Saturday, November 13, 2010

Underestimating Social Media; a recipe for disaster

Ten days ago, a phenomenal wave of anger surged through the internet thanks to social networks and media sites, vilifying the unknown Western New England-based Cooks Source Magazine for its blatant and unapologetic copyright infringement - which had been uncovered by a blogger whose work had been stolen to go into October's issue.

I wrote about this for Birddog here. Not only was the journalistic crime obvious and pretty unforgivable yet flippantly denied, but it showed the power of social media and the internet in bringing brands to justice - if that justice now seems in hindsight a little severe.

In the interests of fairness, too, the editor responsible finally broke her silence here. But it's a rather biased woe-is-me tale; which perhaps isn't surprising given how badly the magazine's "apology" that sits on their website does its job.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Villagers, live at Scala - 5 October 2010

London’s Scala boasts a colourful history as both a cinema and live venue. Now one of the capital’s most coveted locations, its vaguely steeping stalls and balconies and close standing area seem to bear down on the stage almost as intently as the spotlights above.

They fall first on Welsh songstress Cate Le Bon and her three compadres, who flit around the cramped stage, swapping locations and instruments like good friends exchanging playing cards. Cate Le Bon initially caught the eye as vocalist on Neon Neon’s debut single, ‘I Lust You’, resulting in her year-long tour with the band. Now forging her solo path, Scala sees her deliver a quaint performance, in which Cate’s syrupy but dextrous tones float and soar over her mix of rough-edged guitars and woozy organs, just about winning over a rather cooler-than-thou audience with her bursts of heady folk: warm applause sends the Welsh songwriter on her way.

The real spotlight tonight, though, is all on one man, Conor O’Brien. The face behind the misleading Villagers moniker... more

Monday, September 27, 2010

Blogger's block

It's been a day short of three months since I last blogged depressingly about England's world cup exit. Happily, I have managed to put some words into comprehensible sentences in my spangly new job as Content Editor for Birddog B2B.

I've managed three blogs for Birddog in six weeks or so, which is not a terrible ratio, but it's allowed me to try my hand(s) at pretending to do marketing/brand type posts. Anyway, here they are:

What's in a name?
Location, Location, Location

That last one looks faintly lewd but I can assure you, disappointingly, it's not.

Have a read and if you're of the media, marketing, B2B or blogging disposition, comment.


Monday, June 28, 2010

The morning after the 44 years before

It was probably with relief, more than anything, that England fans reacted to the final whistle - and final nail in England's sorry World Cup 2010 coffin - as the gut-wrenching score was crystallised in memory and in history at 4:45pm on Sunday. Not quite payback for '66, though any bragging rights leftover from Munich in 2001 are well and truly handed back to the German supporters; expect the sea of scarves to bear this scoreline for now: Germany 4 - 1 England.

The result was as if finally and thankfully waking from a growing nightmare, rather than descending into one. The dream familiar to so many English fans (you know, that one where England win the World Cup?), preceded by weeks of feverish, optimistic expectation, faded almost instantly. If the insipid 1-1 draw against the US, where England, looking tired and short on ideas, battled gamely and little else, soured the first steps on what was supposed to have been a glorious path, the excruciatingly dire stalemate against an inferior-in-every-way Algeria demolished the path, and tore up the map.

This, incidentally, was the game where Gareth Barry, injured for the previous two months, was supposed to slot into the England puzzle and make the picture clear. Instead, Barry was ineffective in all three subsequent games, offering no protection to the back four against Germany (indeed, Barry was directly at fault during both of Germany's second half goals, giving away possession for 3-1 and failing to deal with a long punt to Mesut Ozil for 4-1), and in the games against Algeria and Slovenia, lacked any guile or passing flair - an asset Barry has always been short of.

The 'dream', now on the verge of dying, was burnished by the slightly more convincing first half display against Slovenia, Capello's two line up changes combining for the only goal. Yet as it turned into a fully fledged nightmare after all, like a Shakespearean tragedy there was a final, drawn out despondent end to the play, the inevitable descent into the sombre, damning ending.

Though Lampard's clear goal was academic by the end, there is something to be said that maybe, just maybe, an England side, pumped up and level 2-2 against the old enemy at half time at the World Cup, just might have had one last effort up their sleeves.

