Thursday, January 18, 2007

Felt “Absolute Classic Masterpieces Volume 1” (Cherry Red 1992)

I was first introduced to Felt by my friend Faith in August of 2004. We were shooting the shit online, when she IMed me their final album, Me and a Monkey on the Moon. I tried to give it an honest listen, but I was not in the mood. You see, my spirits were high: I was in a serious relationship and was preparing for a move to Paris. Lawrence Hayward’s warbling voice and depressing lyrics were rain on my parade and therefore I could not be bothered.

Fast forward three months later…
The twin pressures of maintaining a long distance relationship and an early Continental winter quickly led me to reexamine Felt’s place in my universe.

In retrospect, my teaching experience was nowhere nearly as nightmarish as I sometimes describe it. I was just terribly lonely most of the time. Either way, I didn’t want to waste a year moping, so I spent every free moment exploring my new surroundings. I hung out at art galleries, monuments and used bookshops on the Left Bank. I also spent a good deal of time was spent borrowing CDs from local libraries. I would take out up to ten discs from as many as four libraries at a time, copy them onto my laptop, and promptly return them by the end of the week. It was miserable for my back, but in the long run, it was worth the pain. By the end of my stay, I added 200+ discs to my collection; many of them unavailable or long out of print in the United States.
By late October, I had overplayed Me and a Monkey on the Moon and was desperate to hear more. Sadly, their original albums proved elusive (in the libraries and in the record shops) so I had to settle for two best ofs to get my fix.
Absolute Classic Masterpieces is a retrospective of Felt’s decade-long spell in the indie ghetto. Volume 1 covers their tenure at Cherry Red Records, while the double-disc Volume 2 includes singles and album tracks released on Creation Records. For the sake of time, I’m going to focus on Volume 1 and leave the Creation era stuff for a piece on great labels of the past.

Before I begin, I should point out that Volume 1 is sequenced in reverse chronological order. This is a minor grievance, considering the quality of the music, but some people dislike working backwards when tracking a band’s progress.

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I once read that Belle & Sebastian were heavily influenced by Felt. This tidbit of misinformation led me down a road of confusion and disappointment when I first heard Felt. Musically, the two groups have little in common. Where B&S are busy and ramshackle, Felt was tight and minimalist. Volume 1 does a fine job of confirming the dissimilarity between the two groups.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: It should be noted that both groups are notoriously guarded about their private lives and little is known about individual members. It seems to me that B&S were fascinated by the enigmatic nature of Felt and sought to be as difficult with the press during their early years in the mid 1990s. Go on; try to find one article about them from 1996-7 that isn’t rife with rumors and hearsay about the group’s identity.)

Early songs by Felt, such as “Trails of Colour Dissolve” and “Templeroy,” were undeniably the product of Lawrence’s obsession with Television, Lou Reed and DIY punk ethics. His vocal inflections and strange choices for lyrical subject matter and song titles betray a heavy influence of mid 70s New York. But without a counterweight to Lawrence’s rather obvious influences, Felt would’ve been another blip in the UK indie landscape. Enter Maurice Deebank, the classically trained foil to the self-taught, punk rock Lawrence. Deebank’s delicate arpeggios meshed seamlessly with Lawrence’s minimalist strumming, creating a sound unlike any early 1980s guitar group.
Their unique guitar interplay is best evidenced on the opening track, “Primitive Painters.” This mini-epic sports a heavily drawled and self-depreciative vocal by Lawrence and is bolstered by exceptional performances by Deebank and keyboardist Martin Duffy. This was the first Felt song to receive any significant attention; even though it sounds unlike they’d recorded previously. This can be attributed to the production work of Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie and partner/bandmate Liz Frazier, who provided the soaring background vocal. In any case, disregard the indie politics and play this song at a very high volume on a large set of speakers. You will be breathtaken. I promise.

The song that really got me hooked on this compilation was “Penelope Tree.” Named for a 1960s model that Lawrence saw in an oversized special edition of Vogue, it is everything brilliant about Felt summarized in two minutes and fifty-seven seconds. The first thing you notice is the absence of cymbals. During the early years, drummer Garry Ainge played a very simple kit, creating a sound that was not unlike the Velvet Underground’s Maureen Tucker. The dry percussive drumming, coupled with jangling guitars, creates a stark and moody song that pretty much describes my lonesome expatriate life. I spent many cold nights wandering the streets of Paris listening to that song on repeat and just wishing that I was somewhere else.

