The first thing to deal with is the wool in your mouth, the indelicate gunk that’s apparently sealed your mouth and eyes shut – as if your body knows that waking up is not advisable and has unsuccessfully moved to prevent the bad decision. But, the noon-time sunlight has already rooted you out, so you enter the land of the living anyway. It’s the slight pang of guilt that’s gotten you – or at least that’s what always gets me – the fact that you’ve slept through another perfectly good morning due to the raucous night had till 3 am.
Next thing to deal with is that same light – it hits you when you open your eyes and you realise that, yes, you have apparently made it home in one piece – though you may not remember just exactly how.
Then there’s the slight dizziness, the still aching body, the dirty clothes from the night before which all come together to cement the definition of this morning: hungover. Very much so. But, was it worth it? Hell yeah. Cuz last night, you saw one of the best things you’d ever seen; one of the gigs that you know is gonna stick with you for a while. Cuz it reminded you what music is about.
That’s what seeing The Medicine Dolls live was like. See, they’re a band that gets it. They get what it’s all about.
Frontman Greg Allan takes to the stage with an animalistic prowess, demanding attention by the mere fact of his existence. Exuding energy in all directions, as if his tentacular hair were the source of an artistic electricity, the dude commands the room like a Glam-Punk Jesus, wielding his guitar like a weapon in defense of all the shit the weird kids hoped they’d see when they were finally old enough to get into clubs like the one the band would be blowing up tonight.
Tonight the mainstream dries up.
Alt-culture takes to the stage and pushes the thermostat up to its peak – threatening to blow its gauges, flood every available orifice, as every person in the room sets their sites on a single goal – making this night one to remember.
As ever-ready, ever-epic drummer Anro Femurs bashes out his part with precise strokes and bassist Bex Nicholas (Arabella) gives me all the feminist energy I could ever need, the band plays on with a power that deconstructs the boundaries of the space. The trio creates an interactive system reminiscent of all the shots of punk and post-punk gigs we millennial revivalists wish we could’ve been in in the 70’s and 80’s. Dead Kennedys, The Sex Pistols, Black Flag, The Slits live. Performers jumping on and off stage – into the crowd – drinks flowing, energy flashing in all directions. A concept we thought was bygone – revived in a small, dark room in Cape Town.
Guys. Punk /Post-punk is alive and well. Bands like these prove it.
So, have a listen to The Medicine Dolls’ new single – “Excuse Me Misbehaviour” – below:
Seriously, you gotta check these guys out. Like a really good friend of mine declared on said the hungover morning after: “It’ll change your brain.”
From its first moments, its first lyrics, the record has you in its grasp. TaylorMomsen takes charge with a declamatory significance that calls out to you and forces you to listen because she sounds comfortable, confident. She’s not yelling, just speaking. But, you’ve got to listen because what she’s giving you is new. So fucking new.
After 3 years of shifting gears, considering their footing and coming to terms with the fame that many didn’t expect would take hold. After the teen rock beauty that was Light Me Up and the obvious musical maturation from that which was Going to Hell, The Pretty Reckless takes us on their third journey – Who You Selling For – and it’s a road trip with Momsen at the wheel, Phillips in the passenger seat and me in the back with the Damon and Perkins that proves the entire thesis of this review – The Pretty Reckless is a Punk band. I mean, what gets more punk that a record like this? A record produced by a band that’s taken the shit they have for daring to exist.
The first track “The Walls are Closing In/Hangman” calls out to the listener in a relational mode, asking them to take charge:
“When they come to hang you.
Stand straight. Brace your neck, Be stronger.
When they come to hang you,
And you think you’ve lost control.
Don’t take your soul.”
This is the most authoritative the band has ever sounded. Delivering a genre-meshing sound reminiscent of The Kills but with the edge of any respectable rock ‘n roll band from the 70’s. TPR proves that they’ve learnt a thing or two from their time in the industry. This is a band that has had to fight hard for respect. I mean, for a while there, it really did seem like no one was taking them seriously. From the writers at Variety who dug into their first album, to internet commentators who proffered the infamous “The Pretty Reckless is famous cuz boobs” catchphrase – the band has always had to fight against the current – making them inherently punk by the mere fact that they stayed together.
The fight didn’t get them down, though, and if it did, it didn’t for long. Because there’s a power that pervades this album. But, it’s not showboating – it’s defiance. With this record, they prove that they’ve got the goods to back up their stubbornness. They’ve matured their early recklessness into something great – and can sustain it.
The album moves on to “Oh My God” with a speeding guitar and simple and repeated melodic idea which sits quite well as a second track. The energy is picked up and Momsen more than proves her vocal chops as she launches into a fierce examination of self. There’s an anger that pervades the track – a might – and yet the track discusses her insecurities, her doubts:
“I am a victim of my own self-worth!” she screams with the unashamed honesty that she finds her strength in.
This track – as simple as one from the early days of punk rock – doesn’t offer much in terms of melodic variation. But, that’s precisely the point. Because the song is about craving youth, a certain vitality and youthful ignorance, a simplicity she feels she’s lost. She wishes she was caught in the rye – delivering in a single track what it took J.D. Salinger an entire novel to do.
By this point, the main theme of the album has already been made apparent – a narrative about how the band now relates to their artistic paradigm. How do they preserve themselves – their ideology – while succumbing to success? Can they achieve fame and stay true to themselves? Whatever the answer, the third track on the record – and the album’s lead single – “Take Me Down” proves how much they want it. Juxtaposing the former track with a Bluesy calmness and choral backup vocals to boot, the track moves through the controlled process of telling the story of an artist making a deal with the Devil – the record’s extended metaphor for the modern music industry.
“Sign with the Devil!” – she sings. She’s accepting fame and the battles it’ll bring along with it.
“Prisoner” begins with the soundscape of a chain gang moving along a road – keeping the album ethereal, Southern feel in vogue. The song is instantly minimalistic – giving the listener hope that it’ll be led by the voice. A craving which is sated when Momsen dives in:
“I’m a prisoner! Won’t you please set me free!
… You can have my body, but you can’t have me!”
There’s a separation of mind and body here. Momsen declares that her ideology will persist long after her body goes to ruin. A confidence which is necessary because the next track “Wild City” drops a character right into the middle of a ruthless NYC which could defeat her if she let it:
“The city ain’t no place for a lonely girl.”, she warns.
But, by this point, I’m not worried because Momsen has proven that she can keep her shit together. The album has, so far, proven that they’re stronger than ever; harmonically gifted, vocally megalithic and punk beyond the shadow of a doubt.
The record’s first half then ends with “Back to the River” featuring Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule/The Allman Brothers Band fame – she gets back to basics with a comfortable blues that leads into the album’s title track and begins the second half of a record with a conscious divide.
“In the middle of a dream.
In the darkest night.
Woke up with a scream.
Thought I’d lost my sight.
Who you selling for tonight?”
This is the most delicate moment of the album. Instead of going large, and delivering blaring vocals which the lyrics could accommodate, she goes quiet for a moment and delivers some of the best moments and one of the best tracks of the album. She sings about her idols – “John was a walrus” – she silently and internally, innocently with that childlike quality she so craved in “Oh My God” assures the listener that she won’t let go of her ambitions – no matter how much it scares her – and I’m inclined to believe her.
“Bedroom Window” follows and it’s also a mellow affair. She achieves a kind of stasis. The speaker is alone in her sanctuary, looking out with a disillusioned gaze – there’s a contract between that space and the “chaos” outside. On this track, she’s retreated from the exposed space she’s been in thus far. It’s the first time she’s isolated and can look back calmly and thoughtfully rather than feeling buffeted by the forces of the outside world. She’s realized the reality of the world she fantasised about – it’s different, more frightening than she expected.
Then she heads back out again, she’s conceded to “Living in the Storm”. She looks at the people around her:
“When I look inside of ‘em, there’s nothing happening.”
But, she feels out of place:
“That’s not me.
I can think.”
She re-establishes the juxtaposition between the way she feels she needs to achieve her definition of success and the way the industry would have her do it.
[Side-bar: There’s something about this track that’s so reminiscent of Avenged Sevenfold at the top of their game. Though, it achieves something that “The Stage” particularly lacked – the successful use of multiplicitous soundscapes and mixes within the same track. What I feel A7X missed was the motivation for their changes – it felt arbitrary on their last offering. This album – in multiple places – proficiently demonstrates a link between theme and sound. The soundscape changes are motivated and logical – it carries demonstrable weight and contributes so much to the effective consumption of narrative material.]
Moving toward the end of the album, “Already Dead” comes to the fore and carries out its 4-minute run with an undeniable angst. It’s a dreary affair in the best way. Momsen delivers her most painful and emotional vocal moments on this track. She sounds tired – the artist who’s lived through the narrative of this record is burnt out and alone:
“I’m alone up here on this stage.”
Then comes the penultimate track – “The Devil’s Back”. The nostalgia hits again – she addresses herself in a melodic mirror – asking herself to recall a time before she lost her innocence. After having referred to herself as dead for the minutes preceding, here she refers to herself as alive once more. She compares her vital, former self to the one she faces now.
“I hate what I’ve become,
And now I cannot breathe….
When did I get so old?…
I guess the devil’s back. “
She dwells on melancholy self-examinations, and if this had been the end of the album (which it very well could have been) the album would have ended on a particularly nihilistic note.
