Monday, October 3, 2011

October 2011

This month saw the first announcement of bands playing at the Big Day Out in 2012. The Nevstar was seriously underwhelmed with the list. Setting aside my complete disinterest in a second rate grunge band (Soundgarden) and a marketing extraordinaire (Kayne West), it was probably more disappointing to see a number of bands playing the gig yet again. The inclusion of Kasabian (third time in last five years), My Chemical Romance (second time in three years) and Living End (for what seems like the 950th time in last twenty years!) suggests that the organisers are finding it harder and harder to entice quality names downunder.
Further down the list however were some interesting bands albeit less well-known. I've profiled Best Coast before so if you head along make sure you catch her brand of sunshine tinged pop. And then an album by another band that was announced had already been selected as my album of the month which was extremely propitous. So if you want to know a bit more about Foster The People, read on.

Album Of The Month

Foster The People : Torches

Pop music, at its finest, has a charming effervescence; a ethereal lightness existing only for our instant entertainment and enjoyment. It is not to be slowly savoured, but instantly devoured and delighted in. It is as energizing as it is inspirational. Pop music, at its finest, plugs directly into the neuron receptors which trigger spontaneous outbursts of joy and happiness. Unfortunately, so few bands have the ability to write such genius pop music.
Foster The People have that ability.

Torches is their debut album released on the back of the killer single “Pumped Up Kicks” which filled dance floors all over Europe during the summer of 2010. It was a YouTube sensation as well registering millions of hits and so an album was soon demanded by the musical powers that be. As with any band of this ilk, the true test is whether they can sustain the energy and pop hooks throughout an entire album’s worth of material. As the Nevstar can happily testify; yes they can.

Their debut album Torches is a collection of inspired and electro-disco pop music by this Los Angeles trio who have a deft touch to accompany their delicate dulcet tones. For just under an hour, we are taking for a ride by a relentlessly energetic tag team of vocals set to irresistibly catchy hooks. It is the sort of album you find yourself singing along to BEFORE you know the words. The songs are cheery and playful; odes to sing along to while swinging on your jungle gym or jumping on your trampoline.

Inevitably, the ability to write an album’s worth of pop masterpieces is pretty tough. The album is front-loaded with the first half stronger than second half. As most of us know, it is hard to maintain a high level of energy no matter what the activity! But, just as we sense they are flagging, the final two tracks bring the album to a magnificent close. Penultimate track “Miss You” is a wistful love song introduced by some funky early 80s drum synthesiser and channelling their inner Kraftwerk. Then closing track “Warrant” is definitely worth waiting around as it is probably the second best track after "Pumped Up Kids".

So, given the prevailing mood of doom and despondency currently pervading the economic landscape, perhaps having some cheery pop music instantly accessible as an easily reachable antidote makes a lot of sense. Go out and get yourself a copy now. Why hold your head in your hands when you could be tapping your feet?

If you like this try:

CSS : Cansei De Ser Sexy
Passion Pit : Manners
MGMT : Oracular Spectacular

Essential Classic Album

Nirvana : Nevermind

2011 marks the 20 year anniversary of the release of one of the most important albums of the 20th century. How important was Nirvana’s Nevermind? Well, the best answer is that in 2004 it was selected by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. How’s that for making your mark on history!

Grunge was arguably the last true innovation in rock music and the template for that distinct sound is Nirvana’s second album entitled Nevermind. A lot of grunge bands followed in their footsteps but none were as good as Nirvana. A lot of grunge albums were released after 1991 but none were as good as Nevermind. The template for the grunge sound was effectively established forever more by Nevermind. "Smells Like Teen Spirit", which kicks off the album, starts off with a quiet guitar riff before the song launches into the furious angst filled anthem of teenage rebellion. And then, it is quiet again before slowly building to another climax. Quiet, loud, quiet. Twenty years on and it is still intensely thrilling.

Listening to Nevermind in writing this review and another aspect I noted was the rhythm. A pet peeve of mine is that too many bands try to rock hard whereas great rock music needs both to rock AND roll. There should be rhythm to accompany the beats. A lot of the songs on Nevermind rock really hard, but they all have very strong driving rhythms as well.

The other notable aspect of the album is the strength of the lesser songs. As the Nevstar endlessly opines, the true test of a talented band is not the quality of the singles, but the quality of the ‘filler’. Nevermind is extremely front-loaded as an album with the four Top 100 singles featuring in the first five tracks. But side 2 (in the old vernacular) is still worth listening to and has a number of quite brilliant tracks. I really like the relentless urgings of "Territorial Pissings" which is perhaps the punkiest track on the album. Similarly "Stay Away" would’ve been a great single had they needed another.

Nirvana’s lasting legacy is perhaps tarnished or at least overshadowed by Kurt’s depression and ultimate suicide. But Nevermind should not be considered in light of what came after. It should be viewed through the prism of what came before as they forged a distinctive Seattle rock persona. Nevermind is the sound of a supremely confident and talented trio of musicians forging a new consensus on the way rock and roll should henceforth be played and listened to. Its impact today is, if anything, even stronger than 1991. Bands today need to be confident of their identity and sound. Success in the music industry today is rooted in being original not derivative. Find your own voice, play music you love, practice until your fingers bleed and then play and play and play. Your audience will find you. Nirvana’s certainly did and after releasing Nevermind, history beckoned.

If you like this try:

Pearl Jam : Ten
Soundgarden : Superunknown
Alice In Chains : Dirt

Top Ten List

Setting aside how fabulous the music is, Nirvana’s Nevermind has also got one of the all time great album covers. This got me thinking; what are the best album covers of all time? It is, again, an immensely difficult question. Ultimately, great albums cover art becomes iconic and so it can become a circular argument. Is the cover famous because of being great art or because the album is famous? However, while it is incredibly subjective, here are what I consider to be The Top Ten Album Covers of All Time.

10. Sex Pistols : Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols

An album cover that really needs no explaining. Art for arts sake and a template for the punk imagery that evolved thereafter. In a stunning indictment of the nanny state that was in existence at the time, Richard Branson and a record store owner were prosecuted under the Indecent Displays (Control) Act for displaying the album cover. Apparently the album cover is 'indecent' for its prominent use of the extremly rude and offensive word 'bollocks'.

9. The Libertines : The Libertines

A great album cover should exist as art in its own right. To my mind, great photo art is a picture that instantly intrigues yet can sustain multiple subsequent viewings. The Libertines second album cover certainly qualifies. An astonishing photo. That you could probably predict the future history of the band from the one photos also exemplifies its qualities.

8. Roxy Music – Country Life

Roxy Music wrote music that always titillated. Their album covers were similarly sexy. Country Life was their fourth album and probably their most consistent. However it may be best remembered for the quite striking and unforgettable album cover. Reportedly, Bryan Ferry encountered the two models in Portugal and convinced them to pose for the cover in this sexy yet forbidding shot. I have always liked the ambiguity about whether they are standing up or lying down.

7. Nirvana : Nevermind

The undeniably brilliant album cover operates on a number of levels and still quite mesmerising to this day. The shot was conceived after Dave Grohl watched a documentary on underwater births with the ironic dollar bill added in post-production. The baby on the cover is Spencer Elden whose parents volunteered him for the shoot and received a lump sum of $200 for the privilege. Elden reportedly has a stellar opening line when meeting girls these days. Apparently he opens with - “Want to see my penis…. Again”.

And in a side note bound to depress everyone, Elden was born on February 7, 1991 making him now 20 years old. Does anyone else feel old?

