Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Red Krayola With Art & Language – Sighs Trapped By Liars (Drag City) - edited version

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the wordiest of them all? So it goes with the re-ignition after a quarter of a century of the collaboration between Mayo Thompson’s The Red Krayola and Turner Prize short-listed conceptualists Art & Language. Both parties threatened this year to finally record and release long-standing operatic project, ‘Victorine’, the libretto of which was published by A&L in 1984.

As it stands, with lyrics and texts by A&L scored by Thompson and impeccably played by some of Chicago’s finest, this new set is a far cry from the harsh social-realist music hall of their 1976 virgin outing, ‘Corrected Slogans’ and squat polemic on 1981’s ‘Kangaroo.’ Then as now though, Thompson’s dry drawl takes a back seat to his collaborators, though the plummy tones of A&L’s English enclave which gave way to Lora Logic have here sired new vocal foils in the shape of ‘Krayolettes’ Elisa Randazzo and Sandy Yang.

Yang was drafted into RK on 1999’s ‘Fingerpainting’ while an under-graduate at Pasadena’s Art Centre College Of Design, where Thompson teaches. Randazzo’s involvement dates to 1996’s ‘Hazel’, and is a long way from Fairechild, the band she fronts with partner Josh Schwartz. Mom and Pop Randazzo scored hits for Little Anthony And The Imperials and Dionne Warwick’s classic take on their ‘Goin’ Out Of My Head’, a vintage rock n’ roll lineage undoubtedly adored by Thompson.

The musical framework here is sparse and the delivery loose. Randazzo and Yang play it straight without milking the absurd extremes of what they’re singing about. So while they reference Rabelais on ‘Laughing At the Foot Of The Cross,’ its kindergarten sing-song refrain is deadpanned as if being read off a lyric sheet for the first time, then wrapped up in a melody that’s a dead ringer for The Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin.’

This approach is the sucker punch for some arch looking-glass discourse, though A&L’s preoccupations are more playful than of old. The revolution, if not over, has shifted from pure ideology to something less concerned with toeing party lines.

On album centrepiece, ‘Four Stars: The Ideal Crew,’ Randazzo and Yang come on like conceptualist valley girls sneering through Thompson’s pounding piano embellishments. Wrapped up in such prettified apparel, this particular art-school hop has fun at everyone’s expense.


This edired version was published in MAP Magazine, October 2007


The Red Krayola With Art & Language – Sighs Trapped By Liars (Drag City)

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the wordiest of them all? So it goes with the re-ignition after almost a quarter of a century of a collaboration between free-thinking Texas-born musician, theorist and teacher Mayo Thompson, who’s traded under The Red Krayola name for more than forty years, and Art & Language, the 1986 Turner Prize short-listed conceptualist art collective whose dense, persistent line of critical inquiry has proved equally rigorous. Both parties had threatened this year to finally record and release Victorine, a long standing operatic project, the libretto of which, concerning a French policeman who mistakes the nude figures in paintings by Courbet and Manet for a serial killer’s victims, was published more than 20 years ago in the collective’s ‘Art-Language’ journal.

As it stands, this new set, with lyrics and texts by A&L veterans Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden, scored by Thompson, and played impeccably by a Chicago super-group featuring Jim O’Rourke, Tom Watson, Noel Kupersmith of the Chicago Underground Trio and Tortoise drummer John McEntire, is a far cry from the harsh, social-realist music hall of their 1976 virgin outing, ‘Corrected Slogans’. Then as now, though, Thompson’s dry drawl takes a back seat to his collaborators, though the plummy tones of A&L’s English enclave heard on that album may well have been too shrill a product of their times.

Because, as Thompson clearly realised by 1981’s ‘Kangaroo’ album with A&L and another super-group culled from artists associated with the Rough Trade record label he’d become so integral to, intellectual quirks and charmingly off-kilter rock n’ roll subversions sounded even better with the double bluff of a female voice, which softened the edges without ever losing them.

So on 1980 single, ‘Born In Flames’, the jaunty, Baldwin/Ramsden/Thompson soundtrack to Lizzie Borden’s science-fiction feminist film of the same name, Essential Logic vocalist Lora Logic sounded positively, euphorically unhinged. Equally, ‘An Old Man’s Dream’’s soaring choir girl swoon on ‘Kangaroo’ is an irresistible counterpoint to its dialectically inclined lyrics based on a German poem by Max Horkheimer, and concerning itself with Freudian psycho-analysis in a bourgeois state. Such were the contradictions of a collaboration which made it as far as 1983’s ‘Black Snakes’ album, but, so cantankerously fractious was the state of far Left thought back then, had even been founded on schism after A&L members spoke out against Thompson’s 1970 solo record, ‘Corky’s Debt To His Father’, provoking Thompson to challenge them to come up with something better.

Today, Thompson’s vocal foils are Elisa Randazzo and Sandy Yang. Both singers appeared on the 1999 RK album, ‘Fingerpainting’, with Randazzo’s involvement with the band dating back to 1996’s ‘Hazel’ (on which, co-incidentally, A&L’s Michael Baldwin also made a cameo). Yang was drafted in while still an under-graduate at Pasadena’s Art Centre College Of design, where Thompson still teaches.

Randazzo is a member of Fairechild, the LA based band she leads with her partner Josh Schwartz in-between designing clothes for her Dusty Of California label, which she named after Dusty Springfield. Randazzo has played viola with Spiritualized and The Charlatans’ singer Tim Burgess, though given that her father and mother are Teddy Randazzo and Victoria Pike, who scored hits for Little Anthony And The Imperials and saw Dionne Warwick turn their song ‘Goin’ Out Of My Head’ into a classic, her vintage rock n’ roll lineage is undoubtedly adored by Thompson.

Randazzo and Yang’s presence on ‘Sighs Trapped By Liars’ kind of resembles the rolling downtown loft-dwelling personnel who shifted in and out of view in Anton Fier’s 1990s project, The Golden Palominos. Especially during that band’s broodingly smoothed-out period when Lori Carson and Lydia Kavanaugh shared sighs-and-whispers style vocal duties over Fier’s foreboding burble of programmed rhythm.

Here, though, the musical framework is sparser and the delivery looser, so Randazzo and Yang’s voices come at you from a distance, playing it straight without realising the out and out silliness of some of what they’re singing about. So while they may be referencing Rabelais on ‘Laughing At the Foot Of The Cross,’ when they sing ‘Oh, You Need A Mitten/To Catch A Kitten’, it’s kindergarten sing-song refrain only makes clear this song is about a feline shitting itself through fear by the way the line ‘Fuck The Fucking Cat’ is so un-self-consciously and hilariously deadpanned, as if being read off a lyric sheet for the first time. Especially as the song is wrapped up in a melody that’s a dead ringer for The Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin.’

Elsewhere, there are understated shades of Chicago’s The Sea And Cake (a band who McEntire also plays with) and, on the thrillingly sarcastic ‘The Big Vacation,’ low-key jazz guitar stylings of Linder Sterling’s equally provocative 1980s combo, Ludus, whose stop-start existence ran oddly parallel to that of The Red Krayola, and has recently been watered down via the Nouvelle Vague vogue for covering Punk classics in a latin style. On ‘Sighs Trapped By Liars,’ this approach is the sucker punch for some very serious discourse coursing through each of the album’s 13 bite-size, deliciously constructed narrative reflections, as the mini-commentary which accompanies each set of lyrics in the CD booklet gives the game away for.

Lyrically, A&L’s preoccupations are more playful than those of old. The revolution, while far from over, has shifted away from pure ideological polemic to something less po-faced and not so concerned with toeing some Maoist party line. As Thompson himself pointed out in an interview in issue 6 of Map, the attempts to set socialist philosophies and revolutionary discourse to music on ‘Kangaroo’ “was a miscalculation. If it was a strategy to reshape the language and revolutionise the times, it failed signally.”

Mirrors are everywhere on ‘Sighs Trapped By Liars’. If on The Red Krayola’s wonderfully sublime 2006 album, ‘Introduction’ and its follow-up EP, ‘Red Gold’, Thompson cut a gnomic Dr Seuss-like dash, here he’s Mayo – and Mike, Mel, Charlie and all the rest of the crew - through the looking glass. Or, cut through the Malapropist word-play of ‘Hostage,’ a trick repeated on the closing title track, its bombed-out and shattered remains.

On album centrepiece, ‘Four Stars: The Ideal Crew,’ where Randazzo and Yang are in full possession of all the prick-teasing whininess of The Waitresses ‘I Know what Boys Like’ if that particular valley girl anthem had been laced with art theory venom, even Thompson’s pounding piano embellishments can’t prevent Art & Language proving at length just how anti pretty much everything they are. All wrapped up in such prettified apparel as it is here, ‘Sighs Trapped By Liars’ puts cleverness and conceptual negativity into pop in a way that, like the slow-dance-at-the-hop-caught-shortness of ‘Perfection,’ sounds exquisitely if nastily out of time.

Unedited version of a text published in Map Magazine, October 2007


Linder - Portrait of the Artist As A Consumer

Linder Sterling’s early collages were published in collaboration with journalist Jon Savage as The Secret Public, and she designed record sleeves for Buzzcocks, Magazine, and her own band, Ludus.

She designed a menstrual egg-timer for Factory Records, and performed at the Hacienda covered in meat and wearing a strap-on dildo.

In 1991 a book of photographs of Linder’s friend Morrissey was published as ‘Morrissey Shot.’

Early solo exhibitions include ‘What Did You Do In the Punk War, Mummy?’ at the Cleveland Gallery, London, and ‘The Return Of Linderland’ at Cornerhouse, Manchester.

Performances include ‘The Working Class Goes To Paradise’ in Manchester and London.

In 2006 a monograph edited by Lionel Bovier was published by JRP/Ringier.

Linder has just shown her ‘Pretty Girls’ series at Baltic, Newcastle, shows new work at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London, from November 16-December 21, and as part of Re-Make/Re-Model at Sorcha Dallas, Glasgow, from December 8-January 21.

You’re about to open at Stuart Shave and Sorcha Dallas. So, what’s the buzz, cock?

(Buzzcocks and Magazine vocalist) Howard Devoto got the name for Buzzcocks from an article in Time Out about 'Rock Follies’, the 1970s television series. This featured The Little Ladies, a hard rockin' trio of feisty girls managed by a man wearing a white fedora hat called 'Hyper' Huggins. For the hat alone, feminism was a necessity, and, in my view, remains unalterably so. So I'm busy working on the cause. Looking forwards and backwards at the same time.

Domestic appliance: what are your current working concerns?

