Song, by Toad

Archive for the Scottish Bands category

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Blood of the Bull – Bend Over EP

bend Which is Scotland’s finest indie label? Us? Chemikal Underground? Lost Map? Why it’s us of cou… actually, whisper it, but the answer might be d) None of the above. It might, over the last couple of years, have been Soft Power Records.

Located in the highly unpromising commuter town of Livingston, I don’t know if they would actually win in a nose-to-nose with release schedules which boast, say, the RM Hubbert or Pictish Trail albums but they’d certainly be (in awful football parlance) right in the mix at the end of the season. They certainly have me casting envious eyes at a lot of the things they put out.

The Bend Over EP by Glasgow-based Blood of the Bull is four songs of bright and breezy retro-tinged garage guitar pop with a gorgeous, clear, high vocal. A very zeitgeisty mix of Britpoppy and more rough and ready garage sound from the late sixties, this actually embraces elements of psychedelic folk in the vocal delivery of tunes like Hold Your Head Up High and Go Fuck Yourself, with shades of late Fairport-era Sandy Denny in there, to my ears at least.

Like a few of the Soft Power releases, this may be garage pop, but it’s not all that lo-fi. Where other corners of this particular landscape may be distorted and aggressive, this has a a cleanliness to the sound to match the vocal. It’s still kinda retro and may be very DIY, but that doesn’t pull the music anywhere it doesn’t want to go. There’s some rougher stuff on the band’s Soundcloud page, and I have to confess I rather like that too.

In fact, in some ways this reminds me of the sort of woman I’ve seen a lot of in places where there are many tattoos to be seen. There seems to be a very specific look at the moment which embraces polka-dot dresses and glamorous hair, and yet includes being covered in ink. The combination of such prettiness with dense tattoos, which still retain something of a hard-edged, rebellious feel to them, always struck me as a little incongruous. In fashion terms it’s a style I have to confess that I really like, and there are elements of that in this EP. It can be very pretty, with a deliberate girlish innocence at times, and then at others there are some noticeably rougher edges. It’s a fascinating combination and a really good record.

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Passion Pusher – Again!

pp Since I last mentioned Edinburgh shambles Passion Pusher I think a couple of months have gone by, so naturally if you’ve taken your eye off the ball you’ve missed something like a dozen releases since then. Seriously, the boy’s fucking mental. [Edit: he's actually released two new things, just since I started typing this.]

With this incredible volume of releases, listening to Passion Pusher becomes a bit weird. Most of these are half-thought-out demos, a bit of an idea here, some shit he did when he was bored there, and they all just tumble out onto Bandcamp in such a haphazard torrent that I confess I find it a challenge to keep up.

Because they’re almost all short songs, and the EPs released generally no more than five or six songs long, it can be weird hopping from one sarcastically-named release to the next. You never know if you’re going to get garage rock, mumbled acoustic fuzz, or just drifting, incoherent soundscapes.

If these guys wrote 69 Love Songs, which they probably could easily do by now, it might not exceed the length of a single record. But there’s something compelling about this. They seem like they barely have any idea what they’re doing and are just stumbling along, mostly drunk, spraffing out recordings here and there. Often bands who seem a bit like these know what they are doing more than they let on, but I wouldn’t bet on that being the case here.

The thing is, in amongst the chaos, a lot of this is really good. There are guitar sproings all over the place, songs which peter out into nothing, slurred, inaudible vocals and all sorts. But it’s good. The guitar tone they get can be absolutely gorgeous, the slower songs have a lovely, genuinely touching melancholy to them a lot of the time, and in amongst some of the messier tunes you get these brief moments of clarity where suddenly it’s a pop song for a moment and then fuck it, everything returns to haze once more.

I’d love to hear them do a more disciplined release at some point – or even just a more formal one – but I am also slightly nervous that might knock some of the magic out of it. The joy here is in the chaos, and god knows what would happen if you got these guys into a studio and asked them to rattle out the hits. I don’t know. But I do know that this is good stuff and I want to hear more. Fortunately, I probably won’t have to wait more than a day or two for the next release.

