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The War Against Intelligence

John Williamson's web stuff

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July 2003

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Martina Topley-Bird
King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, Glasgow

As the voice and face of Tricky’s highest quality output, the real surprise is that it has taken Martina Topley-Bird so long to launch a solo career. She last appeared on a Tricky album in 1998, her personal relationship with him ended two years before that.

However, the years in the making have actually served only to increase the impact of both her debut album, “Quixotic,” which was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize the day after its release, and her first solo shows, which position her as part of a ten piece band.

If such a strategy failed, it would swamp and disguise the effortless quality of her voice, but the understated nature of much of the show serves rather to enhance rather than detract from its main focal point.

Indeed the strength of Topley-Bird’s voice, which is the midway point between Billie Holliday and Roberta Flack, is in its restraint; the strength of the music in the way it comfortably transcends genres.

“Ragga” – the one track on the album which features a collaboration with Tricky is the only throw-back to trip-hop. “Soul Food” is a beautiful, understated Stax style ballad, which has an atypically upbeat lyric. While much of the set trawls the depths of various relationships, the gospel vocals and “I’m gonna show you where the good time starts” motif seems almost incongruously optimistic.

Elsewhere, treated vocals and a surplus of percussion venture into the territory Tom Waits explored around the time of his “Big Time” live album, though “I Wanna Be There” is a venture into more uncomplicated rock territory.

Taken over an hour, it is a dense and not always easy performance by someone who has made a string of brave artistic decisions. Her use of her voice as an instrument is astonishing, and on this evidence, coupled with the lack of appealing alternatives, it may be worth a bet on that Mercury prize.

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HEBS Live+Loud Hampden Park, Glasgow

The organisational success that is Live+Loud offers 28 short appearances in six hours, and a chance to appraise the UK pop market beyond the sanitised, controlled surroundings of televised talent contests.

Of course whether this constitutes a “real” festival opens all sorts of questions of authenticity and how chart pop music is viewed alongside more identifiably “rock” shows. That the Live+Loud drumkits are microphone free and the amps not switched on should not negate the importance of events like this and the London equivalent, Party in the Park.

It would be good to think that some representatives of the major music industry organisations would spend some time at such events before spouting off about the dearth of CD sales being attributable to their twin evils of piracy and the internet.

Were they to turn up, they would see that there is a huge audience (31,000 at this event), mainly under 16, eager to consume and be excited by new pop music. They would also see scattered examples of high-calibre product, but would surely have to concede that the crux of the pop market problem is lack of quality.

Over the day, originality is at a premium. Even some of the best moments – Liberty X’s Being Nobody and Sugababes’ Freak Like Me are re-workings of other, older hits. The acts fall largely into four categories. There is the standard euro-disco fare, where a blonde female singer is drafted into sex up dull producer types, like DJ Sammy or Intenso Project. There are those taking a lead from successful urban acts, from Blackstreet to So Solid Crew. Though Big Brovaz are a diet version of the latter, there is an admirable soulfulness to their performance. Similarly, when in possession of tunes like Scandalous, Mis-teeq sound like they have hit on something that will outlast fleeting pop fame.

Thirdly, we find fallout from previously successful groups: Mark Owen; Lisa Scott Lee; Abs; Kym Marsh. All serve to prove the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – though Lee and Owen at least look like they should be pop stars.

Finally, there is the fallout from Pop Stars, Pop Idol, and Fame Academy. David Sneddon is Paisley’s answer to Dean Friedman, and no amount of flag-waving can disguise the paucity of the songs. Darius can be purchased from the same branch of I J Mellis but his cheese is of a more charismatic and less mouldy flavour. Alongside Liberty X, the other losers acquit themselves well. Girls Aloud’s Sound of the Underground is the best UK pop song of the year – a glorious triumph of manufactured pop. Equally, smart money would be on Javine Hylton having a longer career than Kym Marsh. Of the others, only Blue and Busted break the formulae, and it may partially explain them generating the most enthusiasm from the crowd.

Headliners Blue rely on their looks and insidious, plodding white-soul tunes, while Busted connect through pretending to be a “proper” band. Neither is outstanding, but it is good enough to go multi-platinum.

It is not Live+Loud’s fault that this is the best on offer in the UK (and Dannii Minogue does less for the foreign contingent than Junior Senior) – but here’s hoping that this event can attract the bigger names it deserves. Hello, Beyoncé, and no, Gareth, you cannot come next year.

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The Zephyrs, Sons and Daughters, Nice’n’Sleazy, Glasgow

review published in The Herald, 24 July 2003

Though there is still little evidence of any kind of economic boom in the Scottish independent music sector, there is considerable support for those who claim some sense of artistic insurgence.

With fantastic albums by James Orr Complex and King Creosote due imminently and with bands such as Franz Ferdinand and Sluts of Trust securing deals with powerful labels, it may not be long before the London media starts recognising some of the artists who have been plying and honing their trade in small venues.

Add to the list Sons and Daughters, whose sound has become more substantial in the process of recording their debut album. And there is a sense of purpose and poise about the 2003 incarnation that transcends comparisons with the classic Breeders line-up.

In such a context, there is always the danger that a band such as The Zephyrs are overlooked. Older and now on to their third album, and fourth label, they are visually and musically understated. They have stripped back their sound, dropping some of the additional musicians who accompanied them in the past, leaving a fairly static spectacle.

Drawing mainly on their forthcoming album, A Year To The Day, the centrepiece is the slow-build of Empty Eye. Set opener, A While, is a Scottish take on Low without the Mormon overtones and Watercolour and Go Slow drop subtle country melodies into what could otherwise be misconstrued as a generically “indie” sound.

Older songs, Setting Sun and the still awesome, Stargazer, also feature but The Zephyrs require a level of concentration and an eye for subtlety to decipher fully the beauty and depth of their work.

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