Song, by Toad

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Pennycress

pennycress More gems from my various social media feeds here, with a new Glasgow band I first found out about today: Pennycress.

Listening to the first couple of tracks it’s easy to think ‘ah right, they’re basically a punk band’, and quite an old school one at that. A lot of the songs on See Us Swell are like that – some just a bit more rapid and frantic than I would generally listen to I have to confess, but there’s a lot more going on here than that.

Fourth track Stopped & Stared borders on whimsical indie-pop, although a band with this kind of overall aesthetic might kill me for saying so (although the preceding tune All Might even has either sleigh bells or tambourine on it for fuck’s sake!), and closer Heavy Heart is really rather lovely… for a while at least. There’s other stuff in there too, like Waltz, which may still be intense and screamy but not quite at such a break-neck pace. This all may seem trivial, but it’s important, because it breaks up the sense of being vociferously berated about something you didn’t know you’d done.

The band tag themselves on Bandcamp as queer and I rather like that. I don’t know if this applies more broadly, but most of the music I’ve heard which uses that term has a belligerently unapologetic attitude to sexuality, and this is good. Fuck you to being expected to pussyfoot around this kind of thing – people need to get used to the idea that their opinions on other people’s sexuality are just fucking irrelevant and not being asked for (says he, veering dangerously close to expressing an opinion on other people’s sexuality) and I get the impression that people who use the term queer are generally a bit more forceful about that kind of thing.

Not least that more confrontational attitude seems to be bringing a lot of good punk back into the socio-political sphere, which is also something I like. F Fit, for example, sounds a bit like it’s basically saying ‘fuck you, yes I’m a feminist, and what?’ although I have to confess that it’s pretty hard to make out most of the lyrics on this.

Anyhow, musically this is intense. As I said, the few wee breaks you get are kind of needed, because the second you draw breath they are off again, battering and reeling off one two-minute gem (if that) after another. Eight songs, a little over a quarter of an hour, and that’s it. It’s not all squarely my cup of tea I guess – some of the most full-pelt punk songs have never been entirely my kind of thing – but in general this is really really good. And so full of piss and vinegar it’s impossible not to warm to.

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Kill West

killwest My inbox has been a pretty barren place of late, tip-wise. I suppose there’s just so much in there that even the gems can end up seeming very isolated, so I feel like I am returning to the days of just being a plain old music fan a bit at the moment, and just getting my tips from social media like everyone else.

This was posted on Facebook by James, who is currently booking for Nice ‘n’ Sleazy’s in Glasgow. We have a very good mutual friend actually, although I don’t think we’ve met in person, but his Facebook feed is a goldmine of interesting music. Including this: Kill West from Buenos Aires.

This came up this morning, and it’s ace. It reminds me a bit of Lil Daggers actually, whose album we released a few years ago, in that it’s garage rock, but it’s also swampy and dark and menacing in a similar way. I suppose you could almost describe it as proggy in a sense – in that it has big long instrumental passages, full of thrum and rhythm, although there’s nothing all that proggy about the feel of the music itself.

It’s not overly heavy on distortion or lo-fi aesthetics either – apart from the treatment of the vocals – but there is a wonderful growl about the guitars. In fact, as much as anything, these guys just seem to love playing guitar, it’s that simple.  They just seem to revel in the parts of the song which are just them all getting their heads down and playing. Awesome.

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Thicke, Gaye, Apple, Darwin… I Don’t Think Many People Understand How Creativity Actually Works

copy After the Robin Thicke and Marvin Gaye court case was settled this week it reminded me of something which has niggled away at me since my days as a design engineer, and that is that I don’t think the general public seem to really understand how innovation and creativity actually work.

Thicke and Pharrell lost the case, effectively having to cough up half the profits generated by their adorable rape song, for the crime of ripping off Marvin Gaye. It didn’t directly copy, apparently, but it had ‘the same feel’, and that was enough for them to be adjudged as having exploited Gaye’s creativity unfairly. And as I understand it Pharrell and Thicke were the ones who pre-emptively sued the Gaye family too, so it’s hard to have a shred of sympathy for them, but the verdict still doesn’t sit well with me.

