see what it was like.  I say I've never been here before, but I had once, a very long time ago, when it was an extremely grotty club.  Thankfully, it's no longer grotty, and is in fact quite presentable inside.  Kind of like a smaller, cleaner, more friendly Barrowlands, but without having yet earned that rock 'n' roll grit.

 I wasn't sure what Beirut would sound like live, as a lot of their songs have orchestral instruments.  It was surprisingly powerful, partly because they dispensed with any songs requiring strings, and instead focussed on the brass section ones.  When a trumpet, trombone, and a higher trumpet-thing all blast in together, it fairly makes an impact.  All the musicians were great, and the singing was excellent too.  All in all, I think I enjoyed it more than I thought I was going to.  And, all that without too many recognisable lyrics or choruses.  As the Doc remarked though, it was like the instrumental passages were the choruses.  I guess that's what they call a refrain?

It's a shame there aren't more bands that I want to see appearing at The Picture House, they often seem to have well-known covers bands or the like.  That's the rough and tumble of the post-modern milieu I guess.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Did you see the drummer's hair?

Possibly because I'm not in too many bands these days (whittled down from it's peak of five to my current one - The Storm), my imagination has started making up bands.  Thus, we have:

No Meat For Bad Boy - These are a Japanese Post-industrial Techno-Metal band.  I've no idea if that genre exists, or what it may sound like, but they're in it.  It's kinda heavy, but has a weird pop feel at times, which is a bit unsettling.  They're big in Japan and Belarus, and have sold about 200 records in Britain.  Yet their arty posters are curiously popular on Leeds University students' bedroom walls.

Pagan Gizzard - Metal Nu-prog (again, I am a bit hazy about the exact genre, or if it even exists), but at least two of their members have plaited beards.  They're Dutch, and have been touring Europe for a long time in their camper van.  No-one knows why, but they're very popular in Birmingham, and have sold more records than you may think.  Long-term fans refer to them affectionately as simply, "The Gizzard".

Not Pagan Gizzard
I was hosting the Listening Room on Sunday, after what seemed to have been a rather successful "Rum Club" evening.  Rather a struggle with noisy fellows at first.  "Is it really especially character-building playing to noisy disinterested people?" I wondered, as I went down like the proverbial lead balloon.  If so, I should be getting beatified sometime soon, the amount of character I must have built up over the years.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

An experiment

So, I went with the Doc to see Susanna McDonald's Experimentalista show.  I'd seen a sort of warm-up gig at OOTB some weeks before, so I had some idea of what to expect.  What I hadn't realised was that Susanna was accompanied by a dancer, which is sometimes enough to make me run screaming from the room, but in this case, I think it worked.

The show itself was more reminiscent of cabaret-style entertainment than your average singer-songwriter showcase, which in my mind suited Susanna perfectly.  All those years strumming a guitar, and she sounds better with a piano.  Who'd have thought?  There were tender moments, occasions of powerful drama, and even fear at some points.  I'd recommend it.  It's interesting to see a performer adapt to the Fringe, and it's well done in my view.

The only criticism IMHO would be that for me, there didn't seem to be a lot of recognisable choruses in the songs, although some I was hearing for the first time.  For some people, that's not a problem, but I like to have something to hang off.  It probably mattered less in this setting, as there was always a visual element to keep you entertained.  But well done Susanna!

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Do you want MOR?

I've noticed an odd thing happening in my street.  As well as bozos cycling on the pavements, people regularly walk right down the middle of the road, as they go up the street.  Why they choose to do this, I do not know.  Apart from the danger aspect, surely it's not particularly interesting to walk down a street staring at the backs of dully respectable parked cars as you do so.  Not when you can have all the fun of looking into people's houses, gardens, talking to cats, etc. which you get from the pavement.

"Fair enough", you may be thinking, "But what's that got to do with music, Bozo features?"