I've spent the last year making a series of collages using 1960s ballet annuals and glamour magazines as the starting point. The former are figures from the world that I dreamed of inhabiting as a young girl. I've been collaging ballerinas and pin-up models with photographs of roses taken from The Rose Annual, which existed between the 1930s and the 1970s. I like the idea that flora can threaten and subsume. It is a conceit made frighteningly persuasive in one of Nigel Kneale's 'Quatermass' tele-dramas of the late 1950s. Kneale was from the Isle of Man, which more or less faces my house.

You live in Heysham, near Morecambe. How close is that to Linderland?

Heysham and Morecambe provide a ready made lineage of artists and celebrities. Eric Gill, Ravilious, Turner, Ruskin all worked here. Everyone from Diana Dors to The Rolling Stones to George Formby played in Morecambe. I just stand patiently in line, hoping one day to be adopted as Morecambe's own. The idea of Linderland, on the other hand, came from living in the depths of north Manchester during the 1990s. My immediate neighbours were Bernard Manning, whose club was around the corner, with a painting of Bernard above the entrance looking uncannily like Saddam Hussein, and Mark E Smith, just across from a street called Slack Lane. With neighbours like those, how might one dream of adding to the cultural populace of the district? My answer to this was a homage to the shared anarchism of Smith and Manning. By conflating my interest in Mancunian religious non-conformism with a passion for Leone's 'spaghetti' westerns, I set out to pioneer a bleak urban district where lawlessness, male violence and visionary witness were principal features.

Ludus is Latin for school or gladiatorial game. Shaker rituals featured in The Working Class Goes To Paradise. What music moves you?

It all begins in the north. Wigan Casino was a feature of my youth, but equally forceful were the greatest excesses of progressive rock. Jon Savage still plays me extracts from 'The Court of The Crimson King' down the phone. I have an endless and tireless fascination with the making of music, although I go through long phases of not wanting to listen to anything.

Ludus played Morrissey’s Meltdown in 2004. Art/music-music/art – equal-but-different/different-but-equal?

I saw no difference whatsoever between the various outlets of my creativity; drawing, taking photographs, fronting a group, making clothes, body building, it was all the same for me. Looking back, one could see this idea as being directly in the lineage of Dada and Duchamp. I loved the ideas of Richard Hamilton, and I loved the fact that Andy Warhol 'produced' The Velvet Underground. Most musicians have very little interest in the art world, but I think very interesting things can happen when the two worlds collide. Early Roxy Music is one example. You could dance to it or hang it on the wall. With Ludus, we thought in terms that had nothing to do with music in the 'NME' sense. We were as interested in Albert Ayler as we were in Wilhelm Reich. It was all collage.

Beyond your own sleeves for Buzzcocks, Magazine, etc. what are your favourite record covers?

(John Greaves and Peter Blegvad’s) 'Kew.Rhone.' Yes, I know, unbearably obscure, but released on the same day as 'Never Mind The Bollocks' by The Sex Pistols. Out of the two, 'Kew.Rhone' is infinitely more interesting, and the one that I return to, both musically and visually.

You’re forever associated with Manchester’s original punk scene. How much are you judged by your early work?

After thirty years, there is an inevitable accretion of fact, myth and speculation about my early burglary years. I was prepared for my contemporary work to be perpetually overshadowed by its predecessors but thankfully, this has been far from true. Although the original photomontage that was used for Orgasm Addict now hangs in Tate Britain, this liberates rather than imprisons my new work.

What art is on your walls?

I'm looking at two heads drawn by Adrian Wiszniewski.

Clint Eastwood or art-house?

Clint wins every time; or rather, his puppet master, Sergio Leone. No one else can do dirt like he can, if only they'd let him do Mary Poppins.

Manchester – So Much To Answer For. Discuss.

I've left the city and the city, rightly, has changed. A friend from Wales arrived there recently and thought he was in Tokyo.

What’s next in Linderland?

Shows in London, Berlin, Glasgow, Cologne, Vienna, and a musical collaboration with Ian Devine and Benoit Hennebert. We recorded twelve songs on a  cassette player in 1982 for Les Disques du Crepuscule and now, twenty-five years later, it's time to take them into a studio. Finally, it's to Brussels with love.

Map Magazine, October 2007

Extract – Portraits Of Sound Artists (Nonvisualobjects)

Thanks in part to Resonance FM, the art/noise radio station run by London Musicians Collective, and thanks in part to cheap technology, sound art is less a samizdat activity and more obviously a community-minded experience, practiced in solitude but disseminated with ease. This exquisitely packaged release from Vienna’s Nonvisualobjects label, founded in 2005 by Heribert Friedl and Raphael Moser with the aim of focussing on ‘interpretations of minimalism in sound’ is a bumper compendium of hiss and fissures, environmental ambient, deep listening rhapsodies and deconstructed noises off.

Presented in a numbered edition of just 500, the 22 pieces spread across two CDs alone are an attractive enough proposition. The 96 page hard-backed book which houses them inside its lavish but minimal design tells the black and white of it even more. By way of a grab-bag of interviews, testimonies, note-book jottings, drawings and photographs, each artist is afforded space to sketch out their practices and working methods as they see fit.

So, while some, including Richard Chartier and Friedl himself, who contributes (albeit with his back to the camera), submit to a generic Q and A, Taylor Deupree offers up down-time snapshots of his sojourns in Japan to accompany his ‘Live In Osaka’ excerpt, John Hudak doodles some cartoon figures, and others including Keith Berry and Steinbruchel offer impressionistic auto-biography, including Berry’s boy-hood relationship to David Lynch and the all-pervading monster that was his house’s rattling heating system.

Such aesthetic attention to contextual detail and immaculate if occasionally eccentric packaging recalls the back-catalogue of Jon Wozencroft’s Touch label, home to Philip Jeck’s sound collages constructed out of junk shop vinyl manipulated through equally antique record players, and former Cabaret Voltaire and Hafler Trio experimentalist turned environmental sound recordist Chris Watson. Touch is currently celebrating its low-key longevity via a 25th anniversary series of live events.

Equally ongoing is ‘Unknown Public’, the themed mail-order quarterly of new music which ‘Extract’ also resembles in part. That both these imprints came out of the UK is miracle enough testament to the hidden wiring that has existed for decades here now. That they have survived on their own terms, while young turks such as Guestroom, another London outpost of sound and vision on page and plastic, pick up the post-modernist slack, is even more revelatory.

Coming out of Vienna, then, ‘Extract’ goes beyond its subjects rattle and hum to more Zen-like application. As the title implies, many of the barely-there wares on display don’t come in their completed form, but are rather tasters of larger works and dropped in without beginning or end. So the chimes of Steve Roden’s ‘air into form/noise into breath’ may be at odds with the hymnal gothic formalism of Ubeboat’s ‘Lux Vivens,’ but there’s nothing jarring about the leap.

Also present is Toshiya Tsunoda, who recently took part in environmental sound installations presented as part of NVA Organisation’s ‘Half Life’ project, a series of spectral installations which took place in Kilmartin Glen, Scotland

There are times, as with Tsunoda’s self-explanatory ‘Scenery of vibration/Listening to the reflection of points (@Westspace)’, when the work might be best heard in situ on some increasingly de rigeur sonic walk or other. Most of the time, though, ‘Extract’ is an enticing and sublime set of pointers to spaces and places heard if not always seen.


MAP magazine, October 2007


Daniel Johnston: It’s A Beautiful Life

alt.gallery, Newcastle
September 5-November 10 2007

They may be selling Daniel Johnston t-shirts across the bridge in the book shop of Gateshead’s Baltic Centre, but, despite the tendency of this vast multi-story space to resemble the domed city in ‘Logan’s Run’, this first UK retrospective of the cult savant singer/songwriter would probably boil over with excitement in alt. gallery’s bijou back-room space in one of the most out-there record emporiums anywhere.

Because seeing the faded customised cover for Johnston’s very first home-recorded cassette, ‘Songs Of Pain,’ even out of arm’s reach beneath glass, it’s clear how his musical exorcisms of his inner demons pre-dated and even predicted what’s on offer on the other side of the room. The row on row of hand-crafted, make-shift artefacts wrapped around the overload of primal squalls, screams and screeches contained within the uber-limited, lo-fi, DIY and undoubtedly dysfunctional recordings released on whatever primitive outlet that’s going would be the sort of thing Johnston would be doing today if he hadn’t discovered The Beatles first.

As for the drawings, seeing what is actually just the small part of a collection that moves from 1981 to 2006 is a rare peek into the mind of an individual who can’t help but express everything he feels in raw, candid colour.

The figures who look set t burst out of the frames are obsessively familiar, recurringly featuring an array of muscle-bound super-heroes in (im)mortal combat with goofy bug-eyed monsters which could have come free with breakfast cereal, so cartoonishly retro are they. Other escapees of pop cultural machismo – boxers, Kung Fu fighters et al -busy up over-loaded images that are equal parts hope and despair. The symbolic, fantasy-wish-fulfilment links with Johnston’s ongoing mental state as outlined in Jeff Feuerzeig’s brilliant and often uncomfortable documentary feature film, ‘The Devil And Daniel Johnston’, as well as an exhibition shared with Map cartoonist Malcy Duff at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital in 2006, aren’t difficult to bridge.

Yet, Johnston’s championing by bands such as Sonic Youth and The Pastels, as well as his substantial earnings from shows at The Whitney Biennial and other august art-houses, have helped make all his dreams of stardom come true enough to soften his still no less manic tendencies. Which is why, beyond the pen and ink iconography on offer here, the early flourish of Johnston’s signature as ‘Daniel Johnston,’ all artfully studied curlicues in 1981, has by 2006 become the solid block capitals of plain old ‘Dan Johnston. Whether Daniel or Dan, Johnston has no need to impress anyone anymore, let alone himself now he too has become a survivor, and a real-life super-hero of sorts.


MAP magazine, October 2007


Futuristic Retro Champions / Dirty Summer – Limbo@Voodoo Rooms, EdinThu Jan 3rd 2008burgh -

Dirty Summer

Where they smuggled in the back way?

A trio, 2 teenage boys and a school-girl; Fergus on Korg, big specs, baggy cardy, mushroom-head-hair-do; Brodie on pop-eyed lead vocal, goth-fuzz-bass as patented by The Fall, cider-n-black indie disco t-shirt; Emily, aka The Bannister, on stand-up snare and floor-tom.

From Dunfermline, a hard-nut satellite town just across the Forth.

Out of this spews a cock-eyed DIY maelstrom of wonky mongoloid geekery without any of the novelty-act cutesiness which usually afflicts such stuff.

During the first song Fergus gets so worked up he knocks his Korg off its stand, more adolescent clumsy-clot lack of spatial awareness than punk rock frenzy.

On one song Emily reclines on the floor in front of her kit to play a second keyboard. It’s the only seat she gets all night.

On another, she finishes by reading from a paperback.

