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Monday, August 31, 2015
Mongrel Hi-Fi Now in Operation.
As the backlash against the ‘vinyl revival’ gains momentum, fueled by crippling production delays, Record Shop Day hucksterism and increasingly eye-watering shop prices, another argument worth throwing on the pile is the sheer expensive and physical impracticality necessary in assembling the equipment and dedicated space required for the proper appreciation of music on vinyl.
As much as we lifer music-heads might see such a set-up as our god-given right, the truth is that, despite its hip cache, a vinyl habit is just as much a display of conspicuous consumption as a rich dad’s vintage motorcycle or golf club paraphernalia. Even the quickest survey of the outlay needed these days for a half-decent deck, amp and speakers, and a quick calculation of the weight and shelving requirements of anything more than a modest collection of LPs reveals the unhappy truth that, with a myriad of other options now available for the effective home reproduction of recorded music, only a complete obsessive would venture to undertake such an investment whilst stuck in the financially stretched renting / flat-sharing milieu that comprises life for most of us in modern cities.
Needless to say, I’ve been battling to keep my own ‘vinyl option’ open in such circumstances since before I left home as a teenager, and, when the dodgy light-weight USB turntable I’ve been pre-amping through computer speakers or a guitar amp for bedroom listening crapped out last month, I realised that a) I am now comfortably settled and unlikely to be moving any time in the near future, and b) there is absolutely no point in continuing to own and buy vinyl if I’m going to persist in primarily listening to it in this “sounds shit, but it’ll do for now” kind of fashion.
Like everyone else, I’m near-broke of course, so waltzing into Richer Sounds for a few demos wasn’t really an option. The alternative then? Well, personally I went straight for that vexed crap-shoot of selecting “nearest first” on an ebay search and hoping for the collection-only best. (Note that the fact I live in London probably helped in this regard.)
Three weeks later, and after a certain amount of unforeseen expense and a not inconsiderable amount of hassle, my new set up is finally operational. For those contemplating the ebay option, my advice is to be patient and be careful; to not rush into anything, and to not be shy about thoroughly checking condition or requesting a demonstration of functionality before handing over cash. All advice that I, like a moron, entirely failed to abide by.
Finished hi-fi accounting thus looks like this:
Gemini turntable ---------------------------£0
Replacement stylus for Gemini --------- £14
Moved upstairs from the living room when the aforementioned USB deck started playing up, I got this turntable as a giveaway from friends a few years back. Frankly, it’s the kind of thing that would make an audiophile wake up in the night with a cold sweat, cheaply manufactured and equipped with an arm that “..bounces around like a donkey ride over the Himalayas”, to paraphrase one post I googled up on a hi-fi forum. But what can I say – after years of somewhat careless use, it still plays stuff at the correct speed with no noticeable skipping, and, with the addition of a long overdue fresh stylus, sound quality sounds just dandy to my cloddish ears. So IT’LL DO.
Refurbed ‘70s Turner turntable ------------£70
Replacement stylus for Turner ------------- £12
Supplied w/ a one year warranty from a North London 2nd hand shop, this is a replacement for the living room deck (connected via pre-amp to my student era mini-system). I went for it because it’s quite small and light, but still seems well built (mmm.. ‘70s) - and that warranty helps too. No problems thus far, beyond the fact the stylus they dug out of a drawer for me is completely knackered. Still awaiting the replacement as I write (it’s a bit late… maybe I should chase it up?), so let’s see how it sounds then. Thankfully I at least clocked that they’d replaced the cartridge, so the stylus code prominently displayed on the unit itself is inaccurate – one pitfall avoided.
Marantz amplifier ------------------------------ £35
The first piece of equipment I acquired this month, this was a local pick-up (I carried it home in a couple of laundry bags to avoid the rain), and it's working like a dream thus far. Nice trouble-free transaction, and nice to finally have an amp on which I can adjust the bass and treble knobs as god intended, rather than just keeping them on ‘max’ all time as the only way to get an acceptable sound. I now think on this purchase like a happy, rose-tinted memory of the way ebay-type things should be.
Sharp FM/MW/LW Tuner --------------------- £0
I already had this knocking about, but thought I’d mention it since it’s visible in the photo above. Although rarely used (and then just for static), I have some funny notions about the importance of analogue radio. Ask me about it sometime!
Acoustic Research speakers (‘70s/’80s?) --- £20
Technics double tape deck -------------------- £6.50
Speaker wire ------------------------------------- £5 inc postage
Foam repair kit for AR speakers ------------ £25 inc postage
Now here things begin to get a bit iffy. Temporarily blinded by the sight of a set of big ol’ PROPER AUDIOPHILE BRAND speakers going for a song if collected from a South London district I’ll refrain from mentioning here, I bit, and the same seller had a double tape-deck ending at the same time too, so what the hell, thought I’d jump in on that too. (Love it or hate it, the trend for bands putting out their stuff on tape isn’t going to be diminishing any time soon (see opening para of this post), so might as well get one of those too, whilst I’m in hi-fi buying mode.)
Arriving to collect these and grokking the size of the speakers cabinets, my good sense was temporarily short-circuited by embarrassment at the possibility that there was no way I could get them home without help. The seller expressed astonishment that I hadn’t come by car, which didn’t help, but thank god – both speakers just about made it into my wife’s heavyweight traveling suitcase with a fraction of an inch to spare, and I figured I could probably manage to carry the tape-deck under my arm.
Now, readers – what did I forget to do whilst engaged with all this? Yes, that’s right – I forgot to take the speaker grilles off and actually have a look at the bloody things. What a fucking idiot. It’s like finding a rare record for an unfeasibly cheap price and throwing down your cash before checking it for scratches. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
It wasn’t until arriving home, sweaty and exhausted from dragging all this stuff home via three tube interchanges, that I hooked the speakers up, and, after a minute or two of quite lovely sound, began to notice an undertow of nasty, scratchy bass distortion that seemed to increase with each disc I tried out. Pulling the grilles off, the truth is revealed – the foam surrounds around the cones had completely disintegrated, leaving sticky black goo all over everything, and one of the cones hanging down, scraping the frame slightly.
I didn’t think it was worth complaining to the seller, even though he quite possibly stitched me up rather nastily here. After all, I bought these ‘as seen’ for a paltry price, and he made no great claims about their condition other than that they ‘worked’ (which indeed they did, after a fashion). Not worth the hassle of trying to argue it from a slightly shaky position, I reasoned, and frankly I’d probably pay £20 just to not have to lug the bloody things back across the pubic transport network again.
Hi-fi repair specialists I contacted by email quoted me £250-350 for a refit and advised in friendly terms that I’d be damned to hell should I dabble in the black arts of attempting a DIY repair. Ah. However, assorted voices I googled up on hi-fi forum threads were more positive about the possibility of replacing foam surrounds at home. Indeed, they linked to various companies who sell kits for carrying out such work, and step-by-step guides that, whilst exacting and ritualistic in tone, didn’t make the job look like something that would be completely beyond my abilities. So, long story short, after spending a few miserable hours contemplating the possibility of turning the damn things into a miniature coffee table or carving them up to sell the wood, I thought I’d give home repair a go.
Whilst it sticks in my craw somewhat to pay £20 plus recorded post for what turned out to be a small pizza box containing two thin foam discs and a tube of PVA glue, my advice to anyone in a similar situation is - go for it. Though a bit messy and time-consuming, it turned out to be a doddle to be honest.
Admittedly, I’m perhaps lucky that the design of these particular speakers allowed me to bypass the much ballyhooed process of ‘centering’ the cones (they seemed to centre themselves quite nicely thank you very much, insofar as I can judge from observing the tests suggested by the online guides), and, whilst I’m sure hi-fi fanatics would be aghast at my laissez-faire methods, use of cheap, knock-off foam and failure to fully test and balance and calibration of the repaired speakers’ output (or whatever), I’m going to cautiously say that, thus far, the operation has been a complete success.
I’m prepared to eat my words if the bloody things melt and/or burst in three weeks, but for now, VICTORY IS MINE. Twenty-four hours after applying the last bit of glue, I’m trying out ‘Marquee Moon’ and it sounds better than ever. One in the eye for the git who sold me these to me without pointing out the damage, I’d like to think, but whatever - finally having the equipment needed to accurately represent recordings made on much-abused four-tracks in London bed-sits, tin sheds in Memphis, suburban basements in Ohio and other such quality recording environments is certainly a weight off my mind, let me tell you.
The irony of the fact I spent my Saturday morning on my hands and knees gouging away at fiddly electrical components that are probably older than I am whilst listening to beautifully reproduced music from my laptop, wherein over 4000 digitally stored albums are available at the touch of a button, was not lost on me, and indeed, it is something I would urge any young whippersnappers reading this post to think on long and hard before taking the plunge into full-scale vinyl collecting / listening.