There is also something to be said that an England side, pumped up and harshly behind 2-1 to the old enemy at half-time at the World Cup, should have had even more of an effort up their sleeves than did emerge on Sunday.

Because apart from 15 frenzied minutes before half-time, England offered nothing against Germany to suggest that there was any more to this side than the three limp group games had shown. The failings of an England team, at the last opportunity for the heralded Golden Generation, were exposed against a young, exciting, clinical and organised German side.

Exposed, in every department. In goal, England's traditional problems since David Seaman retired continued: Green's woeful error was punished, but James, though competent when called upon in the must-win game against Slovenia, might have done better for the second and fourth German goals, and arguably should have reacted quicker to prevent their first, too. In defence, though their display against lowly Slovenia was also admirable, John Terry and Matthew Upson had no answer for Germany's attacking talent, whose prowess also left Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole hopelessly out of position on what seemed like countless occasions.

In midfield, Aaron Lennon struggled but was inexplicably replaced twice by unimpressive substitutes - Shaun Wright-Phillips has no doubt earned the last of his England caps, although Theo Walcott must be sunning himself somewhere, positively beaming - while Gareth Barry's lack of match practice showed alarmingly. Gerrard and Lampard, AGAIN, looked shadows of their club selves, and brought very little star quality into a midfield that consistently lacked energy, creativity and threat. James Milner showed glimpses of what may be a fruitful long-term England career, but Joe Cole's fleeting appearances were disappointingly ineffectual cameos.

Jermain Defoe looked lively against Slovenia and Germany and may just have done enough to earn a few more starting XI spots. Ignoring Emile Heskey, as Capello should have done from the start, that leaves Wayne Rooney.

Rooney looked like he played the tournament in a pair of bricks. His touch was barely there, his passing wayward and lacklustre, his goal threat non-existent. Something was wrong, whether it was the ball, an old injury, the long 50-game season spent single-handedly winning games for Manchester United or the pressure of similar expectations for his country. It would be hard to believe the pressure did get to him, given his consistency for club and country prior to the tournament, but one way or another, the magnificent and gifted footballer everyone knows just didn't show up.

Rooney will have another two, maybe three World Cups but by the end of 2010, the key quartet of Steven Gerrard, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard will all be the wrong side of 30. The England stars of tomorrow are few, far between and, where they do exist in players like Adam Johnson, Jack Wilshere, Jack Rodwell and Joe Hart, inexperienced. It's time for a shake up, and it may be some time before the dust settles on an England side capable of challenging at major tournaments.

For all the clear changes and difficult decisions needed, however, Capello cannot go just yet. He is, after all, responsible for galvanising this same squad who failed to even reach the Euro 2008 tournament, under Steve McLaren, to win nine out of ten World Cup qualifiers, and, with the right selections here on in, deserves the opportunity to lead England's Euro 2012 campaign. He has learned quicker than Sven, and will deal with better than McLaren, the massive media pressure that comes with heading the England national team, and with his undoubted pedigree and results delivered prior to this World Cup, should be given the chance to help English football turn this corner.

But right now, for those remaining talismen of England's Golden Generation, the greatest prize in world football will forever remain as tangible as the everyman's dream. It's a recurring dream that football players and football fans alike have had for 44 years, but on Sunday it was starkly and inescapably shown up for what it is. Now, a long-overdue wake up call is needed immediately to restore any faith in the future of English football.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Operator Please - Gloves

I’m not sure that everyone has been looking forward to Gloves, the follow up long-player from Australian racket Operator Please, as much as I have. Their brilliant and infectious debut was only mildly received on this site two years ago, but without doubt, the still gratingly young five-piece are an Aussie storm to be reckoned with – certainly live – proving themselves to be accomplished songwriters, with a catalogue of songs capable in the same breath of turns of genius and unrestrained fun.

It's interesting, then, that... more >>

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Short changed

Whatever happens for the rest of tonight, and over Friday, the frenzied final weeks of the election campaign have largely flattered to deceive. For all the bright yellow sunshine of the Liberal Democrats' false dawn, very little change has been seen - and is likely to be seen - to challenge the usual political suspects.