‘Get On Your Knees And Colour Me In’

The best bag of under-age noisenik racket this side of The Prats. One day they will rule the world.

Futuristic Retro Champions

6 piece; 3 boys; 3 girls. Singer Sita in prom night frock and blonde bob; trumpeter in vest and too-tight yellow kecks; female bassist who knows all the words but doesn’t have a mic; teeny gal keyboardist; geeky boy on synths n shouting; gangly guitarist Harry.

This is the place where beehive Britgirl chicken-in-a-basket bubblegum meets wonky, shouty, electro-saccharine. Sita’s classic little belter of a dance-hall voice counterpoints the adolescent roooaaarrr, anchoring the toybox of disparate parts lest they collapse in a heap.

Jenna is the bestest girly best-friends dance-floor anthem ever, and is perfect for end of term discos and art school hops. Hi! is puredeadBearsuitbytheway, bursting with Misty’s Big Adventure style backing vox.

Behind the good-time daftness, mind, especially on the Harry-vocalled Speak To Me, there’s an occasional dark-hearted love-lorn melancholy.

Even so, rarely has such such bippety-boppety onstage joie de vivre been witnessed since Girls At Our Best similarly OD’d on Space Dust and pushed everything to the max.


Um, I would like to credit this to The List, January 2008, but I suspect no-one asked for it, nor was it probably ever offered. Largely I suspect becausae it was written when I got home drunk and under some boozy delusaion that I was writing for a fanzine circa 1986. I quite like it, though.

Wil Hodgson – Chippenham On My Shoulder

Pleasance Upstairs
3 stars
Wil Hodgson is now sponsored by Chippenham Athletic Football Club. For now, anyway. Because if the club’s camel-coated directors ever make the Edinburgh trek to see the pink-haired chubby-chasing punk-geek tattooed love-boy, he might end up getting a kicking. Hodgson’s latest outsider’s rant against his less than idyllic home town takes stock of how he got here, from West Country misfit to third division pro wrestler to the most dolefully deadpan of top light-entertainment machine-gun raconteurs.

For an incisive and scabrous observer of a white-trash hamlet where a Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown show is a rite of passage bonding exercise with your dad, this is pretty much business as usual. Hodgson’s subsequent willingness to stand alone, possibly with Bull mastiff shit on his shoe, makes for a state of the nation address Channel 5 documentaries can only dream of. Where Hodgson goes now remains to be seen, although he really should think about reviving his wrestling career. Or maybe just leave town.

The List, August 2008


Ulrich Schnauss - Shoegazing Towards The Future

Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 4 May 2008
Without British Forces radio, Ulrich Schnauss’s brand of transcendent electronica wouldn’t be quite so lovely. In early 90s small-town Germany, it was the only way quintessentially English bands such as Ride, My Bloody Valentine and other purveyors of insular, FX pedal heavy, drone-based whimsy laden with the derogatory Shoegazing tag could be heard.

“I always liked music that takes you to another place,” says Schnauss on the eve of a European tour that takes in his first ever Edinburgh date. “I used music as a way of escape.”

His own output suggests likewise. Schnauss’ first two albums, Far Away Trains Passing By and the sublime A Strangely Isolated Place, fused laptop-generated melodies with the sort of dense guitar washes Schnauss absorbed in his youth. Last year’s Goodbye took such ethereal obsessions to their logical limit.

“I’ve fallen in love again with more pure electronic things,” says Schnauss, who moonlights as keyboardist with Longview inbetween remixing projects. He hasn’t weaned himself off his fix completely, mind. After contributing to a compilation of Slowdive covers, Schnauss has penned sleeve-notes for a just-released retrospective by Chapterhouse, who suffered particularly mean music press jibes.

“It wasn’t about the music,” Schnauss observes. “No-one involved acted like macho assholes, so they had to be got at in other ways.”

Of his new material, Schnauss says that “It was really liberating to work more traditionally, but now there are lots of ideas for the next record. I just need to find time to record it.”

The Herald, April 2008



The Lot, Edinburgh
November 14 2007
Neil Cooper
3 stars
“Fucking technology, eh?” spits drummer Stu Ritchie by way of an abrupt end to a mid-set melodica-led number, shattering the chummy mood of this launch gig for Trianglehead’s just-released second album, Exit Strategy. The outburst over in an instant, the Edinburgh-based trio re-convene their meeting of Paul Harrison’s wiggy electric keyboards, Martin Kershaw’s airy sax and Ritchie’s driving Downtown drums they’ve been manning since 2004.

While there’s not much in the way of edge, Trianglehead nevertheless pursue an eclectic array of moods and tones which occasionally squelches into part Fusion groove, part Nordic flightiness. More reflective tunes drift off in several directions at once before jump-jacking back onto the same route with a polite kind of fury before a partisan crowd.

Guitarist Graham Stephen, who played earlier with the equally inventive Newt, joins them for the final number, the most choppily exploratory of the night. One can’t help but notice, however, that the addition of a fourth party turns this three-sided affair into an, um, square. Now what sort of exit strategy is that?

The Herald, November 2007


Tracer Trails First Birthday Party - The Irrisistable Rise of Cottage Industry Culture

Old St Paul’s Church Hall, Jeffrey St, Edinburgh, Oct 12 2007
A tracer trail is the streak of light left behind by a speeding bullet. It’s also the name of the micro cottage industry who’ve consistently promoted some of the most charming live shows in Edinburgh over the last year. To celebrate, a very special anniversary do will feature ex Appendix Out frontman Alasdair Roberts supported by PuMajaW, the spectral collaboration between vocalist Pinkie Maclure and John Wills, formerly of proto-shoegazers Loop, alongside DJs from Tracer Trails equally hand-knitted kindred spirits from Beard fanzine.

With previous shows having featured the likes of Jeffrey Lewis and all manner of sensitive troubadour types from the more melodic end of the current wave of alt-folk-pop-whatever, the emphasis of Tracer Trails is on the low-key.

““I don’t know if we achieve it,” chief Tracer Trail Emily Roff admits, “but I think there are people looking for more of an event. We’ve no ethos as such, other than whatever happens to fall into my tastes.”

Venues are important to Tracer Trails, with occasional shows at both the Collective and Stills Gallery, including a forthcoming Halloween extravaganza, while shows upstairs at Bristo Adventist Church, above the Forest Café, saw the provision of tea and toast on the menu.

“The tea and toast thing is faux naïve,” Roff says, “but I think it gives things a deliberate aesthetic. As far as I’m concerned I’d rather have a venue that doesn’t have a bar which makes money out of people.”

Hence TT’s birthday church social vibe at Old St Paul’s. Whether pure or puritanical, Tracer Trails has been an education for Roff.

“I was told recently that a tracer trail was also the aura that you see around things when you’ve taken hallucinogenics,” she deadpans. “That disappointed me slightly.”

The Herald, October 2007


The Sandals Of Majesty

Henrys Cellar Bar
Tuesday November 15 2007
4 stars
The name is misleading. Because, rather than some mellowed out, magic-carpet-riding, back-packer-eyed mystics as may be implied, this bi-aural, bi-lingual, buy-now-while-stocks-last quartet are up-tight, in-tense and simmering with enough evil stares you sense they might give you a semiotics lecture any minute. With a frontman who’s a dead ringer for original PiL guitarist Keith Levene sneering like a corrupted Little Lord Fauntleroy throwing Howard Devoto shapes, and at least two veterans of 1990s agit-punx Badgewearer in the ranks, this Edinburgh/Marseille/Droitwich (the most important brine and salt town in England) ensemble fly like antsy, dancey quicksilver.

Driven by a tautly plucked bass sound not heard since John Peel circa (but not C) ’86, the barricades are there for the taking, whatever it is they’re against. Think McCarthy, The Cravats and The Prefects. Think Biting Tongues before the new-generation turned post-punk-funk-junk into a fashion statement. Think of a time when anger, art and intelligence weren’t mutually exclusive. Above all, think anything you like. Like the man said, ‘We Are The People.’ Indeed we are.

The List, December 2007


Friday, 27 May 2011

The Nightingales

Sneaky Pete's, Edinburgh, Monday May 23rd 2011
The Nightingales are what happens to 1970s-sired latch-key kids if you
leave them alone with a CD of Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, a
DVD of The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club and the Bumper Book of
Existentialism For Boys. After more than thirty years in the saddle,
with only occasional sojourns into solo careers and Svengali-ing
long-lost girl band We've Got A Fuzzbox and We're Gonna Use It for
distraction, one-time John Peel stalwarts live experience is an intense
and relentless chug of skewed meat n' two veg avant-garage-punk laced
with vocalist and wordsmith Robert Lloyd's very English absurdist
world-view of how (post) modern life is rubbish. Think Pere Ubu if
they'd grown up in the shadows of Birmingham's Bull Ring rather than
the Flats in Cleveland.

Since reforming in 2004, The Nightingales have pretty much picked up
where they left off, with three albums and another pending to showcase
Lloyd's dry anthropological observations set to a wonderfully trad,
ferociously luddite backing. Just how they ended up recording 2009's
Insult To Injury album and the forthcoming The Lost Plot opus with
legendary Krautrock madman Hans Joachim-Irmler of Faust is anybody's
guess, but the liaison certainly hasn't hippified their more caustic
edges in any way. Which should keep comic Stewart Lee happy when he
hosts a week of events on London’s South Bank shortly which features a
top quality double bill of The 'Gales with Vic Godard and the Subway

The band's current line-up is led by Lloyd, still looking as much like
Malcolm Hardee's stockier twin as he did in 1981, and guitarist Alan
Apperley, whose scuzzed-up Bo Diddleyesque wig-outs would give Wilko
Johnson a run for his money, and whose involvement with Lloyd dates
back to a joint tenure in Birmingham's first punk band the Prefects
(who Frank Skinner unsuccessfully auditioned for, fact fans).
Charcoal-coloured de-mob suits remain de rigeur, both for the elder
statesmen and for the newbies, bassist and Faust Studio ex-pat Andreas
Schmid, Fliss Kitson stomping away on tom-tom and cow-bell friendly
drum-kit, and Matt Wood, who appears to be Syd Barrett’s elfin
twelve-year old love child, but who plays guitar like a demon.

Sloping quietly onstage mere minutes after an oddly nervous comedy set
by support act and long-term fellow traveller and foil Ted Chippington,
there's pretty much no let up from the opening launch into Ace of
Hearts, with each song seguing into each other with barely a pause for
breath. Not that Lloyd looks like he's likely to break into a sweat,
even if he does throw a few shapes on a blistering and taboo-busting
cover of Gary Glitter's 1972 Glam Rock smasheroonie I Didn't Know I
Loved You (Till I Saw You Rock n' Roll).

