An Inward-Looking Love Affair with Weezer on Letterman, 1995

Journalist Suzanne Moore said, “it’s easier to write about something you hate than something you love”. She’s probably right. We can spend hours in the pub detailing why Bob from accounts is a prick, with an alphabetised mental list of his wrongdoings, shortcomings and fashion faux pas, yet Becky on reception is just “alright”, really. Although writing criticism by its very nature implies perceived authority, it’s much easier to not come across as self-important when you’re not telling people how objectively brilliant something is.

The fact is that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, and there’s a big difference between recommending a TV show or restaurant to a friend and waxing lyrical about something to the entire, incredibly diverse world. What I’m saying is subjective beliefs are absolutely fine but preaching the good word of Weezer to you is not necessarily my business. So, I can only apologise if I come across as some kind of musical Jehovah’s Witness, singing the hymn ‘Say It Ain’t So’ in to your intercom at a particularly unholy hour of your morning lie-in. You were expecting a package, but you got ‘90s geek rock.


I was deep in a YouTube rabbit hole. We’ve all been there… Accidentally spending our Tuesday evenings watching ‘try not to laugh’ compilations, a WWF bout from 1996, clips of Dale’s Supermarket Sweep, or whatever else the internet gods deliver us. But on this occasion, I stumbled upon a 23-year-old VHS upload of the American group Weezer performing ‘Say It Ain’t So’ on the Late Show with David Letterman.

As my ears pricked up and my pixelated eyes began to focus, I became transfixed. It reminded me of how I felt when I first heard ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and that’s a pretty big deal. Losing my Nirvana virginity triggered a chain of events that made music my hobby, my career, my life; leaving indelible marks on both my musical perceptions and taste. Considering the stature of both songs it may seem like a disproportionate comparison, but both had the same effect on me: I thought it was great, I wondered how I’d not heard it sooner, I wanted to hear it again and again, and I wanted to share it with friends.

Through social media, I did exactly that. Those people all thought it was… well, fine. Fine. Only fine?! It’s great! I mean, I do have the ability to look objectively and understand that it is a technically imperfect performance of a bog-standard rock song, but what the hell is objective about taste? Throughout the last month I’ve watched it around fifty times. Are they the idiots, or am I?

Regardless of subjectivity, I really want to try and explain what it is that sets it apart in my mind from other songs by Weezer and by countless other ‘90s rock groups. It might not make you like it, it may make you think me a moron, but it may also make you consider the reasons you have your own tastes.

1. Authenticity
To me, this is an authentic performance. It is an original composition. Every band member appears to have an emotional investment in their playing of the song. On national TV, they barely have a hairstyle between them – that is to say nothing seems manufactured or contrived – and therefore I believe what they’re doing and saying.

Of course, authenticity is entirely unquantifiable. Whether you identify with lyrical content, artist image, the geographical origins of the artist, or anything else; your perception of authenticity will in some way reflect your life experience, upbringing and previous musical taste. One comment on the video accuses Weezer of being “a group of social outcast nerds/geeks who started listening to nirvana then learned how to play instruments”. It’s a claim which is all too easy to make about countless rock bands in a post-Cobain America, but it’s one which could just as easily refer to me and my friends as teenagers in Britain. If Weezer did relate to Nirvana like I did, that may explain why I like their musical approach as well…

2. Simplicity
Musically, there’s a clear Nirvana comparison to be made through the quiet verse / loud chorus template of the ‘Say It Ain’t So’ sound. Kurt Cobain would stamp on a Boss DS-1 distortion pedal to make that change in dynamics and timbre, although there’s an even simpler approach from Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo who just uses his guitar’s volume knob to control the change. In a world of pedalboards and gizmos, this minimalist approach keeps one crunchy tone throughout, leaving the listener focused on the quality of the songwriting and not the variety of the sounds on display. There is a simplicity to the bones of the song too; its four-chord hook never bothered by a doubled chorus or cheesy key change overkill.

3. It’s Better Than the Studio Version
My obsession is as much about the performance as the song itself. I don’t watch, for example, this performance from last year and get even 1% of the same feeling. Features of the Letterman performance, such as drum fills and lead guitar parts, had been slightly developed since the recording of the studio version of the track. On top of this, the whole performance features a slightly quicker tempo and a satisfying, rawer guitar sound. Whether those changes were due to dissatisfaction with the studio version, or simply that they better reflected Weezer at that time, particularly Cuomo delivers his parts with more confidence and conviction. I therefore consider this Letterman performance to be the definitive version of ‘Say It Ain’t So’.