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Tisso Lake – Carnival/Canter 7″

tl If you head over to the Tissø Lake Bandcamp page you can pick up a copy of a new 7″ they’ve just released, and umm, by the fact that I here posting about it I suppose you’ve already realised that I recommend that you do.

That you probably don’t know too much about Tissø Lake is probably more down to Ian Humberstone himself – the man behind the project – than anything else. Not that he’s not a lovely guy, because he is, and not that he’s one of these artists who deliberately sabotages their own success either, because he doesn’t. In Ian’s case he just doesn’t play all that much, although I don’t know if that’s a deliberate decision or not, and he really doesn’t release that much either.

As a label who has released at least one thing by Ian, albeit under his own name, I’ve tried to encourage him to record and release more stuff as subtly as I can. Artists can be funny when you are trying to encourage them to do things though, and when you don’t know someone all that well genuine enthusiasm can come across as bungling harassment, so for someone not generally known for tact or sensitivity, I’ve tried to tread as carefully as I can.

Anyhow, apparently Ian is just someone who likes to work at his own pace and in his own way and won’t really be pushed into stuff until he’s good and ready, but the pace of new releases seems to have increased recently and there is talk of an album happening in the relatively near future, which is most exciting news.

Before that, however, there is this. It’s less glacial than some of his previous things, which can either have a late-evening sense of gentle comfort to them or a reassuring twinkle. In this case there’s more of a clip to the songs, with Carnival dancing around to the tune of a disciplined violin which sounds really quite traditional most of the time. This song and Canter work in much the same way, with that lovely violin playing over a rolling, plucked acoustic guitar.

I think it’s probably Canter which most obviously embodies why I like Humberstone’s work so much. I might just prefer Carnival (that’s not a value judgement, it’s primarily because it’s not an instrumental and he has a gorgeous voice) but towards the end of Canter the violin and guitar rise to increasingly bitey* little squawks, not too abrasive, but just enough to make this weird and interesting. And that, I think, is the essence of what makes Tissø Lake such a rewarding listen: in amongst a wash of warm, gorgeous, reassuring music there are these constant moments of surprise to stop you getting complacent and lazy as a listener.

*Yes, it’s a word. Because I said so.

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Ivor Cutler. On Virgin?

Almost nothing at all highlights how much the music industry has changed over the last thirty years than what happened when I was listening to Ivor Cutler the other day. I remember thinking (as I think a lot of people think when they first sit down and properly listen to Ivor Cutler for the first time) ‘fuck me this is weird’ and then ‘fuck me, but it’s good‘ and then ‘but fuck me it really, really is weird’.

As I run a label now, and have on occasion had people express their incredulity at the obvious commercial risks we take from time to time, I do find myself wondering when I listen to such obviously strange stuff as this: who the fuck released this? And why? Maybe they just have a deliberately contrarian streak, such as myself, or maybe (also a little like myself) they have a naive hope that at some point the rest of the world will hear the genius within the madness and suddenly we’ll all float off to some mental magical musical Eden together.

It’s one of the reasons small independent labels are so important, actually. We make no money, so in a sense we are free. We can take chances on things because we don’t have a dozen people’s jobs to protect, and if we lose out then we aren’t depending on the label for our income anyway, so it may not represent successful business, but it is indeed a kind of freedom. So what kind of inspired maverick took a leap of faith on Ivor Cutler – something strange and completely idiosyncratic, and which nevertheless has proven to be enduring and, in a small way, quite legendary.

Virgin Records.

What the ever-loving fuck? Virgin? A major label released this? How the blazing blue balls did that happen?

There are reasons, of course. Virgin with Richard Branson at the helm were pretty aggressively innovative back then. And to be fair, Cutler didn’t start out making quite such weird music. And to be fair, this wasn’t the era of the focus-grouped, X-Factor deluxe karaoke album. But whatever way you cut it, it just feels like a different fucking universe.

