Diary 24/10/10

October 24, 2010

Ben bought me the Steely Dan album Katy Lied as a belated birthday present – If I don’t get Aja for Christmas, I’ll be extremely surprised… Ben has fallen way in love with Steely Dan.

My relationship with the Dan is a little more complex. Yes, their name references William Burroughs and yes, they clearly have massive brains, but in a lot of ways, they are the anti-punk band – and punk is still, I think, where my heart lies. At least my definition of punk. I think punk is personal – I’m not a dogmatic punk and don’t really have interest in a lot of the punk canon (such a concept shouldn’t exist, of course). I just think the spirit of self-determination that runs through the heart of the movement is inspiring and empowering.

There’s a lot more that could be said on this topic and I’ll probably say it in the end – for example, now, it strikes me that could you say Steely Dan are more of an anti-punk force than The Eagles? Certainly not.

Ben is with three bands these days, most notably Asteroids!, who have been going since Tim left The Generalissimos. The rest of the ‘mos enlisted Ben, at his brother Tim’s suggestion (Tim Warren, the former Polytechnic and King Tree & The Roots drummer, as well as guitar / bassist for Delicate Hammers). It’s shaping up nicely and I’m looking forward to seeing them play live soon.

We were all out for Wales’ MC Coc Oen‘s birthday recently. For anyone who doesn’t know, he’s the voice of Delicate Hammers and the Insidious Junkbox podcast series, as well as a solo EP named Zombie Autograph Hunter. All fine work. The Junbox series is essentially his homage to John Peel – chuntering in between an esoteric selection of new and old tunes, much in the way that the likes of Ted from Cloud Sounds and Ola from Ola’s Kool Kitchen do. It’s great that people carry the Peel spirit with them in their hearts and continue to put time and effort into supporting bands who don’t have the marketing muscle of a corporation behind them. From an independent musician’s perspective, I can tell you that such shows are like beacons in the dark when you’re trying to find your way. It can get lonely out there, so the airplay these ‘e’-Js (if you will) offer is invaluable.

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Cultural Diary 22/10/10

October 22, 2010

Gideon Osborne will be pleased with Wayne Rooney‘s timing. Wazza has taken the attention of a considerable part of the nation off the forthcoming wave of spending cuts. Rooney’s bizarre U-turn is the sort of media sideshow that will temporarily take at least some of the heat off the Coalition.

Can the fans forgive Rooney? Can Fergie ever genuinely forgive him? Will his form suddenly recover once he gets back from his ankle injury?

Went to see the Robin Ince Bad Books Show last night – not bad.  Ince is an old-skool leftie, kind of like a teetotal MJ Hibbett, but with a stack of awful paperbacks instead of an acoustic. He gave over a fair portion of the show to lecturing the assembled students about the dangers of right-wing thinking (he equates the left with ‘compassion’). In the end though, he did get to reading out sections of paperbacks that would otherwise have remained in the dustbin of history for good. Giant Killer Crabs, Sex Is Not Compulsory and classic Mills & Boon all got an airing, amidst the political rants and anecdotes about his toddler son, Archie. Sadly, the book that I suspect started the whole thing, The Secrets of Picking Up Sexy Girls, has been lost – but of course, Ince knows it well enough to recite chapter and verse from it anyway (and jolly disturbing it is too).

The other neat thing about the idea from Ince’s perspective is that it is self-sustaining. Fans approach him to hand over hilariously bad books they have discovered mouldering in their local charity shop and so provide the comic with more potential material. I would love him to do a documentary about these dreadful books, preferably featuring an interview with the author of the giant killer crab series….

Definitely had one too many last night, despite my better half’s warnings.

(L-R): P. Brewis, D. Brewis, Andrew Moore (who left the band and is now training to be a chef. True fact)

So rather this than talk, grab your keys and get to work / Cos them that do nothing make no mistakes” – Field Music – Them That Do Nothing

I’ve got this sneaking suspicion that Peter Brewis is a bit of a genius.  Make sure to watch him during a Field Music set – the care and precision with which he works his way through odd but wholly methodical, inside-out drum patterns, the adeptness with which he plays every instrument, his seeming immunity to error – the way he conducts and encourages the new band members, guitarist Kevin Dosdale and bassist Ian Black, cajoling them with conspiratorial looks and broad grins.  Also check the solo album he produced during Field Music’s hiatus, as The Week That Was (why did it take me so long to work out how good that record is?