6. The Beatles : Abbey Road

Choosing one Beatles cover for the list proved inordinately difficult. Sgt Peppers is widely regarded as one of the greatest album covers of all time. Revolver is a stunning piece of pencil drawn art featuring multiple images of the four lads and even With The Beatles with its half lit faces is a worthy candidate. But ultimately I decided that Abbey Road was their best album cover. It is an iconic shot parodied and imitated to this day but was itself strikingly original. The most original background story about the image emanated from various media reports speculating that Paul was dead and the Beatles were covering up the news. Hence, the Abbey Road cover can be viewed as a mock funeral procession. John appears at the front as the pastor, Ringo next all suited up in black is the mourner (or perhaps undertaker), Paul the corpse in bare feet and George following at the rear as the denim clad grave-digger. Who knows if it is true or not; it makes a great story. Also note that while everyone looks to be in step, Paul is the only with his right foot forward. He was a leftie you know!

If you want to check out the spot, it is Abbey Road, NW 8 London. There is even a web cam of the spot if you are interested.

5. King Crimson : In The Court of The Crimson King

A quite scary piece of original art adorns the cover of the King. Amazingly, it was the only painting ever completed by Barry Godber who was a computer programmer by trade. Like many of the best album covers, it rewards multiple viewings with searing emotions jumping off the cover each time you look at it. For example, try covering the painting up to the eyes and you will be rewarded with a completely different emotion on display. For those of you not familiar with the work of progressive rock act King Crimson; let me put it this way. The album cover accurately represents the contents within.

Note that many album sleeves in the 70s were designed for the art on the front to wrap around the sleeve and be continued on the backside. So the full image is rectangular landscape rather than a square. The iconic images that we know were often merely half the full image. Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run is one example with the image of Bruce leaning on a shoulder. The back side shows that he is leaning on saxophonist Clarence Clemons. The full cover for this King Crimson album is a good example as can been seen below where the image reveals yet another interpretation.

Yet another reason (if one were needed) to love vinyl records over CD's and iTunes!

4. Strokes : Is This It?

Sometimes art is best when it is simple. The album cover of the Strokes debut album provides the perfect example. An absolutely stunning photo featuring a gloved hand on a bare bottom. Sexy, stimulating, tense and terrific; just like the album contained within.

3. The Clash : London Calling

One of the most iconic shots in rock and roll history graces the cover of London Calling, the Clash’s finest album. Photographed by Pennie Smith at New York’s Palladium in September 1979, it captures bassist Paul Simonon smashing his axe into the floor. Apparently he was disappointed with the tepid audience response to the songs being played so he decided to try and rile them up a bit. Whether he did or not is lost in time, but the resulting image forever captured the primeval passion of rock and roll at its most furious.

Note is also captures rock and roll at its most derivative as this album cover from an early Elvis Presley album will attest.

2. Pink Floyd : Dark Side of The Moon

Similarly to the Beatles, the Floyd had a number of terrific album covers. There was the iconic cover of Animals which somehow managed to immortalise a power station. Then you had the intriguing image from the cover of Wish You Were Here with a man on fire shaking hands with another. But in the end, it is my humble view that the cover of Dark Side of The Moon was their best. An absolutely iconic and unforgettable album cover which contains in a refracting prism perhaps the most memorable rock image of all time. The album artwork was designed by George Hardie of design company Hipgnosis and was one of several this firm designed for Pink Floyd. It is also said to pay homage to the conglomeration of sound and light that was a feature of their monumental live shows.

And the number one Album Cover of All Time is…..

1. Led Zeppelin : Houses of the Holy

Nosing out the efforts of Floyd is this quite astonishing and surreal cover from Houses of the Holy by Led Zeppelin. Also designed by the team from Hipgnosis (see above), it was inspired by an Arthur Clarke short story called Childhood’s End which ends with semi-formed human children gathering at the top of a rock pile awaiting transportation to another world/dimension. It is pure rock and roll excess hinting at fantasy mixed with science fiction, childhood innocence and its impending loss.

The shoot (and yes it is a photo, not a painting) took an incredible ten days to complete as they could only shoot at dawn and dusk to capture the specific lighting mix the shot required. According to sources on the shoot, two children, brother and sister Samantha and Stefan Gates, had to be ready to work at 4am and were painted gold and silver to give the image the requisite science fiction qualities.
To properly appreciate the image, perhaps check out the full image when the front and back covers are matched together.

So there you go, that is my attempt at nominating the best album covers of all time. Send me your thoughts on ones which should be considered.

I also note with interest that four of the top six covers do not have the name of the band or the album on the cover. Surely not a coincidence that the best art is not sullied with band or album names!

Reader Feedback

Had a couple of people email me regarding my Top 10 of 2010. One comment was both welcome and unwelcome as I realised that I had inadvertently omitted an absolute cracker of an album. Doh! Teenage Dream by Beach House would definitely be in my Top 10 for last year and would probably reside somewhere in the Top 3. A quite brilliant album of shimmering pop music. Hat tip to Paul for bringing this egregious omission to my attention.

That's all for this month. See you in November.


Friday, September 2, 2011

Best of 2010

Welcome back Music Lovers.

As alluded to last month, I had been working on a longer than usual Top Ten list and it is time to publish it now. My period of writers block last year coincided with my annual list of the best albums each year and so have posted/published no such list for 2010 as yet. While its absence at the time may not have been noted, it does offer a great excuse to revisit a lot of the great music that was released in 2010.

In retrospect, a delay to anointing the best albums in any particular year is not necessarily a bad idea. Most album releases from UK/US bands are still frustratingly released in New Zealand several weeks, if not months, after coming out in their home markets. As such, albums released late in the year often have no chance of making the Top Ten list. By the time they have reached my CD stacker, I have already published my Top Ten and moved onto the new year. I can think of several releases from previous years which I ended up loving but were not considered for the annual list. As we will see, 2010 turned out to be a pretty good year for music helped in part by the inclusion for consideration of several quality releases which I have only come to love in 2011.
So now, with the full candidate list published and available to all, it is time to find out what were the Nevstar's....

Top Ten Albums From 2010

10. Bruce Springsteen - The Promise

It was in the mid 1970s that Bruce Springsteen finally produced the classic album his undeniable talent suggested he was capable of producing. Born To Run ranks up there amongst the finest rock albums of all time. His road to stadium filling super-stardom was assured. However, while there was a lot of touring in support of Born to Run, a follow-up album did not quickly eventuate. There was indeed a four year interlude between the multi-platinum smash released in 1975 and Darkness At The Edge of Town which followed in 1979. The reasons for the delay are not known but it certainly wasn't due to writer's block as this release testifies. Springsteen wrote and recorded over 40 songs during this period and a number of them found their way onto Darkness At The Edge of Town. But many did not and a great number were left on the cutting room floor seemingly never to be released.

But now, in 2010, they have been released for the first time as the double sided album, aptly entitled The Promise. And what an absolute treat it is. Hearing it for the first time is a revelation as you immediately realise you are listening to NEW material from an artist during his most creative song writing period. The tracks are undeniably 1970s Springsteen, not 2010 Springsteen. It is a lost album in the truest sense. It demonstrates all the traits of his earliest albums; cracking stories full of equal measures of wit and remorse sung to a soundtrack of unadorned musical simplicity. A few of the tracks are recognisable from those familiar with his live albums, but overall this is a great lost album which we have finally found. Essential for any Springsteen fan (and aren't we all?).

The only dilemma - for recordophiles like myself - is whether to place it in our collections under 1977 or 2010. Maybe best solution is to simply buy two copies and place one in each slot for completeness!

Best Track : Because Of The Night

9. Best Coast – Crazy For You

Best Coast
is effectively Bethany Consentino, a child actor turned musical prodigy. She released a number of near perfect pop-tunes in her teens which soon garnered quite a following on MySpace. The major labels soon came knocking and more professionally produced efforts soon followed. Combining with instrumentalist Bobb Bruno under the moniker Best Coast, this is her first full length release.