It's just that I've often noticed a similar parallel in music.  People, quite often very musically talented people, appear extremely keen to occupy a middle of the road position in music, in fact they've probably worked damn hard to do that.  You know the sort of thing; incredibly polished, accomplished band, not a note out of place, sounded great for half a song in soundcheck, but come the gig, it's so bland it makes one feel faintly nauseous.  You find yourself thinking, "With all that talent at their disposal, they came up with that??".

I find myself these days enjoying the more original artists, even if it's not performed perfectly.  Practice be damned!!!!

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The elimination of all I hold dear

So, I was in London t'other day, which was brilliant.  Again I am reminded of the massive part sunshine plays in life, and therefore, in music.  At 31 degrees centigrade, suddenly reggae and samba make sense.  I'm not sure if they truly do at 2 degrees looking out onto a windswept bleak day in Edinburgh so much.

Anyway.  I had timed my run to London to perfection, arriving literally minutes prior to Andy BHT(Big Hair Thompson)'s band, fuzzystar & the malfunctioning androids, starting up, not bad from a range of 400-odd miles.  It was very enjoyable, always interesting to see how solo acoustic songs sound as band songs.  When you've a sideman of the quality of Andrew MH (Medium Hair) Thompson's quality, it's never going to sound bad.


Something else I've been contemplating though, is nothing other than the cold-blooded elimination of a personal part of my life.  What I am talking about, is nothing other than punting all of my vinyl and CD's, hopefully after digitising them first in some form.  It doesn't seem right; some of these records have been around longer than my oldest friends.  They are inextricably intertwined with some of my formative experiences.


Why then, do this heinous act?  For the grubby prosaic reality of saving space, ladies and gents of the jury, having recently moved to a place where there is a fair bit less of that.  And also, some of that stock of music I haven't exactly been listening to on a regular basis.  But, still.


So, any advice on what digital route to take???

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Why cats?

I've been wondering for a while now, just why it is that cats have become associated with music.  There are hepcats (linked with "hipsters" in jazz, especially swing jazz), Keith Richards (for one) talks about musicians as "cats" all the time, the references constantly abound in the lyrics themselves, e.g. The Beatles cover of the Leiber/Stoller song "Three Cool Cats".

Perhaps I am clouded by my liking for cats, but there doesn't seem to be such a depth of reference in relation to other animals in music.  Who Let the Dogs Out, anyone??  Yeuchh.

Possibly the only other rival could be birds.  Again referrring to jazz, Charlie Parker was known as "Bird", and the bird is frequently referred to in lyrics as a shorthand for some sort of personal freedom.  Apart from the aforementioned, though, rarely are musicians referred to as creatures of the winged feathered variety.

Is it because in some way, cats are associated with the unconscious, the rejection of "ordered" living, and a move towards the instinctive?  And do musicians therefore tend to like cats more than dogs?  It seems that way to me.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

On the Pavement

I went with The Doc to see Pavement in Glasgow the other day.  It was an enjoyable gig, some fine musicianship going on.  I hadn't been to The Barrowlands for quite a few years, I noted that it hasn't changed at all, still a bit grotty, but somehow still good as a live venue. 

It's interesting that a band such as Pavement became (reasonably) commercially successful.  On the face of it, they didn't seem likely candidates: random sounding lyrics, odd, unpredictable rhythms and chord changes, vocals which were clearly out of tune at times.  Like the venue though, despite everything, it did somehow work.  I think part of the pleasure one gets is the notion that they are flouting "mainstream" musical opinion (whatever that may be), and are gloriously random.

I imagine the reality is quite different and it involves a lot of hard work and repeated practice to get it all sounding cohesive, but I don't want to think about that.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Going out in front

So . . . I played a gig as a front man for a band.  A "band" in this case being a somewhat loose confederation of friendly bods who had never actually played the songs together until the final practice.  Namely, The Doc, The Fi, and Obi-Norm-Kenobi. Still, in my mind that is a band, and being "only" acoustic at the jolly old Blazer probably only heightened the queasy feeling I got in my stomach during the day.  No mic to hide behind, and variable powers of vocal projection, not to mention pitching.

