Well as you’ve probably guessed by now, Plastic Animals’ debut album Pictures From the Blackout is being released this week, and you can buy one here. It is a very good album. I like it a lot. I am excited. Not a massive shock there, then, given it’s my record label. The launch night last weekend was awesome, and massive thanks are owed to Frog who also played a blinder.
We’ve had some cracking writeups of the album so far too: “Pictures from the Blackout is certainly a record that will reward the patient listener” from The List, “a blend which proves intoxicating” from The Skinny, “A debut album for the band to be proud of” on 17 Seconds, and a giddily excited “I’ll be very surprised if this debut album from Plastic Animals doesn’t finish up on many an end of year, best of lists. It is simply that immense” on The Sound of Confusion.
So yep, there you go, you’re welcome! Some slow-burning, slightly krauty, psychey, dreamy, shoegazey guitar rock for you. And if that isn’t fucking hipster music description buzzword bingo I don’t know what is.
In terms of actual releases I think I would say that Fuzzkill Records have probably been my favourite label in Scotland over the last couple of years. They’ve out out all sorts of rough and ready guitar music, largely nineties-tinged, and with a real sense of energy and freedom. There have been sampler compilations, covers compilation, and EP after EP, mostly on tape, of the most promising new bands in Scotland. Their contribution to our fantastic David Cameron’s Eton Mess 12″ vinyl compilation which we released last November was absolutely invaluable.
While I was away in the States and not paying much attention to life back home they released new EPs by The Bellybuttons and Spinning Coin, both of which are well worth your time. Spinning Coin have just signed to Geographic Music, a label which I believe is run out of Monorail by Stephen Pastel and is a subsidiary of Domino, which bodes very well for their future indeed.
You hear the work of what I think is three different songwriters on their new self-titled EP, from the louche pop of Sean Armstrong to the frantic screaming of Cal Donnelly, but it still holds together really well. All this stuff has a real nineties indie feel to it, loose guitars, drawled vocals, but the tunes are fucking good like all of Fuzzkill’s stuff, there’s a real pop sensibility behind the rough and ready exterior.
I went to fewer gigs than I anticipated while I was in New York late last year. Mrs. Toad doesn’t really like them, and we tended to spend our time exploring together, so it just didn’t happen all that much.
I turned forty years old while I was out there and was pretty pleased at the idea of spending my fortieth in New York City, not for any specific reason of course because we barely pay even the slightest attention to birthdays, but just because it felt like a nice landmark for such a memorable trip. Mrs. Toad happened to be away that particular week though, so what did I do? I went to Baltimore for the night instead, of course.
Brendon from Viking Moses lives down there and he’s become a pal over the last couple of years, and by sheer coincidence he just happened to be hosting a gig that night, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to pop down and visit.
Ironically enough, however, for me the standout band on the bill that night were a Brooklyn band called Infinity Girl. They remind me a little of Plastic Animals in a sense, although they’re a little heavier, whereas Plastic Animals are a bit more metronomic. They’re indie rock though, shoegazey and rocky in some ways, but perhaps more melodic than you might expect given that description.
It was great to watch live. It would be racket racket racket racket, and then suddenly this nasty riff would appear in the middle of it – one of the best balances between volume and melody I’ve seen in a while. They’ve been around for a few years now too, and there are actually a couple of albums to have a listen to on their Bandcamp page. Have a go.
If you pick your albums carefully whilst delving into Sonny Smith’s back catalogue you wouldn’t necessarily know that he was absolutely one hundred percent batshit insane, but I think he probably is.
You could look at his output for (the brilliant) Fat Possum Records and think that he does nice, borderline pastiche retro-pop, and he sort of does. Or he can. That stuff isn’t exactly bad either – I absolutely fucking love Hit After Hit, for example, which I think I once characterised as ‘Hill Valley 1955 doesn’t give a fuck’.
