Saturday, 25 October 2014

Here's to lots more dots: The Pale Blue Dots

I received a copy of Lots of Dots through the post the other day. It’s the new (long) player from The Pale Blue Dots. Actually it’s the first long player from The Pale Blue Dots. It was good to see that the thinking, the talking and writing has finally paid off. I was beginning to doubt whether any of this would ever surface and run its rings around the world.

If you don’t know already – because these things get around town – by word of mouth, internet ravings and rumours and releases – The Pale Blue Dots are Huw ‘Bunf’ Bunford and Richard Chester. Richard is one of my best friends – is my best friend. Good friends. We’ve spent some real good times together and I’ve always appreciated his musical ear(s). Bunf was known to me through the Furries – and that pretty much makes him a musical genius – there hasn’t been a band like the Super Furry Animals before or after. They captured that freeing of sound the 90s let in – briefly combining rock and roll with psych and soul all topped with chemical beats and treats. 

It was Welsh independence writ large for the masses with guitars and furry suits. And here it is again - without the suits but just as experimental.

As you know – I have had access to part of The Pale Blue Dots for some time and have been raving and raging about them for two years now. Ever since Richard sent me Additional (which is yet to see the light of day) a tune all awash with Jeff Lyne, flourishes and strings I have felt this band had a finger somewhere on the pulse of rock n roll (that's the widest definition of rock n roll - you could just call it music) So where to begin? I should do some sort of plodding Mojo review – two paragraphs and a press release. Give four stars and bang it up. But I think it deserves a little more praise than that – but then I am a bias fucker.

This is not an extension of the Super Furry Animals. It isn’t even a solo project – it’s a bit more complicated and I think this first long player reveals it. Its textures and hooks and riffs and rolls coupled with openness and playfulness. It’s the pleasure of listening.  It’s clear that there is an interaction between the two worlds – Bunf’s is different to Richard’s but that shared connection – that understanding is evident in the straight pop boogie of Devastation through to the wonderfully evocative Nebraska.

You can’t quite put your finger on it. It isn’t conceptual – yet there’s a thread running through it. We have references to West Coast psychedelia (Slow Reaction), through soundscapes and Asian melancholia mixed with the funky drummer (Tokyo Hotel Silence or Silent Tokyo Hotel – which had my daughter smiling  - she just loved the idea that the two pieces were essential the same with muddled words) coupled with ramalama Bolan/ Bowie infused boogaloo (Devastation) eighties production and early synth experimentation (Look into my Eyes)  to the wild plains and haunting twangs of the prairie as dusk falls (Nebraska).

And it all works together. From start to finish it evolves and lingers – causually working its way from the short term memory to the long term.

Its an experiment in getting inside your head.

Guitars are distorted and loud, it's full of clangs and chimes  - then things are suddenly strummed and simple – they are sounds in themselves. And you can see that both of these fellas love sound. You can see that they 'get' sound. They get down to 'sound'. (The Sound of the Crowd)

I guess we get a glimpse of what’s inside their heads. It’s quite dark at times. You might keep it upbeat but No Motivation references that sinking slide into busily doing nothing but sleeping. Put that with Slow Reaction – which from its opening piano riff lodges itself firmly in your brain and you’ve got a band struggling to articulate and do.

Except it isn’t.  Because here’s an album full of potential pop hits. Produced by Cian at the Strangetown Studios - there's a lovely space and groove to it all. I mean that I really do. As I said previously these are older fellas writing music for the masses.  There’s a touch of Nilsson, of Alex ‘Skip’ Spence, Jeff Lyne (and his dark eyes) Spector and early electro albums and of course if you really want to you'll hear a nod to the Furries. Bound to - really. Oh and Daf is playing drums.

It's a wide-ranging album and whilst the focus will be on Bunf - this is double labour of love - for both members. It surprises and asks for a response. When I first heard Reach for the Keys – I didn’t get it. It seemed so overblown and vibrating with empty halls and the echoes of children’s voices – with a rolling nursery rhythm beat. But as with all these tunes they have legs – they have feet – they grow. And it's haunting opening - sort of reminiscent of the Tales of the Unexpected - Roald Dhal making earworm pop - soon lodges itself in your brain. Bunf's simply delivery coupled with found sounds and talk - after a few listens I was happily singing along.

