Saturday, 21 November 2015


De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, Mon 16th Nov

“Bexhill!” bellows main man Mike Scott at the climax of their first number. Mischievously aware that this is not the most rock'n'roll word to shout. But the gag turns out to be double-edged.

Last time they played these halls it was to revisit the classic album 'Fisherman's Blues'. Their best-known era consisted of Celtic folk with a side-order of Americana. This set starts, closes and is dominated by new numbers. (Not just taking up over a third of the set, but front-loaded in the running order.)

Last time, I made a gag about a Scotsman, an Englishman and an Irishman getting together. This time every member of the band, bar Scott and the fiddle of stalwart Steve Wickham, is a Yank. While the latest album, 'Modern Blues', was recorded in Nashville. An album which may well be best described by the band's own website, as “an electric, soulful, bold, freewheeling rock'n'roll record with a skinful of killer new songs”. The jacketed bass player looks remarkably like a solicitor from small-town Surrey, and makes John Entwistle look a master of stage moves. Yet he turns out to be David Hood, from the legendary Muscle Shoals rhythm section the Swampers.

In short, Scott truly is bringing rock'n'roll to Bexhill. A band who should have long since been stuck on cruise control come up with the most kick-ass, rootsy rock'n'roll you've heard in a long time. “I'm still a freak,” Scott sings. “I never went straight.” Wheezy, swirly organ suffuses each track, sounding like a log fire feels – like being bathed in warmth. Almost every number goes into a wig-out instrumental section, which gets unhinged even by Waterboys standards.

Even when they turn to old numbers, they get swept up in this new fervour. 'Medicine Bow, stirring and expansive in the original, is now fiery and propulsive. Then, in a fiddle-dominated coda, turns into something from the Cale-era Velvets. They even do the double from their last appearance, and provide the second time I've actually liked the hit 'Glastonbury Song'. In fact its the more traditional version of 'Whole of the Moon' which doesn't quite spark up.

Perhaps the most crucial thing is that, even as it proudly wears the influence of the great music of the past to the point of name-checking influences, its never referential. Scott is simply taking the music he likes and making more of it. Reviewing the album in the equally rock'n'roll Telegraph, Neil McCormick suggests “Scott is perhaps the closest thing we have to a Neil Young figure in British music, ranging across folk, blues and country.” And he probably is.

Its one thing to see a longstanding band and be cheered they're still coming up with decent material. Its another to walk out thinking “these guys should really be planning a live album right now. This stuff needs getting down.”

Scott's mission to take rock'n'roll to unlikely places continues with this version of 'Still A Freak' from Brussels..., from Bexhill itself, Fisherman's Blues' for the encore. With added “whoo-ho-hoos” from the audience...

Friday, 13 November 2015


...well the West, and partly the North coast of the Isle of Wight. Hendon Warren (just north of the Needles), the Yar marshes and Yarmouth to be precise. As always, full set over on Flickr.

Saturday, 7 November 2015


Brighton Dome, Wed 28th October

If I haven't seen Godspeed live for something like a decade and a half, I'm not being quite as tardy as normal. They were, after all, on hiatus for eight of those years.

On that last sighting my analogy for their sound had been the workings of an American football team. (Though I'm not even sure if they play American football in Canada.) The enlarged ensemble divided into two teams; the acoustic and classical instruments would lull you in, before passing the ball to the electric section who'd take up and run away with it. (Think for example of the early track 'East Hastings'.)

Whereas at this gig they had a string section of one, violinist Sophie Trudeau. (Though a double bass appeared from time to time.) And instead there's... count 'em... two drummers, two bassists and no less than three guitarists. These days tracks more commonly start somewhere between a drone and a wall of sound, the piece then gradually emerging like a sculptor hammering away at a block. Tracks were less neatly divided into sections, more likely to morph and blend, to surge rather than develop. On more recent recordings the patented sampled vocals were less predominant and tended to be more incorporated into the music than floating above it. (Considerably less dominant in the gig, which featured precisely one vocal sample all evening.)

(In a side-note for music trainspotters, though the setlist contained only two pre-hiatus tracks it doesn't seem to have been the long gap which caused the musical change. The pre-gap album 'Yanqui UXO' (2002) was already transitional. While the comeback album 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!' (2012) comprised material which they'd already been playing live pre-hiatus, suggesting they merely picked up where they'd left off. The actual shift was marked, but by the promotion of the exclamation mark from the end to the middle of their name, a bit! like this Though what that's got to do with anything I couldn't tell you.)

In short, they've dropped the nouveau-classicism to become more sonically adventurous. Though some still insist Godspeed are a prog band in disguise as something more contemporary, there's really very little soloing and a great deal of ensemble playing. I am not normally at all curious over the mechanics of music, but was so often unable to conceive how they were conjuring up their sound I took to closely watching people's fingers. (It didn't help much.)

With their long-duration tracks containing dynamic contrasts, describing their sound as 'apocalyptic' is a little like describing Motorhead as 'loud'. On the other hand, it would be difficult to write about Motorhead without mentioning that they're loud... Back in the Eighties, some on the religious right attempted to negate the threat of nuclear annihilation by conflating it with the Biblical notion of the Rapture. (As if the Godly would somehow get saved from the fallout.) We'd cite this as proof of their rabidness, their nuclear apocalypse sounded to us like the very definition of a bad idea. 

Godspeed picked up on this theme, the afore-mentioned 'East Hastings' even starting with a recording of a blood-and-thunder street preacher. But they were part of a shift towards embracing the notion, towards what some called 'the ambiguous apocalypse'. This went back to the original paradox of the word, with its connotations of both annihilation and revelation. You're never sure whether Godspeed's tumultuous sound is of something collapsing or being built up, or even if there's that much difference between the two.