But, MOTHERFUCKER. It’s not.
The album’s last track leaves you feeling like you may have turned shuffle on by accident and transported yourself to a mistaken dimension – because the genre changes in a second and the record instantly becomes a bastion of defiance – defying even the trend it itself has set.
Momsen and her band refuse to be pinned down. The Pretty Reckless refuses to be pigeonholed. Cuz, dude, they’re punk. They’re free agents. The mainstream, and even the expectations of Alt-Culture “aint got nothing on [them]”.
The final track “Mad Love” sounds more like Lady Gaga on “Wunderland” than anything else I listen to on the regular. It’s not strictly rock ‘n roll – it’s something else altogether – but, whatever it is, it makes me happier than I’ve almost ever been about a closing track. By closing off their narrative with this track, The Pretty Reckless proves to their listener that they’ll always be in control of themselves.
Cuz, who are they selling for?
They’re here to be artists – musicians – free of pretence and capitalist constraints. The Pretty Reckless are relentlessly Punk. And they’ll stay that way till they decide not to be. But, it’ll always be their decision – and screw anyone who doesn’t get it.
Listen to the album’s lead single “Take Me Down” and its opening track “The Walls Are Closing In/Hangman” below:
Sound bleeds through the speakers in your head and she takes the opportunity to penetrate you with the melodies she’d been considering, forming, crafting and finalizing for the last three years. Three whole years in which Tunstall had seemingly taken leave from public life – the folk rock girl had disappeared – at the height of her fame. With a Novello under her belt she’d taken her mid-life vacation and changed her orbit from the stages around which she now frequented to the waiting rooms of airports and the anonymous bus terminals she sought out in an attempt to find herself in the haze that had pushed her over the edge. The KT on Drastic Fantastic had been a faux-creature, a synthetic being in her eyes. She’d allowed herself to be moulded into something by someone else – and the stubborn Fife Collective alumna had had enough. So, she legged it. And when she came back, she gave us this masterpiece of an album. The never-ending stream of sonic energy that is Tiger Suit.
“Hold your fire.
I’m coming out and I’ll tell you the truth:
I was trying to raise my roof.
Did you see it?
That I needed to prove that my stinger always stays.
You said she’s beautiful when she plays.
Did I hit you in the proper place?”
These are the lyrics with which this massive examination of agency begins. Tunstall, in recent years, had begun to feel insecure in the effectivity and affectivity of her art. She’d looked at the artists she admires – Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac, Carole King – and had been longing after the feeling the same about herself. Drastic Fantastic had not been the way to do that and, because of that, the massive contrapuntal experience of Tiger Suit begins.
She expresses her melancholia in this regard on the album’s first track “Uummannaq Song“. She wants to change. Life has gone a certain way and she wants to redirect it. There’s a desperation for difference present throughout the track’s running time; a constant mode which is externalized over and over:
“You know that feeling you get when you don’t want to leave?”
Her monologue demands understanding, becoming interactive and necessitating the engagement of the listener. This album won’t be like the last – it’s not background music.
The album’s second track “Glamour Puss” is the one on which one of the album’s most important modes finds its genesis – that of admonishment. Tunstall takes up a kind of podium here and uses it to deconstruct the psychology of her ostentatious character. Of course she’s projecting here – she’s mad at herself for having kept up appearances for so long; for having succumbed to the stimulus of the machine. It’s an attack on pretense – on denial of the state of things. In the way that her character is told to stop caring about the gaze of the anonymous onlooker, she needs to stop worrying about just that.
This album is a process of catharsis. On “Push That Knot Away” Tunstall keeps the heightened, organo-pop, synthy and fast-paced feel of the album going. She sings about letting go of negative energies and recognizing self-worth and personal agency – addressing the invisible listener who makes an appearance so often throughout this album. She keeps her lyrics loaded at every turn, making sure to keep you around. On this track – which feels so much like “Beautiful” by Carole King – she sings about being good to yourself, and on the next track, “Difficulty”, she sings about a self-defeating dynamic. On this record KT ruthlessly moves toward self-fulfillment.
“You change every day.”
You hear KT not just telling micro-stories, but thinking in grand scapes for the first time since Eye to the Telescope. She places her lyrics well, they sit interestingly on the ear. She’s awake again – melodically, syntactically, artistically –
“I’m governed by difficulty”
– she places the words in a way Alanis Morissette perhaps would. Screwing with traditional emphasis, making sure that this album’s feminist tendencies sink into even the spaces between syllables as she firmly reprimands herself for self-oppression, and engages a mode of self-reflexiveness so hard come by within the mod-pop scene – which she is now rebelling against almost wholly – at least thematically.
Though, it has to be said – the sound of this album is so unique. I look to Alanis Morissette’s “Flavors of Entanglement” for comparison. But, even that feels laboured.
The album’s poppiest track and single “Fade Like A Shadow” comes and goes, and then comes “Lost” – a break from the commotion. It’s a moment of stillness on the road – a look at the sunset after a high-impact drive. On this track, Tunstall’s ever-present and overarching artistic theme of uncertainty rears its head and is handled with a familiar melancholia. She strips away the frills and decor in the room, lays on a concrete floor and converses about her common denominator. But, as soon as she settles into it, as if afraid of stasis, she’s off again – within the track itself even – bringing back the drum machines and synthy drive one comes to expect from the record.
“Am I an idiot?” she yells so genuinely that it grabs you and sits you down.
The drive then continues with “Golden Frames“, a warning against attachment to that rogue leader she has been battling for years – convention. A kind of self-oppressing box, or frame, within which one pins oneself down.
“Be careful of the golden frames.” she says.
“Be careful of the golden frames.” she sings with a bass vocalist in tow.
Then “Come on, Get In!” happens and I’m happy. Back-up vocals with an unceasing rhythm and drive, and drums that just won’t quit shape the track which I’ve long suspected is about her divorce from her former drummer Luke Bullen – part of her massive reshaping and personal backlash against convention that she discussed at length during her Oxford Union address.
From hereon in the record, like a well-written play, moves to it’s close, and things get quite blatant. “(Still a) Weirdo” – the album’s lead single – makes its appearance and Tunstall, without a stitch of obscurantism or pretense on her person, talks to you. She trims away the multi-layered norms of the album and sings in a style reminiscent of her early days about the primary issues on her mind:
“I’d always thought its automatic
To grow into a soul less static.
But, here I am upon the same spot
Attempting to lift off into space.
I don’t always get it right.
But, a thousand different ways and I just might.”
This song is simple and honest. It’s what art is about. She’s writing the first word; the actual intention. She’s not “muddying her waters so they may appear deep.”
The record’s penultimate track is “Madame Trudeaux”, and it’s a feminist wet-dream. She sings about her real-life subject – the wife of a bygone Canadian prime minister – who in an act of the most dramatic kind of female rebellion, left her husband and ran off with her lover on the eve of his re-election.
The track is the pinnacle of her personal rebellion too:
“Lead the way so others follow!” – she yells as she shrugs off patriarchy like a wet blanket.
Lyrically, musically, thematically she fights the confines placed upon her and praises the scarlet letter of the situation; taking full control of her faculties and proving undeniably that this entire album has been a love-letter to independence – the Gospel According to Freedom.
And then the last track comes around, and the singer-songwriter finds a hard-garnered peace. Sitting down into her chair, she makes no assertion beyond that of the actual, the physical and the human – that which is achievable within Aristotle’s uniform limits. “The Entertainer” tells us that she’s still grieving and that she needs time to heal, to grow, to reshape herself into the artist she wants to be. She’s not Joni or Carole yet, and she knows it. She hasn’t written her “Blue” or her “Tapestry”. But, she won’t stop trying and she’s going to stay herself in the process. She’s going to stay the syncopated, layered girl in 5/4 time that plays her guitar because she has to to stay on the road to self-realization.
Tiger Suit was a guided tour through her mind in a way that Drastic Fantastic really wasn’t.
Drastic Fantastic was a public persona, Tiger Suit was the real-deal.
Check back next week when this series discusses what I consider Tunstall’s best EP: The Scarlet Tulip EP.
And, right now, have a listen to “Uummannaq Song”, “Come On, Get In!” and “The Entertainer” below:
In the wake of her debut album Asylum – released in August of this year – 21-year-old singer-songwriter Emma Van Heyn is poised to please as she debuts her full-length performance set – for 2 shows – at this year’s Cape Town Fringe festival. We recently revisited the prog-pop princess to catch up on just how things were going with show prep and how her nerves were doing now that her first album is in public hands. Herewith follows our brief encounter:
So, Emma, talk to me about the album.
“Asylum” – the title sums it up. The main through-line of the album is, I’d say, the theme of injustice. It’s about achieving justice in an injust system and it’s all drawn from my personal experiences. I wrote these songs over the quite a few years and I feel that they represent me as a singer-songwriter. So, I’m excited about finally being able to share it with the public.
Talk to me about the live show.
I’m so excited about it because I’ll be working with not just a full band set-up that includes a cello, acoustic and electric guitars and even a xylophone at one point. But, I’ll also be incorporating electronic music elements using a looper, vocoder etc. which I feel really helps to expand the potential of my live show.
