J.Tillman – Singing Ax

If there was a way to bottle a voice and feed it to those most in need of relaxation therapy then the voice that would be chosen would be J Tillman’s.  Without a doubt.

Most of you will remember this man from last year when I voted his record ‘A Year In The Kingdom’ in my top 10 records of 2009.  There was also a lovely review of his show at Nice N’ Sleazy’s by my friend Heidi Kuisma.  A show I tragically missed due to a broken headlight in my car.

Anyways, ‘A Year In The Kingdom’ was, and is, a stunning piece of music, made even more impressive by the fact that he had already released a brilliant record in the form of ‘Vacillando Territory Blues’ at the beginning of 2009.  Joining Fleet Foxes as their drummer at the end of 2008 undoubtedly helped raise his profile as an artist, but let’s not forget that the man, discovered and propelled forward by city mate Damien Jurado, was already an established artist with a small, but cult, following.  And deservedly so.  However, similarly to Jurdao I have no idea why his following is not bigger than it is.  It really should be.

‘Singing Ax’ is J Tillman’s seventh full length record.  And it could well be his bleakest and best to date.  There is something old worldly about this record.  Something that makes me think of times past.  Times lost.  Times missed.  From the moment ‘Three Sisters’ starts you know that you are in for a sparse, bleak and mournful record that will suck you deep into it and take you on a difficult journey before releasing you back into the real world.

Make no mistake, this record is all about Tillman’s guitar playing and voice.  And his words.  The sparseness of the recordings allowing the words to take centre stage and highlighting Tillman as not only a talented songwriter but an ever increasingly brilliant poet.   Had a band been employed on these recordings then I think a lot of the beauty would have been lost.  When the instrumentation is used – such as the drums at the end of ‘Our Beloved Tyrant’ – it is done so perfectly and subtly to lift the track for just a mere instant.  And then it’s gone.  In the blink of an eye.  Allowing Tillman’s voice to take back command of the audience.

‘Mere Ornaments’ is as bleak as it gets.  Almost medieval and religious in tone, Tillman’s voice is at its most eerily beautiful and poignant on this track.  It’s probably my favourite on the record and I don’t think I can explain why.  There’s just something magical about it.

This really is a dark record.  At times it feels like walking through a dark, haunted winters forest.  The branches reaching out to try and grab you and pull you in.  Yet you can hear a voice.  A voice guiding you through the darkness and to the other side.  It’s a lovely juxtaposition that J Tillman manages to perfectly create.  Never more so as on closing track ‘A Seat at the Table’.  The music dark and disconcerting, the voice perfectly soothing and beautiful.  You feel like you’ve made it through the darkness by the end.  It’s a pretty great feeling.   I really don’t think I can do this album or this artist justice with my words.  He never fails to amaze me.

You can check out Singing Ax and J Tillman here.  Please do.  Enjoy.

Why I Love #3

Angie Mack writes a wonderful blog entitled Satellite for Entropy.  She does other things too obviously, but it’s through this blog that I came to know her.  She lives far away in a land full of poisonous animals but, in between trying to stay alive, she has taken the time to contribute ‘Why I Love #3.

I don’t really know what to title this one, so I’ll just let you read it yourselves.  And remember, if you’d like to contribute a piece you can do so by dropping me a line at mini50records@hotmail.co.uk

Do check out Angie’s blog.  In the meantime, enjoy:

I was sure I was going to have an epiphany, that a revelation of sorts would occur somewhere down the line if I just gave it enough time. When I decided to write this, I thought it would be easy purely because there are countless things in the world that I love, some of them easy to explain why, some of them impossible, but I felt confident there would be at least one which would ultimately become the obvious choice. So I sat down with my thoughts every so often and examined them and the things I love, piece by piece like they were a box of old things I’d brought out to see if there was something I could dust and make all shiny.

I say old things because this process is not something new to me. I spend a lot of my time simply thinking; examining and exploring the intricacies I find in things – in music, in words and stories, in the world…in myself. I think that there are microcosms, little worlds of thought, to be found within everything. Thoughts which can be delved into and where the possibilities for discovering connections to other things is potentially infinite, perhaps limited only by the scope of what I know, understand and what I’m prepared to include in those thoughts.

