Monthly Archives: August 2010

Never Trust A Millionaire

If full length debut ‘Funeral’ was the passionate love affair then ‘Neon Bible’ felt like discovering that I was being cheated on. After the twin disappointment of both their second album ‘Neon Bible’ and the SECC gig in 2007, I was bereft. Something I thought was going to be wonderful had crumbled to dust.

So when their third LP ‘The Suburbs’ got in touch last week, I was very wary indeed. Understandably. I wasn’t going to let Arcade Fire break my heart again.

So before making any commitment I did the equivalent of getting the old photos, videos and letters out and tried to work out what created the spark in the first place. Listening to the first three records back to back, ‘Funeral’ is undoubtedly the benchmark but, since the debut EP still sounds a little formative and ‘Neon Bible’ still disappoints, was it just a fluke, a passing crush?

As much as anything the problem I have with ‘Neon Bible’ is its lack of exceptional songs. So, despite making a positive impression on the first few understandably tentative listens it was a little worrying when nothing on ‘The Suburbs’ jumped out as as classic. The looks are still there, even flashes of personality but maybe I was just too nervous. But, but there was definitely a feeling that there might well be something in here if I would just let go a little. And after a few more listens, just at the equivalent point where I was starting to write off ‘Neon Bible’ 3 years ago, I started to enjoy ‘The Suburbs’. In fact I started to really enjoy the record.

My difficulty  was undoubtedly due in part to the fact that, at more than an hour’s duration, it’s something of a beast of a record. Yet despite the obvious lack of a genuine world shattering classic (still), the songwriting on ‘The Suburbs’ is just on a higher level from ‘Neon Bible’.

Part of that is down to the simplicity of some of the material. This stuff is going to rock live. Whereas ‘Funeral’ impressed by the way that all elements of the band were used to create an impression of perpetual motion, the songs on ‘The Suburbs’ are simplified and more streamlined with a lot of the musical elements serving and enhancing a key melody or riff rather than competing for the spotlight.  Lead single and title track is a great example of this driven by an almost syncopated piano.

The approach is repeated throughout with the ultimate expression of this being the Arcade-Fire-as-garage-band groove on the driving ‘Month of May’. Given that the controlled chaos was something which attracted me to the band initially this would probably be A Bad Thing were it not for the fact that the approach works so well.

There are still examples of the ‘just throw everything in’ approach of old most noticeably on on one of the handful of Regine sung songs ‘Empty Room’. But otherwise this is still recognisably the Fire with some of the stylistic diversions including a couple of nods to the 80’s, such as the shimmering guitar intro to ‘Half Light II’ and most of all on the penultimate ‘The Sprawl II’ which recalls in places Cyndi Lauper of all people.

I can’t help thinking the LP might have benefitted from being trimmed slightly, the title track may be a fine song but it slightly outstays its welcome. And some of the slower tracks towards the end of the record are not quite as successful as the early run of songs.

But,  whilst there will always be that little doubt at the back of my mind, ‘The Suburbs’ has restored my faith in The Arcade Fire’ so this story has a happy ending. We’re back together again and are looking forward to a big date at the SECC in Glasgow on 12th December.

A live version of one of the LP tracks:

Buy ‘The Suburbs’ here. Seated tickets only for the show SECC here.

A Guest Review

MITCHELL MUSEUM/WHITE HEATH (Electric Circus, Edinburgh, 11 August)

At first Young Al and I thought they were just tuning up, finishing off their soundcheck.  Then the lead singer, mid-stage, hunched over his single drum and started wailing.  To be fair it might have been singing but it was difficult to tell with the synth, lead guitar, drums, violin, bass trombone, all apparently playing a different song to each other over the top of him.  It ended with a wig out and I thought the synth might be irreparably damaged, lashed as it was by the hair of its player.  I thought we might have stepped back in time to the early 70s.

They continued in this ilk for half an hour or so.

But, but, but, by the end of their set I’d warmed to White Heath.  If you like a tune with an intro, verse, chorus, solo, last chorus, end, then musically it will be too messy for you.  Much too messy.  If you want to know the titles, then Gigi and the finale, Blue, are all I can give you.  Were they lyricists par excellence, I don’t know.  But I liked them.

Young Al asked a good question – what brings such a disparate bunch of musicians together to make that unlikely noise.

Certainly not bland (though they do have at least a couple of what most might call a conventional tune and there was the odd bit of real singing), I admired their willingness to experiment, to play something a wee bit out of the ordinary, particularly for a band of their age.  And, boy, did they seem to care.  To my untutored ear, they could have been a wee bit tighter but a flurry of gigs in the Edinburgh area over the next few weeks should sort that.  Check out their myspace, note that they’ve signed a record deal and hope they don’t lose their edge.  Sadly, they will never be huge.