It’s a silly term, but it sort of makes sense. It has that milkshakes and drive-ins charm, but it’s delivered in a way which is just ever so slightly off. A bit slacker, a bit lazier, a bit deviant… I’m not sure what it is, but I fucking love it. But that’s a million miles away from this, which is nuttier than squirrel shite.
The first inkling I got as to how much creative energy Smith had, and the first time I started to realise quite how far he liked to deviate from the three-minute pop song, was the gloriously ambitious, utterly ridiculous, and brilliantly realised 100 Records Project. The idea was quite simple: 100 artists design covers for 100 fictional singles by 100 fictional bands, and Sonny Smith then made the actual songs – 200 of the fucking things because he did b-sides as well – to make these fictional bands a reality. Albeit a rather twisted reality.
The first I heard of Smith at all was his involvement in the glorious Earth Girl Helen Brown, which is one of the bands which emerged from the 100 Records project.
That whole EP is fucking glorious, but while there are some cracking pop tunes on there, there is also just a little bit of oddness, like this for example. What else emerged into the world from the 100 Records project was a little more straightforward though, and I didn’t think about it all that much until pretty much the entire thing became available on three volumes of cassette tape, of which I bought the lot. Broke Artist, which also makes an appearance on Sees All Knows All, was on one of those along with various other digressions, experimentations and the odd cracking, hummable wee gem.
So while you might be a bit shocked by this album if you’ve followed Sonny Smith’s more commercial releases, it seems almost inevitable if you’ve followed his more offbeat projects over the years. And weird as it is, it’s fucking brilliant.
Basically an album of rambling, surreal, spoken word storytelling set to music, but quite why I find it so utterly fascinating and enjoyable instead of just fucking terrible I have no idea, as something like this could so easily be the latter.
The delivery helps, I think. Smith is just as insouciant and laid-back as he is when he sings pop songs. Also, the text of the pieces themselves veers so unpredictably from the banal to the unpleasant to the hallucinogenically comical that you never really know where you stand. It’s autobiographical, apparently, but you never really know whether to take that kind of statement at face value. Whatever the fuck it is, there’s a strong chance you might just think I’ve lost my marbles recommending it, but seriously, this is absolutely great. Get one here.
Just to give you an idea of how ruthlessly efficient we are about keeping up with music news, no sooner did I sit down to write about Kevin Morby’s last album than I realised that he actually had a new one on the way. Yes, we’re that sharp.
In fact, I’m so shit at this that I think there’s actually been another album inbetween Harlem River, which is the one I was all excited about, and the new one which has just been announced. Ah well, fuck it, I’m telling you about music I heard in a bar whilst so shitfaced I had to ask the bartender the name of the album three fucking times before I actually remembered it. Shame on me.
This is one from when we were in Red Hook actually, and on our first night in Sunny’s (one of New York’s finest dive bars) the bartender played all sorts of excellent stuff, to the extent that I went straight on eBay and bought two albums then and there. Could be worse. The next time I was drunk in a Red Hook bar and went on eBay I ended up with another old Volvo.
Every single review of Morby’s stuff mentions that he either was or is the bass player for Woods, but I don’t really know Woods all that well, and in all honesty he now has so much of his own stuff out there that the point has become pretty much irrelevant anyway. A bit like the Sea Pinks and Girls Names.
Harlem River could, I suppose, be loosely characterised as a mixture of that warm, late night feel of Kurt Vile and the spooky otherworldliness of Timber Timbre. It’s really just so reassuring and and lovely. I don’t know about this particular style of music; in some ways it’s sort of like easy listening for hipsters, in that it doesn’t intrude all that music and envelops you in this warm sense of everything being okay. Winter evening red wine music.
Using those terms though it sounds like I am trying to come up with the snidest and most dismissive insult I can, but I promise you I am not, I absolutely fucking love this album. It’s the kind of record I have reached for again and again over the last few months and my enthusiasm shows no sign of waning. Even the first time I heard it it just felt instantly familiar, as if I’d been listening to it for years and years.