It's not really Nick Clegg's fault. Given a podium on national television three weeks in a row, the country warmed to the impassioned, reasoned and (frankly) MOR performance from the calm, clean cut new face of British politics. Three months ago, he wasn't even the foremost political party leader called Nick, and suddenly he was the second coming, the real alternative, the answer to years of Conservative and Labour gridlock.

For about 15 minutes. After Clegg's surprise popularity spike following the ITV debate - a bit like winning over undecided Sun readers - Cameron and Brown spent the next week drawing level with Clegg, offering him a seat at the top table, and then promptly dropped him from their gang the week after, when the two main party leaders locked horns in front of the biggest television audience yet.

And despite the continued public favour for Clegg and the Lib Dems, into the last week of campaigning the press followed Cameron and Brown instead, relentlessly. Unfortunate pictures of the Tory leader, unfortunate recordings of the Labour leader, it remained that Cameron and Brown drove the headlines, and spent the last days of the campaign prior to election day obliterating Nick Clegg's slowing hype-train.

What had given Clegg his spotlight was, it appeared, the sort of smooth-talking, persona-based party leadership that earned Cameron such derision not so many months before. All very well talking the talk, but where were the policies? It was on policy where Clegg lost his way in the third televised debate. His defence policy was attacked on all sides, his European stance washy. The immigration views, when pressed, was eyebrow-raising. A case of not enough, and much too late.

But the response at large to the familiar TV format - like a mix between The Weakest Link and Question Time - caused the overreaction. The glamour of the television screen, so instilled in American political history, yet so conflicting with the very different British system, widely misrepresented the strength of serious backing behind the Liberal Democrats that the impressed viewers seemed to be gushing forth. Anyone wholeheartedly convinced by the debates' influence over voter attitudes is going to be mightily let down come Friday morning.

As the night's gone on, the failure of the Lib Dems to obtain any ground on the major two parties augments the disappointingly small shift in the playing field at this election. While the hype surrounding 'Cleggmania' among the online column inches grew, none of it, it seems, has transferred into hard political evidence. And though the television debates may have engaged with a wider band of the electorate, increasing voter turnout and, it could be argued, furthering democracy, the only picture that remains now is one of slight confusion. The fresh start seemed a great idea in theory, but very little of it has been put into practice.

What change there is suggests a clear turn away from 13 years' hard Labour. It looks unlikely that there will be a majority victory for any party, but in the serious business of politics, the only shift worth checking will be just how wide a margin the Conservatives have gained over Labour. Their 'vote for change' campaign might be tainted by naysayers who affect to be unable to differentiate between the parties' policies, but by promoting future change, instead of warning of past problems, the Conservative party just might get their opportunity to start implementing it.

The Rebs launch debut album 'In A Heartbeat'

For a band whose star is in the ascendancy, The Brook in Southampton gives independently signed acts like The Rebs something of a natural pedestal on which to stand and survey their audience. The place is full to the rafters, literally, as the first floor balcony is jam-packed: eager locals ready to consume the Southampton band's invigorating indie/electro-pop songs. But the stage, you see, is raised a good five feet from the floor, forcing the crowd to gaze up at its occupants - whether they like it or not.

This is, you suspect, how The Rebs prefer it. They're no strangers to limelight, having come good in 2008's Road To V competition and opening the festival for Kaiser Chiefs, The Zutons and The Courteeners, and winning two Exposure Music Awards for Best Pop Song and Best Overall Song in the last 18 months. On first glance though, they're a curious bunch: guitar-wielding frontman Russell Edmonds is almost transatlantic in his good looks, as though forged at the height of Strokes and New York garage rock fever. The beaming bassist, Nader Rezaie, seems much more laid back with his elongated basslines and falling black locks, while Vicki Averre-Beeson hops about behind her Korgs, lost in the atmosphere and stabbing out synth melodies. Sticksman Sim Cracknell provides big bouncing rhythms, also wearing a large grin throughout the night.

The night's main event is to see The Rebs entertain, and they come out in buoyant mood, visibly excited to impress the crowd on this, their début album launch. Taking the unusual step of playing through the tracklisting in order, the crowd are treated to the full Rebs repertoire; the best of their blossoming catalogue causing some of the avid audience to break in to chants of 'Reb Army!'. The army deal, primarily, in thumping pop rock, the attitude of Edmonds's driving guitars balanced out by a series of knock-out choruses. Début single 'Don't Fool Yourself' is exemplary, a punchy mid-tempo affair that throws in the night's main foot-stamping, sing-a-long moment.

