Friday, 27 January 2012

Anyone Can Play Guitar - Month 1

I have a feeling that my selected title for this series of post is going to prove horribly ironic.

A quick recap for those of you who don't read every single post I make. As part of my New Year Resolutions I decided THIS was finally going to be the year in which I taught myself to play guitar. My aim is to be able to play 5 songs to a reasonable standard (i.e. recognisable by someone who knows the tune) by the end of the year.

I've always wanted to be able to play guitar but have never found the time or determination to sit down and give it a really good go. At the back of my mind I have a doubt that I ever really could. I don't think I have a natural talent for music. But then, opposed to that, there is a vast history of people from all sorts of backgrounds who can play guitar, which suggests if I just put the effort it I almost certainly could.

I'd already been pondering a new concerted effort this year and this crystallised into a resolution during a pre-gig chat with my mate Mark. Mark sings and plays keyboards in Feltham's finest covers band The Phantoms. He challenged me to be able to play a 5 song set live in 18 months time. Actually just typing that last sentence puts the willies up me a bit. Playing live may be a step too far but my more modest challenge seems achievable.

I bought my first guitar in the late 80s while I was at College. It was an cheap electric guitar by a company called Axe. It came with a series of tapes titled "How to play Heavy Metal Guitar" but even my Metal mate, who spent a bit of time helping me out, agreed it was not the easiest thing to play. At least it gave me something more satisfying to pull air guitar shapes with in my bedroom and, when my Mum & Dad were out, I had fun getting feedback out of the amp. It also provided me with my one brief moment of on stage stardom when I used it to "play" alongside Never Before Midnight (one of Mark's previous bands) at my 21st birthday. It was pretty obvious I wasn't plugged in but one Uncle complimented me on making the band sound more rocky.

I eventually gave the Axe away to a friend and didn't have a guitar until my 40th birthday a few years back. This reinvigorated my desire to be able to play but, again, the lack of available time defeated me. My aborted attempts thus far have not gone much beyond strumming three chords and failing to move my fingers between them in anything less than 9 minutes. I have a long way to go.

True to form, my progress so far this year is minimal. I've not picked up my guitar all year. In my defence I have thoroughly sanded our staircase and applied two coats of paint (possibly three by the time you read this), I have helped my Dad out with his financial planning and I've done some long hours at work to get on top of all the work I failed to do before Christmas. These are all just excuses though. I promise to try harder next month.

I have downloaded an App for my phone to help me with the chord sequences and started a list of candidate songs. I'm hoping that if I pick the five songs which use similar chords I'll make life much easier for myself. Two hot favourites so far are "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash (A7, B7, E) and "Bad Moon Rising" by Creedance Clearwater Revival (A, D, G). My plan for February is to have a go at both and then look for some compatible songs.

Suggestions are more than welcome by the way, leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Top 5 Albums of 2011

The start of my annual review of the year. This could take a few weeks so forgive me if it gets boring, this is as much for me as it is for you!

2011 turned out to be a year in which I listened to a lot of music. My eMusic subscription, some excellent BBC 6Music shows and Spotify combined to allow me to hear pretty much any album I wanted to. This proved to be too easy for me to take advantage of and I think I listened to well over 150 albums, old and new. That’s clearly too many for anyone to take in properly and a lot of those never made it past play one. Despite that I discover a good 20 cracking new albums. Of course my taste in music is a little quirky at best so you might not enjoy them all.

1. Mogwai "Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will" – When I first got into music I was like a loyal dog. Once I had decided I liked a band I would obsessively buy everything they released; LPs, 7 inches, 12 inches, picture disks, solo albums by the singer, solo albums by the drummer, even solo albums by the bassist’s ex-girlfriend. Whilst I remain obsessive about music (and just about everything else as this blog proves), these days I am a more fickle fan. I loved the first two or three Mogwai albums, but my interest had waned. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed their later releases, I just haven’t found myself playing them all that often. I’d probably have let “Hardcore” pass me by completely if a friend had not gone to see them live earlier in the year and piqued my interest.