We’re a few months ahead of the release of the new album, which the band have decided to call Field Music, even though their first album was also called Field Music.  Somebody somewhere has added the word Measure in brackets to distinguish the two.

The group play a lot of new material during their 90-minute set and are typically eager to thank their audience for the opportunity.  Let’s call it an advance road-test, at a very reasonable door tariff – £7  is not a lot more than you pay to see a bunch of no-marks at a ‘showcase night’, over at the dear old Night & Day.

At first listen, the new stuff sounds definitely, proudly English, in a way that not many groups do any more, since it became the overwhelming cultural norm to draw almost your entire sphere of influence from the American underground and canon.  Field Music have never sounded remotely American and for that, they should be applauded.

There’s a streak of the seventies running through their sound, very definitely a touch of early Roxy Music, even a little Pink Floyd (a group whose sound and ethos I’ve always rejected). I once met Peter at a Futureheads concert – I still feel guilty for distracting him as he tried to enjoy the headliners – and remember being somewhat stunned when I asked who their main influences were and he just said ‘Queen’.  Full stop.   Queen were, to me, everything that was wrong with music.  Yet here was a group whose intriguing, canny music was giving me so much pleasure and there was the influence, from right out of the Red Zone, as far as I was concerned.  Balls, another preconception to be dismantled.

Back to the Deaf Institute show. For now, it’s hard to unpick the lock of the new material.  It’s dextrously played, never formulaic, riddled with ideas, time signature changes, unexpected twists.  That prog inclination rears its head when Dosdale and David Brewis play twin lead guitar with slightly abashed smiles (‘are we actually allowed to do this?’). The odd dip into the back catalogue rewards the faithful, but there’s no Closer At Hand, no You Can Decide – a particularly vivacious rendition of the latter moons ago at The Roadhouse is still one of my favourite ever live moments.  We do get Shorter, Shorter, If Only The Moon Were Up and an encore of It’s Not The Only Way To Feel Happy, but plenty of gems are missing – which is a great sign in itself.

Now I’ve been fortunate enough to hear the new record, I can tell you it’s a double album, which is something in itself.  Who makes double albums?  Since punk orthodoxy became the default, the idea of a rock album that doesn’t fit onto one side of a C90 has been somewhat verboten.  Double albums were pomp-rock excess and prog long-windedness.  But iTunes and so forth changes the concept of the album, which can now be as long or as short as you like.  If you don’t like a track, just deselect it.  Re-order the tracks, if you want.  Fuck it.  An album’s just a collection of songs.  The group give you a proposed order, but once you have it, it’s yours to deconstruct.

If Queen are OK, everything I have ever believed must be reassessed. Even YES might be acceptable...

Independence, goddamnit!  Field Music have their own studio, they produce music as they like.  They talked seriously about getting proper jobs, so they didn’t have to bother with the PR duties that go with being a ‘professional band’ and could just work at home in the evenings.  They’d do music whether they made money out of it or not.  They don’t think they’re rock stars.  They don’t want to be rock stars.  Peter’s defiant chorus line from the superb new track Them That Do Nothing sums them up very nicely indeed – that attitude is what I love about them.

Field Music are starting to become an English institution and we’re well short of those.  That they went on ‘official hiatus’ after their second LP, Tones of Town, was worrying for the state of the musical nation; that they are back is a great relief.  Their originality, work ethic and commitment is an inspiration.  Hopefully, that lengthy hiatus has had the desired effect and they’ll kick on from here.

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Euros Childs

Euros Childs went overground when his youthful, eccentric (and fitfully brilliant) band Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci signed a major label record deal in the late 90s.  He’s still writing eccentric (and sometimes brilliant) songs to this day, but now, they feature lines like ‘Write a song and send it off / Sign a contract and get ripped off’.

Elsewhere in a stripped-down set culled from the new Son of Euro Child LP (available for free here), Childs pays homage to bread (‘not the TV show or the shit band, the foodstuff’) and claims to have written another song whilst house-sitting for Ian McShane – then adorns a superficially inoffensive pop number, How Do You Do, with the lyric ‘If I had a monkey, he would shit in your shoes’, before shifting it into another world entirely with an unsettling, deliberately off-key chorus croon.