Put as simply and briefly as possible, innovation is copying. The two are pretty much the same thing.

Not only are copying and innovation the same thing, but they are a crucial part of what makes humans humans. The ability to imitate the success of others and to pass that on to other people is the foundation of our entire culture and every advance in technology or knowledge in our history. The tiny incremental changes some people make in passing things on are ‘innovation’, and they are important, but inseparable from the importance of copying and imitation.

In fact, the definition of innovation used, until very recently, to be more along the lines of ‘making a small change to an existing idea’, instead of now, where it seems to be almost synonymous with invention.

I remember this very clearly from my product design career. In the field of technological innovation the myth of The Lone Inventor has a powerful hold, and I think the same myth distorts people’s understanding of the arts too. There was also this weird inability to see past the almost entirely fictitious Eureka Moment, generally achieved by a solitary person whilst in the bath thinking of something totally different, where they would solve the whole problem in a moment of clarity and change the world forever.

That image is total and utter bollocks. It’s like we’ve all collectively forgotten the cliché about genius being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Sometimes clichés exist for a reason.

You look at the greatest creative minds of our time, like Charles Darwin or Mozart. Even Mozart borrowed (or indeed just plain stole) elements of melody for The Magic Flute and presumably all sorts of other stuff, and the discovery of evolution with natural selection was made so inevitable by the progress of global scientific thought which preceded it that it was actually discovered by at least two people at the same time. Probably more, if we’re being honest.

The Lone Inventor pretty much doesn’t exist. The Eureka Moment pretty much doesn’t exist. All of human creativity, innovation and progress is overwhelmingly down to people copying from one another, making tiny changes, and those changes which are most beneficial surviving to be copied by the next bunch of copiers. Had Mozart never existed we would still have had incredible symphonies. Had Einstein never existed we would still have discovered relativity – it’s the very banality of the creative process which makes it so robust. A log becomes a wheel, which becomes a wheelbarrow, becomes a cart, becomes a carriage, becomes a car, becomes a flying Delorean.

“Although the impact of creative ideas and products can sometimes be profound, the mechanisms through which an innovation comes about can be very ordinary.” – Robert Weisberg, a psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia. The quote is taken from this really interesting essay on the nature of creativity.

The technology industry is totally obsessed with capturing patents, to the extent that they celebrate and reward the patenting of pretty much anything no matter how pointless or whether or not it results in a useful device or product, to the extent that they will trumpet the number of patents they hold above any mention of actually creating something useful.

In fact, far from signifying any kind of creativity, patents are generally just used as a commercial tool to hobble the competition and as such are basically there to hinder creativity and progress rather than encourage it. And to make matters worse, patents are frequently awarded for things which are complete and utter bollocks. Things which are way too obvious, way too broad or vague, or are just plain common sense or common knowledge are awarded patents all the time.

It was a fucking minefield, honestly, and when I think about the amount of time I have personally wasted trying to think of needlessly circuitous ways to circumvent stupid patents, or just to be absolutely certain that something was miles away from a particular patent, well beyond the realms of common sense, out of fear of lawsuits, it makes me want to smash my head against my desk. It was anti-innovation, and the creative industries are in danger of being sucked into this particular quicksand too, if we aren’t careful.

Art is based upon imitation. Pretty much everyone learns by imitating their heroes, and if they don’t directly learn that way then they’ll get round to it at some point. We have established forms of poetry to which people choose to conform, Western music uses all the same basic building blocks, and some of our most respected artistic output and beloved cultural achievements are in the sphere of folk culture, which is pretty much defined by liberal copying, plus mistakes and fucking about. That’s what makes it good, what makes it fun, and that is where its richness comes from.

Some of our most respected musicians’ creative contributions were pretty minimal, if you look at it. Billie Holiday is a legend, but all she did was take the voice she was born with, hone it, and use it incredibly well singing other people’s songs again and again – existing material. And she is revered. And I can’t think of anyone who would argue with her right to be so.

