Skyscraper Magazine » 2011 » July
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This double-DVD set is a decent overview of the Radiohead story up through 2003. Each disc features a separate documentary film, both unauthorized and anonymously produced. The first film is devoted to critical analysis and discussion of Radiohead’s artistic breakthrough, the brilliant 1997 album OK Computer (Capitol), while the second film is a straightforward biography of the band.  The fact that viewers are only taken up to 2003 is important to note because it belies the “Story So Far” subtitle, and many fans are likely to be disappointed not to learn more about the group’s recent history – and the audience for a DVD like this is surely made up almost exclusively of die-hard fans.  After all, Radiohead have released two albums since 2003’s Hail to the Thief (Capitol), along with various solo and side projects, not to mention that in that timeframe they have also helped change the music industry and how popular music is consumed with their “pay what you want” concept for the initial release of In Rainbows.  Fans should also know that this is not a brand new product but a repackaging of two previous home video releases, Radiohead – OK Computer: A Classic Album Under Review (Chrome Dreams/MVD, 2006) and Homework (Chrome Dreams/MVD, 2003).

The first film is mainly comprised of British male music critics and an academic analyzing the compositional structure and the historical and socio-political contexts of the 12 songs that comprise their acclaimed and influential third album OK Computer.  While the included critics and authors, such as Mark Paytress, Alex Ogg, and Barney Hoskyns, are all good sources, many of them having written entire books on the band, a greater variety of commentators ought to have been included – including, say, a woman.  This first film does have the effect of making one want to pull the album off the shelf.  It has dated itself well.  David Stubbs appropriately refers to it as “the first 21st Century album,” while others have called it the final classic album of the 20th century.

Looking at the album in a wider genre context than just rock, contemporary classical influences are discussed.  Philip Glass is invoked in a discussion of the “systems” at work in “Let Down,” whilst Penderecki is cited as an influence upon the foreboding “Climbing Up the Walls.”  Both films posit OK Computer as representing a general lyrical shift from individual existential angst to broader sociological concerns, including the effects of technology and mechanization on society.  Thom Yorke’s thinking was guided by the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, as the singer made his way through The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 (Vintage, 1994), which posits the failures of state communism and free-market capitalism.  Naomi Klein’s critique of capitalism, No Logo (Picador, 1999), was also a touchstone.  As the biographic second film points out, such intellectualism was and still is rather rare in the world of rock’n’roll and alternative rock.

The Radiohead back story will be at least somewhat familiar to fans, and it is possible that hardcore fans will learn little new here. Nevertheless, the biography is still fairly interesting.  For example, it briefly outlines other projects that Thom Yorke was a part of while Radiohead, in the early days known as On a Friday, was on hiatus after their original phase during which they were students at Abingdon school.  While the first film includes several studio and live clips from OK Computer songs, the biography uses no Radiohead music, nor are members of the band interviewed for it.  However, important figures in their history and from the Oxford, England, scene do appear, such as Mark Gardner of Ride. Early 1990s Oxford indie bands like the mighty Ride and Swervedriver (both signed to Creation Records) paved the way for Radiohead, since prior to that point in time Oxford did not have a notable indie/alternative rock scene.  The local band Rock of Travolta, who Radiohead once placed with, provide some instrumental music along with NOUGHT, both in an appropriate style.  While the OK Computer study is fairly straightforward, cinematography and editing-wise, the second film includes some artful shots and montages designed to suggest the themes of urban alienation and malaise that Radiohead manifest on the album.

Although interesting, the disc two biography is lacking in some ways.  A strong sense of the personalities of the individual band members or their dynamic as a unit is never created.  Only the more serious concerns of the band are addressed, never their more light-hearted side. However, their debut album’s title, Pablo Honey (Capitol, 1993), is famously derived from a Jerky Boys routine, which clearly hints that the band are not so constantly dour.  Also, specific songs are rarely referred to, and the filmmakers move through their career up to 2003 in an overly speedy fashion.  Viewers are treated, however, to some revealing tidbits, such as the fact that Thom Yorke wrote his first song – about an atomic mushroom cloud – at the age of eight, in the midst of a series of surgery procedures on his eye.  There is also more exploration of the band’s already well-publicized anti-corporate ideology and support for free trade.