It’s an album that combines the edge of Mogwai’s early releases with a poppier sensibility. Simpler tunes than previous albums, that build into brooding crescendos like opener “White Noise”. Though still largely an instrumental band Mogwai are now more comfortable offering the occasional vocal even if it is vocoder enhanced. “Mexican Grand Prix” is a fine example of this approach and possible a candidate for replacing Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” in a future series of F1 coverage. “Rano Pano” demonstrates majestic layers of fuzz guitar and the piano into to “Letters to the Metro” is genuinely beautiful. “George Square Thatcher Death Party” provides a bouncy bit of fun before the 23 minute epic of “Music for a Forgotten Future” proves the band have lost none of their zeal for instrumental majesty.

2. P.J. Harvey "Let England Shake" – This might be an obvious choice (the number 1 album for 2011 in Mojo, NME & Uncut) but PJ’s Mercury Prize winning album is outstanding and a very close second to Mogwai for me. Polly Jean is a songwriter who gets better and better. I missed the initial excitement generated by her early albums but her first Mercury Prize winning album “Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea” shaved off the rough edges and drew me in. Since then she has alternated between the bloody good, “Uh Huh Her” & “A Woman A Man Walked By”, and the absolute genius “White Chalk” & “Let England Shake”. One of the highlights of last year was seeing David Cameron fail miserably to appear “hip” and generally look a bit uncomfortable whilst PJ played “Last Living Rose” on the Andrew Marr Show.

3. Trembling Bells "The Constant Pageant" – One of my new favourite bands. I had not been completely won over by their 2009 debut album, "Carbeth", but was completely stunned by their second album, 2010’s “Abandoned Love”. That was still on heavy rotation when “Constant Pageant” came out this year – they’re nothing if not prolific – and this new release showed a further progression, hinted at in “Abandoned Love”, from folk to seventies rock. I’m desperate to see them live. Alex Neilson sounds like an amazing drummer and also provides complimentary vocals to the stunning voice of Lavinia Blackwall. They are in many ways a modern day Fairport Convention, no bad thing in itself, but have something a bit special that really hits the right buttons for me.

4. Beirut "The Rip Tide" – Zach Condon has brought the Beirut sound into the mainstream with this album. His first LP “Gulag Orkestar” (2006) was influenced by Balkan folk, whilst the folow up, “The Flying Club Cup” (2007) was influenced by Jacques Brel and French chanson music. 2009’s E.P. “March Of the Zapotec” didn’t quite live up to those early standards but added Electronica to Zach’s list of influences. Now performing as a fully fledged band Beirut seem to have got the balance between ethnic influence and popular music absolutely perfect. “The Rip Tide” has a lush sound that emphasises the best bits of his previous albums whilst retaining that fragile charm of a solo folk artist. It’s like a “Best Of” but with brand new songs.

5. Y Niwl "Y Niwl" – I spent some time considering whether this album ought to be in my top five. It is, after all, nothing you won’t have heard before. Instrumental Garage Surf rock basically. However, there’s something about this collection of songs that always brings a smile to my face. I first heard the band on a Marc Riley session back in January. It wasn’t just their Link Wray inspired sound that appealed, the band had a laid back manner and sense of humour that won me over. All the tracks on this debut LP are numbered, a la ¡Forward, Russia!, in Welsh (where the band are from. Y Niwl means The Fog, I think) which is exactly the sort of neat gimmick that appeals to me. I picked up the album pretty quickly and it’s brought a smile to my face every time I’ve played it since.

NOTE: I have taken a step into the world of commerce by signing up for the Amazon Associates program. That means if you buy any of the albums you reach from my Amazon links I'll get a small percentage. I'm hoping this won't screw up the nature of this blog but let me know if it gets annoying and I'll stop!