For someone as idiosyncratic as Cutler to end up on a major these days… well, it just wouldn’t happen, would it. They’d have to either be so very commercially successful on a small label that they felt there was serious potential there to be exploited, or some inspired/deranged A&R scout would have to think ‘fuck me – THAT’S the one!” I honestly can’t imagine it, can you?

I mean, was music more important back then, that you could take a risk like this and trust enough people would buy it? Did people use music as a means of expanding their cultural life more than they do now? Nowadays music on even the big indies is released for commercial reasons, and it really doesn’t feel like they are even in the business of thinking about music in this way.

I know the teen and tween-orientated Children’s-BBC-pop the majors are looking for these days, like Hannah Montana or Olly Murs, existed back in the seventies too, but it seems like music as culture – or as anything with even the slightest nod towards intellectual validity or artistic ambition – simply has ceased to exist as far as the ‘music industry’ is concerned.

I put that in scare quotes because I really do mean just the industry part. I see music pushing at these boundaries and attempting to be more than just entertainment fluff all the time, but absolutely none of it seems to be of the remotest interest to the industry. The link between Olly Murs and whatever Ivor Cutler’s modern equivalent might be seems to be to be utterly broken now. They seem to exist on two different planets, whereas back then they may have been at opposite ends, but they were at least on the same spectrum.

Is it just the reduction in people paying for music that ends up hurting anything apart from the seriously big sellers? Is it that the music industry is now simply more mature and knows what will sell and what is, in the long term, not really worth taking a risk on? Is it that people in general simply don’t look to music to challenge them as much as they used to? I don’t know – of course I don’t – but it’s been a bit like boiling a frog, for me, in that the industry today feels a lot like the industry yesterday, but add enough of those incremental changes together and holy shit, you get back to a time when Ivor Cutler was on a major fucking record label. Ivor fucking Cutler!

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Magic Eye – Babylon

NNF291 Ah, bands. Such contrary bastards!

Magic Eye, you may remember, featured on our second Split 12″ record, released in April last year. They played gorgeous, crystal clear, dreamy pop tunes, and seemed very much in tune with the zeitgeist and possibly on the verge of good things. Well, to me anyway, although as we’ve seen, I am not exactly an authority as far as this kind of thing is concerned.

Anyhow, below is one of the songs they recorded for us, and one which I think turned out really, really well. And I suppose I thought that was how the band heard themselves in their own heads, too. I’d been to see them a couple of times as well though, so I wasn’t just imagining it, entirely.

Of course, we all think we know how our favourite bands ‘ought’ to sound, but when they went into a studio here in Edinburgh to record their debut album, the mixing engineer clearly thought they ought to sound a lot different to how the band themselves thought they should sound. They hated the results, but the guy simply refused to work with them on a second mix. On the face of it, that is pretty shocking behaviour, but they were getting the studio and the time of the engineer on an incredibly cheap rate, so they were probably already well over the time commitments the studio had imagined when they agreed the fee.

I may have released the band’s stuff, but I wasn’t involved in this, so who knows what the ins and outs of it really were. In a sense I find myself really not wanting to know any more, although I cannot for the life of me imagine anyone who actually cares about bands or music refusing to do so much as a ’round two’ when it comes to mixing a band’s album.

Anyhow, whoever was actually in the right in that particular misalignment of expectations, it clearly had a big effect on the band themselves. Firstly, they split up.  Secondly, they obviously couldn’t release the album so their time was wasted. And thirdly, once they managed to get the stems back from the engineer they, er, remixed it to sound like this: Babylon, their latest and I think their last release.

The band themselves describe their studio experience in the press release for this cassette: “they suffered the rite-of-passage indignity of recording their first set of songs at an overly pro studio, rendering the results grit-less and dried out.” Listening to this, it sounds like they have made this mix just to exorcise the ghosts of what they heard before, and I am not sure I would know what to make of it if I hadn’t heard the muggy pop sheen of the studio album (and it is pretty terrible).

