Category Archives: Epigram

Album Review: Keaton Henson – Birthdays

I reviewed Keaton Henson’s latest album for Epigram.

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Crippled by anxiety and loneliness, Keaton Henson’s debut album Dear… chronicled the break up of his first serious relationship. Although Henson’s debilitating stage fright meant that he avoided live shows, he built up a loyal, almost cultish following on the internet. Henson now seems to be emerging from this gloomy period, slowly putting on more gigs and featuring in more video and radio sessions. This new-found optimism is displayed on his new album too, from temporarily falling in love on the tube (‘The Best Today’) to the surprising raging guitar on ‘Kronos’. The intense darkness of Dear… hasn’t completely disappeared, however. ‘I’d kill just to watch as you’re sleeping’ (‘10am, Gare du Nord’) shows that Henson still teeters between endearingly romantic and creepily obsessive. Henson’s voice trembles through a range of emotions as the album progresses, at times imploring, ‘please do not hurt me love/I am a fragile one’ (‘10am, Gare du Nord’) to protesting ‘And God! You were the one who told me not to be so English!’ (‘Sweetheart, What Have You Done to Us?’). With the sensitive addition of more instruments, and backing vocals by Jesca Hoop, Henson stands out from other, more conventional, singer-songwriters.

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Interview: Marina and the Diamonds

I had a chat with Marina Diamandis for Epigram just days before she announced that she’d been wearing a wig for the last 9 months 😦

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In a sea of pop stars stripped down to their bra and knickers, Marina Diamandis stands out, decked in ribbons and prom dresses, a bubblegum brunette living out her teenage fantasies in the twilight years of her twenties. ‘I’m going to be 27 soon,’ says Diamandis, ‘so this is an excuse to be ultra-girly, until I have to really grow up’. It’s not surprising that the singer is trying to hold on to her youth; her teenage years were spent trying to get 10 A* at GCSE to please her father (in the end, she was awarded 5A* and 5A), before embarking on four different university courses in the space of four years.

‘I went to a different one each year, got the student loan, and waitressed and lived off that while I became a better songwriter and started to produce my own stuff. I went to uni mainly just to appease my mum and dad and make them not worry, and not feel totally weird and out of the system.’

Since giving up on university aspirations for good, Diamandis has used her work discipline to claw her way into the music industry, and has at last reached a level of recognition that she is happy with – her second album, Electra Heart, going straight to number one in the UK charts. ‘I feel like I’m playing catch up all the fucking time! In fact it’s only this year that I feel like I don’t have to do it anymore. It’s so stressful because you never enjoy yourself if you’re always playing catch up; you’re always looking ahead, never living in the present.’ It’s hard to avoid comparing Diamandis to other pop stars, and it’s something she does regularly herself. ‘I think “oh how old was she when she made it?” but it doesn’t really matter in the end because some people make it at 27.’ Though Britney Spears, Diamandis’s pop hero, burst onto the scene aged 16, Diamandis is just as likely to look at Katy Perry, who reached international fame at 26, and slightly less obvious idols, such as Shirley Manson who joined Garbage aged 29. ‘I don’t think it’s something you can really control,’ rules Diamandis, ‘it’s either your time or it isn’t, and you’ve either worked hard enough for it, or you haven’t.’

Diamandis is an intriguing character, torn between wanting to be a Hollywood icon and a respected musician. ‘On the first album I felt really bitter that I was writing on my own, and that most pop girls don’t do that, but then at the same time, I didn’t want to go and write with other people, so you can’t really have it both ways’. This quandary led her to creating the character of Electra Heart for her second album. Whereas Diamandis’s debut,The Family Jewels, is a fairly simple display of her songwriting ability, Electra Heart has allowed her to develop her music to sound more stereotypically poppy, which contrasts with some of the darker lyrics on the record. Electra Heart has also enabled her live shows to become more elaborate. After supporting Katy Perry and Coldplay on their arena tours, Diamandis was impressed by the flamboyance of their shows, and plans to bring this to her own tour. The Lonely Hearts Club tour, which rolls into Bristol on October 13th, will see Diamandis’s Electra Heart alter-ego come to life. ‘It’s set in a teen girl’s bedroom slash sleazy motel, and the theme is sort of wedding meets homecoming,’ she giggles. She anticipates that this will be the perfect outing for her fans, who often turn up to gigs in prom dresses. The whole thing sounds so saccharine, it makes your teeth hurt just thinking about it, but it’s intended that you take it in with a pinch of salt. ‘This image is so sweet, it had to be a joke,’ laughs Diamandis.