In the end, it turned out all right, due in part to the tolerant good nature of the crowd there, most of whom I knew.  Due also in no small part, to the talents of those friends who have been good enough to support this venture, and devote some of their time to it.  It still didn't stop me clearing a fair section of the back room's seating, but better ones than I have also done that, so no shame there.

So, that's one more thing that I won't now wish to have done before I die.  In musical terms, I've done a few different things, but I hadn't done that before, so it was an interesting experience.  I don't think I'll be rushing to repeat it however, as I don't particularly like being the centre of attention, and I think I probably enjoy singing more than people like listening to me sing.

I think what it made me realise is how valuable the contribution of other people can be.  Suddenly your half-formed idea sounds not half bad!

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

So much things to say

Having something to say musically is certainly a good thing, but the other side to that is having people willing to listen.  Usually, the willingness of people to listen can be influenced by the performer to a degree.  In the right circumstances, a performer can still an entire room (cf. Jill Hepburn).  In the wrong circumstances, it can barely matter what the performer does, e.g. Rum Club night down at the Blazer, after midnight at Nicol Edwards, etc.  What may work in a noisy bar, may not in an art cafe, and vice versa.


So, it was with some interest, and a little trepidation, that The Storm played in The Hootananny in Inverness on Sunday, a venue previously unknown to us.  How receptive would people be?  The outside of the venue seemed to proclaim it's folk heritage, which made me wonder if the crowd would take kindly to us, not being traditional folk and all.  I also wondered if there'd be any people there, as we didn't start until 10:15 on a Sunday night.

I needn't have worried on either count, as there were people, and they were willing to listen. Were there more receptive people than an equivalent Sunday night in Edinburgh?  It certainly seemed so.

I'm still musing over why that should be the case.  The layout and d├ęcor of the place helped: a wide welcoming room, seats where people could sit and see/hear the stage, no massive screens showing sport, photos from music festivals on the walls, volume at a level where people could still converse if they chose.  I'm wondering if the stance of the promoter helped too; as well as the traditional folk sessions, he was interested in good quality original music, and there seemed to be a long-term strategy of encouraging that.  Over a period of time, I'd imagine a venue gets a name for itself as having decent music, and people might pop along even if they didn't know the band.

It made a refreshing and encouraging change from the usual pressure to bring along a vast crowd of people, and never mind the musical quality.  Despite obviously not being able to generate a massive crowd, we were still put on as the main act.  People enjoyed it, people bought beer, venue made money, band even got paid (gasp).

Once again it seems it's worth it to leave Edinburgh when performing.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Some CD's

So . . . what would be your favourite CD's by Lothian-based artists . . . ?  It's a tough pick.  I've gone for some below, but they're naturally skewed towards the more recent releases, and memory being the fallible instrument that it is, I have doubtless forgotten some which are very noteworthy.  I've picked ones which have received a fair number of plays on my CD player.

Given the disclaimers above, we have, in no particular order:

Emily Scott - Longshore Drift
Jill Hepburn - Snowflake (hmm . . . is Falkirk in Lothian . . .?  At any rate, I'm including it here)
Ben Young - Englandland
Machar Granite - Lost In History
Norman Lamont - The Wolf Who Snared The Moon
ballboy - Club Anthems
Aberfeldy - Young Forever
Ms Fi & The Misfits - Songs from the City of Edinburgh
Townhouse - Times & Tides

 . . . and I cannot resist mentioning Lindsay & The Storm - Lindsay & The Storm EP.  I'd like to mention Flowers For Algernon's "Organic" LP, but that would definitely be not so much veering towards bias, as driving to Biasville at 100mph whilst tooting my horn all the way.