The album is beguiling in many respects. It is full of sugary sweet pop music with gorgeous vocals lathered over perfect melodies and inoffensive background instrumentation. But dig further and you find the songs have dirty and dark undertones as she sings about not only whimsical love, but revenge and heartbreak following on from the passion. It is an album about falling in love but forewarning the angst from a break-up which may follow. As such, the album flies past in a blur of boyfriends and bitches all sung in such innocuous dulcet tones that you would swear it is a girl band from the 50s singing not a child of the 90s. It is the perfect album for the soon to come summer and then you can also delve deeper into it during the long dark winter months. Remarkably, you will find it matches both seasons. Highly recommended.

Best Track : I Want To

8. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

Music companies are not our friends. They are the enemy; content to try and deliver to us the same music that we have already bought before. There is no room for originality or even a slightly different approach. Mumford & Sons are thus the quintessential band of the new century. A record company would never green light an album such as Sigh No More because it is not like other acts that have succeeded before. But Mumford & Sons quickly found a following online mainly because they are genuine, have great songs and can really really play.

Their sound, if it can be categorised, is an conglomeration of indie/alternative/country/folk. Being described as 'folk' music is near instant death in the music business these days, but Mumford & Sons make it cool by simply being who they are. You can easily chose not to listen. But it would be a mistake. The entire album is replete with irresistibly catchy folk tunes sung by a band clearly enjoying themselves. It possibly has a few too many slow songs, but the heights which are reached on tracks like Winter Winds makes up for such lapses. It is an album that bears a lot of repeat listens mainly because it is so damn interesting.

Best Track : Winter Winds

7. The National – High Violet

Regular readers of the Nevstar Music Guide will already know of my undoubted affection for The National. They are one of my favourite bands and their concert at the Powerstation towards the end of 2010 was perhaps the best of the year for this scribe.

I have written about this album previously. Check out my full review here.
Suffice to say that it is very close to the stratospheric standards set by their immediately prior albums, Alligator and Boxer. As noted earlier, their songs are "quietish, moody poems set to instrumentation dominated by intricate percussion or subtle basslines. The songs are smouldering classics, working their way into your subconsciousness and residing there long after the speakers have gone silent."

Best Track: Afraid of Everyone

6. Julia Deans – Modern Fables

New Zealand, it seems, is blessed with song-writing talent the equal of anywhere on the planet. Although undoubtedly we are biased in the assessment of it, every year there is an album released from a New Zealand artist which just floors me for the quality of song-writing on display. This year, that album was Modern Fables by former Fur Patrol lead vocalist Julia Deans. This is her first solo album, and judging by the quality, it wont be her last.

Modern Fables is chock full of highly original, catchy, tuneful compositions which sound instantly familiar. Overall, it is less rockier than her Fur Patrol output, but is probably a little more intelligent. The tunes are more thoughtful, but they are all quite distinct as well. Upon purchasing it, I listened to it solidly for about a month and never tired of it. Putting it on again six months later for this review and was instantly reminded of how good it is. Not just one song but the whole album. It is one reason I like albums over singles as it is a bigger sample of the artist's talent. Julia Deans certainly has talent. Seek this album out the first chance you get.
And if you do, make sure you listen to the very end. The best two tracks might just be the two that close the album, Run and Ice Cream. The latter is a Pink Floyd influenced mind-addled space flight!

Best Track : Run

5. Underworld – Barking

As regular readers know, I'm not a huge fan of electronica/dance music with my core music taste leaning in the rock/blues direction. However I tend to purchase a couple of electronica albums a year on the recommendations of those who follow the area closely. It is a rewarding way to find music (in the same way that hopefully the Nevstar Music Guide is for you dear reader!) in that you don't have to trudge through mountains of releases to find the quality albums that will endure.

This year's top electronica album, in this reviewers ever so humble opinion, is the latest effort by Underworld entitled Barking. Underworld are almost elder statesmen of the dance music scene now having been around since 1988. But, along with Chemical Brothers, that doesn't mean they aren't worth listening to. This is mainly due to their songwriting prowess which continues to experiment with dance music rhythms without forgetting the appeal of simple pop pleasures. Barking is an absolute treat with an entire album of high quality tracks each deserving of its own adulation and recommendation. Rarely do you come across albums where you like every single track but I can, unhesistantly, say that in this case here. I even randomized the track list on occasion just to check that my high opinions of some tracks weren't unduly influencing my adoration of the others. If anything, it only highlighted my appreciation of the entire album. Simply put, this is a great piece of dance music and would highly recommend to any music follower whether you like dance music or not.

Best Track: Grace

4. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest

Next come two bands who I only started following once the artist list for Laneways was announced and I have come to love them both. Deerhunter is up first and they can probably best be described as an experimental indie rock band. The songs are epic quests charting previously unknown waters in the vast 'Sargasso Sea' of the noise spectrum. The songs are challenging and rewarding yet satisfying and comforting. While each track is quite distinct the link between them all is a complex wall-of-sound accompaniment supported by sparse yet sharp lyrical content.

Listening to the album is a bit like climbing a mountain; it starts slowly before ascending more rapidly and climaxes at the peak with the absolutely epic track Desire Lines sitting right in the middle of the album. Then, as the euphoria from attaining the summit wears off, the climb down is rewarding as the adrenalin drops away. A great album from some seriously talented musicians.

If you like this, be sure to check out their 2008 release Microcastle / Weird Era. This is an astonishing double album. As I understand, they were all set to release Microcastle when a copy of it was accidentally leaked online. Rather than short-change those who actually paid money for the CD, they promptly recorded a second album (Weird Era) and included it on the same release. Incredibly, the second release, written and recorded in less than a month, is possibly better than the first release. A seriously talented band.

Best Track : Desire Lines

3. Holy Fuck – Latin

Next up come the band Holy Fuck who operate in a similar spectrum to Deerhunter except they do it without any lyrics at all. I first noticed the band in a record store. Whatever you think about the name, it is inarguably eye-catching. Then, when they were also named to play Laneways, I had to check them out and so I purchased Latin before hearing a note.

Latin has one of the slowest starts of any album I can recall. I found myself checking to see if I had actually pressed "Play" or not. But, one minute in, the sounds start emanating from the stereo. And what enchanting sounds they are. HF operate primarily by building tension through the agglomeration of various sounds, chords and loops. It is electronic rock music in some respects featuring intensely catchy loops surrounded by sharp pincer movements of staccato drums and guitar. It is like listening to a soundtrack of rumbling thunder whilst lightning periodically lights up the sky. The overall sound is incredibly menacing and ominous featuring energetic playing and tenacious song-writing.

I'm struggling here. The music is awfully hard to describe. Do yourself a favour and purchase it to see for yourself. Would be very surprised if you didn't find something you like.

Best Track : 1MD

2. Broken Bells – Broken Bells

I've already talked about The National and a similar band who I also enjoy are The Shins. However they did not release an album in 2010. Fortunately lead singer James Mercer teamed up with legendary producer Danger Mouse and released an album under the moniker Broken Bells. I almost missed it actually only being alerted to its presence by a record store employee (and in a side note, what are we going to do without this valuable source of musical knowledge in the digital future?)

Upon playing it for the first time, I was intrigued. Replaying again instantly, I was captivated. Playing it immediately a third time, I was stunned. It is exceptionally good and rivals anything that the Shins have produced. The songs resemble delicate pieces of silk, spun with care and precision, touching and titillating with a softly-spoken charm. There is an innate confidence in the quality of their work. The best comedians are funny because they know they are funny and thus don't appear to be trying hard to be funny. Broken Bells are the same. They are so confident and assured that the output is relaxed and immediately accessible. The songs are mainly low-fi indie pop with the vocal registers never stretched. It is the perfect album to play on a Sunday morning as you let the waves of dreamy pop wash over your tired soul.

