In pictures: the Board of Fun zine launch, 30 November 2012

Thanks to all those who made it out to the Dentist in Hackney, London, to celebrate the launch of the Board of Fun zine, the James McKean download (see post below) and also zines by Zoe Taylor and Sean King. It was a great night, full of music and photocopied bits of paper. We had songs from Jerry DeCicca of the Black Swans, me (Yo Zushi) and James McKean, with assorted backing from Phil Brunner, Ned Crowther, Ross Palmer and Dan “Robbie Robertson” McKean. Information about the zines (and where to get them, if you missed out) will be in a later post.

Are you in these pictures? Let us know.

Zines from Board of Fun, Zoe Taylor and Sean King!

Zines from Board of Fun, Zoe Taylor and Sean King!

The stairs, bar and entrance... all in one!

The stairs, bar and entrance… all in one

No heating

No heating

Vitamin C

Vitamin C

Not Gael

Not Gael

Jerry DeCicca

Jerry DeCicca

Comedy/tragedy

Comedy/tragedy

Yo Zushi

Yo Zushi

Dan McKean (not Gael Garcia Bernal)

Dan McKean (not Gael Garcia Bernal)

Contemplation

Contemplation (“Is that Gael Garcia Bernal?”)

In cider knowledge

In cider knowledge

Mak Murtic

Mak Murtic

Standing in the doorway

Standing in the doorway

James McKean

James McKean

Ralph and Amy

Ralph and Amy

Backroom bar

Backroom bar

Ross Palmer

Ross Palmer

Zoe Taylor and Sasha Ilyukevich

Zoe Taylor and Sasha Ilyukevich

Phil Brunner

Phil Brunner

Let there be light

Let there be light

Timothy Street

Timothy Street

Images by Hana Zushi, (c) 2012.

Board of Fun Download Singles Club #001: “Wave Upon Wave” by James McKean and the Blueberry Moon (download here)

Finally, the download link to James McKean’s free single “Wave Upon Wave”.

James McKean is best known as the frontman of the ‘A’ Train, a London-based rock band that has been delivering a “melodic wall of sound like a low-key Arcade Fire” (Digital Fix) since the mid-2000s. The Fly called the ‘A’ Train’s single “Black and White Memories” a “sublime debut”; Tom Robinson of BBC 6 Music praised their “lovely, organic, earthy sound”.

"Wave Upon Wave"

“Wave Upon Wave” is James’s debut solo single and is also the first instalment of the Board of Fun Download Singles Club.

The B-side, “Brave Old Boat”, can be downloaded here.

Coming soon: Board of Fun zine and free download singles club

We’ve been away for a short time but we haven’t just been sitting around in a circle, talking about cars that run entirely on water.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be putting out a zine featuring original artwork by Oliver Talkes, Zoe Taylor, Sean King, Yo Zushi and others; new writing from Ross Palmer; as well as interviews with a few musicians/artists you’ll want to read about – find out who, soon!

Also, on 29 October, we’re going to launch our new download singles club with “Wave Upon Wave”, the debut solo single from the London-based James McKean & the Blueberry Moon.

Return of the Mac: James McKean

“Wave Upon Wave” comes with the previously unreleased new song “The Brave Old Boat”.

The A-side features the deft touch of James’s brother Daniel on lap steel and electric guitar, as well as backing vocals from Laura Gimson of Letters to the Front.

The Blueberry Moon was originally started as a studio collaboration between James – best known as lead singer of The ‘A’ Train (‘A lovely, organic, earthy sound’ – Tom Robinson, BBC 6 Music) – and producer/multi-instrumentalist Ross Palmer (Yo Zushi, Great Days of Sail). The project has now developed into a six-piece live band, which has started to play regularly around London.

Find details about their shows at: myspace.com/theatrainmusic

Praise for James’s day-job band, the ‘A’ Train:

“A lovely, organic, earthy sound” – Tom Robinson, BBC 6 Music

“Black And White Memories is a sublime debut single” – The Fly

“Timeless pop/rock that connects as deeply as you could dare to dream– The Mag

“A melodic and soft wall of sound like a low-key Arcade Fire” – 7 out of 10, The Digital Fix

“They’ve created something that sounds so new . . . [The 2011 song] ‘Moon Water’ is so fantastically catchy, it damn well deserves to be an immediate hit!” – Hitsmith.com

“Outwardly working through a variety of styles, there’s an underlying air of melancholy which seems to pervade all of these songs . . . A thumbs up” – 7 out of 10, Tasty Fanzine

More news to come. Stay tuned!