Surprisingly, the only real lemon I’ve ended up with in the course of this hasty ebay spree is that bloody tape deck. Again, the issue here is something that a mere cursory inspection prior to purchase could have alerted me to in time. Basically, it turns out this is one of a few hi-fi separates that Technics inexplicably failed to provide with a conventional power supply, instead leaving them with just a funny-looking four pin plug-in designed to connect with a particular model Technics amp. In other words, it’s a fine unit in great condition, but it’s impossible to plug the fucking thing in – no alternative AC jack, no slot for a kettle lead, nothing.
Googling exposes the travails of several people who have fallen into the same trap (I mean, you buy an electrical appliance, you just ASSUME it’s going to have a plug of some kind, right?), and unfortunately, it seems the methods that might be employed to rewire it for a regular power supply are the subject of much debate, involving the careful perusal of wiring diagrams in downloaded manuals, electrical engineer level soldering skills and limited potential for success. Ho hum.
I don’t want to pull the same nasty trick that was apparently pulled on me on some other buyer or charity shop, and, assuming I’m honest about the power supply issue, I can’t see the thing ever shifting even as a Freecycle item, to be honest. Having foolishly hoofed it across town along with half a ton of speaker-filled suitcase, I now can't figure out any way it’s going to be able to leave the flat again, other than as junk. Such a waste.
On the plus side though, the deck did come loaded with two interesting looking tapes of Indian ragas, which I suppose I might theoretically have paid £6.50 for in other circumstances, so there’s that. Now I just need something to play them on…. and so it begins again.
To conclude, I’m not entirely sure what my rationale is for banging out this fairly tedious, self-absorbed mithering as a blog post has been, other than perhaps to provide a helpful case study for anyone looking to set themselves up for half-decent analogue music-listening without spending a mint, to provide a few ‘consumer mag’ type tips, and perhaps also to inspire some reflection re: the deeply impractical financial & physical investment lying behind every single one of those hepcats who can be seen haunting record shops in ever-increasing numbers every Saturday afternoon, surveying their latest acquisitions.
How much of ‘vinyl culture’, we might ask, is actually just pure front – chauvinistic male hobbyism at its worst – and how much are unscrupulous record and equipment vendors currently benefiting from this, as poorer and less experienced young people increasingly feel the need to get involved?
I’m playing devil’s advocate here to a certain extent, but, much as I love vinyl (and record shopping) on a personal level (in keeping with my preference for things old, weird and dusty in most aspects of life), the way that music culture continues to perpetrate the idea that vinyl is the only ‘proper’ way to do business is something that I think is well worth questioning, especially in an era when so many more affordable, more practical, less resource intensive ways of obsessing over recorded sound now exist.
And finally: having got all that stuff out of the way, I’m hopeful that I’ll actually be able to crack on and finish some actual reviews of some actual bloody records to post here before I head off for a sojourn overseas in September. There’s been some GREAT stuff out in recent months, stuff that have no excuse for having failed to enthuse about here, thus far so… watch this space, etc.
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
In Search of (Shelf) Space.
In lieu of any new content here, it occurred to me that readers might be interested in the somewhat music-related content of a piece I just put up on my other blog, telling you more than you probably ever wished to know about Hawkwind’s adventures in the field of paperback fiction.
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
Reasons to Love Radio Birdman.
BLOGGER’S NOTE: I began writing this as a thing about seeing the reformed Radio Birdman play in London in June, but, realising I didn’t have much of interest to say on the subject beyond “well, they’ve got a lot older but they still put on a good show… I liked the songs… it was fun”, I thought I’d rework it and instead just talk about how much I like the band’s ‘classic era’ stuff. Popsters be warned, much talk of a ‘rockist’ nature follows.
It may be somewhat of a minority position within non-meathead musical discourse, but over the past five years or so, I’ve increasingly found myself wanting to make the case for Australia’s Radio Birdman as a really great band.
This ties in rather neatly with the fact that, during the same period, my approach to music has become increasingly utilitarian. No longer as strongly fixated on getting a personal, emotional catharsis from music as I once was, I’ve increasingly been spending my time delving into the ‘engine room’ of what actually makes it work (rhythm, instrumental interplay, tones & recording techniques), enjoying stuff that just keeps said engine running, getting me from A to B with a certain amount of finesse. And, within the sphere of standard issue guitar rock, there is little that delivers on that promise with quite the vigour of Radio Birdman in their prime.
Though often characterised as ‘punk’ or ‘garage’ by vestige of the time and place from which they emerged, Birdman can more accurately classified I think as simply playing rock music. Whilst most bands playing rock-qua-rock from the late ‘70s onwards have found themselves adopting a stance of lunkheaded conservatism though (not necessarily a criticism in this context), I think RB are one of the few who succeeded in hitting all of that music’s allotted pleasure points whilst still tweaking the parameters enough to establish their own unique blueprint, creating a body of work that, whilst admittedly mechanical in its “getting the bloody job done” formalism, nonetheless remains refreshing, characterful, intermittently exhilarating and – what’s the word I’m looking for here? – ‘awesome’, yeah, I think that’s the one.
Factor in the group’s uncanny knack for producing memorable, stadium-ready rock songs at such a pace that their years of peak creativity in the late ‘70s yielded more certified, grade A bangers than can crammed onto 80 minutes of greatest hits CD, and, in my opinion at least, you have a band who deserve to be placed alongside such hallowed purveyors of post-’76 rock action as Dead Moon, Dinosaur Jr or Motorhead, rather than amid the ranks of somewhat less inspired Aus-rock pounders who followed in their wake.
As the aforementioned pounders frequently demonstrated, bands that adhere to the Detroit High Energy template that Radio Birdman understandably hold dear have a tendency to dissolve into lumpen parody pretty damn quickly if they do it anything less than brilliantly. Needless to say, very few of them do it brilliantly. Perhaps not even Radio Birdman do it brilliantly. Crank the MC5’s ‘Skunk (Sonically Speaking)’ on your headphones sometime and tell me, in all honesty, is there anyone left in the world who can do it brilliantly?
So: to my mind, the two quantifiable factors that helped Birdman duck this bullet and establish their own sound were *momentum* and *efficiency*.
For the former, and to some extent the latter too, we need to begin by offering thanks to drummer Ron Keeley, who I think ranks alongside Hawkwind’s Simon King as the most indomitable rock time-keeper of the ‘70s. To not put too finer point on it,, the main innovation that Radio Birdman brought to the Stooges/MC5 formula was SPEED. Refusing to fall back on an ol’ bluesy chug, the band adopted a post-’76 punk RPM right out of the gate and barely eased off the throttle for a second through their first few years of operation.
OK, so we’re not exactly talking Minor Threat here, but for a band playing this kind of riffola rock music, Radio Birdman are FAST, and Keeley just never lets up. No faux-caveman tom-tom bullshit or sub-Bonham bombast from this cat – even on the band’s occasional tough love ‘ballads’ and even rarer psychedelic detours, he keeps up a relentless chk-chk-chk on the hi-hat, elevating potentially sloppy material into a slick power-glide that sees potential bad ideas or moments of self-indulgence fading in the rear-view mirror before they’ve had time to really make a stink. (See their first album’s requisite ‘quiet number’ ‘Love Kills’ or ‘weird wig-out’ ‘Man With Golden Helmet’ for perfect examples.)
If there’s one thing that tends to torpedo yr archetypal rock band, it’s their tendency to HANG AROUND. You know the kind of thing - pain-stakingly drawing out each riff, each lyric, each decaying power chord and drum fill, letting it hang in the air as if they’re waiting for someone to pat them on the back and congratulate them on their genius before they finally move onto the next bit of their stupid song. Lord preserve us. There have been a few bands over the years who can muster enough leverage to justify this kind of bombast. Most cannot, and should not. It is an all-too-easy alternative to actually, y’know, rocking, and it was likely this sense of having their time as listeners WASTED (as opposed to the much-ballyhooed boogeyman of prog-rock twiddling) that likely drove so many fans away from rock-qua-rock into the arms of the post-’76 punk-qua-punk whose ascent Radio Birdman happily coincided with.
Not that the rest of RB really NEEDED Keeley’s golden kick pedal to save them from this sorry fate though I should make clear, and that brings us neatly to the second point on our agenda - the band’s *efficient* approach to the business of rockage.
Radio Birdman are remarkable as a six piece band whose performances betray no hint of star performer / ego trip issues. A band like the ‘5 may have thrived on one-upmanship and displays of individual virtuosity, but with Birdman, everything feeds into the whole. No ‘star turns’, no dominant personalities crashing against each other – even vocalist Rob Younger seems content seems content to step back, keep his Iggy-lite antics in check and enunciate clearly (CLEAR ENUNCIATION! Yeah, that’s what we want in our rock n’ roll!), playing his allotted part in a band that often operates like one giant rhythm section.
Beyond it’s obvious musical benefits, this gospel of efficiency could, perhaps, at a stretch, be extended to embrace the band’s entire philosophy.
