Sunday, 24 July 2011

Amy Winehouse (1983-2011)

In the aftermath of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, the singer’s mother remarked to reporters that her son had “gone and joined that stupid club.” The history of pop music is littered with an unusually high number of influential artists who died at the age of 27; as well as CobainJimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Robert Johnson and Richey Edwards all left this mortal coil in their 28th year. On Saturday 23rd July, 2011, another name was tragically added to the list, that of Amy Winehouse.
Sadly, the death of Amy Winehouse cannot really be viewed as surprising. Despite having made two marvellous, successful albums (2003’s Frank and 2006’s Back To Black), she was known to many primarily for her lifestyle and battles with addiction that had seen her become a tabloid fixture in recent years. However, to look back at the life of Amy Winehouse in such a way would be to forget the stellar body of work she created.
A graduate of the BRIT School, Amy Winehouse rose to prominence – in the UK at least – around the same time Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me was selling by the lorry-load and Jamie Cullum was rapidly gaining in popularity. Because of the jazz influences that ran through all their music, the press were quick to create a “nu-jazz” scene, which disappeared almost as quickly as it appeared. In truth, Winehouse’s songs always took in a much broader palette of influences. As well as jazz, there were shades of R&B, soul, funk, pop and hip-hop in her work. Clearly a fan of a range of artists, the sleeve notes for Frank thank The Beastie Boys, Ben Folds Five, Donny Hathaway, Carole King and Thelonious Monk amongst others.
Not only did she display a surprisingly catholic taste in music for someone barely out of their teens, Frankwas a staggeringly mature album, unflinchingly showing a bruised soul and life experience that belied her tender years. Lyrically, Frank is a masterpiece; whether it’s the useless paramour in Stronger Than Me, the startlingly candid retelling of her own infidelity on I Heard Love Is Blind or a pitch-perfect dressing-down of money-hungry girls in Fuck Me Pumps, not a word is wasted or misplaced. The real highlight, though, is the heart-breaking Take The Box; a detailed account of a couple dividing their possessions post break-up over gut-wrenching chord changes. Stronger Than Me may have won an Ivor Novello award in 2004, butTake The Box announced that Amy Winehouse had arrived.
And then there was that voice. When firing on all cylinders, Winehouse could sing bewitchingly with restrained vibrato and real emotion. It became her calling card, it was a smoky drawl that suggested its owner had really lived, and could add an extra dimension to her already devastating wordplay (check out her delivery of “The only time I hold your hand is to get the angle right” on In My Bed).
Frank received a Mercury Music Prize nomination – the award eventually went to Franz Ferdinand’s eponymous debut – but it was the release of her second album, Back To Black, that really catapulted Winehouse to fame and mainstream success. Whereas Frank was a mélange of various musical movements from the previous half-century, Back To Black focused more on the sound of 60s girl groups and the Tamla Motown label. With Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson producing, and musical backing from The Dap-KingsBack To Black won five Grammys and was the biggest selling album of 2007 in the UK. To date, it has sold over three millions copies in her native country and is in the Top 20 biggest selling albums of all time.
A huge spike in sales didn’t blunt Winehouse’s lyrical barbs, however. Back To Black still has stunning vignettes in abundance, from the kitchen-sink tale of (more) infidelity You Know I’m No Good to the touching rumination Love Is A Losing Game. Sadly, the more her star rose, the more her personal problems seemed to overwhelm her, a cruel state of affairs for someone whose best-known song is entitled Rehab.
It was around this time that Winehouse’s life outside of music truly began to overshadow just how talented she was. Rarely out of the papers in the past half-decade, more and more was written about her addictions, marriage, appearance and increasingly erratic stage performances than her music. Recently, it appeared she might have been getting back on track, with a European tour (albeit cancelled after one show) and the rising popularity of protégée (and goddaughter) Dionne Bromfield, who is signed to Winehouse’s Lioness Records. Sadly, it proved that any signs of a recovery were premature.
Now we’re in the immediate aftermath of her death, it’s too early to predict what the legacy of Amy Winehouse will be. It would be nice to think there won’t be a slew of inferior, posthumous releases and a ghoulish fascination with her demise, but experience tells us this is unlikely to be the case. So, for now, let’s just remember Amy Winehouse the artist: a rare talent with a phenomenal voice, razor-sharp wit and an incredible, poetic way with words. Two albums, around a dozen singles and a huge well of unrealisedpotential – the music industry has lost one of its brightest stars tragically before her time.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The No RipCast

Attention! Four No Ripcord writers including me have seen fit to record a podcast. It's a review of the year so far and can be found at

Hopefully this will become a regular feature so have a listen and let me know what you think. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

If Not Now, When?