In addition to this, the shows I’ll be putting on will be narrative-based. Meaning I’ll walk the audience through the exact inspiration behind each track I perform, really exploring the singer-songwriter aspect of the whole experience – getting the story back into the situation.
Talk to me about the first time you heard the album’s lead single, “Little Girl”, on the radio.
You know what? I actually haven’t. I hear people talk about hearing it. But, somehow, I just haven’t gotten around to it myself. I guess I’ve been lost in the haze for a while. But, it’s still been a surreal experience. I mean, to hear that even Nataniel is a fan of the song and of the album as a whole, even having sent his sister to the launch, really makes me feel like I’m at least doing something right. Now, if only I could get to a radio sometime.
And talk to me about Emma Van Heyn.
She’s this girl that I know. And I love her. She almost feels like an alter-ego; a takes-no-shit kinda girl who cares so much about the music that all the petty things fall away. She just doesn’t let the insecurity get to her anymore. I’m really excited about what she’ll do next .
And so are we.
Emma Van Heyn’s live performances of her full record will take place on the 1st and 2nd of October at the Cape Town City Hall.
Drastic Fantastic was such an interesting move for Tunstall because it really was the first album on which KT’s voice wasn’t the centre-point of the experience. It was the first time that the studio work – now mandated by her reputation – took equal standing to her presence; was afforded the same level of sonic relevance as her pipes. The riffs, the modulated rhythms on the same plateau. The background vocals pushed up the hegemony, creating an almost polyphonic vocal experience reminiscent of summertime – or rather, one specific summer, at the end of my final year at high school, during which this album was my go-to feel-good situation.
‘”Comfortable” is probably the best way to describe the folk-pop that leaks through the speakers and turns your surroundings into amber with an energy that takes you to the playing field of every festival you’ve ever wanted to go to. “White bird, white bird. With your face so pale.” – words with which Tunstall breaks the sophomore curse on an album which I always find difficult to put off once I’ve put it on.
This was the album which I felt demonstrated something very specific – her strength as an artist in terms of her willingness not to get lost in the haze. Yes, you can hear some choices on this record which are quite clearly a concession to some invisible studio head. But, the sound still has an integrity to it – a flavour only she can mix. That being said, the now increased pressure on her to make work that pleased a mainstream audience could be the reason that this album follows a much less stable path for the musical logician to follow – reading more like a collection of short stories that it does a novel. In 2007 it seems that her padded timetable had perhaps detracted from the time spent labouring over the narrative in the ways she seemed to have done on Eye to the Telescope. But, that needn’t mean that it’s a bad album. On the contrary, over the years I’ve owned it, I’ve repeatedly and happily lapped up the micro-narratives of which the album is comprised:
“If only you could see me now, If only you could hear me out.” KT sings about achieving success despite nay-sayers.
“Hold on to what you’ve been given lately. Hold on to what you know you’ve got.” Tunstall sings with afro-Caribbean flare, with mellifluously placed lyrics and a melody worth lead-single status.
“Funnyman got a plan to be something wonderful.” she sings about a bone fide crazy friend.
In an array of comfortable melodies KT proves her agency as a songwriter, and takes the listener on a mellow journey through her second big-budget offering.
In criticism, it can be argued that by track 7, “I Don’t Want You Now”, Tunstall had repeatedly gone back to the first sticker of the storyboard and hadn’t offered much in the way of variation. But, as soon as the thought strikes, the feel changes and Tunstall offers up the slightly more melancholic “Saving my Face”. And then, not missing a beat, delivers one of the album’s best tracks: “The Beauty of Uncertainty” – a track which tunes me into whatever wavelength she’s on and reminds me why I love her.
“I need a mirror in the eyes of a man. Need no protection from my bulletproof plan.”
With this song, we see the re-emergence of the Tunstall on Eye to the Telescope as she once again handles the theme of uncertainty, of the lack of a stable direction to follow – a truth which arguably caused this album’s nature.
But, I don’t hold it against her, because this is still a solid album. It’s anecdotally driven, it’s melodically sound and its songs are well-written. It’s the kind of album you put on to light up the room you’re in and the one I use to remind myself of one of the best summers of my teen years.
So, pour yourself an ice-cold drink, go sit by the pool and listen to “If Only” and “The Beauty of Uncertainty” below.
And check back next week when this article series takes a look at Tiger Suit – Tunstall’s follow-up and non-stop thrill of an album.
With The Fame and The Fame Monster it was the insertion of a monstrous oddity into the mainstream, whereby the polished and slick women of pop were usurped by the strange and shocking , pretty blonde girl who refused to play into her predictable beauty. Then with Born This Way it was the salvation of pop music when it seemed like things had petered out completely – introducing melodies worth hearing back into a scene in the midst of the massive dire strait that was 2011. Then in 2013, keeping only her voice around as a common thread between that album and the last, came ARTPOP – the “rebellious“electronic dance record which served as the unexpected turn for a songstress now at the top of the charts. Which, while not really clinching the soul factor as well as BTW, was still a pretty okay situation. And now, her new single “Perfect Illusion” pitches its tent with an – again – unpredicted edge making it, at least, worth talking about.
Pushing in amongst the slosh on the radio – the non-music that is Selena Gomez, the cultural bowel movement that is Meghan Trainor – this song boldly denies the state of things, presenting a barely-polished mix of sound (with Rock ‘n Roll elements to boot) that, if not anything else, is at least bold. She has produced yet another single which refuses to be ignored. But, this time, I don’t think it’s for the right reasons because this is the weakest single she has ever released. Period.
Yes, it’s rebellious and yes, it’s raw. But, it’s underwhelming, not offering much in the way of lyrical content. It’s one attempt at a hook that’s beaten to death in the space of a short run. Whereas normally Gaga gives the listener something to hang onto, there really isn’t much going on here. It sounds like a half-formed idea, a wish that wasn’t quite granted. It sounds like a rough run, a pitch to run past a producer as a quick draft – not the single you put on the radio and ask people to pay for. I think that for the first time we’re seeing the bad side of Gaga’s contrarianism. In a move which, like before, was made to juxtapose the currents norms of the mainstream, Gaga went with a completely unpolished sound which let go of the now-tending abuse of studio work – pitch correction, volume control. A move which didn’t pay off and instead resulted in a track not worth raving about. The bonus track on the Japanese release. The track you skip (here’s looking at you “Jewels ‘n Drugs”).
But, that being said, perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps this is the first track of a masterpiece album that’ll once again dissect things in the way she tends to do – not in a way that music snobs tend to rave about, but in a way that gets the commuter, the teen Top40 pirate talking.
So, I guess it’s a waiting game. Here’s to hoping that there’s proof in the elusive pudding that will be LG5.
In the meantime, listen to the “Perfect Illusion” below:
With this album, perhaps jumping onto a trajectory more suggested by Tracks in Julythan suggested by Eye to the Telescope, KTTunstall returns to her raw folk sound, this time employing the help of a full-force folk band to accompany her as she weaves her way through her Acoustic Extravaganza. Released in 2006, this album saw a different kind of Tunstall take to the floor as the self-assurance so hard gained over the last few years came to fruition and birthed a non-narrative collection of music, which was initially slated to be an acoustic version of ETTT, but ended up as something vastly different.
As the story goes (told in the documentary Five Go To Skye), Tunstall and her band took off for the Scottish Isle of Skye with every intention of recording what they’d planned, but as the sky grew darker and the air grew dense, something began to stir the intentions of all involved – a fact which resulted in this collection, recorded over a mere few days in the living room of a house on the Isle.
The collection delivers a variety of tracks from different points in her musical career. Two tracks from ETTT are present and offer more stripped down versions of themselves – the upbeat “Miniature Disasters” and the mellow “Universe & U” – the latter reaching its full potential as a tender description of love on this album; leaving the listener aware of Tunstall’s attachment to the work she creates.
In addition to these previously heard tracks, the 10-track album includes a version of “The Change” fromTracks in July now just called “Change”, a meditative cover of Beck‘s “Golden Age” from his 2002 album Sea Change, and ends itself off with a song I still feel is one of her strongest – the ever-beautiful “Throw Me A Rope”.
While not being of premium status in terms of narrative rounding, I find that this album is still very much an enjoyable body of work. Tunstall seems to be in control throughout, in a way she’d perhaps not been until that point. Her voice, her music, her melodies – they all sound more rooted on this album. And, because the context of the album isn’t shied away from, the bits of studio talk and banter which sporadically pepper the spaces between tracks definitely contribute to the impression of comfort and enjoyment the album attempts to create as it declares its folk status.
This collection gets a thumbs up from me as I find that it achieves its intention of serving as a respectable acoustic collection. This was the second Tunstall album I ever listened to, and it most certainly worked in piquing my interest, and thank heavens for that, because the albums that followed were the ones that proved that Tunstall would become a musical force of note, able to deliver work of the most stimulating kind.
“Throw Me a Rope”
“I want you between me and the feeling I get when I miss you.”
“And whenever you go it’s like holding my breath under water.
have to admit that I kinda like it when I do.
Oh, but, I’ve gotta be unconditionally unafraid of my days without you.
So, throw me a rope to hold me in place.
Show me a clock for counting my days down.
Cuz everything’s easier when you’re beside me
Come back and find me
Cuz I feel alone.”