Best Track : The Ghost Inside

1. Robert Plant – Band of Joy

Listening to Broken Bells early in the year, I thought it would take a stunning album to top it for Album of the Year. So it proved. Robert Plant's latest solo release is one of my favourite albums of the last five years. On purchasing it, I played it virtually non-stop for about two months and am still yet to tire of it.

Plant has had a bit of a career resurrection of late in part because he has not allowed himself to be typecast. Much as we all love his Zeppelin catalog of work, it would ultimately be a little dull if he simply tried to re-produce this sort of material each time. Instead, he has experimented with a number of genres making full use of his formidable musical knowledge. We had the album Mighty Rearranger in 2005 which was terrific and closed with a (gasp) dance funk effort. Then he combined with Alison Krauss in 2007 on the highly acclaimed Raising Sand which was more of a country effort. Now, in 2010, he returned with Band of Joy which is the name of his original band back in the 1960s before joining up with the New Yardbirds and becoming Led Zep.

Band of Joy is simply amazing. It is a roots album in a number of respects, paying homage to his own musical roots, but also to the music that inspired and shaped his musical pedigree. Thus we have a rather obscure collection of reworked songs, some old, some new; some traditional, some contemporary but all interesting. They were written by a diverse and eclectic number of artists ranging from 60s folk hero Richard Thompson to the indomitable Low. The latter is a fabulous cover of their track Monkey off their terrific album The Great Destroyer. In Plant's hands it acquires a seriously disturbing disguise equal measures delightful and terrifying. Other tracks contain re-interpretations of traditional songs for a new century.

It sounds like a mess, but Plant's genius is to make it sound like a unified whole. His voice is in fine form and it is put to good use across an incredibly wide variety of material. Each song is a story in itself and the joy in listening to the album is digging deeper into both the history of each track and Plant's interpretation of it.

Anyway, enough of me rambling about it, go out and acquire it now. Without hesitation, I would recommend it to absolutely anyone who has even the remotest interest in music. It is that good and as such a worthy winner of the Nevstar's vote for Best Album of 2010.

Best Tracks (way too hard to pick one!) : Monkey, Silver Rider, The Only Sound That Matters

So there you go, there are my top ten albums for 2010. The quality of the candidates meant a lot of very good albums didn't quite make the final cut. Here then is a list of the next best.

Best of the Rest (in alphabetical order)

!!! (Chk Chk Chk) : Strange Weather Isn't It?
Arcade Fire : Suburbs
Black Keys : Brothers
The Drums : The Drums
Gaslight Anthem : American Slang
Gorillaz : Plastic Beach
Grinderman : Grinderman 2
Passion Pit : Manners
Paul Weller : Wake Up The Nation
We Have Band : WHB

What do we think of that? Any absolutely egregious omissions? What were your Top Ten of Twenty Ten? Send me a list and be happy to publish it in the next guide. And if I have missed your favourite release of last year, send me an impassioned dissertation on why it should have been considered.

Until next month.

The Nevstar

Monday, July 25, 2011

August 2011

In the July issue, in order to make up for the sporadic updates of late, the Nevstar profiled six new albums which had impressed me recently. As I settled in to draft the latest update, I soon realised that I had already covered all albums which had recently impressed me. In the immortal words of Homer J. Simpson; Doh! My first attempt to rectify this led to the rapid acquisition of some new albums. But offerings from bands such as The Cults, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and The Horrors haven't really impressed me sufficiently to justify anointing them as the Album of the Month. Fortunately an album I purchased way back in April is definitely worthy and still getting spins on my CD. So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the new(ish) album from The Vaccines!

Album of the Month

The Vaccines : What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?

Rock may not be dead, but it is certainly in a coma. Rock music, once cast as the end of civilisation, barely registers on music charts anymore. Rolling Stone magazine reported in its 2010 review that of the 30 top selling albums in 2010, only one could truly be considered a "rock" album (the rather tepid and uninspiring Kings of Leon effort Come Around Sundown). Instead the charts are replete with soporific pop princesses, tuneless former teen idols and the occasional intellectually interesting indie effort.

So, as an unashamed rock music fan, it was fantastic to come across The Vaccines and their debut album What Did You Expect From The Vaccines. The Vaccines are not the saviours of rock and roll, but they quickly remind us what we love about it. They have a simple, unadorned attitude to music, choosing to entertain all-comers with short sharp songs, ridiculously catchy guitar riffs, and bountiful energy and enthusiasm. Playing the album the first time, my head was soon nodding along vigorously to the toe-tapping beat. And then, after 11 tracks totalling just over 36 min, I was pressing play to start it all again.

The album kicks off with the terrific opener Wreckin' Bar (Ra Ra Ra) with the title an accurate depiction of what follows. It's a shamelessly shambolic statement of intent which sets the scene in a rapid 1 min 24 seconds. Say something well once and move on seems to be the mantra. It's also the band's first single so they like to start with their best foot forward. Next comes If You Wanna which has the best rock song hook this side of the Kaiser Chiefs. Then mid-album tracks form a sample of the delights that the whole album provides. Norgaard rips into it with some jangly Strokes'ish guitars and a relentless beat before the cheeky Post Break-Up Sex cheerfully confirms that rock and roll never veers far from the subject of horizontal tummy trampolining.

As such, its not the most intelligent album in the world and, truth be known, the lyrics are pretty weak in some respects. But who cares? Keith Richards famously said that rock and roll is music for head downwards. You don't always want to think about "what it all means?". Sometimes you just want to kick off you shoes, dance with your friends and scream "Yeah Yeah Yeah." That's the essence of rock music and if more bands remembered this, they might have a lot more success.

Listen to or purchase here.

Listen to this if you like:

The Strokes : Is This It?
Kaiser Chiefs : Employment

While I was compiling this month's Nevstar Music Guide, word came over the wires that the prodigiously talented Amy Winehouse had died of unknown causes at the tender age of 27. It's an inauspicious age as Amy joined musical legends Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain in perishing before their 28th birthday. There is however, one other important and notable musician who died aged 27 but is never mentioned in press dispatches at such times. And it just so happens that 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of his birth. As such I thought it would a great opportunity to highlight the immense musical contribution of a certain Mr Robert Leroy Johnson. Don't know him? Read on, dear reader.

Classic Album of the Month

The Complete Recordings : Robert Johnson

Rock and roll was the primary and dominant musical genre of the 20th century. But as Muddy Waters once sang, the Blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll. If you want to understand rock music, it is nigh on essential that you have a passing understanding of the structure and history of blues. Rock and roll is really nothing but speeded up blues.

Perhaps the foremost artisan who established the template that many would follow was an itinerant musician by the name of Robert Johnson. He died at the age of 27 after being poisoned reportedly for chasing the wrong woman. But fortunately, he was able to get on record 29 songs which we are absolutely blessed to be able to access to this day.

Johnson was the foremost practitioner of a style which became known as Delta Blues. Originating out of the Mississippi delta, this new style of music prominently showcases rhythmical tunes accompanied by instrumentation. Or what became rock and roll plus guitar solos. You can essentially trace a straight line from Mississippi Delta Blues to the electric Chicago Blues (Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf) to the early bands of the British Invasion (Beatles, Stones and Animals) to the rock innovators in the late 60s (Stones again, Yardbirds, Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin). As such, it is pretty damn important in the whole scheme of things!

You may not have heard of Robert Johnson but I guarantee that you've come across his songs. In keeping with his immense influence, his limited repertoire has been covered by some of the greatest acts in rock history. Love in Vain (Rolling Stones), Cross Road Blues (Cream), Travelling Riverside Blues (Led Zeppelin) and the hugely enjoyable Sweet Home Chicago (a number of bands most notably the Blues Brothers) are all Robert Johnson songs.