John Louis from Debt Records and Louis Barabbas and the Bedlam Six has written a really nice post about how impossible it is to disentangle your influences from what you yourself create, as well as the near-impossibility of creating anything genuinely new within the relatively narrow confines of Western pop music, which is incredibly rigidly defined in scope and structure.

We’ve been here before of course, with the hand-wringing over mash-ups and samples, and there is a very real problem behind the idea of unfettered freedom of copying, imitating and repurposing. If some unknown musician writes a great riff or a great chorus which a commercial juggernaut like, say, Beyoncé or Chris Martin happens to hear in a pub and they then steal that riff, they could make millions off it without ever having to acknowledge the contribution of the person they are nicking it from.

You could argue, and I think it’s a dodgy argument but not entirely without merit, that if that unknown artist can ride the coat-tails of the success of the people nicking their riff or their melody then they might be adequately recompensed by an entirely free market – after all, without the marketing machine and resources of the Coldploncé machine that riff itself didn’t have nearly as much commercial value anyway. I appreciate that argument, but I don’t buy it entirely.

But we have to remember that protection is supposed to encourage creativity and innovation to flourish. And if it is to do this we need to understand how this stuff works. We need to copy and we need to imitate, not because sometimes it’s okay or sometimes it’s unavoidable, but because it is at the absolute core of the concept of creativity. Copying and sharing are the mechanisms by which innovation works, and participation is the engine which drives them.

We may well need legal protection for original thought in order to keep people participating, in order to keep the engine of creativity running, but if we try to do it by destroying the mechanisms which that engine is powering then our efforts will be entirely self-defeating.

I dread to think of musicians deliberately hobbling their own work out of fear it might sound a bit too much like this, that or the other and that they might therefore get sued. And then getting sued anyway because someone they’d never heard of wrote something similar back in 1964, died ten years ago, and now Universal own the rights. It works like that in technology development and it is a complete waste of time, energy, resources and ideas. And we all know who would dominate in that kind of landscape, don’t we: the fucks with the meanest lawyers and the deepest pockets.

If we don’t step back from this completely misguided fairytale of artists creating entirely original work in a complete fucking vacuum then we run the very real risk of severely paralysing the creative process across our entire musical culture.

Still, it was nice to see that smug prick Robin Thicke finally getting telt, wasn’t it.

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Fucking Hell, Elvis Perkins is Back

Elvis Perkins‘ last album Elvis Perkins in Dearland was released back in something like 2009. That, in case you were wondering, is fucking ages ago. The last I heard, in fact, he had retired from music to write books.

This new album snuck out so completely under the radar (it came out a couple of weeks ago) that I had no idea it even existed, and I absolutely fucking love his first two records. Stepping down from XL Records, which was a slightly incongruous partnership in the first place, he’s actually self-released this one which perhaps explains why whichever PR company they used didn’t check the internet for people who were already fans and would probably cover the album.

And never mind PR, I am pretty shocked about how little chatter it seemed to generate on social media. The Guardian were all over Dearland, but I just haven’t seen anyone mention this. And that’s odd because, despite apparently being a rather more stripped-down collection of songs recorded on the fly over the course of a few years, this still sounds like pretty classic Elvis Perkins territory. It’s weirder, perhaps. Maybe more in the wonky end of the spectrum, occupying territory a little closer to Timber Timbre than the big band stuff on Dearland or the pacier honky-tonk of Ash Wednesday, but nevertheless, something which existing fans seem very likely to love.

The two teaser tracks have plenty of odd noises on them, and the discordant mini-cacophony at the end of Hogus Pogus bodes very well for the album itself, but I can’t really tell you much more than that until I’ve heard the whole thing. And even tracking that down took me bloody ages. To save yourself a Google nightmare, click here if you want to buy a copy.

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Jonnie Common and Le Thug in London on the 21st March

jonnie and le thug london

Yep, along with our pals at Postcards, we are having a bit of a Song, by Toad Records night down in London on Saturday 21st March. Jonnie Common and Le Thug are making the trip down South to play at the Shacklewell Arms in Dalston.

