Category Archives: Music

Are You With Me Now?

I shan’t bother with the apologies. Suffice to say, inactivity plagues this blog, like most others. My remedy: trying to post shorter, more frequent updates. And they’ll mainly be Spotify tracks & playlists (mine and from others), or music from elsewhere on the web.

First, a quick note about Spotify: many of my favorite artists aren’t on Spotify. Very little music from Drag City records, or many other independent labels, is ever published there. The reason is that artists make very little money out of ‘airplay’ on Spotify. I get that and I think it should be up to artists to choose how they want to distribute and publish their work. So I fully respect the rationale behind Neil Hagerty, for example, not having his music go up on Spotify.

That said, Spotify also represents a sort of adolescent dream made real. As a teenager, it was impossible to imagine having so much music available with the click of a mouse (or a touchscreen or whatever). It’s a great way of discovering music, particularly older tracks and compilations which just don’t make it to radio these days (with the exception of WFMU and a few other excellent stations). The Spotify Discover weekly playlist has been the source of quite a few new favorite tracks – some of which I knew, some I should have known, and some I’d never heard before. So, I’m happy to pay for a subscription to Spotify and also purchase music that I enjoy direct from the artist when possible, or from their record label.

For new music, Bandcamp and Soundcloud are excellent websites you know about already and then there are friends. We still share songs, after all.

Anyway, here’s a Spotify playlist of some songs I’ve been listening to a lot recently. Some new, many old. Some, like Spirit In The Sky buy Norman Greenbaum are true radio classics. Others, like Dion’s Daddy Rollin’ (In Your Arms) are completely new to me. Cate le Bon is a recent discovery, and I’m really looking forward to her gig in Barcelona this autumn.

Margo Guryan’s pop doesn’t seem to have that many followers these days, but in my opinion you can hear the bridge from her California Shake song, or a version of it at least, popping up in Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain (also her Sunday Morning contrasts nicely with the Velvet Underground’s track of the same name). She also wrote the lyrics for vocal versions of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman and numerous other songs.

BRONCHO and Alvvays are just good bands I’ve been listening to a lot. Ex Hex’s Rips is one of my favorite albums of recent years: it’s just packed with great songs and even better guitars. They were excellent at Primavera Sound last year too.

Royal Trux – Untitled – 1992

Untitled (1992) is the first Royal Trux record to feature more-or-less traditional, structured songs. It’s the bridge between Royal Trux and Twin Infinitives (albums one and two, both brilliant records but arguably more demanding on the listener), and Cats and Dogs, their fourth LP.

On Untitled, Hagerty and Herrema permit themselves to show off some of their skills in terms of songwriting, production and guitar (I love the guitar parts in particular). But that nice, unpolished feel remains.

Untitled sees Royal Trux move on from “dissonant junkie nightmare”, albeit one step at a time.

Ornette Coleman 1930-Infinity

For me, the jazz legend Ornette Coleman was the man who gave me a thirst for understanding jazz. I’d listened to Miles Davis and John Coltrane. I had an album by Charlie Parker. I loved it all. But some of my musical heroes talked about Ornette as the great innovator. I needed to know why.

I soon found out. The first time I played Lonely Woman, I was gripped by its otherness. It was recognizable as jazz. But it was out there on the edge. It felt new, even decades after it was recorded. It’s still my favorite jazz standard.

We were very lucky indeed to see Ornette play at the Palau de la Musica a few years ago. He must have been around 78 years old. His playing was still beautiful, haunting, forceful and unpredictable. And then he played my favorite, Lonely Woman. A dream come true.

The Guardian’s interview with him from around the same time contains lots of quotes which seem to sum up the man. None more so than this:

Coleman’s first saxophone was bought with money he had earned shining shoes. “I thought it was a toy and I played it the way I’m playing today,” he says. “I didn’t know you had to learn to play. I didn’t know music was a style and that it had rules and stuff, I thought it was just sound. I thought you had to play to play, and I still think that.”

Thank you, Mr. Ornette Coleman, for being one of those rare people who really changes the world for the better. For not caring about the rules. For everything.

Royal Trux Reuniting

Sometimes I still think it’s a fever dream. My Royal Trux, the crab apple of my youth, the metallic taste in the back of my throat, the burning sensation, the dancing on the table that I never saw, the cracked elbow, the late night drinking sessions and swimming in the warm sea under the moon, my toxic shock and my broken heart… my Royal Trux are somehow getting back together.

I’ve written a lot of crap abou’t Royal Trux in my time. Probably because I’ve always thought of myself as the worst sort of fan: unduly taken with a band I consider to be vastly underesteemed in the Scheme of Things (and seriously, who cares about that?), yet uninterested in learning the key trivia needed to be a proper gig bore. I’m not a musician and while I can obviously grasp the relevance of production techniques, different guitars, pedals, recorded live, etc, I’m a long way away from caring which guitar Neil Hagerty used on the solo for Stevie (For Steven S.). I can’t even remember what year the albums were released. That said, in contact with some friends who have developed an independent love of the Trux (independent from my nagging, I mean), I’ve realised that Yes, I can stand tall. I know enough of the canon to hold my own.

