Archive for the ‘Song of the Week’ Category

Two Reviews of Belly

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018

I only post occasional reviews that I write for the Nottingham Post – they have their own website, after all and it used to be easy to find everything I’d written for them. However, yesterday, when I checked to see what I’d said in my review of Belly at Rock City less than two years ago, I found that that review, along with loads of others, had gone. I don’t know if this is connected with a recent change of policy, whereby only gigs likely to attract a high number of clicks get reviewed. That means that this is probably the last time I’ll review a Rescue Rooms gig*. Pity.

Here’s what I wrote on July 19th two years ago, rescued from my previous computer:

It’s twenty years since Belly split. Twenty-three since their one Nottingham gig, at Trent Uni, as was. Their reputation has, if anything, grown. Tonight, their Rescue Rooms show had to be upgraded to Rock City. Especially welcome to have room to breathe on a sweltering night.

Belly were always poppier than Tanya Donelly’s previous band, Throwing Muses, and less cutting edge than her other band, The Breeders. Debut ‘Star’ was a huge success, but follow-up ‘King’ was less focussed. They packed it in after four years. In the 90s, bands didn’t stick around, the way most do now. They left unfinished business.

Tanya has had a varied solo career, while bassist Gail Greenwood joined L7, where she learnt to carry herself like a rock star. She does most of the (plentiful) banter tonight. Donelly, still stick-thin in a black T, is a more wry presence, but it’s her voice and guitar that hold it all together.

These are haunting songs at the melodic, jingle-jangle edge of grunge, with the odd country influence. Annoyingly, they skip their best ballad, Untogether, tonight, but this is made up for by a beautiful version of The Bees. The big numbers are carefully spaced out in a set that includes a brace of new songs, untitled. Gail offers to crowdsource names. Both sound strong.

Surprisingly, two-thirds of the way into a 90 minute set, they have an interval. ‘We’re our own support act.’ One song is introduced as having ‘grade A wanking’ by Gail, a term that guitarist Tom jokes defines their sound. They’re a lighthearted bunch these days, but when they hit form with songs as strong as Gepetto, Dusted and Super-Connected, they’re magnificent. Each is rapturously received by an audience who never expected to hear these songs played again, and deservedly so.

And here’s an extended version of today’s review for the Post, which can currently be read here.

‘In order of who you love,’ bassist Gail Greenwood asks, ‘is it your first born, your football team, then… Belly?’ The question gets a big cheer from a venue crowded with loyal fans. Nevertheless, tonight, Belly face two big tests. Two years ago their reunion gig had to be upgraded from the Rescue Rooms to Rock City and they stormed it. This time, they’re up against England’s first world cup match and have an album of new material to include.

Sensibly, the Rescue Rooms shows the football match on a big screen behind the band before they come on stage, and a late goal ensures a great, boisterous atmosphere.

Belly’s ex-Throwing Muses and Breeders leader, Tanya Donelly, sticks to business on stage. The banter is left to Gail, who, strangely, slags off the ‘shitty’ venue they played two years ago. It is true that the Rescue Rooms suits them better than Rock City. Their joyous brand of jingle-jangle grunge derives more power from the intensity of a smaller space. The sound is superb.

The set’s split into two 45 minute halves, opening with Now They’ll Sleep. Strong arrangements of first album favourites Dusted and Gepetto fit between the new songs.

It’s the second half, opening with Seal my Fate, when things really take off. They have two terrific double whammies: first, Slow Dog and Feed the Tree, the biggest numbers from Star. The Bees and Super Connected, the best numbers on King, are outstanding.

Super-Connected would have been a great way to end the set but new ballad Human Child is the closer. For an encore, I’m hoping for first album ballad, Untogether, as covered recently by Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett. Instead the three song encore consists of new album bonus track Starry-Eyed and compilation-only tracks, Thief and Spaceman. Nice, but an odd comedown.

I know I mentioned their not playing Untogether in both reviews but missing it out does seem perverse (they played it when my brother saw them in Sheffield in 2016). That I had to look up where each of the encores came from tells its own story. But, hey, Belly are great and play what they want. The new album’s good. I’ve now seen the reunited band the same number of times as I saw the original (once, pre-Gail) band. I’d happily go see them again. And pay.

Belly – Untogether

Belly – Spaceman

*No Post photographer last night so the photos above are from my phone.

As you could almost certainly tell.