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In regards to Volume 2: If you’re a devout fan of anything released by Creation Records during the mid to late 1980s, it’s a must have. If not, you may find it a bit dull because of all the instrumentals culled from Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death and Train Above the City.
Besides, Deebank left the group well before the ink dried on the Creation contract, so you don’t even get any of the guitar noodling that makes Volume 1 such an invigorating listen. Then again, I’m biased…

Crucial listening:
Crystal Ball, Primitive Painters, Red Indians, Penelope Tree, Fortune.
(Believe it or not, you can find most of these on the I-Tunes Music Store.)

More on Felt

Felt: A Retrospective. Probably the only good site about Lawrence & Co. Also the source for the band photos and mp3s

Video for Primative Painters

DOWNLOAD The gorgeous “Buried Wild Blind.” Originally released as a b-side to The Final Resting Of The Ark 12”. Remains unreleased on CD

DOWNLOAD Early version of "Red Indians”

Monday, January 8, 2007

Songs of the Spanish Civil War

"Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. Contrary to what you've just seen, war is neither glamorous nor fun. There are no winners, only losers. There are no good wars, with the following exceptions: The American Revolution, World War II, and the Star Wars Trilogy. If you'd like to learn more about war, there's lots of books in your local library, many of them with cool, gory pictures." -- Bart Simpson

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When you watch the news from Iraq or Afghanistan, you can’t help but agree with young Bart. There’s nothing enviable happening in Basra or Kabul. And yet, sometimes I wonder why there isn’t a “good” war that an energetic young man, like me, could die in.

Sandwiched between the Great Depression and the Second World War, the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) is one of the more overlooked conflicts of the 20th century. Following a humiliating defeat in the Spanish-American War 40 years earlier, Spain made the difficult transition to democracy. The country became a loose federation of autonomous communities, with special provisions for the historically independent Basque and Catalan provinces. Tragically, political instability and a crippling international recession sparked civil war. Catalonia and Aragon were Republican strongholds, while the rest of the country fell quickly to the Fascist supported Nationalists.
In an unprecedented show of solidarity, communist and anarchist parties from across Europe and the Americas sent volunteers to support the Republican cause. But, as evidenced by Picasso’s “Guernica,” idealism was not enough to guarantee a win. Spain fell to Franco in 1939 he remained in power until his death in the 1970s.

While doing my research, I began to realize that there are some really great songs that were influenced by the war. I started drafting this around Christmas time, but was interrupted by the holidays. Then James Brown died and I would’ve felt wrong if I didn’t give him some praise. Then I got so caught up in New Years, and returning to DC and all this other stuff came up…Ugh, you get the picture. I apologize for the delay, and as a bonus, I’ll be posting a little something about David Bowie to commemorate his 60th birthday.
Submitted for your approval: Three songs about the Spanish Civil War

“Spanish Bombs” The Clash (Epic 1979, or 1980 if you lived in the US)
I hate listening to old punks talk about how the Clash “sold out”. These guys are particularly unforgiving about London Calling. Hell, one geezer had the gall to compare it to Green Day’s Dookie. I argued that The Clash’s decision to expand their sonic palate was what set them apart from the Class of ’77. If the Clash had clung to the parochial punk ideology, they would’ve become boring and repetitive (the Exploited) or run out of ideas (Stiff Little Fingers).
I never paid much attention to “Spanish Bombs” when I first got London Calling. The more upbeat reggae-influenced songs, like “Rudie Can’t Fail” and “Guns of Brixton,” always got priority. Let us not forget that The Clash were one of the few white bands that could play reggae well. It wasn’t until one day when I was hanging out with my friend Ed that I finally took notice of the most saccharine track on the first part of the album.
The Clash were often misguided in romanticizing rebellion and outlaw stories. Joe Strummer foolishly wore a Brigate Rosse T-shirt at Rock Against Racism in 1978. (Ed. Note: In his defense, it should be noted that in the late 1970s the international community had yet to agree upon a proper definition of terrorism and leftits groups like Brigate Rosse and the Baader Meinhoff Gang were seen as chic.)
The Spanish Civil War provided a less controversial source of inspiration for Strummer and Mick Jones. The valiance and bravery of the Republicans was inspirational to a band that viewed their very existence to be a battle. If you pay no mind to the refrain of “Yo te quiero infinito, o ma corazon”, and references to DC-10s, “Spanish Bombs” reads very much like a history lesson. Guy Stevens’ production, denounced as being “too slick” in some corners, actually makes the song more appealing. The interplay between the acoustic and electric guitars on the studio version still sends chills down my spine. It’s absolutely magical, and quite mind blowing when you compare it to anything on their very raw debut.