Ultimately, this DVD set is not a huge revelation, and many viewers are sure to desire to more contemporary material from it.  However, Arms & Legs should be of interest to old fans that don’t already own the original videos or young fans who are interested in finding out more about Radiohead’s early years.

Shapeshifting is an apt choice for the title of this Vancouver band’s winning third platter.  Young Galaxy has transmogrified from stripe-shirted shoegazing wallflowers to suave and sophisticated synth-poppers in the time in between their second and third albums.  Young Galaxy’s influences have seemingly shifted from Slowdive and Mogwai to Everything But the Girl and The Blue Nile.  The lovely second track, “Surely the Angels Are Weeping,” recalls the wistful, bright-eyed pop of Paddy McAlloon’s Prefab Sprout.  Perhaps alluding to the third album by The Fixx (1984), “Phantoms” is a slick and disco-friendly number that recalls Simple Minds’ new wave hit “Promised You a Miracle.”

The range of synth-pop Young Galaxy evokes is not generally that of the more primitive early 1980s, but rather it is more like British mid- or late-1980s acts in their use of sweeping synthesizer atmospherics.  Shapeshifting recalls another third album that took a similar path from shoegaze roots, Rocinate by Ester Drang (Jade Tree, 2006), which likewise moved into smoother, groove-oriented sonic territory.  The core duo of Stephen Ramsay (guitars, vocals) and Catherine McCandless (keyboards, vocals), joined by multi-instrumentalist Max Henry, seem to draw not simply from “hip” post-punk influences like New Order but also more mainstream 1980s synth-pop acts, such as Nik Kershaw (“Wouldn’t It Be Good”), The Human League, Erasure, and The Eurythmics (“Here Comes the Rain”).  The poppiness comes to an apex in “B.S.E.” (standing for “black swan event”), the chorus of which, no fooling, recalls the 1980s hit “Rhythm of the Night” by DeBarge – amazingly without making one want to skip to the next track. McCandless’ vocals are strong and emotive, a real standout on the album.  She seems to have honed her vocal prowess and delivers melodic lines with more panache, sensuality, and emotional focus than previously.

Shapeshifting was produced by Dan Lissvik of the Swedish electronic act Studio, and having worked with the material in isolation for several months, he seems to be a major force in the change of style shown here.  By rights, Shapeshifting ought to move these Canucks from cult fandom to a broader audience.  They did not lack for critical recognition previously, having been nominated for Canada’s 2010 Polaris Music Prize for their previous album Invisible Republic (Paper Bag, 2009), but Shapeshifting’s appealing  aural environments should expand their profile and fan base. While the record may be too “pop” for some, it is smart, well-executed, and creates enchanting atmospheres via nuanced and expansive production.

Brian John Mitchell makes mini-comics. Since early last decade, the Raleigh resident has self-released dozens of issues under the name Silber Media, which is operated as an offshoot of his Silber Records label, the home to various ambient, drone, and post-rock artists, such as Azalia Snail, Electric Bird Noise, Sarah June, and Alan Sparhawk of Low, as well as Mitchell’s own musical groups, Remora, Small Life Form, and Vlor. Compared to what’s standard in the industry, Mitchell’s comics are more flash fiction than graphic novel.

His minis aren’t just shorter versions of the types of books that line comic shop shelves, though. Nor are they similar to the many web comics found online these days, which mostly all sport a classic newspaper strip layout. No, neither “books” nor “strips” really fit as terms for Mitchell’s minis. Physically, Silber Media’s comics are the size of matchbooks, with only a single panel per page. His comics may be small but, like the industry’s larger publishers, the format’s really just a medium through which Mitchell tells stories. Although the artwork varies depending upon who is doing the drawing, almost everything in the Silber Media catalog was authored by Mitchell himself.