Aquarium could be the missing link between the last SFA album and these Pale Blue Dots. Creeping closer now it gives you the creeps. Bunf's vibrato is quite extraordinary. There's a fragility amidst the lush orchestration - as Bunf dazzles his partner with his 'Admit One Extra' pass and get's her in for 'free now baby'. Meanwhile Richard's layering the strings like the bastard son of Barry. Super continents collide my friend.

And what a great collision this is. It's good to have Richard and Bunf together.

You know I was worried about Lots of Dots dark unnerving cover – a little girl slaughtered as a lamb sits by her side. I mean what should I be reading into that? Or it could just be a broken ornament – found in any home across the land and tipped over through excitement and stupidity. You know it’s just a cover  - but there's an undercurrent to it - a subtext. Something which rings out on this (way to short) long player - take Look in to my Eyes - it's all in a look. Concentrate. Something's lurking in this song - something's lurking in this album and I like it.

You know we might miss the Super Furry Animals and I’m not holding my breath for a reunion – although it would be great.

But let’s give this credit.

Let’s give them all credit.

They can all write fucking quality tunes - Gruf, Cian, Daf, Guto and Bunf – with each other - apart - or here with Richard Chester.

I hope this release is the start of something new. I know there are more songs  - lots more dots - absolute crackers - but as first releases go - every tune is great in its own right.  And if me and my kids are singing these songs in the car - then I know you will be too.

They're having a blast. So let's join in.

Lots of Dots is released on StrangetownRecords on November 3rd.

The Pale Blue Dots are in session on Monday on Marc Riley's show from 7.00pm

You can listen to The Pale Blue Dots here. 

Monday, 6 October 2014

Music and myth: A night with Gruff

I saw Gruff Rhys the other week. I really should have written it up sooner – but it’s been fairly hectic and frantic and non stop stop stop recently. 

If  there’s one furry animal who keeps up the appearances then it’s Gruff – whilst the band remain in some limbo state of stasis – well their name anyway – as all the other members are busy doing this and that (more to come about later on) in a furry or not so furry vein.  Gruff seems to churn out Mercury nominated collaborative albums by the bucketload – and there seems to be no dip in quality whatever he turns his exquisite eye and hand to.

I had originally planned to go with a long time friend who’s recently set up shop in the southbank concrete jungle – all education plans and talk – but he couldn’t make it – he had however managed to get me the tickets though – that unexpected joy of being on a guest list made me feel twenty years old again. Except I’m 43 now – grey and much fatter – but with the easy grin of child when it’s all coming for free.

 Not that it would have made it any better.

You see Gruff is wonderful company in the intimacy of the Queen Elizabeth Hall.  All set up ready for a recital that looks part concert, part lesson what with the power point in tow (ok it wasn’t a power point – it was a slide show – all labelled and organised - but you get my drift).

There’s a wonderful laconic relaxed nature to Gruff – it comes from that assured knowledge that what he’s doing is genuine I think – this is not postmodern trickery of the masses – it is a wonderful piece of exploratory pop wedded to an ancient ‘man-made’ (possibly) myth of a Welsh tribe conquering the America Interior and the efforts of one man to find out the truth some way back in the 1800s. It’s the outward monologue of an offbeat mindset that is Gruff Rhys.

So our gig begins with a film. Beautiful shot in high contrast, all long pans and shaky cuts as a professor in safari wear gives us the background on the Welsh’s role in the making the land of the free. Narrated by Gwyn A. Williams the short film covers the origins of the notion that Welsh tribes first settled in North America in the 12th century. It propels you back to your own childhood of BBC documentaries and early morning Open Universities output. It is flawless in its attention to detail – long shots of a walking man on Welsh hills and American landscapes. It is also funny.

Gruff is that genial host – effortlessly cool and funny in equally measure – he’s performing in wolf headdress with cue cards – record player and acoustic guitar – he’s explaining the journey and creating our journey and what a journey it turns out to be. Songs interspaced with image and explanation of the horrors that John Evans or Jean Evans or even Don Juan Evans went through in his quest to find out where the Welsh went.  From the opening  C&W tinged Tiger’s Tale, that soon segues into the ensuing Year Of The Dog, the audience are held pretty much spellbound for the best part of two hours. It’s good company to be in.

