My Band of 2009…

As part of my work for the Under the Radar blog on the Scotsman website, I was asked to submit an article selecting my band of the year…

When the dark, mysterious powers behind UtR first suggested that each of us hacks pick a band of the year, I decided to let my iTunes play count decide it for me. So, Withered Hand it is then. Except, as phenomenal as Dan Willson is, it seemed too obvious.

So I looked to see who was second and found Meursault. Dear Lord, I am such an Edinburgh cliché. So I scrapped the preposterous iTunes notion and went back to searching around the disused back rooms of my mind.

After a mentally and sometimes physically painful deliberation, I decided the band who have given me the most enjoyment this year has been Glasgow’s How to Swim.

One key reason for this is that I hate being late to the party. I sometimes get there so late that the place is scattered with empty bottles and everyone has either gone home or crashed out.

With How to Swim, I was fairly punctual in my arrival at the metaphorical party. Not early exactly (the band have been playing in various forms since 2000), but early enough to make small talk in the hall about my job whilst glancing nervously towards the door to see if anyone else was going to turn up. How to Swim turned up and their live act is certainly something to treasure.

My affinity for the band is partly because I regard the 2005 It Stings When I EP as one of my finest ever random purchases. Then I lost my copy. But 2009 was the year a copy re-emerged to gift me joy in the form of Gregor Barclay’s haunting voice and the sinister imagery he creates. ‘There’s a Building There’ has to be my all time favourite stalker song.

The new material has also lived up to previous acclaim. Perhaps with the release of the album Retina, iTunes may well be able to pick my band of 2010. So, thanks to a combination of discovery and rediscovery, How to Swim have made me happier than any other band this year.

Leave a comment

Filed under Music Journalism

In the spotlight: Thomas Western

Some acts toil for years to make their mark. Others never manage to succeed no matter how hard they try. To their eternal frustration, it has taken singer-songwriterThomas Western less than a month to become the talk of the town.

Having moved from Derbyshire to Edinburgh for a spot of postgraduate study and musical adventure, Western’s first month was a whirlwind of activity. He got his first local radio appearance, had his EP in several shops, featured on some prominent blogs and managed to become ‘musician in residence’ at the capital’s much loved Bowery venue.

Not all of this was part of a master plan, as Western happily admits. On his serendipitous Bowery meeting after a Jesus H Foxx gig, he says: “I met Ruth who runs the place, and half-jokingly asked if I could play every week. She said yes”.

As part of the link-up, Western will also produce an album – another unique offshoot of the collaboration between performer and venue. “The plan is for me to write three songs each week to play, then to record and release them as an album at the end of it all”, he enthuses.

After starting out as a drummer, Western has moved on to solo work, although he admits he was “too scared for a long time”. But he says that this also acts as a spur: “In playing by myself I am totally accountable to myself and if the music isn’t good enough, then it is my responsibility to work harder at it”.

Western’s musical style is, at times, similar to the 1960s California folk scene epitomised by Tim Buckley – his vocal style is also not dissimilar, singing in octaves other artists would never dare attempt.

Citing his influences as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Will Oldham and Jeff Buckley, it’s easy to see where the inspiration has come from in tracks like ‘Plough’ and ‘Your Front Door’, the latter featuring on Western’s wonderfully homemade and packaged EP ‘Quite Early One Morning’. There is also something charming and old fashioned about finding a CD in a shop which appears to be made from paper and UHU glue, potentially falling apart at any moment.

Western plans to release a solo album in addition to his Bowery sessions album. Beyond that, he doesn’t rule out playing as part of a band again. “There is a joy to playing with other people that is lacking from solo performance, so I would really love to get an ensemble together at some point,” he says. “It is dependent on meeting the right people though.”

Given how much Thomas Western has achieved in the short time he has lived in Scotland, by this time next year he could be running the country, although surely he’s too honest for that.

Words: Stevie Kearney

Thomas Western’s EP is available from emusic and iTunes, as well as Avalanche in Edinburgh. His Bowery album will be released later this year and his first full solo album is due to be recorded in early 2010.

Leave a comment

Filed under Music Journalism

Sport & Drugs: Missing the Point

This article represents a very personal viewpoint and is more of a Newsmule editorial than a news article as such.  Please feel free to add your comments below.