When I write about the things I love, I tend to meander quite a bit, stray from the point (if I even have one) and often leave thoughts unfinished – sometimes because they can’t be ‘finished’, they exist without conclusion and just like to wander about in various places, taking a sightseeing tour and meeting up with other strays from anywhere and everywhere. It’s similar to what would happen when my mother brought out the box she kept under her bed.

When I was very young, sometimes on rainy days or just when the mood struck her, she would take it out and we would sit on her bed as she went through the things she kept in there – momentoes – and told me stories. Her hands would trace over faces in photographs, familiar to her but always strangers to me, while she told me who they were and things they once said, which would inevitably lead into other memories and stories. My understanding of the places she’d travelled, the memories she shared, was very limited and I’ve long since fogotten many of the details of the things she told me, but not the significance of reasons why she kept all those things, or the sheer pleasure of the ritual, which I now use almost every time I think about anything.

And so, when I sat down with my thoughts, I wanted to find something of similar significance to me and out came all the things I love and have kept to one side in the hope of one day finding the right way – or in some cases the courage – to tell their stories. At the top are the reasons why I love music, and why I love writing about it. Then there is my love of words themselves – a word that is a shape-shifter and speaks sometimes like Shakespeare, other times like Homer Simpson. There are books of ancient fairy tales, pebbles, old jewellery, new boots, stars, cheese, empty bottles of perfume, ticket stubs, colours and maybe even a universe in there, which makes the task of finding just one thing to talk about a difficult challenge, but I love going through them, remembering why they’re important, imagining other things or simply indulging in the process of thought.

Which is one of the things I love most, those moments in time when my mind wanders as it wonders, and I will invariably love anything that gives me the opportunity to do just that. As to the reasons why… I’m going to have to think about it some more.

FIRES Were Shot – Awakened By A Lonely Feud

Pete Seeger, once said:

“any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple.”

I read this quote recently on Scrawls and Bawls and it really stuck in my head.  I think it’s so true.  To make something so simple and yet so beautiful is a skill that many try but not many truly achieve.

FIRES Were Shot are a duo from Austin, Texas.   They create sublime soundscapes using little more than a couple of guitars and their effects pedals.  In many ways, it is ambient music in its simplest form.  However, to take something so simple yet make it so dense and moving is something not many artists can achieve.  And it’s weird because more than any other record that I’ve listened to this year I am sucked in deeper and deeper by this record.

There really is a hypnotic quality to the music that makes me feel like I’m sitting or walking in a dream like state as the music pours through me.  As ‘Cradles’ kicks in, I certainly don’t feel like I’m in an Edinburgh office, surrounded by work colleagues.  I don’t notice the phone ring.  I don’t notice a colleague ask me about my Christmas.  I don’t even notice the time disappear.  How did we get to 2pm?  ‘We All Become Regretful’ has a similar impact.  I could be floating above the room for all I know, looking in on myself.  The fever I’ve had for the past couple of days playing tricks on me, rather than the music forcing these thoughts from my brain?  I don’t think so.

But this is what makes FIRES Were Shot so brilliant.  It does sound simple.  It really does.  However, it’s how they interweave the noise, tones and moments in each track that takes the listener to these other worlds.  Worlds that normally only exist in dreams.  I like how FIRES Were Shot sound like my dreams.  I really do.  ‘Go On And Carried Out’, with it’s lovely acoustic tones carry me to a land where nothing seems to matter.  Children’s voices in the background reminding me of a time long ago.   Of clouds made from marshmallow and rivers of salad cream.  Ok, I’ll come back to reality now.

The fact is that this album really does create some magical worlds in my head.  It’s stunning to think it’s simply 2 guitarists.  The whole thing is built around some very simple melodies and modest chord progressions.  And therein lies the genius of this record.  To have such an emotive impact using so little.  By simply distorting the truth.  Not many records turn my brain into a world of madness whilst simultaneously relaxing my body.  This album and this band and I are going to become very good friends.  I can tell.

You can check out FIRES Were Shot here.  If you, like I, enjoy dreaming then make sure you do.  Enjoy.

Mogwai – Special Moves (Live)

‘Friend of the Night’ by Mogwai is, and always will be, one of my all time favourite pieces of music.  When the chorus kicks in; big, noisey, fuzzy guitars, bass and drums are complimented perfectly by the most beautiful piano line.  It is, for me, almost the perfect moment in music.  It never fails to move me.