In a world where rake-thin, half-naked air-brushed women are often heralded as demi-goddesses, Marina Diamandis represents a refreshing change to the status quo. Her Electra Heart persona allows her to have all the fun of dressing up as a quintessential starlet, while being able to laugh at herself. The change from the Marina from Abergavenny to peroxide blonde Electra Heart might suggest that Diamandis was beginning to buckle under peer pressure, but she disagrees: ‘I don’t think that there’s a pressure to use your sexuality to sell songs. If no one was sexual, or if no one pushed the boundaries or posed naked, then I think that would be a bad thing as well, because it would become a total taboo.’ While she supports singers like Rihanna, who she believes is ‘just a really sexual person’, she doesn’t believe it is a pre-requisite for all female singers to take off their clothes, ‘I think we’ve kind of done that in pop and I think that we’re now at a stage where you don’t really need to do that.’ This stance doesn’t seem to be holding Diamandis back – she’s already planning her third album, but is keeping quiet about what it will sound like, saying only, ‘I think every album I do is going to be quite different from the last, sonically speaking’.

Speaking to Diamandis, you get the sense that she has worked hard to get where she is today, and is enjoying every minute of it. Her transformation to becoming a teen idol is nearing completion, with an appearance on the cover of her favourite magazine in the pipeline, as well as the occasional pinch-yourself moments. ‘I’ve met Elton John a few times, and I went to his house. And then last year I met the Queen.’ Who was better? ‘Of the two queens?’ Diamandis laughs again, ‘I’d say Elton was more entertaining’.

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High Kingsdown Co Op: The Inconvenient Truth

Epigrump is a fortnightly column in Epigram, where writers moan about what has got on their nerves recently. I wrote about the farcical nature of our local convenience store.

HIGH KINGSDOWN SWRG (Clarence Place, High Kingsdown, Bristol  BS2 8DD) Jun11

Cast your minds back to 2004 when chip and pin was introduced to the nation as a safer, faster way to shop on plastic. Over the past eight years, this system has revolutionised our shopping experience, meaning that now fraudsters only need memorise four digits instead of a person’s entire cursive style in order to gain access to the fortunes of others. It has also led to a rise in the number of automated machines, meaning that we no longer have to deal with lowly cashiers and car park attendants. Or so I thought.

Last weekend, an eerie quietness not seen since the Dark Ages fell on the High Kingsdown estate as whispers spread that the card machines in the Co Op convenience store on St Michael’s Hill were broken. Regulars to this shop will be aware of the ongoing drama with payment methods. For those who are less familiar with it, let me take you through the average person’s trip to the Kingsdown Co Op. It starts with a hunger pang. The kind of hunger pang so painful, you know you won’t be able to make it to Sainsbury’s before you’ve started gnawing on furniture. All you need  is a little bit of bacon or some milk to make porridge. ‘No problem’, you think, ‘I’ll just pop to the Co Op’ which is all very well and good until you realise that your rumbling stomach has not synchronised calendars with Co Op’s opening hours. Long-term residents in these parts know that if you haven’t got milk in the fridge on Saturday night, there will be a long wait until the Co Op’s automatic doors finally open at noon the next day, only for you to find that they haven’t yet had their milk delivery. After realising that an overpriced pint of skimmed milk is better than nothing, you traipse around the store, picking up whatever bizarre items happen to be reduced that day (ice cream syrup, anyone?) You are then faced with a dilemma: do you march straight up to the beaming cashier, or avoid their glazed expressions and questionable social skills and wait half your life to use what they have the temerity to call ‘The Fast Lanes’ (also known as self-service machines to the uninitiated). The queue for these machines is often 20-deep, usually due to the fact that one of the terminals has become overwhelmed, trying to add up how much you’ve spent so far, whilst screaming at you that your newspaper costs TWO POUNDS (pause for dramatic effect) TEN PENCE. Once you finally make it to a working terminal, your eyes fall on a hastily printed sheet of A4 declaring that payment is either cash or card only. Needless to say, you won’t have the payment method du jour in your pocket. This involves an embarrassing abandonment of your transaction, casting those in the queue behind you into a confused rage, as you lope off to the cashier you had originally tried to avoid, just so you can pay. As you wait your turn behind a man holding a tube of toothpaste and some bleach, you eye up the potential till talent. Cashier number one is a lady who is far too old to be wearing the neon butterfly clips she proudly displays in her cropped brown hair. Last time you were here, she scolded you for removing your card too quickly from the chip and pin machine, which, as always, was running at a snail’s pace, and you had to repeat the whole sorry affair. Cashier number two shows more promise, until he is called away to deal with the Fast Lane drama you left behind. As you’re busy craning your neck to see how he’s getting on, another machine directs you to cashier number three. From behind his oval spectacles, he beams at you, greeting you with a friendly ‘hello dear! How are you? Would you like a bag?’ He continues grinning as he packs away your Tic Tacs, tomatoes and tampons without battering an eyelid and you hurriedly hand over the cash and run home to satisfy your nutritional needs.