The Rebs appear to have taken their cues from that golden early to mid-00s period, their widescreen indie reminding of Hot Fuss-era Killers - see 'Superman' - and early Franz Ferdinand. Despite any misgivings that sentence may have just stirred in you, live, it still works, thanks to the full throttle treatment it gets from the confident foursome. Standout moment is the fast-paced 'Would I Remember', forceful but irresistibly catchy - perfect summer festival stuff - while sort of title track 'Always in a Heartbeat' spears numerous synth lines across a crashing rock backdrop to memorable effect. Even if it does draw comparisons with The Automatic.

What quickly becomes obvious is just how saturated the tracklist is with strong single potential. With a commendable motto on their MySpace - "Influences: artists with great songwriters - we like singles" - each song tries to pack in that classic sounding chorus, and most are successful. It's no mean feat building 11 songs to a fervent indie template, yet managing to produce almost as many pop choruses from the top shelf among them, and credit is due to The Rebs for this. A breather tonight, however, comes in the form of three acoustic tracks in succession, the band leaving Edmonds alone under the lights to amuse himself for 10 minutes. Not all of the acoustic numbers feature in the tracklisting, thankfully, but it's a disappointingly typical (or perhaps naive) début album tactic, including an obligatory 'quiet one', the supposedly introspective, deep track, and it doesn't quite sit with a band who for the main have canon of excellent songs that don't necessarily conform to the typical début album.

Nevertheless, tonight it's all about The Rebs collectively - an affirmation of their award-winning songwriting, the headrushing performance of their songs in the live arena; the strut of a band who've got something and believe they're ready to take it to the world. And if people start catching on, The Rebs just might come out on top.

Also avilable on God is in the TV

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Noisettes + support, Bournemouth 02 Academy, 24/2/2010

The Noisettes live are a very different prospect these days. Their incredibly well-received second album Wild Young Hearts was shorn of the rattling blues-punk that captured their enthusiastic spirit on (poorly-titled) first album What’s the Time, Mr Wolf?, but it gave rise to a slew of hit singles driven by the Mazda-sponsored success of ‘Don’t Upset the Rhythm (Go Baby Go)’ – a single so good, they squeezed both hooks into the title for good measure.

Before a quarter of tonight’s expectant crowd have drifted in though, more...

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

NME Awards Tour review

Nearly five years ago, my best friend from school sent me an almost indecipherable text message to say he was backstage at the NME Awards Tour and had just drunkenly introduced himself to Brandon Flowers. Back then, NME magazine were championing the best in what everyone still loosely accepted as rock, with perhaps indie leanings, and they were getting it pretty much right: on the line-up that evening were The Killers, Bloc Party, The Futureheads and Kaiser Chiefs. Three now globe-bestriding acts all starting to crack the path to success, and one bright star that would quickly burn itself up.

It is difficult to see many similarities five years on. More...

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Thrown to the Lions

Morris's return will reignite the debate about humour and taboo

Last week Billy Connelly, in his twilight years as a leading British comedian, stoked the flames of the old debate about the remit comedians have to push the boundaries of comedy, flirt around (or not) taboo subjects and advance ever further into the heart of dark humour.

Connelly was talking specifically about the outrage performers can invoke through swearing, which is rather self-serving given that the man can barely deliver a joke without punctuating every pause for breath with an obscenity, but personal taste aside, it was a timely, if moot, stirring up of the debate. One of the most divisive comedians and satirists of the last two decades Chris Morris returned to the public eye at Sundance, finally unveiling his latest work: a comedy about British jihadists. What else?

Morris, made infamous by his Brass Eye special (some nine years ago now, which itself was four years after the original series), still retains the mysterious, unflinching and publicity-shunning satirical edge that enveloped him during the fallout from the 'Paedophilia special', and has given his customary lack of media time to promote this début feature, his first major work since Channel 4 series Jam. Critics have already begun to advise who it will offend, though since showing at Sundance it has been largely well-received.