Holiday Reading

Monday, May 28th, 2018

A week’s break on a Greek island (escaping a kitchen refit) followed by a bank holiday weekend has meant that I could catch up on my reading, albeit with a stringent weight limit. And, unlike many of these blogs, where I read books I’ve saved up, most of the reading I did on Skiathos was guided by serendipity.

One of my Children’s Literature student lent me The Hate You Give, which recently shared the Children’s Book Award at the Nibbies with The Lost Words. This longish YA novel, inspired by Black Lives Matter (& Tupac’s THUGLIFE tattoo) has won numerous other awards. I was a hundred pages in and polished off the rest of it on the flight and the following morning by the pool. This is proper YA fiction: by which I mean it’s narrated by a sixteen year old, a black girl at a mainly white private school. She has a white boyfriend who she’s sleeping with but little is made of this. The story (slight spoiler) concerns what happens when her childhood friend Raoul is shot dead by a white police officer. The dialogue is authentic and the structure solid. Now and then, the morality issues around racism and gun crime are a little too on the nose, the narrator rather too articulate and mature to be entirely convincing, but that’s a perennial YA problem and barely a criticism: it’s a great read and a deserving winner. Thanks for the loan, Liv.

I had a couple of non-fiction books I planned to take, but then my order of A Hero for High Times: A Younger Reader’s Guide to the Beats, Hippies, Freaks, Punks, Ravers, New-Age Travellers and Dog-on-a-Rope Brew Crew Crusties of the British Isles, 1956–1994 came in at the library. It’s a vast tome, and in demand, so I only have three weeks to read it. Not finished yet, and there are parts I’ll skip (a lot of the background Ian Marchant gives for younger readers is, uh, over-familiar), but it was ideal for reading by the pool. I shall also be using it to escape from the kitchen fitters who currently occupy my house. Today’s their one day off, which is why I have the leisure to write this. Basically, it’s a history of the counter culture, based around interviews with a Zelig-like hippy who – in interviews sometimes conducted under a narcotic haze – claims to have been everywhere, met everyone and been the first person to… who cares if he gilds the lily from time to time (but, oh, come on, Saddam Hussein, really?). I can think of loads of people who will love it.

Talking of novels based on real lives, I’m not sure why I let Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time pass me by, but there it was in the hotel’s left behind books library. It’s a fictional life of Shostakovich, in beach friendly short sections, primarily concerned with how the composer managed a career under Lenin, Stalin and Khruschchev. As such, it follows on nicely from The Death of Stalin a graphic novel I read recently (the mostly faithful film is very good too). Barnes does this kind of thing very well. It’s a fast, economical read, and possibly his best since Flaubert’s Parrot, which in some ways it resembles. He’s at his best as a short story writer and those skills are in display here.

Sue passed on Owen Sheers I Saw a Man (lousy title, would have been better as The Man on The Stair, a title I nearly used for a book called Dead Guilty, which, like, the Sheers’ title, was inspired by William Hughes Mearns’ poem, Antigonish). This was a decent, well written read, a kind of airport thriller about grief, but I found it rather over-constructed and often less than plausible. It was rather over-shadowed by the next novel I read, which was also the most recent, Alison Moore’s Missing (bought from Five Leaves Bookshop when I went in to congratulate them on their Nibbie win for best Indy bookshop). One of her best, I think, it’s also about absences. Moore uses a naïve, allusive style that lets in life’s contradictions and uses telling, convincing details that bring her story to life. Her people feel real and are weird in convincing ways. This book moved me, and stayed with me.

My surprise read of the holiday was another piece of serendipity, one of a bunch of spare copies that Sandeep, director of our UNESCO City of Literature, offered round at our board meeting the day before I left. The publisher had sent it to us because we’d been trying to get the author for our Storysmash event. I’d never heard of Nick Harkaway, although he’s published four novels, and it turns out that he’s the son of a writer I love, but makes no play of this, so I won’t go into that further. I was tempted by Tigerman because of the Graham Greene comparison on the cover (I’ve read all of Greene and reread most of them, too). The situation is Greeneish: minor official left to represent British interests on a poisoned island off Africa that the Brits have officially left and which is now dominated by lawless cartels. The story gets wilder and more satirical than Greene in most modes, making it nearer Our Man in Havana than The Heart of the Matter  or The Comedians. And it’s also about a man who wants to be a father. A literary thriller, full of sharp writing, satisfying twists and with a strong ending. I’ll be seeking out more Harkaway and so, maybe, should you.