Given my comments in my previous post about how important it is to vary arrangements and what-not, it may seem surprising to include Ben Young's CD, as it's just him and a guitar.  In his case, I don't get bored, for some reason.  Possibly because Ben combines many styles from around the world in his guitar playing (which is excellent), and possibly becasue I find his lyrics interesting, as they encompass sarcasm, humour, and observations about relationships.

If I was forced at gunpoint to pick one, in terms of the overall quality (leaving aside The Storm and The Flowers), I would be tempted to go for Jill's CD.  Every song on it is of high quality, and it's been well recorded, with some interesting arrangements.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Arrangements

 I remember when I was but an excitable young guitarist in my early twenties, talking to what seemed (back then) a dinosaurianly old geezer in his early thirties.  He opined that he was no longer particularly impressed if someone played him a very good song on the guitar, as loads of people had done that, including a friend of his.

Putting to one side for the moment the possibility of bias re his friend, I was back then somewhat shocked.  My whole raison d'etre had been to try and craft finely-honed songwriting gems, learning the Simon & Garfunkel and Beatles songbooks, etc.

Now, however, I'm starting to see what he meant.  Go to pretty much any open mic in Edinburgh of a weekday, and you will probably hear some very good, possibly even great, songs.  But, they're still just songs on an acoustic, nice though they are.  If you were to listen to a whole album of that, you would possibly get a bit tired before the end, due to the arrangement being all the same, i.e. one guitar, one voice, and the ear/brain combo naturally rebels against uniformity of sound.

But, you may cry, surely with a bit of judicious arranging, these songs could be filled out even more, like a songwriting Cutty Sark under a fair westerly?  Ah, but therein lies a problem.  It would appear that the same skills that enabled the young troubadour to fashion their heartfelt piece, do not spring from the same source that enable good arrangements.  In fact, what can happen is that the song can be diminished, not enhanced, by a dull bass/drums arrangement, or a distracting melodic second instrument of some sort. Or the vocals are too quiet.  Or the guitar sounds crap as it's been DI'd. Or . . .

In actual fact, it's very hard to arrange and record a song so that it does justice to the song itself, and doesn't get in the way of what the song's about.  Choice of instrumentation, how everything sits in the mix, how effects are applied and to what, the room it's recorded in, the attitude of the sound engineer . . . the list could go on for a long time.  It all somehow plays a part in the final recording.  Speaking as someone who has oft-times been disappointed with their band's results from a recording session, I cannot claim knowledge of any of these secrets.

That's probably why, in the harsh light of reality, very few local artist's CD's are on repeat listening in my house.  The songs may be there, but the arrangments aren't.  There's some honourable exceptions to this, but in general, on getting the CD home, a vague sense of disappointment fills one on hearing the first few tracks.

Next issue:  Those (IMHO) worthy CD's!!

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Two local music nights

I've been to two music nights in the past week, the first being Secret CD's, the night of ol' Hairy Legs himself.  Prior to the gig I thought Ukellilli smacked of faintly irritating novelty fare, but on the night itself, it was actually better than I had anticipated.  I found that I tired of the uke's musical possibilities quite quickly though, much like Impossibles John did. Speaking of which, it was very nice to see John again, now that Callum Haddow has gone to Australia, I'm going to propose him as the new "The nicest man in rock" (in the Edinburgh area, at least).

Despite the obvious technical accomplishments of both Windlestray and The Douglas Kay Band, I found it was Callum Carlyle's performance that I got the most out of.  Possibly as I'd heard some of the material before, possibly because I sort of know him, and possibly because The Storm's cellist Al was playing bass, but mainly because I think his songs had something to say.

On seeing Mr Cakes the next day, I mentioned I'd been to the night.  "Shit venue", he said immediately.  Thinking about it, I've often been unable to see the band, and it can feel a bit claustrophobic.  I think Jim has proved that there's an appetite for a night such as his, and the musical quality is usually very good, so logic would suggest a bigger venue.  Not easy to find the right place though.

