Access all areas, all of the time. Has 24/7/365 product availability created a sense that music is simply a product sold to cure an itch, an antihistamine to clear away a tapped foot or a nodding head? What if you’re still seeking out those fleeting moments where finding a record, hearing a song, comes with a sense of revelation, of specialness, that lifts one out of the everyday and into something beyond? What then? What if you want to be a music-lover not just a music-consumer?
Human connection is the only answer to bloodlessness; the way to kick life back into music. The old answers still work: following a band; starting a band; supporting a specialist label; attending a local venue. Heck, seeing what’s new by checking out band t-shirts worn on stage is still a valid path. It’s about creating something that’s your own, yet communal, though still exclusive, at a time when ubiquitous availability has made the appending of that word to near every release utterly inappropriate. Restoring that sense that one is uncovering treasure has led many to covet the past; permitting the cycle of consumption and destruction to whittle the stock of a significant original release down to ever fewer copies – there’s a reason why the only existing copy of The Quarrymen’s 1958 single ‘That’ll Be the Day/In Spite of All the Danger’ occupies the number one spot in any list of the world’s most valuable records. But what of the present?
One fresh take is the conversion of the record fair – traditionally an excuse to trawl through crates of dusty leftovers – into a source of up-to-the-minute discovery. London has seen a revival of fairs amid which a number of labels have teamed up to create a new event merging collation, collection, community and live events under one roof.
The Under the Arches fair is intended as a regular showcase for London labels to bring forth their latest, share their rarities, swap thoughts live n’ direct with customers and with those open to discovering creativity in their own back yard. Their approach has been to base the whole set up in a craft beer establishment (the London Fields Brewhouse, a convenient seven minute train ride from Liverpool Street Station), bring along a few food options and to set up the stalls indoors for comfy browsing in all-weathers – capital thinking! Helping things along, the labels involved have collaborated to set up a mini-music festival running from mid-afternoon onward so there’s a full day to be had, or one to dip in and out of depending on one’s inclinations and diary (my own meant I couldn’t stick around after lunchtime – my loss.) A dozen labels took part on 5th March, offering a decent hour of browsing across the stands, plus time for a pint, a few chats and a sit down. Free copies of Record Collector magazine at the door were a neat bonus too – even if I’d come away with nothing I’d have had something worthwhile to read on the way home.
Truth is though, I went with an open wallet and an urge to burn cash. I wanted to take a risk on a stranger’s taste – to see what Fuzz Club, Fire Records, Rocket Records, Hands in the Dark, Sonic Cathedral, Super Fan 99, 1-2-3-4 and Fluffer had been uncovering in ol’ London town – and what out-of-towners Slovenly, Captured Tracks, Software Recording Company and Anthology Recordings were bringing to the party. Conversations with the knowledgeable crew at each stand let me get a sense of where they were at, let me gauge a little of their tastes, before I took the plunge and just asked them straight out what they recommended. Cut loose amid a sea of artists I didn’t recognize I appreciated each individual label taking the time to coach me through their wares, to offer me a sense of what I might find. Plus how could I begrudge an hour of musical time to anyone putting the time and energy into getting sounds out into the world?
Below I’ve provided a rapid-fire round up of various purchases made on Saturday – I can honestly say I was surprised at the hit rate I came home with. The next date for UTA has been set as 4th June, again at London Fields Brewery and I’m thinking I’ve a day to spare for food, drink, company and music. There’s gold in them thar’ brewhouses…
Weyes Blood – ‘Cardamom Times’. A recommendation from the lady manning the Mexican Summer label stand and a good EP-length introduction to Natalie Mering’s work. Musically it’s sunshine-bright, finger-picked folk with Natalie’s rich voice bringing winter to the scene with her more contemplative tone; “I’m still learning to be free, not so somber…” as she sings on ‘In the Beginning’. Her vocal style wouldn’t be out of place in a choir – I mean that as a compliment – her voice is all well-judged high notes, sustain, practiced control rubbing along with the melancholy bedroom diary vibe. The cover is a photo of two people curled against one another, the man’s face obscured, alongside a landscape of decaying timbers stretched out across a waterway; the back sleeve has a pencil drawing of the same scene surrounded by a blend of black/white or psychedelic washed sketches – the entire package, music and art, feels deeply personal.
Cankun – ‘Only the Sun is Full of Gold’. Having made a dash for the Fuzz Club stand at the far end of the room, I worked my way back down via the Hands in the Dark label where I latched onto this work from a French musician who apparently performs all the instruments himself, which is impressive given the band-worthy fullness of his sound. On opener ‘System’, dissonant keyboards weave in and out of the mix disrupting the nighttime jazz vibe; a guitar wails and keens like the show’s midnight finale over a plucked rhythm that sounds like it was blown on the mouth of a milk bottle. In the absence of vocals it can be hard for an instrumental record to rise above background sound but Cankun manages it – there’s so much variation at work here. ‘Cuts’ is a high-speed workout; ‘Words’ walks a guitar solo over various stuttering, staggering rhythms before falling into the kind of layered motion I’d associate with electronica. ‘Moyit’ minces a vocal sample then replaces it with brief guitar phrases tumbling one-over-another; ‘Tyreu’ twinkles and hovers like Coil in their Moon Musik phase, while closer ‘Systern’ deploys drones over a chill-out room drumbeat.