It’s hard to convey just what an odd mix of people the staff in this particular branch are. A budding playwright would do well to take a trip there and observe them in their natural habitat. If Hotel California ran a chain of convenience stores, this would be it. Some of the staff, like cashier number three, never seem to leave. You go in on your way to uni and there he is, smiling over your Danish pastry. He is there again in the evening, when you dash in minutes before closing, standing upright, eyes open, but clearly asleep.

And yet despite the crazy cashiers, the bipolar payment systems and the massive queues, we still go back. Just because it’s… well, convenient.

-from Issue 246 of Epigram.

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Album Review: Kindness – World, You Need a Change of Mind

In 2009, music blogs went apeshit for Kindness, an outfit shrouded in mystery, who released one double single ‘Swinging Party’/’Gee Up’ before disappearing back into the ether. Three years on, Kindness is back. Like many other Myspace maestros, Kindness is in fact a one-man project. Adam Bainbridge originally hails from Peterborough but has since escaped his webbed-feet Fenland friends and now splits his time between Berlin and London. Rather than riding the wave of the initial hype surrounding Kindness, Bainbridge took his time to work away at his album, and this attention to detail is obviously demonstrated throughout the record through the careful layering of synths and vocals. Although Bainbridge managed to avoid having to turn out a slapped-dashed album of electro pop to please bespectacled bloggers, there is a feeling that the ship may have sailed on Kindness’ brand of laid-back left-field disco. Despite songs such as ‘House (All That You Need)’ and ‘Gee Up’ featuring some of the best elements of Prince-style pop grooves, there just isn’t anything groundbreaking about what Bainbridge is doing. Although many artists feature a cover on their debut album, Bainbridge’s decision to cover Anita Dobson’s ‘Anyone Can Fall In Love’ (sung to the tune of the Eastenders theme tune) is simply bizarre, but does at least, cement Kindness in the retro-indie realm he clearly desires to dwell in.


-from Issue 249 of Epigram.

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Album Review: The Magnetic Fields – Love at the Bottom of the Sea

Love at the Bottom of the Sea sees the Magnetic Fields return to their celebrated sarcastic synthpop style, after their last three albums, went down a more acoustic route. Despite the fact that the band, driven by eternal pessimist, founder and lead singer, Stephin Merritt, has released three albums in the last eight years, they are still remembered for 1999’s epic concept album, 69 Love Songs. Love at the Bottom of the Sea is unlikely to usurp it as the band’s crowning glory, which is alright according to Merritt who recently told the Guardian ‘I will spend the rest of my life living down 69 Love Songs, just as I planned to. It’s fine.’

Despite what the title suggests, Love at the Bottom of the Sea is not a collection of fifteen songs about sex amongst aquatic animals. Instead, it features a range of bizarre and varied topics, from falling in love with a drag queen on ‘Andrew in Drag’ to hanging out with metaphysical beings on ‘I’ve Run Away to Join the Fairies’. On a superficial level, the album is a perfectly pleasant pop album, but on second listen, Merritt’s unique lyrical style presents itself. Album closer ‘All She Cares About is Mariachi’ best exemplifies this as Merritt laments, ‘So go ahead and hire Saatchi & Saatchi/to advertise the sausage in your pants/but all she cares about is Mariachi/and all she ever wants to do is dance.’ Elsewhere, ‘Quick!’ and ‘Your Girlfriend’s Face’ see the band exploit their rediscovery of synthesisers to the full, creating loud, brash pop songs, which though not necessarily enduring classics, are certainly a refreshing change from other songs currently masquerading under the banner of pop.