-“Throw Me a Rope“, KT Tunstall’s Acoustic Extravaganza, Track 10 .
Check back next week when this series takes a look at the often overlooked folk-poppy Drastic Fantastic.
Listen to “Throw me a Rope” and “Golden Age” from Acoustic Extravaganza below.
Launched from her previous world by wishing, waiting and a record deal with Virgin Records, KTTunstall breaks into the mainstream with her major label debut Eye to the Telescope – an album which I find unceasingly stimulating.
Now, I can’t say for sure how much of my love for this album comes as a result of it being the first album of hers that I owned, but what I can say is that it’s still one of my favourites. It’s on this album that we saw the KT the world knows come to life as she, backed by the band she could now afford to employ, did what she did best and continued to explore herself through the music she makes.
Sporting a notably more mature voice, peppered with a bit of a rasp, she bleeds through the speakers as she takes the listener on a self-reflexive journey, not once losing control of the now layered and studio-driven mix of sound. Only four years after her previous release, Tunstall seems a decades more experienced musician as she handles the sound with a gravitas that never seems to wane – which is fortunate because this album is a much more complex examination of self than her previous work.
I find that what sets this album apart from so many studio debuts is that many albums released by new artists will seemingly try to give the listener what they are expecting – to slot into what’s already out there – almost as if there’s a formula for what makes a good debut; the production of music that looks out. On this record, I find that Tunstall ignores those stereotypes and lets the listener look inward, much like the way Joni Mitchell did on a record like Blue”. Ignoring the kind of ostentatious attitude that pop expects, she openly and honestly shares a relatable dissonance with her audience and proves that she’s a human artist, with human feelings. In this collection, there’s no attempt to elevate herself above the human experience, rather, like the great folk writers of the 60’s and 70’s, she lets the listener see her naked; exploring the nuances of her emotion and not underplaying the complexity of feeling any transient body experiences while undergoing a shift of milieu.
Surrounded by strikingly different variables, as a result of not only ageing but the new expectations placed upon her, Tunstall sings of her confusion throughout this album. Openly and unashamedly she attempts to plot herself in relation to all that which surrounds her; singing about needing to “find the controls”and the necessity that she “be [her] own master”. On this album, KT is considering what her moves should be as she addresses all the factors that weigh on her mind: her feelings toward love (however dissonant they may be), her feelings about certain friendships, her feelings about herself as an artist and her trepidation at pursuing all of these paths, unsure of what their outcomes will be.
In the end, Tunstall doesn’t come up with an answer to the questions that burn throughout the album’s 12-track sequence, and I think that that’s what makes the album so respectable: she doesn’t lie. She only expresses herself as fully as she is able, and a lot of the time that comes down to how she handles specific situations with which she is confronted: when a friend is feeling sad in “Heal Over” she finds that she is able to comfort her, when Tunstall feels scared of commitment in “Black Horse and a Cherry Tree” , she goes with the impulse to run away that that moment creates, but later when a new love comes along in “Stoppin’ the Love’ she, for some reason, opens herself up again. This record is all about how she felt in a thousand different moments, how dissonant her reactions to things are and how that is indicative of just how transitory her space throughout the writing of this record was.
Despite this, however, the album has some moments in which we hear hyper-secure KT, moments in which, despite all her trepidation, we’re allowed to tap into her most apparent and transcendental common thread: her longing to grow into the artist she wants to be. Declaiming her purpose in “Suddenly I See”, as she sings about Patti Smith on the cover of Horses, we hear KT in moment of clarity as she rediscovers her raison de’tre:
“Suddenly I see, this is what I wanna be.
Suddenly I see, why the hell it means so much to me.”
– “Suddenly I See”, Eye to the Telescope, Track 11.
It is moments like these ones, coupled with the rest of the album’s feeling of transience that makes the whole picture of a growing Tunstall come to life so perfectly as she sings from the other side of the world, like a monolith in the making.
The album’s last track is “Through the Dark”, a track that seats itself down quietly at the end of a chapter. She sings:
“And I used to talk
With honest conviction
Of how I predicted my world.
I”m gonna leave it to stargazers.
Tell me what your telescope says.
Oh, what is in store for me now?
It’s coming apart.
I know that it’s true.
’cause I’m feeling my way through the dark.”
-“Through the Dark“, Eye to the Telescope, Track 13.
I think that binds the album together perfectly – the concession to a mode of self-discovery that only time can achieve. Tunstall leaves the collection enlightened and leaves the listener excited about just what she’ll next bring to the table.
“Stoppin’ the Love”
“Black Horse & a Cherry Tree”
“Suddenly I See”
“And I used to talk
With honest conviction
Of how I predicted my world.
I”m gonna leave it to stargazers.
Tell me what your telescope says.”
– “Through the Dark”, Eye to the Telescope.
Be sure to check back next week when this article series takes a look at the mellow and folky Acoustic Extravaganza.
Listen to “Black Horse & a Cherry Tree” and “Stoppin’ the Love” from Eye to the Telescope below.
I find that listening to KT Tunstall drives me a little crazier every time I do because it calls to mind the kind of phrase I hate even caring about, but kinda just have to in her case: “She was born in the wrong time.”, the cliched drawl of the artsy hipster rings in my ears, and as I, a writer fresh out of teendom, try to avoid the platitude, I can’t help but find it relevant in her case.
See, it’s no secret that modern pop music frowns upon the personal, using artists as semiotic devices that represent no more than a fleeting advertisement for an aspirational lifestyle. This is a system that allows fly-by-night pop-stars a quick rise to the top but leaves many artists like Tunstall floating by the wayside, making music, making enough to stay afloat but never quite rising to the top of the pyramid – despite their music being of enough worth to warrant a place in the clouds. Every year, the system kills devoted artists off like a well-planned military manoeuvre – rooting musicians out from under the rocks of grunge bars and divey live music joints, and forcing them into jobs they know they have no business being in. And for Tunstall, this could so easily have been the case.
Luckily for listeners, though, this musician has proven stubborn as they come – and she’s stayed around, despite mainstream hints that she gave up the dream. Tunstall has stood her ground, refusing to let go of the neck of her guitar or to remove her foot from the pedal of the “wee bastard” she uses to make the music she has constantly, and unflinchingly, put out into the world, in the hope that enough people on the outskirts of sound will listen, so that the bulbs of dive bars can stay burning long enough to light the way for the next generation of artful musicians.
For this reason, I feel that by looking at a musician like Tunstall more carefully, a few rules of thumb can be extricated, because I feel that her introspective style and unrelenting devotion to the truth of expression are core to what has made her so loved artist by her loyal fan-base. I find that listening to her collection is an act of purity in that I feel no need to strip away the bullshit – it’s already stripped away. All I have need of doing is to listen; to relate or not relate; to lay back and enjoy what honesty artistry feels like in the midst of an industry so devoted to the opposite.
By listening to Tunstall, I can remind myself what music is about.
So, as her newest album, Kin, is due out in September of this year, I’ve decided to conduct a kind of guided tour of her catalogue – playing the part of pointer and gawker. In this series of seven articles, to be published every Wednesday morning on this website, I’ll run through her key albums in chronological order – plotting them according to the experiences of the artist herself and, hopefully, managing to deliver a more rounded background to her work than any Wiki page might be able to.
I’ll make no apologies – I’m a bit of a superfan. And this article won’t be critical – it’s goal is to be exploratory. All I’m here to do is demonstrate the vital position of “hopeless” musicians like Tunstall – exploring the brain of the Scottish songstress, hoping my interpretations are correct, and hoping that I turn at least a few people on to the chick who’s been running my playlist since I was 15.
Everybody says it’s just another decay of the soul
But, I know I’m a hopeless follower of anything to take me
Away from this hole in the ground.
I found it’s hopeless clinging to a feeling
Like a fish on a line, it’s sublime to find it lately.
no more saying that there’s no more time. “
Drastic Fantastic, Track 8.
Tracks in July. (2000)
As I sit and write this, it’s 11:25am on a drizzly Tuesday morning in July. And when I say drizzly, I actually mean that’s it’s just slightly short of storming outside. So, I’m in bed and the playlist I’m spinning is KT’s little-known early offering, Tracks in July, and its sound mixed with the tones of the rain splattering the pavement outside is hitting all the right spots.
Released in the year 2000, 4 years before her breakout album Eye to the Telescope, it’s this album that I find one of the most interesting in her collection in that it tells of the tour de force to come. With an already-present flair for lyrics and the impression of an artist finding the hidden potential of a multi-faceted voice, this 12-track album takes the listener on an introspective journey through the psyche of a musician in her genesis.
Having only listened to this album for the first time in 2015, I obviously compared it to the rest of her already established and well-produced catalogue. But, taking it for what it is – the independent debut of a 20-something-year-old singer-songwriter who, once given the time, would become a folk-rock goddess – one can easily forgive and more easily come to enjoy the joyous freedom with which the melodies on the album are treated – with Tunstall using many an opportunity to extemporize in the way that only singers who love singing tend to do. Delivering a solid folk sound throughout, the guitar- and voice-driven album honestly just doesn’t ever falter in a way that’s off-putting.