“In the late '70s, I used to get highly criticised for being a medical student,” lead guitarist Deniz Tek said in a 2006 interview I happened to stumble upon this morning. “I was called out for not being committed to music, because I wasn't sitting around on a couch watching television, shooting up heroin all day when I wasn't playing. In the strange world that we lived in, that was commitment.”
Whilst I can’t speak for the other members of the band’s original line-up, this commitment to living a productive life and, y’know, DOING STUFF is definitely something that feeds into the momentum of their music. Radio Birdman's love for The Stooges and The ‘5 is not in question, but the unspoken question behind a listen to their definitive ‘Radios Appear’ album seems to be: well, yeah, but imagine how great those guys could have been if they’d dropped all the slovenly drug addict “it’s only rock n roll man” bullshit and actually tightened the fuck up?
If the result admittedly loses a lot of rough edges, and certainly can't hold a candle to the tormented genius of something like ‘Funhouse’, it still makes for consistently exhilarating rock music that’s liable to stay in circulation long after most of the more, uh, ‘lifestyle’ based Stooge imitators have crashed and burned.
I love the way that the band are arrayed on the cover of ‘Radios Appear’ - uniformed in black with the (brilliantly meaningless) band insignia stitched to their shoulders – an apolitical army assembled purely to aid the delivery of rock n’ roll. Tek may stand front and centre as main songwriter and nominal leader (not to mention the guy with the coolest looking guitar), but on the record itself, he wisely resists the urge to dominate. Keeping his Asheton-worthy Awesome Lead Guitar Shit concise and melodic, he only occasionally busts out into full-blown wildness, and rarely denies his comrades the chance to shine behind him. Vis-à-vis my point about bombast above, there’s something kinda exciting about a guitarist who’s confident enough to give you a bit less of what he’s capable of, isn’t there? It makes his short, controlled bursts of fuzz and wah all the more thrilling before he ploughs his energies back into the song.
Here’s a fun fact for you: when he wasn’t busy playing Asheton-worthy Awesome Lead Guitar Shit with the best band in Australia, Tek was (and presumably still is?) a fully qualified ER surgeon, specializing in “emergency and aerospace medicine”. This line of work led to him co-piloting experimental aircraft for the US Navy during the ‘80s - an assignment for which he used the call-sign “Ice-Man”, thus allegedly inspiring the character of the same name in ‘Top Gun’. Qualms re: toadying for the military-industrial complex aside, I think we have a pretty good example here if a guy who’s living the dream.
This dedication to an exciting lifestyle is perhaps reflected not only in Radio Birdman’s velocity, but also in Tek’s song-writing and guitar-playing, as his lead riffs and central melodies circle back again and again toward the kind of delightful, surf-derived stings that one can easily imagine soundtracking a particularly exhilarating car chase, or the opening credits of the best cop show you’ve never seen (probably featuring a speedboat).
Even more agreeably, the band’s lyrics tend to follow suit, building up fragmentary images of a kind of high speed action movie dreamland, in which oblique references to the glories of mid-west American rock n’ roll mix with vignettes of highway chaos, aerial dog-fights and criminal escapades – a kind of super-charged escapism that never quite cops out and gives us the full story, but just drops random images of stylized macho glory hither and thither to delightful effect, the way a good rock n’ roll song should.
Birdman’s signature tune ‘Aloha Steve & Danno’ – an extended tribute to TV’s ‘Hawaii 5-0’ – very much sets the scene in this respect. Anyone who still holding on to some kind of illusion regarding rock’s supposedly inherent radical / anti-authoritarian stance may feel a tad conflicted hearing a boisterous Birdman crowd chanting “book him Danno, Murder One!”, but it’s all in good fun, and happily the rest of their catalogue is scattered with some of the most fantastically unlikely declarations and stupid/genius lyrical non-sequiturs heard this side of Blue Oyster Cult or prime-era Misfits. Their use of numbers and technical specifics is particularly good I think – like Chuck Berry jacked up after reading too many spy novels or something.
“Feel my hand across your lip / got a P38 with a loaded clip”
“Seven four, taking me away / I'll never make it back to the USA”
“Sunlight flashing through the window nearly drove me blind / just like the light on the front of that twelve-oh five”
“Dark cloud of espionage / hangs over fair Hawaii”
“On the third day of the seventh month / we will ride the highway!”
“Walking in on rivers of sorrow / riding to hell on rails of fear!”
I could go on. Maybe opinions will differ, but what can I say - as a lifelong fan of pulp fiction and violent comic book nonsense, this kind of stuff just delights me.
Regarding band’s persistent lyrical references to Detroit and the American Mid-West, I had previously assumed that they were simply so infatuated with the mystique of Detroit Rock City that they’d started writing songs about living there, but the minimal amount of research undertaken for this post reveals that Deniz Tek was actually born and raised in Stooge ground zero Ann Arbor, MI, and only relocated to Sydney to attend medical college in 1972, presumably meaning that he got to experience the glory days of his band’s heroes first hand as a young man – a source of inspiration / nostalgia that he clearly drew upon heavily for some of his best grown up lyrics.
The aforementioned ‘Love Kills’ is a particularly pertinent example of this, a baleful, somewhat BOC-ish tune that may-or-may-not draw upon the legends of Iggy’s early relationship with Nico, spilling lines that are somewhat more troubled and evocative than the admittedly slightly daft concerns of the bulk of Birdman’s lyrics (quoting seems excessive, but read ‘em in full from Tek’s own typewriter here).
Taking a rather different tack, the height of Birdman’s Detroit-mania perhaps comes on another of my favourite tunes, the somewhat deranged ‘I-94’, whose peculiarities I’ll leave you to figure out for yourself, merely noting that I have rarely encountered such a fine set of brilliantly stupid rock n’ roll lyrics.
So what does all this add up to? I dunno…. seems like the time for a concluding paragraph, but I’ve not really got one to hand. Hopefully I’ve made my essential points clearly enough in all the rambling above, and my usual technique of ending with an ill-conceived, hand-wringing emotional entreaty of some kind doesn’t quite seem to fit the bill.
Radio Birdman won’t change your life. They’re not trying to. Like a custom car mechanic or electrical engineer, their intention is to take familiar elements that have rarely sat alongside each other, and combine them into a slick, streamlined package that delivers what it promises.
You want some rock music today? Forget those millionaires still creakily stomping around festival stages hawking their ever-diminishing legacies. (In fact, whilst you’re at it, probably best conveniently ignore the fact that cynics might accuse RB of doing exactly that of recent.)
I’ve got some rock music for you right here – it’s a CD called ‘Essential Radio Birdman 1974-78’ that Sub-Pop put out in 2001. It contains most of their best recordings remixed/remastered to great effect, and if you like listening to music whilst walking, running, driving and doing things, it’ll stay in your ears longer than most other stuff; wherever you’re going, it’ll get you from A to B with a smile on your face, and there’s a lot to be said for that.
Labels: Radio Birdman
Monday, June 22, 2015
If You've Got Some Time To Contemplate
A Bit Of Music-Write This Week....
A Bit Of Music-Write This Week....
...you could do worse than read Neil Kulkarni's concise summation of everything you need to know about mid-'70s Zambian rock. "Need" being the operative word.
Thursday, June 18, 2015
(1930 – 2015)
Looks like I’m pretty late to the wake on this one, but somehow I only discovered today that Ornette Coleman has passed away.
As seems appropriate given that much of his music aimed at transcending any sort of linguistic analysis or rational definition, I’m pretty tongue-tied when it comes to trying to find anything to say about the great man just at the moment, but I’d highly recommend taking a few minutes to read Stewart Smiths’s tribute, which gets it about spot on I reckon.
After that, as several obits I’ve seen today have commented, it’s probably best to shut up and listen to the music. This being 2015 and all, I'm sure you know where to find it without help from me.
A few random, prosaic observations whilst you’re doing that:
1. ‘The Empty Foxhole’, from 1966, on which Ornette plays accompanied by his ten year old son Denardo on drums, is perhaps / probably my favourite of his records. Just a really unique, weirdly accessible and beautiful chunk of ragged, open-hearted music; I love it. (Goes down particularly nicely stuck between some electric blues on mix CDs.)
2. ‘This Is Our Music’ and his super-aggravated soundtrack to Cronenberg’s ‘Naked Lunch’ take my #2 and #3 slots.
3. The former, as pictured above, is definitely my pick for one of my favourite album covers of all time. As with the music within, I can’t quite explain exactly why, but I’ve owned it on vinyl for years (bought it alongside tons of other cheap avant-jazz from a stall in Leicester market, I seem to recall) and I still love staring at it. The photo above isn’t mine (it’s sourced from Tumblr I think), but inexplicably, it’s the best representation of the artwork I can currently find online.
4. I wish that my memories of seeing Coleman perform at the Royal Festival hall in 2007 – sweating away in the cheap seats in my ill-fitting work trousers about a hundred miles away from the action – were clearer. Kind of a strange and rambunctious performance, big on shriek and clatter, featuring three bassists, I seem to recall. Between that and Cecil Taylor a few days later in the same room, it was all a bit overwhelming.
