City Sounds: Berlin

This past Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall. Growing up, I can still remember learning my geography on a globe with a divided Germany, but my only real memory of the Wall is a vague recollection of news bulletins featuring people swinging pickaxes at a graffitied slab of concrete the day the Wall came down. Perhaps it’s significant that these images of protest and creativity – the very things that have kept Berlin at the forefront of artistic innovation for decades – are what made the most lasting impression on the six year old me.

And now, some 22 years later, we are presented with City Sounds: Berlin, a six disc, 71 track collection from Naïve in conjunction with La Gaîté Lyrique, determined to explore that very concept: Berlin’s indispensable role on the international music scene. To listen to this collection in its entirety (approaching seven hours) is an ambitious undertaking, but it’s an endeavor well worth the effort, because, if you’re anything like me, you have a lot to learn about Berliner music.

For one thing, there’s more to City Sounds: Berlin than Kraftwerk and techno. In fact, Kraftwerk are nowhere to be seen. Sure, they occasionally show up as members of other bands – Berlin, after all, is the capital of DIWO (“do it with others”) as the immensely informative 60-page companion booklet is keen to point out. But City Sounds does a good job of keeping things interesting by avoiding what may seem like obvious choices to some and throwing in a few surprises for the uninitiated (like me), including Nick Cave, who makes a couple of appearances on disc one.

But what sets City Sounds: Berlin apart from similar compilations (similar, at least, in scope, though perhaps not depth) is that, while it no doubt makes for enjoyable casual listening, this collection, when given the proper attention, is also intrinsically fascinating. It is better to think of this as a carefully curated audio gallery than a simple CD box set – a direct result of the fact that the music of Berlin, perhaps more than any other scene, is directly tied to the city’s history. From its geographic location – window to the West isolated in the Eastern Bloc – to a West German government that encouraged artists and creative types to settle there, within the confines of the Wall, Berlin was for many years the last bastion of free artistic expression. And it was from this position on the fringe of Western culture, that artists were encouraged to tear down all self-imposed limits and let creativity run away with them.

Whether it’s Krautrock or minimalist electronica that does it for you, there’s plenty to love here.  Or maybe punk and new wave is more your thing. There are some stellar contributions of that sort, too. But for me, it’s been disc six – “Berlin Next!” – that has spent the most time in my rotation. Some highlights from the contemporary Berlin scene, it also happens to be one of the slickest “getting stuff done” records I’ve heard in a long time.

City Sounds: Berlin is only the first in what is planned to be a series of similar collections featuring the great music cities of the world. And if this first installment is any indication of what’s to come, then the City Sounds series promises to be a set worth collecting.

CMW Recap – Day 3, part 1

I’ve said it before. A lot of things about Canadian Music Week caught me off guard. Of course, though I complained about the distance thing for the first couple of days, I really did grow accustomed to it once the sky stopped spitting on me every time I set foot outside. (Realistically, a ‘short’ walk in Toronto is really no different from a ‘short’ walk in Chicago or London, just with fewer commemorative plaques to read along the way.) But the main thing I will be taking away from CMW (other than the bomb I’m going to drop on you in my Day Five summary) is the sad fact that, while some of the most exciting music I’ve heard is happening so close by, such a miniscule fraction of it manages to trickle down to us here, south of the border.

And, yes, it’s rather ironic that I would make such a statement at this point in the weeks, as Day Three would turn out to be the most internationally diverse lineup I would experience during the course of the week, but with most of the bands (even the English and Greek ones), I already had some idea of what to expect. However, walking into Revival (a gorgeous venue in its own right), I had no idea what I was getting myself into. What awaited me would prove to be the most exciting show I’ve seen since the Babblers made a surprise stop in Columbus last year.