Ross Palmer on “What Makes You Think You’re the One?” by Fleetwood Mac

Old dog, new tricks: Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk

Lindsey Buckingham did not want the follow-up to Rumours to sound like Rumours. That much we can say for sure: he infuriated the engineer and co-producer Ken Caillat by asking for sounds completely alien to his sensibilities (almost literally so: Buckingham would insist that Caillat turn the knobs of whatever device they were using 180 degrees from wherever they were set before he’d start recording a take) and bemused his band mates by playing them the Clash’s first record and trying to convince them that this is what they needed to sound like!

It was the late 1970s and Buckingham was convinced that his band had to evolve or die. History proved him right – their generation of artists either had to come to terms with the new music and fashions or wait a few years to start playing the nostalgia circuit. The majority updated their haircuts and wardrobes, bought synthesisers and drum machines, pushed up the sleeves of their pastel sports jackets and tried to make post-new-wave pop hits.

Buckingham should have realised that he was on a hiding to nothing. For all his good intentions, he couldn’t make Fleetwood Mac’s slick Californian navel-gazing into raucous English punk. But what the band came up with in the attempt was much more interesting than if they’d have succeeded. The appeal of Tusk lies in the tension between Buckingham’s aims for the record and the band’s failure to quite get there; between his own nervous, fractured songs and the material given to him by Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie.

Lacking the woody warmth of Rumours (partly, perhaps, due to the album being recorded on an early digital system called Soundstream, rather than to analogue tape), Tusk’s Buckingham-penned songs turn away from mainstream LA rock, only for those written by Nicks and McVie to attempt to return to it. The attempted fusion of slick, albeit heartfelt, West Coast AOR with this raw and ragged new music resulted in a record that was uncategorisable: Fleetwood Mac gone askew, covert punk rock on a superstar budget.

Buckingham had recorded demos for his songs in his house and, enamoured with the sounds he got by recording in his bathroom, had a replica of his bathroom built in the studio. On some songs, he played all the instruments himself, painstakingly Xeroxing his lo-fi demos in a hi-fi studio. “What Makes You Think You’re the One?”, fortunately, was one song that he let Mick Fleetwood and John McVie play on (though not the fastidious and precise Christine). Buckingham has remarked that something about hearing that drum sound in his headphones, with its clangy slap-back delay, turned Fleetwood into an animal. His unhinged performance is hilarious, the highlight of the track: he beats his snare drum mercilessly, four to the bar for the entire song. It’s a joy to hear such a tasteful musician playing so uninhibitedly, throwing away all restraint, while Buckingham bashes out incongruously chirpy piano quavers and cackles maniacally.

Critics didn’t know quite what to make of all this and neither did the public. Tusk sold “only” four million copies in the US, less than a quarter of Rumours’s figures. Yet Tusk’s critical reputation has soared in recent years as West Coast-influenced artists such as Midlake, Best Coast and Jonathan Wilson have resurrected the old Fleetwood Mac sound and made them a cool reference point again – something that was hard to envisage 15 years ago but welcome and deserved for a group whose work was never less than sincere.

Live rehearsal version:

Studio version:

Yo Zushi: Back to the soil

The Simpsons, Woody Guthrie, Gone with the Wind and Neil Young – and what they tell us about America’s obsession with its land.

The novelist John Cheever once wrote of a “sense of sanctuary that is the essence of love”. When George H W Bush spoke out against The Simpsonsduring his 1992 re-election campaign, pledging to make the American family “more like the Waltons”, it was perhaps this sense of sanctuary that he was gesturing towards. The 41st president’s ideal family inhabited a uniquely American, mythical landscape in which good was unambiguous and true evil unknown; theirs was a mountain community sustained in spirit by the knowledge of its own rightness.

The Simpsons, on the other hand, offers irreverence and parody in place of earnestness – Matt Groening’s comedy caters for a sensibility that takes for granted the bogusness of the old-fashioned, folksy fantasy of home and derives much of its humour from its subversion. In one episode, Homer decides to uproot his family to a dilapidated farm to escape a duel. Far from bemoaning his fate, he sees the return to the land as a “big chance”, an opportunity for self-definition: “The Simpsons will be reborn as a bunch of gap-toothed bumpkins!” His son, Bart, declares that he will “dig an outhouse”; his daughter Lisa offers to “weed the floor”; his wife, Marge, meanwhile, mutters: “I’ll repress the rage I’m feeling.”