5. Having on numerous occasions used the word “harmolodic” as a high falutin’ synonym for “discordant” when discussing rock music in the past on this blog and probably elsewhere, I hereby publically state that that was pretty inadvisable and that I will do my utmost never to do so again.
6. I’ve never really dug into his ‘70s output, but Stew’s piece linked above certainly makes it sound interesting.
7. Covertly knocking this post out in the office as my colleague plays bullshit contemporary “indie” music on some streaming service has not been the most pleasant of experiences.
Thursday, May 21, 2015
& Ghostface Killah –
(Lex Records, 2015)
If you’d told me a year ago that one of my favourite records from the first half of 2015 would feature an estranged member of the Wu-Tang Clan teaming up with a retro cinematic funk orchestra, I’d have been…. well, skeptical doesn’t quite cover it. But June is coming up fast, and guess what...
Reading this blog over the years, you might have got the impression that I’m not very big on hip-hop, and indeed, when it comes to the past decade or so, you’d be more or less correct. As a typical guitar-brained white man, I have no valid cultural connection to the more vital/underground aspects of the genre, and it would be foolish of me to pretend otherwise. Meanwhile, the more supposedly palatable, Pitchfork-approved examples of the form that have been intermittently spoon-fed to me in the internet era have almost all struck me as tedious, bloated, confused and generally quite dislikeable for any number of wholly subjective reasons. Thus, very little contemporary hip-hop has managed to hit one beyond my defenses since the days of… god, I dunno – Outkast? [This background should be borne in mind if anything I say below is, in fact, ill-informed bullshit of some kind or other.]
You may argue that such an attitude to music listening is lazy, defeatist, beneath contempt, and, again, you may well be correct. But I would counter-argue with the claim that much of my alienation from contemporary hip-hop stems from the fact that the stuff that hit me upon my initial exposure to the genre was so fucking good that I’ve yet to hear anything subsequent that comes anywhere near it. Which is to say that, in addition to canon of ‘80s NY rap and early ‘90s P.E./Ice T stuff that it’s obligatory for every honky born after 1975 to pay homage to (and rightly so), I remain a MASSIVE fan of the pre-’97 Wu Tang Clan.
Guess it must have been around the turn of the century that some considerate souls pointed me in the direction of the Wu, and all these years later, I still find myself pulling out those key albums every couple of months when the mood takes me, and even as I listen for conceivably the 250th time or something, I’m never less than totally floored by the pure, out of control inspiration to be found within.
Some music fades with repeated exposure, but other stuff just blows the cobwebs out of your ears, any time, any place, forever - and needless to say, we’re in the latter category here. The sheer potential that was on display as these guys moved from the lo-fi assault of ‘36 Chambers’ to the dark mastery of ‘Liquid Swords’ like an ever-learning, ever-growing ninja army remains breathtaking, and that’s what causes the subsequent betrayal of that potential to sting even harder, souring me on the thought of even bothering to investigate whatever mediocre, self-absorbed resource wastage RZA & co are half-heartedly trying to sell us on this year.
If I had been a bit more tolerant, paid a bit more attention, I might have heeded the call of those who maintained through the ‘00s that Ghostface Killah at least was still doing his best to live up to that original potential… but with the mediocrity of post-Y2K collective Wu endeavors and the sheer, repellant awfulness of the several live appearances I attended around the time fresh in my mind, I tuned him out along with the others; and they don’t play Ghostface Killah on the radio round where I live, so that was that.
Until now that is. A couple of months ago, I was pretty flabbergasted when I switched on the radio prior to doing some washing up, and heard what appeared to be some 100% certified prime Wu shit blazing out, riding over backing that sounded like nothing so much as some vintage Italian movie music. Holy wow. Confused, I assumed it must be some kind of mash up or remix or something featuring some old verses I’d never heard before, but no – turns out this is Ghostface in the here and now, cutting loose over tracks provided by a rock-band-plus-orchestra unit called BadBadNotGood – a gang of slick cats who basically sound like they’re warming up waiting for Isaac Hayes to come in and start giving the orders (which is plenty good enough for me, needless to say).
I don’t know whether it is this unconventional backing that’s inspired Ghost to get off his arse and tighten things up (“got my swagger back an’ all that!”, he announces exultantly at one point), or whether, against all the odds, he has just remained really fucking good all these years, but basically, during the best moments on ‘Sour Soul’ (of which there are many), he sounds like he’s fallen straight out of a time warp, tone and flow nearly indistinguishable from the glory days of ‘Ironman’ and ‘..Cuban Linx’ - the same menacing webs of reflective, dual-layered imagery piling up left, right and centre as the ‘cinematic’ backdrop allows him to expand the scope of his gangsta vocab into surrealistic vignettes of twisted crime story excess, still spat out with the pure, break-neck viciousness of a dude half his age, leaving the kind of “respectability” that neutered so many of his comrades still kept way out on the distant horizon, despite the ‘class’ musicianship and tasteful b&w cover shot.
If I remember correctly, one of the reasons I overlooked Ghost’s much-lauded run of albums in the ‘00s (‘Bulletproof Wallets’, ‘Fishscale’, etc) was that I had somehow formed the misguided impression that he was one of the less lyrically ambitious members of the Clan. “So what’s he rapping about these days?”, I remember enquiring (online) of those albums’ cheerleaders. Oh, the usual I suppose, came the reply – pimping, dealing, making Gs. I, like an IDIOT, responded with distaste and turned away, hankering after RZA and GZA’s pot-addled ruminations on chess and going into space and shit, when clearly someone actually should have sat me down on a hard chair in front of the stereo and politely pointed out that, in spite of the rest of the Clan’s high-falutin’ notions and Meth and ODB’s sundry eccentricities, it’s Ghost who always comes top of the heap on those early records I love, laying into the tracks like an attack dog, bringing a wilder, more imaginative lexicon than any of ‘em, despite his more, uh, ‘limited’ range of subject matter.
Now, I hope, I’m old enough to realise that great art relies not so much on what you try to say as how well you succeed in saying it, and that to dismiss Ghostface Killah for talking about little beyond pimping, dealing and Mafioso boasting is short-sighted in the extreme – a text-book example of the somewhat depressing phenomenon that can see musicians and song-writers hauled up before their peers simply for daring to approach unpalatable subject matter in anything other than an overtly judgmental and one dimensional fashion, making lyricists reluctant to exercise the kind of freedoms that writers and filmmakers have taken for granted since time immemorial.
(Whatever misdemeanors the Wu membership may have been party to back in the day is a matter for them and their lawyers, but I think it’s safe to say that by this stage in the game, their output, and Ghostface Killah’s pumped up crime epics in particular, has gone wa-ay out into the realms of mythic story-telling, no more subject to accusations of irresponsibly warping youthful morals than Nick Cave is of encouraging his audience to strangle preachers’ daughters and dump their bodies down wells.*)
It may be a bit of a push to try to claim that Ghost approaches, I dunno, William Burroughs or Abel Ferrara in using deplorable attitudes and bad behavior as a jumping off point for excursions into the artistic unknown, but he’s certainly more on the same page with those guys than he is with the vast majority of his contemporaries in music, and beneath the surface braggadocio of his verses lies a whole world of the weird.
As in the classic Wu material, his talent for smacking you in the chops with off-piste cultural references faster than your mind can process them makes for a head-spinning joy on ‘Sour Soul’, adding a nightmarish undertow of clandestine paranoia to his crime-brag narratives, whether claiming his kilo-shifting kingpin “sent Ichabod Crane on his horse ride”, or warning would-be victims of CIA harassment that “pure alkaline and flouride’ll fuck you up / I seen spaceships flyin’ out of the back of a truck”. Meanwhile, we just try to catch our breath before the next allusion to some act of stomach-churning violence or abuse, fed back second hand like a grim, urban legend harbinger of the societal collapse-based apocalypse than all the Wu’s darker material seems to be pulling towards… assuming it hasn’t already been reached and surpassed, whether in inner-city USA or just the back alley graveyards of Ghost’s imagination.
‘Gunshowers’ and the magnificent title track gleam like silver on the surface, but Ghost’s monster growl drags them down swiftly as possible into blue-tinted, censor-baiting horror movie territory, twisting snatches of stock gangsta machismo and misogyny into such nightmarish shapes, only a moron could mistake them for any kind of ‘glorification’.
‘Six Degrees’ sounds so much like a live band recreation of a classic RZA loop (paranoid kung-fu twang & drum machine bounce) it’s slightly ridiculous, but elsewhere BadBadNotGood’s tracks wisely follow their own dramatic path, working in parallel with Ghostface but never over-shadowed by him, as brushed jazz-funk drums, pulsing upright bass and washes of reverbed guitar help drag the aesthetics of our man’s unseemly fixations back in a slightly more, uh.. classical?.. direction.
