Franz Ferdinand/Sparks : F.F.S, released June 2015

Franz Ferdinand recording with Sparks?! A dream collaboration, resulting in this new album. Along with early Roxy Music, Sparks’ TV performances still stand out when shown on the many music compilations shows from the 70s (thanks BBC4!) and their ‘The Number One Song In Heaven’ is prime-cut electronica from 1979. Franz Ferdinand continue to be a formidable live attraction (see my review on this site) and last album ‘Right Words…’ kept up their high standard.

The sixteen tracks kick off with ‘Johnny Delusional’, a keyboard-led stomper and from the start it is clear that this offspring has shared the traits from the two parents equally. ‘Call Girl’ keeps the energy up, then listening onwards you get the feeling that they are recording all sorts of styles and ideas, then without thinking too much sticking it on the album anyway. A commendable attitude indeed, this experimentation yields many delights – the most spectacular being the many sections of mini-operetta ‘Collaborations Don’t Work’, probably unlike anything else released this year?

Across the songs the lyrical subject matter covers modern obsessions, cultural touchstones, semi-obscure icons, death references (‘so many bridges in the world to jump off of….’) and the music jumps around unpredictably. ‘Save Me From Myself’ could be an Abba greatest hit and ‘The Power Couple’ an excerpt from an updated Brecht/Weill songbook.

It is all a bit much in one listen, but give the album time, you will be occasionally disappointed but in the end richly rewarded…

http://www.franzferdinand.com/
http://allsparks.com/

Half Man Half Biscuit, The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, 12 June 2015

‘At DFS a job I have landed
But I don’t get paid for the first five years…’

If that raises a smile you could be a potential fan of the cult national treasure that is Half Man Half Biscuit. They arrived on stage to the sounds of ‘Summer Is A-Comen In’ from the film The Wicker Man, a tribute to recently deceased actor Christopher Lee and as soon as they started it was clear that The Apex was a fine venue for their show, with good sound quality allowing the words to be heard.

Frontman Nigel Blackwell continues to explore the lyrical backwoods of living in small towns, daytime TV, musical trends, forgotten celebrities and one-time sports stars. His surreal narratives combine astute observations, rants, jokes, absurd wordplay and almost unintentionally end up as social documents of the minutiae of life not recorded elsewhere.

Sometimes more serious subjects are filtered through the same process and make statements about unemployment (‘Turned Up, Clocked On, Laid Off’), mental illness (‘Used To Be In Evil Gazebo’) and death (‘When The Evening Sun Goes Down’). Of course there are the ‘love songs’, she always leaves (with featureless TV Producer Steve… in ‘The Light At The End Of The Tunnel’), or is missing and renders all else pointless (‘For What is Chatteris…’) or there are relationship misunderstandings (‘My Outstretched Arms’).

And there is much much more; celebrate the delights of Korfball in ‘Joy in Leeuwarden’, experience the insomnia of ‘Restless Legs’, recall that BBC 6Music was nearly closed down if it hadn’t been for the campaigning anthem ‘Joy Division Oven Gloves’ and of course relive the anticipation and disappointments of ‘All I Want For Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit’.

In the two hour show early songs from ‘Back In the DHSS’ (their first album and John Peel favourite) went down a storm, as did the newest tracks from current album ‘Urge For Offal’ but their back catalogue is so rich there was plenty else they could have included.

Its not just the words and wit, they are not to be underestimated musically. As a live outfit they are a taut, noisy post-punk riot of guitars, drums and grinding bass. Between songs Nigel holds the crowd with tall tales and reminiscence, handing out luxury backstage crisps and getting the front row to decipher the setlist. He is a likeable bloke and clearly still enjoys performing and meeting his audience. It was a brilliant show; they play dates now and then instead of long tours, probably a very civilized way to be?

All together now…
‘For you I’d lose my self-esteem
For you I’d lose my self-esteem
For Crewe I’d use Junction 16…’

http://www.chrisrand.com/hmhb/
http://cobweb.businesscollaborator.com/hmhb/

Trick Bird : Window EP, released June 2015

The new EP from Cambridge musician Trick Bird, a collection of self-penned tracks, well-crafted inviting sounds with their apparent summery lightness tempered by a darkening edge.

1. Window. The title song is a catchy pop tune, nicely arranged with a distinctive hook in which the narrator is fascinated and tempted by a vision/imagined temptation in a window, but like Odysseus drawn to the Sirens’ enchanted call you sense it would not end well.

