Saturday, May 26, 2012

Human Don't Be Angry: Arab Strap's Malcolm Middleton Charms With New Album (A Review)

You would never guess this was half of the duo that gave us "The First Big Weekend" and "Packs of Three".

No, this record is a pleasant surprise from Mr. Malcolm Middleton.

With help from Paul Savage, one-time drummer for The Delgados, Middleton has brought forth a strange but wondrous beast of a record. The self-titled effort from Human Don't Be Angry is a mix of instrumentals and vocal pieces, each anchored by Middleton's inventive, sometimes Bill Nelson-like guitar figures.

Keyboards, percolating drum ideas (both drum programming from Savage and live drums from Arab Strap mate Aidan Moffat are featured), and sinewy guitar work -- this is a pleasure for both casual fans and those who've always wanted to hear this guy do something a bit less...morose.

After the two-pronged instrumental lead-in of "The Missing Plutonium" and "H.D.B.A. Theme", Middleton starts the vocal work off with "First Person Singular, Present Tense" which is, perhaps as expected, a sort of upbeat take on old Strap numbers. There's a hint of Badly Drawn Boy here as well.

Still, Middleton has a way to modulate his tone a bit; he's not quite as emotional in his delivery as Damon Gough can be. But the multitracked vocals and Durutti Column-like shuffle of the cut are very affecting. Add in a SFA-style keyboard wail near the end of the cut and you've got a solid single here.

"After The Pleasuredome" is like Knoplfer on downers, it's "Brothers in Arms" as re-imagined by Barry Adamson. I'm being fanciful but the instrumental is the sound of the comedown, the guitar lines here peeling away in sad, slow runs, or sharing space with the keyboard moments.

"Monologue: River" with its sparkling keyboard figures, rolling drums, and calls to "roll down the river" is another languid, nearly Richard Thompson-like tune. It's sad, in a general way, but it's not morose like some of that Arab Strap stuff can be. No, it's pastoral, in a sense, and there's an echo of Van Morrison here -- 1980s Van the Man.

The influence of Vini Reilly and The Durutti Column is back on the galloping "Jaded" where the guitar and keyboards echo Arab Strap -- a tiny bit -- but also those Factory mainstays.

The sample-friendly "1985" comes next. The looping hook, the piano-and-keyboard lines, the general-but-slight upbeat vibe to the cut -- these all charm a listen and I couldn't help but think of The Blue Nile when playing this one. Scotland produces the best music sometimes!

"Askiipio" comes in on a wave of keyboards and guitar notes. Middleton's voice is a touch Ian Curtis here -- back in the mix, drum machine thumping near him. The song is intimate and direct, the production by Paul Savage inventive and retro all at once. A bell-like keyboard line comes in and the guitar stretches out into a moment or two of Fripp-like intensity. As Middleton sings "I'm coming your way", it sounds like a threat and a promise. The guitars and keyboards here echo so many things -- Cocteau Twins, Echo and the Bunnymen a bit -- but the end result is, perhaps, the strange, sad, and soaring highlight of the record.

Album closer "Getting Better (At Feeling Like Shit)" is -- great title aside -- a gentle nod to the old Arab Strap stuff and another thing entirely. It's a nearly blues-y workout with a finger-snap-like percussive sample in the background. Knopfler looms over this cut, from when Dire Straits were not so shit and not so dad rock.

The final cut unfurls, an organ-like keyboard lulls a listener into a sense of comfort and the album ends.

Human Don't Be Angry is both a nod to the past and a look forward. Malcolm Middleton has created an intimate album that doesn't feel too heavy. It's its own genre. It's both lo-fi and well produced. The record charms, soothes, and stirs the heart.

While not entirely the clean break from the Arab Strap days that that jaunty cover would imply, Human Don't Be Angry by Malcolm Middleton works as a standalone record that's sure to please Strap fans and newer listeners.

Follow Malcolm Middleton on his website:

And on the Chemikal Underground label:

New Pulco Album: A Review Of Man Of Lists

I daresay Ashley Cooke is a man who makes musical lists -- lists of tunes, titles, ideas, snippets, pieces, and bits to string together to create marvelous pop that pops.