4. The Guitar Solo
This live version features one of my favourite guitar solos of all time. It’s not some virtuosic, faux-epic Guns ‘n’ Roses bullshit (thank God), but those bends wail, they’re emotional. The melody sits perfectly against the backing and, unlike on the overly clinical solo found on the studio version, the heavy vibrato technique which leaves other strings rattling through the engrossed Cuomo’s amp (3.05) perfectly encapsulates the vibrancy and the grit of this performance. The way Cuomo uses the same technique to let the final note hang in to the last chorus is even better, strangling every last breath out of his guitar’s neck.

5. The Chorus
Despite the heavier rock sounds of the guitars, ‘Say It Ain’t So’ unashamedly boasts a chorus just as catchy as pop songs with far greater reputations. Both Rivers and rhythm guitarist Brian Bell play and sing identical parts. No harmonies. No lead guitar parts to distract or complicate. It’s a team effort to deliver one simple idea as a straight down-the-line onslaught.

6. Mr. Matt Sharp
When watching the Letterman performance, it’s particularly hard to ignore bassist Matt Sharp, whose bad timing in the chorus would get him fired if he was standing still. However, his variety of leaps and poses, and the strumming techniques he attacks his bass with more than make up for this, enhancing the visual performance of the group no end. Despite his attention grabbing, he doesn’t come across as a cocky rock star; his moves are excitable but awkward. Plus, the way Sharp extends the word bubbling (0.50) is a perfect indicator of how he doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. While I’ve got a lot of time for the Radioheads of this world, it’s nice to hear something which has an outlet in humour alongside the serious subject matter found in the lyrics.

7. The Eyes
The other members may not match Sharp’s performance level physically, but they match his dedication. With frontman Cuomo, who was actually recovering from surgery and unable to walk without the aid of a cane (which you can even see hanging off of his mic stand), the performance is in the eyes. Take, for example, the possessed look he gives when he “wrestles with Jimmy” (0.48) or the moment of realisation that he is “drowning in the flood” (2.48), his eyes seeing the light after having kept them shut for the majority of the bridge.

8. Imperfections
When he does open his eyes, breaking his own spell, his voice breaks. It’s the least noticeable of three times this happens (the most noticeable undoubtedly at the beginning of the final chorus), but I even love the mistakes. Why? Well, it’s unashamedly subjective, but as an unexceptional vocalist myself who has made similar mistakes on stage, it’s nice to see that an imperfect performance can (or at least could in the 90s) still be given a platform to reach millions of people. Throughout popular music history, many bands have been branded around their frontmen. It’s arguably just an unavoidable component of celebrity culture, but Weezer come across very much as a ‘band’s band’, on stage because of group ability rather than individualistic talent.

The ‘realness’ of live performance comes from the potential of human error, and the level of performance above the studio version comes from human development. There is an appropriately youthful mix of both vigour and naivety in this performance that perfectly suits Weezer’s anxious ‘geek rock’. 1995 seemed to be the perfect time for ‘Say It Ain’t So’.


I may not have convinced you that this is a great performance, but I do better understand why I think it is. Clearly, the grunge ideologies from the conception of my musical interests have stuck hard. I hope that as an old dog I’ve learnt some new tricks since 2001, but it’s clear that I also have to recognise that the leopard in me hasn’t changed its spots. To be honest, I should probably be more worried about the number of animals in my psyche than why I like a bit of music.

Anyway… must stop writing. I’ve got things to watch.

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Review: Lifeboat [EP] by Hazey Jane (September Folking Around preview)

“Who are you if you’re not a mirror view of what’s come and what’s gone?”. A fitting lyric considering that while Hazey Jane named themselves after Nick Drake’s duo of tracks from 1970’s Bryter Layter, as reverb-soaked electric guitars wash across your speakers introducing you to their 2018 EP Lifeboat, you immediately know this is folk inspired by and made for the modern day.

Hailing from Hackney, London, there is an undeniably British sound resonating through Hazey Jane’s music. Indeed, the influence of those 60s and 70s troubadours such as Nick Drake and Van Morrison are there, but they are joined by the high production values and chorus hooks of Coldplay and U2, and the mid-noughties essence of Athlete and Turin Brakes; often hinting at melancholy but never truly immersing themselves in it.