Death and Vanilla – ‘California Owls’. The stuff that record fairs are made of: “it’s the limited edition green vinyl single,” as I was told at the Fire Records counter. Having recently discovered this band’s To Where the Wild Things Are album I was already fiending for more. Though I hate describing anything in terms of the ‘someone else’ it sounds like, it’s impossible not to hear Death and Vanilla as working somewhere in the junction between Broadcast, Boards of Canada and Ghost Box – a winning combination. Soaring vocals gasp and coo over BBC Radiophonic Workshop electronica, xylophones, stepped bass and twittering flutes. Side B opener ‘Erte’ cunningly converts the soundtrack to the Battle of Britain into a choral piece while ‘Reality from Dream’ twists into a lightly-accompanied and gently echoing lament that seems to be sung in German. Both songs on Side A are available on the album.
Younghusband – ‘Silver Sisters’. An untitled cassette box with beautifully rendered silver-grey reflective cover-art that reminded me of Adolf Homes’ apparent capturing of ghost images in detuned TV sets… Yeah, an irresistibly merry use for a five pound note at the Sonic Cathedral stall. It’s all steadily-paced fuzzed-out pop music glistening with dreamy shimmer and shine. “The future calls,” concludes singer Euan Hinshelwood at the end of Side B in a voice that suggests he’s trying not to act too excited by it just in case the future disappoints. Crank the volume up – this kind of psyched-out sound demands saturated eardrums. Opening track ‘Silver Sister’ is the rockiest moment so far from this cluster of acquisitions: a solid riff, jaggling rhythm guitar and a catchy-silly chorus line about “a silver sister comes my way…” I wish I’d been able to stick around for their evening performance at the fair – bloody trains.
Shit & Shine – ‘54 Synth-brass, 38 Metal guitar, 65 Cathedral’. Always a quixotic slalom-ride to inspiring new locales, I couldn’t resist picking up this disc from S&S, this time on Rocket Recordings. The beats punching away at the core of each composition give everything here a very structured vibe. Modem-slashed vocal sounds, the seething fizz of fractured power cables, the growl I recall when my Amstrad CPC tried to cope with the data on a cassette – all the sonic textures coil round that beat-driven centre and provide the drama and distraction here. ‘Love Your Hair – Hope You Win’ bursts out into full on industrial dance music in the vein of Kid 606 or long-forgotten 2nd Gen (check the still superlative ‘Against Nature’ EP!) Everything else inhabits a zone where recognizable genre tropes always seem to go wrong, nothing remains unperverted.
So having enjoyed the Slovenly label’s stall-rep walking me articulately through the Spits’ straight punk, Bazooka’s garage rock styling, onto the Useless Eaters’ I decided the five 7” 45s for £20 was an irresistible offer and that it was time for a jukebox approach – take a chance on me. She selected me the Van Buren Wheels ‘She’s Got Green Eyes/Wicked Lies’ (a real throwback vibe, the ecstatic pleasure-seeking of late Sixties groovers); Livids ‘Your House or the Courthouse’/’Zilch’/’New Values’ (smashing out something between the shambling energy of the Damned and Black Flag’s ‘Six Pack’); punk-veterans, the Penetrators ‘She’s the Kinda Girl’/’Take a Stand’ (wicked Southern-fried twanging guitar and a Baptist preacher declamation to “take a stand” on one side, a light-hearted and inconsequential punk boogie on the other); Sultan Bathery are, oddly enough, partly named after a town in India and not just after a swift pun though the band certainly knows where its funny bone is located – I picked up their new ‘Right On/Anthropomorph’ single of which there are 333 copies on black vinyl and 333 on red vinyl (go figure) and the contents are solid sun-drenched shoegaze. The final pick of five is a bit of a revelation – Athens, Greece-based Acid Baby Jesus, ‘Vegetable’/’Brain Damage in Athens City’ 7” is a heavyweight combination of ritualistic thud and chaotic clatter n’ scrape, a lathering on of juddering, whirling-dervish insanity. Just my cup of laudanum-laced tea.
Super Fan 99’s ‘First Year Hits’. £4 left in my pocket and what kind of music lover would I be if I left here with a penny to my name? I’m delighted to have dropped it on the one year old Super Fan 99 label’s first year celebration compilation – and may I just say happy birthday to the team at SF99, keep on keeping on! 14 songs, 14 artists – an intriguing gathering and I’ll just pick out a few highlights here. Goddam Nobody’s ‘Stranger Daze’ caught the ear, lyrics to front-and-centre, a mild sneer and a down-at-heel day-to-day distain carries well on lines like “It really drags me down, when you’re not around, so I’m running to the beach now, were we ever all here or real or now…” Pearl Charles weds a Motown-worthy vocal turn to a muscular R&B on ‘You Can Change’. Uncle Luc’s ‘Farewell Mission’, comes across like a less fussy-OK Computer-era Radiohead, a nicely uncluttered gentleness abounds. Sandy’s ‘Consolidated Identity’ has a beautiful cascading guitar refrain cycling through its mellow harmonies and doubled-vocals. Matt McKee’s ‘Alchemy & Other Tricks’ is a solid singer-songwriter effort taking full advantage of his keening voice and pulling an about-face in the middle with an up-tempo interlude. If this is a summary of just twelve months in the life of a London label then it’s one heck of a track record.