Finally, a nod to John Harvey, whose Body and Soul I planned to take before deciding a 15KG baggage limit didn’t allow hardbacks. He’s said that Body and Soul will be his last novel, not least because he is being treated for prostate cancer. John is doing the March for Men next month to raise money for research into this disease and you can sponsor him here. Instead of his new novel, I took a tiny, second-hand paperback of one he recently recommended by a great noir writer that he introduced me to back in the early 80’s, Ross Macdonald. It’s called The Way Some People Die, which tells you a bit about John’s sense of humour and a lot about his excellent taste. Macdonald is Chandleresque, less showy but just as well written, with convoluted plots that wind up making more sense than Chandler’s. And there’s more of them. I’m halfway through and already have another waiting for me at the library. All the best to John, whose eightieth birthday we look forward to celebrating in December.

2Pac – Bury Me A G


The Hollies at Nottingham Royal Concert Hall

Friday, May 11th, 2018

Bit late putting this up, but I think it’s worth preserving my Hollies review on this blog. A slightly extended take on April 25th’s show, originally for the Nottingham Post, whose Kevin Cooper took the photo above.

Manchester’s Hollies are in their fifty-sixth year. They formed in 1962, around the same time Ringo Starr joined The Beatles. OK, their Paul (Graham Nash) left in 1968 (wonder what happened to him?), and their John (Allan Clarke) retired 18 years ago. But they still have two, very recognisable original members, drummer Bobby Elliott with Tony Hicks on lead guitar and backing vocals. They still have a catalogue of great pop songs most modern groups would kill for. And they still pack the Concert Hall.

I first heard them when I was still in short trousers. Their songs were everywhere but my parents didn’t buy them. Mum bought The Beatles, until they got a bit weird. I first connected with The Hollies when they were just past their golden age (the Nash era), being particularly fond of I Can’t Tell the Bottom From the Top and Gasoline Alley Bred. They had huge hits after that, but I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about The Air That I Breathe and He Ain’t Heavy (He’s My Brother). Guess I don’t have a strong taste for power ballads (though these songs predate that term).

The band open with a verse from Graham Nash’s swansong, King Midas in Reverse. When this peaked at number 30, the band reverted to type (but oh, what a glorious type it was) and he left to join Crosby and Stills, taking rejected song Marrakesh Express with him. From then on it’s non-stop hits: I Can’t Let Go, Sorry Suzanne, Jennifer Eccles and On A Carousel go by in a rush. Peter Howarth, born in 1960, has been their lead singer since 2004.

I had my doubts about seeing the band with any lead singer other than Clarke. They were soon dispelled. The group are in glorious voice (though now and then backing vocals get buried in the mix, which is a pity). Howarth has a classic Merseybeat sound, perfectly suited to the material, but steps back to let Ray Stiles and Steve Lauri accompany Hicks to sing a glorious Gasoline Alley Bred, the song that best reflects where this Manchester band come from. Listen To Me leads into the newish Weakness, which sounds more like The Eagles than The Hollies but goes down OK.

We’re Through features Bobby Elliott’s one drum solo of the night, which is brief but brilliant. I Can’t Tell The Bottom From The Top, Just One Look, Stay and a rearranged Look Through Any Window are all packed into the first half.

The second hour leads off with the relatively obscure rockabilly of The Day That Curly Billy Shot Down Crazy Sam. It includes Here I Go Again and a wonderful I’m Alive. Bobby, now 76, tells us about two encounters with Bruce Springsteen, and how grateful he was for their early cover of Sandy, which they play. The ever youthful Hicks (72), his guitar characteristically crisp throughout, performs a sitar/guitar intro to The Baby, before Carrie Ann and Stop, Stop, Stop bring things to a climax.

The Hollies don’t leave the stage but He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother and The Air That I Breathe feel like encores. Both get standing ovations.

They’ll keep coming back as long as they get reactions like this, Howarth tells us. Creedence pastiche, Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress brings things to a raucous conclusion. When I get home I check out my vinyl of the 70’s anthology 20 Golden Greats. They’ve played every track on it. Lovely stuff. To misquote Neil Young, long may they run.