You have to wonder how this uniquely talented but musically wilful man ever found himself in bed with The Man – it’s about as logical as the remorselessly experimental Faust being signed as ‘the German Beatles’.  Still, the pioneering spirit of John Cale flows through Childs’ frequently delicious melodies (although there’s no attempt at the VU man’s granite-stern grandeur) and his restless creativity means that people will always have  time for him. Childs is a bit of a wizard in an era where magic doesn’t happen.  Long may he run.

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'Euros mate, I'm off to film another series of Deadwood - can you pop round and look after the yucca plant whilst I'm gone? Feel free to have a tinkle on the baby grand."

Yo La Tengo‘s spectrum ranges from the fiery (Ira Kaplan’s unhinged guitar storms are frequently unleashed tonight) to the delicate and restrained (Georgia Hubley’s perfect drumming and muted, reflective vocal style are also often permitted to shine, best exemplified by the new and beautiful When It’s Dark, which sounds gorgeous with just two acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies.)

Possibly the evening’s only clunker is Avalon Or Someone Very Similar, which swoons wonderfully on the new and excellent album Popular Songs, but fails live, because Kaplan simply can’t sing that high.  In fact, I assumed Hubley took lead vocal on the song and was very puzzled to see the grizzled guitarist attempting a strangled castrato – you’ve heard better vocal performances at a ‘showcase night’  on a wet Tuesday in the Night & Day.

Fortunately, this misjudgement aside, all is well. For the intellect, there’s the bloody-minded, hypnotic growl of More Stars Than There Are In Heaven, powered by bassman James McNew’s metronomic baritone guitar thrum.  Then Periodically Double or Triple, which drops in on the line ‘Never read Proust, seems a little too long’, before proceeding on a loose-limbed bent, incorporating a cheeky Smile-era Beach Boys interlude and a fifteen-second pause.

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For the indie rockers among us who want to dance, the frankly barnstorming Something To Hide provokes widespread delight, even without the killer organ riff that picks up and carries the chorus on the record.  Then there’s the timeless Sugarcube, from the classic I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One LP – as resplendent as ever – and a triumphant encore cover of Bob Dylan’s I Wanna Be Your Lover, with keyboards from Childs and his bassist Stephen Black (who performs solo as Sweet Baboo and played an excellent set at Fuel in Withington recently).  Kaplan teases the audience by saying ‘when we come to a city, we like to do a cover that’s connected, but we couldn’t think of any bands from Manchester’.  But of course, the legendary ‘Albert Hall’ (er, try Free Trade Hall) ’66 Dylan and The Hawks bootleg was recorded here.  Kaplan’s no Dylan, but the band whoop it up in fine style.

That capped it, or so we thought – but at the insistence of one totally determined audience member, the band stay on for one more, flickering through the candlelit, dusky You Can Have It All, an inspired reinvention of what was originally a George McCrae funk number.  It was a wonderful call from our friend in the crowd and I’m grateful for what followed – it was a special, rare moment of genuinely fine musicality.

Yet more much-needed magic to confound my cynicism.

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John Darnielle is not a rock star.  Bespectacled, middle-aged, unrepentantly unremarkable in appearance, he has forged his reputation without recourse to fancy tricks.  He’s not even a great musician – his guitar style is very simple, he misses chord changes, his piano-playing is far from flub-free.  No, the reason Darnielle has a sold out Ruby Lounge singing almost every word of most of his songs back at him is the quality of his writing.

Once he twigs that his devotees can sing Up The Wolves just as well as he can, he laughs, pulls away from he mic and lets them do it.  Afterwards, smiling, he says, ‘I used to dream that maybe if I became a good songwriter, British people would sing my song back to me in a pub’.

Obviously whip-smart, Darnielle’s frenetic rhythm guitar and intensely rapped vocal is matched by a hugely enjoyable line in banter. Tonight, he fits in plenty of older numbers for the hardcore fans, as well as a selection from the excellent new album, The Light of the World to Come.  His total command of his audience means he’s able to deliver the brilliant, high-tempo relationship-breakdown blast No Children alongside the difficult, tender, genuinely moving Matthew 25:21, a song that manages to address losing a loved one to cancer without sounding trite, histrionic or schmaltzy.  This song, more than any other aired tonight, reveals the depth of intelligence and emotion behind the writing.