The vocals have been submerged in a bath of delay and reverb, it’s a weird, wobbly, hazy mess and I find myself listening to it and feeling both baffled and delighted. After the clarity of the songs they recorded with us, to hear this kind of distorted fog feels kind of shocking, actually. Like I never really understood the band in the first place. But listening to it after the abandoned studio album, it’s almost as if the band’s hatred of those mixes is aggressively, accusingly embodied in these ones.

It helps, I think, that Bek and Roma can really, really sing. They both have high, glacial voices and that element of beauty keeps just a little glitter alive in the fog of hazy mess around them and leaves this music… where, I don’t know. It’s fascinating. I find myself playing it over and over and wondering what I would make of it if I didn’t know so much of the back-story behind its creation.

Buy a copy on cassette here.

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Yesterday, Perhaps – Songs of the Kitchen Cynics

yesterdayperhaps This is an internet-defyingly brilliant album, which I can’t find to buy anywhere, and I can’t find any digital samples of to share with you to convince you just how fucking ace it is. But honestly, it’s incredible. It is in fact one of those albums I first heard, thought ‘what on earth is going on here’, and then proceeded to play it again and again for hours.

Despite the coffee table, soul-folk-pop ear-fucking abomination of a sound which has overwhelmed modern folk music, this is everything I love the most about folk. Or acoustic pop music, whatever you want to call it. The drones, the creepiness, the occasionally horrific narratives, the tense, drawn-out sounds which smack far more of elusive horror than children’s bedtime stories… it’s all there.

I suppose my sense of wonder was enhanced by having absolutely no idea about the Kitchen Cynics – the nom de plume for a well established, if hardly gloriously famous folk singer from Aberdeen called Alan Davidson. Bands on my own label have shared a stage with him, and given how much I’ve enjoyed this I find myself slightly outraged than no-one has mentioned him to me before. In all honesty that outrage probably masks a sense of guilt at supposedly being a champion of underground Scottish music and somehow having allowed someone like this to completely escape my notice, but nevertheless, come on people, what were you thinking!

Anyhow, this album contains a series of covers by more and less well known folk artists – Alasdair Roberts, Adrian Crowley and Major Matt Mason USA among them – but I think it’s the ones I’ve never heard of who have made my favourite recordings. Adam Leonard and Sharron Kraus may be more famous in the folk world than they are in mine, but I’d not heard of them before, and their contributions to this album are absolutely fantastic

The only way to get hold of it is to try places like Coda or VoxBox who might well have copies, or alternatively email kitchencynics@googlemail.com and arrange for Alan to sell  you one. Not so much as a Paypal link – told you it was an internet-defier! If, like me, you’ve suddenly realised you need to know more about the Kitchen Cynics then there is loads of stuff on Bandcamp, but that’s not the half of it, he’s released tons and tons of stuff – there’s an attempt at a complete discography here.

As I said, I can’t really find you a proper preview of this particular album, but below I have embedded the original version of When Father Hanged the Children, so beautifully and horribly performed by Sharron Krauss on Yesterday, Perhaps, as well as a tune called Francis Masson, Botanist, which might have been released on vinyl last year, but I am not sure because Folk Police Recordings who were due to release it have since ceased trading, which is a shame. Still, fine tunes. Enjoy.

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Sometimes I am Grateful for My Own Nepotism

I know nepotism is one of the most derided aspects of the music industry, and I can understand that, I really can. It can be intensely frustrating watching the whole industry revolve around its little centres, knowing that being out in the sticks here in Edinburgh puts us at a massive disadvantage. And that’s just Edinburgh, imagine how permanently raging I would be if we were really isolated.

But, if we want to look at it another way, and perhaps see it as something a little less pernicious, then perhaps we should acknowledge that a large part of nepotism is born of good things, like trust and loyalty. If a band gives their pals’ band a prominent support slot on their tour then it’s annoying for me, or anyone else who wishes they could have scored that slot, but generally they’re doing it for good reasons and shouldn’t really be criticised that much.