Live Mogwai are simply stunning.  Over the years I have seen them in a tiny little venue in Nijmegen in the Netherlands, at the Barrowlands, at the Corn Exchange, at Cabaret Voltaire, at the Usher Hall and in a tent at T in the Park.  On every single occasion I have been blown away by their brilliance. 

My obsession with their music was born in 1999 when I was introduced to ‘Come On Die Young’ by a friend whilst we were living in the Netherlands.  What I heard on that record was so fresh and interesting to me.  Instrumental music?  Noise music?  I’d never heard anything like it.  Somehow, as the years have gone on, they have managed to retain their relevance in a musical field that has expanded in size and quality.  Nowadays, loads of bands do what Mogwai do. Simply put, nobody comes close to doing it as well as them.  They still stand head and shoulders above all others in my opinion.

Now, as a rule, I tend not to love live albums.  I don’t know why.  I guess I just like a record to be a record and if I want to see the band live I will go and see them live.  However, this is different.  This is brilliant for so many reasons.  A lot of credit for this has to go to Jon Cummings of the band who mixed the record.  The attention to detail is incredible; every instrument is allowed to breathe and exist and have its place.  It would be easy for a guitar line or a piano line to be lost in the noise.  For one instrument to drown out another.  But that never seems to happens with this record.  It weirdly makes me think of doing music at school.  In many ways it could be the perfect lesson for young kids.  Remember when you were at school doing music and your teacher used to ask you to identify the instruments being played on any given piece of music? Now, that’s not actually that easy to do.  Not unless the production is such that each instrument has its place.  You can do that with this record, such is the production quality.  Each instrument is placed perfectly in the mix.  Major tip of the hat to Jon Cummings on that one.

Secondly, what I love about this record is the cross section of Mogwai’s work that is displayed here.  It’s almost a scattering of their career to date.  Tracks from Young Team, Come On Die Young, Rock Action, Happy Songs, Mr Beast and The Hawk Is Howling, put together so perfectly to recreate the live experience.

Turn this record up loud.  Do it.  Because though it will never come close to matching the real life experience of seeing one of the worlds best live acts, it does have an amazing ability to cover your body in goose bumps when listened to at full blast.  It’s hard to explain if you’ve never seen them live, but when Mogwai play it feels like their music flows through you.  It feels like an energy burning in your blood.  It’s SO loud at times but never painfully so.  Whenever I’ve seen them live, I have never felt anything but complete and utter joy. 

I guess maybe for me, having loved this band for nearly 12 years and having seen them live so many times, this record has a massive emotional connection for me.  Perhaps that is something that makes me love it even more.  However, I would challenge anyone who turned this on, turned this up and wasn’t moved by tracks like ‘Friend Of The Night’, ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’, ‘2 Rights Make 1 Wrong’, ‘Like Herod’ and ‘Glasgow Megasnake.’  I could probably name every track on the record to be honest, such is the quality. 

I took a while to getting around to buying this album but the wait has been completely worth it.  It’s fuelled my excitement about the release of their new studio album ‘Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will’, to be released on 14th February 2011.  I cannot wait.  Mogwai never fail to impress me.  It’s probably the record I’m most looking forward to next year. 

If you don’t know Mogwai’s music.  What’s wrong with you!?  Check them out here.  Enjoy.

Merry Christmas

For all those who continue to read my blog.  Contribute to my blog.  Encourage me to keep writing.  For all the musicians who send me their music.  For all the musicians who continually inspire me with their music and remind me why I love music so much.  For all those people and for everybody else too.  Have a great Christmas and New Year.

Cory Allen – Pearls

Had I put together a list of my top EPs of 2010 then this one would, without doubt, top the lot.  I’d even rate it ahead of ‘Riser’ by Fieldhead, which, if you know this blog, pretty much sums up how I feel about this piece of music.  And I’ve only just recently received it as well.  Which, again, says a lot about the impact that this music has had on me.

On a slight tangent, but bare with me, Satellite for Entropy is a blog, which I have grown very fond of reading.  I think the writing on that blog is something truly special.  So much so, that on a number of occasions I have found myself not writing about a piece of music simply because nothing I could write would come close to describing the music in the way that Angie has already.  Take ‘A Young Persons Guide to Kyle Bobby Dunn’ for example.  It’s a piece of music I had planned to write about because it’s excellent.  That was until I stumbled upon Angie’s post about the record.  So, instead of me trying to express what is so important about that record, I suggest that you go here and enjoy her words instead.