Guitarist and quite possibly band founder Effrim Menuck had this to say about their sound: “We hated… privileging of individual angst, we wanted to make… a joyous, difficult noise that acknowledged the current predicament but dismissed it at the same time. A music about all of us together or not at all... For us every tune started with the blues but pointed to heaven near the end, because how could you find heaven without acknowledging the current blues, right?”

As a chiefly instrumental band known to have strong political views (for example including a diagram on an album cover of the connection between the mainstream music business and the arms industry), Godspeed's output has led to the strange pursuit of pinning specific tracks to specific topics. This one's about the Intifada, that one's about the black bloc, and so on. Yet even were it to turn out a specific track had been composed about cuts to tax credits or the closure of a local library, that would really seem to miss the point.

As ever, Godspeed played beneath a film show. (With projectionist Karl Lemieux even considered an official band member.) And while this does include images of protests and the like, it more often shows fragmentary and semi-abstract images of urban spaces, or simply projections of the filmstrip itself. And that's almost a clue for how to hear their music – as something less specific than universal. As Mark Richardson said in Pitchfork: “Godspeed's music works so brilliantly because it can be abstracted and scaled, blown up into an edifice that towers over a continent or shrunk down to something that feels at home in a bedroom.”

Below the film show, the band played in similarly low lighting to Asian Dub Foundation the previous night. Prior to the performance, they milled about on stage setting up equipment, looking like a bunch of laid-back hippies uninterested in showbiz entrances. Yet during the show they never spoke or even seemed mindful of the audience, frequently playing facing one another and with their backs to us. Particularly with the closing howlaround of feedback, it was sometimes quite hard to work out when you should be applauding! It led to quite a unique atmosphere, neither like the formalised interactiveness of a 'gig' or the hushed attentiveness of a 'recital'. 'Ritual' sounds too pious, too Churchy a term, but is the closest I can come up with for now.

From Paris...

Brighton Dome, Tues 27th October

(Officially, this one features PLOT SPOILERS. Though anyone who's ever seen an SF dystopia need not be too concerned...)

A new 'Star Wars' film may be in the offing. At least, I think I read about that somewhere. So what better time for to revisit its opposite pole, George Lucas' first film – 'THX 1138' from 1971? (Which, with maximum irony given his later career turn, even starts with a parodic excerpt from 'Buck Rogers'.) The studio were aghast to see they'd invested in something so bleak and what's worse so arty, and did their best to bury it. Though even among the critics many reacted with hostility, and the film really only gained its reputation in retrospect. This was the highpoint of Lucas as an auteur.

The Seventies were of course not short of dystopian SF dramas. And plot-wise, it's an unashamed mash-up of dystopias already mapped, the numbers-not-names of 'We', the surveillance state and productivism of 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', the pill-popping of 'Brave New World', the don't-try-this-at-home porn-fixated public of 'Year of the Sex Olympics'... and probably more. But despite such blatant borrowing it remains highly resonant.

For one thing, its not a film that really draws its meaning from plot or dialogue so it doesn't matter much where it got them from. Present its scenario next to the later 'Logan's Run' (1976) and they'd seem very similar, though it resembles that film in no meaningful sense whatsoever. Instead its substance is there on the surface. As Roger Ebert, one of the few contemporary critics to actually get the film, said “the movie's strength is not in its story but in its unsettling and weirdly effective visual and sound style.”

Firstly, and most unmissably, there’s the sheer unadulterated whiteness of everything. This may even be the film which launched the fad for white as a signifier of the futuristic. (Though there were the hotel room scenes in ’2001’.) Whiteness stands for purity and goodness; in 'A Matter of Life and Death' (1946) Heaven was depicted in radiant white, in 'The Man in the White Suit' (1951) it manages to stand for both the futuristic and the innocent.

Yet its also a sign of artificiality. The whiteness gives a hospital antiseptic sheen and a valium calm which permeate the film. Perhaps best summed up by the android cops whose modulated voices reiterate “we only want to protect you”, even to those they're beating.

But what kind of artificiality? Though set in the entirely artificial environment of an underground city, it was shot on location (in airports and civic centres) rather than in built sets. The initial motive for this was most likely financial. (The film was made for a pittance, with the repeated dialogue references to budgetary constraints surely an in-joke.) The viewer soon finds they can tell stage sets from location footage on sight. Yet here we can't pin what we see to either real or constructed, instead it occupies some uncanny valley between the two.

Further, while something like the city in 'Metropolis' (1927) is grand and distant, here it's all too credible – even recognisable. If, like most of us, you're an urban dweller, you pass every day through places which look something like that. In fact our world now looks more like the film than when the film was made. No terrible take-over or grand disaster would have to come along to push us into that place. Its more that something would need to happen to stop us slipping into it. (The tag-line of the original poster was “the future is here”.)

And this recognisability is juxtaposed with a highly elliptical editing style, which makes events anti-involving. (To the extent that I initially worried the band had re-edited the film to fit their soundtrack. In fact they had the good taste to show the original, not Lucas' adulterated “Director's cut”.) With the low-key performances and the almost perpetual background chatter, it's shot almost like a documentary. (It might work very effectively with no soundtrack at all.)

Further still, the ceaseless borrowing from other dystopias becomes virulent rather than just derivative – like we're in the worst of all possible worlds. This was made in the Cold War era, albeit with the first glimmerings of detente, when it was almost obligatory for dystopias to make explicit which side of the iron curtain they were targeting. Here the unisex uniforms, the fetish for productivism and quasi-militaristic work shifts, the locking-up of dissidents are all familiar tropes of 'anti-communism'.

Yet the continual pill-popping (with “drug evasion” a crime) and consumer therapy (“Let us be thankful we have commerce. Buy more. Buy more now. Buy more and be happy.”) are recognisable features of dissident 'anti-capitalism'. (Of course the sides in the Cold War were only ever the two sides of the same coin. But the movies didn't normally see them that way.) Similarly THX's work shift, on a production line yet technically skilled, matches neither the image of blue or white collar work. (In an ironic reversal to the standard automated utopia, we see people working like machines to produce robots.)