Skyscraper questioned Mitchell recently about his passion and the mini-comic format, following the April release of a new batch of Silber Media comics.

Skyscraper: Comics sort of came third for you. Am I getting the timeline right? You started your zine, QRD, first, in 1994, and the record label in 1996. So, with two projects like that on your plate, when and why did you start writing, drawing, and releasing mini-comics? Had you been doing it all along, and only the publishing aspect came later? Or was it something that came all at once?

Brian John Mitchell: Yeah, the timeline is correct. I was really into comics as a kid and I still have a few thousand in the basement. I’ve kinda always done some flash fiction and dream journaling stuff that I generally haven’t published or seriously pursued – see Suborrhea (1997) and 4 Hours Old (1998?). I did a comic in 1995 called “shimmer” that I have yet to bother to print up and then another one called Mobil Zombies around 1999 that is also unprinted.

There had been these two mini-zines I did around 1997-2000 that were the size of business cards, called Random Kisses (violent poetry) and Zombie Kisses (zombie stories). They were kinda the model for the comics when they came out, as they were things I could print and ship really cheaply, since they were actually a single sheet of paper folded up and disguised as a book. Then I had this zine I did for my girlfriend of the time, called Brian Hearts Katherine, that I would work on during the downtime at work and while on tour; it had comics in it that she liked.

Around 2002-2003 I got asked to contribute a new zine for an exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art. I wasn’t really doing any physical zines at the time because I decided it was more effective to have a webzine than a printed one, so I was like, “I’ll just make a comic out of one sheet of paper,” and that was the first issue of Lost Kisses.  It got mentioned in some reviews of the exhibition and people liked them when I put them out at my live music shows, so I was like, “I guess I should make some more of these.”  Now it’s eight years and about 40 comics later.

Skyscraper: Why mini-comics? When did you settle on the matchbook size and form? Is this the way you’ve always written your comics, or did you ever fool around with other formats?

BJM: It was the matchbook size right away. I wanted something that was cheap to make and could be kept in your pocket and read on a bus ride, which was the same thing with Random Kisses and Zombie Kisses. But I did do Shimmer and Mobil Zombies earlier, before that format.  I had only seen mini-comics in half-page and quarter-page size previously. Now it seems like there are getting to be more people experimenting with weird formats, and I sometimes think about doing something with really long skinny comics that fold up instead of being stapled.

Skyscraper: Keeping on the topic of the format of your comics: What do you see as the pros and cons of the matchbook size, with each panel being its own page? Would something be lost if you made nine of the matchbook-sized pages into panels on a single piece of paper?

BJM: I think the number one pro is they are cheap to make, as long as I’m assembling them myself and not calculating my time as valuable. The number one con is they are hard to get into shops. I like having the one panel per page thing, but I do think some of the stories might suffer a bit from the structure. I do try to write the stories so that going from one page to the next flows well, and when you put nine panels up at once it does lose something. I think the comics are pretty linked to their format. I was having a talk with Nick Marino (who co-authors and draws Super Haters) a while back about what my comics would be like if they were “normal” sized and I came to the conclusion they would have the same amount of plot and maybe even the same amount of words, just more pictures or at least bigger pictures.

Skyscraper: All but one of the nearly dozen books you put out this spring were authored by you and illustrated by various artists. Is that typical of Silber Media’s past releases? Have most of the comics you’ve put out been projects of yours?

BJM: Yeah, most of the comics I write. There are a couple my nephew has written that were drawn by Jason Young (Veggie Dog Saturn), and I have a couple scripts other people have given me to find artists for, but so far those haven’t had much luck yet (hard to find artists to work for free sometimes). I’m supposed to publish a mini-comic by Melissa Spence Gardner, who draws XO sometime soon. I’d like there to be more content coming out for sure, but I also don’t want to lose too much money doing it. So, mainly it’s just me pushing my own stories that I just want to exist and make with friends.