Unlike Mitchell Museum if you believe the hype.  Neither Young Al nor I had knowingly heard a Mitchell Museum song before last night.  After the first couple, I wasn’t convinced I would make the effort to hear one ever again.  Small venue, big sound, no subtlety.

Then “What they built” came along.  Not sure why but I warmed to that.  Probably it was the drummer – for me the absolute true star of the band – a dervish in disguise.  Truly immense through this song (and the highlight of one or two others).  The next few bounced along pleasant but not earth shattering, my favourite being one from their free ep earlier in the year.  Then they paused.  And did a cover.  Paper Planes was truly brilliant and heralded a blistering run of songs through to their finale, Warning Bells.  We didn’t ask for an encore but they did one quickly, a thrashy Novels, concluding with the customary dropped guitar and lightly trashed drum kit.

So what did we think?  Young Al and I will definitely buy the album now.  He mentioned Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips – everyone apparently does, and that seems fair.  And we agreed we’d like to see them again, maybe somewhere that they don’t feel the need to blast us away.

Will they change the world?  Well no, but I reckon they’ll have a good time trying.  All they need now is for their lead singer to remember the name of his own band.  Just to say some folk think we’re called Mitchell Library, it’s definitely not – it’s Mitchell Libr ……. er …….. Museum ………… Thanks, we’ve been Mitchell Library …. no …. Museum.  Seamless.

Again check out their website for all manner of downloads.

Olive hands
Mission 1
What they built
Tiger Heartbeat
Room for improvement
Bleed the bottle
Paper planes
Cut lantern
Copy and paste
Take the tongue out
Warning bells

Jacques the Kipper

I had intended to go to last night’s show but settled in the end for the Burns Unit on Monday instead. Big, big thanks then to JtK for allowing me to vicariously enjoy the show! MPT

The greatest genre hopping C&W indie, rock, (alt-)folk, reggae, bhangra party – ever!

Last night at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh offered the last chance to catch the Burns Unit before its members return to the day jobs. And it turned to be well worth the effort.

This wasn’t going to be your standard rock gig. It was the first time that I’d been to the Queen’s Hall when there was seating in front of the stage. There was also no support act so the band were onstage shortly after the obscenely early time of 7.30 (something which caught a few people out).

The set was a 90 minute, joyous romp through the album ‘Side Show’ plus another 7 (I think) songs which had either originated from the original Burnsong week or from more recent rehearsals. The extra songs meant that the genre hopping actually increased with both a C&W ballad and bar stomper added to the already eclectic mix of indie, rock, (alt-)folk, reggae and bhangra.

The band seemed to revel in the celebratory atmosphere and a lot of fun was had along the way whether it be Michael Johnston disappearing off stage and reappearing in the gallery behind us, Emma Holic’s attempts to avoid a giggling fit (not helped by Johnston’s apparently spontaneous comedy tribute number) or Kenny Anderson’s guitar solo during the version of ‘Travelling Light’ the one Chris Difford song featured. (Difford took part only in the original Burnsong week.)

KC rocks out!

Starting the set with the two opening tracks from the LP was something of a risk – they are both amongst the strongest songs on the record but the quality of the un-recorded songs was more than good enough to sustain the show and promised much for a second Burns Unit LP.

Whilst the diverse nature of the songs meant that each song was, in some way, a genuine highlight, particular stand outs for me included the stunning vocal performance from Pollock  on ‘House On The Hill’ (backed only by Edgar on piano), a fragile ‘Sorrys’, a new guitar pop song again with Pollock on lead vocals, the afore-mentioned Difford track, a stomping ‘Future Pilot AKC’ and, well, the list goes on. And I haven’t mentioned the heartbreaking ‘Helpless to Turn’ yet. Put it like this, if the Burns Unit had only ever produced just that one song it would still all have been worth it.

Despite the all seated nature of the show the audience were totally caught up in the performance and took part in the frequent Karine Polwart inspired singalongs. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone didn’t have a good time. I know that we did.

Rough setlist

1. Since We’ve Fallen Out  2. Trouble  3. What is Life?  4. Majesty of Decay  5. House on the Hill  6.  C&W ballad (Karine/Kim)  7. Future Pilot AKC  8. Guitar pop song (Emma)  9. All Of This In Writing  10. Blood, Ice and Ashes  11. Sorrys  12. Helpless to Turn  13. Travelling Light  14. You Need Me To Need This 15. The Open Road

16 1-2-3-4-5 (Kim/Karine)  17.  Send Your Kids To War

An (incomplete, sadly) acoustic version of ‘All Of This In Writing’ from Homegame 2009.

Buy ‘Sideshow’ here.