The album’s first track is an early, acoustic version of what would become Drastic Fantastic‘s “Paper Aeroplanes” and hearing it for the first time on Christmas morning 2015 left me with the feeling of having just opened an unexpected gift. In truth, it’s this version of the track I prefer because I feel it brings to the forefront that which makes Tunstall great – that honest portrayal of things which I feel her less-successful albums haven’t managed to clinch as well as her acclaimed ones have done; when KT simply sits down and plays as she does on this album – free of the heavy post-production that clogs up artistic receptors – I feel she delivers her best work.
The album then moves on to another early version of a well-known track – “Gone to the Dogs“, better known for being featured on her Acoustic Extravaganza, and furthermore delivers early versions of “Change” and “Little Favours”. And, it is when one compares these early versions to their later, more well-known counterparts that I feel the reason behind just what makes this album such a unique experience is demonstrated:
This is the album on which we find the least rigid Tunstall. Whereas the rest of her catalogue can be seen as being a little to a lot of more structured, this album is characterised by freedom above all. On every track it sounds like she’s just going for it, unafraid of singing until she feels satisfied, improvising melodies long after she’s filled the quota of a verse or chorus; even ladling in jazz scat on the second half of the album, effectively transporting the listener to wherever she wants them to be by way of the sheer insistence that she be heard.
This album demonstrates KT’s natural proficiency at what she does. So early on, her flare for guitar-playing, her innate grip on what makes for a good melody and her anomalous handle on just how to perfectly place a lyric all sit well together around the fire of a unique experience – a characteristic one can come to expect from every one of her albums in that they are all unique bodies of work which deliver the impression of a well-formed and respectable chapter in the musical memoirs of an artist who understands the meaning of the word.
“Night Like Pepper”
“Lay Down Low”
“Don’t come near me. I’m not the one to save your skin. But, if the stars have brought you here then here you are.
Lock me into something new. Something different from this. Cuz I need bliss in the solar system.” – “Night Like Pepper”, Track 8.
Check back next Wednesday, when this article series presses play on 2004’s “Eye to the Telescope“.
Have a listen to”Paper Aeroplanes” and “Night Like Pepper” from “Tracks in July” below:
“I spend all night and day / How much harder can I play? / You know I gave my life to rock and roll?”
Two years and a whole lot of tireless replays later, today I finally got to lay down, turn off the lights and listen to the much-teased new music from The Pretty Reckless. And it did not disappoint. With a more soulful voice than ever before, the new TPR offering delivers the same well-worn turns as usual , with some unexpected ones added, as a softer, yet still definite sound asserts itself through their new single “Take Me Down“.
The new song, which explores the crossroads myth of selling one’s soul to the devil for fame, comes as a refreshing take on the band’s sound. Momsen with a bit of rasp on the voice, instrumentation with interesting new tendencies, and distinctive use of choral vocals toward the end of the track together deliver a southern rock sound that makes for a comfortable and well-crafted track which more than convinces the listener to oblige when Momsen asks that they “sign with the devil.”
As yet, no date has been set for the release of their new album – though it is expected before the year is out. Listen to the single below.
Recently, the stars proved less faulty than usual, in that they aligned quite perfectly and almost summoned this article from the depths of my idea box because, when a less-than-sweet review of a certain band was published by this site, the response it elicited was something short of savory. Basically, bitches got mad. Real mad that a critic had dared to criticize. In the article I wrote, I made declarations by which I stand: I listened to an album, I didn’t enjoy it and I told the reader why. And that action, that job-description, pissed certain people off to no end.
Now, as for the stars aligning so perfectly, that’s the case because a few days before the review came out I happened to begin re-reading Peter Brook’s The Empty Space, a book which discusses theatre and the way it is best handled in the modern world. In it, there is an interesting section on the role of the critic and what his/her/their function is, and I believe his acclaimed opinions are perfectly transferable from the theatrical stage to the musical one because, after all, songs are essentially minor narratives, or scenes, brought together to form one major narrative – an action which, when achieved, makes for a great album.
Now, the distilled opinion of Brook is this:
The critic’s role is to compare the current state of the art to an idealized state, pointing out the flaws, potholes, and other potential hindrances which have prevented the art from achieving premium status. In short, the critic takes on the task of valuing a piece of work so that the work, or the “scene”, can move forward, but also so that the consumer gets their money’s worth.
And I think that that definition is the one that makes the most sense because, if it isn’t followed, you’re no longer a critic – you become, for all intents and purposes, a publicist. And a whoreish one at that. So, that’s what this article is about – the editor of SA Music Scene, Craig Roxburgh, and I, Arlin Bantam, have decided to join forces to respond to a few statements about the concept of criticism.
There are four statements, and the first one is this:
#1: The critic’s role is vital.
Of course, this is true. I mean, without attempting to sound like a kind of martyr to the musical intelligentsia, I believe the critic serves an incredibly important role which can only be maintained if a certain sacrificial quality is maintained – namely stepping outside of mere enjoyment and attempting to deconstruct and academically canonize an intentionally visceral and non-academic medium. This stance is a vital one, because, without these pinions in the tent of a genre, the exact whereabouts of said tent on the road to the artistic zenith is unknown.
The critic’s role, therefore, is one of the necessary guide, shaping an industry, and germinating artists themselves, into an artistic entity with an increased base of self-knowledge; knowledge which can lead to an increased standard of work produced. Only if the artist chooses art above ego, of course.
We’ve already discerned the role of the critic, or at least laid it out as simply as possible without bogging the reader down with an unnecessary amount of information and saturating it with concepts that detract from the true essence of the article. In short, we’ve reduced the role of the critic to a simple paragraph without forcing you, the reader, to wade through a pile of shit about which you don’t care. In some ways, I just described the role of the music critic. Our job is to sift through an endless ocean of music and give our opinion on anything that comes our way to ensure that the reader is able of determining which music is worth giving their time. However, this is not entirely true to the role of the critic within emerging music scenes. Our role takes on a multifaceted form as we are expected to guide our loyal readers through the vast ocean of music, but we are also expected to shape the immediate waters of this ocean to ensure that it can be a bountiful paradise capable of sustaining a vast array of musical life. This role comes with its complications and its difficulties as not every artist can be allowed to exist within these immediate waters, or rather cannot exist in the waters in their present form, and thus we must prey on the artist in the form of reviews laced with a healthy dose of harsh constructive criticism and a prevailing sense of cynical reality. This is done in the hopes that the artists adapt their sound in order to become a better band and produce better music and ultimately be part of a thriving musical ecosystem.
#2: The critic’s role is relative.
Again, I couldn’t agree more strongly.
All of us, and critics more so than most, find ourselves drenched in the downpour of the post-modern problem. i.e. the awareness that every single statement we have the capacity to make is inherently subjective. Of course, we can attempt to circumvent the issue, but as knowledge of this axiom prevails under all circumstances, so also does the knowledge that anything I could say in criticism will be subjective and have been born of my exposure to a certain set of stimuli. And basically, what that boils down to is that there are always going to be angles I haven’t considered and ones that, even if they have tap danced across my mind, I’d never be able to convincingly handle.
So, yes, everything a critic says is relative – relative to their own experience. But, it is still the critic’s undeniable job to be as objective as possible, even with the knowledge that it’s a pipedream. Because the critic should always be the most objective one in the room.
It would be better to say that the critic’s role is relative to their sphere of being. This essentially means that the critic’s opinion is relevant to the musical environment in which they exist. This specifically links to their subjective music tastes. Many people operate under the assumption that the critic operates in some kind of objective space in which each genre, and more specifically each artist, is given the exact same value as any other artist within that particular space. To be put it in simple terms, people expect critics to be free of musical prejudice. However, that is the role of music journalist as opposed to the music critic. The music journalist lives in a world of objective news reporting with the capacity to assume the role of the music critic at the drop of the hat if it is so required of them. Basically, a music journalist can also be a music critic but their roles are entirely different. A journalist seeks to report a story, which can contain subjective elements, but a critic seeks to pass judgement on an artist or an album. This judgement can only be passed by using their subjective tastes as the entire notion of criticising a band is to give one’s opinion of the band with some kind of guideline that indicates where the band can improve, is going wrong or is simply doing something great. Thus, the critic’s role is relative to what occurs within their immediate being and depends on entirely on a series of subjective factors that will ultimately determine their perception of a particular sound.
#3: The critic must be subjected to criticism.
In a way, this ties into the previous question. Yes. The critic must be criticized because his opinion is never a whole representation of reality. When a critic is criticized, another piece is added to the puzzle and a more fully realized version of reality is born – which creators can access and use as they see fit.
The existence of this meta-criticism is vital because it reminds the critic that he does not sit at the top of the hegemony of the scene in which he is steeped. He is merely a cog, with a specific role, just as important as anyone else in fulfilling his always-subjective function. The hope being that his subjective opinion will help the scene, which he is a part of, achieve the goal of progress.
The music critic, much like the musician they criticise, is open to criticism. Music critics are essentially writers and like most writers – they are egotistical beings. They operate within a world where egomania flows through the veins of nearly everyone within the industry. Once they become immersed in the industry and have shed their naïve new-born skin this egomania often affects their perception of the world around them. This leads them to believe they are above performing certain tasks and reviewing certain bands. This is why the critic must be subjected to criticism of the constructive kind. A critic needs to be reminded that like any musician – they are also flawed in some way and something needs improving. It is the only way to tame the ego-obsessed beast that rages within all creative types. It would be a poor world indeed if critics were allowed to write blatantly terrible articles and not be subjected to harsh repercussions and criticism for said article, but on the other hand this also means that an artist cannot create an album that can appear to be terrible to the subjective listener and the aforementioned relative position of the critic.