Certainly my loyalty to a few bands and a few recommendations has served my musical taste well, over the years. Some of my favourite bands and favourite records are ones I persisted with not because I liked them all that much on first listen, but because I trusted either the band or the recommender to come good in the long run. In fact, I think it has been one of the most consistently reliable ways I have found over the years to push my music taste in new directions. You need some sort of reason to persist with something you’re not really getting, after all.

I only got into vaguely nasty guitar music by a friend of mine continually playing The Wedding Present. I’ve only really started to understand drone and noise music, and I suppose psychey prog opuses as well,  since I came to Edinburgh and have been surrounded by people who love this kind of stuff and are forever excitedly making me listen to it, despite the somewhat sceptical facial expressions which tend to result. I give this kind of recommendation so much more time, though, because of how much I know our tastes overlap already and also because once you get to know someone, and get to know how they think about music, it tends to give you more respect for opinions of theirs even when you disagree with them. In GCSE terms, if the working-out is right, it’s not so crucial if  the answer is incorrect.

The song at the top of the page is new stuff from a friend of mine, and I really like it. Honestly, though, I am not sure if I would have given it enough time had I not known the guy who made it. We’ve sat up late and bickered about music in the past, so I know that whatever my first impression there is likely to be something in there that I like. I also know that we have a lot in common in terms of the overall aesthetic and approach to music, so I am guessing that will still apply when the music in question is his own.

For another example, last week I mentioned the ten-minute, squealing feedback tone on Side B of David Thomas Broughton’s UnAbleTo. I am not sure how well he took me saying that I didn’t like it, but I loved the rest of the album, and I can’t think of anyone else who would have had me listening to a noise like that again and again, actively trying to find a way to enjoy it. But I’ve seen DTB play live often enough to know that he likes to push his audience, and there have been plenty of times when I’ve been stood there just on the cusp of thinking ‘wait, he’s not playing music anymore is he, he’s just fucking about here, surely’ only for the melody to suddenly kick back and that feeling of relief and understanding to flood the room once more. So I know that’s how he makes music – finding those edges and picking at them – and I really did give that ten minute feedback as many goes as I could before admitting that, nah, it just wasn’t for me in the end.

Why do I say this? Well because this kind of nepotism makes me feel guilty at times. I think of all the artists who send me stuff, and who get fifteen seconds of listening before some horrible RnB vocal or nasty ‘rawk!’ guitar riff make me switch off immediately with a shudder, and it feels a little unfair that I should listen to a friend’s song ten times before even trying to form an opinion, or that I should play that one feedback passage over and over again, trying to get my head round it.

But where aspects of that are just nepotism and are just plain unfair, there are parts of it which are okay. I trust both Chris and David to make music I love, so to an extent that leeway is earned by being part of a broader conversation.

But also, I think it’s quite important. Without having a few people around you who you trust to take you into unfamiliar territory it can be hard to properly embrace new things. After all, you need a good reason to continue to listen to something you don’t necessarily enjoy properly at first. That persistence tends to come from a little faith in the recommender, or from familiar tones from an artist’s other work that you like making themselves heard in something weirder, and providing you with just enough of a vein of familiarity to stick with it a little longer. So nepotism may be bad, in some ways, and is definitely more than a little unfair at times, but without it I think my music taste would have utterly stagnated some time ago.

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Broken Records – New Album Pledge Project

After a (fairly) long quiet period, our pals Broken Records are back in the saddle, with a crowd-funded EP and album project up on PledgeMusic. Honestly, this post was supposed to help them in their fundraising, but given they have raised 99% of their goal and still have almost 120 days to go, something tells me they might well manage without our help. But hey-ho, you do what you can, even if it’s laughably little, laughably late.

When I first spoke to the band and they were in the first throes of internet buzz dystopia they talked a lot about eschewing the traditional label approach in favour of something approaching venture capital, but for music. It made sense – why worry about stock, distribution and all the tedious micro-management if you are an investor, and if you are a band the freedom to conduct your release your own way has an obvious appeal, assuming you’re organised enough to do a decent job.