Incubus - If Not Now, When?
released 11 July 2011 on Sony Music

It may seem paradoxical, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility for a band to become popular at precisely the wrong time. Around the turn of the century, their canny blend of heavy rock and hip-hop pushed Incubus towards mainstream success. Unfortunately, that was also the dark time in music history when nu-metal became inexplicably popular. Lazy pigeonholing meant Incubus were lumped in the same bucket as Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit and their ilk by the music press.
In reality, Incubus were a cut above their contemporaries and streets ahead of the self-obsessed, baggy shorts crowd. In the years that followed, Incubus carved a niche for themselves as a competent hard rock band with a large, devoted fanbase, but had seemingly lost the hunger for experimentation that made them such a joy in their early years.
Following the release of frontman Brandon Boyd’s debut solo effort, The Wild Trapeze, last year, Incubus have returned with their first studio record in five years. It seems that Boyd going solo has had adisharmonising effect on the group dynamic, because for large sections of If Not Now, When?, it may as well be a Brandon Boyd album anyway. Incubus are blessed with phenomenal musicians, and part of the appeal of the band has always been the invention and genre-hopping of the sounds that came through the speakers, but it seems to have gone. Mike Einziger is a gifted guitarist, Ben Kenney creates greatbasslines almost at will (as you’d expect from someone who used to be in The Roots), but here they’re merely a foil for Brandon Boyd’s vision. It’s dispiriting to see this once fresh band be reduced to the status of back-up to a pretty boy singer.
This wouldn’t be quite so difficult to stomach if Boyd had become a better frontman in the intervening years but, if anything, he’s got worse. At a guess, his lyrics were written independently of the rest of the songs and as a result, he struggles to bend them to fit the music. The cadences and stresses are all in the wrong place – witness Promises, Promises’ awkward, “I’m a big fan OF yours AND I need a big mistake” – bringing to mind James Dean Bradfield’s noble attempts to fit Richey Edwards’ bile-fuelled rhetoric into songs in the early days of Manic Street Preachers.
And what lyrics they are! They may seem profound on the surface, but dig a little deeper and it’s a mish-mash of new-age, gap year nonsense and ham-fisted attempts at seduction. Boyd comes across as the kind of guy who’d befriend you, ask to borrow money, donate it all to a commune, then sleep with your girlfriend, claiming it was inevitable because she was a Scorpio. When he croons, “you should never have to defend being friends and lovers,” on Friends and Lovers, it’s more than a little creepy.
Musically, If Not Now, When? mostly sticks to epic sounds more suited to stadia. It’s also difficult to work out what turntablist DJ Kilmore actually does any more. As the albums progresses though, some of the old spark starts to return. The seven minute In The Company Of Wolves is fairly forgettable until near the end where the distortion pedal gets a bashing and the band really let loose. Maybe that’s a wake-up call; next track Switchblade is fun, if a little on the Red Hot Chili Peppers side, and that’s followed byAdolescents, which has shades of the A Crow Left Of The Murder... era, and finally discovers the big chorus that’s sadly lacking in the other tracks.
So, there are still hints of the old magic, but Brandon Boyd seems to have taken control of Incubus’ musical direction and put himself even more centre-stage. Too many songs are simply a vehicle for him pushing his voice to its limits, and little else. After half a decade away, If Not Now, When? really does feel like a misstep. Hopefully a little creative control can be wrestled away from Boyd in the future, otherwise a much under-rated band really could be lost forever.

Why I left Twitter

I left Twitter last week. This isn't news in itself and barely warrants comment at all, but I did have some followers (somewhere in the region of 120), several of whom I corresponded with on a regular basis. So, if you'll indulge me, I'd quite like to state my reasons for leaving.