Several people contacted me a week or two back when Drag City Inc. dropped the news that Royal Trux will be reuniting for a one-off gig at a psych fest in Los Angeles this August. Our good buddy C in that great city got there first with a Facebook post. “I’m going to need you guys to come out for this”, she insisted. But it won’t happen. We’re on vacation (cottage already booked). I can’t afford to go to LA for one (vitally important) concert. Actually, I could if I dipped into my savings but those are for… well, I don’t know but certainly not this. The bottom line is, I have to just hope that this one-off gig turns into something more. That I get a chance to see them play live, something I could never do when in their first incarnation. Drag City seems to think (hope?) so.

I’ll content myself with the knowledge that the impossible has been made possible (and what, apart from an adult attitude and bags of money could achieve that?).

So, “what is Royal Trux”?

Royal Trux is an American rock band consisting of former couple Neil Hagerty on guitar and vocals and Jennifer Herrema on vocals too. The best way I can describe their music is that it’s a blend of Exile-era Rolling Stones rock’n’roll & boogie woogie, free jazz-style harmolodics, Captain Beefheart’s swagger mixed with a large amount of heroin and 1990s irony. It’s great music, though sometimes inscrutible. Their attitude and aesthetic continue to influence bands today and yet relatively few fans have heard of them. I’m told that they’re more popular in Europe than the States and are (perhaps worryingly) loved by other rock bands and plenty of music journalists. Maybe because a lot of their stuff is music about music, comments on the scene? Primal Scream called them “the last true rock’n’roll band”. Lauren Laverne says they’re her favorites. Hagerty’s London gig drew Hot Chip, Spiritualized and (I’m pretty sure) Warren Ellis. Scaruffi rates them. They’ve got a song dedicated to Steven Seagal (featuring an absurd and absurdly good guitar solo), songs about junkie nurses, weed-growing operations, high school and police busts. One of their albums, Twin Infinitives, is ‘famously’ difficult to listen to and often mentioned in the same breath as Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (it’s actually excellent, as you’d expect me to say). They once signed to Virgin and then got paid out an album early. It can take a while to get into them, I guess. But once they’re in your blood, in your brain, you never get them out.

Why, Lord, am I not going to LA?

Bootleg: Dante’s Vendetta

Review: Neil Michael Hagerty live at Café OTO, London, April 2105

Writing objective criticism is always tricky. Never more so than when describing a first experience of something long-awaited. So when I say that I’d wanted to see Neil Hagerty play live since around 1999, you will understand how difficult it is for me to be anything but effusive in my praise. When you’ve waited nearly half your life for a single evening, impartiality seems impossible. And disappointment almost guaranteed. Fortunately, the concert lived up to my expectations. So everything you read below is entirely objective fact.

Neil Michael Hagerty (Howling Hex) - Café OTO

In the days leading up to Neil Hagerty’s performance in London, I went half-mad trying to anticipate the concerts form. In my desperation, I sent Mr. Hagerty a tweet begging for a hint. No answer. Which was perfectly understandable. But despite this, I remained desperate for a clue – some hint of which version of the former Royal Trux guitarist we’d see. Eventually I settled on the single clue he’d given us: he was billed as Neil Michael Hagerty. Not ‘The Howling Hex’, his Fall-like rotating door of a band in which the only permanent member is the band leader himself. So I took this scrap of evidence and extrapolated that perhaps this could indicate a more melodic, poppy performance – much of the material released under this nomenclature is of a more traditional rock and roll style, much less experimental than the material released with the band.

Neil Michael Hagerty (Howling Hex), live at Café OTO

So when Hagerty stepped forward with his guitar and introduced himself and his two stage partners with a muttered ‘We’re the Howling Hex’, I smiled to myself and prepared myself for what must be the truest version of Neil Hagerty currently available: that of the repetition, the rolling rhythm and the emphasis which is the Howling Hex: a band which creates some of the most exciting rock’n’roll in the 21st century.

The concert was split into two sets with a 20 minute break between them. The sets were practically identical in the sense that they consisted of the same 8 or 9 songs in the same order, but entirely different due to the use of different guitar pedal settings and, in the second set, a more refined and professional-sounding delivery. Almost as if the band was responding to potential audience diffidence caused by the first set. Almost as if he were saying, “don’t worry, guys: I’m not a complete idiot”.

The tracks were picked from a range of the Howling Hex’s albums and most of my favorites were there. Hammer and Bluebird led the way, and we had Pair Backup Mess With and Lord Gloves (my current preference for guitar music: the cricket theme is an added bonus), among others. Hagerty focused on single lines from each track, adding to the mantra-like feel of the concert – the rolling rhythm, gradually evolving guitar parts and repeated chants in a dulled, offhand tone.

The band itself consists of Hagerty on guitar and bass (played on the same instrument through some sort of octave pickup, I guess); Eric van Leuven on drums and percussion, delivering the New Border Sound’s trademark fairground-like, Mexican-influenced rhythms; and Daniel Blumberg of Yuck as a sort of anti-hype man who spent 90% of the concert sat in a bar chair, sketching in a notebook, only to get up somewhat reluctantly to add his 2c for the chorus of each song.