Many will look at Morris's film as just the latest in a line of controversial treatments of difficult subjects, given his history, but that is to discount Morris's acute contextual awareness. Terrorism, at home and abroad, has been a heated political, cultural, religious and social issue post 9/11*, but it has yet to be properly and overtly approached by humour, though it provides a decent source for stand up material. Britain's broad position on terror, from abhorring wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to harbouring concerns over Muslim schools, and the conflicting policy on religious preaching, has since the London attacks in July 2005 descended into increased confusion. Out of that, though, there is much humour to be found, reckons Chris Morris, and he's approached it from a particularly thorny and - following the failed plane bombing on Christmas Day 2009 by a London University-educated man - pertinent angle.

*(That said, there is a painfully funny 'Easter Egg' on The Day Today DVD whereby Morris conducts a telephone interview with Peter O'Hanarahanarahan, who should be covering a business conference taking place in the Twin Towers later that day (September 11th 2001) but quite clearly, it emerges, isn't there).

Does the subject's high profile in the media and penetration of cultural and political zones sanction, or indeed call for, a film being made specifically to raise a laugh? If a certain topic is capable of stirring up emotions such as anger, confusion, compassion, then why not humour also? If art imitates life - and Morris reveals that he was in part inspired by a report of a real failed terrorist attack - it is not to suggest that the imitation can only serve as a mirror and end there.

One of Morris's greatest skills to date has been holding that mirror up to an audience, warts and all, letting the eyes see and the brain disbelieve. It might forever be his albatross, but the hysterical fallout from Morris's Brass Eye 'Paedophile Special', a 'mockumentary' about hysterical fallouts to taboo like paedophilia, transcended the boundaries of satire, humour and social commentary with a peerless brilliance, exactly because it probed at something that was at the time the most controversial of subjects.

The difficulty, or genius, of this type of work is the way in which it is received. Politcial and media outlets dispense and encourage an accepted stance on contentious issues like terrorism, which becomes a stock and recognised view. The reaction to acts of terrorism, quite clearly, is one of shock and disgust. Sometimes outrage and war. But what happens when the issue is displaced, in two ways: by treatment from a different source, namely a film, book or even song lyric, and secondly, in a manner which deliberately contradicts what might be a 'generally-accepted' view?

Imagine this scenerio: a family and guests mourn the passing of a grandmother at a funeral service. As they go to leave they realise her husband, the grandfather, has died during the service. Aside from the morose real life reaction to this, consider the ironic comic possibilities were this a scene in a sketch show: discount for repeat customers, 2-for-1 coffin offer, loyalty card etc etc. This is the detached treatment that art's (un)limitation allows, for any subject matter going.

For a film, as a piece of art, is not limited by an audience or a market, nor by an overarching agenda - unlike the media or political arenas - it will find or make its own. (Whether or not it is then successful is a different matter). It is perhaps fair to say that a film is not and cannot be barred from touching certain subjects simply by its being.

It's more a question of the boundaries writers and performers like Chris Morris and Billy Connelly should or shouldn't impose, in the search to find new angles from which to approach topics, and even to find new topics themselves. Because the less interested in your work the audience is, the quicker it will fade and be forgotten about. And the key point is, for a film like Four Lions, 'interested' doesn't have to mean amused or impressed; it could just as well mean shocked, furious and upset.

But Morris hasn't simply made this film by sticking a number of touchy subjects to a dartboard and taking aim, in order to goad a reaction out from the typical Daily Mail reader. Firstly, while the issue is contentious, it is still 'on-topic' and as a piece of work slots into the current cultural context. Secondly, as a film, the treatment of British terrorists as a source of humour presents the interesting spectacle of whether it will even succeed in its intentions to make people laugh. Often, the closer to the bone, the bigger the risk - and the laugh. Morris is of course well of this, but even so, for a début commercial feature and his first major work in some time, it's a bold opening salvo.

But the third and most important point is that humour does not undermine or belittle that which it uses to raise laughs. Because as Morris himself says, terrorism matters. A film like Four Lions might treat it in a way which might be different, but that is not necessarily 'offensive'. If it makes people think about terrorism in a different way, exposes subtleties to the subject because of the unusual angle, then it serves a purpose of simply adding a voice, a side to the story, on a very broad, current, feared and often misunderstood topic. If Four Lions makes people roar with laughter, and it makes some of them think as well, then, really that's all there is to it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Nine for '09

It wasn’t the most vintage year of the Noughties, 2009 – it didn’t throw up heavyweight classics (despite releases from bands like U2, Muse and Green Day), its debutants were often too lightweight (La Roux, Empire of the Sun, Dan Black) and it failed to really settle on what was supposed to be the sound of the year.