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Darnielle’s more extrovert, splenetic side is hugely entertaining and has gained him his ultra-loyal band of followers, but the sheer class of the songwriting on Life of the World to Come serves notice that he is an artist in his prime, deserving of a much wider following.  For now though, it’s just extremely encouraging to see such a literate, unconventional and brave songwriter connecting with a fanbase that makes up its lack of numbers with the bookish ardour of its faith.

After another song is delivered back to Darnielle by the fans without a missed lyric, he stops and says, ‘you guys are obviously way awesome’.

It could have been stagecraft, but I think he genuinely meant it.

Link to free mp3 download of Genesis 3:23 from the new album – which could well the best free download anyone gives you this year.

Before the show, Jason Molina (who is tiny) wandered happily around the venue complex, passing me about three or four times. First, he was watching support act The Bitter Tears, next, he came out for a fag out front (enjoying the fact that he turned heads with this appearance, he held up the ‘V’ for peace sign and lit up), then he passed me in the corridor, by this time, suited up for the show. I patted him on the back.

The younger Ollie would have accosted him at some point – I mean, I had enough chances – but I’m almost 30, don’tcha know. Let the man get on with his life and the show. My role is to spectate and annotate. Or as Denny put it when we went along to see Molina play solo at The Mint Lounge in Manchester, ‘what would you say to him? You don’t want to get too close to that sort of greatness’.

I don’t know if Jason Molina is one of the greats. Too often, his songs revisit the same themes – the first time, they hit, by the third time, you sense a little artifice – and the sound of tonight’s set is essentially one-dimensional. It’s an awesome, old-time electric rock dimension, but nevertheless, non-aficionado friends of mine are left feeling that the show was a little samey.

But he was rocking up old acoustic gems like Whip Poor Will – and adding hugely impressive layers of distortion and mystery to Talk To Me Devil, Again, which on record, is a lovely, chiming dream! Sure, but if you’re not familiar with the songs in the first place, it just sounds like another stern, musicianly blast, from the same Neil Young & Crazy Horse lineage as the last.

I took one look at The Bitter Tears, dressed up as they were in varying shades of preposterousness and wrote them off, before smirking and deciding to stick around and watch for a while. The singer, in white face-paint, hotpants, tights and a red, sparkly top (and straw Stetson) broke off from an excellent song from the PoV of a trucker who’s just run over a dog on the freeway to jump into a wary, reserved audience. He gets back onto the stage and unsuccessfully tries some banter, before giving in with one last shot; ‘don’t worry, the jam band Magnolia Electric Co will be here soon… then you won’t have to think too much’.

I wonder, does he have a point? But in the end, I’ve decided ‘no’. An evening watching Molina kick out the jams is fine reward for his fans, who have followed him through his lengthy, varied career.

There is pain in Jason Molina songs, cryptic symbolism, forlorn love – ‘static and distance’, many haunting images. All the violence of nature, many bleak, empty landscapes and endless variations on the theme of love. At his best, there are few songwriters capable of provoking such emotional resonance….

Fuck it, let’s rock for an hour.

Of course, there are numerous cuts from new album Josephine, with which I’m not yet acquainted – but previous Magnolia albums are well represented, especially What Comes After The Blues. The Dark Don’t Hide It, one of Molina’s poppiest tunes, benefits from the crunchy ambience of the silver-grilled Fender valve amps, more so perhaps than the awesome Hammer Down, which suits the nakedness of Molina + acoustic guitar superbly.

Elsewhere, Talk To Me Devil, Again surpasses the (gorgeous) Fading Trails version so spectacularly, it almost calls for a re-recording – and the classic Magnolia Electric Co LP gets two references. Riding With The Ghost makes for a stirring opening salvo, before a neat bookend set is completed by a suitably huge encore of John Henry Split My Heart. This full-blooded barrage follows audience requests / pleas for Farewell Transmission. ‘Oh, we’ve got something to top that’, drawls Molina. He doesn’t, but the unexpected lurch into mid air across the Grand Canyon-expanse of John Henry is nevertheless a fan’s delight.