#4: The critic’s role is to criticize.
The critic is not a damn publicist. The critic’s job is not to pander to the ego of bands in the hopes of staying in the good books that allow for the flowing of free drinks and the getting of cushy seats. Of course, a sense of morale, and good faith is more than important, but this attempt at kinship must not come at the cost of independence. If the critic, in any way, has the ego of the band in mind when he is examining the work they produce, he is forming part of the problem that so many young artists fall prey to – the inability to see past the tips of their own noses and to view themselves as part of the larger scene in which a standard exists against which they’re being judged.
I don’t know if I can really put into words what this notion means to me. People’s interpretation of what it means to be critical can vary in so many different ways that it is often difficult to find any consensus on the topic. My short answer would be that criticising is directly related to the relatively of the critic’s role. The process of criticism is imbued with a sense of subjectively as opinions on music or any art form are influenced by an intricate web of connections with their broad, or narrow if you believe that diversity within tastes is not necessary, range of musical tastes. For instance, a critic can hold prejudice to post-grunge bands due to a dislike of Nickelback and Pearl Jam and consistently approach each post-grunge album with a negative mindset while retaining the ability to be swayed to the sound of that particular album. This could then create a precedent for liking future post-grunge albums provided they sound like that album they like and the cycle can go and on.
This doesn’t really help to divulge my opinion on the matter of what it means to criticise but I suppose it means to take this subjective web and apply it to one particular album and assess that album and all its sonic gimmicks and qualities against a backdrop of what is essentially your standard of musical decency. This is the tricky part because you are essentially comparing them to every band within their particular genre or sound but when you write you have to make sure that this process of comparison isn’t the basis for your article.
The process of criticism is then to break down the sonic landscape into easy-to- digest pieces that are easy to write about. Good albums make this easy as you can just write about what stands out above all the good elements. Bad albums make it difficult, because when an album is bad – you have got to try to not sound like a condescending asshole that is essentially calling the band trash. You’re expected to point out their strengths and weakness, but focus quite intensely on what need to be improved. This is where people start to have a problem with the role of the critic. They want the critic to think every album is good, but that would defeat their inherent role to criticise and thus they stop being a critic and become something akin to a jaded publicist sucking on the dick of every band that takes the time to throw them a bone.
Crying out over the din of the struggling Cape Town alternative scene, the organizers of South Africa’s first ever Emo Night prevail. Based on the American-born concept of the same name, Emo Night RSA – to be hosted for the first time on 2 July 2016 at Longmarket street’s The Manila Bar – promises to be all the rage for former-emo’s, punk rockers and any other hangers-on of alt culture.
Being a loyal punk fan myself, I recently got in touch with co-organizer Craig Roxburgh to find out more about the event. And in addition to discovering his secret identity as the billed DJ xxBr00talTearsxx , was able find out more about just how exactly the concept came to be.
Herewith follows the minutes of that brief encounter:
Hi there. Thanks so much for agreeing to have a chat with me today. So, Emo Night RSA. What can attendees expect? And where are tickets available for purchase?
I’ve actually been putting the finishing touches on much of my playlist for the evening and I’ve seen glimpses of my other fellow DJs playlists and what I can tell you is that it is going to be an evening that explores much of the music that actually falls under the genre of emo while also featuring songs that were commonly associated with the emo subculture despite not actually being emo. Attendees can expect reliving songs they used to sing when they were in high school, but can also expect to be exposed to some of the finer nuances of the weird musical niche that is emo.
Tickets can be purchased at the door of The Manila Bar for R20 – a complete bargain when you look at the costs of other events that just feature DJs spinning set playlists.
Now, looking at the list of organisers, one can’t help but notice that you all seem to be quite young. How have you managed to secure funding for the event?
We prayed to the almighty emo gods, but that didn’t work. So, we’ve managed to secure some private funding, but we’re hoping that we don’t actually need to use said funding as we are expecting to cover all the necessary costs on the night. We only need 150 people to come through for us to able to break even, but we’re hoping to fill up the venue due to the interest that is currently being expressed.
How long have plans been in the pipeline? And why now have you finally decided to take the plunge and host the first event?
Emo Night has always been at the back of my mind for the past year, or rather I’ve been saying to myself that I want to attend an Emo Night for the past year. I have a few friends in America that rave about their Emo Nights and that sparked my initials interest. I’m a student living in a country with a terrible exchange rate so the chances of me ever actually making it across the Atlantic to attend Emo Night are slim, and I guess that planted a seed in my mind.
It was only in a conversation with my co-founder Dom that this plan to host an Emo Night came to fruition. We were joking (actually, we were being deadly serious) about opening a Made For Broadway (when they eventually tour Cape Town) show with a DJ-set that would just play pop punk songs and eventually take over the entire show and eventually the country. Much of the conversation was rooted in light-hearted humour between lectures, but at some point we just decided that we didn’t need a band to tour here to do exactly that and that is how Emo Night RSA came into being. With regards to why we decided to take the plunge and launch into an event without much warning? I think it was probably because we wanted to know if such an event would ever work and we would rather completely fuck up now then nurture this idea and have it fuck up later when we’ve grown even more attached to it.
The original American version of “Emo Night” is a recurring affair. Any hopes of doing the same?
We hope to make it a recurring event especially within Stellenbosch’s club culture as we feel that there is much potential for us to grow in Stellenbosch due to the high density of students and since there is a Confession or Rage about the lack of alternative music events/clubs in Stellies. However, the chances of this being a recurring affair is entirely rooted in whether or not it is successful on 2 July. We will need to see a huge turnout for us to consider putting together another event.
When one thinks of the Cape Town space, it’s almost impossible to ignore the fact that alternative spaces are falling out of vogue in a big way. How conscious were you of this when planning this event?
To be honest, we didn’t even consider the space in which Emo Night would operate until after we launched the event. It pretty much just started as some massive pipe dream that Dom and I turned into an event and were expecting no-one to even give two shits about it but the response has been phenomenal so far and I guess at some point we had to stop and consider the space in which we would exist, but we wouldn’t say that we exist within the alternative space. Simply because the alternative space does not really make provision for counter cultures to exist and especially not for the emo counterculture to exist.
I have always been conscious of a lot of individuals, outside of the traditional alternative spaces catered for by the Cape Town space, that have loose ties to the emo genre and to the emo subculture – both of which are vastly non-existent in South Africa as opposed to just in Cape Town. The alternative space catered for in South Africa has been on a rather downward spiral over the past few years as it has become a rather exclusive space dominated by a rather particular brand of metal snobbery – the kind that sneers at the metal headliners for the likes of RAMfest and Oppikoppi, but 2015 and 2016 has seen that particular space kind of resurrect itself thanks to much of the work done by a lot of the media outlets and promoters. However, the alternative space as an encompassing whole still remains segregated along a genre basis – which is partially why it has fallen out of vogue to some extent. We were kind of aware of those divisions, but we didn’t pay much mind to it as Emo Night (in our mind) falls into a very particular niche that caters to a wide variety of people within the alternative space while also catering to a more mainstream audience – the people that don’t care too much for metal, but would be happy to rock out to some nostalgic pop punk and alt rock songs. At the end of the day, Emo Night is a celebration of a genre, a subculture, but also a very particular phase in people’s lives where angst and anger reigned and things weren’t so serious and adulty as they are now.
And adding to that point, what do you hope to achieve by hosting these nights?
You know what. I asked bands this so much when I ask what they hope to achieve with a new album or whatever, and it always amazes me that they don’t reply with “we actually don’t fucking know because all of that totally depends on how much people love or hate the album”, so I guess I would reply with something like that if I was a total asshole, but I’m not. My personal vision is for Emo Night to become this meeting ground for like-minded individuals to come together and bond over mutual musical tastes and then from there go out and grow what I hope I can one day refer to as the “emo scene”. My goal is for Emo Night to foster a sense of unity in the music scene especially with regards to the punk and post-hardcore scene that would serve to bolster the scene and allow for bands to pursue genres that no-one would ever think would exist in Cape Town like pop punk or hyper aggressive emo (although Past Haunts kind of do that already).
Last question: How can our readers spread the word about Emo Night RSA?
They can spread the word by heading to the event page and clicking attend and sharing the living shit out of it. Like, we want to see 5k people invited or something. Else they can find us Facebook under Emo Night South Africa or on Twitter as @EmoNightRSA
Thanks so much for your time. See you at Emo Night!
See you there. We fully endorse panicking at our disco.
In 2015, the band Hokum, hailing from Johannesburg and formed from the remnants of Marlowe, released their debut album, “The Money Eaters” in the hopes of writing a new chapter in their musical history. Dubbing themselves that ever elusive “something new” which so many now-you-see-me bands declare at the beginning of short-lived careers, the Scott Wareham-fronted affair boldly self-congratulates throughout this 17-track declaration of intent. Self-congratulation which, I fear, has perhaps come too soon.