He may be one of Britain's greatest unsung lyricists, but at various
points Lloyd folds his arms like a testy geography teacher or else
stands in the corner like a naughty schoolboy. Pretty much the only
words he utters outside of the songs is to tell one over-refreshed
punter during Only My Opinion – a re-worded take on lost a capella
classic Well Done, Underdog, and the nearest thing here to a greatest
hit - to “shut the fuck up, by the way!”

The band, meanwhile, roar away like billy-o, a well-oiled rock n' roll
disguise for Lloyd's music-hall barkering on gloriously titled ditties
Workshy Wunderkind and Wot, No Blog?, which sees Apperley and Wood
twanging away in wonderfully contrary directions. Kitson, meanwhile,
pounds away with such ferocity that at one point her kit all but
collapses into her until a plucky local hero leaps up to straighten
things out. A closing Dick The Do-Gooder brings proceedings to an
earthly climax, then Lloyd and co skulk off towards the bar, no fuss,
no questions asked. Even after all these years, it's the Nightingale

The List, May 2011


By Degrees - The Legacy of ECA and GSA Graduates

When David Shrigley spoke in 2010 about how the arts institutions in
Glasgow were crucial to his creative development, he may have been
bemoaning the impending threat of arts cuts, but it nevertheless spoke
volumes about where art education really happens. As this year's art
school graduates prepare to display their wares in degree shows at
Glasgow School of Art and Edinburgh College of Art, perhaps its worth
taking stock of how the schools help young artists to find their voice.
Especially in a climate where two graduates of GSA's Masters of Fine
Art Course, Karla Black and Martin Boyce, have just been shortlisted
for the 2011 Turner Prize. This on top of their presence representing
Scotland in the Venice Biennale, Boyce in 2010, with Black picking up
the mantle this year.

This too given that previous Turner winners such as Douglas Gordon
(1996), Simon Starling (2005) and Richard Wright (2009), and nominees
including Jim Lambie (2005), Nathan Coley (2007) and Lucy Skaer (2009)
are all ex GSA, with the 2010 winner Susan Phillipsz alumni of Duncan
of Jordanstone College in Dundee, whose succesful graduates were
gathered in a group show at Dundee Contemporary Arts, The Associates, a
couple of years back. And let's not leave out 2001 Turner winner Martin
Creed, who may have studied at Slade, but grew up in the same Glasgow
environment that so inspired Shrigley. We should bear in mind as well
that prior to doing his MFA in Glasgow, Richard Wright studied at
Edinburgh College of Art, where other high profile graduates include
Keith Farquhar and a family tree dating back to the 1970s that pretty
much founded Edinburgh's lively post-punk music scene.

GSA students too have provided homes for those who've ended up
branching out beyond the visual disciplines. Umpteen bands too numerous
to mention were sired here, including members of Franz Ferdinand, while
actor Robbie Coltrane and playwrights Liz Lochhead and Robbie Coltrane
both studied there. Novelist Alasdair Gray even ended up teaching there
once he graduated.

Given such illustrious forbears, then, what can we expect from the
latest crop of graduates once they stumble blinking into the real world
just as arts funding cuts look set to bite this side of the border? And
just how much have their various alma maters helped shape their work?

“The influence of GSA is huge,” according to Alice Steffan, about to
finish the school's Sculpture and Environmental Art Course with a piece
entitled 'Back-Seat Butterflies'. “You get a lot of freedom to do what
you want, and it’s as much about finding out who you are as anything..”

Which may go some way to explain how 'Back-Seat butterflies' is about
how “when you're young and you go in the back seat of a car for the
first time, and you get butterflies in your stomach.”

Steffan turned down a place at St Martins to come to Glasgow, where
during her second year she and members of her course visited Jim
Lambie's studio, where “meeting him you realise he's one of us.”

ECA Painting student Rhona Campbell concurs with Steffan in that
“you're very much left to your own devices.”

While Campbell is reluctant to identify any trends in her music and
film influenced work, or in the work of others, she does acknowledge
that “there's maybe a little bit of a Karla Black influence around the

social scenes are paramount to both colleges, with a plethora of DIY
pop-up galleries and off-site activities actively encouraged. Glasgow
International Festival of Visual Art wouldn't be the same without them,
and the Edinburgh Annuale probably wouldn't exist without it. But
things are changing. ECA's forthcoming merger with Edinburgh University
will inevitably shake things up, and as ECA Head Stuart Bennett
acknowledges, this will be the last year Degree shows will exist with
ECA as an independent institution.

“The impact of this will open up different ranges of research at the
university,” he says, “and there'll be a real scope for students to
collaborate and open up opportunities for different types of work to be
made possible. That's quite exciting. The students here aren't doing
this just as a degree. It's more important than that.”

The List, May 2011


Tenniscoats - Japanese DIY in Exelcis



Who are Tenniscoats?

They're a charming Japanese duo made up of real life couple Saya and
Ueno Takashi, who over the last decade have released eight albums
albums of their prolific songsmithery as well as playing with fellow
travellers Maher Shalal Hash Baz and others in the fecund Japanese
alt-pop scene.

And what do they sound like?

Think stripped-down indie-folk whimsy, gently lilting female vocals and
a set of organically generated miniatures that may be fragile in
construction, but which never fail to captivate. Music to swoon to,
basically. But quietly.

And what's the Scottish connection?

Well, the Takashis have been regular visitors here ever since they
bumped into Glasgow's uber-DIY veterans and long-time supporters of
Japanese pop The Pastels, later playing with them at the much missed
Triptych festival and collaborating on the 'Two Sunsets' album in 2009.
Prior to this, they took part in a Scottish Arts Council Tune Up tour
with Bill Wells throughout Easter 2007, playing such out of the way
haunts as Tobermory on Mull, the wide open spaces of which were
tailor-made for Tenniscoats low-key elegance..

And now they're back?

They can't keep away, especially with two of Scotland's favourite
micro-indie promoters, Cry Parrot and Tracer Trails, at the helm of
things on the back of this year's 'Tokinoutas' album. They've even
found a suitably community-minded venue to host things in. It's a match
made in heaven. Or Tokyo. Though most likely Glasgow.

Cry Parrot and Tracer Trails present Tenniscoats at Garnethill
Multi-Cultural Centre, Glasgow, June 18th

The List, May 2011


Golden Grrrls – Tour Cassette

3 stars
Now how DIY is this? An 8-track cassette of breakneck spindly indie
guitar fuzz by Glasgow girl/boy trio featuring former Park Attack
drummer turned singer/guitarist Lorna Gilfedder that has no name and no
label and is available in a gloriously limited edition of fifty-seven.
Soundwise, the Grrrls lo-fi vignettes lean towards the C-86 song-book,
all dolefully trilled harmony vocals counterpointed by FX pedal murk
and biscuit-tin beats suggesting a darker side beyond songs about Paul
Simon. This may be a wilfully back to basics stance, but 'New Pop'
might just predict the future. Did somebody say sha-la-la?

The List, May 2011


Jacob Yates and the Pearly Gate Lock Pickers – Luck (Re:Peater)

4 stars
Hallelujah! The ghost of Uncle John & Whitelock, Glasgow's seriously
demented purveyors of their self-styled horror r n' b, is reborn and
delivered here in the still possessed shape of Jabob Yates (nee
Lovatt), former howler of that parish. Lovatt and co may brand their
primitive psycho-billy musings as 'Doom-Wop' these days, but this
twitch-hipped, finger-poppin' but downright dark debut sounds more of a
continuum, all back-alley hellfire preaching, growling fuzz guitar and
wonky stumblebum piano with a parade of cartoon monsters tripping by
the junkyard where the bad-boys hang out. Praise be and Amen for such a
glorious resurrection.

The Herald, May 2011


She's Hit – Pleasure (Re:Peater) 4 stars

Named after a suitably scuzzed-up epistle by Nick Cave's former
breeding ground/alma mater The Birthday Party, but judging by the
sleeve image too young to shave, this Glasgow quintet take their
forbears primitive voodoo trash aesthetic twang by the scruff of its
studded dog-collar and let rip like The Stooges giving the Jesus and
Mary Chain what for. No luddites these elegantly wasted kids, mind,
because, while things get more urgent as things progress, the climax of
the mighty 'Miriam Hollow' has shades of the Simple Minds 'I Travel',
plus there's an entire bonus CD of remixes designed to scare yourself
in the dark with.

The List, May 2011


Knives in Hens - The NTS Revisit David Harrower's Debut Play

“Let's get this over with,” says David Harrower at the start of our
conversation about Knives in Hens, his still remarkable 1995 debut
play, which receives a major revival from the National Theatre of
Scotland next month. You can and can't see why Harrower is so reluctant
to talk about one of the most brilliantly strange of plays to have
comer out of anywhere in recent times. It's sixteen years since
Harrower's starkly brutal tale of one woman's emancipation in a
pre-industrial era first captivated audiences in the Traverse Theatre's
smaller space in Edinburgh, and a lot longer, one suspects, since
Harrower first started writing it.

What was part thriller, part love triangle, and told in a minimalist,
mono-syllabic demotic, slowly but surely announced Harrower's arrival
as a major writer on an international scale. Knives in Hens
also went some way to define an ongoing exploration of intimacy that
has manifested itself in various forms through Harrower's later plays,
including his controversial 2005 Edinburgh International Festival
contribution, Blackbird, and his most recent work, seen at Glasgow's
Tron Theatre two weeks ago, A Slow Air. Yet, despite these and some
half a dozen other plays and numerous translations and adaptations of
classic works, it is still Knives in Hens that remains in view. In
Germany alone, Harrower estimates there has been somewhere between
forty and fifty productions. Not that he pays much attention these

“I don't see it anymore,” Harrower says. There's still productions that
go on around the world, but I kind of felt I'd moved on. The last one I
saw here was the TAG production (in 2005), but the last foreign one I
saw was about ten years ago.”

When Knives in Hens appeared, many of Harrower's peers in England at
least were exploring what went on to be dubbed in-yer-face theatre, a
confrontational and seemingly nihilistic ripping up of the rule book in
what appeared to be a post political age, but which has since proved to
be a howl of rage in search of something to believe in. Knives in Hens
came from somewhere else.

“I just wanted to see a different kind of drama on the Scottish stage,”
is how Harrower remembers it. “I'd read Scottish work I wanted to see,
but I knew I'd never have the voice to do that sort of work at the
time. I think my voice was always a quieter one. It was very common in
Scottish plays at the time to be more haranguing, and I kind of found
my voice from doing the play. The subject matter shaped the form and
found the rhythms through it.”

After only nine performance at the Traverse, Knives in Hens toured the
Highlands and Islands before being revived for the Traverse main stage
and a London transfer at the Bush. Out of this came commissions for the
Royal Court, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre,
while back in Scotland only the Traverse took a chance on a second
Harrower play.