The issue of drugs in sport is one which becomes ever more contentious as the methods of evasion become increasingly sophisticated.

The recent case in tennis, where Andre Agassi admitted to lying to drugs officials in 1997 about the circumstances under which Crystal Methamphetamine found its way into his system, has opened up the debate in a sport which was previously considered relatively clean.

agassi

Agassi was always one of tennis' most colourful characters

The most sane point amongst the needless hysteria and media clamour was made by Agassi himself, who noted that such a thing could not happen in tennis in 2009 as the regulations have been tightened significantly.

The issue was essentially that Agassi, as he admitted in his autobiography, had taken Crystal Meth for recreational purposes and immediately regretted it – well, one the comedown kicked in anyhow.  Up until that point it appears he had a phenomenal time.  When the presence of the drug was picked up in his sample, he told testing officials that his drink had been spiked by a member of his team and the member in question had since been fired.  This was a lie.

That was 12 years ago and nowadays taking the wrong cure for a common cold can potentially lead to a year long ban from competition, so lying really won’t cut it any more.

What followed this startling revelation by one of tennis’ all-time greats was a raft of media interest and all sorts of questions being raised. Legitimate questions were aired, such as ‘how many other players have escaped a ban by lying to cover their tracks?’ – pun intended.

Predictably though when drugs issues are involved, there were some preposterous questions posed.  Some pondered whether Agassi should be stripped of his honours as he had now exposed himself as a ‘drugs cheat’.

Now, pardon my trademark flippancy, but any competitor who can take Crystal Meth and still compete for Grand Slam prizes should probably be given some sort of extra award for his efforts and should certainly donate his body to science.

Crystal Meth has been known to cause paranoia, anxiety, irritability, heart palpitations, cardiovascular problems and psychosis.  These are hardly the types of symptoms one would wish for at match point down in the French Open final.

So whilst Agassi was hardly a regular user, having tried it and realised he was about to throw his career away, the issue does bring the attention to the difference between drug types and the notion that all those who fail drugs tests are by definition ‘cheats’.

Adrian_Mutu_2

Adrian Mutu has managed to re-launch his career in Italy since serving his lengthy ban

Agassi gained no performance advantage from his brief foray into Crystal Meth, but tried it due to external pressures.  When former Chelsea footballer Adrian Mutu was sacked by the Blues after he tested positive for cocaine, he had gained no performance advantage.  Indeed, living life on London’s cocaine party circuit is highly likely to have a severely detrimental effect on the performance of any top sportsperson.

Mutu was treated as if he was Ben Johnson or Dwain Chambers – men who deliberately used drugs to gain a performance advantage over their rivals.  Some have looked for Agassi to be treated the same way.  But surely there should be different rules for those who have what wider society knows as ‘a drug problem’, rather than pillorying them along in a similar manner to those who have sought to cheat their way to victory?

Prominent sports stars have an exaggerated list of temptations in front of them and have to perform in extremely high pressure environments.  How many of us have their disposable income?  How many of us have been attacked by members of the public because we had a poor day at work, or work for an unpopular company? Most of us don’t get screamed at by 60,000 people when we go to work.  This is a potentially explosive combination.

These sports stars are no different to the rest of us in their methods of dealing with pressure, no matter what we wish to think.  They are, by the virtue of their talent, foisted into the position of role models.  This is not something they choose, but something that comes with their exceptional abilities.

Those who have sought escape from these pressures, rather than an illegal competitive advantage, should be offered help.  Mutu was not only fired, but has to pay his former employer around £15m for his ‘breach of contract’.

If such stars are role models for youngsters, then what does such an inflexible and hard line approach teach those youngsters about compassion in society?  Sport does not exist in a bubble and its attitude towards those with drug problems should reflect the ways in which wider society wishes to address the problem.  If one of your loved ones had a cocaine problem, would you prefer they received punishment or treatment?

To suggest that Mutu should never be allowed to play professional football again is nearly as idiotic as the calls for Agassi to be retrospectively stripped of his titles.

All sports need to separate the two different types of drug taking and consider how cheats can be stopped, but also how young men and women under huge amounts of pressure can best be protected.

