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Beerjacket Revisited

Another of my articles for the Scotsman’s Under the Radar blog.
Since we last visited west coast singer/songwriter Peter Kelly, his Beerjacket bandwagon has been steadily gaining converts on both sides of the Atlantic.

After achieving critical acclaim with his album Animosity, Kelly admits his biggest challenge has been writing material which betters his previous oevre.

“I had horrendous writer’s block and have only just stopped banging my head off the wall. No matter how many times you experience writer’s block, you always think that, this time, you are absolutely finished and will never write another song,” Kelly tells us.

At one stage, there were no live shows for several months and only one song – ‘Island’ – written in the second half of 2009. Kelly even scrapped all his new work in frustration. “However, I then discovered most of what I’d written was great and it was me that wasn’t up to standard,” he says.

Thankfully, Beerjacket is now back doing what he does best.

“Things are now going really well and I’m excited by what I’m producing. I’m starting to piece together the jigsaw of my next record,” he adds.

As a solo artist, Kelly creates introspective songs full of emotion and wonder – this is the essence of his singular vision. But he is still asked about plans to add new members to Beerjacket.

His response? “People never ask bands the opposite – do you plan on losing anyone? Likewise, people never ask a policeman, ‘why are you not a chef’?”

Kelly’s perfectionism may well be the root of his periods of creative insecurity, but it’s reassuring to know that compromise is not on the agenda. When his new work begins to emerge, the benefits of his single-minded approach should be clear for all to hear.

Beerjacket’s next live show – his first in seven months – takes place at Oran Mor, Glasgow on 18 June.

• Beerjacket on MySpace
• Beerjacket on Last FM
• Beerjacket on Twitter
• Beerjacket on Bandcamp

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Withered Hand interview…

The following article was posted as part of my work for the Scotsman.com site Under the Radar…
In our profile article last June, we predicted Dan Willson’s Withered Hand was set for big things. Sure enough, the last ten months have completely redefined success for the Edinburgh-based father of two.

Good News, his debut album, was released on SL Records to considerable acclaim, leading to a whirlwind of activity; even Willson describes himself as “almost too busy”.

He has only just returned from an exhausting 15-stop European tour supporting Icelandic marvel Benni Hemm Hemm, and while his travels took Withered Hand to new audiences across the continent, it also resulted in some oddly humbling moments.

“Apart from being generally very well received, I was totally amazed to meet a handful of people at the shows who already had my records and knew the words to my songs,” Willson says.

Ever loyal to his Fence Collective friends, he describes Homegame as the “highlight of every year, surely”.

Depending on the availability of his musical friends, Withered Hand can be a solo act or a large band ensemble. The turn of the year saw a sold-out UK solo tour, supplemented by an invitation from King Creosote to play at one of his London shows.

As for new material, Willson is approching it at his own pace: “I have more songs that nobody has heard but I need time and space to finish them and then time to decide how they exist in relation to the band set-up. And I don’t have lots of time and space right now.”

Looking forward, there are even more enticing events in store, as Willson plays his “biggest solo show to date” as the special guest of Canada’s mesmerising Woodpigeon at London’s Union Chapel this Thursday (6 May).

Summer dates include Tigerfest in Dunfermline (21 May) and the Wickerman festival (23 & 24 July), as well as an appearance at the World Ceilidh in Knockengorrach at the end of this month.

First things first though… Willson has an entire European tour’s worth of sleep to catch up on.

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My top 10 albums of 2009: Part 2 – The top 5

Following on from the previous post, here are the final five selections in my list of the top 10 albums of the last year, in descending order…

5) J. Tillman – Vacilando Territory Blues

More west coast americana here, this time from Seattle’s husky voiced Fleet Fox member J (Joshua) Tillman.  Vacilando Territory Blues sees him in typically thoughtful form, with the track ‘James Blues’ an example of his piano and guitar backed husky storytelling style.  ‘First Born’ is another treat on this album, which was one of two released in the last year and which peaked at just #191 in the UK album charts.

This album is patient, delicate and if you loved Bon Iver in 2007 but have been disappointed by his subsequent work, then Tillman’s your man.