Other than that, we get treated to some serious guitar riffs from Jason Groth – one or two friends felt his style was a bit overkill, but I love him for his aggressive, dominant lead, which is not promoted so high in the mix as to be over-the-top. Again, those I spoke to say that Molina’s voice was drowned out a bit by the band – nah. I’ve heard Molina sing plenty. I know what he’s saying. Let me bask in the amp power for an hour.

That’s where the singer from The Bitter Tears was dead wrong and that’s his problem. By hiding his undoubted intelligence behind a misanthropic facade, Alan Scalpone, who could do much better, who could go further, chooses not to. Molina has said so much in his career and provoked so much admiration for his songwriting, that to describe Magnolia Electric Co as a ‘jam band’, whether in jest or not, was another blooper on the road to the end.

(250-worder for citylife.co.uk)

When Damon & Naomi started recording together in the early 90s, they didn’t consider playing live, thinking a band without a rhythm section would be ‘the worst kind’. It’s credit to their talent that they made it work, especially as the duo started out played bass and drums themselves.

Naomi Yang is a renowned bassist, having developed a unique approach to the four-string whilst with the influential, reverb-soaked 80s indie stars Galaxie 500. Tonight, however, she plays synth, producing suitably celestial organ tones to flesh out Damon Krukowski’s simple, resonant acoustic guitar. High and higher harmonies hang in the air and the music floats serenely, unencumbered by the earthy tones of the traditional rhythm section.


Clearly blessed with enormous brains, Damon & Naomi chat amiably between songs, sharing urbane jokes about misheard lyrics and apologising for selling ‘coals to Newcastle’ by performing an English folk song – the stark, beautiful ballad ‘Cruel Queen’. This, along with the sumptuous ‘New York City’ and stormily graceful ‘I’m Yours’ (both on new compilation album The Sub Pop Years) are the highlights of a classy set. In spite of the glacial pace of the songs, the show spins past quickly and seems over before it’s even begun.

It’s strange to see legendary indie figures in your local pub, but such is the way of things since Dulcimer became a full-time microvenue. A word of warning, though – arrive early if you’re coming to a show here, as you won’t see much from the back.

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In honour of the new Sonic Youth LP, The Eternal, I decided it was time to pay tribute to the great and perhaps slightly overlooked songwriter, Lee Ranaldo – a man destined to play the George Harrison role in SY, to use a slightly tenuous metaphor.  Thurston and Kim don’t really equate to Lennon and McCartney in any way, but Ranaldo is much less of a ‘box office draw’ than the frontline husband/wife couple.

You probably wouldn’t get Ranaldo, who always looks a bit like a university lecturer, modelling for Calvin Klein, it’s fair to say. That’s OK, though, he’s far too busy creating superb guitar and fitting words to those ornate, huge, brass picture-frame structures he fashions for Sonic Youth.

Here are some particularly superb examples of his craft, drawn from the Sonic Youth back catalogue – plus a couple from the new rekkid:-

In The Kingdom *19 (Evol) – The first time I heard that scream, in this spoken word car crash narrative, it terrified me. This interests me far more than JG Ballard’s ‘Crash’.  I couldn’t read that, but I can’t stop listening to this.

Pipeline/Kill Time (Sister) – ‘Stretch me to the point where I stop / Run 10,000 miles and then think of me / I think I know the place we should meet / Don’t worry if it’s dark and I’m late’.

Eric’s Trip (Daydream Nation) – One of the highlights of one of the greatest albums ever.  Pretty good, then.

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Hey Joni (Daydream Nation) – At this point in time, SY were finding a sound that simultaneously satisfied their artistic impulse, whilst also rocking so emphatically, that it eventually allowed a wider audience in.  ‘Hey Joni’ is a particularly piquant example, with its tumbling, cascading guitars and solid bass core, all behind one of Ranaldo’s most authoritative vocal performances.

Wish Fulfilment (Dirty) – Butch Vig’s production made this sound extremely expensive, which it doubtless was.  It also made the SY guitars sound monstruously powerful, whilst still ensuring they serve the song, rather than overwhelming it.    Great structure, great, yearning, heartfelt lyrics. Even if it cost $1,000,000, it was worth every cent.

Hoarfrost (A Thousand Leaves) – Just a lovely, meditative, graceful, pastoral piece.