Wildly prolific and consistently inventive, the one-time Derrero leader is at it again. Man of Lists, out on or about 18 June 2012 on Folkwit Records, is a collection of collaborations with various artists. It's a sort of spoken word exercise but also an experiment in risk-taking. By working with so many musicians to produce these cuts, Ashley Cooke has somehow strengthened his own point of view as an artist. No matter what sonic background bobs-and-weaves behind him, Ash is consistent. This is a new kind of recording.

It's the supergroup by (e)mail. It's a digital "We Are The World" in the land of indie rock.

How do I approach this? Do I go track-by-track and carefully spout-off about each tune?

No. That wouldn't quite suit this. I like to think of how difficult it might have been to assemble all the pieces that make up this record so I'm going to go through it in my review in a sort of haphazard fashion and hope that something coherent results.

It's worth noting that Ashley Cooke's spoken word bits are, more or less, fragments of poetry -- mini-poems in some spots -- and, at first, the juxtaposition between his vocals and the more expansive music behind him is odd. But that semi-disconnect charms. I hope that Cooke keeps making music for years and years to come but this record sort of feels like one of those posthumous records from some dead bloke! Man of Lists feels like leftover vocals that other musicians shaped into focus.

Still, I don't want to make this record sound sloppy or anything. What I'm really trying to work out is how the contrast in each tune ends up giving the cuts focus. That contrast -- lo-fi and intimate vocals and carefully recorded music -- makes the record sound like the world's best mix-tape...with the same bloke doing the lead vocals on each song!

There are 25 cuts on this record and they veer from the Squarepusher-like bleeps-and-blips of "Vital Signs", a collaboration with Scotland's Unexpected Bowtie, to the acoustic and spring-like -- cue birds chirping! -- "Biro by the Sofa", with Butcher's Prime Cuts.

(Psst! I'll let you in on a secret: that's Nick Butcher, head of Folkwit Records!)

Butcher and Cooke team-up a few times on the record, including the Tom Waits-meets-Holger Czukay "Boony Capers" -- atmospherics plus a whiff of Waits' "Trouble's Braids".

The funky and ACR-like "Cabin Fever" rushes by on basslines from Ian Thistlethwaite. The cut is one of the highlights of Man of Lists and it hearkens back to some pre-C86 era in U.K. rock, when pasty white Brits were not afraid to be a tiny bit funky.

Thistlethwaite is back on "Chips in the Rain" where Cooke's humorous lyrics are set against music that echoes both Yello and that first Lilac Time record -- no mean feat!

And, as can be expected, the cuts with the always entertaining Adam Leonard are the little triumphs of this record -- "Oxbow Lake" soars and "Opportunities with Music" casts a slightly sinister spell.

The cuts with electronic wizard Snippet are uniformly good as well -- "Chunk of Blue" with its bells and voices and warm keyboards is a delight!

The record closes with the downright hilarious "Cover Version for the American Market". As a Yank from the land of extraordinarily thick music listeners, I take no offense at the song. It's quite funny, accurate, and speaks to the gulf between the hip and the clueless. Very good indeed.

I haven't done a good job of thinking and writing of Man of Lists as a whole.

But maybe there's no point? Maybe the point of this record is that moments matter? In that sense, this is Cooke's masterpiece. He's spent his post-Derrero years making music in Wales, usually by himself. He's perfected the art of lo-fi indie and the results are always warm and human and charming. Now, he's taken that form to the next level.

This monster of a record -- nearly 25 collaborations -- succeeds on the variety of styles here. You could almost shuffle the track order here and get a new record, a new sense of joy as a listener, a fresh take on this freshest of spins.

Man of Lists is a project and a grab-bag. It's a set of ideas. Listen to 1 or 2 cuts, listen to another 10, or listen to all 25 in one sitting, and the music will work. Each song stands on its own or works as another chapter in this journal of lyrical and tuneful ideas.

Raised on a steady diet of serious rock writers extolling the glories of concept albums, I got bored and came to regard the vinyl 45 as the greatest of art forms; give me a scratchy 45 of "I Can See For Miles" over Tommy.

Long albums are great but the tunes have to work on their own. These do. These are little gems of exactly how to do lo-fi.

Ashley Cooke has found his calling in the musical world. Now tell your friends and get this record.

The Beatles famously cribbed from the Tao Te Ching to sing: "Without going out of my door, I can know all things on earth".