The essence of blues is one man and his guitar facing the world and the miseries it heaps upon him. On the double album we have Robert Johnson playing 29 songs totalling 41 tracks (a number have alternate takes including a couple where you would swear it was a different song). The first thing we notice from the recordings is his incredible voice; a wailing, plaintive voice with poverty and deprivation anchored into every tortured note. As such, the music itself is not an easy listen but it shouldn't be. Blues is a collective suffering; an anguish bared from the depths of your soul retold only in song because words wouldn't do it justice.

The next revelation is the guitar playing which is absolutely astonishing. The story, perhaps apocryphal, is that Robert Johnson was an average guitar player but then sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads late one night. He returned as an outstanding guitar player to the bewilderment of those who knew him. True or not, there is certainly abundant evidence of his prodigious talent. The guitar playing in the songs is wondrous. Just like Jimi Hendrix who followed 30 years later, Robert played both lead and rhythm on the one guitar. Listening to the album today, you would swear that their are two guitars being played.

Robert Johnson lived the rock and roll lifestyle before there was a name for such a thing. He was a noted womaniser and spent most of his life on the road playing in juke joints for beer money and the chance to impress the local ladies. His death is somewhat mysterious but the most likely explanation is that he died after drinking some poisoned whiskey most likely by the hand of a cuckolded husband. So at 27, we lost one of the world's great guitarists. Fortunately his legacy survives on record to this day. If you are even the remotest fan of blues or simply want to understand the entire history of rock and roll, you must own this record.

Listen to tracks here.

Try this if you like: Any rock music recorded in the second half of 20th century!

No top ten list this month sorry. I'm working on an idea which needs bit more work to flesh out properly so will hopefully get it out at the start of September. Does anyone have any ideas for a Top Ten list that they would like to see the Nevstar write about?

See you next month.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

July 2011

The Nevstar is back again after extended absence due to prolonged case of writers block. Have new found appreciation for those that write professionally for a living as think we tend to underestimate the time and commitment required to continually deliver new material. But with renewed vigour and a self-imposed deadline, the Nevstar will attempt to deliver up a monthly epistle on music and music related matters.

Given the period that has elapsed since the last effort, I thought it might be productive to highlight a number of recently released albums rather than just one. One of the goals of the Nevstar Music Guide is to help filter out the listenable from the unlistenable. With dominant distribution channels of music disappearing, there is an increasingly vast and ecclectic range of music all eagerly vying for our limited attention. The next great fortune in music will be made by applying a brilliant filter enabling music lovers to easily, quickly and cheaply access the best new music that they will love. The Nevstar Music Guide is unlikely to be that forthcoming advance (it will surely be algorithmic based) but it can hopefully assist in helping you discover some new music you might not otherwise have chanced across. Indeed, one of the undoubted pleasures of writing the Nevstar Music Guide is people telling me they absolutely loved an album they found through reading these random collection of thoughts.

So without further ado; here is a quick summary of some of the best new music that has been released in the last few months.

Fleet Foxes : Helplessness Blues

The second album from Seattle’s Fleet Foxes following their eponymous debut which was an indie favourite in 2008. The follow-up album, Helplessness Blues follows a similar trajectory being grounded in a melodic baroque folk sound but extending and updating it for the new millennium. The album is less immediately accessible than the debut which was chock full of pop folk masterpieces. However it benefits from repeated listens with the exotic instrumentation cleverly complementing the catchy pop hooks which are embedded in often complex musical arrangements. Lyrically the album is a bit darker as well containing less well-worn homilies from a bygone era and more shrewd observations of the modern world. Folk is often mistaken for wistful Amish-like nostalgia for simpler times, whereas it should really operate as a time capsule of the issues of the current age. Recommended.

Listen or purchase here.

The Antlers : Burst Apart

Another album which I purchased on the strength of their preceding work. The Antlers released an album called Hospice in 2009 which was a concept album. However it wasn’t a pleasant concept as it documents an emotionally abusive relationship between a hospice worker and a terminally ill patient. Not generally music to brighten the mood at a party. But it was a sublime album which I played an awful lot. Burst Apart is not as emotionally powerful or harrowing but its still an exquisite listen. As with Fleet Foxes, it must be listened to multiple times to truly appreciate its subtle charms. The music is moody bordering on morose; quiet yet shouting out for your attention. Nowhere is it mandated that great art must be cheerful. Art is more often about longing and heartache than delight and charm. The Antlers are thus starting to build quite an impressive collection of art. Recommended but perhaps try before you buy.

Listen to or purchase here.

Wild Beasts : Smother

The Nevstar came across this album from my own personal music filter in the form of the invaluable website Metacritic which aggregates online reviews from numerous publications. The highest rated album for 2011 at one point was from a band that I had never heard of. Not anymore. Wild Beasts follow an unworn pathway writing about sexually taboo subjects but cloaking such potentially offensive material in a wrapper of delicate, brooding, musical poems which are unfailing catchy yet strangely hypnotic. The ghostly vocals from Hayden Thorpe are Kate Bush like (if that makes sense) lassoing the listener and submitting them to their not always pleasant observations of life, love and unhappiness. Smother may be an acquired taste, but if you acquire it, you are unlikely to dispose of it anytime soon.

Listen to and purchase here.

Death Cab For Cutie : Codes and Keys

Next come two albums from two of my favourite bands. Firstly the always excellent Death Cab For Cutie have released their latest, Codes and Keys. I've written about DCFC in this column before when I profiled their previous release entitled Narrow Stairs (see here). Codes and Keys is, if anything, a touch disappointing relative to their previous work. It is similar in scope and feel to both Narrow Stairs and Plans. However, it is somewhat brighter in tone perhaps due to frontman Ben Gibbard's recent marriage to the always lovely Zooey Deschanel. It is of course the problem with setting such a high standard for yourself; it does make it hard to live up to the benchmark you yourself have set. The album, by any other band, would probably be hailed as an excellent debut. It is chock full of songs to slowly fall in love with and improves on repeated listens as all good albums do. I enjoyed it but am not raving about it. If you are yet to discover the charms of DCFC, start your collection with Transatlanticism or Narrow Stairs. You can always come back to Codes and Keys later.

Recommended but for fans only. Listen or purchase here.

My Morning Jacket : Circuital

One of the most inventive and consistent bands of the last few years, My Morning Jacket return with Circuital their sixth album. After starting out as an Americana folk band in their early albums, MMJ have consistently and boldly sought out new pastures to let loose their fervent imagination and impressive musicianship. Circuital continues that experimentation process. Expansive in scope and ambition, it starts with the lengthy omnibus Victory Dance followed closely by the border-line epic grandeur of the title track. As with most of the titles covered in the Nevstar Music Guide this month, there are few straight ahead rockers on Circuital. On the contrary, Circuital consists mainly of layered arrangements and falsetto vocals accompanied where necessary by strings, horns and choirs. In shape and form, its closer to classical music than pop music with songs that tend to mirror novels. There are characters, plots twists, themes and climaxes amongst the varied fare on offer and barely a single nod to the traditional "verse-chorus-verse, repeat" pop song structure. I wouldn't quite rate it up there with their best effort (the sublime It Still Moves), but it's awfully close. It just lacks that one signature tune which sticks in your memory and which prevents it from being called a great album. That aside, its still a very, very good album and certainly worthy of your attention particularly if you treasure bands that demand you engage your brain before listening to their output.


Listen to or purchase here.