Karen Koltrane (A Thousand Leaves) – Heavy, brooding, pensive, unforgiving territory, this.  Headache-nasty guitar interventions.  ‘Karen Koltrane’ rewards persistence with a mournful, minor-chord beautfiul middle section – and some divine SY riffing that drops in out of nowhere, about five minutes in.

Karen Revisited (Murray Street) – Epic 11 minute monster, commencing in a relatively straight-forward manner before disappearing off over the horizon, with a superb, reverb-soaked, ambient mid-section.

Rats (Rather Ripped) – Absolutely beautiful.  Sometimes, Ranaldo reveals a sensitivity and warmth that isn’t always available from Thurston and Kim.  ‘You can let it shine / Keep that in mind… You can move a little closer’.  All over a strangely swaying, woozy, beautiful chord change – the piercing, simple lead guitar is reined in to serve the song, with a similar sort of clotted sound to that aching, genius guitar motif  on Bowie’s ‘Heroes’

Walkin Blue (The Eternal) – Draws a little from that oceanic ‘Rats’ prototype, its verses burble in a supremely soothing manner, before a sideways shift into an almost Pavement-style pop-rock chorus break.

What We Know (The Eternal) – ‘It’s not a quiet meditation’… Quite. More a full-bodied, satisfyingly chunky stomper.

The Trey’O’Hearts

June 28, 2009

The letter formally requested the annulment of the marriage of Peter Edward and Rachel Vincent.

Peter Edward Vincent couldn’t bring himself to read it, still. The highballs after lunch were meant to stiffen his resolve, to the point where he could go through the petition, accept its contents and contact his attorney. It hadn’t happened that way.

Vincent sat in his favourite armchair, in the downtown apartment he now called home. A decanter of whiskey and an ashtray stood on the small table beside him. Also, a few sundry bills, a copy of the Los Angeles Morning Sun and Rachel’s letter, which he had stuffed back into its envelope,.

Vincent added his half-full tumbler to the collection of items on the table. He pulled himself to his feet and shuffled into the bathroom. He needed to get ready to meet Brady from Universal Studios.  With nothing better to do that day, Vincent had hit upon the idea of watching one of his old films down at the Universal lot. He’d asked Brady to find him a print of ‘The Trey’O’Hearts’.

Dully, Vincent remembered that he had missed his appointment at the barber’s that afternoon, choosing to take a nap, instead. It didn’t matter – he was perfectly capable of shaving himself.

Carefully, he stripped the light stubble from his face with his cut-throat, thinking about ‘The Trey’O’Hearts’. The book itself had not been great, he knew that. Because of the time pressure they’d heaped upon him. If he’d had longer – but it didn’t matter.

They’d loved the idea at Universal. Just on the strength of the outline plot, they said they could make it into a movie series. After that, the wheels were in motion so quickly. We’ve got a new star in the making, they’d said – Cleo Madison. She would be perfect to play the twin sister heroines.

What a beauty she was, Cleo. What a woman.

Vincent nicked himself and winced. Washing the last lather off his face, he watched a little of his blood disappear down the sink, along with his stubble, soap and water.

He towelled off and opened the bathroom cabinet, picking out a bottle of benzene after-shave. He removed the stopper and was about to apply some when the telephone rang. Cursing, he moved back through to the drawing room and placed the after-shave on the table, reaching the phone on the fifth ring.

“Vincent.”

“Mr Vincent, it’s Brady here.”

“Brady, old man.”

“I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. It’s the film. I can’t find a print of it anywhere here.”

“You can’t?”

“No, it’s the darnedest thing. We have a storage facility for some of the old silents, but I’ve been down there and we don’t have it catalogued.”

“You have storage – for some of the films?”

Brady coughed.

“Excuse me. Yes, Mr Vincent, that’s right. Unfortunately, the sheer number of films we made – I mean, we’re going back over 20 years, here. We couldn’t keep them all -”

“I understand”, said Vincent, coldly. “That’ll be all, Mr Brady.”

“I’m sorry -”

“Good evening”, snapped Vincent. He banged down the receiver.

His film was lost.

He paced around the room, trying to remember – the premiere of the first instalment. How excited Rachel had been to be there with him, Peter Edward Vincent, a writer for the movies. Meeting Cleo Madison – the party at Henry McRae’s place, when he’d told Cleo that he was going to write the perfect character for her. Together, they could do something much more important than this melodramatic nonsense.  She was too good for that –

He stared at a framed poster for ‘The Trey’O’Hearts’, which adorned his wall.