You all know both bands pretty well by now I would imagine (and there are two awesome videos at the bottom of the page in case you don’t) but the short, short version is ‘idiosyncratic electronic pop music’ and ‘dreamy, electronic shoegaze’ respectively.

I’ve said this a lot recently, but getting Scottish bands out of Scotland is surprisingly hard. The supportiveness of the local audience is fantastic, but for a band from Scotland to really make headway I tend to think that getting down to London as often as possible is pretty key. Depending on where you draw the line around it, London has three times the population of Scotland, for starters, but just the petrol to drive down there in the van is upwards of £200.

So for those of you in London, or with friends down there, please do try and encourage people to come along to this. It would be great to see you, and you will get to see two awesome bands who might not make it down South all that often.

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Psychic Soviets

psysov Ninety percent of the bands I’ve been writing about on Song, by Toad recently have been introduced to me in conversation with James from Passion Pusher, and this is another one. So you can add ‘unoriginal’ to ‘tedious, pompous and alcoholic’ when you tell people about Song, by Toad from now on.

Psychic Soviets is guitar music made by people who seem to like The Fall a lot. Personally, I’ve never really listened to The Fall (oh stop it, you only have one life, and only so many hours for listening to music) so I don’t know if that is an entirely fair point to make, but from what little I’ve heard of The Fall and of bands other people compare to The Fall, I think it’s probably fair to say.

I don’t mean that as an insult though. Generally when someone says ‘sounds a bit like The Fall’ they are talking about a band I really like, and pretty much all I ever mean by it is ‘jolting, shouty, and an awesome racket’. Which is what this is.

The bass brings order, the guitar stumbles drunkenly all over the place, and the singing is more a drunken harangue than a serenade of any sort, and it’s ace – raucous and energetic, but still kinda playful.

Given the crap Scotland seems, on aggregate, to embrace as its favourite music I am always amazed by the number of excellent bands who seem to just fire out free stuff on Bandcamp, never promote it, and never really get any recognition. But then, if that wasn’t how I felt about things then I guess I’d never have bothered starting a blog. Listen to this. It’s ace.

 

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Next Week’s BAD FUN: BeckyBecky, FROTH and Chrissy Barnacle

Our next round of BAD FUN shows kicks off next week, with the fantastic Becky Becky coming up from Brighton. I wrote about their debut album a while back – Good Morning Midnight. I know both Pete and Gemma from their respective previous projects (Woodpecker Wooliams and Art Pedro, since you ask) and I really like this stuff. It’s really dark electro synth pop, and this isn’t normally my kind of territory admittedly, but I really like this album.

The show is at Henry’s Cellar Bar on Thursday, with advance tickets available here as per usual. Henry’s is getting nicer by the day under new ownership at the moment, and they’ve even got Williams and Joker on tap now too, so I hope to see you there. I am most excited!

Also on the bill will be a couple of Glasgow newcomers – FROTH and Chrissy Barnacle. FROTH have been described as the best band in Glasgow at the moment by people I generally trust to be right about music, and I really enjoyed them the only time I’ve seen them play, which was at the Passion Pusher cassette launch late last year. The recordings on their Bandcamp page are pretty clean actually, but live they are loose and splenetic and ace, and I am delighted to bring your their first Edinburgh show.

I am not entirely sure if this is Chrissy Barnacle‘s first Edinburgh show too, but I sort of guess it might be. Her stuff is rather more delicate and gentle, with a lovely sense of uncertainty about it. I happened across her name on a bill with a couple of other people I like and she has a lovely four-song EP with strings on her Bandcamp page, and I am really interested to hear what she sounds like live.

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New Garden of Elks Single

Garden of Elks – SWAP from Song, by Toad on Vimeo.

The Garden of Elks debut album A Distorted Sigh is coming out on Song, by Toad Records in April, and this is the first single.

The video, like the song, cavorts joyously along for a couple of minutes and then packs it in – no fussing, no unnecessary embellishment, no fucking about. That’s pretty much what the album is like too, and that is why I love it.