Ash has taken that lyric to heart. Let him stay in his home studio if he can "collaborate" in such a lively fashion as he does on the 25 cuts on Man of Lists.

Man of Lists is out on 18 June 2012 on Folkwit Records.

Follow Pulco on the relatively new Pulco website:

Or on Bandcamp here:

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Fantastic Four And The 8-Year-Old Me

I got this comic book when I was 8. I think at the time I didn't quite realize that it was a reprint of an earlier issue -- Fantastic Four Annual 5 -- but it remained one of my favorite issues as a kid.

I got it on a Saturday and, like quite a few Saturdays in that era, the evening went like this: I went to my biological father's apartment -- my parents were divorced by then -- watched "The Odd Couple" on Channel 5 -- repeats were on near 11:00 PM, I think -- and then I watched some monster movie on Channel 20 from D.C. or on Channel 45 from Baltimore.

My father had stopped drinking by then but he took a lot of sleeping pills and other prescription drugs so I'm positive that he was passed out way before 11:00 PM.

Don't feel too sorry for me; with him asleep, I could enjoy TV and Jack Kirby for as long as I wanted to.

The plot of the issue is not nearly as important as the artwork. At some point in the 1960s, Jack Kirby got more cosmic and he really cut loose. This issue is not quite as freewheeling as stuff he'd do later but in the bits with the Inhumans and Psychoman, it's pretty wild.

Oddly, the Fantastic Four are not in this issue too much but the guest shot from The Black Panther is a nice diversion. And The Inhumans, as drawn by Jack Kirby, were always an odd thrill. I can vividly remember wondering about these characters -- who they were, where they came from -- and being pretty intrigued by silent leader Black Bolt.

It's funny what you remember but I can vividly remember reading and re-reading this issue that night as the TV blared and Dad snored.

This may have been the moment when the name "Jack Kirby" clicked and I started to look for more of his stuff.

Free MP3 From Six Organs Of Admittance

I know that Six Organs of Admittance gets pegged as some sort of folk-y act but that's not what you're going to hear on this free MP3.

No, "Waswasa" rocks like old Neil Young. This is a ferocious guitar workout and a nice taste of what we can expect on the upcoming Ascent album, out in August on Drag City.

For now, follow Six Organs of Admittance on their website:

Or on their Drag City Records page here.

Download "Waswasa" here

An Enduring Memory Of An Eighties Adolescence

If you were a teenage boy in the early 1980s, I think that you'll enjoy this picture.

When I was 13 or 14, the Landers sisters seemed dangerously sexy; I'd get embarrassed when one of them would show up on "The Love Boat" when my parents were in the room because, suddenly, I'd feel like i was turning into the Wolfman. The sisters were just that hot to me as a 14-year-old.

Now, they seem almost quaint and innocent.

I guess in the days before cable TV and the Internet, when a young boy would be starved for images like this, they seemed so much more alluring.

And in case you were wondering: I always preferred Judy Landers.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Royal Headache Drop Video For "Girls"

These guys just do it for me. I mean, they really just manage to capture a punky and poppy energy that I can't quite define. There was this obscure band on Geffen about 15 years ago called Hunk and Royal Headache remind me a tiny bit of them.

The Royal Headache album is out now on What's Your Rupture? and I urge you to get it. Buzzcocks-meet-Green Day? I don't know what to say about the record. It's just a helluva listen and a lot of fun.

"Girls" is one of the shorter cuts on the record but it charms even as its power-punk blast punches you in the gut. Dig it below.

The guys are hitting the US for a tour now. Details can be found on their Facebook page.

"Girls" from Royal Headache

Monday, May 14, 2012

Download B-Side From 2:54 Here!

Their full length album will be out on Fiction Records in a matter of weeks but here's a free download for you of 2:54's B-side "The March" -- check it out below!

Expect to see more posts about 2:54 in the future as I thoroughly enjoy this band. This cut recalls the better moments of -- oddly -- Berlin before they got all poppy.

This is an insinuating and sexy cut that's a bit less obviously electronic than other 2:54 tracks -- dig that Tom Verlaine-esque guitar spiral!

Follow the band on their Facebook page:

Sunday, May 13, 2012

3 Tunes From Sydney's Fantastic Royal Headache

I slept on this one, folks.