Neil Michael Hagerty (Howling Hex), live at Café OTO

The overall effect was of an immensely willful and individual viewpoint on what rock’n’roll means in the 21st century. In turn energetic and meandering, vague and clean… a perfect synthesis of the genre’s inherent need for order and destruction. Would it have been possible for me to dislike this curious “I’m going to perform two identical sets that sound completely different” rolling maelstrom of a gig I’d been anticipating for so long? Well, yes. A few years back, I saw RTX (now Black Bananas) play and felt much less of a connection with the best of what Royal Trux always meant to me. Neil Michael Hagerty was on point: uncompromising and thus delivering beyond even my feverish expectations. I recommend you catch him next time you get the chance.

Thoughts and musings

Consider this the blog equivalent of several tweets about not really connected subjects. Or a kind of old-style journal blog entry.

Firstly, two observations about culture: 1 – there is a certain generation of Catalan, Valencian and Balearic singing guitar men who are basically just one man. I know they’re technically different people and that their guitar styles vary and that the poetry they sing is of differing quality. But whenever any of them pops up on TV3 (their spiritual home is the short bit about yesterday’s concert that no one went to), I just see the same man. They come from a time when singing in Catalan was protest enough so they didn’t really need to worry about the rest of their politics. Now they strike me as being a deeply conservative and negative influence on the culture: their sub-Cohen witterings are so deeply uncool that we can hardly blame the youth for not wanting to create much protest music during the banking crisis. And 2 – I quite like that Basque comedy show on channel 7.

Yesterday, we watched the Blu-ray edition of Cavalcanti’s propaganda masterpiece, Went The Day Well?. Included on the disc was Yellow Caesar, a short by the same director about Mussolini. This second film was really amusing and effective. I’d love to see the BFI collect all the quality propaganda films it has in its archives and release them on Blu-ray. A few weeks back we watched Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Was this really a propaganda film which sought to justify torture? I didn’t really think so. In a sense, I feel that Bigelow was never going to have an easy ride with this film. Had she not mentioned the torture, she’d have quite rightly been accused of convenient forgetfulness. Her last film, The Hurt Locker, was atrociously bad and certainly felt like a work of propaganda. Zero Dark Thirty managed, I thought, to capture some of the fist pumping of America’s 2000s without actually joining in. Or maybe I’m the apologist?

Primavera Sound 2012 lineup

Primavera Sound 2012

The program’s probably pretty much complete now so as usual, here’s a list of the acts performing at this year’s Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona. The festival takes place from May 30th to June 3rd. The first and last days will be free events at Arc de Triomf. Get tickets here.

This year’s lineup is a bit of a mixed bag. If, like me, you’re sick of FUCKING WILCO, and you’re a bit sick of most British indie from the last 3 decades, you could be forgiven with thinking there’s little on offer. (I say ‘most’ because I obviously still love Spiritualized and Björk, who’s practically British). But take another look and you’ll find much to amuse you.

Take AarabMuzik, for example, who makes quite good music by sampling quite bad music. And how about Dominant Legs who have a sort of Tom Tom Club thing going on. Or the ‘chillwave’ (whatever that means) of Neon Indian. Or Redinho’s electro fun times. There’s plenty to be enjoying. I’ll see you where we can see the sea.

Primavera Sound 2012 lineup (my picks highlighted)

A$AP Rocky (US)
A.A. Bondy (US)
Aeroplane (BE)
Afrocubism (CU)
Anímic (ES)
Archers Of Loaf (US)
Atlas Sound (US)
Atleta (ES)
Baxter Dury (UK)
Beach Beach (ES)
Beach House (US)
Beirut (US)

Continue reading Primavera Sound 2012 lineup

How I resolve to live in 2012

New Year resolutions are generally just a list of regrets from the year before: “actually quit smoking”, “lose weight”, “find a man”. A litany of past failures presented as optimistic hurdles that will ruin the year to come. Here’s my list of non-regret-fuelled resolutions for 2012.

  1. Learn Jazz. I’ve been listening to jazz for years and feel like I need to spend some quality time this year learning its history and how it works so that I can better enjoy it in years to come.
  2. Do poetry. I used to love reading and writing poetry and realised recently that it had been out of my life for a decade or more. I should fix that.
  3. No smoking indoors. While I haven’t yet smoked a cigarette this year, I now pledge not to do so in our flat. I will smoke in bars if Rajoy leaglises it, though.
  4. Read at least one book in Catalan and one in Castilian too.  2012 marks 10 years since I moved to Barcelona. I ought to progress beyond shoddy newspapers.
  5. Find new living quarters in Gràcia (or even Poblenou); swim regularly; eat less meat; visit Paris and Lisbon… (these items are perhaps the regret-laced resolutions I warned of).


Have a fun, safe and happy 2012.

Troublesome Houses

I’ve got something in the works about Bonnie Prince Billy. For the moment, here’s Troublesome Houses. Stay tuned for my special Christmas Classics party. And some stuff about Grand Theft Auto, Jonathan Franzen, the internet, Devon, Barcelona and skiing. It’s going to be a cultural… er… fiesta de montaditos around here sometime soon.