We’re currently booking gigs around the UK for them to celebrate the release, and they’re playing Edinburgh and Glasgow with Broken Records for the Scottish launches. Pre-order the album on cassette or vinyl from here.

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The Holy Modal Rounders – Skydivers

Even now, after all this time, I can forget that my parents used to listen to some absolutely mental shit in their day. It’s a thing most of us learn at some point, but still something I seem to manage to forget on a regular basis – probably because when I make compilations for them I have a think about some of the stuff I am into these days, stuff which is far weirder than I myself used to listen to, and decide on their behalf that it’s probably a bit much for the old fuckers.

My folks have just returned from a round-the-world trip on a container ship because, erm, apparently that’s what you do if you’re nearly seventy and finding retirement a bit boring, and we just had a bit of a chat about the trip and various other bits and bobs because we haven’t really spoken for weeks now. Apparently the mobile reception is shit in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Anyhow, they signed off with the somewhat throwaway comment that I should listen to Skydivers by the Holy Modal Rounders, because it’s brilliant.

Cool, I thought. I like the Holy Modal Rounders. Apparently during the height of the super-elaborate and boorishly pretentious wave of proggy rock-operas in the sixties Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber reacted by stripping music back to absolutely minimal basics again and going a bit crazy with it. I actually have Holy Modal Rounders 1 & 2 on vinyl. The lyrics are weird as fuck and the nasal vocals take a little getting used to, but it’s pretty straight-up and basic, albeit brilliant, psychedelic folk. And that’s about as much as I’m familiar with.

Skydivers, on the other hand, is little bit more in the, erm, batshit crazy camp. It’s from their third album Indian War Whoop, and it adds a lot of delirious organ to their signature sound, but more importantly, it throws every last mental idea spinning around their crazy heads into a blender and smears the result all over the resulting record like pizza base. I’ve heard my dad sing versions of these songs my whole life and never known that that they came from this record, or that what I was hearing was such a… well, such a palatable interpretation of such intense and weird music.

You can hear most of the album at this YouTube link. Have a listen. Skydivers is by far the most beautiful moment on the album (apart from the missing songs of course, which I haven’t heard yet), and some of the violin in particularly is just hauntingly lovely. But it’s still tense and wandering and has a definite sense of simmering menace lurking amongst its lovelier moments. And, y’know, it still contains lyrics like “…looking for all the world like an umbrella that has seen too much, and forgotten nothing.”

Even at nearly forty years of age myself, and even after the two mad old bastards have just returned from indulging their retirement by riding a container ship through the Panama Canal, I still seem to manage to forget that my folks are way weirder and way cooler than I tend to give them credit for.

I don’t think I can take all the blame though. I mean, my Mum bought a fucking Lighthouse Family album for fuck’s sake. She bought one on purpose. She may have bought several. But then they lulled me to sleep as a child by singing me this absolutely crazy stuff. No wonder kids grow up confused.

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Dune Witch Trials

dunewitchtrials There are some very, very good things happening in (mostly) Glasgow at the moment. Guitar music got lo-fi a few years ago, and now it’s not just lo-fi, it just doesn’t fucking care about anything and is prepared to tell you so aggressively and repeatedly.

Giving the impression that you’re bothering your arse even in the very slightest is anathema to this lot, it seems. Not that the music’s shite or that they can’t play or anything, but the whole aesthetic is just completely steeped in belligerent indifference.

Dune Witch Trials don’t have a lot of material, and although some of their tunes are outright hummable pop songs, they still have a fantastically throwaway feel to them – loose and rough, and energetic. The gents involved are actually part of Herbert Powell – apparently the best band in Glasgow at the moment, depending somewhat on who you ask, but these songs are structured a bit more in the classic pop tune vein, and I like them for that.

Drums, guitar, vocals – a riff, a quick solo, and over by the two-minute mark. Perfect.

As soon as I can I am going to start getting some of these guys through to Edinburgh to play. I’ve a lot of gigs already in the calendar, which I’ll have to work around, but in amongst this group of bands there are some real gems knocking around.