As we’ve discussed here before, new wave certainly seems to be alive and well all over the world at the moment. And then there’s my torrid love affair with the Stiff Records back catalogue, which has been well-documented over the course of the last six months or so, but I certainly didn’t expect to find all of that embodied by an immaculately attired four-piece from Montreal called GIRL. I’d been handed one of their fliers at a showcase the night before though they were, in fact, one of the first acts to be added to my CMW schedule two weeks earlier. From the opening chord to the final chorus, the pace of the show was relentless. There is something amazing that happens when a band is firing on all cylinders. In this case, frenetic energy and raucous singalong refrains. It wasn’t long before I felt a tap on the shoulder from another audience member eager to know who they were. Make sure to download their free EP from Bandcamp (or from the player I embedded below). The more I listen to it (and I’ve listened dozens of times since I returned home), the more I get the feeling that it could well be the most promising thing I’ve heard so far in 2011. Of course, there’s still the matter of the name. Though, if long-winded San Francisco stoners—Girls—had any sense of decency, they’d hand over the moniker to the boys from Montreal.

Following GIRL* was—well—an actual girl. That is, Gabby Young and Other Animals. In this case, the Other Animals were local music students as the usual Animals had been left back in Britain. With a sound that walks some sort of line between Kate Bush and Regina Spektor, Gabby Young puts on a show that is impossible to ignore. And that’s not just a credit to the bright red hair or elaborate stage attire. It’s a testament to a performance both riotously fun and beautiful executed with poise and personality. Some of you may have had a chance to catch one of her showcases at SXSW last week. If not, hopefully, at least, we can expect to be seeing a little more of her around these parts. Just a few hours before her Revival set, a North American release of her album We’re All In This Together on Four Quarters Entertainment in April. And it’s a good thing, too. Given the state of things, I reckon we could all use a little more circus swing in our lives.

Going into CMW, there was one artist I kept hearing about more than any other. Most everyone I heard from appeared far more interested in the fact that I was going to see Maylee Todd than the other marquee names on the CMW schedule (e.g. Janelle Monae, Janet Jackson, Sammy Hagar: none of whom are of particular interest to me anyway—well, maybe Janelle Monae). It’s no secret that word of mouth publicity like that can backfire, raising expectations so high that no artist could ever realistically hope to fulfill. But when they do—that’s something else entirely.

And Maylee Todd is everything they said she’d be. From the aethereal crooning of her beautiful solo harp numbers to the powerful soul of full band explosions reminiscent of 70s Motown, Maylee’s shows are unforgettable. I’m starting to see what all the fuss is about, but just think: this was only the warmup set for a full scale spectacle later that evening. The second show, unfortunately, conflicted with another gig I’d be attending down the road. But still, I understand now why so many people kept insisting how incredibly lucky I was to be there, even for a 30-minute set. I don’t if Maylee has played many (if any) shows here in the States, but I sincerely hope Canada will share her with us soon, because there’s nothing I can say that could even begin to do her justice.

*Apparently, there were some major label A&R guys among the audience at Revival Friday night, as well—not particularly interesting or relevant information in this case, but a good setup for the snarky comment I am about to make. (At one point, I—along with everyone else—was encouraged to give them a round of applause though I have yet to figure out what they’d done to earn it. Is spiky hair now grounds for a standing ovation?)

Interview: Kites

I admit it. We’ve been relying rather heavily on the Swedes around here lately (but can you blame me?). But, in the name of global citizenship, we’re expanding ever-so-slightly southwest to bring you Kites—proof positive once again that the 80s are alive and well in London (even if the majority of the decade’s greatest proponents—myself included—have little to no memory of the original incarnation).

If you follow The Indie Handbook on Tumblr, you’ve already had a very brief introduction to the band and the handful of tracks they’ve posted on SoundCloud. I’ve been streaming their tracks with increasing frequency over the last fortnight. So why don’t you go ahead and check out a few for yourself as you peruse this interview and we get to know the band a little bit better and maybe dispel some myths along the way. (I have to say, I am a huge fan of Taio’s desert island list. Chet Baker is an inspired choice.)

The band have also recorded a brief session for the online arm of i-D Magazine (a personal favourite of mine). I’ll link to that here as soon as it goes up.

Kites are: Matthew Phillips (Vocals, Guitar), Taio Renee-Lawson (Guitar, Bass), Richard Baldwin (Electronics) and Jack Newton (Percussion)

How did the band get started?