Somehow my radar didn't go off on this one and now the album's already out -- on What's Your Rupture?

Sydney's Royal Headache create buzzing power-pop with a few punk touches. It's part Superchunk and part Dischord and part...soul band?

Whatever it is, it's fantastic. Royal Headache are frighteningly good and the album cranks along with the sort of live-in-the-studio sound rarely heard these days.

Energy + passion + hooks + brevity = Royal Headache.

Follow the band on Facebook here

Or on What's Your Rupture?

Download "Girls" from Royal Headache here

Grass Widow Drop Internal Logic: A Review Of The Record

What a pleasant and persistent surprise this record is!

Internal Logic, out 22 May on HLR Records, is a hypnotic and propulsive little record. San Francisco trio Grass Widow may have invented a new genre of music.

Frankly, I don't know how to peg this stuff. There's a hint of Lush but there's no way that Grass Widow are shoegaze revivialists. There's a touch of early Stereolab but also so much more here. The songs pop and surge and ride away on those glorious harmonies. It's like some unholy mix of Breeders, early Talking Heads, and a tiny bit of vocal harmonies from the ladies in The B-52's.

Lead track "Goldilocks Zone" pops along like Toenut -- remember that Mute Records band? -- and remains catchy and a touch abrasive, albeit in a nice way.

"Disappearing Industries" has a hint of The Bangles in those harmonies -- gasp! did I really say that? -- but the twitchy guitar recalls earlier bands like Talking Heads, or Pylon, or early R.E.M., even. And the cut surges and soars along with the drums and bass sounding a tiny bit like those dudes in Joy Division.

The music here is so nicely different that it's hard to pinpoint exactly what is going on.

Following the instrumental interlude of "A Light in the Static", we get the Fall-meets-Blake Babies "Spock on Muni". The song owes a debt to the work of bands like The Raincoats but it is, like most of Internal Logic, remarkably more thought-out and less spacious than the work of those earlier UK pioneers. Things never veer completely off-the-rails here. The surf-rock guitar and the bass work keep things moving forward. With a hint of that final Pixies album, the cut is a twangy little masterpiece -- one of the stand-out cuts on this record.

From the poppy and percolating "Advice" to The Shaggs-like "Whistling in the Dark", the tunes on Internal Logic keep captivating. This is a charming record that's equal parts art rock and (nearly) smooth Roches-like pop. What a strange and surreal mix the ladies in Grass Widow have concocted.

I can only imagine how good these cuts will sound when performed live by Grass Widow. The playing here is tight -- almost funky -- and The Jesus and Mary Chain-esque guitar moments never overwhelm the tunes. Things are held in check even as they rocket along at a dangerous clip.

Follow Grass Widow on their website:

And follow them on their label:
HLR Records

Internal Logic will be out on 22 May 2012. Get it. Dig it.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Play New Cheatahs Tracks Here

Riding in on a roar of surf-guitars -- the sound of Ride trying to play an old Pixies tune -- Cheatahs brings us "Coared". Should I tell you that Cheatahs features a guy from Male Bonding? Does that matter?

The 4 cuts on their upcoming EP are all magnificent slices of sorta-shoegaze-y/sorta-C86-style goodness with a hint of Swervedriver and a lot of pop sense.

Follow Cheatahs on Facebook here.

The EP will be out on Marshall Teller Records in June. Use that link to pre-order the sucker.

Cheatahs have a pretty barebones Tumblr site which is here.

Play "Coared" below.

CHEATAHS - COARED by Marshall Teller Records

Thursday, May 10, 2012

I Rode A Taxi From Kwun Tong To Olympian City To See A Sean Lau Movie!?!

I know my coworkers think I'm crazy.

I'm not going to divulge a lot about my job but I'm an editor in Kwun Tong. Let's leave it at that.

I'm also the only American at my company.

So there's something funny to my local coworkers about a big, white, fat, non-Cantonese-speaking American paying $92HKD to ride a taxi to see a crappy local film tonight.

My coworkers sometimes seem perplexed that I'm so devoted -- not really as much anymore -- to Hong Kong cinema.

But the films of this city are what drew me here in the first place.

And even if the films, and the city, sometimes let me down, I'm loyal.

