The National – High Violet Review

The National are the quietly admired if unfettered alt-rock sons of Brooklyn. After five studio albums, an immediately distinctive sound and a decade together, their new release is inspiring serious anticipation.

High Violet is not a departure, but an arrival. An appeal, a catharsis and an evolution, they have perhaps arrived definitively.

The usual elements are present on opening track Terrible Love – the fastidious rhythms punctuated with unpredictable accents, the warm, small hour keys and thumbing bass, the guitars that seem to shift and swell from murky depths before breaking and crashing with unbridled glory.

As the album begins to move through its gears, it is clearly shaped with a clarity of purpose and production previously unrealised. Added to this are beautifully rendered choral harmonies, used sparingly on Sorrow then looped on Afraid of Everyone. The horns used on England, too, are signs of a band finding their natural voice.

Rarely is a band’s ambience so closely tied to the subject of its lyrics. Matt Berninger’s vocals, crooned in that soft, cavernous baritone, range from poetic to expressionistic to oblique. “Cover me in rag and bones, sympathy” he sings on Sorrow, whilst on the elegiac England he draws us with “You must be somewhere in London/ You must be lovin’ life in the rain.”

But Berninger’s confessions and his band’s tragi-epic melodies are not just personal reductions of angst, more a deep plea to a sense of shared existence. If not immediately placeable, they’re metaphors of genetic empathy.

Although not verifiably a political band, this is an album born of its times. Following on from Boxer’s Fake Empire, the anthem about liberal impotency in the face of neoconservatism which accompanied Obama on his presidential campaign, we are given Afraid of Everyone, which seems to re-imagine the dystopic aftermath of Katrina: “With my kid on my shoulders I try, not to hurt anyone.” On Lemmonworld, he sings of foreign wars: “I gave my heart to the army, the only sentimental thing I can think of.”

Subtly possessed, unfeigned and gradually vivid, The National’s avant-garde envelopments are the antithesis to the layerings of enameled, apathetic cool hallmarked by those other Kings of New York, The Strokes.

High Violet is a baring invitation, an echo of existentialism that is absolutely universal. The National may be awaiting Godot, but they have invited you to sit beside.


Mitch Mitchell – a tribute.

I first heard the Jimi Hendrix Experience on the playing field of my secondary school in Sheffield. I was 12, the year I discovered music. An older guy I admired handed me one of the earphones of his portable cassette player and asked me what I thought

I listened to the first few chords of Hey Joe, followed by Mitch Mitchell’s introductory roll and the conversational croon of Jimi’s voice and was immediately hooked. Nodding my head in approval, he fast forwarded the tape to the opening riff of Purple Haze. For a shy kid raised on a diet of Van Morrison and Stevie Wonder, it can only be described as a moment of clarity.

I listened to every song Jimi, Mitch and Chas ever recorded over the next year of my life, slowly collating their albums and bootlegs with the money I earned through my paper round. I learnt every fill and role, every break, every unexpected double pluck or hammer on from Jimi’s guitar, every inflex of his vocals. They are as much childhood memories as rhythms and melodies.

It was around this time I bought my first and only drum-kit. Within a few weeks of earnest and futile attempts at replication, I came to the realisation that Mitch Mitchell’s ability to fill a transitional gap between phrases with a flurry of snare and cymbal is a skill I will never possess, as is his ability to solo for most of a tune in a ¾ signature, or occupy large sections of track completely unaccompanied

Although it was maddening to learn he was entirely self-taught, as I was determined to be, it also added to the myth, raising Mitchell’s pedestal as a unique and visionary percussionist in a unique and visionary band.

Now I know more about music, have listened to Mitchell’s influences, understand the heritage of blues, blues-rock and jazz, and have a grasp of what terms like ‘fusion’ and ‘triplets’ mean. I appreciate he wasn’t infallible, and was prone to over-complicate. But this has not altered the way I feel about his drumming, as Mitch Mitchell served as the origin for my insatiable thirst for new sounds, new beats, new ways of making music.

You can hear the serendipity in Hey Joe, the harmony of free spirits. It is a meeting process that is, for me, as personal as it flamboyant, as humble as it is ego-driven. Mitch Mitchell redefined drumming, and I will always be thankful for being introduced to his beats from such a young and tender age.

Silent Disco- The Point, Cardiff Bay.