(Except for the number one here, and everywhere: pretty much anybody who has ever acted on an urge to translate their feelings about a record into the written word agreed on this year’s best album.)

What 2009 seemed to suggest was the increasing closeness of the oft-perceived class war between mainstream and underground, popular appeal and critical acclaim. Nobody who had an ‘album of the year’ in 2009 made music that wasn’t too far out for Radio One or Jools Holland. Solo female electro artists like La Roux jostled for airplay with chillingly sparse guitar-soulers The XX, while French neo-pop artists Phoenix adorned television adverts and instrumental mind-melters Fuck Buttons got played on Top Gear.

All in all, 2009 seemed to say, when music got good, it was very good. Some of it is outlined in more detail below.


1. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
When Noah Lennox’s solo album Person Pitch – released under his moniker Panda Bear –romped home as an album of the year in 2007 (and more recently cropped up in many lists as an album of the decade), it served to turn a few more heads toward Lennox’s band ‘proper’, Animal Collective. Their late 2007 album Strawberry Jam was equally well received, but even then, despite that step up in visibility, few would have wagered on their next studio album being by some stretch the best thing to come out of anywhere this year.

But it was, and everyone from bloggers to newspapers to zines to David Letterman joined forces to proclaim, all but unreservedly, that the album of 2009 had been won just two weeks after the year had dawned. Perhaps the most pertinent note to support this is that when 2009 came to a close, no one had changed their mind. The reason? Its irresistible collage of synth loops, primal rhythms and ecstatic joy-infused vocal melodies was mind-expanding, life-affirming and simply the best music released in 2009.

2. Wild Beasts – Two Dancers
By contrast, Wild Beasts’ second album was the year’s laudable slow-burner. Released to decent critical acclaim in August, Two Dancers’ appeal grew stronger and brighter with each listen, as its elegance revealed more glistening musical nuances and turned up gloriously eloquent lyrics – not least when Hayden Thorpe proclaims delicately and menacingly, “Trousers and blouses make excellent sheets / down dimly lit streets”. Like a blood stain smattered across deep pure snow, Two Dancers was a case of beauty struggling to envelop a dark underbelly: a perfect – and timely – counterbalance to Animal Collective’s winning effort.

3. Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport
The boundless sense of ambition shared by the Fuck Buttons duo Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power manifested itself in wild, sprawling and at times plain awkward instrumentals on their debut, often exerting a sustained pressure of head-spinning soundscapes. With the follow up Tarot Sport, Hung and Power decided to uncork their ambitions further still, and yet somehow created frameworks in which their ideas and verve could work as ‘songs’. The insistent battering rhythm of ‘Surf Solar’, the climax of ‘Olympians’ and the hissing euphoria of album closer ‘Flight of the Feathered Serpent’ were just highlights from an extraordinary and unique sophomore album.

4. Florence and the Machine – Lungs
It was this time last year that everybody was getting very, very excited about a young Florence Welch. The flame-haired songstress was riding the crest of the hype wave, with storming live performances that hinted at greatness and singles that were, simply, ‘it’: that new sound that 2009 was going to be all about.

So it was to Florence’s great credit that Lungs turned out to be anything but that new sound. Explosive single “Kiss with a Fist” was lost among the embarrassment of gems on Lungs that wielded an unwavering power, presence and talent to the 22-year old. 12 fierce and passionate songs burned with Florence Welch’s voice, spilling reams of harp strings, not guitars, over everything, a cacophony of drums making and shaking Lungs’ foundations. Somehow, what came out the other side was a sound that was uniquely Florence’s (inspiring an infamous dressing-down from DiS), a different new sound that no one had really seen coming. Flo might have started the year as one of the BBC’s top sound for 2009 tips, and ended it with countless airplay time on Radio 1, but it was a success that her otherworldly debut record thoroughly merited.