By that time, the wheels were in motion for a first German production
of Knives in Hens after a script was passed on to directing wunderkind
Thomas Ostermeier, who Harrower would go on to work with via a
translation of Norwegian writer Jon Fosse's play The Girl on the Sofa.

“It was quite a production,” Harrower says of Ostermeier's take on
Knives in Hens, “and had ripples. It announced Ostermeier's name, and
introduced a different way for German theatre to go.”

Just why the play has proved so consistently popular in Europe, though,
Harrower can't say.

“I'm wanting to say something elemental about it, but I dunno. It's not
usually done as a Scotland-based play, but is set in the country where
it's being produced, so maybe there's something there to do with some
kind of emergence of an agricultural, agrarian state. But I don't know
if it's the story that hits the spot or if it's about cultural stuff.”

Given that language and the discovery of its written power is so
crucial to Knives in Hens as well as its ongoing presence in Europe,
the drafting in of Belgian director Lies Pauwels to oversee the NTS
should make for a fascinating culture clash. Coming from a
none-literary tradition of making theatre, Pauwels is a stalwart of the
much heralded Victoria company, working as an actor in devised pieces
including the equally acclaimed Bernadetje, as well as the original
Belgian production of Aalst, later produced in an English language
version by the NTS. Pauwels has also made her own work familiar to
audiences at Tramway via pieces such as White Star and Venizke.
Crucially, prior to the NTS introducing her to the play, Pauwels had
never seen a production of Knives in Hens. She is nevertheless
relishing the prospect of putting her stamp on the play.

“I like this play because in a way I recognise something of my own
work,” she says. “That unconscious level, the fact that there are so
many ways of understanding the text. We do not have a tradition of
written plays so we have less fear of doing something wrong towards a
text. We don't mind pushing a play in extreme directions.”

However much the play may be reinvented, and however reluctant Harrower
may be to rake up old ground, Knives in Hens remains a totem of his
development as a writer.

“It's still valuable to me,” he says. “It's not necessarily an easy
play to get into. You have to pay your way in, and it's not readily
accessible, but once you get in, it's worth it. For me, it just
signalled something, in as much as I realised I wasn't going to be a
dramatist who would dive straight in at the centre of things, but was
going to be darting round the sides and coming at things from different
angles. If you like it set an imprimatur on my creative process. God
knows what would've happened if it'd just disappeared, but as it turned
out it validated the form of writing I was trying to reach.”

Knives in Hens, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, June 3rd-12th, then tours
Inverness, Dundee, Aberdeen, Glasgow and St Andrews

The Herald, May 26th 2011


Anna Karenina

Dundee Rep
4 stars
Lovesickness is everywhere in Jo Clifford's impressionistic stage
version of Tolstoy's epic nineteenth century novel. It's a sickness
too that comes in a myriad of forms, as the two couples at the play's
centre strive to follow their hearts, not give a damn about what anyone
else thinks and transcend their ordinary lives into something higher.
Anna and her dashing soldier lover Vronsky's passion in particular
borders on the holy, as a solitary candle lit as the play's opening
chorale rings out indicates. Of course, in the case of their too much
too soon scenario, it'll never last. Only Levin and his belated bride
Katy fully sow the seeds of the future.

The first thing to say about Jemima Levick's new production of
Clifford's script is that it is a technical tour de force, from the
sheer grey walls of Alex Lowde's big wide open set on which smoky
projections punctuate the play's crucial moments, to Aly Macrae's
ornate and mournful score which cranks up Anna's tragedy even more.
Rather than overwhelm this dark tale with tricksy melodrama, however,
it all blends across each other to lend a fluidity to the acting and
make up a deliciously realised whole.

There are beautiful counterpoints too in Clifford's writing, as when
Kevin Lennon's Levin and Helen Darbyshire's Katy chalk out their
affections in code, a scene followed by the choreographed consummation
of Anna and Vronsky's all too brief stab at bliss. By the second act,
however, Emily Winter's Anna has become brittle and suspicious, a once
headstrong victim of the chauvinism, misogyny and hypocrisy that
lingers in a society that's not nearly as progressive as it thinks.

The Herald, May 27th 2011


Crazy Gary's Mobile Disco

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
4 stars
It's all happening down at The Boar's Head, the small-town dive which
local DJ Gary calls his local and where things might just be changing
forever beyond the mannequins throwing shapes behind frosted glass.
Disco is dead and karaoke is the new king, leaving this every-chav
refugee from Goldie Lookin' Chain firmly out in the cold, with only his
dream girl to chase. Would-be crooner Matthew D Melody, meanwhile, only
has eyes for someone equally special, if only he could make her fall
for him the way he obsesses over her. As for Russell Markham, even home
comforts and domestic bliss can't contain the overwhelming sense of
guilt and frustration he feels about how he got so stuck.

As these three damaged young men's worlds ever so obliquely collide, a
far bigger portrait appears concerning what when Gary Owen's play first
appeared in 20091 was dubbed the crisis of masculinity. Over three
monologues that only eventually link up, Owen lets us peek into a
low-rent world where dreams of leaving are thwarted at every wrong turn
in what at first looks like some Alfie-esque rake's progress for the
X-Factor generation, where everybody's a deluded legend. Yet, as things
move beyond the wisecracks to expose very different kinds of
performance anxiety in these off-key lives, Gary's prophecy in the
play's opening moments sees events morph into some kind of mini
Jacobean revenge tragedy.

The back-alley baroque of Owen's Welsh-accented script is blessed with
a trio of fantastically sustained performances from Colin Little,
Martin McCormick and Kristian Phillips in Leann O'Kasi's confidently
sustained production that is unashamedly deep as well as macho.

The Herald, May 26th 2011



Tron Theatre, Glasgow
4 stars
To suggest Flann O'Brien was in touch with his ridiculous side when he
rattled out his wonderfully audacious flight of internal fancy
disguised as a novel at the fag-end of the 1930s is to seriously
understate things somewhat. Or at least that's the suspicion in the
Sligo-based Blue Raincoat company's rip-roaring riot of a stage
adaptation as fashioned into shape by writer Jocelyn Clarke and
director Niall Henry.

For the uninitiated, O'Brien begins his yarn with the premise that one
ending isn't nearly enough for any novel of worth, so, through the
initial eyes of a feckless and possibly auto-biographical student,
proceeds to open out his world to a multitude of possibilities,
mythologies and other things stranger than fiction.

What emerges out of such a pre post-modern stew in Blue Raincoat's
multi-tasking hands is a fast-moving pop-up book collage of junkyard
vaudeville, lip-synching operatics and pulp western combined with live
art trappings and Irish Dada. Thus apparelled, it proceeds to jump
through linguistic and stylistic hoops before tumbling into itself with
the familiar fluidity of dreamscapes explored while dozing at one's
desk. It's a world where a first drink is accompanied by what sounds
like a choir of angels, and when the pantomime cow steps through the
red velvet drapes and into the spotlight on the bare floorboards of
Jamie Vartan's decrepit speak-easy set, it's hard to avoid a fit of the

As performed by a cast of – just five, was it? - Blue Raincoat have
produced a magnificently arch flesh and blood personification, not just
of the low-attention span peccadilloes of O'Brien's creative process,
but of an entire psyche bursting into bawdily rambunctious life.

The Herald, May 23rd 2011


After The End

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
4 stars
What would happen if the only boy and girl in the world were thrown
together, survivors of the ultimate fall-out? Would they get together
at last now they finally have time alone? Or would it all end in tears?
These are the things that Dennis Kelly's 2005 play seems to initially
be asking in a scenario that melds science-fiction and the sort of
tragic teen epics that used to litter up the pop charts. As it is, when
Louise comes to from a works night out in the 1980s nuclear fall-out
shelter that came with Mark's flat, any notions of romance look doomed,
as a steady diet of tinned chilli and Dungeons and Dragons takes a far
more dangerous turn than the student high-jinks all this so resembles.

This first of two revivals of Kelly's play in Scotland over the next
few weeks opens with the sound of old Beatles songs and chattering
voices coming from above the skeleton of what looks like an old wagon
that threatens to spill out of the Citz Circle Studio. Amanda Gaughan's
production proceeds with a low-lit, rumbling intensity, as
co-dependence turns into an increasingly ugly catalogue of stir-crazy
power games, manipulation and abuse.

None of this, as relatively recent news reports have illustrated, is
particularly far-fetched. But to see such horrors delivered with a
contemporary and close-to-home matter-of-factness as they are here by
Nicola Daley and Jonathan Dunn, onstage as Louise and Mark for the
play's full ninety-five minutes, make things even more shocking. As
relentless as all this is, only in the final scene do the full
ramifications of how someone's world can end become clear.

The Herald, May 23rd 2011


Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Necks

The Lot, Edinburgh
Wednesday November 7 2007
Live, the extended improvisations of the Australian trio of pianist Chris Abrahams, drummer Tony Buck and bassist Lloyd Swanson should curl up into an inward-looking heap. Yet, as their recent Townsville album (their fourteenth) perfectly demonstrates, so obliquely intelligent and understatedly concentrated are they on their first Edinburgh visit following last year’s Glasgow date that a quietly hypnotic and fascinatingly watchable experience ensues.

Working with the most limited of palettes, Swanson begins with a solitary note, which Abrahams picks up with a matching chord. This is repeated, gradually extended, then repeated again as Buck drives things, barely touching his actual drums and concentrating largely on cymbal skitters.

Out of this seeps a noirish groove which patiently nudges up its gears along a natural arc, the ensuing repetitions growing increasingly propulsive. The second set is jauntier, Abrahams’ piano sounding somewhere between China and London’s East End in a slow-burning musical haiku with a pulse.

The List, November 2007


The Golden Record – Sounds Of Earth

In space, no-one can hear you laugh.
3 stars
If the truth really is out there, the prospect of aliens landing on a planet populated by posh comedians would be enough to send them zapping back beyond Uranus in double-quick hyper-drive. The comedy aspect is one of the more worrying premises of this show, which attempts to update the sights and sounds of a compilation album shot off into space with 1977’s Voyager mission and overseen by polo-neck wearing pop scientist Carl Sagan, whose ‘billions and billions’ catchphrase was regularly lampooned on TV.

The main room hosts 116 album-cover style interpretations of the original record’s track listing, from ‘Conception’ and ‘Human Sex Organs’ to the magnificently named ‘Demonstration of licking, eating and drinking.’ Elsewhere, tongues are fixed firmly in space helmets via a film depicting a parallel universe in which Sagan marries doomed chanteuse Karen Carpenter, whose interpretation with brother Richard of ‘Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft’ by Canadian prog trio Klaatu was a smash hit the same year as Voyager. Elsewhere, assorted stand-ups give on-camera addresses as a precursor to a series of live comic hustings to find out who will represent the human race.