The record is laced with nostalgic references to childhood, from similarities between First World War song ‘If You Were the Only Girl (In the World)’ and ‘Only Boy in Town’, to the imploring nature of ‘Horrible Party’ ‘take me away from this horrible party and let me go home to Mother’. Sadly, the use of synthesisers means the sincerity of these ideas is somewhat lost, but the juxtaposition of these sentiments with Merritt’s miserable baritone makes Love at the Bottom of the Sea an interesting release. Interesting, but perhaps not enthralling.

-from Issue 248 of Epigram.

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Album Review: The Tings Tings – Sounds from Nowheresville

Pop music generally falls into one of three categories: something so wonderful it will live on far beyond the life of the artist who made it; a fleeting piece of fun, or something that generates what can only be described as a feeling of ‘meh’. The Ting Ting’s sophomore album unfortunately falls into the latter category. Each and every single song on the album is so unspeakably dull, it’s hard to pick out specific low or high points. As one housemate described it, it features music ‘only fit for a car advert’. Although the band’s debut record, We Started Nothing, was hardly epic, it was certainly popular, selling more than two million copies worldwide. The Ting Tings made the bold decision to delete their first attempt at a second album (provisionally titled Kunst, because they’re, like, so edgy), after it was received ‘too positively’ by record company representatives. Instead, they went back to the drawing board, hunkered down in a Berlin basement, and produced ten tracks of tedium. In the creation of this album, Katie White and Jules de Martino maintained the repetitive themes of past hit ‘That’s Not My Name’ whilst abandoning the fun qualities that led to their success. ‘Day to Day’ best exemplifies both the duo’s dreary lyrical style and White’s monotonous voice as she sings ‘day to day/day to/day to day/day to day/ day to/day to day’. Much of the album is reminiscent of cheap 90s pop (more Samantha Mumba than Britney Spears), from White’s white-girl rapping to the sheer number of samples that sound like the result of someone falling arse-first into a child’s toy box. The album title alone, Sounds from Nowheresville, is incredibly juvenile, and bears more than a passing resemblance to Busted-spinoff band Son of Dork’s first (and only) album, Welcome to Loserville. For a band that owe much of their success to the use of ‘That’s Not My Name’ in an iPod advert, they have at least managed to create another collection of songs which might feature in an episode of Gossip Girl. Current single ‘Soul Killing’ is one example which might see some success in the realms of advertising, but epitomises just how disjointed the album is with its ska beats fading into dance track ‘One by One’. Whilst we usually commend artists for sticking two fingers up at record executives, we can only wonder whether this time the money men may have been right, and the band’s attempts to isolate themselves from other chart music has, in fact, isolated them from everyone.

-from Issue 247 of Epigram.

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The BRIT Awards and the Age of Beige

January is a funny old month for music. Following on from the turgid Christmas songs and end of year lists that December brings, January presents a confusing mix of ‘ones to watch’ lists and award ceremonies. Earlier this month, the nominations were announced for the 32nd BRIT awards. What was originally created to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee by recognising the best of British music during her reign, has now evolved to become one of the biggest nights in the British entertainment calendar. From Jarvis Cocker’s legendary stage invasion during Michael Jackson’s performance of ‘Earth Song’, to the ongoing feud between Robbie Williams and the Gallagher brothers, the BRIT Awards are now as much about celebrity tiffs as they are about music.

 
The 2012 nominees suggest that this year’s awards are even less concerned with the music. Rather than celebrating the cream of British music, this year’s nominees list reads like a who’s who of what the Guardian’s Peter Robinson called ‘The New Boring’, citing Adele’s performance of ‘Someone Like You’ at last year’s awards ceremony as the beginning of the age of beige.
This year’s ceremony looks to be more ginger than beige, with Ron Weasley doppelganger Ed Sheeran leading the pack with four nominations, closely followed by last year’s Critics’ Choice winner Jessie J who is up for three awards. The winners are supposedly decided by a panel of a thousand industry experts, however this year it could be argued they simply consulted the Trending Topics on Twitter and picked the most popular artists at that time. While mainstream pop acts such as Adele and JLS dominate the list, there has been an attempt to include more credible acts like Mercury award winner PJ Harvey and music veteran Kate Bush in the proceedings. While this is admirable at a time when reality shows are consistently churning out manufactured acts, it has also highlighted the ignorance of those involved; Wisconsin indie-folk group Bon Iver may be wondering why they’re up against acts such as Bruno Mars and David Guetta in the International Male Solo Artist category.


Perhaps the only way to shake proceedings up this year is for David Cameron to duet with Ed Sheeran on a Big Society rap.

A potted history of the BRITs

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-from Issue 245 of Epigram

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