Friday, November 16, 2007

KQED Music: Los Campesinos! cause a twee bit of trouble

Being a music fan used to be much simpler when I was younger. Back then, I saw the world in delicately nuanced shades of Black or White. But with age comes a sort of wisdom, which in turn just seems to make life much more complicated. Take, for example, Cardiff-based indie kids Los Campesinos! who are due to land in San Francisco for the first time on November 28, 2007. Seven members strong, they burst onstage with a youthful, infectious energy that is hard not to love. But they also carry with them the unmistakeable whiff of twee, which troubles me.

Over the years, I have developed a strange, contradictory relationship with this fey branch of indie rock. Occasionally, it produces glorious moments of shimmering pop that cause me to fall in love with music all over again. Which is all the more surprising when I find the vast majority of the twee tribes to be an irritating, self-absorbed, weirdly conservative bunch of cardigan abusers.

But, instead of pretending that this side of Los Campesinos! doesn't really exist, or that I don't have a problem with twee after all, I have decided to face my fears like a grown-up should. Are they really twee and, if so, is this such a bad thing?

Twee sign one: Boy-girl harmonies
Any twee band worth their salt should feature mixed-gender singing. Ideally neither voice should be particularly strong or tuneful: the boy errs towards weak and yelpy, while the girl turns up the bubblegum sweetness while simultaneously channeling the spirit of Moe Tucker. Los Campesinos! lead vocalist Gareth and back-up singer Aleks fit this classic template perfectly, but both also have enough moxie in their voices to avoid the limp, lisping, tuneless excesses of twee pop past. In fact, Aleks' voice is really rather nice.

Twee sign two: Being indie
Of course, releasing your first record on small-format vinyl via an indie label doesn't in itself make you twee, but it definitely helps. LC have done it twice: first in the UK with their debut seven-inch single "We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives" on Wichita Recordings, then in North American by re-releasing their first two UK singles as a six-song EP called "Sticking Fingers into Sockets" on Canadian indie label Arts&Crafts, available, naturally enough, on 10-inch vinyl. But quirky releases are fun, and one thing twee bands can't be faulted for is keeping the punk tradition of DIY mail-order-only singles with hand-printed sleeves alive and well.

Twee sign three: Twee roots
One of the surest indicators of a band being twee is if they formed out of a shared love for some other twee band. For example, perhaps the most twee moment in history occurred when the founding members of Talulah Gosh met because they were both wearing Pastels badges. Ditto for Los Campesinos! Their lead guitarist Tom met the three original members of the band (Neil/guitar, Ollie/drums, and Ellen/bass) when he overheard them chatting about American indie pop act The Decemberists in a Cardiff bar. Which is the kind of cute story that is forever destined to overshadow their shared love for more credible acts, such as Pavement and Sonic Youth.

Twee sign four: Odd instrumentation
Los Campesinos! are loaded with musical extras, including a violin, a glockenspiel, and melodica (which looks a bit like a cross between one of those mini Casio keyboards from the eighties and a bong). But there is nothing wrong with expanding your musical horizons beyond the standard guitar/bass/drum template; it's what you do with them that counts. For Los Campesinos!, that means creating a big sound more redolent of Arcade Fire than the likes of BMX Bandits.

Twee sign five: Childishness
Music critic and author Simon Reynolds famously described the twee movement as a "revolt into childhood," and Los Campesinos! certainly fit the bill on that front thanks to their cartoonish aesthetic and songs filled with kiddie references (most of them too peculiarly British to bother trying to explain here). However, a certain youthfulness is forgiveable in a band who are all still only 22, and thankfully they are already showing signs of maturing. Like wearing cheerleader's outfits or hanging around school playgrounds, the childish side of twee becomes increasingly dubious with age.

Twee sign six: Self-referentialism
Their latest single is called "The International Tweexcore Underground." It doesn't get much more twee than that. But dig a little deeper and you realise the song doesn't just name-check twee icons such as Sarah Records, Amelia Fletcher, and Calvin Johnson, it disses them too. And then it does the same thing to Henry Rollins, which is far too tough to be twee. So are they twee or not? Ah, screw it. I've no idea. But they're dead good, so who cares?

Los Campesinos! play the Great American Music Hall on November 28, 2007. Their EP "Sticking Fingers into Sockets" (Arts&Crafts) is out now, and their most recent single "International Tweexcore Underground" (Wichita) is available via import from RecordStore in the UK. Their debut album is due for release in March 2008.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

KQED Music: Covered Up

When it comes to music, "authenticity" is a hugely overrated concept. Despite being widely considered an expression of praise, the idea carries with it a lot of baggage including: the notions that artists can only play types of music that match their background or upbringing; that commercial success negates artistic achievement; or that you aren't a proper artist unless you write your own songs.