4) Micah P Hinson – All Dressed Up and Smelling of Strangers

Hinson’s aching, cracked voice on swooping string backings have long since won me over.  My Fresh Air radio show and associated podcasts almost turned into a one man homage to the Texan with enough angst in his soul to make me cry.  This year though, he decided to release a double CD covers record, which I anticipated and worried about in equal measure.  Covers records are fraught with danger and I can think of very few which are actually any good.  However, in Hinson we trust…

The result was a mixed press, with many of my fellow bloggers panning the record, with his cover of George Harrison’s ‘While my guitar gently weeps’ coming in a for particularly hostile reception.  For me though, Hinson succeeds because he makes the tracks his own, rather than attempting to out-do the original.  He shows respect to the original recordings and selected them because they are songs he loves.  His cover of John Denver’s ‘This old guitar’ is my pick of the lot.  Covers albums will always be divisive and I would rather have seen an album of original Hinson material.  Still though, it is bloody good.

3) The Low Anthem – Oh my God, Charlie Darwin

A fairly new addition to my record collection, ‘Oh my God, Charlie Darwin’ has barely left the CD player since its arrival.  Incidentally, I don’t really like the title track or the album’s centrepiece ‘To Ohio’ (which the band seem to like enough for it to appear twice on the record), but once these two opening tracks are over, the US alt. folk trio’s album comes into its own with the superb Cohen-esque ‘Ticket Taker’.  There are more than a few nods to Tom Waits too, with ‘Home I’ll never be’ giving the writing credit to Tom Waits and Jack Kerouac (him again).

This album harks back to an America of old, but also deals with the contemporary issues to which its title alludes; namely the conflict between Darwinism and religion in modern America.

Having recorded the album in a desolate cabin (Bon who?), the band have recently acquired recording space in an abandoned pasta sauce factory, and regular updates from their new home are posted on their website.

‘Oh my God, Charlie Darwin’ is an album with no spaces in between the sound.  Rich and lush, with layered harmonies and a vast array of instruments, this is an album full of tales and imagery and is one I shall return to time after time.

2) Mumford and Sons – Sigh No More

So, all the bloggers get together to lavish praise on a little known act emerging out of London’s indie folk scene.  Then they become successful and have an advert on the telly with the dulcet tones of Jo Wiley telling everybody to buy it for Christmas.  No we are supposed to shun them yeah, cause they’re not cool anymore yeah, they’ve sold out yeah?  Well, no.

When I first heard ‘Little Lion Man’ in late 2007, I was blown away.  I played it on my radio show just about every week and stated then that if Mumford and Sons could back this up with some other memorable tunes, they would have an album to be reckoned with.  Well, they only went and managed that.  ‘Sigh no more’ is superb from start to finish and has rightly put them in the spotlight alongside fine scene contemporaries Johnny Flynn and Noah and the Whale, along with the somewhat questionable Laura Marling (who I saw put in a rather shockingly dull performance at Edinburgh’s Queens Hall a few months back).

‘Sigh no more’ has more plays on my iTunes than any other record and if their reward for success is a TV advert and more record sales, then I say well done.  More please more please more please…..

1) Tom Waits – Glitter and Doom

To be fair, any Tom Waits release is pretty much guaranteed to be my top album of the year, such is my love of the gravel-voiced man whose career has spanned nearly 40 varied and glorious years.  The only real problem came in 2002, when he released Blood Money and Alice at the same time.  The bugger…

Glitter and Doom is made up of live recordings from his European tour of 2007.  The pain of being too impoverished to see him when he came to Edinburgh will live with me until my dying day.  This album has gone some way to alleviating that pain, but in some ways it has only served to highlight what I missed.

Waits has always been a supreme live performer; part barfly crooner, part balladeer, part stand up comedian.  CD1 contains 17 live tracks spanning his entire career and Tom is on particularly grizzly form, even by his own formidable standards.  The jewel in the crown though is CD2, a staggeringly funny and insightful collection of his chat between songs, edited together and lasting 36 phenomenal, side splitting minutes.

