Friday, 18 September 2009

Week 5 - Three Degrees of Jeff Mangum

A funny thing happened on the way to this blog. I was looking into a band who I'd been listening to and realised he'd played some part in two other bands I liked. That man, as the title suggests, is Jeff Mangum. Perhaps shamefully, up until last week I didn't know who he was.

For those like me, he's the singer from Neutral Milk Hotel, the 1990s American indie/rock/psych-folk band. While they never hit the heights of stardom, they certainly flirted with it. Their second album - 1998's In an Aeroplane over the Sea - has become an almost cult recording. Some great offbeat tunes ranging from psychedelia through folk to quite heavy rock.

Neutral Milk Hotel, I've just discovered, were my second introduction to Mangum.
The first was Apples in Stereo.

Now, while he wasn't a member of these, Louisiana's NMH are intertwined with Colorado's Apples in Stereo. The latter's Robert Schneider first met Mangum in Ruston, LA, having moved from South Africa at an early age.

The pair went to school together, but Schneider packed up and attended college in Denver, where he formed Apples in Stereo. It was here Schneider set up the Elephant 6 recording company, alongside Bill Doss, Will Cullen Hart and Jeff Mangum. So, four friends from school set up a recording company and, in doing so, also created some of the toppermost American indie bands of the 1990s.

Mangum, along with Doss and Hart, were also part of Olivia Tremor Control, a band I have only just recently discovered - thus being the third part of the Mangum trilogy. Olivia Tremor Control are an intriguing and quintessential American 1990s indie/college rock band formed in Athens, Georgia.

So, there we are. And for those interested, you can now download a song by each of the Elephant 6 artists mentioned.

The first is The King of Carrot Flowers, Parts Two and Three by Neutral Milk Hotel. What a great introduction! "I love you Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, I love you." From quite an odd and quavery beginning, the song then launches in to a fantastically uptempo rock number.

Next is Lucky Charm by Apples in Stereo. I first heard this when it appeared in an episode of Teachers in the early 2000s. A pleasant, simple ditty that repeats itself in your head.

Finally is Hideaway by Olivia Tremor Control. Not very typical of the band, but this song is a wonderful example of blissful English shoegazing music taken across the pond and given the college rock treatment.


Friday, 11 September 2009

Week 4 - I've Got a Feeling You'll Have Heard of These

It may not be a surprise what this week's blog is about. Go anywhere this week - newspapers, magazines, music shops, computer games, tv shows - and you'll have been bombarded by this band.

I love the Beatles. For me, they're a world apart from anything else. So much so that, when people ask me who my favourite bands are, I never mention the Beatles. I think it's a waste of words as most people will admit to thinking the Beatles are one of their favourites.

In under a decade they totally changed modern music and their influence is still so apparent today - not just in bands such as Oasis. In fact, I find it quite poetic that, a few weeks after the Gallagher brothers called it a day, the Beatles will have up to 12 of their albums in the charts!

For four guys from Liverpool, they have had a quite preposterous impact, they even introduced Britain and the western world to sitars, reverse tracks and yoga.

But all the technical and cultural stuff aside, their music is what they're best known for - and quite rightly.

Just going through a list of their tracks is like looking at a 'best songs of all time' list. And all done in under ten years.

The Radio Times ran a feature a few weeks ago in which Paul McCartney spoke candidly about the longevity of the band, and his relationship with John Lennon. Also in this feature was a section where celebrities - including Sue Johnston, Michael Parkinson and Stuart Maconie - chose their favourite Beatles tracks

What a question to ask! As Maconie said, it's like asking someone to pick out their favourite line from Shakespeare - there's so much to choose from. The excellent Maconie being the main exception, most people chose the George Harrison number 'Something'. Now, I love that song: it's so laid back, romantic and blissful. However, I also love other perennial favourites such as She Loves You, Can't Buy Me Love, Ticket to Ride, Strawberry Fields Forever, All You Need Is Love... I could go on!

This week, I've decided to list some classic Beatles songs that never, or rarely at any rate, get mentioned as 'favourites'. Again, ending with the song that's been in my head most of this week.

Here goes:

  1. Across the Universe
    I think this might be my favourite Beatles song, full stop. But then again, I say that about most of their songs at times! Generally being a McCartney man, there's something magical about this Lennon number that just relaxes me and makes me happy. Plus Sanskrit is welcome in any song. I thought long and hard about putting this one is, as it is arguably the most popular of my choices and may be seen to be a cop-out. However, in my opinion it's not loved as much as it should be - so go on, start loving this more.....More, I said!

  2. Blackbird
    A brilliant McCartney number this, done well by Crosby, Stills & Nash too. When I saw McCartney play at Glastonbury in 04, he played this to an almost silent crowd of 90,000. A truly amazing moment - although not quite as good as the singalong to Hey Jude which took over the entire site and lasted for a good few hours after Macca had left the stage.

  3. Carry That Weight
    For some unknown reason, it's only in the past few years that I've really listened to and got into the later Beatles albums such as The White Album, Let It Be and Abbey Road. God knows why! Carry That Weight is part of the medley which ends Abbey Road and is rumoured to be about encouraging the band to carry on after the death of their manager Brian Epstein.
    For me, it's just a glorious anthemic sing-song that could go on for hours if it wanted. It's also arguably one of their most influencial pieces that glam and BritPop certainly took to heart.