On the beserkly comedic ‘Tone’s Rap’ – dark horse contender for the best cut here – he’s lumbering around like one of the cartoon pimps who harangued the aforementioned Mr. Hayes in ‘Truck Turner’, or perhaps the more pathetic specimens who pop up in Chester Himes novels, trying to keep their diamond-collared Dobermans off their fur coats in one room tenement apartments. Putting on his best Rudy Ray Moore shriek for an opening cry of “Yo bitch, fuck, I got lint on ma robes!”, he gets laugh out of my every time, but even as the track proceeds much in the manner of a lolloping, flared pants pisstake, the agonsied, soulful drag of Ghost’s delivery and the lonely, bug-eyed desperation lying in wait behind his closing declaration that “pimping ain’t easy, but it sure is FUN” speaks more eloquently of the futility and irrelevance of this way of life than any amount of socially-conscious “just say no” indie-hop could… (and the fact it hits alongside a just-perfect brass crescendo from the backing band is icing on the cake).
Another thing that helps make ‘Sour Soul’ such a great listen is – get this - it’s really short. Ten tracks, most of them under three minutes, wrapped up in a lean 27 minutes. Is that even an album by hip-hop standards? For all I know, some of Ghostface’s contemporaries are still making albums where they spend longer than that clearing their throat. Barely a second here is given over to bullshit and padding - no skits, no mumbling, no filler cuts or contrived call & response routines. Just the band kicking ass and Ghost on the attack, a few swift guest verses (all pretty good, but MF Doom gets man of the match), and we’re out. All fibre, no fat. Awesome.
It’s hip-hop for the boutique vinyl era really I suppose; why sweat it over your latest CD-filling ego summit knowing it's headed straight for dollar bins and Soulseek, when there’re kids (or more likely, geezers old enough to know better) out there ready to drop $30+ on a single LP w/ a nice cover? By weight, this shit’s probably pulling in more dough that one of Ghost’s mystical coke deals, but when the quality’s this flawless, it’s win-win.
Even better, turns out this us actually the *third* briskly paced record Ghostface has made with live instrumental backing in the past few years, whilst I was busy looking the other way. Once again, I hang my head in shame. And when I’m done doing that, I’ll be off to load up on everything he’s done since ‘Supreme Clientele’, and declare 2015 the Summer of Ghostface (in my headphones, if nowhere else). Chalk that one up as ‘unexpected’.
Lex Records live here, or alternatively, ‘Sour Soul’ is no doubt available from your usual local vendors.
* Full disclosure: I think I stole this joke / observation from someone writing in the NME about fifteen years ago, but it’s too good not to use again.
Monday, May 11, 2015
Auto-Compliment via Charlie Gillett:
‘R & B Cults’ and the
Transformative Role of Indie Snobbery.
“At first the number of white people interested in this music was not enough to have much effect on the sales of popular music. This portion of the audience probably consisted at first of college and a few high school students who cultivated an ‘R & B cult’ as most of their equivalents earlier (and even then) cultivated a jazz cult.
By a happy coincidence we happen to have some observations of remarkable insight made by the sociologist David Riesman on the popular music audience of this period, which illustrate the character of the specialist audience. In an article, ‘Listening to Popular Music’, Riesman noted that two groups could be identified: the majority audience, which accepted the range of choices offered by the music industry and made its selections from this range without considering anything outside it; and the minority audience, which he described with details which are relevant here.
‘The minority group is small. It comprises the more active listeners, who are less interested in melody or tone than in arrangement or technical virtuosity. It has developed elaborate, even overelaborate, standards of music listening; hence its music listening is combined with much animated discussion of technical points and perhaps occasional references to trade journals such as ‘Metronome’ and ‘Downbeat’. The group tends to dislike name bands, most vocalists (except Negro blues singers) and radio commercials.
The rebelliousness of this minority group might be indicated in some of the following attitudes toward popular music: an insistence on rigorous standards of judgement and taste in a relativist culture,; a preference for the uncommercialized, unadvertised small bands rather than name bands; the development of a private language and then a flight from it when the private language (the same is true of other aspects of private style) is taken over by the majority group; a profound resentment of the commercialization of radio and musicians. Dissident attitudes toward competition and cooperation in our culture might be represented in feelings about improvisation and small ‘combos’; an appreciation for idiosyncrasy of performance goes together with a dislike of ‘star’ performers and an insistence that the improvisation be a group-generated phenomenon.
There are still other ways in which the minority may use popular music to polarize itself from the majority group, and thereby from American popular culture generally: a sympathetic attitude or even preference for Negro musicians; an equalitarian attitude toward the roles, in both love and work, of the two sexes; a more international outlook, with or without awareness, for example, of French interest in American jazz; an identification with disadvantaged groups, not only Negroes, from which jazz springs, with or without a romantic cult of proletarianism; a dislike of romantic pseudo-sexuality in music, even without any articulate awareness of being exploited; similarly a reaction against the stylized body image and limitations of physical self-expression which ‘sweet’ music and its lyrics are felt as conveying; a feeling that music is too important to serve as a backdrop for dancing, small talk, studying, and the like; a diffuse resentment of the image of the teenager presented by the mass media.’
Riesman’s observation that no matter what the majority chooses, there will be a minority choosing something different explains how popular music continues to change, no matter how good – or bad – the dominant types of music are at any particular period. And because the minority audience defines itself as being radical within the music audience, its taste is likely to favor, consciously or unconsciously, music with some element of social comment or criticism in it.
During the early fifties, young people like those described by Riesman turned in increasing numbers to rhythm and blues music, and to radio stations that broadcast it. If the first listeners were those with relatively sophisticated standards for judging music, those that came later included many whose taste was more instinctive, who liked the dance beat or the thrilling effect of a hard-blown saxophone, people who may have found the rough voices of the singers a bit quaint and appealing as novelties.
It was this second group of listeners who provided the inspiration and audience for Alan Freed, who , with Bill Haley, played a crucial role in popularizing rhythm and blues under the name ‘rock n’ roll’.”
- Charlie Gillett, ‘The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock ‘n Roll’ (Dell, 1972), pp. 19 – 21
John Lee Hooker – This Is Hip
Frankie Lee Sims – She Likes To Boogie Real Low
TV Slim – Flat Foot Sam
Guitar Junior – Roll Roll Roll
Icky Renrut – The Rooster
Bunker Hill – The Girl Can't Dance
Thursday, April 09, 2015
2015: First Quarter Report.
Ack. What to say to explain away a two month plus dearth of blogging here. Well, no proper big excuses. Rest assured, I’ve at least not been frittering my time away on what we are reluctantly obliged to term ‘social media’, like so many other former bloggers (DESERTERS!). Instead, let’s just say that adult responsibilities (both ‘unspeakably frustrating & tedious’ and ‘rewarding & necessary’ sub-divisions) have accounted for pretty much all my waking hours recently.
As a result of this, the majority of the music I’ve ended up listening to has been wholly accidental. Bands caught randomly at gigs I’ve attended for social / organizational reasons, stuff randomly heard on the radio whilst working or washing up. For better or worse, that’s the way I’ve been keeping my hand in, as both the time for personal investigation and the money necessary for crazy excesses like buying vinyl records has vanished. In fact, free/cheap bandcamp downloads, £4 door charges and the odd marked down 2nd hand LP have been the sum total of my contributions to the, uh, ‘musical economy’ in 2015 thus far, BUT HEY, on the plus side, there’s so much good stuff going on out there right now, it’s difficult not to stumble over at least some of it from time to time, however little effort you put in.
Here, then, is a brief summary of new stuff I’ve seen or heard in the past three months that I’ve liked. You know the drill, I’m sure. After that, I’ve got some longer album reviews and stuff brewing etc, so rest assured, there’s life here yet.
The Sundae Kups
Circumstances at the gig my friends Charla Fantasma played at a Shoreditch vintage clothes emporium back in January were far from ideal; loud, disinterested punters, poor acoustics, outrageously priced beer and an outspoken sound-man who seemed quite intimidated by the savage noise-making potential of a 20W combo amp. Nonetheless, a varied and surprising line up of bands made it into a thoroughly rewarding evening, and foremost amongst them were these guys – a motley bunch of sure-I’ve-seen-him-in-some-other-band so-and-sos intent on playing instro/surf music and ‘60s-style pop with a welcome dose of chaos and good humour.
Thing about surf music y’see, is that, in it’s modern iteration at least, it is usually presented as very technical music, despite its primitive origins. Super-tight drumming full of monster fills and abrupt hand-break turns, sizzling high-speed guitar flash and exquisite, carefully manicured amp tone – these are the things upon which yr standard post-Los Straightjackets/Man or Astroman? surf combo is judged. Which is great as far as it goes, but nonetheless… given my usual preference for a good ol’ shambles, it was a joy to stumble across a properly SLOPPY surf band. Which is not to say that these guys don’t play well – on the contrary, they had a lovely groove and the lead guitarist knows his stuff inside out. But they just…. didn’t give a damn, y’know? They were having fun and messing around, the way a band should.