5. The Mars Volta – Octahedron
Whatever it sounded like, The Mars Volta’s fifth LP in seven years was always going to land somewhere in this list for 2009. Having spent four albums expanding his band’s sonic palette to ever greater heights, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez came over all ‘acoustic’ on number five. The term was never expected to be more than tongue in cheek, but Octahedron’s eight tracks – bar, perhaps, the explosive ‘Cotapaxi’, whose climbing riff and intense wailing vocal wouldn’t have sounded out of place on previous album The Bedlam in Goliath – certainly took people by considerable surprise.

‘Since We’ve Been Wrong’, one of the band’s more inherent nods to Led Zeppelin, and ‘With Twilight as My Guide’ both flowed with barely a patter of drums, instead relying on layers of subtle guitar and a more natural use of Cedric Zavala-Bixler’s voice to focus the attention. Elsewhere, the restraint only increased quietly ferocious tracks ‘Teflon’ and ‘Desperate Graves’, the latter seeming to hint at a reference to Eriatarka, all the way back from their debut 2003. For purists, especially those who’ve still not forgiven Cedric and Omar for At The Drive-In ‘what ifs’, Octahedron was noticeably short on urgency and The Mars Volta’s usual psychedelic challenges, but its power and finesse came from a far more majestic, if softer, sound. New formula: same result for album number five.

6. Grammatics – Grammatics
The original foursome who released this gleaming debut back in February have, unfortunately, since jettisoned two members, including cellist Emilia, whose sweet string melodies and vocal harmonies combine to produce some of the album’s finest moments.

A grower, the self-titled LP was anything but guitar-driven, despite the band being fronted by ex-Colour of Fire man Owen Brinley His clever riffs and chords interplay with the cello lines, letting song structures ebb and flow, sometimes packed with intensity – especially Brinley's vocal histrionics – and sometimes allowed to simmer. Full of constantly surprising nuances and musical turns of phrase, on top of some striking rhythm work, Grammatics’ first record made for very affecting indie, grand with unbridled ambition but tempered by hints of pop. It’s a shame that half of the people who made this debut are no longer around to create the follow up. But in some ways, that just makes it an even more intriguing prospect.

7. Bombay Bicycle Club – I Had the Blues But I Shook Them Loose
When these youngsters burst onto my radar a couple of years ago, (ahem), their melodic, youthful output glimmered with promise, with one EP crafted and another equally exciting one soon to follow. 2009’s album delivered their great tunes, but with two years’ growing up, their sound had developed a broodier edge.

No longer were the vocals fragile and wide-eyed; instead Jack Steadman’s voice, while still quivering in places, seems to have been hardened by the tales of the love and loss told in the lyrics. Stronger, too, were the guitars – clever parallel melodies between two leading guitars, heavier chords and the occasional standout riff. With the tracks all in a similar vein genre-wise, yet each with its own individual flourishes and hooks, IHTBBISTL was something of a coming of age accomplishment. It was by no means an eyebrow-raiser, with several years’ hype weighing down in expectation, but it was perhaps the freshest sounding indie debut in the last year of the Noughties.

8. Arctic Monkeys – Humbug
Those Beatles comparisons refuse to die. Alex Turner, often half-hidden by his unruly, Lennon-esque mane and now, like Lennon, a resident of New York, may have toned down the bullish aggro that seemed a by-product of the Monkeys’ astronomical fame a couple of years back, but the music keeps on getting better.

Unlike their instant classic Whatever People Say... and its equally brilliant follow up Favourite Worst Nightmare, Humbug – introspective, moody, darker and, well, just slower – took a long time to truly give up its treasures. But when it did, Humbug evidenced some of Turner and Co’s’ greatest songs yet: ‘Crying Lightning’ built into their most well-rounded single to date and included Alex Turner’s fabulous storytelling at full strength (“You never looked like yourself from the side/but your profile could not hide/the fact you knew I was approaching your throne”), ‘Cornerstone’ was a simple slice of guitar pop, miles from the sharp punky singles from their first album. But it was elsewhere – the mysterious album closer ‘The Jeweller’s Hands’, the classic indie chorus of ‘Secret Door’, and ‘Fire and the Thud’, the shuffling, elegant George Harrison-like love song – that, over a few listens, posited the theory that after all the hype, the singles, the million-sellers, the awards, Arctic Monkeys’ third album Humbug was somehow their most impressive.