On to the Blue Blazer on Sunday, for Tommy MacKay, whom I hadn't seen for ages.  Now sporting a crazy wild man's beard, he remains his affable self.  Some people are naturally funny, and I think Tommy is one of them, there were times during his set that had me laughing like a maniac.  Even more surprising perhaps, was turning to the Doc of Rock, and to find her in even more uncontrollable fits of mirth.  There was a priceless moment, when Tommy was singing something suitably ridiculous, when his facial expression seemed to combine horror and revulsion, that will live in my chuckle-banks for many a year.  Brilliant, and an engaging cameo from Big Jim's "Theakstons in the Sun" song too.  Fun was had.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Diamonds v Domes

The other day, I was listening to Radio 2's Saturday lunchtime show while making lunch.  Up-and-coming popsters Marina & The Diamonds were on, but I thought the presenter had called them "Marina And The Domes".  I was quite disappointed when I found out it was "diamonds".

Anyway, just now I had a listen to their latest single, and felt a bit bored quite quickly.  Nothing awful about it, but why should I listen to a paler imitation of Kate Bush?  I guess those young folks won't have heard of her, so won't care.

I think Mr Cakes' idea was good though.  If they were the "Domes" and not the "Diamonds", she could have been surrounded by a bald backing band.  That would have amused me, at any rate.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Lyrics

Now, all those in favour of having the song lyrics printed on the CD/Vinyl cover, please raise your hands . . .?  Ah.  I thought so.  Some of you actually like that.

For me, I have a number of objections to that.  The first would be, that if a lyric isn't enunciated distinctly enough to be intelligible, then that's the way it is.  It's part of the whole song.  If, for example, I ever found out what Joe Strummer is actually saying at the end of "London Calling", I think I'd probably be disappointed. Right now, in my imagination, he's exhorting us to hark to some post-apocalyptic message, which could probably never live up to the vagaries of my mind.  As has been noted, misheard lyrics are often better than the reality.  The National's singer's style is often half-mumbled, and all the better for it.  Same for Tindersticks.  Some of Liz Frazer's finest moments would look faintly ridiculous in the cold hard light of the printed word.

But there's another objection, which is that lyrics don't stand up as poetry.  It would be like trying to compare a car to a bicycle.  Sure, they can both convey something, but the whole ethos behind them is different.  Taking the lyrics out of their musical context, I think does them a disservice.

My final objection is that it also has the potential to be insufferably pompous.  "Look at these great words", the cover seems to be saying, "are they not magnificent?".  Nine times out of ten the answer is usually, er, no, they're not.  It would have been better not to have known.

There's some obvious exceptions (Cohen, Dylan, Joni Mitchell), when I do actually want to know the lyrics.  But, funnily enough, those artists have good diction, and I can understand the words without recourse to a book.

You know who I blame for all this?  Yep, prog-rockers.  They're usually to blame for most things.

Mind you, my objections are probably already pretty much outdated.  With downloads at present, there's only the music file, the lyrics/cover art aren't currently bundled up into one format.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Different drum

I went to the One World Peace Concert at the Roxy Art House on Saturday, with Obi-Norm-Kenobi and his wife.  It was great, you got four bands (2 African-style, 2 Arabic), all playing various sorts of percussion and unusual instruments, and there was middle eastern food from Suzie's Diner too.

The only downside was the curious feeling of detachment that you get whilst at the Roxy, and the muddy sound.  Both Norm and I had noticed that from a few years back, from both watching and playing there.  But unfortunately, unless they invest a fortune in acoustic engineering the place, it will always be thus, being an old church and all.

That didn't dim the enthusiasm and energy of the performers though, and it was a refreshing change to hear so many different sounds, not least from all the percussion.  I also realised that I had been playing my darabuka completely wrong.  I shall have to see if I can add that drum sound to a suitable song of The Storm's at some point.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Way-hay!