Beyond the pictures, which are charmingly akin to the recent visual depictions of The Harry Smith Anthology, the first film resembles something Chris Morris might have constructed over a few minutes a few years back, while the comedy shorts occupy one more mirth-free Fringe zone. As one-line jokes go, The Golden Record is a hyper-satirical blast, but hardly representative of the finest minds of Sagan, Carpenter or indeed Stewart Lee’s generation.
Collective Gallery, 22-28 Cockburn Street, 0131 220 1260, until 13 Sep, Tue-Sat, 12-5pm, free.

The List, August 2008


Sonic Fusion - Experimental Music in Edinburgh

September 18-28 2008, various venues, Edinburgh

Left-field music festivals aren’t exactly thin in the ground in this country. Edinburgh events, however, have had a lower profile than elsewhere, with the Dialogues weekend setting an electronically inclined tone picked up in a more acoustic way by the recent Three Blows weekend. Somewhere between the two is the second edition of Sonic Fusion, a bi-annual shindig of contemporary chamber works running over ten days in a variety of spaces.

“The idea,” according to composer and Sonic Fusion artistic director Stephen Davismoon, “was to bring contemporary musical art to Scotland’s capital in all its various guises One of the things I’m most proud of is the fact that it isn’t just about electro-acoustic work, but as the name of the festival implies, really tries to fuse things. So in terms of programming, there are no particular schools. We’re also trying to champion work from countries that don’t really get exposed on the European circuit, like Mexico and Korea, and find different platforms to put the work in.”

With this on mind, as well as concerts in formal spaces including St Giles Cathedral, Canongate Kirk, Stockbridge Parish Church and Napier University, which the festival is affiliated with, there will also be sound installations in The Voodoo Rooms. The festival will be bookended too by events at The Filmhouse, where Sonic Fusion’s launch will include work by Pierre Schaeffer and Karlheinz Stockhausen performed by The Research Ensemble. A special afternoon event during the festival’s final weekend will feature a screening of Solaris, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 science-fiction film noted for its electronic score by Russian composer Eduard Artemyev, which is juxtaposed with organ works by Bach.

“One of the most significant forms of contemporary concert music for the last twenty years has been in mixed media,” Davismoon points out. “Historically it hasn’t had that big an audience, but there has been a huge amount of activity, and it’s just a matter of time before that goes out and finds an audience. That’s part of what I’d like Sonic Fusions to be about, and in future I want it to be even more inclusive and even more diverse.”

The List, September 2008


Single Reviews - January 2008

With January a dry month for releases, the New Year seems a good time to catch up on some left-field singles that have shamefully slipped through the net over in this old-fashioned vinyl-only special.

Edinburgh’s Wee Black Skelf is the most unsung but quietly adventurous of lo-fi labels, as a trio of exemplary releases testify to. CA Celestial & Bill Wells’ ‘Somewhere Under A Rainbow’ (Wee Black Skelf - 4 stars ) finds singer/harpist Cari Anderson form a low-key pastoral alliance with the most ubiquitous of sidemen.

Lucky Luke’s ‘Reynardine’/’Hori Horo’ (Wee Black Skelf - 4 stars) is two slices of trad folkadelic balladry trailing the band’s follow-up to their ‘Patrick The Survivor’ debut.

Cover artist for Lucky Luke is Nalle’s Hanna Tuulikki, who appears with her band-mates as part of Phosphene And Friends on ‘See A Sign Defined’/’Ask Me No Questions’ (Pickled Egg - 4 stars) Brain-child of pop boffin John Cavanagh, one side has Isobel Campbell and that man Wells again backing folk legend Bridget St John, while the flip features a St John song covered by Tuulikki and co.

Daniel Patrick Quinn’s ‘West To The Irish Sea’ (Wee Black Skelf - 3 stars ) is a six-track 10” EP culled from albums released on Quinn’s East Lothian based label, Suilven. A fine introduction to Quinn’s geologically inclined excursions before checking out his new combo, One More Grain.

Released as part of a series of limited run on clear 8” lathe-cut vinyl, Tight Meat Duo’s ‘Creaming The Gutterpunk’/’Nobody Loves The Hulk’ (alt.vinyl - 3 stars) is ex Lucky Luke drummer Alex Neilson and sax player David Keenan’s authentic approximation of 1960s Free Jazz.

Hamburg Scot-Pop specialists Aufgeladen & Bereit offload a slew of coloured vinyl 7”s by Future Pilot AKA, Found and Tibi Lubin. Best of the bunch is ‘Merrie England’ (Aufgeladen & Bereit - 4 stars), the second single by The Sexual Objects, the latest guise of Fire Engines/Win/The Nectarine No 9 front-man Davy Henderson. It’s a glorious glam-racket stomp that marries Mark Bolan to Subway Sect then hangs out to boogie. On dirty brown vinyl, beg, steal or borrow a copy now.

The List, January 2008


Richard Wilson - Grey Gallery, Edinburgh

Feats of engineering and derring-do
4 stars
A man burrows his way out of the back of a black hackney cab that’s still in motion, looking like he’s tunnelled his way out of wonderland to avoid paying his fare. The same hole-in-the-wall gang appear to have turned the façade of a brutalist office block into a revolving door cum roller-coaster ride. A crushed-up metal cube is bent back into its former aeroplane shape like a giant Airfix kit. A firework released from the back of a container ricochets through deserted warehouses before hitting home to ignite a miniature cityscape.

Such are Richard Wilson’s post-industrial construction-kit concerns via four films outlining the above interventions. Drawings of the actual actions alongside a couple of Meccano-driven miniatures are more film treatment archives for the main event. The only full-scale model is ‘Hot Dog Roll,’ a sculpted caravan which has been beaten back into star-shaped life.

The films are beautifully shot, from Wilson getting down and dirty in the taxi for ‘Meter’s Running,’ the time-lapse unfolding of the ‘plane in ‘Butterfly’ and the upside-down views of Liverpool in ‘Turning The Place Over.’ Best of all is ‘Break Neck Speed,’ which, taking full advantage of its Japanese setting in much the same way as the Grey Gallery’s own ramshackle interior is used, makes for an unoccupied kamikaze Noh play. Set to a soundtrack that sees Wilson get back to his roots as founder of the Bow Gamelan Ensemble, as shots in the dark go, this one’s faster than a speeding bullet.
Grey Gallery, 10 Old Broughton (off Barony Street) 00 44 7910 359 086, until 31 Aug, Open daily, 11am-6pm, free.

The List, August 2008


Richard H Kirk - Cabbing It Up

Sugarbeat@Cabaret Voltaire, Edinburgh, February 29 2008, 10pm-4am

This is entertainment.

Richard H Kirk is talking about how his old band inspired the names of not one, but two night-clubs. The fact that Cabaret Voltaire, the electronic pioneers formed in Sheffield’s industrial ruins in the early 1970s by Kirk with Stephen Mallinder and Chris Watson themselves took their name from the Zurich speak-easy opened in 1916 as a hotbed of Dada activity adds even more weight to their avant-hedonist club-land credentials.

CV’s best known work, the primitive bubblegum garage-band squelch of ‘Nag, Nag, Nag’ became the anthem of the Wednesday night London beautiful peoples’ hang-out of the same name on the back of the Electroclash wave in 2002. With a DJ set being something of a conceptual gag, not to say coup, for Sugarbeat on the third anniversary of Edinburgh’s Cabaret Voltaire, the rest of the world, it seems, has finally caught up with Kirk.

“We did our bit,” he says of CV’s influence. “It was a bit of a challenge, but it’s nice that people remember. Things are quite different now to when we started, when very few people seemed to be making music. We were ahead of the pack, to the extent that our first ever live show in 1975 got quite ugly, and ended in total mayhem. That’s when we knew we were onto something.”

Cabaret Voltaire were founded on a Burroughsian cut-up aesthetic applied to repetitive beats long before mainstream sampling and scratching utilised the same pick n’ mix sense of collage for the dancefloor. As arthouse-experimental and grim-up-north intellectual as they were scarifyingly mean-and-moody, mind-mashingly euphoric, paranoid, funky and sexy-as-hell, more often than not in the same track, their extensive back catalogue can now be seen as the missing link between Can, Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry on the one hand, and Chicago and Detroit Housemeisters such as Derrick May and Marshall Jefferson, who adored them, on the other.

“A lot of people at Rough Trade were quite snobbish about dance music,” according to Kirk. “But we couldn’t see any point in repeating what we’d already done. We could either go up our own arses and become more esoteric, or else open up and become more accessible, but keep hold of the core values what we were about. The Chicago and Detroit scenes were looking to that, and which helped evolve what became house music.”

With Kirk’s ex colleagues either working as a sound recordist for David Attenborough (Watson) or else providing noises for a Shaun Ryder spoken word album in Australia (Mallinder), Kirk has kept the CV flame alive via a series of re-releases and remixes. For his own material, like some secret agent forever blending into the background Kirk has slipped quietly underground. operating under more than thirty aliases for almost twice as many releases. Beyond Al Jabr, Blacworld, Future Movie Cops, Outland Assassin and Ubu Rahman, his two most prevailing identities date back to CV days.

As Sandoz, two albums of reggae-inspired digi-dub have appeared on Soul Jazz Records. In the guise of Sweet Exorcist (a name lifted from a Curtis Mayfield song), Kirk’s 1991 ‘C.C.E.P.’ album was the first long-player released on the Sheffield based Warp label, future home of Aphex Twin, Boards Of Canada and a slew of artists in debt to Cabaret Voltaire.

“No-one knew who the fuck I was,’ Kirk says. “Even at the time we’d been going for twenty years, and it was great to do something without that baggage. That anonymity really appeals to me, and was what dance music was all about when it started. But there’s a sense of mischief there as well. A lot of the names do have quite distinct sounds.”

‘C.C.E.P.’ was preceded by Sweet Exorcist’s 1990 single, ‘Testone,’ also on Warp and still a Ministry of Sound favourite, it was released at much the same time as CV played Edinburgh’s Calton Studios. A recording of this makes up the third CD of ‘Conform To Deform,’ 2001’s archive box set of CV material culled from the band’s major label years.

This highlights a very different Cabaret Voltaire from the band’s first Edinburgh ‘appearance’ at the 1975 Edinburgh Film Festival, when, due to a mix of budgetary restraints and a trip to Europe, CV’s ‘performance’ came via a package containing a reel of Super 8 footage and a 15 minute tape of its soundtrack.

“We never got that package back,” says Kirk. “If anyone’s got it we’d love to see it again. Just about every other recording from day one is in the archive. That’s the one that got away.”