Did you know you can get 14 omelettes from one ostrich egg?  Well, Tom does.  He also claims to have purchased Henry Ford’s last breath from Ebay.

True or not, thank you Mr Waits.  Yet again, you have made my year.

Having just turned 60, Tom Waits sounds as good as ever.


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My top 10 albums of 2009 – No. 10-6

Yes folks, after finally getting some time off from my various jobs, I too have cracked and felt the need to produce a list of my top albums of the last year. 2009 was the year I took my first tentative yet clumsy steps into the world of music journalism, writing for the Scotsman newspaper’s Under the Radar blog, covering unsigned and under-represented bands in Scotland.

Those just missing out on the top 10 include Blue Roses, Monsters of Folk, Bowerbirds and my pal from Glasgow going by the name Beerjacket (Although I doubt I make it into his top 10 either).

Here then, in descending order, are my top ten albums of 2009:

10) Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – White Lunar

This superb 2 CD selection of work from Cave and his partner in crime is comprised mainly of selections from film soundtracks, most notably The Assassination of Jesse James and this year’s Cormac McCarthy adaptation The Road. It is a soothing, classically influenced listen and couldn’t be much more different from their previous work on the ear-drum punishing Grinderman.  Cave also released another darkly hysterical book this year, entitled The Death of Bunny Munro and his performance at the Picturehouse in Edinburgh was far and away my gig of the year.  Proof indeed that no matter the genre, Nick Cave is capable of utter genius.

9) Bombay Bicycle Club – I had the blues but I shook them loose

Summer festival favourites Bombay Bicycle Club produced a really fun album that, whilst it is certainly the most mainstream choice in my ten, does not deserve to suffer simply because it became popular.  Far too often people in my line of work turn their backs on a band once everyone else catches on, which seems peculiarly self-defeating if the purpose is to bring bands to a wider audience.  2009 was certainly a great year for these guys and their album managed to be both intelligent and popular.  They deserve credit for both.

8 ) Richmond Fontaine – We used to think the freeway sounded like a river

An excess of Kerouac and Burrows in my 2009 reading list fuelled an interest in US west coast alt. country bands; a genre which is still going strong despite the dominance of New York acts on the international scene.  Portland band Richmond Fontaine’s 9th record sounds as spare as the pacific coast highways but has moments of homage to the Seattle scene which so flourished in the 90s.  It is a classic road album, rich in imagery and full of the kind of storytelling you would expect from lead singer and accomplished novelist Willy Vlautin.  Their best album to date, this is an involving and rewarding experience.

7) Withered Hand – Good News

Dan Willson, the man behind Edinburgh act Withered Hand, has been charming Scottish audiences all year with his shy demeanour and wry, quasi-religious pop songs.  In September he released the highly anticipated ‘Good News’, to an excitable local scene.  He is the classic example of the whole being worth so much more than the individual parts; his voice isn’t great and neither is his guitar playing (Neil from Meursault had to tune his guitar for him at one gig!). However, through a combination of self-effacing charm and lyrics which should be made into a book, Dan has produced a blinding album, aided by the production talents of Kramer, who has previously worked with the likes of Daniel Johnson, Low and Galaxie 500.

What will 2010 bring for Dan Willson?  I think he should write a book of children’s stories.  Very, very dark ones…

6) Small Town Boredom – Notes from the Infirmary

Paisley’s Small Town Boredom are not in the least the type of band you’d let you would play at a gathering of friends and are not the kind of band you’d feel comfortable passing on to a depressed friend, but whilst their music is what some would unfairly dismiss as depressing, I prefer to think of it as contemplative.  The duo have clearly been through some rough times, but ‘Notes from the Infirmary’ finds beauty in adversity and hints towards optimistic times ahead.  The tone is predominantly low key but builds to some pretty extreme crescendos, not least on the album’s standout track ‘World’s Most Unwanted’.  Never likely to break into the mainstream, Small Town Boredom’s aversion to playing life is also unlikely to endear them to potential new fans.  They deserve an audience though and anyone prepared to give ‘Notes from the Infirmary’ a few listens will be richly rewarded.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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