Taio – A series of unlikely meetings and conversations. It all seemed to fit into place like a puzzle.

Matthew – There has been a myth circulating that we met on the towering escalator at Angel Tube station in London. You know, the one where you feel like you are plunging into the bowels of hell. We admit partial responsibility for propagating this fallacy. If the truth be told, Kites began as an idea; an idea based loosely and perhaps a little pretentiously, on creative simplicity. I suppose everyone in Kites brings a different flavor to the make-up of the band. We’re also very lucky that we all get on famously.

What do people say your music sounds like?

Richard – It appears that many people lean toward comparisons with New Order and the like. Although flattering, I’m a big fan of New Order, I think that’s quite a lazy pairing.

Matthew – Yes, we do garner many comparisons with Depeche Mode and New Order. There have even been comparisons drawn with The Killers and The Maccabees but this probably has more to do with our aesthetic, rather than our sound. Artists who claim that their sound is entirely unique are pathological liars. I never get offended by comparisons – it is a very natural thing for people to do and helps outsiders to gain a rudimentary, albeit imperfect, insight into our music.

Taio – The press do make comparisons to New Order and Talking Heads. It is a total honor that people relate us to those brilliant bands. It goes with out saying that we have been influenced by them, but also by a wider range of artists and genres. I think we can stand alone from those comparisons and be judged on our own merits.

What do you think it sounds like?

Matthew – I would like to think it sounded like a mirror screaming back at its onlooker with compassion and, very occasionally, with mockery.

Richard – Personally I don’t think we sound like any single artist in particular, as each of us bring distinctly different influences to the table and that is reflected in the music. However, I recently read someone referring to our latesttrack “The Disappearance of Becky Sharp” as sounding like a “melancholy Erasure”. I was most amused by that. Vince Clarke is a genius.

How did the band’s sound develop?

Taio – I think our sound is still evolving and maturing. We know what we are about, and what music we want to make, but I think we are changing day to day, and so the music evolves as we do.

Richard – On our earlier tracks one might notice that the music sounds quite DIY, which indeed for the most part, it is, we have produced almost all our tracks in my home studio, but over the last year we’ve really learned and honed our sound. Don’t get me wrong, there is always room for improvement, but I think our learning curve is audible in the words, the music and the live performance. It’s great fun developing as a group.

Matthew – Every song that we work on together feels like a constant evolution in our sound. We have become more dexterous and versatile, and our repertoire has become more dynamic. I am already very excited about our future recordings. It has been a heady journey!

Unlimited artistic freedom or global superstardom?

Richard – I don’t think anyone would claim that what we are doing is so avant-garde that it can’t be genuinely popular. As for ‘global superstardom’ I am not sure that’s entirely up to us.

Matthew – It is my considered belief that a songwriter should, under no circumstances, compromise their artistic freedom. However, I don’t subscribe to the view that artistic freedom and success are necessarily mutually exclusive. As for ‘superstardom’, I am not sure if we are of the right oeuvre.

Taio – I think that the former can sometimes cause the latter.

What can we expect from a typical Kites gig?

Matthew – Unabashed passion and energy. We haven’t yet had the inclination to pick up ukuleles and, in that sense, the sound is very electronic and imposing. We try to actively engage our audiences in our aural ceremonies.

Taio – I do enjoy the live shows and performing. After all the nerves fade, I do enjoy it.

Your dream gig?

Taio – A Kites set on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury or Coachella main stage.

Jack – A Kites show also, but perhaps at Madison Square Gardens in New York.

Matthew – I know I might sound like a broken record when I mention this, as I do so frequently in interviews, but I would give my left nostril to see the Stop Making Sense tour.

You can only listen to one band/artist for a year. Who is it?

Matthew – Patrick Wolf

Taio – I would have to find a way for there to be more than one. Kate Bush springs to mind and Chet Baker does too… as does Joni Mitchell… and Björk. As you can see that’s an impossible question to answer.

Jack – I would go for The National.

Richard – From my own record collection it would have to be Norwegian Ambient Electronica from Biosphere, on account of him having enough material that I could listen to a couple of albums a month without repeating.