The Adults : The Adults

Lastly we have a brand new release from a newly formed New Zealand super group! The Adults grew out of Shihad frontman Jon Toogood's solo recording sessions. He began jamming with a few other NZ artists and eventually they decided to record some of the output. This eponymous debut album is the end result of these labours. He is joined on all tracks by Julia Deans from Fur Patrol and the elder statesman of NZ rock in Shayne Carter. Its a beguiling trio and the track listing is an eclectic mix of rock and pop with dashes of soul and funk. They are joined at different times by a veritable who's who of NZ rock heavyweights including Anika Moa, Tiki Taane and Ladi 6. All in all it's a little patchy at times which is probably to be expected, but the high moments make the whole thing worthwhile. I found the Julia Deans tracks were probably the highlight, particularly the gorgeous melancholy of Anniversary Day. Despite their quite different backgrounds, the chemistry between the three is clearly evident and it's a great addition to the ever more interesting NZ music scene.

Find out more and listen to some tracks here.

Top Ten List

In New Zealand, Sky TV has just launched MTV Classic which returns MTV to its roots of (gasp) a music television channel. As most of you know, the original MTV morphed into a ridiculous reality tv channel although the executives were never brave enough to re-brand it RTV. So its a nice back to the future moment to re-embrace the art of music videos in all their glory and gaiety.

MTV Classic started its broadcast with the classic groundbreaking video of "Money for Nothing" from Dire Straits. It's hard to remember now but there was a time, pre Toy Story certainly, where these computer generated graphics represented the cutting edge of digital television. It was an incredibly innovative video which certainly assisted in the distribution and marketing of the song. All the best videos achieve this garnering more airplay and exposure for the song and band. While watching the video, I started thinking, what actually were the BEST music videos of all time?

Immediately, one must define "Best". Is it most original, most entertaining, the best marketing for the song or simply the most appropriate visual accompaniment to a short pop song? In my view, its probably a combination of all four. A great music video must be hugely memorable, artistic in its own right, a suitable companion to the song (one should recall the other and vice versa). But the very greatest will also maximise the impact of the complementary visually based media format.

So, here is, in the Nevstar's ever so humble opinion;

The Top Ten Music Videos Of All Time
(with video evidence of course!)

10. Red Hot Chilli Peppers - Dani California

I'm not sure about whether it's the "best" video, but Dani California is certainly one of the most entertaining. I first saw this video while running on a treadmill at the gym and almost fell off from laughing so hard. It is beyond brilliant. Here the Chilli's don a succession of musical alter egos from a number of musical genres; from Elvis through to Nirvana with numerous stops on the way. It must have been an absolute blast to make and the Chillis certainly look to be enjoying themselves. The person in charge of wardrobe also deserves an Oscar for their outstanding efforts!

Watch it here and see how many of the bands you can name.

Dani California barely nosed out another brilliant RHCP video, that of Californication which is shot in the style of a first person computer game and pays homage to some classic console games. Watch Californication here.

9. Duran Duran - Hungry Like The Wolf

Really, how could any such list NOT have at least one entry from Duran Duran? The hard task is picking just one. Duran Duran embraced the new reality of the music video business realising that a professionally produced mini-movie was the perfect marketing for their catchy pop songs. Their best is - and I admit it's hugely arguably - the video accompanying Hungry Like The Wolf. It is improbably set in Sri Lanka and seems like a cross between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness! It's a joy to watch for its sheer brazenness but also so as to witness a video the likes of which will never be shot again. With the revenue challenges facing the music industry today, no industry executive will ever again sign off on a budget for such extravagance. In some respects, it reminds me of the great film Lawrence of Arabia; the likes of both will never be made ever again.

Watch it here.

Quite happy to have this choice argued. Other Duran Duran candidates include A View To A Kill, Wild Boys, Rio and the seriously saucy Girls on Film.

8. Radiohead - Just
When I was a kid, I used to religiously watch Ready to Roll at 6pm on Saturday nights. I remember quite clearly always hoping that at least one of the videos that night would tell a story as such. 95% of videos were simply the band playing their song but it was great when the video itself had its own story line. Radiohead clearly had the same thoughts as evidenced by this fantastic video telling a simple story but with an absolutely great ending. If you've never seen it, please take the time. Compelling. Just what did he say?

Watch it here.

Perhaps no other band since Duran Duran has really taken the time to make succint and compelling visual art for each song as Radiohead have done (with possible exception of Tool). Also check out some of their other efforts: Street Spirit, Fake Plastic Trees and Karma Police.

7. Tool - Sober

While not a huge fan of their music catalog, it would be churlish to keep Tool off this list. Their videos are all stunning works of animatic art never featuring the band itself but instead telling their own story through humanoid characters, sometimes relating to the song, other times not. They are cinematographically brilliant employing daubs of shadow and light depending on the moment. It's arguable which one of their videos is the 'best' but in viewing all of them in preparation for this blog, I felt that Sober was the cleverest and is compelling viewing in its own right.

Watch it here.

Other ones to check out are Prison Sex and Stinkfist.

6. Peter Gabriel - Sledgehammer

This is simply a work of absolute genius. Peter Gabriel had a few terrific videos but none better than this continuous combination of his animated face and various claymation and digital enhancements. It almost needs to be watched in slow motion to ensure that you see everything that the director included. Reportedly, Gabriel had to lie on the floor for four days with a glass pane just above his face in order to get all the shots. His facial movements are a delight and brilliant accompany the animation going on around him. The song remains average and forgettable, but the video will be watched for as long as we have music TV.

Watch it here

5. Ok Go - Here It Goes

The undoubted democracy of the web allows those with original ideas to garner a much wider audience than would traditionally be possible. However, if you are without an existing brand, then you somehow need to be so original that the video reaches a magical tipping point and goes 'viral'. A perfect example of this is the song Here It Goes from the previously unknown OK Go. A band without the pedigree of the rest of those in the Top Ten, Ok Go make it on sheer originality. One of the most watched videos on YouTube of all time sees this previously unknown band complete a complicated dance sequence on eight treadmills in one take. Beyond brilliant.

Watch it here.

4. Michael Jackson - Thriller

It may not be the BEST video of all time - well according to me anyway - but Thriller was certainly the most ambitious. US$800,000 worth of ambition! Directed by John Landis of Blues Brothers/Animal House fame, it's undeniably a treat to watch, even given the passage of time since its release. A movie inside of a movie, its compelling viewing from start to finish. One of the highlights for me on rewatching was to recall what an absolutely fantastic dancer Michael Jackson was. He absolutely and completely outdances a entire troupe of professional dancers. It's not the best video in my opinion mainly because I think the video does a dis-service to the song; the video version of the song is cut quite differently from the original to its detriment. In my view, Thriller is one of his most under-rated songs and never garnered the adulation it deserved because of all the attention lavished on the video. But it's still great that we live in a world where it exists. Go on, treat yourself to another viewing of it in its entirety. What were you really going to do with the next 13 minutes of your life!

Watch it here.

3. Chemical Brothers - Star Guitar

Possibly one of the most innovative and cleverest music videos of all time is this effort from the Chemical Brothers. If you havent ever seen it before, watch it now before reading further. Watch it here.

On watching it for the first time, how long before you determined that the images were keeping time with the song? I'ts a brilliant concept but even more impressive is the editing to achieve the vision. I cannot even begin to contemplate how long this must take to not only get all the footage, but put it all together and then ensure that each beat is perfectly matched with a telegraph pole going by! The looping is seamless which seems beyond the art of what's possible. Anytime you have a video which you seek out to watch for its own sake, its probably justifies its position in this list. Good song too!