By failing in this respect, the governing bodies of various sports are also failing to protect those who make sport the great money making spectacle that allows officialdom to recline in self-satisfactory comfort.

2 Comments

Filed under Sport

Haye triumphs over ‘Goliath’ Valuev

British boxer David Haye became WBA heavyweight champion of the world last night despite breaking his left hand in his fight with 7 foot 2 inch Russian giant  Nikolia Valuev.

The ‘Haymaker’ won a majority decision despite facing a hostile German crowd, dominating former champ Nikolai Valuev, who he previously antagonised by describing as ‘a circus act’.

All bravado vanished as Haye began the fight in speculative fashion, dominating Valuev with a

Haye1

Haye faced a massive size difference, but ultimately triumphed against Valuev

clever performance of movement and jabbing; constantly keeping his massive opponent on the back foot and refusing to give him a steady target.

Haye dominated the early rounds against the 7′ 2″  Russian, who had never been knocked down in his previous 51 fights.  Much of his clever jabbing performance was actually down to a broken hand, which Haye sustained in the 2nd round.  From then on, he looked to out-manoeuvre his massive opponent with a series of jabs and weaves, never leaving his head exposed to the Russian’s potential knockout power.

Valuev looked to utilise his height and weight advantage through the middle rounds, but Haye managed to impress the judges sufficiently through his agression to take a decision 116-112 on two score cards, with the third judge scoring the contest level.

It was a fair reward for Haye who boxed a clever fight, possibly aided by his broken hand as he looked to out-smart his opponent rather than knock him out.  Haye almost became the first man to knock Valuev out, rocking the giant Russian in the closing rounds.

Ultimately, Haye was unable to deliver on his pre-fight promise of being the first man to knock Valuev out in his 51 fights, but it meant little as he took a deserved majority decision on the judges scorecards.

Haye becomes the first British Heavyweight champion since Lennox Lewis in 2003 and now has a mass of opportunities to consider.  He is now in a much stronger position to broker a fight with either Klitschko brother, after recent discussions broke down.

Whatever happens now, Haye can rightfully consider himself a bona-fide world chamion who the world boxing communtity will have to respect.  He has achieved a feat few thought him possible of, and deserves all his plaudits.

What the British boxing public deserve now is a heavyweight champion who can box on live television.  Hopefully the victory of David over Goliath will convince terrestrial broadcasters that boxing is a sport with a future and, more importantly, a potentially huge television audience.  That future is now safely in the hands of WBA Heavyweight Champion David Haye.

Leave a comment

Filed under Sport, Uncategorized

In the spotlight: The Colourful Band

Another of my pieces produced for the Scotsman.com’s Under The Radar site, this time on Edinburgh’s The Colourful Band.

Albums centred on a particular city can be tricky – they tend to exclude those unfamiliar with the locale in question.

But spread the scope of your songwriting across a few well known places and throw in some themes which will resonate with anyone and you have the potential for broader success.

Colourful EP

The Colourful EP

Step forward Ian McKelvie, a West coaster who moved East, spent a thoroughly miserable time in Fife and then settled happily in Edinburgh. He is the singer and songwriter behind The Colourful Band. And it is the historic capital city of our proud wee nation where the majority of the songs on The Colourful EP are based.

Although the band formed just a year ago, all three members have been friends for over a decade. The aim, according to McKelvie, is “really about trying to make a record with a little help from my friends”.

The EP, released earlier this year, features upbeat tales about life on ‘Easter Road’, late night festival shenanigans and reflections from abroad, including ‘Leavin’ New York’, which evokes the familiar feeling of being a stranger in a big city. Much of the writing comes from McKelvie’s ability to use travel and times of solitude as a departure point for inspiration and creativity.

“After graduating, I led a fairly solitary life for the best part of a year in a one horse town in Fife, living on my own and doing a job I wasn’t enjoying,” McKelvie recalls. “So the loneliness and isolation were kept out with the cold by playing and singing.”

After a chance encounter at an open mic night in Edinburgh’s Whistlebinkies, McKelvie was invited to play a venue in New York by an audience member who happened to own a bar in the Big Apple. “I never played his bar but I did play the open mic night at CBGB’s,” he says. “Standing on the corner of 113th and Broadway gave me the inspiration for the song ‘Leavin’ New York’. When I got back to Edinburgh I wrote the words down as soon as I got home.”