The old folk tradition of story-telling is constant in Hazey Jane’s lyrics, making each song feel like a book you can’t put down. But like all the best books, there’s something which makes you come back to them. Something you might have missed the first time. On ‘Lifeboat’ it may be the sumptuous backing vocals, on ‘Mother’s Lie’ the bass line which subtly adds so much interest at carefully chosen moments, and the rolling drums and guitar solo on ‘Mirror View’ will ensure you keep from switching Lifeboat off a few tracks in time after time.

For the Folking Around attendee, the most exciting song from Lifeboat may be the live version of ‘Grow’, clearly showcasing the true quality of the ensemble. A tight, driving rhythm section allow an intense vocal and intricate lead guitar to shimmer with some real meaning. Alternately, final track, ‘Losing My Mind’ is the most obviously ‘folk’ song of the collection. Acoustic and vocal (oh, and let’s not forget the hand claps) prove surprisingly engaging throughout, maybe helped by the fairly quick tempo of the song.

While not the most challenging of listens, the quality of the musicianship and the compositional craftsmanship found on Lifeboat make Hazey Jane rise above their competitors even at this early stage of their career. I imagine we’re a year or two from Hazey Jane’s first full length effort, but by taking one or two risks they will likely produce an LP which may set them slightly further apart sonically and really capture the attention of the bigger labels. Folkin’ quality.

Interview/Review: Gary Lucas @ Ramsgate Music Hall

I met with legendary guitarist Gary Lucas on his recent UK tour to discuss the subject of his show: his mammoth career, from Beefheart to Buckley and beyond…

Who can blame Gary Lucas for looking backwards? This is a man who spent the ‘80s in Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, the ‘90s mentoring and writing with Jeff Buckley, and every other spare minute of his life working with the likes of Nick Cave, Nona Hendryx, and Chris Cornell.

The self-confessed “gypsy soul” tells me “wanderlust” brings him on tour, but it feels as if Lucas is also on a mission: to right some wrongs, to tell some stories which challenge some common perceptions – Beefheart? Maniac! Buckley? Angel! – and he’s also looking out for his own reputation, staking his claim as one of the finest guitar players in the world:

“There are other artists and avant guitarists – I won’t name any names – who are beloved figures by these critics, no matter what they do, and believe me, I’m not impressed by much of what they do. I could play rings around most of these people!”

BEEFHEART

Describing himself as a “true British rock head” in his college years, Lucas admired Peter Green and Syd Barrett, also listening to prog acts such as Traffic and Family. But it was Captain Beefheart’s third album, Trout Mask Replica, which grabbed Lucas in a huge way, providing him with both a focus and a change of direction musically. Describing a 1971 Beefheart concert in New York as “the best show I’d ever seen in my life”, Lucas told friends, “if I ever do anything in music, I wanna play with this guy”. An ambitious plan for an unheard-of guitar player, who at the time was “writing stupid drivel” as a copywriter for Columbia, Epic and CBS Records:

“Well, some of them became famous ad lines, like ’The Clash: The only group that matters’! And I believed it, for a moment… until then I joined Beefheart and I thought, ‘wait a second, we’re the only group!’”

Despite forging a friendship with Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) after interviewing him later that year, it would be five years before Lucas finally revealed his abilities:

“I didn’t tell him I played [at first], ‘cause at that point I was, like, a Jeff Beck disciple. What they were doing with guitars was so radically different to me; I had to really study it and I didn’t want to approach him until I felt I could master it.”

With Van Vliet in-between bands and supporting Frank Zappa on a 1976 tour, Lucas took his opportunity. Meeting him after a New York show, Beefheart was suitably impressed to invite Lucas to enjoy years in his Magic Band, both performing live and appearing on his final studio albums Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow. Patience, ambition and hard work prevailed for Lucas; though in reality, the hard work was just about beginning…

In the evening’s show, Lucas spoke of Van Vliet’s “impossible demands”, such as translating a 10-finger piano piece on to his 6-string guitar. The Beefheart advice? “Well, you’d better find another four!” I asked Lucas how he coped with making the transition from fan to band member for such an innovative but infamously volatile character:

“I had a fan’s enthusiasm, as did everybody in that era. He got in people who were fans who were enthusiastic and ready to put up with his bullshit. Nobody had to live in a house with him, unlike the Trout Mask band. He could be tyrannical, [but] you could get away to recover and recharge your batteries. So, I put up with a lot of shit. He could be abusive. I was younger, so I allowed myself to put up with stuff, but today I never would. But I don’t want to go in to it, because I loved the guy and I learned a lot. He was so wise and really profoundly funny and zen. … I mean, I never met anybody, anybody like him in brain power and then sheer creative energy. He could be really magical, a wonderful companion and mentor.”