Friday, 13 January 2012

Top 5 New Year Resolutions 2012

I might as well have another go at this despite my abject failure last year.

First a quick recap on how spectacularly badly I did before I move on to this year’s equally doomed ideas.

Lose Weight – Despite managing more exercise in general I suspect (I stopped weighing myself around September) that I actually put weight on during the year. This was partly due to my determination to not actually “diet” which may have worked better had it not been combined with my complete lack of will power.

Get Fitter – I made progress with my Achilles injury and by April was doing regular sport once more. I started running again, I cycled into work a few times, I even got back to playing football.

Jobs at home – Erm. No obvious effort here. Too easily distracted. I've actually done more DIY in the first 10 days of 2012 than I managed in the whole of 2011.

Play Guitar – I did not play a note other than a very brief strum whilst trying to help Ben learn to play the Ukulele.

Sleep/PC – Technically I achieved this though I replaced late nights on the PC with late nights on my Smart Phone or, more recently, falling asleep on the sofa in front of some TV programme I’d recorded on the TiVo.

OK so here we go again.

1. Play Guitar – This year I’m setting myself a proper challenge. I intend to be able to play at least 5 songs by the end of the year. When I say play I mean strum the chords. I won’t be trying anything fancy but aim to be good enough for someone to at least recognise the tune. I will also be blogging about my progress, if nothing else this will plug the gaps between top fives that I won’t be able to write because I’ll be LEARNING TO PLAY GUITAR!!! \m/ *Heavy Metal horns* \m/

2. Decide what I want to be when I grow up – Probably at 43½ it’s time I sorted out a proper career. I have pretty much accepted that I’ll never play centre forward for Fulham or England, if resolution 1 goes well there’s an outside chance I could still become a major rock star and I’ve not completely given up on becoming a top selling author. However, I realise that I need to take the bull by the horns and start making a bit of effort with the latter half of my working life. Changes are afoot with my current employment and I’m going to have to deal with change whether I like it or not (I don’t like it in case you were in any doubt!).

3. Finish the year no heavier than I start it – Lowering my sights a bit here. I’ve already started keeping track of what I eat and will hopefully continue my return to regular sport. I'm even considering an alcohol detox for a few months, though not quite yet *cough*.

4. Get more done at weekends – I like my bed too much in the mornings, which means when I really don't HAVE to get up I generally don't. I also hate going to bed at night time and too often end up watching some rubbish TV at one in the morning instead of doing something I'd actually want to do. This year I intend to make an effort to make better use of the weekends by getting up earlier and making sure I go to bed at a sensible time.

5. Find a cool hat – I mentioned this last year. I need a hat. I have a woolly hat for when it's cold or I'm going to Football but I'd like a hat to wear for normal use. Ideally something that would make me look suave and sophisticated like Cary Grant in a Forties movie. I realise this may well be impossible but I like hats and I've reached the point where a baseball cap makes me look far too much like David Brent. I was considering a Trilby but now they've gone and got all trendy I don't think that would work either. Suggestions on a postcard please.


Friday, 6 January 2012

Top 6 Marc Riley BBC 6Music Sessions of 2011

Welcome back, Happy New Year to those of you I haven't already caught up with and I hope you all had a lovely Christmas. I was going to have a week or two off ahead of my usual round up of 2011 favourites but @rileyshow6music ran a poll on the best sessions from Marc Riley's 6music show and I thought I'd share my choices here.

Since buying a digital radio for our kitchen I've listened to BBC 6music a lot and Marc Riley's evening show is one I catch as often as I can. If nothing else it has helped improve my cooking and ensured I get the washing up done. Much like John Peel one of Riley's strengths are the number of live sessions he gets in. I've discovered so many bands through his show.

It's a top six because it's from 6Music obviously!

1. Laura J Martin (8th March) - Laura was one of the discoveries of the year for me. She plays flute in a style very reminiscent of Ian Anderson (of Jethro Tull) and has produced some of the best songs I've heard all year. Spy was probably both the first and the best. Her debut album is due on the 23rd of January. Buy it as soon as you can. Laura played "Spy", "Tease Me" and "Tom".