Oh did I forget to say – Gruff recreated the voyage – with a puppet. A grey muppet of austere stature and utter melancholia – it’s black and white felt (as imagined by Pete Fowler) serving to reinforce the tragicomic elements of this ‘story’. Gruff brings him on to cheers from the sold out venue – like an even more surreal moment from The Muppets.  And then proceeds to show us where he’d been and which tube line he’d travelled on – via the wonder of technology and beautifully framed pictures beamed from his ipad to the vast screen on stage. It’s fair to say Gruff looks lonely out there – but it’s clear the audience are willing him on.

Gruff has this wonderful flick of his wrist – and images zoom in and break up in pixels and fuzz – or jump back as if alive – it brings the whole story to life. And once again it’s funny. Combined with sounds – such as when John Evans is arrested in Baltimore (“the home of crack cocaine and The Wire”) or is it St.Louis -  and it becomes something else – like a scene from a B film – all zooms and chops as sirens ring out and the intensity of the zoom whilst manic is timed for comic perfection. Gruff's deadpan delivery only adding to the inherent humor in the hall. 

At times I actually shake with laughter – at school I used to spend a lot of time laughing with the friend I’d eventually gone along with the gig with – a one Richard Chester – who’s about to release a wonderful set of tunes with another furyy – Bunf – but that’s for a later post – and this is not about The Pale Blue Dots – yet.  We used to cut pictures out of the paper and bring them in to make each other laugh at inopportune moments in PHSE or History – laughter in the corridors of comprehensives – it was a steel town we didn’t have much else – but our odd pictures of Dave Hill, or Ian Botham’s engagement, Les Dawson’s eye or James Brown’s orange leather jerkin would get us through the day (and night for that matter)

And there was a moment in Gruff’s procedings where he expertly linked the Acid Trip scene from Easy Rider to the same cemetery where John Evans had been buried. His choice of photograph and that causal throwaway comment just had me howling. The juxtaposition of Hopper and Fonda in that cemetery and our journey with John was comedy timing at is finest. Seriously he should have his own sit com – it was spectacle and stand up. Beautiful combined and timed.

But we nearly never got there – as apple’s ipad warnings ominously flashed up on screen – with Gruff at first unaware of the 10% remaining life of his ipad.  Thus we – the audience were not going to follow this tale the way it had been originally intended – indeed. “To add to the suspense [of the story], we don’t even know if we’ll make it to the end” Gruff tells us - it's a tense moment but we're here for the ride. With time definately not on his side - and an aborted attempt at charging that actually reduced the power - it was only the 'back up solutions' of an audience member that saved the images that are so intrinsic to this musical monologue.

In some ways the show falling apart only made it more special – more riveting – with the ipad dying in front of our eyes and calls for the technician to find the right charger – we didn’t know whether Gruff would have to fly solo even further – unaided – without photographic evidence. So the tale was told quickly and effectively – leaving time for the songs to be played in a batch – reflecting the photos we had briefly glimpsed. Saying that Gruff – told the story with the aid of a dubplate with beats – a 7 inch of slow jam – a beat (poet) explanation with added bass.

It would be good to have this narration with the album – but all you get are the songs. And what wonderful songs they are – conjuring up the west – the (lost) tribes he meets and the travels of our character, the last conquistador, in full technicolour. Gruff performs them simply here – guitar upturned in hand – and ipad applications double tracking voices – or replaying moments – it’s what we’ve come to expect from Gruff – multiple things happen at once – out of seeming chaos and random sounds -come tunes of utter wit and beauty. These are not Furry tunes done by one man – this is his art maaaaaaaaan. This is his thing.

And I guess when the narration takes a back seat and the set takes on a more usual format - the songs aren't in anyway diminished by the lack of explanation. Instead - Gruff simply sings and we clap.

Because that's the response you have. And he tells us to with his 'Applause' cue card.

But it's The Swamp that brings me to my knees - as we lay John Evans to rest - Gruff sweetly sings the line, 'I'm not scared of dying, I'm just scared of making you cry' - it's poignant but not mawkish - it's soul singing of the highest order. So two hours later we're still there - wanting another and another - and Gruff doesn't disappoint - with some nods and winks to his own back catalogue - not the Furries - just his own.  Candylion and Honey all over - end the show. 

As harmonies build and soar - Gruff runs from the stage - one final command card in his hand - we applaud.

And he thanks us.

For a brilliant and technically accurate review of the concert you should read this:

There's also an app and DVD and soundtrack and lots and lots of things - you can find a link to those via Gruff's site

And here's a wonderful song from Gruff