BUCKLEY

“The roles were reversed”, says Lucas, when in the early nineties he became mentor to a young Los Angeles-based musician who would become his most famous collaborator:

“This young whippersnapper comes up to me and he’s vibing, and he’s rolling and popping his eyes. He looked electric, he was about to jump out of his skin. And I said, ‘you must be Jeff Buckley’.”

Buckley was already a fan of Lucas’ work with Captain Beefheart, but the duo would bond over a mutual love of The Smiths, The Doors and Led Zeppelin, having been paired up to perform at a tribute concert for Jeff’s late father, folk-rock troubadour, Tim Buckley. Lucas vividly remembers their first rehearsal: “My jaw literally dropped when I heard this unearthly voice emanate, and he finished, and I said, ‘Jeff, you’re amazing. You’re a fucking star.’”

That initial work with Buckley was the first of many times that Lucas would mentor young musicians. Today, he gives talks and masterclasses to music students all over the world: “I always say, ‘go for it, if this is what’s in your heart, hit it as hard as you can and do it while you’re young.’” But Lucas didn’t always practice what he preaches today:

“That was in my heart, but I was scared, you know, until I turned about 38. For me to even attempt to write a song… I just was so self-deprecating. Anybody could write a song better than me!”

When Lucas did begin to write songs, he secured a deal with a vocalist for what was planned to be a “big project” at Columbia. In the meantime, they allowed him to release his debut album, a solo guitar collection titled Skeleton at The Feast, with an indie label. Yet, despite receiving positive reviews for his solo effort, when A&R staff changed, Columbia decided to drop the whole project:

“I was like, ‘What?! How can you do that? We have a signed contract!’ and he said, and I never will forget this: ‘You can’t afford to sue us’. Hard knocks in the music business. I was upset but then I called Jeff and he was in LA living with his Mum and he said, ‘I’ll be your singer’. So then I had to get busy and write some music.”

After mailing Buckley a cassette – which included tracks titled ‘Rise Up To Be’ and ‘And You Will’ – Lucas told the Ramsgate crowd, “he called me and said, ‘They’re beautiful, I’m coming to New York.’”

Renamed ‘Grace’ and ‘Mojo Pin’ by Buckley, Lucas’ compositions would later open Buckley’s only studio album, Grace. Released, ironically, by Columbia, the album has gone on to sell over two million copies and is now widely considered one of the greatest debut albums of all time. Despite the long-lasting success of their shared work, Lucas holds feelings of resentment and injustice surrounding both relationship and reputation:

TS: “With ‘Mojo Pin’ and ‘Grace’ opening the album, obviously Buckley and Columbia saw them as lynchpin songs…”

GL: “Somebody did. I mean, listen, I’m honoured. Somebody knew. I think when they signed him they just signed him because he was overwhelming on stage and he had this big fanbase coming to see him in that little club [Sin-é in Manhattan’s East Village]. All these A&R guys and record company presidents, Clive Davis, driving up in limos to check him out. But then when they signed him they looked at it really closely and said, ‘he’s doing all covers’! ‘Well didn’t he write those songs with Gary Lucas?’, that I paid for the demos. ‘Well, they’re pretty good.’ ‘OK, let’s get Gary in.’ So he called after a hiatus of a year where he had fucked me off.”

TS: “Really?”

GL: “Oh, yeah. I wasn’t gonna chase after him… I don’t wanna trash Jeff either, it’s just, like, we had a moment of a year that was really close and writing together and I thought we were on the same page and then secretly I found out he was planning his own solo deal which is what he wanted all along. Fair enough, but … we’d demoed up ‘Grace’ and ‘Mojo Pin’ which I’d finished writing after I got a commitment from him, and it was great. At the session for the demos I said, ‘this music is gonna shake the world, it’s really fucking profoundly great’. I felt like I had the atom bomb in my pocket, to leave that session with the DAT… the rough mixes.”