Tempos often stayed at the more relaxing end of the instro spectrum, but swung nicely,with some nice riffs and a good deal of twangy racket. There was a lot of instrument swapping, some oddball vocal numbers, and at one point the bass player took the mic for a hilarious rendition of Jacques Dutronc’s ‘Hippie Hippie Hourrah’. Collapsing equipment and random chaos was dealt with with an off-hand confidence that would’ve make Alex Chilton proud.
Oh, and I think the band’s gimmick was that they purported to be dressed up as ice cream parlour employees, the costume chiefly consisting of a set of disposable paper hats that looked like they could’ve been knocked up with some A4 printer paper and staples. Total class on every level.
Not much on the net from this lot yet beyond a few short tracks on soundcloud, but definitely keep an eye out for em playing round your way.
Also on stage during that fateful night were this peculiar prospect. A bassist sitting on her amp, picking out stoned and disjointed dub fragments with a bass apparently held together largely with gaffa tapes, a guitarist practicing worryingly ‘smooth’ amateur jazz moves, and a small table of presumably inexpensive electronic equipment providing clattering, off-kilter backing. Out front, a man in casual attire sings words from a pile of A4 print-outs (perhaps the same ones The Sundae Kups made their hats out of?) in a ragged yet heart-felt voice, and occasionally deigns to express himself via a trumpet.
If all this sounds a bit questionable, well, it was, frankly, but as I stood there contemplating the possibility that something other than the £3 in my pocket might lead me to another £5 bottle of Lowenbrau, I found myself very much drawn into the feeling this lot were putting across. I don’t know where Meat Raffle call home, but I couldn’t help thinking that, in some weird sense, their music sounds like a direct musical personification of the London Docklands - jerry-rigged signifiers of comfort and relaxation (a sound literally haunted by the Thatcherite ‘80s, as if reluctantly learning to live with it's legacy rather than crassly reviving it), barely concealing a reservoir of resigned, impoverished melancholia.
Sometimes sounding like a pound shop PiL, but also distantly evoking such unlikely comparisons as Robert Wyatt’s socialist hymnals, the more far-out end of the ‘80s Television Personalities catalogue and Lol Coxhill & Mike Cooper’s harrowing ‘Zombie Bloodbath on the Isle of Dogs’ LP under the name The Recedents (which I’m sure you’re all familiar with), I don’t really know where Meat Raffle are coming from or what they’re up to, but I found the sound they made on this particular evening quite affecting.
A few tunes online here, all sounding a tad more strident, aggrieved and headachey than I recall from the live performance.
Named, like Meat Raffle, after a food-based human / animal interaction that definitely exists but quite possibly shouldn’t, Dog Chocolate are without doubt one of my favourite bands to go and see in London at the moment. In fact, how have I somehow managed to not mention them on this blog thus far? I guess not bothering to post anything for months will do that to you.
So anyway: Dog Chocolate! Fucking brilliant! That just about says it all really, but unjustified superlatives don’t pay the bills, so let’s roll out a description para and see where it gets us. Dog Chocolate are four very likable fellas who are all to some extent associated with the more, uh, self-sufficient end of the Deptford visual arts scene (you know - doodles, strange expressionistic etchings, photocopied fanzines, that sort of thing). When together and suitably equipped with musical instruments, they succeed in making a riotous yet tightly-controlled cacophony of lop-sided DIY punk that embodies the very best elements of that concept.
Punishing noisy, wildy exuberant and possessed of a spirit of wanton unpredictability and ranting, caffeinated obnoxiousness, the feeling the band put across on stage (or more than likely, on floor) is nonetheless entirely lacking in negativity or awkwardness, instead evoking a spirit of unchecked inclusivity and shared experience that always proves a great deal of fun.
Rob plays a full size guitar plugged into a tiny amplifier and makes a load of racket, whilst Matthew plays a tiny guitar run through an excessive number of pedals and makes what might generously be termed a ‘subtle’ contribution to the sound. Jonno plays a small drum kit that he wheels around on a custom-made trolley and Andrew yells and sings and does keyboard and stuff, kinda like a young Lou Barlow with all that angst that made him such a bore happily removed from his shoulders. All of these eccentricities though, rather than studied devices designed to make the band members ‘stand out’, seem instead wholly practical solutions to problems unforeseen by most, allowing the band the comfort and flexibility to, uh, ‘do their thing?’ with maximum effectiveness and a minimum of site-specific interference.
In fact, having now witnessed a number of their performances, I believe Dog Chocolate actively thrive upon the kind of stress that might easily fell a lesser combo, dealing with time constraints, technical problems and audience/space-related strife with an ease that I find nigh-on awe-inspiring, ploughing all potential difficulties straight back into a free-flowing stream of racket and banter that no mere organisational hassles can quench. Oh, and their songs are really good too. Like I say: Dog Chocolate! Fucking brilliant! I think they like playing out, so book them for your own thing immediately. You won’t regret it.
You can listen to the split LP they put out on Upset The Rhythm, and some other stuff, on their Soundcloud page. ‘Strange Train’ and ‘Poisoned Eye’ are my favourites.
The Ethical Debating Society
Another London band who seem to get better and better each time I see them, EDS have a proper album coming this year from Oddbox, and I can only imagine it’s going to be a blinder. Sounding essentially like a big arrow heading in THE RIGHT DIRECTION, EDS infuse their politicised punk with a personal specificity and avoidance of didactic grand-standing that renders their message more refreshing and compelling than most such endeavours, whilst still remaining as practically applicable as that of the most dour Socialist Worker troubadour.
Kris’s brilliantly visceral guitar playing provides an effective contrast to Tegan’s more spidery, dissonant style, and it is perhaps the mixture of brute distortion and ideological purpose that always leads me to take a big ‘UK ‘70s punk’ vibe from the band’s performances. Whilst I’m sure they would deny any direct similarity, it is the spirit (rather than sound) of ATV, X-Ray Spex, Gang of Four and even early Crass that keeps coming to mind, and that keeps me wired and excited every moment they’re on stage. A really great group that you owe it to yourself to see as soon as possible if any of this sounds like your cup of tea.
Ok, so, not exactly a new subject for discussion on this weblog (I talked up their ‘Drifting Out Between Suns’ LP as part of my end of year run down), but nonetheless, I would to at least take the opportunity to inform readers that Blown Out’s new one, ‘Jet Black Hallucinations’, takes things to a whole other level. In fact it’s one of the best things yet to emerge from Mike Vest’s cottage industry of long-form guitar noise, and thus riding pretty high on the list of flat out awesome things I’ve encountered in 2015 thus far.
With John-Michael Hedley’s bass in particular taking on a more prominent role here than on previous records, ‘Jet Black Hallucinations’ sees Vest working more as an equal component in a power trio triangle than in a “guitarist plus backing” setting, and the results speak for themselves – a hypnotic space-rock groove monster crushing planets beneath its heels, and a heroic dose of exactly what I want to hear during about 90% of my waking life.
To be honest, there’s not much more I do say that won’t be patently obvious the second you click the link below and hit ‘play’, so fergodsake, don’t be a mug and just do that. If your tastes lie anywhere near my own, you’ll be reaching for your Paypal password within about 90 seconds, but there's nothing to be gained by being impatient. Keep streaming for some intense head-nodding and I’ll see you in forty.
Saturn Form Essence
Welcome evidence that at least some folks in Ukraine have enough good sense to turn away from proxy war pissing contests and meaningless ethnic strife, the gentleman behind Saturn Form Essence sounds, quite literally, as far away from such concerns as it is possible to get, locking the home studio doors and conjuring his own landscapes of limitless interstellar vastness from a covetous array of analogue noise-making equipment.
Released as a limited tape and hopefully unlimited download from Newcastle’s Invisible City label, his‘Stratospheric Tower’ comprises a veritable motherlode of deep space void exploration, touching upon Tangerine Dream’s synth limbo, Alan Splet’s landmark space drones, perhaps even a touch of Badlamenti’s sublime ‘Twin Peaks’ mind-meld on the epic closing track…. but, basically, always falling back upon the spirit of anyone who ever plugged a short wave radio into their mixing board in the hope of capturing something a bit creepy, and aspiring to leave all traces of human consciousness quadrillions of light years distant. (And christ, who can blame him).
Hmm, not much punk-qua-punk on this update so far, and no American bands either if you can believe that, so, let’s give this mob a shot. After all, they’ve been nice enough to put up their LP as a ‘name your price’ d/l, which dissolves geographical boundaries better than most things.
So: ripped slacker sort-of-hardcore (softcore?) from Atlanta featuring some guys I believe are/were in G Green (and my god, is it already three years since their album came out?). More straight-forward and aggressive than that band, incorporating only the most tastful of indie rock incursions, ‘Head in a Vise’ (that being the name of the album) is straight up aggravated, nowheresville budget noise, marshaled by a vocalist who’s a straight up nasal shouter (rather like New Bomb Turks’ Eric Davidson perhaps?), and smeared with that particular kind of reverb and pedal gak that makes punk bands sound like they’ve gone all rotten and mildewed or something. Bad mood, ‘why bother?’ sentiments channeled into a sound that suggests a more affirmative forward momentum, flooring the accelerator on the tour van as home town entropy disappears in the mirror.