Firstly, I was just spending too much time on there. Last week I had some free time in which I hoped to get lots of writing and subbing done. As it goes, I managed a fair bit, but not as much as I could have done, and Twitter was the main cause of that. Although it only takes a couple of minutes to check your feed and compose a couple of replies, that all adds up over the course of a day. Hopefully, no Twitter means more time to write, and perhaps more time to write self-serving blog entries like this.

Secondly, the News of the World hacking story broke last week. It probably appears horribly solipsistic and crass to draw any link at all between private investigators deleting the voicemails of missing children and me leaving a social networking site. However, when the story really went stratospheric, my news feed was full of bile, condemnation and links to further information. It's important to state that I wholeheartedly agree that these were terrible acts but, at the risk of sounding immature, I like to go on Twitter for a bit of knockabout fun and to talk rubbish about pop music. While the Twitter campaigns are admirable and, in the case of last week certainly, appear to work in some cases, that's not what I want of Twitter. Does this make me a bad person? Maybe, but it's the truth.

Finally, something that will mean absolutely nothing to an awful lot of people. Recently, a thread was started on The Word Magazine website about a perceived "clique," with their own brand of in-jokes and sycophancy. I don't believe a clique in such a form exists, but if there were one, I'm self-aware enough to know that, as a long-time and frequent poster, I'm more than likely part of it. When you can be deemed part of an online clique, I think it's time to take a look at the world you inhabit and take a step back.

Of course, the natural response to this would be to leave The Word Magazine website instead of/as well as Twitter, but The Word blog doesn't sap my time like Twitter does. Plus, I've made a good few friends via The Word (not just online, I mean real people that I've actually met in real life and everything), and I didn't want to completely restrict contact with them. So, sure, maybe not the ideal way to do things, but it's a compromise that works for me.

So, it's not necessarily forever and it wasn't me flouncing off in a huff with anyone. No-one's upset me, no-one's said anything that offended me, in fact, it's all pretty uninteresting. I just stepped back a bit and realised it wasn't what I wanted any more. I joined Twitter two years ago to promote my writing and, ironically, it was stopping me doing the writing in the first place.

I'm still on Facebook though. Don't know why - it's rubbish.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Wireless Festival 2011