Where the Waltons lived more or less contentedly at the foot of a mountain in Virginia, accepting the hardships that came their way almost as a test of their national values (the Great Depression? a cinch), The Simpsons can only satirise the middle-American dream of a home close to the soil. The kind of “rage” Marge feels at the unfairness of her situation is something that cultural conservatives work hard to keep at bay – your pain is God’s way of reminding you of your American pluck, they seem to suggest, as they battle health-care programmes and redistributive taxes.

The Marge joke is funny because it has the ring of truth to it: it’s a struggle when you’re living in what amounts to a dump; it’s a struggle when you’re broke and you’re close to powerless to change the situation. Homer’s fantasy of the family’s rebirth – which echoes dimly the experience of the nation’s first European settlers – can be sustained only so long as that all-too-reasonable anger at miserable circumstances is swallowed down (maybe with a few cans of Duff beer).

After the gold rush

So what’s with the US and its romanticisation of living by the land? Perhaps there’s something in the ground itself. In Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone with the Wind, the Irish expat and Southern landowner Gerald O’Hara lectures his daughter, Scarlett: “Land is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything . . . ’Tis the only thing worth working for, worth fighting for – worth dying for.” The folksinger Woody Guthrie had a more sceptical view on property ownership; in “This Land Is Your Land”, widely regarded as an alternative national anthem, he insists: “This land was made for you and me.” We should be willing to work, fight and die for it all, from the “golden valley” to the “endless highway” – not just the bits on your lease.

Farmers till it, soldiers march across it and spill blood on it, landowners build on it. Miners crawl into it, blast it with explosives, sift through it for what they can use. When Johnny Cash died in 2003, Bob Dylan described the country singer’s voice in “I Walk the Line” as sounding like it came “from the middle of the earth”: “Truly he is what the land and country is all about,” he wrote. A century or so earlier, others heard another voice from the middle of the earth – that of gold.

Neil Young is a Canadian but, like his fellow countryman Robbie Robertson of the Band, he has long been regarded as one of America’s most perceptive chroniclers in pop music. He explores the territory once again with his latest album, Americana – a collection of US folk songs from Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” to the traditional “Tom Dula”. Here he turns the campfire sing-along “Clementine” into a pounding, menacing rocker that brings back to the fore the death and horror contained within the lyrics. The song is about the “forty-niners”, the first wave of migrants to descend upon California during the gold rush of 1849. Clementine, a miner’s daughter, slips and falls into a river; her “ruby lips” blow bubbles on the surface but she drowns in “foaming brine” as her lover looks on helplessly. It’s an angry song and the video shows us grainy archive footage of labourers, who’re probably struggling to get by.

Young takes us to the sanctuary of a song that many of us sang in childhood and shows us it wasn’t really a sanctuary after all. The lyrics are the same as they always were but the comforting affectlessness of the school-choir version is gone. I wondered how I’d not noticed the sadness of the words. There’s no glamour here, no certainty of right and wrong. Life is unfair – Clementine dies as a result of a trivial accident (her foot snags against a branch and she trips). We may be willing to fight and die for land – but what if that same land is what we’re fighting against and what causes our loved ones to die?*

*When Henry David Thoreau went into the woods of Massachusetts in the mid-19th century to write Walden, his stay was intended, in part, as an affront to passivity and resignation. Though eager to “suck out all the marrow of life” in all its sublimity, he was open to the possibility that nature was “mean”.

Yo Zushi‘s most recent album of songs, “Notes for ‘Holy Larceny'”, was released by Pointy Records (£9.99). His new song “Careless Love” can be downloaded for free here.
(The above article first appeared on Newstatesman.com)

Ross Palmer on “We’re All Alone” by the Walker Brothers

In shades: Scott Walker in 1968

“We’re All Alone” was a standard almost the minute that Boz Scaggs finished writing it. Released on his masterwork, Silk Degrees, in 1976, within a year it had been covered by Frankie Valli, Bruce Murray, Rita Coolidge, the Three Degrees and the Walker Brothers. It’s been covered plenty more times since.