Trouble Rents A House Near Me

It seems to have been a long time since I saw the Burns Unit perform at last year’s Homegame. But 16 months on, their debut LP ‘Sideshow’ was finally released this week.

Their live set in Anstruther was so good that I was looking forward to the record with a measure of both anticipation and trepidation. The anticipation is easily explained, the trepidation was based on a fear that they couldn’t live up to the enjoyment of the gig.

The good news is that some of the songs are recognisable from that show – which at one listen almost a year and a half ago is a helluva recommendation. And whilst ‘Sideshow’ doesn’t work as a recreation of that Anstruther show, it’s still a great record.

Most of the songs originate from the Burnsong workshop a few years back when a group of songwriters from different genres were brought together to write. As a consequence this isn’t the most cohesive set of songs you’ll ever hear, with genre hopping a given.

One of the advantages of the varied styles on the record is that depending on different songs can be your favourites depending on your mood and it also works because there are elements which hold things together. The proliferation of vocalists results in the songs featuring at least a couple of leads with the others contributing attractive multi-part harmonies on any given song.

There are also some great songs – the opening ‘Since We’ve Fallen Out’ features a duet between Kenny Anderson and Karine Polwart and builds nicely from its accordion lament intro. ‘Troubles’ meanwhile is a neat littlepop song with Emma Pollock’s vocals playing off a simple keyboard melody.

The party atmosphere is best re-created on the two songs that MC Soom T takes  lead vocals on, ‘Send The Kids To War’, which owes a fair degree to the sub-continent and the reggae tinged ‘What Is Life’.

Best of all though, probably, is the lovely closing track ‘Helpless To Turn’ which starts with Polwart singing against a lone piano backing before building gradually to its conclusion with the addition of various vocalists along the way.

‘Side Show’ is a welcome addition to the run of strong records in the second half of the year. (8/10)

A short documentary about the band:

Buy ‘Side Show’ here.

Cardboard Ships

The most productive way of discovering bands in recent years has been at live shows. So it was with Campfires In Winter who played the April Peenko vs Aye Tunes gig.

Having enjoyed their performance at that show I was pleased to receive a copy of the CiW debut EP ‘Cardboard Ships’ from Lloyd at Peenko a couple of weeks ago.

The three track E.P. seems to capture a lot of the elements of that live show. They’re an undeniably modern Scottish rock band with an ambitious sound. So there are big choruses, thrilling guitars and even some moody atmospherics. Live I caught a whiff of some shoegazing in there as well and the droning guitars of ‘Then It Will Be Done…’ are the best example of that on the record.

In many ways the Scottish scene is fascinating at the moment. When talking about long established bands such as Spare Snare and the Wildhouse I’ve lamented the fact that the music they’re making seems to be out of fashion. However it’s undeniably true that the newer breed of young guitar bands, of which CiW are certainly one, are not afraid to use noise and melody in the same package even if it’s in a different fashion to the afore-mentioned veterans.

If there’s a criticism then it’s that a couple of the tunes on the E.P. suggest CiW are a little in thrall to their heroes. ‘Cardboard Ships’ is a case in point copping some definite Twilight Sad-isms (even if the underlying song is a little different from Kilsyth’s finest) whilst ‘It’s Been Months Now’ owes a fair amount to Frightened Rabbit.

But there’s more than enough here to suggest that they’re capable of marking their own territory with a little more confidence. Check the E.P. out at their Bandcamp here.

Scottish Fiction – Tombstoning

Having read Doug Johnstone’s ‘The Ossians’, I always meant to track down his debut novel ‘Tombstoning’. I finally managed to do that a couple of weeks ago and demolished it on our first day on holiday.

‘Tombstoning’ is a thriller/romance very much pitched in the Brookmyre tradition of bad things happening to normal people. David Lindsay might not be enjoying the most successful of careers but is happy to have left his schooldays in Arbroath behind him – particularly since these ended when school friend Colin is found at the bottom a cliff in the middle of the night. But when he reluctantly agrees to go back to Arbroath at the promptings of Nicola the past rather unexpectedly catches up with him.

The best bits of the book are those observing normal life – the lives of David and Nicola seem very real. In particular Johnstone describes the absurdities of the school reunion well and there’s also a nice chapter about the top notch entertainment that is a Scottish lower league football derby!

But the thriller aspect feels a little at odds with the rest of the story since it really only comes to the fore in the second half of the book. And whilst the mystery of Colin’s death is tied to the both the title and climax of the book it’s not done in a terribly satisfactory manner.

‘Tombstoning’ at its best works as a personal drama and a window on contemporary Scotland. But its others aspects aren’t so well integrated as Johnstone was to do with ‘The Ossians’. Nonetheless it’s an interesting novel for anyone interested in Scottish fiction.

Unfortunately it seems to be out of print at the moment so you’ll need to track it down in second hand stores.


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