However, I am using the words from that piece of writing to try and bring clarity to my own thoughts and allow me to express what it is about this particular piece of music that just leaves me a little breathless.  And that’s exactly what it does.  Leaves me breathless.

You know that way when you’re watching a really beautiful film, reading a wonderful book or even at a concert and you’re scared to blink or breathe in case you miss a single moment?  Well that’s how I feel when I listen to this record.  It’s about 40 minutes long, it sucks you in and it is over before you know it or want it to be.  All good music should be.  When all the component parts come together perfectly I think you should feel like you’ve been on a wonderful journey.  And more than that, you should feel that the breathlessness you’ve felt;  the fear to blink or breathe or move, has not been a success.  Like you’ve missed something important.  And the first thing you should want to do is go back to the start and listen all over again so that this time you take it all in and miss not one second of beauty.

I think it’s the subtlety in ambient music which brings it to life.  It’s a bit like writing a story in many ways (maybe).  You have to control the pace of a piece.  You have to find the right rhythm at the right time.  You have to draw the listener in and keep them in.  And when the word ‘minimalism’ is involved it really becomes all about the subtle moments throughout a piece.

I’ve talked about it before.  Ambient music tends to set a stage and build the characters as it goes along.  Cory Allen, in 4 songs has created a perfect piece of ambience that starts slowly, builds to a wonderful crescendo on, my, stand out track ‘Isozaki Clouds’ and finishes in a lovely warm haze.  ‘Pearls’ is a masterful piece of music by a young American who you really should check out if you get a moment.  And you should check out his record label Quiet Design also because they are releasing some wonderful things at the moment.  My next review will confirm that for you.  You can check out Cory here and his label here.  Enjoy.

Interview No. 22 – The Phantom Band

I’ve loved The Phantom Band for quite some time.  They were one of the first artists to headline Trampoline back in the day when we used to run shows in both Edinburgh and Glasgow.  Back then they were unsigned and just starting to make small waves.  Now they have 2 critically acclaimed albums to their name and are considered to be one of the most exciting and creative acts in Scotland and possibly the wider UK.  Having just returned from the USA, where they spent time supporting Frightened Rabbit, lead singer Rick Anthony has kindly taken time out and answered some questions that I put to him about the band, his solo ventures and Scottish music in general in this the 22nd interview here on The Steinberg Principle.  ‘The Wants’, the new album from The Phantom Band was in my top 10 for 2010.  It’s a brilliant record which, in my opinion, is a step forward from their critically acclaimed debut ‘Checkmate Savage’.  Without any doubt the most exciting Scottish act out there at the moment, please check them out here.  A massive thanks to Rick for his time too.  Enjoy.

TSP: The Phantom Bands new record ‘The Wants’ was recently released on Chemikal Underground.  Given the positive reception and plaudits that your debut received did you feel an extra pressure this time around?

RA: Not really. I think we were more aware of the process this time around (having done an album before) so at least we knew what we were getting into. We didn’t feel any pressure from having had good reviews- I think it’s quite important to not let that kind of thing affect your output or your approach to making music. We put pressure on ourselves in that we wanted to make an album we thought was better than the first but the moment you start trying to second guess or worry about what you think reviewers or your audience will like you’re doomed.

TSP: I assume you are getting out and about to tour the new record?  How important is touring for a band these days both commercially and from the perspective of attracting a new audience?

RA: Yeah we played at the CMJ festival in New York and then toured for a couple of weeks with Frightened Rabbit in the USA- that was fantastic. Then we were back for a bit and we just did a wee tour of the UK that finished in Glasgow last Sunday. Touring is a really good thing to do if you can because it allows you to raise your bands profile a little, explore your music in a pretty unique environment and I suppose there is also the possibility of selling some T-shirts and other stuff. I don’t know about it being commercially importantthough. I guess once you reach a certain level you could probably make a killing out of it but we’re certainly nowhere near there yet. I think a lot of people assume that bands make money out of tours but that is, by and large, far from the case. Many bands actually lose money on tours but do it in the hope of attracting a few new fans, rewarding the old ones and for the fun of playing every night. Listen to the Gillian Welch song ‘Everything is Free Now’- that’s a pretty accurate (and slightly devastating) assessment of the musician’s existence these days.