And this unity of alienating systems is perhaps best summed up in OHM, a combination of Catholic confessional, watchful Big Brother and feel-good therapy. Should the pills not be soporific enough, you can pop into one of OHM's 'unichapel' booths, where the platitudinous advice mixes the Stakhanovist with Californian feelgood. “Let us be thankful we have an occupation to fill. Work hard, increase production, prevent accidents, and be happy.” (I particularly like “fill”.)

When one character comes across the original OHM icon, the one replicated in all the booths, a monk is both mystified and appalled to see him praying to it – and demands he goes and finds a booth. For the power of OHM lies in his prevalence, the copies more significant than the original.

...which takes us to one way in which the film is genuinely original. Dystopias come stamped with a face, like Stalin's mug being stuck up all over the Soviet Empire. Or if not a human face then a malevolently sentient super-computer. Like OHM there may be no actual Big Brother in 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'. He may be a mere totem of power, a scarecrow of dissent concocted by the regime. Yet the traitorous O'Brien becomes Winston Smith's antagonist. Here, it looks at first that THX's antagonist will be surveillance chief SEN. He maliciously usurps his position to disrupt THX's forbidden love affair with LUH. But rather than agent of power he turns out to be something of a wild card, even a wacko, and they're soon locked up - and even escape - together.

Because the real antagonist, the real puppeteer... well, though reviews of the film often tend to terms like 'oppressive' or 'totalitarian' there's no real sign there is one. Perhaps, with everyone playing their part in production, there doesn't need to be. In perhaps the most dystopian notion of all its a society not held in place but locked in stasis, the daily cycle repeating on rotation, alienated workers producing their own alienation - not an autocracy but a feedback loop. (It seems they don't keep to this in the novelisation. But then novelising this film was probably a category error to start with.)

And this is captured in one of the film's most striking points, the 'white limbo' sequence. This essentially ups the ante to unleash whiteness beyond whiteness. Dissidents and non-conformists aren't placed behind bars but stuck in this white void. There’s no walls or bars holding you in, just the sense there’s nowhere else to go, that over there is just more of being here. In the end, THX simply calls bluff on this – he stands up and starts walking.

This sequence supports a common reading of the film – that its an allegory for Plato's Cave. Much like Lucas, Plato never bothered explaining just how people came to be chained up in that cave, only that they'd been there since childhood. And of course there can't be a reference to their captors, since their captive state equates to our reality.

Plato's Cave could also explain one of the more bizarre moments of the film. Its established that people here watch hologram TV. On walking out of white limbo, THX runs into one of these hologram stars who helpfully points the way out – straight out the screen. They turn and see where they have just walked now shows a screen-shaped black rectangle. It's not just a metafictional moment, like Jodorowsky's 'Holy Mountain' (1973) its a wake-up call to its audience. Alongside Plato we might want to quote Blake: “For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.”

The film has proved a gift for samplers. Wikipedia lists eleven examples, with a particular favourite being the medicine cabinet which asks “what's wrong?” when opened. But for a soundtrack... the logical choice would seem cold electronica, the sound of white. Yet significantly Lalo Shifrin's original soundtrack didn't go for that. While with 'Clockwork Orange', released the same year, Giorgio Moroder did put its ultraviolence to cold electronica. For the film already looks cool electronica enough, and the creatively counter-intuitive choice of a world-flavoured muscly rock soundtrack becomes effective.

In fact it works almost too well, for it fits too neatly with flaws already present in the film. For, despite its undoubted strengths, flaws run right through it. Much like Julia in 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', its LUH who instigates the forbidden love affair with THX. But, perhaps typically for a Seventies film, she's a mere plot enabler. The effects of her actions fall primarily on him and she's soon fridged. (Well in this case embroyed.) All of which underlines the way that heterosexual desire is equated to 'normal living', like the couple unit is our natural state. This is then laced with the whiff of homophobia, when SEN tries to creepily insert himself as THX's new room-mate. (“It will be good for both of us... we'll be happy.”)

And compounded with this... apologies for the jargon... heteronormativeness is a hippyish form of techno-fear. (Though of course, much like the sides in the Cold War, there way never really much to distinguish hippyness from heteronormativity in the first place.) On one level the film is simply about the way technology is de-individualising, and so we must escape it's artificial clutches and get back into the garden. Plato's Cave becomes the hippy notion “it's all in your head, man”, the all-enveloping city nothing more than an illusion you can choose to un-see.

It sounds a strange paradox, a film in which we're inescapably becoming components of our own machines, and one in which we can leave Babylon behind to live out our lives under the sun. But that is the paradox of the film, and perhaps the paradox of its era too. As said over 'Quatermass IV': “It’s difficult to capture in retrospect just how contrapedal Seventies culture was. And how science fiction, which had always held to a view of the future which was bifurcated verging on bipolar, was the ideal arena to capture that.”

All of which becomes most apparent in the ending. After there'd been no previous indication private transport even existed, THX gets into a car. And what follows is a classic movie getaway scene. And what could be more all-American than a man behind the wheel of a car, going where he wants to go? And the... there's no other word for it... driving beat played to this sequence emphasises the he-man heroicness, kept up even after the end credits like he'd punched his way out of the film.

It's true that even here there's some masterful moments. Not least the point where his pursuers give up on him after their operation goes over-budget, not one of the standard scenes in action films. And Lucas has the sense to freeze-frame the final shot, leaving things on an open note. But really, you wonder if everything shouldn't have ended when the hologram showed him the black rectangle and they stepped through it.

The critical reader... or for that matter anybody who managed to read this to the end, might comment it doesn't focus enough on the live soundtrack. They're right, of course. But in my defence I have written about Asian Dub Foundation before. And besides, here's a taster of the soundtrack in action...