In the drawer of the desk in his study, he found the signed portrait of Cleo and a miniature packet of playing cards. Universal had made them to promote the series. He sipped his whisky, then opened the pack, carelessly strewing the cards across his desk.

He read the packet.

“A film of exceptional drawing power – ONE LONG THRILL!”

Universal had ditched it, just like the rest of the detritus from the silent age.

Vincent picked out a copy of the ‘Trey’O’Hearts’ novel from the bookshelf and returned to his armchair. He refilled his tumbler, lit a cigarette. He started to read, but through the mists of the whiskey, which was on top of him by now, he found it impossible to concentrate on the words.

By the time he had stuttered through the opening chapter and moved onto the second, he was upset with the language, with the creaky, jerky way he had moved the plot on. He had been young, but not that young. The primary-colour, babyish way in which he introduced the characters of the ‘bad’ twin sister, Judith, and her twisted old father, Pa Trine – he frowned. This was juvenilia, nothing but juvenilia. No better than ‘The Lone Wolf’.

Before long, he had given up on reading. The book lay open in his lap, but he was just drinking. Smoking, he ran through the plot of ‘The Trey’O’Hearts’ in his mind. The way he had raced to Universal with the fresh idea. Fool that he was. If he’d written the damn novel first, it could have been – but no, he had to go and give it to those philistines, for a few stinking dollars.

He pictured the twin sisters – of course, Rose, the ‘good’ twin sister, had been Rachel – or so he’d thought.

At the close of the book, the protagonist, Alan May, awoke to find Rose standing over him – May had thought that she was dead. Only it wasn’t Rose. It was her twin sister, Judith; turned from bad to good, she had fallen in love with Alan and was ready to atone for all the wrongs she had done to him.

Vincent wished it could happen to him. Let me wake up tomorrow with Rachel standing over me, in love with me again. Only not Rachel. He laughed bitterly. No, not Rachel. Just someone who looks like her. Not that cold-hearted bitch –

In a moment, he had hurled the hardbacked copy of ‘The Trey’O’Hearts’ towards the table. It strck the open bottle of after-shave, which fell to the ground, chugging its contents out onto the carpet in great gulps.

Thank God for that, thought Vincent, laughing.

It could have been the whiskey.

Vincent carefully placed his still-lit cigarette in the ashtray. The heavy bottle was unbroken. He picked it up and returned it to the bathroom cabinet. Then he selected a towel and moved back into the drawing room, to mop up the spillage.

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I still can’t kick the progenitor.  Sonic Youth still have That Guitar Sound. Thurston is still Thurston, Lee is still Lee, Kim is still Kim, Steve is still Steve,  They’re still Sonic Youth and they never really stopped being fucking amazing.  Virtually every ‘pop’ album they’ve done is worthwhile and most go way beyond that.

This one doesn’t do an awful lot in the way of straight innovation, but does reacquaint the fans with virtually every angle of their attack, as well as providing a few tantalising echoes of their past glories.

Opener ‘Sacred Trickster’ has a full-on, Dirty-sized chorus and Kim Gordon’s signature yelp sounds as powerful as ever. The great Lee Ranaldo barks out his beat poetry on ‘What We Know’, which possesses something of the ageless ‘Eric’s Trip’.  The final death-throes of epic album-closer ‘Massage The History’ drift teasingly into a one-note, chiming picked pattern that, combined with Gordon’s hushed delivery, take you right back to ‘Shadow of a Doubt’, from Evol.

Not that the production here is anything like as weird as it was back then, in those pre-Geffen days (this is, it should be pointed out, their first post-Geffen album).  Those enormous swathes of guitar have been harnessed, rather than tamed, to serve a set of woody, natural song structures.  Sonic Youth have always had an expansive, sprawling tendency, but here, that is largely checked, with a slight majority of tracks on the record coming in at under four minutes and most tracks boasting out-and-out hooks.

The sense of drama and impending crisis that was always present in 1980s Sonic Youth is gone now, replaced by a more knowing, gentle atmosphere – it’s fair to say that they’ve mellowed since their haughty, art-rock peak, but that’s not to suggest that they are mellow, by any stretch.