The Wireless Festival isn’t really a festival at all. Festivals bring to mind tents, roll-mats, queues to get off the motorway and a part of the world you’d never normally visit. Wireless Festival takes place in the middle of Hyde Park in London – you’ve probably heard of it. It’s ludicrously easy to get to (there’s a tube station about a minute from the entrance) and there’s no camping allowed. As a result, Wireless cleverly puts on three completely different days of music. Friday was pop day, Saturday was dance day and Sunday was alternative day.
I gain entrance to the park and found the Janelle Monáe set already in full swing on the main stage. She may not have been around for too long, but she knows how to play a crowd like an industry veteran. There was dancing, crowd-surfing, call and response, and a bizarre moment where the band descended to a hush while Janelle encouraged the whole audience to sit on the floor. She was backed by a frighteningly competent band who seemed to be having just as much fun as the audience and whose dance moves were expertly choreographed. Reportedly, after her performance at the Glastonbury Festival was televised, sales of Janelle Monáe’s album, The ArchAndroid, rose 5,000%. Having seen her at Wireless, it’s not the least bit surprising.
Such a great opening meant next act, Katy B, had a lot to live up to. Eyebrows were raised earlier this year when I awarded her debut album, On A Mission, 9/10 on No Ripcord, but it’s a rating I still stand by months later. However, Katy B’s live performance came across slightly flat. Jumping up and down a bit and employing the tired trope of having some guy shout, “make some NOISE!” over half the lyrics isn’t the most engaging thing in the world. When you’ve just seen Janelle Monáe cover The Jackson Five with dancers dressed as Everton mints, you’re on a hiding to nothing really. Katy B’s idea of getting the crowd hyped may work in a dark club at 2am, but on a balmy June afternoon, it sadly doesn’t hit the spot.
The last two years have seen me rediscover my love of pop, but I still hadn’t actually seen an out and out chart pop act in a live setting. That’s why I was really quite looking forward to seeing Ke$ha. I wasn’t particularly familiar with her oeuvre but the subject matter of her songs soon became clear: drinking, partying and sex. Subtlety is clearly not in the Ke$ha dictionary – any time there was a line that may or may not have been a sexual advance, she’d point to her crotch, just to make sure there wasn’t any doubt. We were invited to go in her “glovebox” and told there was “a slumber party in my basement” while all around me, the crowd seemed to know every single word. Overcoming my initial bafflement, I got completely swept up in the euphoria and, despite it being the trashiest experience of my life so far, had an absolute riot. Say what you like about Ke$ha but she knows how to put on a show. It’s not often you see someone pretend to tear the limbs off their dancers and proceed to drink the blood from their heart. Towards the end, she shouted, “London! There’s one problem! There’s not enough glitter ON MY TITS!” The crowd roared and dancers in hot pants were deployed to add sparkle to her décolletage. You don’t get this sort of thing at your average Fleet Foxes gig.
Like Janelle Monáe before her, the sheer showmanship of Ke$ha meant that the next act were almost inevitably going to be a disappointment. The unlucky people this time round were Canadian electrofunk duoChromeo. Their keyboard stands looked like ladies’ legs in high heels, they had a talkbox and… that was about it in terms of interesting aspects of Chromeo’s set. After twenty minutes of music that had my attention wandering, it was decided that a pint of overpriced lager in a paper cup and a kangaroo burger were a more enticing prospect.
It’s often the case that you can feel completely outside of a movement. The popularity of an artist confuses you, not just because you don’t connect with their music, but because you’ve barely heard of them and it’s a shock to find out just how popular they are. This is what happened to me when I stumbled into Devlin’s set. The crowd were going crazy for Devlin’s freestyle MCing, but to me it just recalled the dark days of UK hip-hop before Dizzee Rascal and Roots Manuva broke through. I was half expecting him to bring out Mark B and Blade for a guest spot, but instead he brought out Ed Sheeran. Ed Sheeran is a ruddy-faced urchin who’s recently had a big hit in the UK with The A Team. However, I’ve no idea why, as he displayed all the talent and originality of a busker on the London Underground.
So, as has probably been covered in enough detail, I was left cold by Devlin and when he departed, my friends and I (including top NR scribe Craig Stevens) went to the front of the stage anticipating Battles. Poor, poor Battles. After setting up all their equipment, they launched into their opening number, only to immediately blow the speakers. An apology followed, as did twenty minutes or so of panicked roadies frantically turning things off and on again. It became clear we weren’t going to get a song any time soon, so props to drummer John Stanier who did his utmost to keep the crowd entertained with a marathon drum solo. Clearly no-one goes to a show to see a drum solo, but the audience were patient and we received more apologies from the group. Eventually, the band started playing, but only had time for two songs and it was clear something still wasn’t quite right. They were granted an extension and soldiered on for one more track, which still didn’t quite hit the spot. Battles left the stage to sympathetic applause, telling us, “we owe you a proper show next time,” but it was hard not to feel disappointed. Poor Battles.
After Battles’ departure, it wasn’t long before the stage was lit an eerie shade of red and full of space-age mixing desks. A giant net loomed in front of the crowd, on to which numbers were being projected. It all appeared to make no sense, which was completely to be expected as I was awaiting the arrival of Aphex Twin. A ripple of applause broke out, a silhouette made its way behind the mixing desk, and a bass note was played at the kind of volume and frequency which made my internal organs scream. A bit more ear-bleed tomfoolery occurred and then he broke out into Windowlicker, and the party really started. Unfortunately, the problem with Aphex Twin is that he makes dance music that’s impossible to dance to. This is fine at home, but in a big, sweaty tent, you’re in the mood for some communal swaying. Quarter of an hour in, I had an epiphany. He won’t even show his face, he’s being wilfully difficult and the potential fight next to me featuring a shove-happy stoner and the world’s most Cockney man is more interesting to me than the music, therefore I’m off. And leave the tent I did, not that the silly, beardy fool would have cared one jot.
This is the bit where I tell you all about the headliners, The Chemical Brothers. However, a combination of beer, bad timing and my kidneys (personally, I blame Aphex Twin) meant I found myself stranded from my friends on the edge of a heaving mass of people, with no way of getting back in. Twenty minutes into the Chemical Brothers set, they’d played one hit, I was too far away to get the real atmosphere, and I was frazzled from a whole day of music.
Remember I mentioned just how easy it is to get to Wireless Festival? It also means it’s incredibly easy to leave. So, call me a slacker, call me a quitter, call me a lightweight if you like, but I’ve never been a massive Chemical Brothers fan so I was happy to slink off into the evening unchallenged. I’d had a great day, but from my point of view, the best acts were all done and dusted by 5pm. I’d certainly go again next year though – when summer comes, that combination of good music, the open air and being with your friends is hard to beat.