The sound of The Colourful Band is heavily influenced by folk music and a sense of place. “Folk songs tend to be written about people or places,” McKelvie notes. “So that’s why I often use my surroundings to inspire me, and sometimes it is cities, sometimes just situations. At the time of writing most of the songs for what would become The Colourful EP I was listening to a lot of folk music, and living in Edinburgh.”

With soothing, folky finger-picking, upbeat riffs and McKelvie’s voice as soft and comforting as velvet underwear, The Colourful Band have charm in abundance. For those of us stuck at home in these financially dark times, McKelvie’s music can do our travelling for us, whilst providing a timely reminder of why home is so special after all.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Music Journalism

In the Spotlight: My Tiny Robots

The latest in my series of profiles of Unsigned Scottish bands, as featured on The Scotsman’s Under the Radar blog.

Some bands appear to do everything right but, when the proverbial push comes to shove, fail to light up the stage. Thankfully, Edinburgh trio My Tiny Robots [MTR] are not one of these bands.

mytinyrobots

The Robots in the studio

Comprised of frontman Dylan Childs and multi-instrumentalists Ryan Marinello (also of Occasional Flickers fame) and Russell Williams, MTR illuminate the ear-canals with a forever sought but rarely captured trait: charisma.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Music Journalism

Album review: Micah P Hinson – All Dressed up and Smelling of Strangers

It would be fair to say a new Micah P Hinson album has the power to make or break my year.  Ever since I was lucky enough to pick up a copy of Baby and the Satellite on a whim around 4 years ago, the Texan singer’s crackling voice has provided the soundtrack to my life.  Those familiar with his work will agree, this makes me a miserable bastard, but I’m strangely comfortable with that description.

The album is Hinson's 5th, recorded in his hometown of Abilene, Texas

So it was with a great deal of intrigue that I greeted the news that his latest album, his 5th studio record, was to be a 2CD covers album.  I also worried a lot, as I tend to do, as an entire album of covers is not something many artists can pull off, possibly with the notable exception of Cat Power.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Music Journalism

Sport: Henin’s return vital for women’s tennis

Yesterday’s news that 7 times grand slam winner Justine Henin is set to return to the women’s tour from the start of next season may not have been entirely unexpected, but is certainly the latest sensational move to reinvigorate women’s tennis.

Having retired “for good” 18 months ago, citing personal reasons and a lack of willingness to compete, Henin has been working for UNICEF and running her own tennis academy.  During this time, the WTA tour has struggled with Williams domination of the grand slams, a flawed ranking system and inconsistency from many of its top stars. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Sport

In the spotlight – Small Town Boredom

Whilst not in the least way recommended as something to kick-start a party, Paisley based Small Town Boredom create the kind of music you immerse yourself in completely and experience on your own, preferably with a glass of whisky in your hand, possibly nursing a broken heart. Interruptions are not welcome. Sign on the door: Do Not Disturb.

Originally formed in 2001 by Fraser McGowan and Colin Morrison, their 2007 vinyl only release ‘Autumn Might Have Hope’ was an album so delicate in sound you find yourself taking extra care when placing it on the turntable, for fear it may fracture and all will be lost. Whilst barely rising above a whisper at any point, the impact is all the more profound for it. The overall feel is involving and introspective. As the band themselves put it, “Honest, if a touch depressing”.

One of Small Town Boredom's rare live performances

One of Small Town Boredom's rare live performances

What followed ‘Autumn Might Have Hope’ was a tour with the likes of Adrian Crawley and Eagleowl. The tour ended in burnout and proved to be the culmination of the sort of unfortunate personal demons that make such artists all the more compelling.

Thankfully, after a period of rest and reflection, STB have produced a new album. As with previous work, ‘Notes from the Infirmary’ has been lovingly made in a Paisley attic, “using computers, 8 tracks and Dictaphones”, with help from Richard Kengen on bass and Gordon Bartholomew on electric guitar.

Both permanent band members work full time as engineers and record in their spare time. “Personally I find making music very therapeutic, I can lose myself for hours each night in recording and mixing, that’s the stuff I enjoy”, says Fraser.