Get it from Bandcamp, and hey, why not give ‘em some money, it might cheer them up and help cover gas.
Monday, February 02, 2015
2014: Mopping Up.
I know it is obscenely late to still be harping on about the events of 2014 (I mean, all music that happened before 31st December DIES on January 5the each year, every music-blog reader/writer knows that), but January was such a slog I literally haven’t had a chance to finish the few meagre paragraphs that comprise this post, that I was meaning to post just after completing the ‘records of the year’ run-down last month.
Before getting my shit together to move on to some actual 2015 listening then (to be honest, I usually find myself just listening to compilations and old records for the first grim few months of each year these days), time to finally close the bloody curtain on ’14 with some quick round-ups of other music stuff that pleased me during the year.
Amid a pretty wide variety of truly great live music I witnessed last year, the couple that stand out most strongly in my mind (not including the gig I attended in Japan, various performances by friends’ bands, my band’s own little tour etc), were, perhaps significantly, those relating to the Southern US garage-punk scene – a keen remember that those guys, collectively speaking, can still be untouchable in terms of live rock n’ roll, even they’ve arguably been slacking off a little on the “making awesome records” front in recent years.
#1 gig of 2014 then, to my surprise as much as anyone’s, was Jack Oblivian playing backed up by Memphis band The Sheiks, in a spacious and sparsely-attended Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club on an inauspicious Sunday night. What can I tell you – the group were, as the phrase goes, ‘cooking’, all ragged and good-humoured after a grueling European tour, and when they finished their allotted set and no curfew was called, they continued cooking, eventually playing for something like two hours, as the remaining attendees, last train home long abandoned, danced on past midnight. And when I say ‘danced’, I don’t mean “moshed” or "threw themselves about like drunken monkeys", I mean the people were actually dancing, to live rock n’ roll played by a well-lubricated band with a bag full of half-remembered r’n’b covers and very little idea what they’re gonna do next. If only that could happen every weekend. A really special evening.
Nearly as good were Tennessee band Natural Child, playing at the functional but always slightly dispiriting Shacklewell Arms. To keep it brief, going to this gig wasn’t my call, and I found myself feeling rather suspicious of the crowd, suspicious of the support acts, suspicious of the general vibe, suspicious of what I knew of the headliners via some quick googling. Then Natural Child walked on-stage and within ten seconds I was comfortable as a baby with a fresh bottle. What a fucking great band. If you follow my path of googling, you may find yourself unconvinced by copious weed-championing, dirty joke lyrics, some of the worst record covers of all time and a new album that sounds a little bit too much like The Eagles for comfort, but believe me – see ’em live and it will all make sense. These guys play like they were born with rock n’ roll in their bones – zero pretense, a warm, welcoming groove and a wicked good sense of humour too. Heroes to a man. (Intermittent testament to this greatness can found on their ‘1971’ LP from a couple of years back.)
Third best night out of the year was Shonen Knife, playing a short notice end-of-tour set at Café Oto. I’ve seen Shonen Knife quite a few times over the years, but this was by far the best. With the small venue, party atmos and fans-only crowd, the band seemed really comfortable, and happy to play whatever songs they felt like playing, dragging out some deep cuts and album tracks rather than relying on the same old fan favourites. The current line-up play magnificently, belting it out with the kind of world-beating, hyper-efficient positivity that does the stereotypical view of their country proud, and being able to stand right in front of them as they did so was a joy. The unusually varied set-list made for a great showcase of the strength & breadth of Naoko’s song-writing over the years, and anyone who has (perhaps understandably) written them off as a novelty cakes n’ kittens twee band really needs to check their head and hope they one day catch a set as good as this one.
Fourth best gig of the year was finally seeing Bong, playing at… what’s the name of that goth/metal pub, on a side street by Camden station..? I’ve forgotten. Seemed like a thoroughly decent place to watch bands and drink beer, anyway. I had taken some out some money with the expectation of buying a pile of obscure merch from the band, but as said merch was not forthcoming, there was only one solution: a quadruple whisky to sip as I stood front of the stage watching the band set up, and things went just swimmingly. Having built these guys up to the level of galaxy-bestriding gods in my mind, it was quite humbling to just see some young-ish, soft-spoken blokes from Newcastle quietly setting up their not-quite-as-elaborate-as-you-might-expect gear, but when they finally began…. the even-more-colossally-world-destroying-than-you-might-imagine maelstrom did the business. (Said business being an out-of-body noise-worshipping nirvana that no mere blended whisky could account for.)
Fifth and sixth best gigs of the year were the Static Shock events I wrote about here, with particular reference to the mighty Rakta (sorry – channelling Mary Anne Hobbs a bit there), and coming in at seven is the Makoto Kawabata & J. Francois Pauvros set I wrote about here. Catching Pelt in St Pancras Old Church a few months back made for an oft-challenging but ultimately rewarding number eight, pushing perennial number # 1 live act Chain & The Gang into a shocking NINTH place, even in view of them playing on the same bill as Comet Gain. Tenth? I dunno, my memory is all out at this point, but I’ve probably forgotten at least a few great things, so if you went to something unspeakably awesome and saw me there standing watching it, maybe write it in this space: _________________.
2. Comps & Reissues.
Here is a list of my eleven favourite reissues and compilations of old music from 2014. Really top year for this kinda stuff, and sadly I didn’t have the times or funds to check out even a fraction of the releases I would have liked to. I wish I’d found the time to write about all of the records below, because they are awesome, but those I did manage to squeeze out some words on are duly linked.
1. Bruno Nicolai - All The Colours of the Dark OST (Finders Keepers)
2. The Space Lady’s Greatest Hits (Night School)
3. Wayfaring Stranger: Darkscorch Canticles (Numero Group)
4. Crime – Murder by Guitar (Superior Viaduct)
5. Phil Upchurch – The Big Hit Dances (Righteous)
6. Francois Tusques - Le Reine Des Vampires 1967 (Finders Keepers)
7. The Fates – Furia (Finders Keepers)
8. Who is William Onyeabor? (Luaka Bop )
9. Susan Justin - Forbidden World OST (Death Waltz)
10. Inner-City Beat: Detective Themes, Spy Music & Imaginary Thrillers (Soul Jazz)
11. Frantix – My Dad’s a Fuckin’ Alcoholic (Alternative Tentacles)
3. Old Records.
Here, for no particular reason - context maybe? - are some of the old records I’ve been diggin’ the mostest last year.
Isaac Hayes – ..To Be Continued
Richard & Linda Thompson – Pour Down Like Silver
Hound Dog Taylor – Natural Boogie
Dr Feelgood – Stupidity
Hawkwind – Space Ritual (finally got a nice copy on vinyl!)
James Brown – The Payback
Manfred Mann’s Chapter 3 – Chapter 3
Neil Young – Trans
Skullflower – Form Destroyer, IIIrd Gatekeeper & early singles
Suicide – Second Album
Junior Kimbrough – God Knows I Tried
Roky Erickson – All That May Do My Rhyme
Dillard & Clark – The Fantastic Expedition of…
Canned Heat – Boogie With…
Fushitsusha – Live / untitled
Johnny Kidd & The Pirates – collected singles
Bo Diddley - Have Guitar Will Travel
Miles Davis – On The Corner
Atomic Rooster – Death Walks Behind You
Acid Mothers Temple – Mantra of Love
Motorhead – Motorhead b/w City Kids 7”
The Bevis Frond – Miasma
So, that’s it – END. 2014 is ovah! Look out for more scintillating, red hot coverage of 2015’s verdant musical marshland here whenever I can be bothered.
Sunday, January 18, 2015
(1939 – 2015)
Whilst we here at Stereo Sanctity are of course inconsolable this weekend vis-à-vis the news that Kim Fowley, father of some of the most wonderful and demented pop music of the past fifty years, has passed away, we are also, in the back of our minds, somewhat relieved that this slightly alarming character is no longer stalking the earth causing trouble – a dichotomy that I suspect Mr. Fowley might have appreciated.
Whilst one shudders to think of the outrages Fowley may or may not have been party to in his glory days as the youth-stalking vampire of the Sunset Strip, now at least seems a good moment to draw a veil over the uglier results of his uncheckable egomania and celebrate him instead as a man who pretty much walked into a recording studio with nothing except the change in his pockets and walked out with a #1 hit creating his own world out of nothing but dust, glitter and goofery and living there ‘til the bitter end, never once breaking character, and dragging in whatever talent passed his way like some kind of irresistible vortex.
From ‘Alley Oop’ and ‘Pama-Oow-Mow-Mow’ onwards, the results of Fowley’s shameless, wild-eyed productivity run deep in the DNA of American pop culture. For his own work alone he is a trash-culture godhead on a par with Russ Meyer, Stan Lee or whoever else, and for dipping his pale fingers into the careers of artists as diverse as The Modern Lovers, Joan Jett, Soft Machine, Gene Vincent, Slade, Kiss, Warren Zevon, Blue Cheer, Cat Stevens and The Germs, well… you be the judge.