TSP: How does the song writing work within the band as a whole?  Is there one clear songwriter or are ideas generated together and played around with?

RA: Ideas are usually generated together. We play a lot in the studio all together and each person does what they want around a central idea- whether that’s a bass line, synth melody, guitar part, vocal or whatever. We record all our practices so we have hundreds of hours of material to sift through- there might be a few minutes out of an hour that has something we think we could explore and turn into something more tangible and complex and that’s the bit we take between our teeth and try and write around and expand upon. Obviously certain people have more of a hand in certain tracks than others but it all pretty much balances out in the end.

TSP: Chemikal Underground has a great track record for working with bands that are perhaps a little more experimental in nature.  How supportive have they been and how much creative freedom do you feel you have as artists?

RA: They have been fantastic for us- very supportive and really good people. I think, certainly in terms of our creative output, that we have complete control. They may pressure us now and again to get things done within a certain timeframe but, given that they’re the ones with the chequebook, that’s probably fair enough.

TSP: Was there a conscious choice at the time to sign to a label that would allow you to retain your creative freedom?

RA: Ha! You’re assuming that we had other choices? I think, given where we were as a band at that time, the types of labels who would have wanted any kind of creative control were precisely the ones who wouldn’t have gone near us in the first place. We were involved with a small London label called Trial and Error who were nice guys and interested in us doing an album, but then Chemikal came along got us drunk and took advantage of us.

TSP: Which other Scottish artists would you recommend that people check out?

RA: Ach there’s loads… Some goodies people may not have heard of already are Alasdair Roberts, Sparrow and the Workshop, Mystery Juice, Tut Vu Vu, RM Hubbert, Gareth Dickson, Call to Mind, Last Ones Left, John Knox Sex Club, The Ballad of Mable Wong, Early Songs, so on and so on etc. etc. etc.

TSP: What’s on the stereo at the moment?

RA: Right now I am listening to that new Emeralds album Does it Look Like I’m Here? and it’s very nice.

TSP: In 2009 you won the BAMS (Bloggers and Music Writers of Scotland) award for album of the year, for debut ‘Checkmate Savage’.  How did that feel and what do you think your chances are of repeating the feat in 2010?

RA: It was great. These days’ blogs play such a huge role in how people hear about new music so it was cool to get that honour. I am just getting round to answering these questions and I now know that we are 6th this year. That’s still pretty great though so cheers to all the bams.

TSP: Remembering that the competition is open to albums by artists out with Scotland, what would your top 5 records of 2010 be?

RA: In no order…

Joanna Newsom – Have One on Me

Alasdair Roberts- Too Long in this Condition

Sparrow and the Workshop- Crystals Fall

Janelle Monae- the Archandroid

Emeralds – Does it Look Like I’m Here

TSP: What does 2011 hold in store for you both in terms of The Phantom Band and side project Rick Redbeard?

RA: Probably a fair bit of touring with The Phantom Band and I’m aiming to record a Redbeard album later in the year and try and do something with that. I’ve got hundreds of songs rattling around in my head so I really need to get some of them out of there soon if I’m going to avoid losing my fucking mind.

TSP: Talking of which, do you find that Rick Redbeard and playing guitar for Early Songs provide you with a necessary outlet away from The Phantom Band?

RA: I haven’t played with Early Songs for ages but it was fun while I did- very, very different from The Phantom Band- I could just have a couple of beers and hide in the back behind my guitar while David took the heat at the front. It would be nice to have more time to spend on the Redbeard stuff I guess but then that’s true about so many things. When I play live it’s a very different experience from the PB as it’s all on me- but then there is something kind of freeing about that as you know you’re in complete control- I don’t have to worry about anyone’s gear breaking or someone being out of tune- if something sounds off it’s definitely me! Also the difference in sound is quite interesting to me. The PB can get incredibly loud and really full on when we play but with me it’s (so far) just voice and guitar which ends up with a totally different dynamic and atmosphere.

TSP: Finally, 2011, New Years resolutions.  If you had to make one, what would it be and why?

RA: Since I was 17 it was always to learn to drive and this year I eventually got round to it so now I don’t have to make any New Years resolutions ever again. And they’re always shit any way- everyone’s forgotten what theirs was by the 3rd.