Engaging its metabolism with an anonymous sounding intro – a seeming attempt at the kind of soundscape Marilyn Manson employed with his “Thaeter” on The Golden Age of Grotesque, the album starts off on an underwhelming note, because the sound doesn’t succeed in the same way. Hokum’s is an almost pointless sound, failing to create the atmosphere you can hear it trying for – ending up sounding dead more than anything else, and dragging 3 minutes into a way longer time than it should feel.
Stepping into what I assume is a kind of first movement, the album moves on to its first real track, “The Emerald City“, continuing in a similar vein on subsequent tracks. Here is where you can hear the attempt at interesting production as the record clearly tries to create the soundscape-supported kind of continuity one might experience at the hand of a master. The attempt is, however, a failed one, as there is simply way too little melodic and intentional variation to support it. With multiple tracks tending around the same key and hanging on to the same overused production methods, the attempt at the feeling of perpetual engagement succeeds only in boring the listener and making one hate the concept of F#. Unlike a good soundscape, which has a clear beginning, clear end and an unspoken but definite intention, the sound on this album is monotonous. At multiple times, it’s as if the musician has left the room.
The album isn’t all mental anesthesia, though. In some songs, like “Touch Power“, an interesting refrain is definitely present. But, like in all the other tracks in which this may be true, it is defeated by the mediocrity of the sound surrounding it. The golden nuggets of good sound are incessantly dulled out by too-heavy and undeniably misguided post-production – a fact which is another of the album’s primary failed attempts: there is simply too much going on.
In what sounds like an attempt at genre-bending, this album lays down layer upon layer of a lacklustre sound that doesn’t quite succeed in doing anything specific. For a band that claims to have taken the avant-garde composer Philip Glass to heart, there exists a production methodology which arguably disagrees with the core of Glass’ stringent minimalism – the need that every sound be a vital one. It’s as if the music isn’t sure what it wants from itself. There is no artistic voice that shines through; no observable intention. It’s as if a randomizer was put to work to assemble electrobytes from a barrel of cliches – rendering a sound that scrambles for originality, yet clings to anonymity at every perceivable turn; force-feeding the listener the audible equivalent of a dry, brown bread sandwich.
In contrast to all of this, though, the album has its moments. There are instances in which something visceral shines through the crowded, grey station of sound. These moments are an undeniable product of Wareham’s vocals. Employing an interesting vocal colour, there are moments in which he is unafraid of leaping into the top of his register, belting an intermittent glissando yet, simultaneously, letting his intonation slightly falter in favour of a completed sound which would not be successful without this specific dollop of influence.
And it is this truth which necessitates the following statement: Wareham’s voice is the undeniable cornerstone of the best moments of the album.
The opposite, however, is somehow also true:
As if to make up for the good moments, some of the album’s worst moments are also a product of the voice. Despite the fact that there are some moments in which Wareham sounds like a young Gerard Way (on an EP like “Dreams of Stabbing and/or Being Stabbed“), in many places the singer’s voice suffers from a notable lack of control, with his lower to middle register failing to quite grasp the note he means to be on.
Most of the time, Wareham sounds like he’s stepping in for the actual vocalist – just singing so the band can keep track of the music and no more; producing vocals which seem unsure and making the song sound like the bad cover of an already forgettable track. The album paints its vocalist as a stubborn creature of the poles – insisting on either being the strongest or by far the weakest link at any given moment. Turning up the volume does, however, help a little bit, but by track 13 I’d run out of hardware tunings which could improve the sound on offer.
Perhaps a greater reliance on inventive instrumentation could help the sound along, or perhaps even changing producers could do. Maybe switching up the names on the bill could add the much-needed originality the sound needs, or maybe some melodic experimentation is what the band’s catch-all solution could be.
Whatever the answers to the band’s most assuredly pluralized troubles are, it really doesn’t change the fact that this album left an incredibly bad taste in my mouth.
“The Money Eaters” is an album of failed attempts. Boasting instantly forgettable lyrics and a forgettable sound, it is an uninventive, uninspired, focus-free and monotonous affair that tries so much, yet loses the gamble at every turn. Whether it be because of a talent deficit or a commitment problem, the truth is that the entire album sounds like an out-of-focus idea. It’s 17 tracks simply do not measure up to the musical standard one expects from a professional band.
There’s a certain kind of girl I love looking at, and coming from my particularly homosexual brain, that means a lot. She’s tall, maybe a little too skinny on account of her choice of nicotine over food, she’s dressed in bright colours which don’t cling to her skin in the traditional places, she has the armbands from three music festivals still wound around her wrist, and she’s smiling at me, from the other side of the mess of peroxide-infused hair that blocks her eyeliner.
She’s the kind of girl you wish you knew when you were fifteen and that you still can’t believe is finally a constant part of your reality. Because what she represents is the culture-set you longed to be a part of. And now, because she’s smiling at you, and asking you if you’ve got your Daisies ticket yet, you know that somehow you managed to become the person you wanted to be.
But, you don’t say it in so many words. That would be awkward because, right now, you’re sandwiched between friends in the backseat of a car headed to the music festival you’ve been looking forward to for months; the place where you’ll be surrounded by people having the best time of their lives and who’ve also wanted to get there as badly as you have.
And that’s why music festivals are important – because they are the peak of everything. It’s a space that’s built around the kids who grew up on the music, the ones who wished they could already have been there when they were 15, and now that they’re 21 and they’ve finally made it to the campsite (with money they somehow scraped together) they’re the happiest they’ve ever been.
See, festival culture is about more than just a 3-day bout of hedonism. The real picture is this:
She’s barefoot in the mud and the band that she’s been dying to see is on stage – she’s enjoying the shit out of their set. Her eyes are shut and her hands are up in the air – her time is the present and nothing else because, for once, she’s free of any worry about the demands placed upon her.
She’s just being.
And, because of that, the space becomes heaven, because everyone in it is happy with exactly where they are and what they’re doing there. And that’s something that I feel deserves attention, and it needs to be respected and seen for what it is. Because I’m one of those kids and music has always been a part of my life. It’s my continuous thread; my default setting.
See, when I walk into a music store, I’m with all my best friends (Thanks, Penny Lane) I’m with the friend who was there when I was crying my eyes out. I’m there with the kid who was there when I just wanted to have a good time. I’m there with the friend who was there because I needed to learn a massive lesson.
And I think that when you hear something and you relate to it so strongly and then eventually you see the person responsible for thousands of those secret epiphanies, then that’s what we need to be writing down because it’s the truest stuff.
So, yeah, I’m a fan. A massive one. And, I’ll be at Rocking the Daisies and Oppikoppi and Splashy Fen and Jungala and Vortex and Synergy and whatever other festival tickets I can get my hands onto this year, because I want to write about it.
I want to write about the kids having the best time of their lives.
Across the table and staring at me like a Carole King pre- her prime, singer-songwriter Emma van Heyn sits and sips at her coffee, letting the caffeinated whorl swirl around her mouth as she awaits my next question. “I cringe at my own work,” she says, vocalizing an afterthought to the unintentional tangent on self-criticism, that we’d been exploring for the last 5 minutes or so.
Emma is a girl about the midway. As she floats, a balloon pinned downed somewhere in the middle of her trajectory – in the aftermath of the release of her EP – Agenda - awaiting the release of her debut album, Asylum, in August of this year. A record which she assures me, on this early, rainy morning, will have been the culmination of years of effort.
Yesterday, after she’d fished it from her backpack, I received a copy of her EP. Last night I listened to it. And here are some candid thoughts on the collection:
The first track on the EP, Yin-Yang, begins quite interestingly with a progressive-pop riff that promises a gripping creature. Emma’s soothing alto is soon thrown into the mix and a decent track with a memorable refrain is born. Using her strength as the driver of the car Harmony she pulls together a sound that pulls one in and grips one even more tightly upon being given a second listen.
The five-track offering then moves on to Little Girl, a track which is perhaps lyrically flawed, but again makes up for it by offering up memorable melodies and a seemingly Imogen Heap-inspired take on the way voices work when layered.
Agenda, the title track, is next – a track which is perhaps the weakest on the EP in that it underwhelms in terms of lyrical and melodic content. However, this is soon made up for, when intro to the track Hypnosis leaks from the speakers and it becomes clear what this artist’s best colours are; this time, moving her voice up the octave to gaze down as a soprano, Emma once again works with blended harmonies using her strongest tool – her voice – to create a sonic landscape built on precision which, when it once more makes way for some of the EP’s Jazz-Pop stylings, leaves the listener craving more.
A craving which is perhaps sated by the EP’s last track – Dear John - written at 14, she tells me. A track which, despite its adolescent treatment of instrumentation and lyrics, demonstrates the potential she has as a pop-soprano, despite around 75% of the vocals on the record being done lower down.
Now, judging from the material she produced with her former act Morning Ms Dednam (the strength of the track “Sabotage” springing to mind quite specifically), what I think I expected was for a Morrissey-esque progression to have taken place in which The Smiths of her milieu would have given way to a fully-formed solo artist ready to take things on with full prowess.
But, how dastardly of me to expect that? Because the brain I’ve been picking at is only 21 years old. And with that comes inexperience – but, more importantly, with that comes potential. And, after listening to her EP one more time, that’s what I can now clearly hear- the potential for great things.