Separating fact from self-promotional ballyhoo and rumour can be a pretty tough gig when it comes to Kim Fowley, but readers who have no idea what I’m talking about are advised to go and give his Wikipedia page a read for a full info-dump. In particular, I draw your attention to the rather eyebrow-raising list of albums he recorded under his own name, which is a work of twisted poetry in and of itself.
The last time I checked in on Fowley’s tumblr account a couple of years back, he seemed to be ranting at length about his apparent estrangement from his fetish model girlfriend, and obsessively promoting some songs he’d already produced in response by some other presumably ill-starred Hollywood trash-starlet types – the result being a sad head-shake and a decision not to bother checking his tumblr account again. Behind the increasingly ragged Public Persona though, I guess there must have lurked an actual human being, and, above and beyond the snidey tone of this obit, death by cancer is never something to sneer about, and it’s hard not to be touched by the final sentence currently sitting on his wiki bio.
By way of tribute to the Animal God of the Streets then, here’s a quick run-down of some favourite Fowley moments that have brought me joy over the years, and will likely continue to do so until the day I meet a similar fate.
1. The Rangers – Justine (1964)
Anyone still cheerfully clinging to the notion that fully fledged punk rock didn’t exist until the 1970s needs to get a load of this 120 second masterpiece - one of the greatest, fastest and most stupidly exhilarating rock n’roll records ever made, and a readymade blueprint for ALL the garage/punk ramalama that’s followed over the next five(!) decades, whether it’s makers are aware of it or otherwise. [It was a cover of course - of Don & Dewey's only marginally more laidback '58 original. - Ed.] Strange but true: if I stop listening to all music for, say, a week, this and Link Wray’s ‘Comanche’ are the two songs that inevitably end up playing in my head on a continuous loop.
2. The Rivingtons – Papa-Oow-Mow-Mow (1962)
So I know The Trashmen’s subsequent ‘Surfin' Bird’ may be rawer and punker, with no need of the vaguely contemptible ‘understandable’ vocal dubbed over all the mrr-mrr-pow-powing on this one, for my money the Rivingtons cut has a marginally better dancing groove to it, and if nothing else, the whole incident stands as proof that some strokes of genius are so potent they can work again a second time with almost no development/alteration at all, and suffer no diminishing returns. Swings and roundabouts, collapsing under fifty years of rust, but if you’re a DJ in a sticky spot, one is still as good as the other for filling the floor.
3. The Runaways – Dead-End Justice (1976)
The Runaways may have grown into a better and stronger band once they ditched Fowley, but nonetheless, their first, Fowley-dominated LP remains the one to go for, and this extraordinary closing track remains one of the prime documents of his genius: a lunatic heavy metal epic in which girl gangers Joan and Cherie are busted by the fuzz and confined to juvie (“Where am I?”, “You’re in a cheap, run-down teenage jail, that’s where”, “Oh my god!”), from whence they subsequently bust out with all guitars blazing (“Joan, lets break out tonite”, “Ok Cherie, whats the plan?”). Full of semi-improvised idiot-genius couplets (“on the planet sorrow / there’s no tomorrow”?), stomping, arena-worthy bombast and an appropriately nihilistic crime movie ending, it’s like Jack Hill’s ‘70s filmography compressed into a seven minute rock song, and it’s just about the greatest fucking thing you ever heard. Makes me smile just thinking about it.
4. Kim Fowley – Bubblegum (1968)
And speaking of exploitation, nobody squeezed a few bucks out of the psychedelic revolution quite as shamelessly or enjoyably as Kim Fowley (hell, he enjoyed it so much he was still doing it in 1998), and this immortal psyche-bubblegum mash-up is one of all-time best, perhaps marking the moment at which total cynicism finds itself consumed by genuine mind-blasting mysticism of some dazzling, peculiar kind.
5. Althea & The Memories – The Worst Record Ever Made (1967)
Oh my god, have you heard this thing? Straight up genius. (“Do you know how hard it is to yell in a microphone for two and a half minutes..? Pretty hard.”) I’m guessing that Althea & The Memories was neither the first nor the last time Fowley grabbed a gaggle of passing teenagers off the streets to serve as his ‘girl group’ for the day like some poverty row Phil Spector, but this “oh my god, we’ve got five minutes left to record a b-side and the tape’s due at the pressing plant first thing tomorrow” travesty remains a unique bit of presumably intoxicated self-indulgence that could only ever have mistakenly found its way onto vinyl via this particularly fruitful alignment of time, place and personnel – a combination probably never to be repeated, which is unfortunate for those as in love with the idea of rock n’ roll as a total shuck as I am.
6. Kim Fowley – The Trip (1965)
See notes on #4. Temporal overlap makes it difficult to judge whether this one is a an exaggerated piss-take of Sky Saxon and The Seeds or actually a key influence upon their style, but either way, most commentators will agree that it remains totally nuts. Pretty damn early on the psychsploitation drug jive front too in ’65, and is there anything more sinister in the annals of recorded music than Fowley drawling “you’re doin’ it right baby… just put your head back…” at the end, like a comic book amalgam of every abusive Laurel Canyon psycho who subsequently crawled out of the innards of the ‘60s..? BRR.
7. The Snowmen – Ski Storm (Pt. 1) (1963)
And speaking of a chill….. (see, I’m not just throwing this shit together at random you know)…. a classic demonstration of the Fowley thought process is the period when, after the craze for surf music hit in the early ‘60s, he single-handedly attempted to popularize the competing genre of SKI MUSIC, briefly flooding the market with cheap-jack instrumental singles by the likes of The Alpines (‘Shush Boomer’), The Rangers (‘Snow Skiing’, which preceded the aforementioned ‘Justine’ by a few months) and The Snowmen, whose ‘Ski Storm’ (apparently featuring Shaun & Danny Harris, later of The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, who by my calculations can't have been older than about fourteen at the time) is the only evidence I can currently find on Youtube of this short-lived but no doubt hilarious racket.
I don’t think any of these saw much chart action, BUT HEY, you’ve gotta laugh, and god knows, he probably ripped off the studio, paid the teenage musicians in smokes and broken promises, and even got a hit out of it in the end with the tangentially connected ‘Popsicles & Icicles’ by The Murmaids, which topped out at #3 in the US charts. Win-win!
8. The Runaways – Cherry Bomb (1976)
So I know you’ve banged yr head to it all too often at your local queer-punk/feminist disco, thrilled to it on the soundtrack of some movie or other, maybe even done it at karaoke, but were you truly raising your fist for the dream of an empowered teen-girl heavy rock band, or for the gutter-crawling psycho-hustler who probably scribbled the lyrics on the back of a porno mag or something? It’s a tricky tightrope, so let’s puul in the slack and embrace both sides. Brain disengaged, cake both had and eaten. It’s usually the best way forward.
9. The Hollywood Argyles – Alley Oop (1960)
The place where it all began! Ah for the days when a bunch of layabouts could convene in a back alley recording studio, lay down an ode to a cartoon caveman whilst, quoth vocalist Gary S. Paxton, “all participants were senselessly drunk on cider”…. and then turn it into a #1 hit, an oldies compilation staple, and presumably a lifetimes-worth of royalty cheques for some lucky sonofabitch. All that and it’s still a hoot to listen to too - like a record made by finger-clicking beatniks from a Hanna Barbara cartoon.
10. Kim Fowley – Animal Man (1968)
Like ‘Bubblegum’ above, this is one of many fruitful collaborations between Fowley and a guitarist who was perhaps his match on the eccentrictiy front, ‘Born To Be Wild’ composer Mars Bonfire, and also one of many Fowley solo endeavours that is likely to see your pets racing for the front door never to be seen again and your neighbours making anxious calls to social services, should you decide to rinse it too frequently or enthusiastically. Genuinely unhinged, I think it’s fair to say.
Tuesday, January 06, 2015
The Best Records of 2014:
1. Chain & The Gang –
Minimum Rock n’ Roll LP
(Radical Elite / Fortuna Pop!)
You could reasonably argue that Ian Svenonious has been making variations on the same record for at least the past two decades. But when the questions he is raising remain largely unaddressed, whether within pop music or in society at large, can we really say that his output has become any less relevant (or indeed enjoyable) in the intervening years?
NAY I say, and with Ian and his rotating cast of collaborators now comfortably settled into their Chain & The Gang identity, his core agenda (both aesthetic and political) felt more pointed than ever in 2014, and this, the group’s strongest LP to date, hit the sweet spot for me in a big way, needless to say.
I was actually quite pleased with the review I did of it back in June, so why not go and read that, if you missed it the first time around.
Listen and buy from Chain & The Gang on bandcamp, or get the vinyl from Fortuna Pop in the UK, Dischord in the US.
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