These days, Kirk releases material solely through his website (www.richardhkirk.com). His last two albums, ‘Burning The Words Part 1 and 2,’ released under his Vasco de Mento disguise, were released in August 2007. Given that surveillance, control and technology were key themes of Cabaret Voltaire, such means of dissemination were inevitable.

For a hint of where Kirk’s head’s at just now, as well as Fela Kuti and Ladytron, he confesses a penchant for the back-alley after-hours dubstep of Burial’s recent album.

“We were all big fans of Dub,” says Kirk of his former band’s influences. “All this stuff based round a monstrous bass-line. But people shouldn’t expect me to play four to the floor stuff or minimal techno or any of that. At my age it’ll be hard enough not being mistaken for an off-duty copper.”

This is fun.

An edited version of this was published in The List, February 2008

Power Up – Sister Corita

Print Gallery, Dundee Contemporary Arts
17 September-4 November 2008
Anti-war art is largely a samizdat operation, in which the means of production are seized via cheaply made DIY posters and pamphlets. In the 1960s especially, pop art was imbued with a political context often left out of more hedonistically inclined hagiographies. So it was with Sister Corita Kent, a Los Angeles based Roman Catholic nun, whose text-led silk-screen works became iconic images of anti-Vietnam war activity. The small exhibition of her work that moves into Dundee Contemporary Arts Print Gallery, then, is a perfect companion piece to the ‘Altered States Of Paint’ show which has just closed in the main gallery.

“What she was doing was a precursor to punk and street art,” according to Annis Fitzhugh, Print Studio director at the DCA. “The way she was using photography with her own texts, and the way she used screen-printing technology was pretty mind-blowing. She was a contemporary of Andy Warhol, and some people say she was more adventurous, but where he was a self-publicist, she was a woman with political aims, whose primary interest was in education. Her work wasn’t just about aesthetics.”

Which may explain why Sister Corita left the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1968, relocating to Boston until her death in 1986.

“There’s a whole movement of temporary art that she influenced,” says Fitzhugh. The show’s called ‘Power Up,’ and in that way her work was all about spreading the message.”

The List, September 2008


Phil Collins – The World Won’t Listen

Tramway, Glasgow, April 17-May 31 2009

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but few bands have inspired such hopeless devotion in their fans than The Smiths. When Morrissey, Marr and co appeared in 1983, the pure emotional rawness of Morrissey’s lyrical confessionals tapped into an adolescent yearning that inspired adoration. Phil Collins recognised this when he started work on his major video installation of Smiths fans performing karaoke versions of their idols, ‘The World Won’t Listen,’ in 2004. Not, however, where you might expect to find acolytes of a band steeped in English kitchen-sink mythology.

“I’d gone to Bogota in Colombia,” Collins explains, “and spent a lot of time going out to rock and roll clubs and indie clubs there. These were the sorts of places playing the type of music I never thought would be big there, and that’s where the idea came from.”

Collins commissioned Colombia’s biggest band, Los Aterciopalados, to record the backing tracks to The Smiths 1987 compilation album of neglected singles and other works from the previous two years in its entirety, from ‘Panic’ right through to ‘Rubber Ring.’

“I didn’t want it to be a joke,” says Collins, “or something just recorded on a Casio. At that time karaoke was still the preserve of Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and Phil Collins (the other one), all these things you’d never want to sing, no matter how drunk you got. You had this beautiful means of expression, but no good songs to sing.”

Collins then put out an invitation for Smiths fans to take part and be filmed. The result was 1200 people performing their very special renditions of their favourite song in a night-club over four days. Collins repeated the process in Turkey and Indonesia, and has synchronised each part of the trilogy in a manner that shows how the international language of Morrissey translates.

“Some people had learnt the lyrics phonetically,” says Collins, “so they ended up singing in a northern English accent. It was very moving.”

Accompanying ‘The World Won’t Listen’ is ‘Britney’, a series of photographs of posters for Britney Spears’ post-breakdown album Collins witnessed in New York.

“They’d all been spat on or grafittied,” he says “It was like she’d been tarred and feathered.

A set of screen-prints of the letters and classified ads a teenage Morrissey sent to the NME in the late 1970s completes this skewed vision of a fan convention alongside a video piece based on a laughing contest set up in Helensburgh.

“All the works say something about performance,” Collins says, “and the fans relationship to it. When you do karaoke, you’re somehow supplanting your idols, but your performance is also full of flaws, which creates something beautiful as well.”

As a northern lad from small town Runcorn, Collins was understandably attracted to The Smiths from an early age.

“The Smiths still have a special place for me,” he confesses. “They remind me of all those things that happened and were important to me all those years ago, the same way David Bowie does. The Smiths still provoke and console in ways that ninety-nine per cent of other bands can’t.”

The List, April 2009


New Work Scotland Project 2008 – Lila De Magalhaes

Collective Gallery, Edinburgh, September 27-December 20 2008

Over the last nine years, autumn at The Collective has heralded in an annual showcase for artists making their solo show debuts under the wing of the gallery’s New Work Scotland Project. The first of three shows this year is by Lila de Magalhaes, whose performance-based video installations captured the imaginations of this year’s judging panel, led by The Collective’s Kirsten Body, who helped sift through more than 200 applications.

“Lila says she’s about tapping into people’s day-to-day playfulness,” according to Body, “and quite often there’s a domestic or office setting in her work, but there’s usually something unsettling and strange going on as well. There’s a certain crudeness in what Lila does. Her works are usually done with a hand-held camera, and are full of jump-cuts. But it’s a deliberate strategy, and a lot of it is very subtle.”

To illustrate the quirks of De Magalhaes’ work, Body cites a work called ‘Rat,’ in which a woman dressed up as a tinfoil-clad rodent sits in a bath. In another, a woman holds court in an armchair wearing an upside-down lampshade on her head. De Magalhaes is currently making new work for her show in residence at London’s Studio Voltaire, who have also come on board with NWSP.

In the following two NWSP shows, Alex Dordoy will explore issues of masculinity via images of a Wild West chuck wagon, while a joint work by Alex Gross and Sandy Smith will takes its impulse from an extended research visit to Texas and Utah. A publication will accompany shows with texts by Kelly Connor. This initiative is now a crucial component of NSWP, which has a strong record of picking up on emerging artists who go on to even greater things, including Katy Dove, Craig Coulthart and Neil Clements. The award too is something of an accidental benchmark for current trends.

“We’re always looking for some kind of individuality,” Body says, “and work that may not immediately get supported elsewhere. In that way, NWSP is an important snap-shot of what’s going on now."

The List, September 2008


Momus - Bods and Mockers

Stereo, Glasgow, July 27th 2008

When Nick Currie named himself after the Greek god of mockery, being clever, like ridicule, was nothing to be scared of. Edinburgh-based Currie had already fronted The Happy Family, a band that featured half of his schoolboy idols, Josef K, and was developing an archly literate and occasionally sex-obsessed lyrical style that would co-exist with the likes of the Divine Comedy and Jarvis Cocker.

Three albums were released on Alan McGee’s fledgling Creation label before Currie fled for New York, Tokyo and now Berlin. Having continued to pursue his singular vision, a homecoming date of sorts showcases material currently being recorded for a new album with electro-blip avatar Germlin confirms the exiled Currie as every aesthete’s bon viveur of choice.

Not for nothing does Currie pen a weekly column for the New York Times. Then there’s ‘The Book of Scotlands’, “a numbered list of one thousand parallel world Scotlands. Here are three: The Scotland in which all food is soup. The Scotland in which nobody has any teeth. The Scotland which African missionaries have converted to shamanic animism.”

With what Currie calls the Joemus album scheduled for an autumn release, Momus’ concerns remain as waggish as ever, featuring songs about “vampires who've lost the taste for biting girls, men who become pantomime dames in order not to lose their girlfriends, people who marry indiscriminately, and witnesses who play mouth organs in court.” 

Beyond this, Currie’s ambitions remain equally lofty.

“Eventually,” he says, “I'll probably retire to Stromness and write sonnets.”

The List, July 2008


Missing Twin Presents

Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh, Saturday August 23 2008
4 stars
Missing Twin is the publishing empire of cartoon genius Malcy Duff. Alongside geek-soul brother and mastermind of Giant Tank’s adventures in events, Ali Robertson, Duff makes up premier lo-fi fidgets, Usurper. Taking full advantage of a room going spare now the Film Festival’s moved June-wards, this popcorn-friendly triple feature of late-night wow-and-splutter sees the lip of the Cameo stage show-casing an Eisensteinian cut-up of sound and vision.

Usurper themselves provide the opening funnies, as their increasingly artful exercises in toy-box scritch-n-scratch, here set to projections of Duff’s equally oddball art-works, are the next stage on from sound poet Bob Cobbing and post-Python pranksters The Bohman Brothers. Open Eye Duo who follow are a strictly B-movie deconstruction of floor-Tom and guitar via gaffa tape interventions.

Tonight’s main feature even has a disaster movie name. Towering Breaker work up a duet of pounding vibraphone minimalism to sensurround proportions. What’s fascinating is how the sound translates in a dead acoustic designed for film rather than assaulted by black box echo. Like glorified Foley artists providing Dolby-scale sound effects for slapstick Snuff, this particular brat-pack are the real deal.

The List, September 2008


Looking Rough at 30 - Rough Trade Records Come of Age

Five months before Margaret Thatcher’s landslide 1979 victory, and with Britain’s city streets still retaining the air of a depressed bomb-site, highbrow arts programme The South Bank Show appeared to have been hi-jacked by a cell of musical terrorists. Their mission in such dark times seemed to be to corrupt the nation’s already restless youth. Among the grainy live footage of earnest punk polemicists Stiff Little Fingers, the sax-led free-form skronk wail of Essential Logic, the scratchy squat-rock of The Raincoats and the disturbing synthesiser throb of Robert Rental, serious theorists discussed manifestos in clandestine fashion, seizing the means of production to create a samizdat cultural underground and, ultimately, a state of independence. It was called Rough Trade, and it was going to change your world.

Shadowy and intense, Rough Trade, founded on a punk-hippy ethic and then just a year old, was as far away from the filth and the fury of the tabloidisation of ‘Punk Rock’ as was possible. In the normal world, where the bunny-fixated schmaltz of Art Garfunkel’s ‘Bright Eyes’ had just spent six weeks at the top of the singles chart, it was shockingly clear that Rough Trade, based in its west London record emporium that had become the musical neighbourhood’s Liberty Hall, wasn’t so much a record label as a wake-up call to an alternative way of life.