I have found a rather good site full of Tim Buckley guitar tabs & chords.  It's called, quite winningly, "TIM BUCKLEY GUITAR TABS & CHORDS".  I've a feeling that I may be spending some time there.

Apparently, Timbers was wont to tune his guitar down.  Nothing unusual there, you may say, didn't Hendrix do that?  Yes, but TB apparently ended up tuning (all) the strings down a full four frets/semitones lower (an "E" to a "C", etc).  Rather unusual.

I'd probably better stop inexpertly bellowing out Buckley classics now, as it's after 11pm.

Monday, 1 February 2010

I like simple

To have simplicity in music, whilst still retaining interest, I think is the ultimate goal.  Music can of course be complicated and still be good, but the one does not necessarily follow the other.

I was thinking about this when listening to some of King Crimson's first album whilst round at Al's place.  That album had a certain spark and energy of "the new" about it, and I could see why people liked it back in the day.  Music hadn't really been done before like that.

However, I've also heard some quite revolting prog-rock bombast which aims to impress with it's alleged cleverness, but succeeds in only creating a stinking mire.

It's sometimes interesting to see what you can take out of a song, and still hold the listener's attention, rather than what you can add in.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Jill at the Blazer

Went to the Blue Blazer on Sunday past, to see Jill Hepburn play.  The Norm has written previously about how she can silence an audience, and her emotional honesty, with which I concur. 

Having not heard her for a while, what struck me was the quality of the songwriting; the lyrics were inventive, funny in places, and strange in mysterious in others, and the melodies and chords were pleasingly varied, from folk-tinged, to jazzy, to an almost Noel Coward-esque trip round the solar system in "Why Stop at The Moon?".  I was wondering if she'd be loud enough for the Listening Room, but she was perfectly clear and audible. 

Which reminded me again, that sometimes there's a difference between a voice carrying, and a voice's volume.  Some people have both of course, such as Peter Michael Rowan.  Some people can certainly be loud.  Not everyone can master the trick of having your voice heard well in a pub though.

Now I've gone and left her CD round at The Doc's place, and I really want to hear it.  That always seems to happen with CD's you like, aargh!!

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Scottish Links

The Storm unexpectedly played Celtic Connections last night, on the Danny Kyle stage again, which was fun.  Lindsay and Karen played there last year as a duo.  At least we got more than two hours warning this time (it was two days), so we could all make it.  That meant a first gig for The Storm as a four-piece, with new members Al and Peter.

I wonder sometimes what the remit of Celtic Connections actually is, beyond being a music festival in Glasgow.  There's oft-times a strain of folkiness involved, which I do my best to ignore.  There's often too a fair number of artists performing who don't appear to have any connection with Scotland, either in their music or their person, but hey, let's not allow pedanticism stand in the way of a good gig.

And, to be frank, it was a good gig.  It's also probably one of the best gigs we're going to play for a while.  Somewhere around 300 people in the audience who actually listen to you (for non-musicians out there, this is indeed rare), the sound engineers are polite and capable, the compere lady friendly and knowledgeable.  Compare that to a drafty Tuesday night at say, The Ark, and we're talking calcium carbonate and Scottish cheddar.

Why then, a certain lack of jubilation, a certain flatness, post-gig?  It's probably because we weren't quite ready for it, the gig came too soon in our new incarnation's development.  Nothing was obviously wrong, no horrendous notes were played, and I think we stayed in pretty good time.  And, people said nice things afterwards.  But I think we lacked that magical ingredient of togetherness that bands only develop after a period of time playing together.  And, one also holds out some hope that someone, somewhere may just here you and invite you to . . . dunno, but something good.  But, they never do.