I’m Alive – The Hollies (The Beatles (Invite You To Take A Ticket To Ride), 7 June 1965)

King Midas In Reverse / Mono

Look Through Any Window


Bangers on Valentine’s Day. Franz Ferdinand’s return to Rock City.

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

Franz Ferdinand visited Nottingham seven times in their first three years, building up to a 2005 show at the arena. Since then, two albums, but no gigs. A fine joint album with Sparks recently rejuvenated both bands. Sparks were magnificent here last summer and hopes are high for tonight’s FF return.

Fifth album Always Ascending takes the familiar template (influenced by XTC, Wire and even a little Talking Heads) with less of the pop/disco elements which left some of their audience behind. It only came out on Friday, so the busy crowd don’t know opener Paper Cages, which singer Alex Kapranos introduces with a balloon heart. In the old days, Kapranos was a cool front man and the band exuded angular, sardonic wit. These days, dyed blonde, he’s gone full festival, using vigorous arm waves and multiple call and response rather than Guardian reader pleasing banter.

Cheesy, yes, but boy, does it work. From second number, The Dark of the Matinee on, the mosh pit is reminiscent of a Libertines crowd and populated by youth who hadn’t started school when the first album came out: a sure sign that it has become a classic. The moshing only intensifies for a terrific No, You Girls.

Original guitarist Nick McCarthy has been replaced with Dino Bardot on guitar and Julian Corrie on keyboards. The new, fuller sound goes into full throttle with Do You Want To. The songs get a much bigger reaction than they did when new. Maybe that’s partly down to their being sole headliners. I seem to recall them as second on the bill with The Libertines first time I saw them, and the second time they followed the Fiery Furnaces, who had just released their best album, Blueberry Boat, and were in unfollowable form. Alex dated their Eleanor Friedburger for a while. Sadly, there’s no Eleanor, Put Your Boots On (from the second album) tonight.

New songs are mixed in throughout. Lois Lane, Huck and Jim and the title track stand out. The penultimate Take Me Out is awesome. Hard to follow that but Ulysses, Darts of Pleasure and the closing This Fire do the job nicely. Ninety minutes packed with bangers. Franz Ferdinand are back.

Support was from Albert Hammond Jr, filling time between Strokes albums. His band, weedy vocals aside, sounded rather like them, fuller than when I last saw them, at the Social, but you wish he’d go back to playing rhythm guitar and add a singer. The odd Strokes number would be nice, too.

This is a slightly extended version of my Nottingham Post review. Their Kevin Cooper took the photo above. Here’s ‘Lois Lane’.

2017: the sleeve notes

Friday, December 8th, 2017

This year, the pile of CDs I wanted to include a track from but didn’t have room for was higher than the ones included. I had to compile 2017’s CD early, which means no individual sleevenotes or MP3s beyond the final three tracks this year. It also meant that the Neil Young, Morrissey, Sharon Jones and Bjork CDs weren’t out in time (Sue, who has a veto, hates Morrissey, but Bjork is on her Christmas list). One late release, Taylor Swift, edged out The XX (I couldn’t resist following Father John Misty’s TS reference with the best track from her new album). Other artists I would have liked to include are Bedouine, Nadia Reid, Laura Marling, Young Fathers, James Vincent McMorrow, David Rawlings, Feist, Juana Molina, Todd Rundgren with Donald Fagen, Public Service Broadcasting, Sampha, Bob Dylan, Mark Eitzel, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, LCD Soundsystem, Robert Plant, Natalie Merchant, Tinariwen, Lana Del Rey, Alvvays, Songhoy Blues, Kendrick Lamar, Courtney Marie Andrews, Kurt Vile with Courtney Barnett (been a good year for Courtneys) and – especially – Mavis Staples. A CD’s worth, easily. I used to do a part two for home consumption. Indeed, I know of people who do three disc annual compilations, but I’ve always been of the ‘more is less’ persuasion. Editing is the art.

2017 starts with Sparks, whose Hippopotamus is great fun: the first of theirs I’ve listened to extensively. I average a gig a week or more, but these days most of them, inevitably, feature people I’ve seen before. Not Sparks, though, and they were terrific at Rock City. Catchy, beach-pop in the Fleetwood Mac vein from Haim, then one of my albums of the year, by War on Drugs, keeping up the ridiculously high standards of the last two. A welcome return from The Feelies, whose two comeback albums are as good as the records I fell for in the 80s (and check out my non-fiction book of the year, Graham Caveney’s memoir The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness, named after a Feelies song). Destroyer’s Ken finds them on the same startling form as their last two, while Sleaford Mods’ ‘BHS’ was the highlight of their Rough Trade album launch back in March, one of three times I’ve seen them this year. Still the band that defines our age, they killed it at Rock City on their tour finale, too.