2. Dutch Uncles (10th November) - Quirky prog-sounding combo from Marple near Manchester took a while to win me over but, as with many of Marc's favourites, regular listening eventually had the desired effect. This was Marc's final show at BBC Manchester and the band played "OCDUC", "Orval", "Fester", "Doppelganger" and "Dressage"

3. Jim Jones Review (19th October) - THE loudest rock'n'roll band on the planet. Played "Big Len", "Killing Spree", "Ain't My Problem Baby" and "Rock N Roll Psychosis".

4. Martin Creed (1st March) - This was a little out of the blue. A Turner Prize winning artist who also has a band. I happened to be at home, got to listen to the session via the iPlayer, and found him to be engaging and straight-forward. An interestingly basic sonic sound-scape for a boundary pushing Artist. Martin played "Thinking/Not Thinking", "A - Z", "I Can't Stop Thinking About You" and "Pass Them On".

5. Trembling Bells (6th June) - Folky combo who have developed a bit of a seventies classic rock style in 2011. They played "Colour Of Night", "Ain't Nothing Wrong With A Little Longing" and "Goathland"

6. Y Niwl (17th January) - Welsh instrumental surf band who backed Gruff Rhys on his solo tour this year. One of the earliest sessions of the year and they won me over with their attitude and garage influenced tune-age. Their songs title are all numbered in Welsh; "Undegsaith" (Seventeen), "Undegpedwar" (Fourteen), "Undegchwech" (Sixteen), "Undegnaw" (Nineteen), "Un" (One) and "Chwech" (Six).


Thursday, 5 January 2012

12 Songs for Xmas - Twelfth Day

Day twelve. Hope you've enjoyed the songs I've picked. They were all contenders for my top five tunes of the year but didn't quite make the cut. I also hope you've taken down your Crimbo decorations. Mrs Top Five will tell you it's unlucky to keep them up any longer.

Gotta end on an upbeat. I've been a fan of the flower punk Black Lips for some time but their previous album was a bit disappointing. Thankfully they returned this year under the production control of Mark Ronson and produced the really quite brilliant L.P. Arabia Mountain.

There are a bunch of great tunes on there but Family Tree probably takes the mark as the best tune. If you're easily offended you might want to skip the video that features blood, nudity and "inter-band bonding".


Wednesday, 4 January 2012

12 Songs for Xmas - Eleventh Day

Another Marc Riley discovery. Metronomy are a bit electronic for me but Riley's incessant plays gradually swung my opinion. I saw them live in Kingston for a fiver and they won me over.

This is The Bay


Tuesday, 3 January 2012

12 Songs for Xmas - Tenth Day

Heavily influenced by Jethro Tull front man Ian Anderson's style Laura J Martin has been one of my finds of the year. Her debut album The Hangman Tree is not out until the 23rd January 2012 but it's already a contender for my favourite album of the year.

This is Salamander recorded live at the Union Chapel in Islington.


Monday, 2 January 2012

12 Songs for Xmas - Ninth Day

David Tattersall is the lead vocalist with The Wave Pictures. I know very little about him or them. Mr Marc Riley, however, has played the single composed with French guitar man Howard Hughes pretty consistently throughout the year. It's gorgeous.

Howard Hughes & David Tattersall - "The Lobster Boat" Vinyl version


Sunday, 1 January 2012

12 Songs for Xmas - Eighth Day


Figured I ought to go with something quiet and low key today to soothe those New Year hangovers. Here's the rather wonderful The Low Anthem and "Hey, All You Hippies!" played live at Vintage Vinyl in St Louis MO. In the late nineties I spent 4 or 5 weeks in St. Louis for work. It's not a town for the casual tourist but I would like to go back one day and if I do I'll try and find this record store which looks fantastic.