Still, a good start to the Storm's doubtless phoenix-like rise from the ashes of the old Storm.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Listening Room Sunday

I suspect that for many, attending The Listening Room at the Blue Blazer of a Sunday, is akin to denying the existence of work the next day.  If you stay in the house, one's thoughts tend to drift towards the morrow, and can enter a sullen place.  No, we choose instead to be terrified by playing without a mic in a noisy environment, to often disinterested and/or drunk people.  At least it takes your mind off things.

Last night's affair was compered by The Norm, and the usual suspects followed.  Good and enjoyable though that all was, I'm starting to think that the night needs to find a few more "regulars" who play there, some fresh blood.  Fresh meat.  Open mics are like sharks, they have to keep moving and devouring in order to survive.  Promotion of the night is the key to that, but that is essentially an administrative task that no-one wants.

And that's really the root of the issue.  Musicians don't want to spend their time doing that.  If a non-musician were to organise a similar night, I think people might be a) slightly suspicious of their motives, and wondering what they got out of it, and b) probably think they have no experience of what being a musician is like, and so wouldn't respect them.  On the other hand, if an average musician organises a night, it's often a barely running disorganised shambles.

There's another problem, too.  Those people who are willing to do that stuff (but are also musicians), often get inspired by all that creativity on show.  As a result, they end up wanting to do more music, which gives them less time to do that boring admin stuff.  A bit of a catch twenty two.

I think perhaps Peter Michael Rowan's idea for OOTB back in the day is still valid; apply for a grant from the Scottish Arts Council or another funding body for a part-time person to do all the various admin tasks for running a successful original music open mic night.  Surely that must stimulate grassroots musical creativity.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

You say ego, I say . . .

Practising last night for my terrifying attempt at a solo gig (scream) with the creature known as the Fi, everything was running smoothly until an attempted cover version.  Being British, we didn't say exactly what we thought.  I could tell Fi wasn't too keen, but I insisted.  Eventually she offered the opinion that "we don't want it to sound like a bad karaoke version of the song".  Even I could tell that meant something not particularly good.

In the more objective light of the next day, I think she may have been right, and I think I may drop that cover.  But, it made me ponder over when to go with what you think, and when to listen to others.  Ultimately, there's no easy answer.  It probably is a valuable exercise to try and curtail your ego, and to do what's best for the song/set.  On the other hand, without the prompting of that ego, you'd probably have never got up on stage in the first place. 

I'm not talking about standing up and shouting "Look at me!  I'm the best musician you've ever seen!".   Just by being on that stage however, you are saying that you think you have something to offer, something slightly different, something interesting, something curious, a new twist, some energy.  Would the Beatles have been the same without John Lennon's ego?  Without Paul's?  Not really much of a Sex Pistols without an ego going on.  No Hendrix, no Who, no Public Enemy, no Kinks.  So, we have it to thank for some great music.

The hard part is knowing when your ego is being a twat.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Edinburgh's most successful band?

I was shooting the breeze the other day, about how some Edinburgh-based musicians had found some sort of success in London.  I starting wondering what bands/artists from Edinburgh had actually managed to achieve any sort of success.  It depends how you define success of course, but I couldn't think of too many.  In fact, that horrific spectre of The Bay City Rollers always looms up in this type of conversation, like Banquo's ghost.  They had commercial success, and their breezy pop is fine in it's way, but I don't think too many people would rate them as being musically interesting.

So, what's left?  Er . . . hmm.  Pilot?  With two songs of note?  The Chimes?  Same.  Tempting though it is to claim The Cocteau Twins, they're from Grangemouth.  You could certainly make a case for Bert Jansch.  I don't want to mention The Incredible String Band, as I don't like them, and I don't think the passing of the ages has been too kind to their brand of hippy whimsy.  Surely there must be somebody since the early 90's?  Probably, but I can't think of them.

So, you may say, who cares?  It's just that I'm wondering if Edinburgh is big enough to sustain the illusion of having a music "scene", but not big enough to actually have one.  I mean in terms of enough decent venues and people willing to go to gigs, to sustain a healthy one in reality.  It's got the quality musicians, but you need more than that.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Unconvinced

I had the unusual experience recently of watching two TOTP's on consecutive weeks.  It's unusual for anyone, come to think of it, as they've stopped broadcasting it, but this was the Xmas chart, and the "Best" of 2009 chart. 