The inevitable fallout from the last tour is an unwillingness to delve too deeply into the music business. As Fraser is keen to point out, “Playing live and promoting what we do I hate, so we don’t do it that much. I think we will keep making music as long as we enjoy the process, if that ever goes I don’t think I would do it anymore”.

Perhaps strangely, for a West coast band, they are much more excited about the music scene in Edinburgh than Glasgow. “There is a lot of great stuff going on in Edinburgh just now. Bands such as Eagleowl, The Kays Lavelle, Withered Hand and The Leg for example, their music has affected me massively”, says Fraser. “I’m really not a big fan of the music scene in Glasgow; I think it’s completely overrated and most of the bands getting hype or press just now bore me”.

The new album continues where ‘Autumn Might Have Hope’ left off, with ‘Void Lighting’ a standout carefully crafted song of love and loss which immediately draws you in to their world with an understated intensity rarely heard since the Nine Inch Nails released ‘Hurt’. ‘World’s Most Unwanted’ dares to raise the tempo, building the vocals to a stunning finale.

Small Town Boredom have created something majestic with ‘Notes from the Infirmary’; a hushed masterpiece. They may not be too keen on promoting themselves, but Scotland has a band to shout about and their music deserves an audience. If this is the result of boredom, then it is time very well spent indeed.

Leave a comment

Filed under Music Journalism

In the spotlight – Withered Hand

“A triumph of invention over ability” said a review of Dan Willson’s early work with former band Peanut.

Well, no more, as his current incarnation, Withered Hand, starts to grow in stature. After his recent set on BBC 6Music, Withered Hand is hot property.

Now working as a solo singer/songwriter, with a little help from various friends for his live act (including members of Meursault, St. Jude’s Infirmary and eagleowl), Withered Hand has a new EP readied, entitled ‘You’re Not Alone’.

Dan Willson aka Withered Hand

Dan Willson aka Withered Hand

The record has been produced by Kenny Anderson of King Creosote fame and was recorded in a hall in the Fence folk hotbed of Anstruther. “For me, that is one of the biggest rewards of doing this, playing alongside friends and hearing my songs in a new light,” Willson says. The much anticipated debut album, aided by legendary American producer Kramer, is out in September.

At times painfully honest and introspective, Willson’s folk pop style marks him as an artist with a lot to say, and someone who manages to speak with a refreshing intelligence, placing him at the pinnacle of Edinburgh’s live music scene as a true must-see act.

Typically reclusive, fame now seems to be seeking Willson out, whether he wishes it or not. Sometimes talent wins out. Sighted last weekend in an impromptu performance alongside Meursault at the Meadows Festival, affectionately described by the aforementioned band’s lead singer Neil Pennycook as “ramshackle”, few would have realised the recent clamour surrounding the shy looking lad clutching a bag full of Gregg’s pasties, but Dan Willson is not your typical fame-seeking star.

2008’s Religious Songs EP gained Withered Hand wide ranging acclaim, but it was his early DIY records posted on the internet which led to him performing on the same bills as the likes of Frightened Rabbit, James Yorkston and Malcolm Middleton.

Based in Edinburgh for the last 13 years, Willson is quick to proclaim his love for the city, but admits to initially being “terrified of microphones”. Asked why he makes music, he states simply: “Because I can’t really stop. I have tried. It is my way of making sense of being here. I used to draw a lot more and now I write songs. I have to have some kind of creative outlet otherwise I’m hell to be around”.

Willson says that his songs are “really just the sound of somebody who never thought they could ever do this, playing within their limitations. I would describe my songs as just a collection of my thoughts, with melodies that probably occurred to me in the grocery store or cycling home, sung as best I can over a bunch of chords”.

With typical modesty, Willson describes his sound as something which comes from within: “Apart from that it’s all the same twelve notes over and over again, like everything else”.

But it’s really not just like anything else. It is the culmination of one of Scotland’s brightest singer/songwriter’s talents; thoughtful, refreshing and full of insight. The new album promises to be something well worth the wait. You may have problems avoiding Withered Hand in the near future. And quite rightly so.

1 Comment

Filed under Music Journalism