  4. I'll Follow the Sun
    I first came listening to this when I found a copy of an album by The Quarrymen - the Beatles in a previous guise - and loved it. After a few listens it occured to me that I'd heard it loads of times while growing up, as it's on the 1964 album Beatles for Sale. A melancholy little McCartney ditty with a great guitar twinkles, it's a beauty of a song.

  5. Things We Said Today
    For Christ's sake! This was a B-side and recorded just because they needed music for their film, A Hard Day's Night. For how many other acts would this have been the pinnacle of their careers?! Great harmony between Macca and...well, Macca. Double-track heaven. It's also a bit heavier than the other ones I've chosen.

  6. I've Got a Feeling
    With an intro Shed Seven have ripped off, this raucous rooftop song from Let It Be is just glorious late-60s rock. A lovely feelgood tune to rock out to. I love Lennon's verses in this too. Brilliant. Enjoy this footage from their rooftop concert on 30 January, 1969.

  • Beatles fans, also take a look at the Music Makes Me blog, you'll see a link for it on the right. There you'll find a great project - re-creating all Beatles albums, but using unusual cover versions of the songs. Check it out...!

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Week 3 - The Death of Summer

So, judging by the weather, it looks like summer's gone and that's what I've been mourning this week. I've been remembering those glorious days spent with the grass and sun.

However, I don't mind - to pretend I do seems really dumb.

It amazes me how many good songs relate to the passing of the seasons, and the eagle-eyed among you may have already picked up on one which fits this past week nicely.

But more on that one later...

Firstly, I'd like to run down some other songs that pop into my head during the year.

So, let's start at the beginning, eh?

  1. Death Cab for Cutie - New Year
    There are so many songs celebrating Christmas, but what about the other festival seven days later? Not so many, just this one, New Year's Kiss by Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, and New Year's Day by U2. However, the last one seems to be an anthem for Solidarity rather than a celebration of the start of a new year.
    But this song by Death Cab for Cutie is a belting little number, with fierce chimes and lyrics revealing a dawning realisation that, even though a new year may have dawned, very little changes.
    Plus they are named after a song by the Bonzos - never a bad idea - and Ben Gibbard has arguably one of the best voices in indie rock, as he also demonstrates with The Postal Service.

  2. Bangles - Hazy Shade of Winter
    There are two songs that sum up winter for me: this and I Smell Winter by The Housemartins. Of course, I could have gone for that, or even the original Simon & Garfunkel version of this song, but this is a shameless excuse to see Susannah Hoffs on video. No contest is it? Art Garfunkel, complete with Marie Antoinette hairstyle, or Susannah Hoffs?!
    Anyway, on with the song...
    But look around, leaves are brown now
    And the sky is a hazy shade of winter

    Look around, leaves are brown
    There's a patch of snow on the ground...
    It conjures up a wonderful image of slush on busy streets near rusty brown railings separating the urban hustle from the brown, sleeping park the other side, complete with crisp air and the freezing smell of winter. However, the song itself tells of homelessness and dispair in the fierce winters of New York.

  3. Screeching Weasel - First Day of Summer
    Ah, you can't beat this. Feelgood US punk from the Chicago-born band and their Bark like a Dog album from the excellent Fat Wreck Chords stable. It's fair to say NOFX's Fat Mike and his record label soundtracked most of my teens, but I didn't get into Screeching Weasel until I reached university, where I also got into The Queers.
    These last two bands were obviously very much inspired by The Ramones, and it shows.
    This hi-tempo and anthemic number really sums up the time around mid-May when I look ahead to barbecues, Glastonbury, trips to Bridlington/Scarborough beaches and long days sat drinking, overlooking the Ouse in York.
    This optimism of a great summer is obvious in the lyrics here, but comes with a nice warning not to take those sunny days for granted:
    Come on now it's the first day of summer
    please don't let it slip by just try
    to squeeze all of the life out of it
  4. Ryan Adams - Halloween Head
    I've written plenty about Ryan Adams already, so I'll keep this one relatively brief.
    I love Halloween - the smell of bonfires, the hint of magic in the air, and the fancy dress parties where people dress up in all manner of weird get-up.
    Now, that picture to the right isn't the kind of Halloween Head Ryan Adams goes on about. He mentions having a head full of 'tricks and treats', a great image suggesting a mischievous mind.

But anyway, back to the summer-ending song that's been in my head all week.
It's a great slice of happiness from the Wirral four-piece who took their name from a character in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.
I heard somewhere that the arrangement in this song is reported to increase serotonin and release endorphins so you feel a rise in happiness. I'm no chemist, but I'm not sure about that. It certainly is a happy little ditty nonetheless.
The Boo Radleys remained underground for quite some time, recieving critical praise for their album Giant Steps. However, it was their 1995 hit Wake Up Boo! that shot them into the charts, peaking at number 9.
Anyway, have a listen for yourself and see if you can spot the quotes I ripped out of it at the start.