Saturday, 31 October 2015


Kings College, London, Sat 24th Oct

'Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet' is perhaps Gavin Bryars' other classic composition, a companion to the afore-seen 'Sinking of the Titanic', perhaps equivalent to Steve Reich's early pairing 'Come Out' and 'It's Gonna Rain'. There are strong similarities between the two, both wrapping indeterminate compositions around ghost voices. 'Titanic' used the tune the band famously played as the ship went down. With 'Jesus' Blood', as Bryars explained in the pre-show talk, finding the originating voice was much more the product of synchronicity.

Helping to sound-edit a film on London's homeless, he happened upon a recording of a frail old man singing. Deciding to create music around the voice, he went back to try and find the fellow - but could not. Similarly attempts to source the original hymn drew a blank, and only then was it realised the old man had made it up himself. More, despite being recorded for a film, there were no images of him. All paths led back to him then came to an abrupt halt. The tape was simply all there was, making it almost ;literally a ghost voice. In the performance the conductor would signal to an off-stage tape operator, as if gesturing to spirits.

Despite the M-word being used in the title for the programme, Bryars confessed to feeling somewhat saddled with the term. And indeed in our last look at him we saw how different to Reich and Glass he really was. Reich's 'Different Trains' is set to human speech, but captures brief utterances to let their cadence create a rhythm. (In that pre-show talk, Bryars suggested “pulse-pattern music” as a more apt term for this.) Bryars lets the whole recording play out, creating surrounding music as the sonic equivalent of a highlighter pen, bathing it in response. The music somehow always appears to be swelling, new instruments and new elements joining in. (In fact, like extras in one of those old BBC battle scenes, they fade out and then reappear in new guise.)

Like many great works, it succeeds in straddling a contradiction. Bryars spoke of how he considered John Cage and Marcel Duchamp as influences, and the piece has some of Cage's sonic audaciousness – as if you can make music from any old thing, even the barely tuneful utterances of a tramp. And yet the music always works in response, never overpowers that original recording. There's no sense that Bryars has done something terribly sophisticated to a naïve source, so we should all now toast his cleverness with our wine glasses. It always feels like a collaboration, even if it is with a ghost. Bryars has said he intended to create a work “that respected the tramp's nobility and simple faith... the piece remains as an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism.”

It partly achieves this through the music itself being so hymnal. Bryars made a point of noting his chosen instrument was the double bass, and his compositions tending to low sonority. Perhaps, rather than Reich or Glass, the closest comparison would actually be the most recent – Feldman's 'For Samuel Beckett'. Even if Bryars is much more melodious than Feldman's austerity, there's the same combination of the sombre with the rapturous. However, as commented last time and a point taken up by Bryars in the talk, he is much more of an English composer. If there's a quietness and simplicity to Feldman, there's also an austere epicness to him. With Bryars there's the word he used in the quote above - an inherent understatedness. And this places him, in every sense, in tune with an old man singing with a frail voice. It's the combination of that understatedness with indeterminacy that earns the piece's title – a softly spoken power which never stops.

'Jesus' Blood' was the only Seventies work of the programme and, with one other exception, all else was post-millennial. Bryars has kept that keen melodic sense over the years, and the more recent works incorporated subtle shifts. Alas, however, in that time he's also become more conventional. 'Jesus' Blood' left me thinking “genuinely hymnal”. While with the other pieces my thoughts were more along the lines of “very tasteful, very sophisticated”. Bryars spoke of how he has extended the length of 'Jesus' Blood' as technology has allowed, from LP-side to CD length. And at times I found myself wishing they'd sacrificed some of the other pieces and chosen something longer than the half-hour they gave it here.

It may be the paradox of 'Jesus' Blood' has become a trade-off. Some of his other Seventies works were much closer to Cage's Dada iconoclasm, much more anti-music. With his signature works, the balance was struck just right. While now that side is almost absent.

My favourites among these tended towards the smaller ensembles, perhaps best retaining that understatedness. 'The Flower of Friendship' in particular seemed to justify its title with some mutually supportive playing. It also epitomised Bryars' singular use of the electric guitar. If it looked strangely incongruous among the other 'classical' instruments on stage, it was played in so un rock-and-roll way it could almost be a brand new instrument. Its timbre was somewhere between a steel guitar and an electric piano, with a radiating rather than a strident sound.

And from one bass player to another...

(We don't just throw this show together, you know.)

Concorde 2, Brighton, Fri 23rd October

Only six months after seeing Squarepusher's solo set, he's here again with a live band. This is apparently their first live outing, despite releasing an album five years ago.

Both are deranged, freak-out dance music. But its remarkable how different the two things are. Less polar opposites than chalk and cheese, two things you couldn't get close enough together to compare.

With bands, its normally not a matter of how well they're playing but how well they're playing together. That's why the concept of a supergroup, where you just place the best bassist next to the best drummer and so on, was always such a bozo notion. If you want a visual image to pin it to, at the recent Melvins gig the twin drummers played on a conjoined kit. But of course that was just a microcosm of the conjoined way the whole band played, as if they'd become one entity. And seeing a whole band in Jenkinson's patented fencing masks, never one speaking to the audience, that seemed to similarly enhance the feeling of groupthink.

Whereas if you want a visual image of the Squarepusher solo gig... well the move 'Inside Out' might be close. Its like its finally become possible to go inside someone's head, and finding inside it an infinite space filled with impossibly grand and huge architectural constructs. Like there's no intermediaries between thought and action.

The live set picked up and discarded genres like it had music history on speed dial, opening with roots reggae but within minutes morphing away from it. The predominant style was probably muscly Seventies funk shot through with frenetic jazz, bass lines skittering around the number rather than just lying in place. The best track, perhaps strangely for so noted a bass player was led by a hauntingly ambient guitar line.