TS: “Is it ever difficult to let go of songs? To put it out under his name…”

GL: “Well, if you look at the writing credits, the publishing… But, you’re right, it irks me that there are many fans of Jeff Buckley who have no idea who I am. They didn’t play it up, my participation, they kind of buried it. Whether that was Jeff, or the label, or both of them, I don’t know, but I found it a bit hurtful. But still, you know, monetarily I did fine. I mean, as fine as you can with the ways things are in the music biz these days. These royalty streams don’t amount to a hill of beans.”

TS: “Did those songs feel significant at the time?”

GL: “To me? I knew how good they were! Jeff did too, but Jeff didn’t wanna act enthusiastic, because… he was very cagey, I mean, you know, to act really enthusiastic would acknowledge my value and the relationship, and he had got a lawyer manager who was actively courting and being by courted by Columbia, the same label that kicked me to the kerb. … Yeah it was bitter, when that blew up, the circumstances were atrocious.”

Despite those circumstances, Lucas still describes Buckley as “probably the best I’ve ever collaborated with”. Witnessing Lucas perform their collaborations live is the closest experience you’ll get to hearing Jeff Buckley live ever again. Verses of phenomenal finger-picking, incredible dynamic control, blistering and frenzied strumming sequences… it’s no wonder that, despite their period of estrangement, Buckley even enlisted Lucas to play guitar on Grace; it’s liner notes crediting him with ‘Magical Guitarness’. When Lucas plays the main riff from ‘Grace’, he plays with a passion that still exudes that magic.

BEYOND

Outside of the two main themes of the night, which also sees an unbelievable rendition of his solo Beefheart great, ‘Evening Bell’, there’s a whole lotta ‘beyond’… Having released over thirty albums in his own name, a packed Ramsgate Music Hall is treated to solo renditions of his work with Gods and Monsters and with Peter Hammill. Plus, despite that huge discography, Lucas shows that he is overarchingly a music lover by including a range of covers, including Duke Ellington’s ‘Fleurette Africaine’ and the theme song from the 1962 film ‘Walk On The Wild Side’.

“I like to try and astonish people with the guitar and take them on trips”, says Lucas. Using his loop pedal to produce a raucous yet rhythmic cacophony of sound, he often achieves this. Switching between his classic electric 1966 Fender Stratocaster and his 1942 Gibson J-45 acoustic, Lucas creates frenzied soundscapes which whirl around your head as quick as his fingers on the fretboard.

At other times, he takes a more understated approach, using just vocals and solo acoustic guitar to lull in his audience. One fairly unique feature of Lucas’ guitar playing actually comes from his right hand, telling me he “worked really hard as a finger-picking guitarist to be able to achieve orchestral effect” whilst at college. This is typical of a man who has always taken his craft incredibly seriously:

“I’ve never missed a show, I’ve always shown up on time, you know… I’m proud of my track record, man. No-one’s ever came and said, ‘you suck, I want my money back’ ever, so I give a lot, I give more than a hundred percent every time I play.”

Although Lucas describes his “An Evening With…” show as “a good way to encapsulate a lot of information about my career”, he certainly isn’t done yet… As well as working on “a record of Mandarin versions of ‘Grace’, Dylan and other Western pop song classics” with vocalist Feifei Yang, he has also been collaborating with Mexican art-rockers Rojo Marfil. “Nobody has an exclusive on my services, they couldn’t pay me enough!”, says Lucas. “People should get it while they can while I’m still here. I think I’ve got a lot to offer. I’m approachable, it’s not like I’ve gone in to self-imposed obscurity, I think that’s all bullshit.”

It’s little surprise to find Lucas, who also identifies Joanna Newsom and electronic dance group Brazilian Girls as modern artists he respects, collaborating with such diverse musicians. He judges that rock music “was played out a long a time ago”, and his professional status also seems to have led Lucas to seek new paths to musical escape:

“I hate to say it, but this is what I’ve found… When I was an amateur musician, I could consume tons of music, I was a voracious consumer. Once I had to do this for a living, suddenly, the whole anxiety kicked up. Like, I’d go and see some music and I’d be like ‘what does this have to do with what I do?’ … I’d fidget, I’d be a little restless, unless it was something so great it just knocked me out, but that hasn’t happened in a long time. … I need silence a lot.”