Didn’t see all of the Mods’ set at Green Man, as they overlapped with pj harvey, who I hadn’t seen since 2004. The highlight of my favourite festival was the amazing set by Richard Dawson with an array of backing singers and musicians. Peasant is the album on which I fully got what he’s about. ‘Solider’ even more than ‘BHS’, is the marmite track on this year’s cd. Some will hate it, others grow to love it. Arcade Fire’s Everything Now is a patchy album, even more so than the double that preceded it, but the title track is gloriously catchy and has a timely lyric. I would have liked to include one of the longer tracks from the wonderful comeback album by Fleet Foxes, but couldn’t justify an eight minute song. Crack-up is a marvellous, multi-layered thing, which deserved more plaudits.

Aimee Mann’s Mental Illness also finds her on top form, in deliberate 70s MOR mode, with a ridiculously catchy song about the actor Andrew Garfield. Spoon continue to be Spoon, the most Beatlesy band who don’t sound like a Beatles pastiche (a nod here to my other big non-fiction read this year, though it’s a couple of years old, Mark Lewishon’s outstanding, absorbing, authorative, Tune In, which takes the Beatles up to the end of 1962). Randy Newman’s Dark Material doesn’t flow as well as most of his albums but has plenty of strong songs. This is one of two (the other is an old one, Wandering Boy) that doesn’t use irony.

Broken Social Scene are a collective that don’t make albums often but when they do, can blow you away. Hugs of Thunder is, some have said, the album that Arcade Fire ought to have made, if they were braver. In my experience, artists do what they have to do. This is as uplifting and energetic as BSS’s best work. The National’s new album marks a solid return to form after Trouble Will Find Me found them coasting on previous styles. It pushes them into new areas musically and lyrically. This is the song that most got stuck into my head but more keep coming through, just as they did on the album I first fell for, Alligator.

I’ve been following Michael Chapman for more than a decade now, since we got talking after a party to celebrate a Cosmic American Music Club anniversary. Dunno how I missed his stuff before since he’s been a name since the late 60’s (he gave Mick Ronson his break). In the US, he’s a legend, feted by people like Lucinda Williams, Thurston Moore etc. At home, less so, but his fiftieth album, 50, is terrific and has, belatedly, had the reviews and attention it deserves. I’ve seen him twice this year, in terrific form at Green Man and in Nottingham’s The Running Horse this month. This song was a highlight both times.

Father John Misty’s latest was memorably described as like Elton John singing below the line comments on a Guardian blog. Pure Comedy isn’t as memorable as his falling in love album I Love You, Honeybear but is funny and endearing. The song satirises people who fantasise about Taylor Swift, who’s new to me. On the strength of this song, I think she might have a future. Fun fact, she’s named after James Taylor and once duetted on ‘Fire and Rain’ with him.

I could go on and on about John Murry, whose debut, The Graceless Age, was my favourite album of 2013. This year’s A Short History of Decay is terrific, too. This song was a highlight of the instore he played at Rough Trade earlier this year. Only sorry I couldn’t make his tour when it stopped at Leicester in September, but Sue had an operation this year. Lovely guy, too, and, as I discovered, a bit of a bibliomaniac. I can relate to that. We also talked about Warren Zevon, clearly an influence on John’s songs. His songs are equally world weary, but not as cynical.

The title of the compilation links that song and the next one. Future Islands divide people (it’s the singer’s performing style, and his voice) and can feel a little samey on record. But live, at Green Man, they were tremendous and Samuel Herring is an incredible front man, full of passion. A life affirming song and show.

This year, we lost Chuck Berry, at 90. You can argue the ins and outs of who invented rock’n’roll but, for me, Chuck Berry was everything. No Beatles or Stones without Chuck, certainly no Dylan without Chuck’s lyrics. His final album came out a few weeks after he passed, and this is the most characteristic song on it. Hail, hail, rock’n’roll.

John Murry – Countess Lola’s Blues (All in This Together)

Future Islands – Through the Roses

Chuck Berry – Big Boys