The Gang of Film reconvened after a spring hiatus to see Danny Pang's Fairy Tale Killer (2012).

(Hey, remember when seeing the name of a Pang Brother on a title card made you get excited as a viewer? When was that? What decade?)

The less said about the film, the better. Interestingly, in the English credits it said "Sean Lau" instead of "Lau Ching-Wan" -- I haven't seen his name written that way since before I really knew who he was. The film is crap. It's strictly a student film-type of affair, full of noise and camera trickery signifying nothing. It's a class in mid-1990s MTV-style effects with little pay-off.

I'll let the professionals in The Gang of Film write about the title. Good luck with that.

Still, $92HKD taxi ride or not, it was nice to get the band back together and do our collective duty. And while the ticket counter looks deserted in that picture below, the house at Olympian City was probably half-full which is is not too bad for a local film on opening night here.

Lau Ching-Wan -- Sean Lau -- fans, or Pang Brothers junkies, or kids desperate for a few jolts?

Or just old HK films fans jones-ing for a few reminders of the great works of cinema to come out of this city?

Keep waiting. Fairy Tale Killer (2012) is crap.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Lovely New Tune From France's Melody's Echo Chamber

Remember in the early 1990s how Cocteau Twins morphed into something more direct? Something still elusive but somehow more precise?

That's the sound here from Melody's Echo Chamber.

Add in some Broadcast and you've got one of the most sonically pleasing tunes I've heard in weeks.

For now, follow Melody's Echo Chamber on Facebook:

Melody's Echo Chamber - "Crystallized" by FatPossum

Sunday, May 6, 2012

America Get With The Program: KFC Has Breakfast Here

One of the perennial hits-getters -- is that a word? -- for this blog is this post on KFC breakfast in Hong Kong. Guess what? They still have it. Now it's sanctioned by Spider-Man, apparently. All that awful goodness for only $4USD.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

My First Visit To The Doctor's In Hong Kong (And It Was On Lamma)

I've been taking blood pressure medicine for 20 years now because I'm a nervous fat-ass, to put it bluntly. I don't smoke, and I don't really drink, so my condition is the result of heredity and a bad diet of junk food.

My life in Hong Kong this year seems to be a series of firsts, little milestones like getting my Hong Kong I.D. card, getting my first real apartment in Hong Kong, and so on, and today's doctor visit was another first and a matter of some urgency: I am running out of my blood pressure medicine and those dispensaries don't seem to have it.

(They do, however, have almost everything else you would want and there is no need to go to a doctor here if you just want an antibiotic, for example.)

Today marked the first time I have ever been to a doctor's office in Hong Kong. I went to the North Lamma clinic -- up there in the picture to the right -- and it was a painless experience.

Frankly, it's almost like time stopped in that place. Things were so laid-back that I couldn't but help and think of that Michael J. Fox movie Doc Hollywood (1991).

Anyway, it was easy and I was in-and-out, prescription in hand, in a matter of minutes.

The total cost for the visit was about $45HKD which is about $6USD, or about the cost of 2 McDonald's meals here. And that's without health insurance.

Some things are better here.

That picture above is a shot of my portable "medical records" folder. I am to take that with me whenever I visit a health clinic, or hospital, here.

I don't have to sneak-a-peek at my chart, or steal it, like Elaine did in that episode of "Seinfeld" with Kramer in tow as Dr. Van Nostrum!

This is the Tin Hau temple near the clinic. Those lions (?) are impressive.

Finally, some dim sum for breakfast/lunch at Sampan Seafood Restaurant, the place I visited on my first visit to Lamma back in 2009. And it's the same place that Anthony Bourdain visited recently in his new series, "The Layover".

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Play Magnificent New Single From 2:54 Here

Creeping, indeed.

The new single from London's 2:54 may quite possibly be their best song yet.

There's a snarl-and-purr here worthy of Chrissie Hynde, a touch of slowed-down Elastica, and even a hint of Aimee Mann! Just a sinister and lovely, ominous and sexy tune!

"Creeping" will be out on 18 June from Fiction Records.

2:54 are going out on the road for more tour dates, including support slots for The xx.