Despite working with a huge range of musicians, Lucas wrote in his 2013 book, Touched by Grace; “I fear that my tombstone might well end up reading: RIP Gary Lucas–ex-Captain Beefheart and Jeff Buckley guitarist”. Working with two such iconic frontmen has undoubtedly provided a basis for a rich career, but it has also proved a shadow. Lucas has amassed enough experience as a working guitarist to both appreciate and contextualize all of the positives and pitfalls of operating at the highest level, and he is clearly still enjoying every minute:

“I’m just gonna keep making records and tour as much as possible till the ripe old age where I can’t do it anymore. But I hope it’s a long way off because I like doing it, believe me, in my advanced stage. It’s fun still for me, and it really turns me on to play to people and get a good vibe back.”

Review: Jack White @ Hammersmith Apollo 28/6/18

A White Stripe, a Raconteur, a quarter of The Dead Weather, and a name in his own right; we’ve spent twenty years watching little Jackie White grow up… and he’s still a child at heart.

His songs are full of childhood experience, but it isn’t a childhood which is looked back on with disdain or embarrassment; in fact, it’s not being contextualised at all. It is childhood from the perspective of the child; the point where your first love wasn’t a spotty, awkward impression of love, but the purest and most energised thing you’d ever felt. Jack White has embodied that feeling throughout his career and he does it better than anybody else.

His three intimate and sweaty nights at the Hammersmith Apollo – as opposed to, say, one night at the O2 – signals that he also puts his fan’s experience before his own diary. Not convinced? Well how about the fact that the photo at the top of this blog was the only one I got all night. The whole crowd were forced to surrender devices at the door, to be placed in Yondr cases. Aside from spending the following twenty minutes realising how often I move my right hand to my pocket for no real reason, I have to say I didn’t really miss my phone… Turns out I can remember an experience without those customary, pixelated reminders.

No longer playing in a two-piece (ensemble – he didn’t get naked), White directs a supporting cast of five from his central position. On top of this, he has a range of guitars on-stage (often switched mid-song), an extra piano and an extra drum-kit, just in case he feels like changing it up even more. A guitar issue during ‘Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground’? No bother. How about an impromptu and revitalised piano version instead? On ‘My Doorbell’, White doubles up on drums, with both synth players adding further percussion to the bass and piano accompaniment, providing an undeniable groove for one of the evening’s standout performances.

At one point, I saw a guy filming a video or two on something he had snuck in. I really hoped the show would stop and we’d all superciliously chant “Judas!” from our new-found, old-fashioned standpoint but, alas, no such luck…

This is a different Jack White to the one I saw in San Francisco four years ago. I’m glad to see he’s jacked in the fiddle, and despite any worries I had about some of the new sounds on 2018’s Boarding House Reach, even the opinion-splitting ‘Ice Station Zebra’ sounded gargantuan live. Imagine everything with overdrive and shouted an octave higher and you’ll be much nearer to the truth. I’d love to share a video, but the fucker took my phone. (Just kidding, here’s a version from March.)

Songs like ‘We’re Going To Be Friends’ (“Look at all the bugs we found. Safely walk to school without a sound.”) sit comfortably alongside 2018’s ‘Corporation’ (“I’m thinking about starting a corporation, who’s with me?!”). As well as including rarer cuts such as ‘Do’ (a tour debut), White gives the crowd the hits from all of his projects: ‘Steady As She Goes’, ‘I Cut Like A Buffalo’, and… of course… ‘Seven Nation Army’.

Closing the night, White encourages the crowd to chant the riff like we’re at the World Cup. Strangling every last breath from his guitar’s neck during the solo and accentuating key vocal lines with his signature shriek, there’s no sign of Cobain-esque resentment or rejection of the track’s adoration. He doesn’t have to take rock ‘n’ roll too seriously; that childlike enthusiasm which first endeared him to fans twenty years ago is still within him.

Kid AM: Live at the BBC (Welcome to the Alex Turner Show)

In 2005, Alex Turner told us, “We’re Arctic Monkeys. … Don’t believe the hype”. How times have changed.

We all know the in-between. The fastest selling debut album in UK chart history, seven Brit awards, two headline sets at Glastonbury, six (out of six) number one albums… Now it seems to be all about the hype, with a new album which is impossible to not think of as at least slightly pretentious.