They went with 4AD eventually, a decision which made perfect sense at the time, but which struck me as less and less suitable as the label signed more hipster electro bands over the ensuing years. So this time around Broken Records are back to their original concept: a self-managed release with external funding.

In this case the funding will actually come from their fans, and the band have all sorts of extra options for you to sign up to, from the affordable but sadly sold out hand-knitted bobble hats, to the slightly less affordable signed acoustic guitar, so pop along to their Pledge page and chip in if you fancy doing so.

As an incentive, have a listen to one of their new songs, below. We recorded this for their new Toad Session, which will be published in full in the next month or so, but for now serves as a nice taster of their new material which, honestly, sounds fucking great.

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Alan Smithee

0002172538_20 With the excellent Soft Power Records making their home there, and now this lot, maybe the ‘ha ha ha, right, a band from Livingston’ shit really has to change.

One of my favourite Scottish bands, The Scottish Enlightenment, are from Dunfermline, Stonehaven has half a dozen cracking bands to its name (albeit mostly composed of the same people), even more great bands come from the East Neuk, and Frightened Rabbit are from the fucking Borders, so all this shite about Scottish music being dominated by the Central Belt really is baws. Alright, the industry is dominated by the Central Belt, because most of the population is there, but the actual music itself really isn’t.

The name Alan Smithee* is a funny enough name in itself, being the name Hollywood directors used to use as a code to indicate that they disowned the movie for which they were being credited. It’s a wry and very Scottish joke, and that shrug kind of fits the shamboling slacker vibe of their earlier demos, which can be a bit patchy.

Later material such as their new single Half Measured Man, is much more assured, however. There is a sort of laid back, slightly unnerving feeling to it a little reminiscent of Kurt Vile or Mac DeMarco, the latter of whom the band do cite as an influence. It’s guitar pop, basically, but there is a woozy, damaged feel to the best of it.

The band are not generally as good (in my opinion of course) when they go more upbeat, and they’re relatively new so some of the early stuff is a little uneven, but in general they sound like they have a lot of promise and I am looking forward to hearing more. Go to their Bandcamp page for a bit more.

* I confess I had to be told this by someone else, so don’t think that I am trying to show you that I am some sort of urban sophisticate and you a mere rube, I promise you I am just as clueless.

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Deathcats – The Raddest

Well I guess I would describe Deathcats as a band who make pure pop music. Energetic, guitary pop music for sure, but of all the audiences at all of our gigs over the last few years the most pure fun seemed to be had by Deathcats and their fans. For someone who listens to a lot of dirgey, miserable (and brilliant, don’t get me wrong) stuff, I love gigs like this. It doesn’t matter if people talk through it, because the band are so loud and boisterous no-one fucking notices anyway!

The band have just released their first proper EP on Fuzzkill Records, and it’s a fucking corker. It takes a couple of their most obvious pop songs – I Wish it Was Summer and Surfing in My Head – and delivers them in a couple of surprisingly clean and slick recordings. Having seen the band bounce around the stage and heard their earlier, somewhat rougher recordings, this serves as a fine reminder that beneath every deliberately ramshackle lo-fi growler there needs to be something solid to hum along to, or you’re basically just peddling style over substance.

Not that this is substantial music, per se – it’s not deep in any way, it’s just three fucking great pop tunes – but as pop songs go they are simple, tightly executed and irrepressibly infectious. It’s very surfy, as you can guess from the titles, but this level of borderline-pastiche is utterly irrelevant when you’re delivering quality material. Two straight-up musical Calippos are followed by Cowabunga Beach Party, another tune whose name signposts exactly what you are going to hear, but whose two-minute closing instrumental is a perfect sign-off to a short, sharp EP of pure musical fun.

That’s right, fun, I said it. Me liking music because it is awesome fun. What will my inner sulky indie snob think?

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