2. A-ha - Take On Me

In the course of researching this section, I asked numerous people for their top videos of all time. Almost unanimously, A-Ha's Take on Me was mentioned. Putting aside your feelings for the song itself, the video was an early high point for what this new medium could achieve. And it's a height that wasn't often topped thereafter. Once again, we have the video depicting a story operating in a netherworld of fantasy brilliant forged through the use of etched drawings. It's a dream-like fantasy sequence which is quite astonishing in some respects. The shots where the protagonist moves from drawing to real-life are visually stunning. A-Ha's Take on Me was often imitated, but never beaten.

Watch it here.

And the number one video of all time is......

1. Human League - Don't You Want Me

You may not be familiar with this video (I'm sure you all know the song), but I strongly urge you to check it out. It operates on about four different levels somehow incorporating a film noirish detective story, a nod to the destructive tendencies of voyeurist obsessions, a loosely based re-telling of how the band was formed with it all wrapped up in a "Making Of" type production with the crew appearing in numerous numerous shots as they shoot and edit this masterpiece. It's as bewildering as it is beautiful and rewards multiple viewings with each successive exposure revealing more depth and mystery. An absolute treasure which is even more impressive given that all of the above was accomplished within the tight 210 second duration mandated by the song length. A worthy, worthy candidate for the best music video of all time.

Check it out now!

So thats my thinking on the best videos of all time. Have obviously left out, ignored or decided against a huge number of other worthy candidates. Send me your favourites and will construct a list next month of other videos that people love if, for no other reason, to give us all a chance to watch them all again!

Until next month (promise!).


Wednesday, February 2, 2011


For the first time in a little while, the Nevstar was absent from the Big Day Out in 2011. A combination of factors - mainly relating to an uninspiring line-up of bands that have largely played it before - saw the Nevstar cast his critical eye towards a new entrant on the summer festival circuit, the second annual St Jerome's Laneways.

One of the compelling aspects of the Big Day Out USED to be the showcasing of bands who are on the pathway to greatness rather than ones that used to be. Now, it seems, the organisers seem more focused on trying to ensure the continuing success by scheduling popular acts rather than risky ones. As is undoubtedly their prerogative. However, the Laneways line-up this year, in stark contrast, contained very few well-known bands, but targeted those currently garnering critical acclaim for their live and recorded work. It thus seems to be targeting those seeking out new and interesting material rather than those simply looking for an excuse to get smashed.

It was thus very noticeable straight away that its a different crowd at Laneways than the Big Day Out. So it was an older, bohemian, even slightly hippyish group that joined me in Aotea Square. And there was nowhere near the same amount of drunk and wasted people. Plus marauding hordes of shirts-off teenage boys were thankfully absent.

So with a pen and a 10 cent notebook in hand (I kid you not, Back to School specials are amazing these days!), here are some of my thoughts and notes from a great day out (as opposed to big!).

An Emerald City

Named, in all likelihood, after the mythical capital city in the Land of Oz, An Emerald City are a kiwi band now based in Berlin trying to live their rock and roll dream. Opening a festival must be one of the harder jobs in pursuit of that rock and roll dream though as the clock had barely nudged 12.45pm when they struck their first note in anger with barely a dozen in attendance in front of the stage. Still they did a good job with their intoxicating Wall-of-Sound instrumentals featuring a wide range of instruments including violins, maracas and something that sounded like a sitar.

The songs, bereft of lyrics, contain a heavy rumbling sound like an ominous oncoming thunderstorm. The air is thick with expectation and anticipation as their moody and melodramatic sounds sate our appetite for the main courses to follow later in the day. An interesting opening.

Childrens Hour

Destroying the previously instilled chilled atmosphere so delicately spun by An Emerald City, The Children's Hour, emerged onto stage and immediately shocked and invaded our private space both internal and external. The first lyrics of the day were spat at us with vitriol and passion as they embarked on a frenetic, punky 45 minute set. Children's Hour are a reformed band who originally played in NZ during the early 80s and who morphed into the more famous Headless Chickens following the suicide of their bassist.

Not for the last time, the scheduling is the problem here as they wouldve suited a later slot. They play a driving, hardcore Iggyish fare which amps up in intensity throughout the set finishing with an almost death metallish crescendo to finish. However, its far too early in the day for that sort of thing. The songs got louder and faster with one ear-splitting shriek late in the set visibly shocking and scaring most of the crowd.

So not all that impressed although may have a different view given different time or place. Certainly from what I saw, they are an ill-named band who should be kept away from children no matter what the hour!

Lawrence Arabia

Aaahhhh, now thats better. Silver Scroll winner Lawrence Arabia pushed the reset button and quickly restored the chillout zone established with such care by An Emerald City. Right on cue, two songs into the set, I caught the first whiff of weed in the air.

Lawrence Arabia is one of those careful, quiet artists, not requiring any embellishment to his carefully constructed sonical poems. The songs are simultaneously measured and complete yet infinite in their horizons. At one point, he reminded me of Simon & Garfunkel with some inspired folky lyrics combining with aching harmonies and melancholy humming. Not bad company to keep to be sure.

Drawing the first reasonable sized crowd of the day, the set veered at the end down some more experimental avenues. Firstly there was a prog rock era effort with a delightful instrumental followed quickly by a cracking step backwards into a Joy Division rip-off with its heavy synths accompanied by twirling pianos and ambient horns. Delightful. Very talented individual and good to see he is extending himself unlike a certain compatriot of his who would follow later in the day.

Holy Fuck

Well, how to describe these madmen. They were unreal. Another reviewer said they were a more manic, amped up Chemical Brothers. I think thats too gentle! They are a shimmering LSD-addled mind-space fuck! Its danceable psychosis like watching a cacophany of stars exploding. Does that not make any sense? Great, you now know what I felt like at the end of their set!

First and foremost however we should pay kudos to the sound guys who somehow managed to turn the urban landscape of the Aotea Square into a sonically perfect concert hall. Throughout the day, regardless of where you were in the crowd, the vocals are clear and concise and the instrumentation distinct and sharp. And its extremely important because a band like Holy Fuck would sound like a bad headache with the wrong mixing. But here the feedback and fuzzy electronics are triumphant. Its a wonderful march across the wide traverse of a sonical rainbow led by these microphone-eating madmen. Each song consists of numerous ridiculously catching and driving riffs which follow each other in quick succession. There are enough ideas in each song to populate a whole album. Then the next song starts, and they are at it again.

So without doubt the early highlight of the day was provided by these four geeks pounding their instruments into submission and spewing out massive beats and sounds which were then amplified and echoed off all the nearby buildings to such an extent that it prompted the noise control officers to turn up.

And yes, you read that right. Holy Fuck caused Noise Control to turn up at a music festival! Surely a world first. Only in Auckland can Noise Control Officers turn up to a festival event hosted by a council owned entity on council run space with the mayor in attendance. Incredible.

Ariel Pink Haunted Graffiti

Well, um. What to say. I am really at a loss for words trying to describe Ariel Pink Haunted Grafitti. Lots has been said about this band, but I will add little to it. Sound unaccompanied by rhythm is not music. Music unattached to melody is simply noise and thats the main issue here. Think they must be graduates of the Mars Volta school of individualised mayhem. For the undiscerning only. Seemed most of the crowd agreed with me as most of the mob that Holy Fuck had gathered soon disappeared off to sate their thirst for food and drink.

It does allow me to comment on the organisation at Laneways though. Each but the last two acts were allotted 45 minutes only so there was never long before the next band was due on stage. Also the changeover between bands was very quick leaving little downtime. The whole festival ran to an exact timetable which was a notable and comment worthy achievement.

Blonde Redhead

From the moment the setlist was announced, I was always likely to get to Laneways simply to ensure that I saw Blonde Redhead who are one of my favourite bands and released the stunning album "23" in 2007. They are an unconventional band preferring to change up their approach every album rather than churn out paint-by-numbers repeats of past glories.