Which is all clearly crap. If it were true, then Elvis would have remained just another country singer, and Eminem would probably be stacking shelves in Detroit right now. Sgt. Pepper wouldn't have meant a thing, nor would anything Radiohead released after The Bends. And, crucially in the context of this column, Aretha Franklin would never have recorded "Say a Little Prayer," nor Jimi Hendrix "All Along the Watchtower," Soft Cell "Tainted Love," Jeff Buckley "Hallelujah," Johnny Cash "Hurt" (along with most of the rest of his final five albums)... and so on. The list of great cover versions is as long as it is varied.

I'm not talking about lazy copies here, but versions of songs that bring something new to the original. This can be dramatic or subtle, but the essential fact is a good cover version can force you to reconsider the original entirely, and create something completely new and surprising in the process. Cover versions are fundamental to the fabric of modern music, helping artists to create the hybrid genres and new ideas that keep pushing things forward.

Not convinced? Then here are some songs to persuade you that first isn't always best:

"Just" by Mark Ronson featuring Alex Greenwald (originally by Radiohead)
Mark Ronson's recent album of covers, Version, produced two standout tracks: a stomping, Amy Winehouse-fueled Motown take on The Zutons' "Valerie," and "Just," which proves that jewels of pure pop can be found in the most unexpected places. Phantom Planet vocalist Greenwald may sound like he's competing in a Thom Yorke karaoke contest, but Radiohead's anguished original is nevertheless transformed by its new horn-drenched backing into something not just upbeat but also downright funky.

"Guns of Brixton" by Nouvelle Vague (The Clash)
French covers-only act Nouvelle Vague takes a different tack from the dancefloor-friendly Ronson by creating mellowed-out, bossa nova versions of punk and new wave classics. Their smoky, sultry sashay through The Clash's "Guns of Brixton" (from their self-titled debut), for example, ignores any punk beligerence in the original and instead highlights the song's underlying sense of creeping menace.

"Straight Outta Compton" by Nina Gordon (NWA)
While your first reaction to hearing this might be to laugh in disbelief, ex-Veruca Salt member Gordon's delicate, acoustic, folk-core cover of the original NWA classic is also strangely beguiling. We have become so inured to all sorts of violent and profane words coming out of the mouths of rappers. But, by singing "My AK-47 is a tool / So don't make me act the motherf--king fool" with a sweet, melodic voice, Gordon makes the words sound both more innocent and more shocking at the same time. My only gripe is why she didn't record "Folk the Police" instead.

"Break My Body" by Hanne Hukkelberg (Pixies)
This is an object lesson in how to change the style of a song so much it's almost unrecognizable, but also stay true to the spirit of the original. Despite being a huge Pixies fan, the first time I heard Norwegian singer Hanne Hukkelberg's version of this Surfer Rosa track, I couldn't work out where on earth I knew it from until the chorus arrived one-and-a-half minutes in. (What's even more surprising is that I did exactly the same thing the second time I heard it, but perhaps that says more about my memory than anything else.) It may not howl as loudly as the original, but this whisper-quiet rendering somehow packs the same emotional punch.

"In the Ghetto" by Candi Staton (Elvis Presley)
Despite the fact that for years this was my favorite Elvis track, Candi Staton's version has a power that makes you forget all about that whatshisname from Memphis. Unfortunately, the link above only gives you a sample of the song, but I cannot recommend the album it comes from, Candi Staton (a collection of her pre-disco, southern soul recordings released in 2004), highly enough. It also features a great version of "Stand by Your Man." (Of course, the original "In the Ghetto" was actually written by Mac Davis, but first recorded by Presley).

"Living on a Prayer" by Octoberfest Oompah Band (Bon Jovi)
This tongue-in-cheek instrumental track by London's self-described "newest, freshest, most temulent Oompah ensemble" somehow transforms the overblown hair-rock original into something much more poignant. The new version ends up sounding more like the gypsy stylings of Eastern Europhiles Beirut than a song written by New Jersey's most famous poodle-perms.

"Song 2wo" by Earl Zinger (Blur)
When this dub-heavy, reggae transformation of the "woo-hoo" song was first released, it sounded so old school that some people began wondering if Blur's original was really the cover version. But, despite many self-propogated rumors to the contrary, it turned out that Earl Zinger was a modern-day alias of ex-Galliano mainman Rob Gallagher. Which is a shame, as the whole thing would have been much more entertaining the other way round.

Next week, Dan Brown will re-write this article to highlight how a shady cabal of Catholics are to blame for Willie Nelson's 2005 reggae album.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.