And as a band they work very well indeed. Had this been my first experience of Squarepusher's music, I would have been very much impressed. But compared to the solo set it felt more rooted, more regular, easier to relate to music you'd heard before. It was like Jenkinson trying to channel his mind through group consensus involved taking on a standard language, which stopped his thoughts being so singular. Maybe not all kids play better with others. It was also a strangely short set, perhaps about fifty minutes – leading to some audience disbelief.

Should anyone reading this know more about Squarepusher's back catalogue than me, what was the set mainly composed of? I listened to a few tracks from the one album on-line, which didn't sound so much like the gig. (More song-like than groove-based.) But many tracks seemed to get instant audience recognition, so I'd guess it was mostly old solo stuff reworked.

From London...

Mentioned in dispatches! Having previously enthused over Acid Mothers Temple not once but twice, Hey Colossus and the Melvins I don't really have much to add from seeing them again. Apart from an hour being too short a time for AMT's immersive psychedelic soundscapes, to the point where I thought the audience might collectively refuse to go home. But instead of overlooking such good gigs altogether, let's at least celebrate them with some YouTube clips. (The first two, usually enough, actually from Brighton.)

Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...

Friday, 23 October 2015


Okay, that's a mash-up of "gets the needle" and "gets to the Needles". It's still the best gag you're getting today. Latest Isle of Wight pics up take us to the South coast - Ventnor Botanic Gardens, Alum beach and the iconic Needles. Full set, as ever, over on Flickr. More to come as we head up that West coast…

Saturday, 17 October 2015


Prince Albert, Brighton, Mon 12th Oct

It was strangely fitting for the Woodentops to reappear midway through BBC4's 'Story of Indie' series, even if they weren't featured in any of it. Because, let's face it, how many times in the last quarter-century has someone said to you “I've discovered this great new indie band”? So perhaps we need reminding of the golden times when the word meant the Smiths or the Cocteau Twins.

Not to reduce those years to a formula, but it often took post-punk's low-fi squattage industry aesthetic and combined it with tuneful pop cheer. Post-punk had been great, of course. But it was something of a relief to no longer have to look dour and disdainful all the time, and finally admit you had heard of the Sixties after all. Guitars, so long expected to sound awkward and angular, could even jingle if they chose. And the Woodentops' early singles were classic examples of all this, a shotgun marriage between melody and cacophony, so rambunctious and exuberant that the shuffling beats and skittering drums seemed mid-way to a skiffle revival.

Back in the day, I remember a housemate convulsing with laughter at a Pseud's Corner entry in 'Private Eye'. Some music journo had told a tale of Jack Kerouac thrusting his dick into a hole in the ground, and asserting “the same primal energies drive the Woodentops!” I said, “but the thing is, they do!” and he looked at me like he often did and went into another room. They seemed a band who existed for the sheer love of playing, who had (in the name of one track) a 'Love Affair With Everyday Living'. Which must surely make them the polar opposite to Gang of Four.

Alas, indie proved as short-lived as post-punk. 'The Story of Indie' picked Aztec Camera is their example of indie having its lo-fi edge sanded smooth until it sounded just like more Eighties music. After all, how could you keep your quirky charm in an industry designed around packaging you? But the Woodentop's first album 'Giant' took the same mis-step, swapping the home-made for the shop-bought. Finding myself a disappointed purchaser, and being in those days rather rigid of mind, I swiftly decided they'd “gone commercial” (a lesser sin than “turned Nazi”, but not by much) and lost all interest in them.

Perhaps consequently, this was a gig I wondered whether I'd take to or not. Concern which only mounted when on the day I discovered they'd be playing 'Giant' in its entirety. A practice I've never been keen on, over an album I never liked first time round. But with my ticket was already trousered, along I went...

And it was a storming set! Its not often you catch up with a band thirty years later, and find they're performing the tracks much better than the album you have at home. Perhaps their home was always the live stage, and they merely had the misfortune to fall into the gravity of Eighties production. Proceedings suggest an album where the rough should really have run with the smooth. 'Good Thing', even here, is perhaps too polished to leave much of an after-taste. But 'Love Train' was surely always meant to sound this way, put together more with spit than polish, served up by a band so fresh you'd imagine they were just starting out.

Frontman Rolo is so avuncular and engaging a character, he seems to be making the whole thing up even when reading lyrics off a sheet. Indeed, seeing them on the opening night might have even been the Goldilocks moment, when the set isn't yet learnt by rote, when everything was still part up in the air.

The emphasis on 'Giant' did mean there was less time for those classic early singles. My personal favourite, 'Well Well Well', was bypassed, as were the B-sides which delved into more intense, frenzied post-Velvets territory. But as they close on an extended version of 'Move Me', spirits undampened by the decades, its hard to hold a single negative thought in your head.

(Digression time: Another feature of 'Story of Indie' was how, in those days of 12” sleeves, the look and design of a record became as integrated part of the picture as the sound. Which it did. All Cocteau Twins sleeves had in common with Smiths or with New Order covers was their uniqueness and recognisability, while almost never containing pictures of the bands. And the Woodentops belong with the above, artist Panni Bharti gouging, nailing and glueing naïve and iconic images from the most basic of art materials. They're collected on the band's website here.)

That encore of 'Move Me'...

… and from back in the day...

St John's, Smith Square, London, Sat 10th Oct

Before we get to that title piece, let's start with what in less salubrious surroundings would be called the support acts. Both of which, I'll have you know, were world premieres.

Laurence' Crane's 'Chamber Symphony No. 2, The Australian' I confess to struggling with, mostly due to its structure. It ceaselessly chopped and changed between a jaunty brass-driven section and something quieter and more sombre, centred on the double bass and piano. Each just seemed to arrive to interrupt the other, while either might have sufficed in its own right.