Surreal and dreamy are the two words that spring to mind when you see or hear them for the first time. Its lush, atmospheric pop music played alternatively as the soundtrack to your dreams and nightmares. Lead singer, Kazu Makino has an amazing voice which defies comprehension given her slim petite stature. Its quiet ethereal and you gaze in astonishment as if its not physically or humanly possible for such sounds to be emerging from her tiny frame. Its delicate, loud and forceful at the same time and not easily forgotten even if it's hard to describe.

They played two tracks from the aforementioned "23", the magical title track (one of my all time favourite songs) along with the similarly magnificent "Looking at You Now". The sensation while watching these tracks is somewhat off-putting though as all band members show a complete lack of interest in their surroundings or the crowd. I cant remember even a "Hello Auckland" during the entire set. Feigned indifference perhaps or maybe an attitude inspired by a feckless fealty paid to the rock gods.

Anyway, its the music we come for and this is music to accompany your ascent to an enlightened state on the pathway to heaven. And then, just to surprise us one last time, they finished with a rampaging jam more suitable to accompany your descent into an eternal hell!
Dazed and confused indeed.


It took me some time to recover from Blonde Redhead, so can only make passing comments about Warpaint who also had the misfortune to come on just as security allowed people to grab a passout ticket. This unfortunately emptied the stage area and surrounding grassy fields somewhat which was a shame as these four girls are pretty damn talented. Its gentle, innocuous, almost polite music played with precision and purpose. In hindsight, they would've followed Lawrence Arabia really nicely. A band to pay more attention to and probably the one band that I wish Id spent more time listening to prior to the event.


Far be it for me, humble reviewer, to criticise the artist line-up but we could easily have done without Ladyhawke at Laneways 2011. The overall motif of undiscovered yet emerging indie-alternative bands was ruined somewhat by the appearance of a local artist who has probably had her moment. She was also not flattered by the later starting time due to a schedule change.

To her credit, she did debut a couple of new songs but these seemed to follow the direction set by her first album. Im not bemoaning her talent for 80s style hooks nor her competence in playing them, but the trouble with being part of a fad is that you need to move on quickly before you get typecast for life. Ladyhawke seems stuck in the 80s with lots of "Do Do Do Do's" , "Sha la la's", and "Nah nahs". But of course. It was like watching an episode of the Cosby Show over and over. It starts out sweet, soon becomes sickly sweet, and eventually you just feel like getting a drink. So I did.


Phuq me. Arent you supposed to be good looking to be a rock star? Dont you have to sign some pact protecting the integrity of the beautiful people with no soul? Deerhunter are the worst looking band I have ever seen. Thank God they can play rock and roll; and play it really, really well.

Honestly, the lead singer looked like a librarian and the rhythm guitarist a financial advisor, neither who would be the first you would invite to dinner for six. And then the bassist; MY GOD! He maintains, at all times, that look of bored indifference you get from a government worker at the Department of Motor Vehicles. What is more disturbing and offputting though is that he is unfailingly polite! Who ever heard of a polite rock star! Manners have no place in rock and roll. Did Mick ever bow to an audience, or Bowie or Iggy?

But bassist Josh Fauver, following each and every song, gently bows to the crowd in thanks. One audience member tried to rile him up by giving him the finger boldly and visibly throughout an entire song. His response was simply to sheepishly smile and then bow at the end of the song before walking away to start playing another mind bending, mesmerising track of unfiltered, evisceral rock and roll without any adornment or attitude. Its as refreshing as it is offputting!

It finally took a burst of unscheduled feedback to knock them from their unhurried, straightforward delivery of glorious, georgia rock with a drawl. Not the first band today to employ a Wall-of-Sound technique but they do a better job than others due to being blessed with a lead singer who has range, power and passion. Even if he does look like a librarian.

Very, very enjoyable set. For those interested, check out their latest album Halcyon Digest which is a neo-psychedelic classic.


Who knew? As if I needed any more reminder that Im out of touch with the youth of today, the biggest crowd of the day turned out for a band that I'd never heard of before the artist list was announced. Yeasayer are a four piece band out of Brooklyn described by All Music Guide as "an eclectic, genre-bending journey into pop, rock, Middle Eastern and African musics, folk, and dub." If you say so.

I just found them weird. Really weird. The songs seemed unformed full of seemingly random electronic beeps, chirps and unattributed sampled snippets. I can best describe it as listening to snatches of conversation from the group next to you in a bar. You can hear and understand bits without understanding the overall context or tone. At times they are a bit Happy Mondayish; well Happy Mondays without the great drugs which is not necessarily a good thing.

Still, you cant love every band in the world. Unlike the lead singer of Yeasayer who at one point complimented the Laneways organisers by noting that every band playing was "like his favourite band in the world". Whatever.

Beach House

The penultimate act of the festival was Beach House, purveyors of one of the albums of 2010 in Teenage Dream. It was at this point that night fell which was excellent from an atmospheric point of view but decidedly inconvenient for your diligent note-taking roving reporter. I either needed to be in the VIP section (an expensive option) or invest in one of those cool pens with a light on it (somewhat cheaper especially with Back to School specials at Whitcoulls!).

Anyway, I didnt write much, but everything I did write was dripping with superlatives. The duo from Baltimore play timeless, melancholic, understated pop songs, as touching as they are gorgeous. Its all played at an unhurried, leisurely, languid pace that somehow causes you heart rate to drop but your neck hairs to rise.

Beach House were originally due to play earlier in the day but due to !!! (chk chk chk) being delayed out of Singapore (thanks Jetstar!!!), they moved to a semi-headline position. But like a rookie major leaguer, they smashed it out of the park. The entire set consisted of wave after wave of lush, luxuriant pop gems washing over you; the aural equivalent of sinking into a hot bubble bath with your favourite book.

Early on they described themselves as playing "songs to break up to" but that's a gross misdirection. They were delicate, quiet and lovely. Delicacy should never go out of fashion or be beyond our mood. Its a spirit that can be felt at any time. Just when everyone was ready to ramp it up, they quietened us down and made us thankful for it.

With shimmering, sparkling octahedrons hanging from the stage, they played their entire Teenage Dream album (albeit not in order). It was absolutely perfect; a fantastic finish to the day for the Nevstar and well, well worth the price of admission alone.

And on that note, I left. Foals were the headline act but I really didnt think anything could top Beach House and I didnt want anyone to try. I've listened to Foals a little bit and never really been that enamoured so made the executive decision to leave on a high. Your memory of an event is always better that way!

Overall, I really enjoyed Laneways. The Aotea Square proved to be a great venue. A large grass area to sit down and chill out to, but easy access to the stages when you wanted to move forward. It was quite an experience chilling out with your friends while the music plays in the background. All the problems of last year were more than adequately addressed. The sound was fantastic. There were barely any queues for food or drink and the range was extremely impressive. The queue for the toilets was even tolerable.

As for the artist list, they could perhaps work on managing the order the bands played in (some of this was beyond their control), but overall the list of bands probably couldnt be faulted. There were bands I loved, bands I really liked, bands that I tolerated and bands that I could have done without. But thats the beauty of a festival. You pay for the total experience and once you're in the marginal cost of being exposed to one more new band is nil. Also, there were no clashes as the bands all played one after another. There hasnt been a Big Day Out yet where I havent had to miss one "Cant Miss" band because there are four stages going simultaneously.

I'm comparing Laneways to Big Day Out a lot and for this I make no apologies as they are now competing for my yearly budget allocation to "Summer Festivals". Well, after my experience at Laneways in 2011, the Big Day Out is going to have to work hard to secure my attendance any year from now on because an afternoon / evening in the sun with friends, drinks and a succession of great bands is an experience I will want to repeat year after year.