It’s unsurprising that their latest effort, Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino, has split opinion so comprehensively; a complete change of sound and mood was born from a fresh songwriting approach, which Alex Turner explains at the start of their recent TV special Live at the BBC:

“Every time I started with a guitar I was suspicious of where it was gonna go. I think I had a pretty good idea of what the outcome might be, which was completely contrary to how I felt when I sat at this piano and suddenly, you know, my imagination was ignited once more”.

Despite there still being a guitar-wielding monkey, this is probably about as experimental as noughties indie rockers are gonna get. Call it Kid AM.

It’s not the sound that bothers me though. What bothers me is that it feels more like an Alex Turner solo record. This isn’t the Alex Turner who wrote the Submarine soundtrack in 2011, this is the man who has been living in LA and now sings like he does. He has been plonking out 4/4 triads on his piano and taken them to a likely fairly bemused band. Although they contribute competently, it’s not music that plays to the strengths of, or makes the most of drummer Matt Helders, guitarist Jamie Cook or bassist Nick O’Malley. The new sound is hardly even to Turner’s strengths, with two session musicians regularly playing his new favourite “imagination-igniting” instrument around him throughout the new tracks featured on Live at the BBC, while Turner stands about posing.

We saw the warning signs two years ago when Turner was swaying his hips on the Pyramid Stage alongside Miles Kane in the Last Shadow Puppets. But that was a different act. Nobody saw Tranquility Base as the obvious next album. Seeing Alex Turner act the organ grinder to his Arctic Monkeys leaves something of a bitter taste.

Live at the BBC only serves to add to this perception. Most people dress for an occasion but, shot by vintage cameras and featuring television sets from bygone eras, it seems Maida Vale has been dressed to match Turner’s latest look. In fact, Alex Turner is the filmmaker’s focus constantly. Choreographed looks to camera are painfully coupled by a slightly disingenuous voice that evokes ironic memories of his noughties lyric, “You’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham, so get off the bandwagon and put down the handbook”.

For what it’s worth, the new songs come across well live. Their new music has such a focus on Turner’s ever-developing vocal that lyrical content feels accentuated, giving something of a perceptual shift for the continuing AM listener. There’s nothing wrong with the album either, but aside from Turner’s show-stealing bravado, there’s another reason he’s the constant focus of the camera; you only have to look at the other band members to see how bored they are. Particularly Helders feels woefully underused on these tracks, and the evidence of that is provided by some of their back catalogue throughout the show…

If you want a 90-second taste of the best and worst Live at the BBC has to offer – skip straight to 8.38 here for some key, archetypal moments…

8.38: Hand through his hair, brow furrowed, Alex Turner delivers his latest proclamations remembered from his GCSE poetry book, before he “[loses his] train o’ thought” and gives us ten seconds of utterly inspired acting to push his point home…

9.08: Turner goes for a strut while three keys parts are played by two touring musicians around him.

9.21: One of these two musicians, a sweaty (no surprise, he’s working harder than the others) Tyler Parkford prompts Alex Turner to bizarrely declare, “That sound means it’s the end of the round. Time for the bonus question.”

9:28: When the bonus question turns out to be ‘R U Mine?’, you remember everything that’s good about Arctic Monkeys when they work as a unit. Turner loses the garish glasses along with (most of) the pretense. Helders starts to pull drummer faces and the energy goes up about twelve thousand percent. With tight vocal harmonies and instrumental parts, Alex Turner feels like a Monkey again.

Unfortunately, it’s not a trend that continues, with I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor proving a surprisingly uncomfortable watch. The band who wrote that song feel far removed from today’s Arctic Monkeys. The original music video saw the fresh-faced Sheffield teens bash the song out live at around 110bpm. On Live at the BBC (17:27), they constantly fluctuate from around 91 to 99bpm, sluggishly dragging through verses delivered with the now customary Alex Turner sneer. It’s a song they’ll never escape, for better or worse. To put a fresh spin on it would be both admirable and understandable, but this is a weak impression of the same old schtick.

The closing credits, filmed scrolling on an old TV screen next to Alex Turner providing a rare keys soundtrack, are a really nice touch. It’s an aesthetically pleasing spectacle, but it’s a concept which seems so far removed from the DIY origins of the band.

