Tag Archives: scotland

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 – Beerjacket

Becoming a singer/songwriter, on the face of it, seems easy. Get a guitar, learn a few minor chords, let some feelings out.

However, once you have seen it done well, you realise how much talent is actually required. There is no hiding place when you do everything on your own, and there are few in Scotland right now who do it better than Peter Kelly.

Beerjacket, the name of Kelly’s homemade solo project, very nearly disappeared soon after it began. It started in 2004 “as a goodbye to music…a bitter farewell show”, after which he planned to stop for good. Thankfully, enough people liked the show to keep the project alive and, five years on, Beerjacket is still going.

Peter Kelly aka Beerjacket

Peter Kelly aka Beerjacket

Although he plays most of his live shows in Glasgow, Kelly says he can’t claim to be a Glasgow musician as he doesn’t spend much time there. Instead, “Beerjacket happens alone in a toy room in Lanarkshire,” he says.

His most recent album, Animosity, is a return to simplicity after Kelly felt previous work had become overcomplicated. The songs have the classic singer/songwriter appeal: simultaneously sad and uplifting. ‘Violent’ and ‘Drum’ perfectly sum up the honest tone of the album, whilst ‘The Gun’ is moralistic without any accompanying righteousness.

The album attains considerable diversity in its ten tracks too, especially on ‘Evil Air’, which adds colourful bluesy edges thanks to some neat slide guitar work.

The stripped-down, back to basics approach is certainly noticeable; Kelly describes his set-up as “one the most primitive you’re likely to find – acoustic guitar, vocal and foot-stomped tambourine”. The one-to-one feel of this minimal intervention policy gives his lyrics more immediacy.

There is also something hugely appealing about an artist who has decided to go it alone. As Kelly says, “I have opened for many of my heroes like Feist, The National, Kristin Hersh, Rilo Kiley and Arab Strap, released six albums and received airplay all over the world. And all this without a manager, PR, publisher, record label, agent or other band members to thank or blame.”

Kelly is also keen to praise those he has worked with: “I’ve been fortunate in playing with many of my influences. They have all inspired me”. The Second Hand Marching Band opened a show for him recently and also played along on a Beerjacket cover, which pleased Kelly to the extent that he forgot the words to his own song.

If comparisons are to be made, then the most obvious, in terms of style, seems to be Elliott Smith. But the tagline of ‘the new Elliott Smith’ has weighed heavily, usually unhelpfully, on many artists before. Kelly’s work stands alone perfectly well.

In a cluttered genre, Beerjacket has emerged as one of Scotland’s best singer/songwriters. Going it alone is a brave decision, but his work demands recognition. Wherever he goes next, it is sure to be well worth following.

The new Beerjacket album Animosity was released digitally on 8th June on iTunes, eMusic, LaLa and Amazon MP3. A limited edition digipack CD of the album will be in independent record shops soon.

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