The new one’s due in the next few months, and hopefully there will be more of the same. Looking at the press releases and various announcements there seem to be plenty of other vocalists involved, and if there’s one thing I am a sucker for it’s a lush vocal harmony, and the brief excerpt in the teaser video below sounds really promising too.
Both Chump and Elara Caluna fit into that sort of vague category of ‘bands I know almost nothing about, but am still quite excited by’.
Apart from exchanging a few very friendly emails with Tara from Chump I couldn’t tell you any more than your own ears about the band itself. They only had one song out and about on the internet until recently, the awesome Sleeping In, which we put on our fantastic 12″ vinyl compilation of the best new Scottish bands David Cameron’s Eton Mess.
That was sort of a low dreamer but this new tune Treat Me Mean, which emerged a few days ago, is much bigger, more grandiose beast. It’s from a forthcoming tape release apparently, although there don’t seem to be many details just yet, but it’s louder, nastier and has a certain theatricality to by the time the crescendo really peaks.
Elara Caluna, on the other hand, weren’t on David Cameron’s Eton Mess. I tried to keep that compilation more guitary I suppose, so they didn’t quite fit, and hardly had any official recorded material at the time anyway.
On the basis of what they did have – a cover version and some slightly ropey live footage – I invited them to play a show for us last year. It wasn’t much to go on, but they came recommended by a pal and the stuff which was out there did sound promising. Annoyingly, though, I was out of the country and unable to attend. Brilliant.
Anyhow, they went down really well with my pals who were at Henry’s that night, and someone has told me since that they’re generating something of a buzz over in Glasgow, but Edinburgh is so utterly fucking insulated from all forms of popular culture that I can’t really confirm that myself.
Instead, we have a new song, Silver Dust, one which came out at the tail end of last year while I was away. There’s less crackle and hum on this than I was expecting, and instead of that warm haze there is a sort of creepy fairytale pop feel to the song. Not pop in the Erasure or the Chvrches sense, more a sort of dark cabaret with maybe more in common with the constituents of Glasgow’s awesome Night School Records.
So with two new tracks there’s not an awful lot more to go on than there was before, but these are two really good tunes and it’s nice to see these two highly promising projects cranking into gear for 2016. If I did ‘ones to watch’ these two would be two of the ones I would tip, I think.
I didn’t really want to touch this particular topic, I have to confess. It makes me uneasy for many reasons. I’ve never experienced anything like this myself, never really seen it that I am aware of, and I entirely accept that I am a long way from being an expert on this stuff. I am also very much aware that the predominance of white, male, middle class voices like myself in this sector is a significant part of the problem.
However, since the revelations about the assaults suffered by various prominent female musicians at the hands of a well known PR agent recently, and the subsequent chatter about it being such a constant, pervasive and unchallenged thing in the music industry, I am starting to think that even if I don’t quite get this right, it is still important to try and say it.
There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, women need to be encouraged to come forward about sexual harassment and assault, and to feel that they will be taken seriously and supported if they do. I want to make it clear that I would take this kind of shit seriously, and there would be none of this ‘oh did he really‘ nonsense going on.
Secondly, one of the best ways to combat this sort of shit is simply to try and make sure there are more female voices in this sphere. It’s not enough to encourage them to take a more prominent role; as the incumbents, we white, middle class men have to actively surrender ours more often. I work with a lot of women in music and I really do want them to know that I am happy to be told. I know I can’t really understand this problem on their level, and if anyone wants to tell me how it is, particularly in the communities I operate in, I am happy to be talked to, lectured to, ranted at or basically whatever. I know this isn’t my conversation to lead, but I do want to at least say that I want it to happen and will try and do what is needed to help that.