Clubbed to Death

As you should of a coming of age event, I vividly remember the first time I went clubbing. It was a dirty, grungy, juvenile love-nest of a club and I was an excessively eager bag of insecurities wearing a shiny Burton shirt.  I bopped around on the peripheries of the dance floor with an overly-tight grasp of a pint of Strongbow and a limited grasp of club etiquette. The place we were in used to be a factory. In many ways, it still was.

The nerves and sense of anticipation as I approached the doors was palpable. Hearing the throb and the thud of the bass, I tried to pump out my chest and strut past the doormen as if I owned the joint. Embarrassingly, I can remember thinking of the opening scene in Aladdin – descending into the heart of the dessert to find the genie in the bottle.

A few years later, and I’m still doing it. It’s become a kind of tonic now, a necessary catharsis to the grief on Monday. I’m still mixing the medicines and thrashing around like an excitable guinea pig every Friday night. I’ve moved on and up in life since the early days though- I don’t drink Strongbow anymore, don’t wear shiny Burton shirts, and I’ve cut out most of the dribbling. That got a bad press.

I’ve also developed a healthy commitment to experimentation, so when a Cardiff native suggested we go to a club night that didn’t involve music, I was all ears.

As I approached the door, it reminded me of that first night. For the first time, the now reassuring throb and thud of the bass did not greet my arrival and again I felt thrust out of my comfort zone. “There’s no music!” I exclaimed to my fellow reveler. “It’s a silent disco,” they reminded me.

Hosted by the Point in Cardiff Bay, Silent Disco has an immediate novelty appeal.  Previously a Church, it’s like a folksy community centre in which a bunch of hippies have been let loose. Fairy lights and tie-dye pictures line the walls, and the original stain glass windows lend an austere spirituality to proceedings.

For those not in the know, a Silent Disco is the same as a disco, except everyone wears their own pair of wireless headphones, each with two channels playing different and often contrasting music.

It’s initially a weird experience, as everyone is dancing to different beats and singing different melodies. But the novelty quickly takes hold and doesn’t let go. It becomes endlessly funny watching someone get all animated and start dancing to one tune, when you’re ensconced in the middle of another. Two DJs are based on the stage and compete for listeners. Revelers come decked out in fake Ray-Bans and ornamental head-gear. Despite this, there is no hint of the posing and peacock feathers that can afflict other clubs, and only adds to the slightly farcical, very carnival sense of occasion.
The biggest advantage, of course, is there is always the option of removing your earphones and talking to your neighbour, which, for those well-versed in this form of hedonism, is a whole new novelty in itself.

The first time I went clubbing, it felt as if I had suddenly joined a new family. A slightly more fluid, slightly less responsible outfit than my real family, but the sense of belonging was just the same. The Silent Disco, in its own left-field way, succeeded in reminding me of that silent bond.

A Tribute to John Martyn

John Martyn, the groundbreaking singer-songwriter who performed at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, in one of his last live performances died today at the age of 60.  His website broke the news with a simple message: “With heavy heart and an unbearable sense of loss we must announce that John died this morning.” The cause of his death was not revealed.

John Martyn, who received an OBE in the last new years honours list, will be remembered as a pioneering British musician. Fusing jazz, blues and soul with traditional folk, he was one of the first guitarists to experiment with electronic effects. Over a 40- year career, he produced 22 studio albums and a series of collaborations with artists such as Dave Gilmour, Phil Collins and Eric Clapton.

John Martyn on the 1973 'Over the Hill' TourHis last tour was billed the Grace and Danger tour after the 1980 album.  Although Solid Air is considered his most complete, Grace and Danger is the album when he is most nakedly on display. When interviewed, the singer-songwriter had consistently spoken of his reluctance to dwell on the past, so to see Grace and Danger played in entirety was an emotional experience for musician and audience alike.

“Some people write diaries,” he has said in the past, “I write records.”

The album explores with honesty and insight the divorce with his first wife Beverley Kutner, his subsequent attempts at reconciliation and the drugs and booze that dogged his life on and off stage. It is as diverse as it is affecting, as he seems to employ a different genre of music for each feeling he wishes to convey.

At times, John Martyn could appear unhinged and withered by a life of drinking. But when a guitar lay in his hands, his swirling, ethereal style and soft, immersive vocals have an emotional resonance that few of his contemporaries could dream of. He will be remembered as a timeless musician who combined relentless innovation with universal appeal. It was an honour to see his mesmerizing last performance in Cardiff.

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