It’s easy to see what would attract a singer to such a song, but Scott Walker is no ordinary singer and in light of his work since “The Electrician” remade his career in 1978, one does have to wonder whether he sang the song with his arm twisted behind his back. Nonetheless the Walkers’ version is one of the most appealing, the track mixed drier and closer than the cavernous Scaggs version, Scott’s vocal managing to combine the warmth that Coolidge’s alto brought to the song with some of the soaring lightness of Boz’s performance.

Such AOR covers are not what Scott Walker is known for today. To the extent that he is known at all, it’s for his quartet of solo albums from the late 1960s Scotts – 1 through 4 – and the three arty, avant-rock albums he’s made since the Walkers broke up for the second time, a sound that was previewed on his contributions (including “The Electrician”) to the last Walker Brothers record, Nite Flights. These records are apt to leave reviewers groping for superlatives. Or scratching their heads.

Like many others, I often feel humbled in the presence of latter-day Scott Walker. His work is clearly that of a rare imagination and aesthetic sensibility. He creates music that wouldn’t occur to most people and his sonic curiosity is obvious. Yet while prettiness and beauty are not the same thing, they’re not mutually exclusive either and since his music began moving away from conventional tonality, melody and rhythm in the 1990s, Walker has limited his scope as a songwriter. For him to present straightforward expressions of everyday feelings like love, hope or empathy in the declamatory, highly theatrical voice he has sung in since Tilt would be ridiculous; he knows it, so he doesn’t.

But people (myself included) like music that expresses of love, hope and empathy. Walker’s writing is now so ornate, so stagey (“Samuel Beckett at La Scala”, as one critic described it), that it can no longer be a vehicle for reflection on the small moments in life, the minor disappointments and simple consolations. Death, disease, pestilence, terrorism – these are the subjects he’s left himself. And while that is radical subject matter within popular music (at least, outside of thrash and death metal), surely what would be truly radical would be a sensibility that allowed for both “The Cockfighter” and covers of “We’re All Alone”, that treated both the same? I’m not being conservative here; I’m not arguing that he should stop recording the sound of himself punching dead animal carcasses. Tilt and The Drift are excellent records. But his first producer, John Franz, was right when he judged Walker one of the great ballad singers and it’s a shame that we no longer get to hear him do something he was so good at.

Yet Walker is on his own little-travelled path – from teen idol to intrepid adventurer in form and sound – and it’s reassuring to know that such journeys can be made by anyone, wherever they start from. I’m looking forward to hearing the found-sound records that Justin Bieber will no doubt be making in 2050.

Ross Palmer on “Let Me Be the One” by the Carpenters

Songs of pain: Karen Carpenter

Derided by rock fans in their era, the Carpenters have taken the long way round to critical credibility and are now cool with the critics and the kids (or, at least, those with catholic tastes). While they deserve any praise that comes their way, this reappraisal has had a tendency to put – and perhaps this is inevitable after her heartbreakingly early death from anorexia-related heart failure – heavy emphasis on the melancholy and perceived emotional distress in Karen Carpenter’s vocals. Tragedy, after all, is a prism through which rock fans are used to relating to their musical icons.

One of the unarguably great singers in popular music, Karen certainly had a wistful quality to her alto and she does sound at home on songs such as “Goodbye to Love” and “Rainy Days and Mondays”. But there is a goofy, corny playfulness to many of the Carpenters’ records (I’m thinking of such songs as “There’s a Kind of Hush”, “Top of the World” and “Close to You”). To downplay this and to see Karen purely as a tragic figure is to do her a disservice as an interpretive singer and fundamentally to misunderstand the band’s music.

“Let Me Be the One” comes from a rich seam of Carpenters songs that contain elements from both poles of their music, songs that mingle the light and shade, the major and minor, to create something idiosyncratically bittersweet, something sui generis. You find it in “Superstar”, “This Masquerade”, “Yesterday Once More”, “I Need to Be in Love”, in their version of “Ticket to Ride”, in the song in question and most perfectly in the first-dance classic “We’ve Only Just Begun”.

It would be remiss not mention Richard Carpenter’s contribution to all this. Let me just say, then, that he’s one of the finest arrangers ever to set foot in a recording studio, a fine pianist, a consistently strong songwriter and, crucially, an astute finder of songs that suited Karen’s voice and the Carpenters’ sound, of which he was the architect.