Skyscraper: What were the first comics you wrote and released? I think I read in the QRD interview that it was the first Lost Kisses. And also, how has the Silber catalogue expanded throughout the years?

BJM: Yeah, the “critical acclaim” of Lost Kisses came and made everything else happen.  Friends who liked Lost Kisses wanted to collaborate; I wrote stories for them to draw or adapted stories from dreams or whatever. So, it started with XO and Worms and then suddenly there were a dozen titles and I don’t know if I can even write stories for all the series.

Skyscraper: There’s definitely some variety between the several ongoing titles you’re publishing now. How do you describe your collection of comics to people just discovering them for the first time?

BJM: Usually if someone comes up to me at a show looking for a recommendation, I ask them if they like cowboys because I think Just a Man #1 is pretty darn good. And if that’s not there thing I go through asking them generally about the different series to see what might appeal to them. I like to think that some series would appeal to someone and another series to someone else and it’s not all just the same thing, but conceptually I suppose they are about terse minimalist writing. I also always have to emphasize they aren’t really too kid friendly because people think they are cute and for kids. You buy your four-year-old a cute little comic about body disposal and you might get pissed at me.

Skyscraper: How have your artist collaborations come about? Do you pair the artists purposefully with certain titles because of the stories’ content and the artists’ drawing styles? Or is that not a consideration?

BJM: On Worms I’d been friend with Kim Traub for years and when I started doing Lost Kisses and she liked it, I said, “Well, I want to do a comic with you,” and took an old dream story and handed it over.  XO #1, I had the story sitting around and Melissa stumbled across Lost Kisses as my MySpace avatar and I knew that her “cute” style would make that story more interesting than if it just looked like Frank Miller or whatever. It goes on and on. But I do have artists waiting for me to write stories and stories waiting for me to find artists. It’s hard to find a match sometimes. If all the books were stick figures, a lot of the stories wouldn’t work and the same thing for if they were all photo-realistic or paintings or whatever.

Skyscraper: How did you come to work with Dave Sim? This recent set of comics features your second collaboration with him? Did you see your readership grow any after first working with him and similarly after working with the other artists who have illustrated your stories?

BJM: I started writing Dave Sim as a fan a few years ago and sending him my comics. I got a few letters in a row asking where Lost Kisses #11 was, and I had a story arc for issues #11-#20 and when I wrote the script I just couldn’t make it work with the stick figures. So, I sent him the script saying, “I’m not sure this will work as a stick figure gag comic” and he sent it back to me with all the artwork drawn in. The new one, Poit, I just said, “If you ever feel like drawing some stick figures in an afternoon I’ll write a script around it.” Surprisingly, I haven’t really gotten that big of a spike from working with Dave Sim – they aren’t even my best selling books! He’s a very polarizing figure in the comic industry and I have gotten a couple people not wanting to review my comics because of my association with him (which is fine with me, I don’t need my work read by someone that small-minded). Most of the artists I send about 20 copies of the books to and that usually covers the extra sales that would come from them. Sales come really hard, in general; most of my sales have been impulse purchases when I’m touring with my music. People will buy four sets of the first 10 Lost Kisses to give to friends and stuff.

Skyscraper: This round of releases also marks your first foray into color. Is that bittersweet? I know you spoke in the QRD interview about the black-and-white art of the comics fitting the minimalism of your stories. Why the expansion into color now? What led up to it and what do you think of the result?

BJM: I’d been thinking about doing some limited color for a while. There’s this great Grendel series called Black, White & Red that is black-and-white with red spot filling some things in (most notably blood, obviously), and I think Frank Miller did that some in Sin City as well. We were talking about doing that for Marked. But the reason I finally went into color was because of finally buying a CMYK laser printer. The actual comics I used for it was this collection of paintings with narratives I did for an art exhibit last December, which was a nice way to get that available to people not living in the town where I am. Surprisingly, I haven’t gotten much feedback about that series.