2. Horizontal View. A similar musical feel to track one, evolving from an echoing guitar intro into a more complex sound. A slightly sinister lyric about snow, forests and hidden paths. Driven along well by drums and multi layered guitars, but still a feeling of claustrophobia..

3.The Great Escape. Pulsing bass line with almost whispered vocal, not sure what the paranoid singer is escaping from, this one is all about texture and ambience.

4. Chase. Relaxing acoustic strumming and a gentle repeating guitar line coiling around the layers of other instruments floating in and out, including some rather lovely strings taking over at the end..

5. Sleep All Day (Dream All Night). A suggestion of early Pink Floyd or Genesis (1970 album ‘Trespass’) for this song describing cycling through a graveyard and then becoming enveloped in its more mystical elements (like the ivy entangling the gravestones?). It is my favourite track, a sparse but rich arrangement, with atmospheric keyboards and more strings..

http://www.trickbird.co.uk/
http://trickbird.bandcamp.com/releases

Tellison, Corner House, Cambridge, 4 June 2015

It was time for the rockier side of Indie tonight at a packed and hot Corner House. First on were Goldblume, a Cambridge based trio, their ‘angsty rock’ featuring great interplay between guitar and punchy bass and compact, optimistic songs. Frontman Jethro built a good rapport with the audience, it was a strong opening to the show.
Accompanying Tellison on several dates this tour, quartet Bad Ideas from Lincoln are soon to record a third album. They have a fearsome and formidable sound, convincingly played, with lots of clever guitar touches. The pace and enthusiasm of their set did not relent and they were well received by the crowd.

Based in London, Tellison formed in 2003 are working on their third album, the follow-up to the highly regarded ‘The Wages of Fear’ from 2011.
They are definitely a compelling and interesting band, with their feet in many camps, from noisy anthemic rock to quirky or intellectual lyrical twists and musical turns. It was all on show tonight, I was very impressed.

‘Freud Links The Teeth And The Heart’ is a subtle song ‘..about falling in love with your dentist..’, representing their quieter side, while the more recent ‘Tact is Dead’ is a showstopper, with great descending guitar riff and the loudest grinding bass line I have heard for a while.

Singer Stephen Davidson has a dry humour and confident presence; he was surprised how comparatively quiet the Cambridge audience were but he decided it was because we were listening attentively. I think he was right, there certainly was plenty to take in and appreciate.

According to their website they are ‘…stepping up to take another swing at, if not the big time, at least the medium time…’
I look forward to the new album…

http://www.tellison.co.uk/
http://badideasband.tumblr.com/
https://www.facebook.com/goldblumeband

The Ukrainians, Junction, Cambridge, 25 May 2015

The Ukrainians returned to Cambridge on a Monday bank holiday evening in the intimate setting of Junction J2. Singer-songwriter Ellie Jamison opened the show, performing heartfelt songs with her pure natural voice and gently played acoustic guitar, accompanied by subtle percussion. The set was well received, with her warm and engaging personality evident in her asides to the audience, but the numbers in the venue were few at this point so it was difficult to create much of an atmosphere, until the final more up-tempo track.

In 1991 The Ukrainians were founded by ex-Wedding Present guitarist Peter Solowka and violinist and singer Len Liggins. Quickly establishing a reputation for frenetic live shows they have continued to record and tour. Always singing in ukrainian, with a mixture of traditional folk and rock instruments they have appeal across many genres. During their career they have occasionally recorded versions of some cult rock classics such as an early EP of four Smiths songs. Now their latest project is a new album ‘A History Of Rock Music In Ukrainian’ with a tour featuring tracks from it…

Chronologically and thematically random, ‘I Predict A Riot’, ‘Psycho Killer’, ‘Venus In Furs’ and ‘The Model’ all work really well and who can resist ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ with an accordion break or ‘Hound Dog’ accelerating from slow blues to full speed blast. When all six musicians are in full flight the combination of guitar, mandolin, bass, drums, violin, accordion, unidentified pipes and vocals is unstoppable, a bit like The Pogues in their heyday (and still now, see my review from last year…). Western music does not in general get gradually faster over the duration of the song, but it is an infectious and addictive rush when it does.
I missed some of their more ‘traditional’ and much-loved songs (with lyrics about crows, bread and lost donkeys?), but I like the idea that they are trying something a bit different on this tour.