Marisol Jimenez's 'Memoriam Vivire', conversely, was something of a discovery. She used found instruments (plucked wires and so on), but rather than juxtaposing them with the sound of conventional instruments combined the two - as though to her ears they were equally new. Brass, for example, was often little more than amplified breath. It became like listening to the rudiments of music, like the whole thing was being rearranged from the bottom up. The music seemed to be almost auto-assembling, sounds combining without the obvious presence of a composer's hand. The sense that all this was somehow just happening made it all the more compelling.

The programme is next visiting Jimenez's native Mexico, and she briefly spoke to explain she'd composed the piece in support of ongoing protests there. (Though unfortunately the speakers were poorly miked and it was hard to pick out most of her words.) There doesn't seem much of her work online as yet but this piece is very much worth a listen.

An associate of John Cage, Morton Feldman is most associated with indeterminate composition and minimalism. The latter was a label he always decried, and certainly he's quite unlike the extended arpeggiating of Steve Reich or Philip Glass. Their music is active and in its own way rich, for all that its uninterested in conventional development. While Thomas Patteson defines Feldman's approach as “less is less”. Wikipedia says that in his early years he was influenced by Webern, and his music has music of serialism's sense of stasis. (A stasis which I can find unendurable in its 'pure' serialised forms.)

While the Sinfonietta seem commendably keen to broaden the appeal of this music, I've previously had misgivings about their running through indeterminate works a little too quickly, as if concerned not to scare the horses. Thankfully they allowed this piece to run for almost an hour. (Though other pieces of his last up to six.) And, in another difference to Glass and Reich, it isn't divided neatly into movements or sections but ceaselessly reiterates one main theme.

The same span as an average TV episode might not seem lengthy, but when combined with so stripped-back musical input that time does start to stretch. A little like Riley's 'In C' its built around a heartbeat supplied by a single instrument, here a two-stroke pluck on something which sounds like a harp without looking much like one. Other instruments do nothing singly but cluster re-cluster, like simple shapes shifting and recombining.

Its variation rather than progression, but once your ear's tuned into it the effect is literally hypnotic. Not in the sports commentator sense, it genuinely has a hypnotic effect upon you. As Alex Ross comments Feldman used “vast forms” because “he wanted listeners to stop thinking about form altogether and lose themselves in the harmonic material”. Your ear simply gives up on duration as something beyond it, and listens more closely to what's happening right now.

Were the piece not dedicated to Beckett I don't think I'd have ever thought to associate it with him. Rather than his bleak absurdism, its character is to be simultaneously unearthly and serene. It feels like being on some hillside some early morning, watching waves of mist cross the landscape, taking parts of the world away then putting them back. It has the terrible yet compelling grandeur of the sublime without the usual triggers of Romanticism, without evoking the shapes or sounds of mountains and waterfalls and all the rest of it.

Reading a little about the piece afterwards, I discovered i) every proper commentator seems to disagree with me about Beckett (Ross wrote “the connection to Beckett's austere, depopulated landscapes was easily grasped”), and ii) Feldman composed the piece shortly before his death in 1987. And if the first of those bewilders me, the second seems to make perfect sense. Rather than the standard business of your life flashing through your eyes, like a photo album on fast-flip, its more like arbitrary demarcation lines dissolving you're able to get some glimpse of the eternity beyond. Its like Blake's line “every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite”.

Thomas Patteson wisely noted “all music can be understood as a kind of commentary on the passage of time. Most music constructs time in ways analogous to our everyday experience: from the clockwork regularity of the Baroque orchestra to the thumping heartbeat of dancefloor electronica, music builds on and reinforces our natural perception of time. Feldman’s music seems to negate this. In its non-metric, floating quality, it challenges our comfortable sense of chronological proportion. And yet, the unfolding of musical events is not random. There is a 'flow' to Feldman’s music, as undeniable as it is impossible to pin down.”
Let's leave the last word to the man himself: “I feel that music should have no vested interests, that you shouldn't know how it's made, that you shouldn't know if there's a system, that you shouldn't know anything about it … except that it's some kind of life force that to some degree really changes your life … if you're into it.”

The evening's being broadcast on Radio Three's 'Hear and Now' sometime in November, so you'll be able to judge for yourself.

Friday, 9 October 2015


(Yep, another art exhibiton reviewed after it closes!)

For Foreign Shores

An accessible destination even in Sickert's day, Dieppe was once a fashionable resort – a mecca for holiday-makers and a haven for expats. The artist first visited it as a child, made it his honeymoon destination in 1885 and lived there from 1895. But more, the show boldly claims that “it was in Dieppe that Sickert formulated some of his most important painterly techniques and pictorial strategies”. As if it was as much a rosebud to him as Tahiti was for Gauguin.

His initial influence, however, was Whistler – to whom he was even apprenticed. An artist who, in all honesty, I know even less than usual about. The show cites 'La Plag, Dieppe' (c. 1885, below) as one of these early works. The sea, very often, is simply a setting for a painting – a backdrop for the actual subject, or at least we see human figures in interaction with it. Check out for example Monet's 'Jardin a Sainte-Addresse'. Human figures fill the foreground, the sea but one section of the perspective, and even then is shown busy with boats. Sickert, we're told, mixed with the fishermen and even learnt their local dialect. But the subject of his sea paintings is very much the sea itself. All else arranges around it, both boats and human figures pushed to its periphery. The different shades of the sea become the work, in a painting only one step away from a tone poem. (Our pal Wikipedia cites Whistler as a proponent of Tonalism.)

The story picks up as we're told “it was in Dieppe that Sickert became affiliated with French Impressionism”. Which makes sense. At that time Impressionist art didn't just feel frightfully modern and continentally chic. Fidelity to subject, then a new notion for an artist, tied their art to French soil. A French way of looking at things combined with a way of looking at France.