Like Neil Young, even when Sonic Youth are doing something overtly accessible – e.g. the positively playful ‘Leaky Lifeboat (for Gregory Corso)’ – there is a sense that violence and danger is merely being suppressed.  There could be an electrical storm around the corner.  You can see the steel in Neil Young’s eyes – you can hear grandeur and potency in even the most superficially gentle Sonic Youth guitar performance.

Neil Young - key influence on the Sonic Youth

Neil Young - key influence on the Sonic Youth

SY are an instituton now, in the same way that Neil Young is – and very much in the American tradition, just like their spiritual father.  They’re spacious and evoke open country, big skies and long roads, more than they  frantic, insect modern city existence.

Thurston’s slightly goofy ‘hey hey’s on ‘No Way’ – he was always the studious kid who wanted to be a fucking cool rocker and it comes across.  You just want him to be your indulgent uncle.  On ‘Thunderclap’, he and Kim manage to get away with bratty ‘woooaaaahhs’ and ‘yeeeaaahhs’ that people their age, in theory, should not be able to get away with.

(Then again, having seen Neil Young live, I now know that anyone who says they’re ‘too old for that stuff’ was always a fucking fake anyway.  Young gave the lie to anyone who ever got lazy, gave up, got dead.)

(I should also add that the fucking cool uncle Thurston sounds like he’s had one too many on Boxing Day on the excruciating ‘Sleepin’ Around’, which I rapidly deleted from my library.  Avoid – it’s this album’s one true clunker.)

Mark Ibold appears to be a full member on bass these days and SY tip him a wink by periodically morphing into Pavement during Ranaldo’s otherwise typically gorgeous ‘Walkin’ Blue‘ – a weird development, but kind of cool.  You just wish they’d got Malkmus to help on backing vocals.  It would have worked beautifully.

SY's newest member, ex-Pavement bassist Mark Ibold - it's not what you know....

SY's newest member, ex-Pavement bassist Mark Ibold - Why didn't I get the gig? I guess it's not what you know...!

I tell you what, I’m gonna put together a compilation of great Lee Ranaldo songs from the back catalogue.  How’d you like that?

The raging highlight of the album is the pristine Kim Gordon showcase ‘Malibu Gas Station’, which uses that wonderful, spooked rasp of hers to perfect effect.  I think it’s got a reverse reverb on it, perhaps a delay…. Fuck the tech womblings.   Gordon huskily staccatoes as Thurston Moore’s rhythm guitar chops in his signature style, whilst a delicious Ranaldo trem arm intervention in the other speaker finds just the right accent and completely melts me.   It hearkens back just subtly to those uncanny, warped and compelling pre-Geffen albums.

At their out-and-out best, Sonic Youth create an atmosphere, or soundworld, which makes you feel nostalgic for a time and place that doesn’t exist.  Ever since Bad Moon Rising, those silvery, subtly alien guitars have pierced minds and at their commercial height, with Dirty, they took their amp power and reverence for the garage rock canon and made something simultaneously avant-garde and classic.

Since then, albums like A Thousand Leaves, Murray Street and Rather Ripped have, with differing percentages of either impulse, repeated the pattern – out-and-out noise has rubbed shoulders with the sweetest of alt-tuning melodic clouds.  Kim has alternated between that indignant rocker’s holler and a breathy, melancholy sigh.  Thurston has mixed profundity with gawkiness. Lee has just been Lee, enuncuating his closely-considered lyrics like he was reading them straight off the manuscript through a megaphone – he sometimes sounds like he’s attempting to conduct his family’s escape from an onrushing tornado.  Other times, he sounds tender, like he’s about to throw an arm around you and direct your attention to the stars above.

Back to The Eternal.  Thurston describes the band’s divorce from Geffen Records as a ‘liberation’ and it’ll be interesting to see what they do next, now they’re free of the commercial pressures of the label that once tried to sue Neil Young for making ‘unrepresentative records’.

Curse you, Sonic Youth.  Not only did Sister completely warp my musical taste, so that after a few months of listening to it and Daydream Nation, everything else sounded shit – not only that, but a decade on, you refuse to the decent thing and become futile parodies of yourselves.

sonicyouth

REM were OK with doing that.  Step aside!

Not a bit of it.