Follow the band on their Facebook page:

2:54 - Creeping by 2:54 Band

Free Music from London's Victor Talking Machine

Here goes the obligatory name-check of influences that make up the sound of Victor Talking Machine: The Telescopes, A.R. Kane, early Primal Scream, maybe a touch of Longpigs, and so on.

But, hell, who cares? This sound is a sugar-rush, an injection of some familiar junk into a (pop) junkie's old-ass arm.

For all those bands trying to recapture the glories of the class of 1989: this is how you do it!

Bringing a unique POV on those perennial indie touchstones, Victor Talking Machine create some big tunes that feel intimate.

Dig how "Tuscany" goes from Nirvana-esque growler in that intro to a soaring Ash-like anthem in the swirling chorus.

The grinding "Sarah Laughs", available to download below, is more early Telescopes, that world-ending churn and then the stomp of pop glory!

The band is new to me but I am seriously on-board. They are working with producer Marc Waterman (Ride, Elastica) and I can't wait to hear what comes next.

Set the controls for the heart of the indie pop-sun, fellas!

Follow Victor Talking Machine on Facebook:

Victor Talking Machine on Facebook

Play and Download "Sarah Laughs" by Victor Talking Machine Here Sarah Laughs by Victor Talking Machine

Play "Tuscany" Here and Watch The Video Below! Tuscany by Victor Talking Machine

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Some Thoughts On The Avengers (2012)

What does it say about my schedule here that I only now -- on the Tuesday after its release -- saw The Avengers (2012)?

Every scenario last Wednesday, when midnight showings began here in Hong Kong prior to the 26 April release, involved less than 3 hours of sleep for me. As I live on Lamma Island, any midnight screening is going to mean that I miss the last ferry home. So any post-midnight adventure would have involved a hotel room, a lack of sleep, and possibly a taxi ride. And I had to work the next morning.

Consequently, my fanboy tendencies lost out to my working adult tendencies last Wednesday night.

So I finally saw The Avengers (2012) tonight and I'm glad I waited as I was able to see it in 2D at a nice theater in Kowloon Bay.

The film is good but I felt a tiny bit underwhelmed after the hype -- my own included.

Don't get me wrong; The Avengers (2012) is a rollicking good time at the cinema and a very bright, upbeat, and refreshing antidote to those dark Nolan Batman films.

Still, it felt like a prequel to itself in some ways.

Marvel seems so intent at creating new franchises on film that they seem to be holding back in some ways -- not too many heroes in one film, gradual build-up, villains that don't overwhelm a viewer, and so on.

Without revealing any spoilers, I'll just comment in general terms here.

Tom Hiddleston is much more effective as Loki here than in last year's Thor. Or could it be that the character is more expertly handled this time around?

Jeremy Renner is a decent Hawkeye but the lack of a mask still distracted me. And Hawkeye here seemed a bit lifeless. Where was the annoying jerk from the comics?

Scarlett Johansson was okay as Black Widow. Her Russian past is acknowledged but no mention is made of her lack of a Russian accent.

Samuel L. Jackson was good, as he always is. But Mark Ruffalo's take on Bruce Banner was a revelation. Ruffalo found some new spin on the Banner/Hulk duality that it's hard to describe.

Robert Downey, Jr., is having way too much fun as Tony Stark but that fun seemed to fit the character. After all, Stark is an outed superhero and a genius and a millionaire; of course he's sometimes a self-centered, smug jerk.

And Chris Evans seems to have made Steve Rogers more mature. Captain America is more of a born leader here and I appreciated that faithful take on the character. There is a hint of Steve's suffering as a man displaced from his era but I'm guessing that that sort of thing will be explored more fully in the next Captain America film.

I felt that weird mix of homesickness and pride again as I heard Captain America deliver some command to the NYPD as I sat in that theater in Hong Kong, thousands of miles from home.

The Avengers (2012) isn't perfect but if I judge what was on the screen, I give it high marks. My nitpicking and misgivings all spring from a perspective of what was not included in the film.

It's been nearly 40 years since I purchased my first Avengers comic -- the one below is one of the earliest issues I remember buying, though I already knew Iron Man and Captain America from other Marvel titles -- and I am still a bit stunned that so much greatness ended up on the screen.

Let's face it, Marvel fans: 90% of what any Avengers fan would want to see is on the screen in this film. We just have to wait for the sequel to see the other 10%.