It feels like they’re separate personalities struggling to locate their collective identity. Right now, Matt Helders and his plain shirt don’t quite match up to the ‘Made in Chelsea’ long hair and pinstripe suit efforts of Jamie Cook. Nobody seems to crack a smile throughout Live at the BBC, but then again, this isn’t fun anymore. It’s serious business, this LA rock ‘n’ roll bullshit.

Development is vital for the life of any artist. Plus, when Arctic Monkeys have inspired so many soundalikes, this new sound is no bad thing for their commercial longevity. As long as individual ego doesn’t stand in the way of collective development, I expect their next album to continue this aural progression but be stronger for each member also stamping their musical authority.

Your ears may prefer the new Arctic Monkeys – the question is, can you stomach the Alex Turner show? Don’t believe the hype, judge it for yourself.

Review: Tera Melos / Tangled Hair / A Burial at Sea @ Ramsgate Music Hall (external)

My review of Tera Melos, supported by Tangled Hair and A Burial at Sea, at Ramsgate Music Hall was published by The Isle of Thanet News, click here to check it out.

Review: Morrissey at Brixton Academy

Ironically, today, I spent the day in bed. Snow has taken over England and schools out for winter. Reduced public transport and extreme delays actually threatened me even getting to the Brixton Academy last night, but even the wait at the station turned out to be entertaining. A lady told me of how she got charmed in to buying an expensive emerald ring in Rio by a rather attractive Brazilian, and a South African man who had been eating saveloy, battered sausage and chips (Morrissey wouldn’t approve) chatted for a bit before heading back to the chippy to buy more. He asked us if we wanted him to pick anything up for us. I’m glad we didn’t – he missed the train.

The lady asked why I was braving the journey; “I’ve got tickets for a concert”. When she found out that it was Morrissey, she replied, “oh! He’s still going, is he?”! He certainly is.

Having opened with ‘The Last of The Famous International Playboys’ (its first airing since 2011), this was a celebration of the stand-alone Morrissey, with only one Smiths song (‘How Soon Is Now?’) featuring in the evening’s twenty-one song set. The bulk of the set came from his latest offering, Low in High School. Of those, the biggest audience response was undoubtedly reserved for the album’s two singles ‘Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up On The Stage’ and ‘Spent The Day In Bed’, but worthy mention must go to ‘Home Is A Question Mark’ and ‘When You Open Your Legs’, where the sound of Morrissey and his band cut through the room in a way which others sometimes didn’t.

However, it seems whenever you say to most people, “I’m seeing Morrissey tonight”, the majority tend to comment on how “miserable” he is. Well, a smile is as medium-rare as the steak he would shun, but people often confuse demeanour with passion, and Morrissey certainly doesn’t lack in the latter.

As is typical for his last few tours, a number of songs are accompanied by some no-holds-barred videos. We see and hear Morrissey spit in to his microphone at the end of ‘Who Will Protect Us from The Police?’, while a compilation of crooked coppers attacking innocent peaceful protestors plays (Police 5-1 Human). In ‘The Bullfighter Dies’, we see Morrissey, the animal rights activist, perform in front of bloody and brutal clips of, well, bullish revenge (Bull 1-0 Human, for a change). Of course, Morrissey is raising awareness of global injustice and attempting to even the scores.

One score that won’t be settled was presented in the song (and the video for) ‘Munich Air Disaster 1958’; a tribute to the Manchester United players whose lives were cut tragically short sixty years ago. Sometimes it’s good to remember that our Steve is just a football-loving bloke, as well. It’s not always tears and tofu.

We also saw Morrissey’s personal tastes in a thirty-minute video. Rather than having a support act, fans were treated to a compilation of music, famous speeches, and scenes from films (including the footage which gave The Queen Is Dead its famous artwork). Despite omitting some of his own hits, Morrissey also performed covers of songs by both The Pretenders and The Ramones. After some widely-reported health scares over the last few years, Morrissey is just doing Morrissey, and it’s fantastic.

People also often say that Morrissey is incredibly secretive, but you only have to listen to his words (and sometimes ‘it’s not what he says, it’s how he says it’) to get an understanding of the man and his passions both on and off stage. It is this shared authenticity with his audience, and that ‘secrecy’ (or, ‘a refusal to liaise’) with the media, that endears him to this sold out crowd. In some cases, he may be preaching to the converted, having worn his views on his sleeve for decades, but his passion is as alive and well now as it ever was. For as long as that remains the case, it’s the reason why Morrissey was, is, and will be worth wading through snow for again and again.