Meeting Degas in 1883, he fell under his influence and began to turn to “direct painting” of more naturalistic settings. (Perhaps remarkable in itself, for Degas was notorious for being truculent and reclusive.) 'Dieppe Harbour' (c. 1902, below) is perhaps a good example. The sea is no longer a central colour field but a murky depth lying beneath a deep harbour wall - at the base of a tall painting. It's no longer vivid and shimmering but built up by thick dabs of grey and deep green. The whole painting characteristically displays what the show calls a “low tonal key”. His palette seems simultaneously deep and muted – frequently returning to ruddy browns, burnt oranges and cold greys. Whistler's disinterest in human figures is retained, however - we see the hotel on harbour-front but the figures before it are dwarfed.

A Nation At Unease With Itself

Let's take the next two pictures together...

'The Fair At Night' (1902/03, below) has the recognised Impressionist sense of verite. We're not outside the picture plane dispassionately peering in, we're made to feel we're there on that street with that bustling crowd. The awning and buildings are angled and cropped, giving a sense of immediacy rather than a detached and calm composition. And yet at the same time the crowd's collective back is to us - we've no way of joining it. This is a paradox which will come back again and again in Sickert's work.

While 'L'Hotel Royal Dieppe' (1894, up top) has the strangest of colour schemes. Beneath an eerily pink-purple sky sits a strangely green-hued hotel, in front of which flags hang rather than flutter. The figures on the lawn, as a contrast to the barely individuated crowd above, stand isolated. The two most foregrounded, in nearly the only use of white in the painting, look almost ghostly. This was painted before Sickert was living in Dieppe. But still it has a haunting, end-of-season feeling. The viewer's mind travels from the end of a day, the point where objects seem to radiate luminosity rather than have solidity, to the end of the season. And quite possibly the end of an era.

Its worth considering how unlike the popular image of Impressionism these works are. They're some way from the verdant gardens or promenading dandies depicted in bright, vibrant colours. How much of this is accurate and how much it's merely a popular stereotype will have to wait for later. (And we should remember Degas did not necessarily fit the model, to the point where he took umbrage at being described as an Impressionist at all.) But its this popular view of the school against which Sickert's works would have been seen. And had he stuck to a more orthodox take, held to its themes and tone, he would have most likely been a mere copyist. Perhaps an accomplished one, but still a footnote in art history.

We should remember Impressionism had arisen thirty years earlier, and society had not stood still in that time. The show makes much of Sickert's associating with 'decadent' artists, including during his stay in Dieppe - such as Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar Wilde and Arthur Symons. As curator Katy Norris puts it in the Pallant House magazine: “His strange and unsettling imagery was paralleled in the work of decadent writers and illustrators that typified the fatalistic attitude of the fin de siecle”.

As a catch-all name for a social trend rather than a movement which emerged clutching a densely worded manifesto, the fin de siecle isn't something that could be precisely defined. The Tate, however, call it “an umbrella term” which “expresses an apocalyptic sense of the end of a phase of civilisation.”

Society had been transformed in the previous decades to a then-unparalleled degree. It had been possible to witness and believe in uninterrupted linear progress. Now people were starting to ask, perhaps too late, where we were being taken. And many feared that social harmony had been left behind, that we had made ourselves degenerate. A rootless cosmopolitanism and a disconnected sense of self-absorption seemed to go together in making up the modern mind, a sense of being everywhere and noplace.

And bohemian artists, with their introspection, with their dangerously new ways of looking at things, were perhaps the lightning rod for this trend. Wikipedia cites Munch's 'The Scream' as “a prominent cultural symbol of the fin de siecle era”. Though there are two other (semi-silhouetted) figures in his picture they're distant, removed from the screamer. It's not a painting conveying what the screamer might be screaming about, its subject is given in its title – the scream, the subjective experience of the artist. Sickert takes up similar themes but essentially faces the other way - he paints not the outsider artist but society in the act of not cohering. To misquote John Major, a nation at unease with itself. So,with 'The Fair At Night', we're there with the crowd on the street, yet at the same time removed from them.

We should remember that at this point, England still regarded Impressionism as dangerously modern. (France in general was seen as the centre of the wild and the scandalous.) So works such as these would have seemed both commentaries on and examples of this 'decadence', records of their own condition. (Disclaimer: Sickert was also exhibited in France at this time. Whether he'd have been seen in a similar way in the home of Impressionism will have to stay an open question.)

Back to Churches

Perhaps counter-intuitively for a 'decadent' artist one of Sickert's main subjects was the churches of Dieppe. He returned to paint them again and again, at different times of day and under different lighting conditions. Once more this shows an Impressionist influence, for Monet had repeatedly painted Rouen Cathedral in a similar fashion. (Though Sickert's motives here may have been part financial, he called Dieppe his “only goldmine”.)

In 'La Rue Piquet' (1900, above) the angle of the view part-obscures the Church while the long shadows suggest a particular time of day. The indistinct, suggested figures may well have originated from sketch, where he started filling in the horse and cart only to see them driven away. However his decision to then keep them in (while moving them off-centre from the original drawing) gives the work a ghostly sense, as if they are fleeting and impermanent against the solid stone. The sky's confinement to a small snatch of grey at the upper left adds to the architecture's imposing dominance.

In 'Rue de la Boucherie with St. Jacques' (c. 1902, above) the colourful shop awnings suggest at human life. Yet the square before them is devoid of activity, its literally in the shade of the Church. The expanse of browns is as uninhabited, as much a space in it's own right, as the sea in 'La Plag, Dieppe'. In these works, it's the Impressionist sense of verite which is both present and contrasted. The light and shadows fix the works to a distinct time of day, yet there's also a sense of timelessness. The result is quite Gothic. The churches are never isolated from the town, as if they're being made the subject of study. Yet at the same time they dominate the town, often towering over it.

The show describes these works as “a conversation between the mysterious and the commonplace”. Yet is it more of an awkward silence? One way of reading them would be to see the human activity as forever milling around the churches, but never finding their way in. They’re almost akin to the way Paul Nash and others painted megaliths, something irrefutably present on the landscape yet at the same time inscrutably strange.