“If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next” the Manic Street Preachers (Epic 1998)
Being Welsh and overtly socialist during the apolitical Britpop 1990s set the Manic Street Preachers apart from their contemporaries. Despite a mainstream breakthrough towards the end of the decade, the Manics refused to conform.
“If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next” was an unlikely candidate for a number one hit single. It’s driven by a heavily distorted Wurlitzer organ and its lyrics are far from fun. It’s even more amazing that it became a hit during a time when teen pop ruled the charts. The week previous to its release, Boyzone’s “No Matter What” held the #1 spot.
The title was taken from a poster circulated by British Communist parties at the onset of the war. Some 2,000 volunteers left the rainy moors of Britain to join the International Brigade. Few were trained soldiers. In fact, many were farmers, hence the line “So if I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists.” The poor bastards didn't have a chance. They were doomed from the start, but their intentions were noble.
IYTTYCWBN proved that the Manics had fully emerged from the shadow of Richey Edwards, the troubled architect of their painfully dark masterpiece, The Holy Bible. (1994). Following Edwards’ disappearance in early 1995, the band had to change their approach in order to soldier on. They never abandoned his memory and continued to push the envelope of what an activist rock group should be. For their efforts they were handsomely rewarded with several more hit records, and later a trip to Cuba, where they were the first Western rock group to play a Castro approved concert!

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“Start!” The Jam (Polydor 1980)
“Start!” is a piece of shit for two reasons. First, it knocked David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” out of the UK number one spot in April of 1980. Second its bassline was plagiarized, note-for-note, from the Beatles' “Taxman.” This song pretty much sums up the Jam: An annoying trio of Mod revivalists intent on gumming up musical progress with their relentless aping of the 1960s.
It’s also a very very very catchy song.
Homage to Catalonia was based on George Orwell’s experience as a volunteer in the Republican army. Paul Weller was inspired by Orwell’s description of Barcelona, which is described as "a town where the working class were in the saddle.” And to some degree,it was. Folks addressed each other as 'comrade' and for a while it seemed like the socialist dream was alive. Weller asks the listeners if it’s possible to carry that attitude every day, not just in a time of war. In spite of being a bunch of unoriginal louts,The Jam could put together some brilliant music. And because “Start!” is based off one of McCartney’s best grooves, you automatically wanna get up and dance. The backwards guitar solo, however, sort of ruins the song. Almost makes you feel like Weller and co. were trying a little too hard to rip off Revolver...
Perhaps I’ve given the impression that I dislike the Jam. Nothing could be further from the truth: I adore the Jam. I used to sit for hours just staring at photos Paul Weller in his sharp suits and Rickenbacker guitars and just wishing I could be that cool. It’s just that their early Who/Kinks copycat stuff sorta bores me. I prefer their more soulful R&B songs like “Town Called Malice” and “Precious.”

If you're waiting for a clever ending, too bad. I'm tired.

Fact: The Durutti Column took their name from an anarchist resistance group, or column, led by Buenaventura Durruti. He died in combat towards the end of 1936.

The Struggle Continues
Republican Propaganda poster that inspired the Manics tune

1980 promo clip for “Start”

The Manics performing their first #1 in Brussels, 2002

Producer Dave Eringa gives some detailed insight on the recording of "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next"

Unrelated BUT you can see the now infamous Brigate Rosse t-shirt.The Clash's BRILLIANT Performance of "London's Burning" in 1978