9. Passion Pit – Manners
When all the cool kids discovered Black Kids following their Wizard of Ahhhs EP at the end of 2007, and everyone else caught up six months later, they were supposed to be the brightest young things going, about to release a landmark debut. Instead, they released the Bernard Butler-produced, fun but musically pretty stagnant Partie Traumatic.

Manners, from Passion Pit, is the album Black Kids could (perhaps should) have made, full of joyous, bounding vocal melodies and eclectic electro sounds and visions. Its quirky synth lines fizzed with energy, sparking huge life into the sort of danceable indie that in other hands can so easily sound flat and false. Passion Pit instead were fresh, reinvigorating belief into a sound that was just starting to become a bit of a chore. With glorious choruses pouring in from all sides, songs like ‘Moth’s Wings’, ‘Sleepyhead’, ‘To Kingdom Come’, ‘The Reeling’, ‘Make Light’ and more soundtracked the year with uplifting dance anthems, making Manners a polite reminder of how well this genre can be done.

...and Nine more for 2009:

The XX – XX
Chillingly stripped back, quietly heart-stopping soulful dub-indie. Possibly a one-off.

Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Jumpy, buoyant and brilliant French indie-pop oozing with class.

Wavves – Wavvves
Scruffy surfer pop to soundtrack unshaven, hungover and slightly-angry-for-no-reason Sundays.

Sky Larkin – The Golden Spike
Scratchy awkward riffs and shouty female vocals from the Leeds three-piece.

Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More
Heartfelt folk with huge crossover appeal and uplifting soundscapes.

The Bird and The Bee – Ray Guns are Not the Future
Twee jazz-pop with added electronics, one of the most underrated albums this year.

Telegraphs – I Don’t Navigate By You
Outstanding British melodic rock with better choruses than Paramore and acute musical awareness.

Bat For Lashes – Two Suns
Powerful and epic, mystical and sometimes psychedelic, really it’s just good female pop and balladry.

Dent May and his Magnificent Ukulele – The Good Feeling Of...
Chirpy ‘50s throwbacks by a Costello-aping crooner and his “like a guitar but not a guitar” instrument. Worked.


Thursday, January 07, 2010

Strauss's men pass sternest test

From 4pm yesterday 'til 8.30am this morning, not many people would have given Andrew Strauss's men much hope of withstanding an entire day against a strong South African side, with their tails up, and with only seven wickets to last them. With less than an outside chance of England chasing down 466 - some 130 runs more than England's highest ever winning fourth innings chase - it was simply a case of how long England would last until the inevitable collapse.

And lesser sides - particularly some of England's, over the last 15 years or so - would have crumbled. At times, it had appeared that the collapse was just around the corner. When Trott and Anderson both went within 40 minutes of each in the morning session; when Paul Collingwood, after all his hard work had given England hope, was out quickly followed by Prior; and when Ian Bell, after 213 balls of intense pressure, left Graeme Swann and Graham Onions three overs to face against South Africa's pace attack, each time England looked doomed.

But Strauss's men have proven for the second time in South Africa what they are made of. Every man who batted for England on the final day of the test was heroic, from Anderson who faced 52 priceless balls to steady the ship at the start of the final day, to number 11 Graham Onions who might never be more proud to see his name next to a '0 Not Out'. Kudos go to Andrew Strauss and Alistair Cook too, for their 100 opening partnership on day four, without which the draw-clinching effort would not have stood a chance.

To Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell, though, go the biggest plaudits. Both spent over four hours at the crease each, guarding their wickets with their lives, not for personal glory - Collingwood made just 38 off 188 deliveries - but for the good of the team. Ian Bell, who despite having played over 50 test matches and scoring a stunning 142 in the previous match still gets the fiercest criticism, proved all his detractors wrong with a responsible and resilient 78 from 213 agonising deliveries, which alongside Collingwood's robust innings, proved to be a match-saving partnership.

Not that long ago, England's test cricketers would have been odds on to wilt in the intense heat of the South African sun, facing the intense pressure of saving a test match against a world class cricketing nation on their home patch. But this current England side is beginning to look nicely balanced, with world class players in every department and developing talents starting to flourish, and under the guidance of Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower, the winning mentality is beginning to grow brighter. England cannot lose the Test series in South Africa now, and a win in the final test next week for a 2-0 series victory would confirm England's as a re-emerging power in world Test cricket once again.