Back to the Future

The 70s were great, weren’t they? Playing out in the street until sunset, summers that lasted forever and top quality pop. We had proper music back then, remember?

Actually, I don’t. Without wishing to sound too smug, I’m probably a fair bit younger than the average Rocking Vicar parishioner, which means I didn’t experience even a minute of the 70s. I grew up in the 90s as a music fan but not one in thrall to the NME, therefore my knowledge came second-hand: a cavalcade of “classic” tracks on the radio, retrospectives in magazines and stories from my elders about how much better things used to be in the 1970s. Of course, there were some phenomenal songs and albums from the decade and I’ve come to love Nick Drake, The Faces and Stevie Wonder. But there’s also been plenty of good music in every era since the birth of pop, so I figured people were just being nostalgic.

The trouble with so much music broadcasting and publishing is that it aims either for the ‘up-to-the- minute’ brigade or the heritage market, and they both get romanticised in the process. Which is why I was looking forward to the BBC4 “real-time” re-runs of Top Of The Pops so much; I’d get an objective view of what was really going on in the past, warts and all. In times of infinite choice, it’s actually something of a novelty to listen to music from a precise moment in time.

Of course, anyone who was there at the time was also looking forward to these re-runs but for different reasons. I was swept along in their enthusiasm, imagining the fusion of disco, glam, soul and pop I would be feasting on week after week. I was also prepared to see punk gradually creep into the nation’s consciousness over the months. Punk barely existed in mid-1976, but soon became the most important musical revolution since Elvis or The Beatles. I was breathless with anticipation.

So, what did I find? The mighty Led Zeppelin succumbing to an onslaught from the brutality of The Clash? Not quite.

Brotherhood of Man, ABBA, terrible knitwear, acres of AOR, bands whose mothers had probably forgotten they existed, and vocoders. Lots of vocoders. My initial reaction was one of shock and denial. The notion this was just a bad week and soon the real quality would emerge. But next week, Brotherhood of Man were still number one … and the week after.

I loved it. I was hooked.

This isn’t some kind of ‘guilty pleasure’ admission; it’s a genuine feeling of warmth towards old episodes of a much-loved show. Pop music has been a huge part of my life since I could talk, so I’m interested in every aspect of it. That’s why I find these broadcasts endlessly fascinating - taking the rough with the smooth, the good with the bad - and forming my own opinions. It’s a rare opportunity to observe cultural history without editing, cherry-picking or prejudice.

Of course, some of the music is terrible, and I sit through the offending acts impatiently waiting. However, I’ve made several discoveries. The height of sophisticated pop it is not, but S-S-Single Bed by Fox is a marvellous record. I never knew Isaac Hayes took a funk monster like Disco Connection into the Top 10. I’d never heard the Sensational Alex Harvey Band or Sailor before. Nor did I have any idea The Wurzels had had a chart topping record and it was news to me that reissues of Beatles singles were high in the charts in 1976.

What I’ve come to realise is that this show is part of our national heritage. It is tremendous these shows were broadcast in the first place, but the realisation that so many are still available in the BBC archive really is marvellous.

In 2011, we’re all equal. It doesn’t matter if you were there or not, every Thursday, we all get to revisit 1976 in all its synthetic, tacky, glittering, snarling, bombastic and melodramatic glory. And that’s more than enough for me.