Thirty years on, things may not have quite worked out as planned, but Rough Trade is still with us, still independent and still at the forefront of a permanent musical revolution. To celebrate, the label is about to embark on a package tour which, in spirit at least, resembles the one that appeared on our three-channel TV sets late one Sunday night in 1979. Headlined by Jarvis Cocker, himself an embodiment of DIY aesthetics, with Jeffrey Lewis bringing up the rear, Looking Rough at 30, which stops off at Edinburgh’s Picture House, should, after early idealism, lost teenage years and a messy twenties, be a testament to surviving the lean years to come of age and grow old, in public or otherwise, disgracefully.

Somewhere in-between all this, however, lays a trail of smash hit success with The Smiths, 1980s boom years over-expansion, bankruptcy and the subsequent loss of the label’s catalogue and name, and a split from the shop which sired it. There’s also been a triumphal twenty-first century rebirth with The Strokes, more big business strife, a 2005 Mercury Music Prize win with Antony and the Johnson’s ‘I Am A Bird Now’ album, and, in Rough Trade’s current state, a glorious return to its independent roots.

For label founder Geoff Travis, whose white-boy afro as witnessed in The South Bank Show film is sadly no longer with us, it’s serious vindication for the faith he and business partner Jeanette Lee (formerly of John Lydon’s Public Image Limited) have put into the Rough Trade ideal.

“It’s kind of a miracle we’re here, Travis reflects. “It’s been a very bumpy road. I was a kid growing up in the 60s during a time of real musical revolution. Rough Trade were a collective, and it was a really exciting time in London, when, through punk, there came this DIY approach and the idea that you didn’t need a corporation to make thngs happen, and we found ourselves in the middle of this big explosion.”

“Geoff always had good ears,” according to music writer, chair of the Mercury Music Prize and Edinburgh University lecturer Simon Frith, who presented the South Bank Show film. “The shop became a focal point for a lot of things, and he cut 50/50 deals with artists, which gave access to people who might not necessarily know where they were going. But Geoff gets on with musicians, which means he’s always had the respect of the industry.”

An early turning point came with C-81, a cassette free with the NME (after you collected six tokens, then waited twenty-eight days for delivery), which took stock of Rough Trade’s roster, from the Ornette Coleman inspired ‘harmelodic’ guitar of James ‘Blood’ Ulmer and the avant-fits of Pere Ubu, to the lover’s rock of Scritti Politti’s ‘The ‘Sweetest’ Girl,’ the label’s poppiest moment to date. After the label became distributor for the Glasgow-based Postcard Records, East Kilbride troubadour Roddy Frame’s Aztec Camera album, ‘High Land, Hard Rain’ was similarly bright. This was nothing, though, to what happened when Rough Trade signed The Smiths, and crossover success became a blessing in disguise.

“There were very dark days in the late 80s,” Travis admits now, “We grew way too big, and when the distribution arm went bankrupt and we lost the Smiths entire catalogue. But sometimes that can be healthy. You burn your house to the ground, go and live in a tent, then remind yourself why you do what you do. I’m kind of odd, because I live day to day, and all I really do is encourage the people who do interesting things, and act as a conduit.”

Jarvis Cocker is one such fruit of this approach. During the 1990s, with Travis divorced from Rough Trade entirely, he managed Pulp through the band’s commercial glory days and beyond. A revitalised Rough Trade also released Cocker’s Jarvis album in 2006. By this time, the relaunched label, supported by Sanctuary, was riding the crest of a typically eclectic musical wave, with records by Sufjan Stevens, British Sea Power, Belle and Sebastian, Eddi Reader, Antony and the Johnsons and The Libertines all in the thick of things. Even Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, whose own peripatetic career went from DIY, through the airbrushed 80s and back again, returned to the fold with his first album for a decade.

In 2007, Rough Trade severed their ties with Sanctuary, and, under the auspices of the Beggar’s group, are themselves fully independent once again. As a barometer of changing times, Rough Trade is still the alternative’s alternative. While the world has clearly caught up with it via Mercury Music Prizes and the plethora of cottage industry labels that exist today, in the wider world, things have come full circle.

“Geoff’s always stayed true to his original vision,” says Frith, “which is that you could put something out that was interesting for its own sake, but which you could sell well. That DIY culture is the essence of the British music industry. In times like these, a DIY scene doesn’t so much emerge as all the other stuff on top disappears.”

The major economic recession about to bite deep recalls the winters of discontent of the late 1970s when Rough Trade rose from its ashes. On the plus side, a new ninety minute TV documentary on Rough Trade, featuring archive clips from the South Bank show film, is currently being produced by the BBC. For the label itself, the title of Robert Wyatt’s 1982 album, ‘Nothing Can Stop Us,’ springs to mind.

“We’re still trying to be the best,” says Travis. “We’re still a long way from where we want to be. It sounds like a cliché, but we want to be more successful. You don’t get better than The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys, who were hugely successful, but most importantly made great music. That’s where Rough Trade is always aiming. We’ve got a lot of competition, from Domino and XL and all the rest. It’s a good time to be independent, but we’re not complete yet.”

Looking Rough At 30, with Jarvis Cocker and Jeffrey Lewis, The Picture House, Edinburgh, 28 November

Rough Trade Classics – The Early Years

Cabaret Voltaire – Nag Nag Nag
Primitive electro-squealch now a staple of electro-clash dance-floors

Subway Sect – Ambition
Vic Godard’s defining post-punk statement

The Raincoats – Fairytale In The Supermarket
Rad-fem squat rock in exelcis from one of Rough Trade’s earliest signings

The TV Personalities – Part Time Punks
Dan Treacy’s hilarious DIY paean to the Kings Road scene that may or may not have spawned a movement.

Scritti Politti – The ‘Sweetest’ Girl
Green Gartside’s honeyed vocal applies high theory to love and romance via sublime lovers rock. To this day, it should be number one, if only for the final verse’s couplet, ‘And politics is prior to the vagaries of science/She left because she understood the value of defiance.’ Note the conceptual inverted commas from a band who went on to have a hit named after post-modern philosopher Jacques Derrida.

Robert Wyatt – At Last I Am Free
A year before Wyatt’s cover of Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding stormed the charts, this cover of a Chic number transcended another unlikely song into something even lovelier.

Young Marble Giants – N.I.T.A.
Spooky organ-led minimalism from the recently reformed Cardiff trio, and possibly the oddest, most disembodied break-up song ever.

The Fall – Totally Wired
Mark E Smith never liked Rough Trade’s co-operative ethics much, but this pop-eyed amphetamine anthem remains one of their greatest early singles.

The Smiths – How Soon Is Now
Originally a B-side, Johnny Marr’s layered guitars turns Morrissey’s forlorn lyrics into a complex blues of depth and feeling

The Sundays – Can’t Be Sure
For a brief period Harriet Wheeler became every sappy student boy’s pin-up. Her soaring vocals prove why on this indie guitar classic.

Mazzy Star – Fade Into You
Far, far darker, Hope Sandoval sounded like she was on Mogodon on this hauntingly beautiful ballad of regret.

The List, November 2008



Henry’s Cellar Bar, Edinburgh
September 17
4 stars
There are Moomins on the poster, and something equally other-worldly about Kuupuu’s fractured folk tones. Having wafted all the way from Tampere, Finland, they sound still swathed in dawn mist, so nursery rhyme eerie is Jonna Karanka’s set of organically generated loops n’ layers.

Karanka is a key figure on the Finnish underground, with a web of aliases and collaborators, from her own Kukkiva Poliisi monicker to all-female acid-folk trio, Hertta Lussu Assa as well as previous experience in Avarus and The Anaksimandros.

Beyond such a mouthful, a black-clad and gamine-looking Karanka stands before a table-top of lo-fi kit, from which she pieces together a mesh of low-key, ice-breath whispers, fuzz, fog, bird-song and incessant percussive skitters to make for a fractured collage of woozy kindergarten sense memories made flesh.

At times it sounds like a little army of Trolls digging their way out of the earth’s core accompanied by a spectral goat-herd, bells round their necks clanking out swirling lysergic cascades to guide them home. Treated voices blow hot and cold on a strangely immersive experience suggesting quietly frosted magic in the air.

The List, October 2007


Kill Your Timid Notion Exhibition – Kjell Bjorgeengen and Paul Sharits

Dundee Contemporary Arts, September 19-October 12 2008

It’s not their fault. Arts bureaucrats, after all, are frequently behind the times, as all the recent fuss about amalgamating funding Quangos previously separated by genre has proved. Because, in terms of combining forward-thinking performers with a film-based practice to occupy one of the major gallery spaces in Europe, Kill Your Timid Notion is way ahead of the game.

Since its first outing in 2003, KYTN’s four editions thus far have mixed and matched sound and vision in a way that has utilised the DCA’s gallery space to the maximum. This year KYTN goes even further, with a large-scale exhibition running for three weeks before the festival to give gallery-goers an opportunity to dip their toe in what may be uncharted Sensurround waters.

In different ways, Kjell Bjorgeengen and Paul Sharits work with flicker - cinematically-based installations which aim to transform the galleries into intense and demanding theatres of light – ushers in a music programme which looks to do likewise without any commercial concessions.

“I hate it when people walk into art galleries and it’s so easy to go from work to work,” Bjorgeengen mourns from his Oslo base, “and they can see one thing and comment on it, then move on to the next thing. There’s no real physical input with it. With flicker-based work, you have to go through some kind of thresh-hold, and that can produce negative results, but I want to go beyond a passive way of viewing things.”

Bjorgeengen has been working with flicker for six years, developing an increasingly sophisticated approach partly led by the technology available, and primarily at the Experimental Television Centre in New York

“You have to go into some kind of dialogue with it to make it do what you want,” Bjorgeengen says. “Through that my work has become more complex and more layered.”

KYTN has explored similar landscapes in previous line-ups particularly via the presence of American minimalist and former collaborator with Velvet Underground members in Theatre Of Eternal Music, Tony Conrad. His 1966 film, The Flicker, shown alongside the straight cinema version of Sharits’ ‘Epileptic Seizure Comparison’ in 2006, may have been similarly provocative, but Bjorgeengen is reluctant to make any comparison.

Sharits’ piece is an emotionally charged work dating from 1976 which aims to provoke even more extreme physical reactions in the viewer. In its recently restored version seen at KYTN as an installation as Sharits intended, it can now be regarded as one of the most provocative pieces of underground cinema of its era.

As well as being one of Norway’s leading contemporary artists, Bjorgeengen is a musician and long-time collaborator with the likes of guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist Joelle Leandre and regular visitor to these parts, Keith Rowe. During the KYTN weekend itself, Bjorgeengen and Rowe will perform with another improv veteran, violinist Phillip Waschmann. Whatever the result, viewers senses look set to be bombarded on every level.

“Some people hate it,” Bjorgeengen laughs, “and some people love it. It’s hard not to make a stand. People sometimes see things in works like this that they haven’t seen before, and a lot of this kind of work has lots of meta-narrative. This is a lot more basic.”

The List, September 2008