This was the fourth time I have seen the band, it is always a real treat, catch them next time they are here!

http://www.the-ukrainians.com/
https://www.facebook.com/eljamisonmusic/app_2405167945

Psychic Lemon, Corner House, Cambridge, 16 May 2015

Free entry to the Corner House pub to see two Cambridge guitar bands of individuality and distinction, that’s a good night out!

The British IBM (named after a line in a TV drama about the aspirations of computer pioneers in Cambridge) were minus their drummer and so chose to play with just acoustic guitar and bass.
I have seen the full line-up previously and heard many of these songs so I knew they are sharp and impressive, even in the ‘unplugged’ mode. The opening two songs ‘Animal’ and ‘Sugar Water’ are short segments of pop zest, with interesting lyrical ideas (…do you want to sell sugar water or do you want to change the world?…). ‘3 Years’ and ‘Cannibal’ are heavier and angrier and promising new songs from their delayed second album were also featured. The stately final song ‘The British IBM’ is exceptional, the recorded version with strings (and exemplary drumming!) has the feel of Oasis and The Beatles with an aching lyric of disappointment and longing. And a great hook-line chorus that lodges into your brain. Tonight it was the perfect finish to a great set.

Psychic Lemon, reviewed previously on this site, have a contrasting sound, twin effects-laden guitars and long instrumental sections recreate the atmosphere of heady 1960s experimental shows and they do it incredibly well. Opening track ‘Dilator’ blended seamlessly into the next two. ‘Good Cop/Bad Cop’ was lighter, then the rest of the set built up to the explosive finale of ‘TickToc’.
I think their intensity (especially the formidable drumming!) had increased since the last time I saw them, perhaps the bass and drums were a little muddy in the mix this time, but I love the music and the dedicated way they play it.
Hopefully an album is appearing soon?

https://psychiclemon.bandcamp.com/
http://www.thebritishibm.com/

Belle and Sebastian, Corn Exchange, Cambridge, 7 May 2015

Belle and Sebastian formed in Glasgow in 1996 and despite several albums and live performances they have passed me by, so tonight at the long sold-out Corn Exchange was a chance for me to see what I have been missing…

Opening the show were Lower Dens from Baltimore, a four piece band fronted by the emotive voice of enigmatic songwriter Jana Hunter, the vocals sounding like a hybrid of Anna Calvi and Siouxsie Sioux. Musically dark and quite sparse, at times a variant on pop keyboard electronica and then taking a turn into bottleneck guitar loops. There was a gorgeous song featuring the unique tones of a fretless bass. The intriguing and compact set was well received (the Cambridge audience in place early as usual!) and lingered in the mind long after they had left the stage.

While the stage was being set for the headliners, we were treated to a documentary film about the history of Glasgow up to 1980. Fascinating stuff, then finally the string players arrived on stage, followed by the rest of the band, thirteen in total to reproduce the instrumental style and quirks of their recorded output with a combination of guitars, keyboards, cello, recorder, flute and more. Stuart Murdoch is one of the most relaxed and engaging frontmen I have seen for a while, starting seated at the electric piano for ‘Nobody’s Empire’, he was soon off the stage and walking along the tightrope of the front barrier, supported by the arms of the crowd (including me!?). ‘I’m A Cuckoo’, one of their more well known songs was followed by the disco-stomp of ‘The Party Line’ (an appropriate title for general election day). ‘Perfect Couples’ was sung by guitarist Stevie Jackson and like many of the songs this featured artfully designed back projections. Just for this show this included a quick view of ‘University Challenge’ while the string section performed the theme tune…

There was always plenty going on, scan the stage and see that the band had swapped instruments or something new to contribute to the sound had appeared. There was a big crowd reaction for the stripped back acoustic ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’ which I think shows the key to their longevity; I heard that a fan said that whatever your emotional state or life-experience there was a Belle and Sebastian song that would describe it and their devoted fan base have bought into this. They are not always comfortable lyrics, as some of the slightly strange album and song titles indicate. ‘The Cat With The Cream’ was introduced as their political song, ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ was high energy europop. Members of the audience were on stage dancing to the sixties hipster vibe of ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’, some stayed up there for another song and somehow it just seemed part of the laid back celebratory feel of the evening.

‘Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance’ is the new album, many reviewers say it shows a new direction but all the essentials are still there and they sound superb live…

http://www.belleandsebastian.com/news
http://lowerdens.com/