Letter From Sheffield - Spring 2012

At a similar time I went to see Kevin Blechdom play in The Cricketers, a pub of ill repute opposite Bramhall Lane, home of Sheffield United. Downstairs was rough and - well, just rough.


Sheffield is a strange city. For one thing, there is no real city centre. Instead there are a cluster of centres, often, but not necessarily, approximating to the seven hills that surround it. The centre, in the sense of the middle ground, is also something absent from the Sheffield music scene. Bands such as U2 and Westlife will play in the soulless stadia whilst underground groups can be found playing in cellars and above dodgy pubs. For whatever reason, and despite The Leadmill and other venues of old, bands of a certain type pass Sheffield by. Leeds yes, Nottingham yes. Sheffield No. This is a shame but at least the underground scene is to be cherished: indeed one of my favourite ever gigs was seeing Sunburned Hand of the Man play The Matilda Social Centre many moons ago. At a similar time I went to see Kevin Blechdom play in The Cricketers, a pub of ill repute opposite Bramhall Lane, home of Sheffield United. Downstairs was rough and - well, just rough. Stones and Carling were all they had on tap. I suspect they bridled at having to stoop to the Carling. Upstairs was a small carpeted room full of the fey and effete watching the late Jack Rose, or, on this occasion, Kevin Blechdom. Two things from this gig stand out. One was the fact that Ms Blechdom finished the gig topless. And second, the support act was one Planningtorock.

This long winded introduction is occasioned by the fact that, many years later, Planningtorock released her second album, W. I was alerted to it by a friend who told me that it was dominated by 'real and midi sax, but don't let that put you off'. Well, normally it would have me running for the hills. But I would have been wrong: it is a wonderful record and one of the best of last year. It is deeply strange but it is also fascinating to listen to such a distinct personality. It reminds me that genres only become moribund because of the absence of talent. Rock and Roll will never die as long as there are interesting people making rock music. In this Brian Eno is wrong in his belief that the producer is now the main creative element. (He may be nicknamed the professor but his work with U2 and Coldplay has shown that not even he can conquer the eternal silk purse / sow's ear conundrum.)

W is an album dominated by synths, sax and Janine Rostron's vocals. At times she is, quite frankly, a bit scary. The vocals are pitched all over shop and lend a slightly disorientating tone to the album. At times W contains straightforward dance music (the wonderful Living It Out); more often than not the pop aspects are tempered by more disturbing sounds (Going Wrong). W is wonderfully strange and yet somehow manages to bring together these outre elements and fashion something that resembles pop music. Grimes, on the other hand, is someone who has been touted as strange, and 'out there' but who, it seems to me, is far too canny to allow herself to be pidgeonholed in such a way for too long. There is certainly a massive sonic leap on her new album Visions. Previous album Geidi Primes contained some good pop songs but was, overall, basic in terms of range and palette. Visions expands this sound world. Simplicity has been abandoned but the album is whole lot more interesting. It's not an album of obvious hooks; rather it is one that demands a fair few listens. What initially floats by soon begins to grip and reveals interesting textures beneath the surface froth..Speaking of an album that eschews easy hooks, Mouse on Mars latest, Parastrophics, is brilliantly all over the place. I've followed them, intermittantly, for quite a while now and some of their albums (Idiology) are outstanding. Essentially Parastrophics sounds like an incredibly dense electronic album that's been chucked into a blender. Or imagine trying to explain to a Martian what dance music sounds like and then imagine the results of them trying to create some for themselves. Parastrophics is chopped and cut up, beaty and bonkers. It also manages to be fun. In fact, at times it is downright funny. It's so out there and brazen it just brings a smile to the face.

Dustin Wong's Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads is a different kind of beast altogether. It's essentially electric guitar and nothing else. If you've heard any of Wong's previous band Ponytail you'll have an idea of the sounds it contains. The simplicity and repetition of phrases might suggest The Durruti Columnn but the sound is altogether more American. Imagine instead a more skeletal Rhys Chatham or a less bombastic Glenn Branca. It's good stuff but the album suffers slightly when the sound is fleshed out. Less is more indeed.

Porcelain Raft I know nothing about. Their debut album Strange Weekend is a solid slab of hazy nu-shugazey pop music.It's not going to shake your world but with tracks such as 'Drifting In and Out' it will certainly keep you entertained until the next Beach House album is out. Which might seem a rather disrespectful way of putting it but Beach House's Teen Dream is undoubtedly one of best albums of recent years. Another debut album I've been enjoying is Caveman's CoCo Beware. Again, disgracefully, I know nothing about them. But CoCo Beware is a solid if not great album with a few absolute belters on the first side. It's straightforward pop rock without any great ornamentation. It's strength is its simplicity. It falls down somewhat on the second side - as the album slows down the tracks lose their hooks and the result is a rather amorphous listening experience.

Finally, I've been enjoying Keith Kenniff's latest album Branches. Kenniff (also known as Goldmund and Helios) has created an album of simple but rewarding beauty. It is modern, post-classical music. Pianos, strings and electronics blur together to create twinkling miniatures. When it works the subtle instrumentation and the melancholic melodies are incredibly moving. Every now and again though there is something slightly - how to put it? - simplistic and shallow about the music. As though it could be used in an advert for a high class bank or car. This is harsh criticism and probably not really fair but it is difficult to rise above the merely tasteful when dealing with this sort of music. Perhaps the fact that the songs are so short means that there is something slightly disposable about some of them. But, make no mistake, this is a very good album. I just wish he had given some of the tracks more space to breathe and grow.


Next month: Julia Holter, Michael Nyman, Apparat Organ (and that bar with the lard sandwiches? - ed)