Not all of Sickert's town studies are in this style, however. For example 'The Basket Shop, Rue St. Jean, Dieppe' (1911/2, above) shows the Impressionist luminosity in full force, and is almost a bookend to 'La Rue Piquet' - its street running in the opposite direction. There's even another cart. And this time the street does not run up against an imposing church but opens to a bright skyscape, with a telegraph pole pointing upwards. The feeling is one of forward motion, as if we're being pulled into the painting., Human figures, however, are still de-emphasised. Similarly, in 'Une Dieppoise' (1900) the titular figure is foregrounded but then sheathed in shadow to the point she's almost silhouetted.

New Horizons

If there was any doubt over the show's main theme, that Dieppe was Sickert's muse, it's confirmed by the next section. For its not set in Dieppe at all and is by some margin the weakest in the show. In 1912 he bought a house in Envermeu, some miles inland and took to landscapes. Mostly these show how social subjects were his forte. The best of them is 'Dieppe Races' (1920/6, below).

While the horses are an active blur, one caught by the edge of the frame, they're kept to the lower quarter of the composition. The audience are not raked but placed directly behind them, visible only in the gaps between the racers. Over half of the picture becomes graduations of skyscape, similar to the seascape of 'La Plage'. Nature takes the place of the churches in the earlier pictures, with human activity a blurry and transient presence before it.

The Twilight Life (Company Loves Misery)

Following the death of his wife in 1920, Sickert was back in Dieppe. Though he only spent a further two years in the town before returning to London, its this brief period which may well yield the best material in the show. The nearest comparison from the already-seen works would be 'The Fair At Night'. However, Sickert retreated not just to Dieppe but from expansive landscapes to interiors.

In 'Chez Varnet' (1925, above) the three foreground figures are all in profile, the one furthest left unceremoniously half-chopped by the edge of the frame. They look neither at us nor one another but off, to something we can't see. While they look present, there in front of us, its almost impossible to actually focus on them. Sickert seems more interested in gesture and placement than what they might actually look like.

Like his mentor Degas, Sickert is less contrasting the mysterious with the everyday than finding the mysterious in the everyday. He paints not grand events but 'normal' scenes. Yet by virtue of them being paintings, we expect his paintings to be explicable, poses and objects arranged in such as way as to convey a meaning. When they don't the normal becomes compelling inscrutable. Every now and again, you may be in a pub or cafe and suddenly become fixated on people on another table – trying to discern their relationships from what little you see of their interactions. 'Chez Varnet' gives this sense. The exhibition notes find an insightful quote from Virginia Wolfe: “The figures are motionless, of course, but each has been seized in a moment of crisis; it is difficult to look at them and not to invent a plot, to hear what they are saying.”

The bright light through the windows, however, makes this an unusual work for the period. To the interior he normally adds the nocturnal. Take for example the artificial light of Baccarat – The Fur Cape' (1920, above). It's suggested Sickert was obliged not to show the gamblers' faces by their unwillingness to be witnessed, engaging as they were in so twilight an activity. If so, he made a less a virtue of necessity than made it the subject of the painting. With the great block of the back of the chair, the titular cape and wide-brimmed hat, Sickert mixes verite with anonymity. While there's little open space the image is less claustrophobic than entangled. The lines of composition close in on one another, leaving no room for the viewer. It's a table without a place for us.

'Au Cafe Concert, Vernet's Dance Hall' (1920, above) does centre it's composition on the singer, and shows her addressing the crowd open-armed. But the line of tables that lead to her are cluttered with the night's detritus to the point they make a veritable obstacle course. Not least amongst this is the jutting elbow of a slouched figure, who manages to have his back to us while paying no attention to her. Night life is not only shown as something seedy but strangely isolating, the promise to get out of yourself and meet people unfulfilled, everyone trapped in their own reverie.

Wikipedia is unusually eloquent on the theme:For his music hall subjects, Sickert often chose complex and ambiguous points of view, so that the spatial relationship between the audience, performer and orchestra becomes confused, as figures gesture into space and others are reflected in mirrors. The isolated rhetorical gestures of singers and actors seem to reach out to no-one in particular, and audience members are portrayed stretching and peering to see things that lie beyond the visible space. This theme of confused or failed communication between people appears frequently in his art.” Again in the Pallant House magazine, Katy Norris suggests mourning for his wife acting as Sickert's spur for these works. There seems some evidence, however, the earliest of them were planned before this.

'L'Amoire A Glace' (1921/4, above) translates similar themes to a domestic setting. The woman is placed beside, not in front of, a mirror. Hands clasped in her lap, she looks almost like an attendant. Her face is towards us but, almost in shadow, is indistinct and barely delineated. This cropping allows the mirror to dominate the frame, even suggests the room is arranged around it, yet neither do we really see it reflect anything. After thousands of paintings of a woman looking into a mirror, Sickert paints us a mirror.

We saw earlier that a recurring theme, both of Sickert’s art and his era, was self-absorption. And, in a scene boiled down to a woman and a mirror, we have the theme in its purest form. But it’s a thwarted self-absorption, someone not connecting even with themself. The central yet removed mirror is an echo of the imposing church walls we saw earlier. (And if there seems a detectable taste of misogyny to all this women-and-mirrors business, then you ain't seen nothing yet.)

An attentive disciple of Degas, Sickert was adept at something we don't commonly associate with Impressionism - but probably should. He could create apparently straightforward-looking works which have an indefinable, beguiling quality to them. He took this further by playing elements against one another. This gives many of this works a strangely unsettling quality. We're invited into them at the same time we can't feel at home within them. And this quality is intensified by the difficulty the viewer has in figuring out just how they feel that way. You’re not even completely sure that something is wrong, you just can’t shake the nagging sense that all might be not quite right.