In the main, it consisted of stuff that I didn't like. But, watching with an objective head on, it was quite interesting to see what had sold.  Or what they had somehow persuaded us to buy.  They being the record company/promotion company.  I saw people that I'd heard of, but never actually seen.

One singer was Alexandra Burke, doing a fairly involved dance routine to a song called, I think, "Bad Boys", who apparently were always catching her eye, or some such.  Now, she's an attractive woman, she can sing, and there's nothing wrong with the song in that it sounds current and is catchy.  I still thought it somehow didn't work in some way though, but I wasn't sure why.

It took the Doc of Rock to put her finger on it, when we saw her on the second TOTP.  "Not very convincing, is she?", she observed.  I instantly knew exactly what she meant.  That was why I'd thought something was amiss before.  I just didn't believe her when she sang "the bad boys are always catching my eye".

Perhaps it worked for other people.  For me (and The Doc) though, the performance just wasn't believable, which kind of invalidated the whole thing.  I've seen the same thing at live gigs and open mics in Edinburgh many a time, when performers failed to convince.  Perhaps they were trying to imply they were a life-weary old traveller who'd seen everything, when in reality they were a fresh-faced youth from Penicuik, and the limit of their travelling was the bus to Edinburgh.

But sometimes people are convincing.  That's when the magic starts happening, and you believe for a moment what they're telling you, that they really were in prison for loving someone, or they had made time stop, or the character in the song really had kept racing pigeons, or whatever. 

Where this convincing-ness comes from, I have no idea.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Would you pay for it?

This is a question that is often asked by people in relation to art in general, and more often than not, in relation to music. Quite why people should ask that is possibly a more interesting question. Maybe it's something to do with the commercialisation of a large number of aspects of our life, including art.

Anyhoo, recently Mr Norman Lamont (yes, the same of "The Wright Brothers" fame), posted on his blog to the effect that he had a thin crowd at one of his "Waveforms" gigs. To those of you who don't know, they consist of instrumental pieces that are played on a guitar, and looped to build layers of sound, with effects added. They're also semi-improvised.

Jim "Hairy Legs" Igoe commented to the effect that he was sorry he'd missed the gig, but that he'd be willing to pay to hear a performance in future. That set me thinking: would I be willing to pay for the same? I came to the conclusion that I wouldn't be. But why?

After pondering it for a while, I had a few realisations. I've listened to Norm's waveforms in two different (free) venues, The Beanscene and St John's Church, at the west end. When I say "listened" in this sense, I mean they provided pleasant background music, and didn't occupy the whole of your attention. Which is perfectly fine, especially in those venues. The vast echo of St John's in particular gave them an epic quality.

But, to cut to the chase, what I really like about Norm's playing is his ability to connect with an audience, to beautifully turn a witty line in one of his songs, the banter with the crowd, the unique way he sings, the whole general emoting. None of that is present in Waveforms with what is, essentially, a guy fiddling with his loop pedals, pleasant and well-executed though that may be. Hell, I could probably do something interesting myself on a loop station and guitar. But there's no way I could do what Norman does when he plays his "normal" set live, as that is unique. And that's why I wouldn't pay for Waveforms, but why I have paid for his live performances and CD's.

But, as I said at the beginning, that doesn't mean that they didn't work in context; they did, and in a way that a more traditional "live" performance may have jarred somewhat.

Hi

Hello. "What the hell is all this, then?", I hear you ask. These are my random, unstructured thoughts on the music scene in Edinburgh and beyond. It'll probably focus more on the acoustic side of things rather than rockin' bands, as that's what I've been more involved in of late. Not that there's anything wrong with rockin' bands.