Thirdly, I am amazed that it has to be said, but I think it does. Even if it’s just something which I force myself to live up to: sexual assault, foisting unwanted sexual attention, creepy remarks, all that sort of shite is not welcome here. Not in my company, not in our house and not as a part of our label. I am not claiming I have always been perfect in this sort of area myself, and I have said some dumb shit in my time, but I don’t like it, I am not happy with it and I want to improve. Read the rest of this entry »
I am delighted to announce that Plastic Animals’ debut album Pictures From the Blackout will be released on the 8th of February 2016 on vinyl and download – and you can pre-order the album on Bandcamp.
Album launch (with Frog): Wee Red Bar, Lauriston Place, January 29th 2016. £7 – tickets here.
Plastic Animals define themselves as atmospheric sludge rock, and that works pretty well for me. It’s indie rock, I suppose, but flavoured with shoegaze and krautrock (particularly in some of the longer ones), and in fact, as can happen with this kind of music, some of the longest and most impenetrable tracks are probably the album’s standout songs.
Actually, for all their initially shoegazey leanings, this is much more evidently melodic in places, although there are some brilliantly chuggy, krauty moments as well, like the euphoric closer Holy Daze and the fantastic Colophon, which is all just build and build and build and the lyrics don’t even kick in until the last thirty second or so of the song.
To say that things around Plastic Animals tend to move slowly would be an understatement. Apparently they’ve been around in one form or another for as long as Eagleowl, who are a sort of Edinburgh byword for taking your own sweet time with your music, but Eagleowl’s debut album came out in 2013 and erm… here we still are.
The Scottish Living Wage Project has a new and unlikely ally in the form of Toad pal Charles Latham. He recorded a Toad Session with us a little over three years ago, which is where the acoustic version of his song The Living Wage above is from, but now there is a full band version being released to raise money for the aforementioned campaign, and this I would be nice if you felt like chipping in.
I’ve lived on the minimum wage before. Not the living wage, and certainly not Iain Duncan Smith’s laughable interpretation of it, but the actual national minimum wage. It wasn’t for long, and I had family around to help out here and there, but Jesus Christ it was heavy going. The idea of having to do more than barely manage to support one person, never mind raise a family, on that little money is just ludicrous, which make the living wage such an important concept.
And in this era of increasingly virulent hatred of poor people simply for being poor, campaigns like this are probably the most effective way of actually making your political voice heard, because mainstream politics sure as fuck seems like a futile way to try. So to hear the full version of the song, buy a copy, and in doing so support a really important political campaign follow this link and make a donation, and please pass on the link to your pals after you’ve done so.
Well as you probably know, Mrs. Toad and I spent the last quarter of 2015 living in Brooklyn – in Red Hook to be precise – and it was fucking amazing.
Red Hook itself is a fucking brilliant neighbourhood. Still pretty industrial, but with loads of really nice places, so the balance between residents and incoming hipsters (like, I suppose, ourselves – we are the problem!) is still pretty decent for the time being. Only a matter of time, I suppose, but for now it’s a pretty great place to be.
Well while I was out there I went to some gigs, listened to some music, and with the help of my little brother’s recording expertise and Tom from Gold Flake Paint‘s curatorial sagacity we made a record. That’s right, the fifth Song, by Toad Split 12″ (actually the one and only release on Toad Flake Paint Records) was recorded at the National Opera Centre while I was out there.
So this is a mix of bands I saw, bands I listened to and bands I worked with in the three months when we could pretend to be a trendy Brooklyn record label for a bit.
01. The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You (00.24)
02. Told Slant – Ohio Snow Falls (09.29)
03. Sean Henry – The Crow (12.32)
04. Samantha Crain – Elk City (20.59)
05. Kevin Morby – Slow Train (29.01)
06. Florist – Vacation (39.39)
07. Furnsss – Settle Down (43.31)
08. Alex G. – Kicker (52.15)
09. Cashavelly Morrison – Iodine (55.24)
10. Infinity Girl – Firehead (1.03.52)