See, the main thing that struck me about this EP is that it sounded like the bones of a beautiful thing. In the same way that when you listen to something like KT Tunstall‘s Tracks in July (released independently a full six years before her major label debut) and can hear the promise in it, you can hear the melodic distinctions and musical treatment that, when matured, will make Emma Van Heyn a great artist.
So, free of my contempt, Emma sits and sips at her coffee one last time, setting the empty cardboard thing down on the table between us. For the last hour, she has been speaking with utter consciousness of her perception of things. A truth which has lead me to believing that that when her post-production methods are tightened and perhaps performed more meticulously, and as she improves as a lyricist and further learns what her compositional strong points are, that she’ll be able to deliver work that is striking and original, and which will grab my attention as fully as she does between the doses of caffeine she takes to keep her engine running on this drizzly, Tuesday morning.
Emma van Heyn is a girl about the midway. And, for the moment, I feel perfectly content with letting her be just that.
“But the trouble is, I am the playwright. I am the actress, you know. And I want them to look at the play and see past it…but all the attention is going to me. Which is insane, from my point of view. You’re not going to get anything out of it if you look at me. You’ve got to see yourself in it. Otherwise, it has no value.” – Joni Mitchell, CBC Music Interview.
We live in an era in which Joni Mitchell wouldn’t make it big. Mitchell with her sunken cheeks and spindly arms as she holds up an instrument half her weight would be ignored by the mainstream, eaten up by hipsters perhaps – despite her hauntingly beautiful set of pipes and virtuosic abilities. Mitchell, with her gob-smacking talent and her knack for the simple expression of megalithic issues, would be lost in the haze of skin and cocaine; the sex-driven politics of today’s art industry. I’m lucky I found her when I did, through the influence of an older cousin, a bit of an outsider herself, who thought I’d do well were I offered a break from the humdrum of my iPod at fifteen years old. Mitchell was the first time I heard the music. Until then, music had been an image-driven beast to me. See, my fourteen-year-old self had been obsessed with looking like Billie-Joe Armstrong or Gerard Way, teasing my “ethnic” hair into submission until it fell into an ersatz drape across my face. With Mitchell came a shift – it was when stopped caring about the artist and starting caring about the art. Joni spoke to me when I was alone and got what I was thinking. When she’d come over, she was always as there as anyone had ever been. She helped me realize that my hair could grow up and be my own brand of beauty if I just let it be that, because my opinions and experiences, my artistic inclinations, were as valid as anyone else’s. What Mitchell awoke in me was not a sense of golden-age nostalgia, but a sense of individual agency as each song by her singular person taught me the value of being true rather than conforming to a culture set. By finding comfort in Mitchell’s repertoire I learnt things about myself. And that’s what I believe the function of music is: to find something to which you an relate and to help the 4-minute therapy session help you.
Sadly, that’s not what music, or at least today’s popular music, is about. It’s about the visual and commercial. It leaves modern artists in the Mitchell-space without recognition in any popular sense – leaving them only to the ears of music journalists and secretive kids who listen to the music they were almost brave to put out.
Now, getting back to me at fourteen. At this point in my life, I think it’s safe to say that my main interest was music. It was the beginning of the common thread which music has since become. At age 10, my mother had seen the massive poster of Green Day on my bedroom door, which I’d bought without a clue who they were or what they sound like, and gotten me a copy of American Idiot. And that singular event spawned an obsession with not just them, but the entire punk rock genre. All I wanted was to be like Billie Joe. I bought eyeliner and black nail polish, worn in private at the time, I grew my hair into a mohawk every school holiday and I forced my obese body into skinny jeans on the daily. I wanted, with everything in me, to look like a man I’d never met, who looked nothing like me and whose body was half the weight of my own. I was so concentrated on the image that the music, which I admittedly did enjoy the heck out of, may as well have been ten times worse. In a way, the music almost functioned as an excuse for my consumption of the image. And that is in no way the band’s fault – it’s the fault of the pop music industry as a whole.
What pop music is, and this can be extended to the media as a whole, is rigorous training in image consciousness. What we are is a zeitgeist that has been trained into the consumption of images; four-on-the-floor beats and repetitive, banal lyrics which act as signifiers for aspirational images that tell us what perfection is. It tells us what we need to look like, smell like, do and eat like to be happy. From the moment we’re born, we undergo social taxonomy based on image – right from gender-binary to the stuff on the radio, we have been trained to picture something while consuming anything. To the mainstream, modern audience there exists an axiomatic link between image and sound. And the music industry, which should be independent of force-feeding pre-set ideas, hasn’t escaped this in the least.
Modern music has come to be defined by this axiom, creating a set of “musts“. Your band makes punk rock so you must wear skin-tight jeans, wear eyeliner, have an eccentric hairstyle and look like you may or may not have showered in the last four days. You listen to rap music. So, naturally you must wear baggy t-shirts, baggier pants, and so much gold in your mouth that you risk impairing your speech. You listen to death metal so you must wear all-black. You listen to Janis Joplin and Donovan?. So, please get back into your tie-dye – your jeans don’t suit my concentration span.
This is the culture we’re a part of, that we unwittingly allow to prosper on the daily, and it is constantly working against us. For proof of this, you need only look at bands that defy the genre expectation for image, whether they do so consciously or unconsciously, and see how this fact is consumed by the public. A quick perusal of comments, both online and anecdotal, made about bands like Slipknot, who have songs like “Danger – Keep Away” (from Vol. 3.0: The Subliminal Versus), Alice Cooper who made significantly softer material in the early 2000’s (See: The Eyes of Alice Cooper) and, locally, commentary about a band like the Anti-Retro Vinyls, who look like a Motley Crue/Black Veil Brides cover band but sound like something completely different prove that image has been turned into a “must” issue. – you must dress this way if you sound that way. Because how else will people know that when I dress like this, that I listen to you? And that from that information, I give them permission to infer a thousand things about me?
Modern music has an obsession with public inference based solely on image. And it’s disconcerting and wholly unsettling because it means that music has stopped being about music, about connection and artistry. Music, across genres, has become the excuse for consumption of a system of financial interest that is built around artists or groups of artists. Modern music, because of a grand shift in the middle of the last century, is run by a group of plutocratic business men in the opalescent rooms of skyscrapers who no longer care about music as artistry, but care about artists in the same way they trade other commodities that can be wrapped in plastic and sold at eye-watering prices – if the artist is hot enough, rich enough, perfect enough you’ll want to buy their latest fragrance, a ticket to their latest movie and a pair of their latest designer socks. All of which means that you, the average consumer, will be able to conspicuously consume the artist until you’re stuffed – that is until you grow hungry enough to return to the table and Instagram another photo of yourself from the VIP booth you’ve paid to get into.
That’s why artists who defy genre expectations are necessary, and their popularity is necessary. Because, they help us stay conscious. In the same way that Bertolt Brecht used alienation to increase critical awareness in the theatre (like The Birthday Song playing during a tragic death scene) when a band that looks like The Anti-Retro Vinyls sings a song like “If I Had Your Daddy’s Money” , or an artist like Adele defies a beauty standard, or Lady Gaga releases a “rebellious” dance album (ARTPOP) at the peak of her fame, or when Sia sings with her back to the audience they inadvertently create a system in which you’re forced to think of why you expected them to sound, look or act differently than they do. And when you’re able to ask that question, the music opens up. As a listener, your complacency stops and you begin really listening again – the music becomes an act of engagement, not escapism. Sound becomes a signifier in a different way and causes the self-reflexive action it was created to create.
Music can no longer afford complacency, on the part of the listener or the artist. If we remain complacent we will undoubtedly become part of the “artificially induced state of consciousness that resembles sleep.” (“House on a Hill”, The Pretty Reckless.) And be forced into predetermined identities rather than creating new, independent things. If we stay conscious, however, a system in which kids like me wouldn’t have felt the need to conform so counter-productively could be created. In this system, I probably would have discovered how powerful Green Day’s commentary is much earlier than I did. And I’d have discovered that I could look the way I do now, be the strange mixture of hippy and punk that I am, and still enjoy Patti LuPone as much as I do Behemoth.
The problem is commodification, unitization, and broad-spectrum monetization by non-artistic entities. We, as the young, intellectually conscious future of the music industry have the responsibility to get good music back on the radio by pumping money back into live music and good music; by actively moving against current trends that are stifling future Mitchells; by actively beginning to stop caring about an artist’s image, their gender, their race in the same way that we don’t picture Shakespeare or Kerouac when we read their texts. Seriously, we need to grow less conscious of Beyonce’s ass while listening to her music– because, face it, her ass only serves as a distraction from the fact that her text is the spawn of a group of ghost-writers saying nothing in particular.
The power of music lies in the power of relation. Once image is removed it opens up that much more. There are amazing artists who aren’t getting the popular recognition they deserve – people like KT Tunstall (go listen to The Scarlet Tulip EP right now), Joshua Radin and the like are falling through the cracks of an industry which once upon a time would have elevated them.
So, what I’m saying is this:
Music and text are the strangest kind of blank canvas onto which we can be deposited. We can find relation not in the middle-distance gaze of lust and objectification but in the germ of a piece of work, where every track on every album means a thousand different versions of something new to a thousand people. We, as creators and proliferators, have the power to turn people on to the possibility of self-discovery and potential. And we make or break that power by every record we next choose to put on.