Skyscraper: You mention on your site that this April 2011 batch of comics comes almost a full year since your last official release of anything. What accounted for the delay? It’s also quite a few comics you released this time around. Were your past releases fewer but more frequent, and has there ever really been a pattern to Silber’s releases?

BJM: Usually I release things in batches to save on shipping. So, the past couple of years, most of the time it’s about six comics about twice a year. But for whatever reason I’d only gotten four comics ready and then I got a whole bunch in because all the artists wanted things to be ready for SPACE (Small Press & Alternative Comics Expo in Columbus, Ohio). I really want to try to get 30 or so comics out a year, but so far I’m nowhere close to that goal.

Skyscraper: What’s in store for the future? Is the next batch of comics underway, or are you focusing now on the zine or the music projects you oversee through Silber Records? Or do you work on all those things concurrently?

BJM: I’m working on all the stuff simultaneously, and it’s driving me a bit crazy to be honest.  Because it looks like there’s going to be at least ten more releases from Silber Records in 2011, I’m working on four issues of QRD simultaneously (Father’s Day Special, Guitarist Special, Label Owners Special, Mini-Comics Special), and then I have 14 comics I need to write scripts for and a half dozen scripts I’m looking for artists for and another half dozen comics out with artists I’m waiting for to come back in. So, it’s hard to figure it all out and keep things balanced.  But it keeps me out of getting myself into trouble.

Photo & Artwork Courtesy: Silber Media

Howard Sounes’ well-written and researched biography of Paul McCartney is a most admirable achievement.  Hundreds of books have been written on The Beatles, collectively and individually, and it would seem a daunting task to find something new to say about the Fab Four.  Sounes, however, interviewed over 200 sources for Fab, gleaning fascinating new stories and tidbits.  Heretofore no biography has gone nearly this extensively into Paul’s later solo years – Sounes takes us all the way through December 2009.  He keeps things fresh by scattering these unfamiliar anecdotes regularly across the book’s 600-plus pages, as well as by writing in a lucid prose style.

Within the first ten pages, for example, readers are introduced to the “Black Sheep” of the McCartney family, Paul’s disreputable Uncle Will.  Will’s most infamous stunt was stealing the equivalent of almost $382,500 in today’s money from a ship on which he was working in 1949.  This is just one of many stories I had never encountered before in my extensive research on the band.  On a personal note, along with my Beatles research, I published a long poem, “Beetles Is Gone,” that centers on the band and explores themes of paranoia and conspiracy theories (in the collection Ain’t Nobody That Can Sing Like Me). Therefore, I was excited to learn that Paul was apparently obsessed by the assassination of John F. Kennedy and read all he could find on the subject.

Sounes remains remarkably unbiased throughout.  Although he is a Beatles fan, Sounes admits he was not a fan of Paul’s solo work of the 1970s and 1980s.  The author can be fairly critical of Paul’s lyrics, in particular, which may be fair in many cases, but fans are nonetheless sure to find him harping.  In part, this criticism could be chalked up to Sounes’ past research on Bob Dylan, one of the finest lyricists of all time (if a poor singer).  The author spent so much time studying that caliber of composition that McCartney, in comparison, at least at times comes off as feeble in his estimation.  It’s fairly clear that Paul in the 1970s and 1980s would sometimes just toss off lyrics in an offhanded way, as though anything that came out of his famed brain must be pure genius.  Sounes does give Paul credit for his enormous melodic gifts and acknowledges that his music became more interesting beginning with Flaming Pie (EMI, 1997).  Sounes is particularly moved and impressed by two of Paul’s creative collaborations with producer/musician Youth (né Martin Glover) under the name The Fireman, Rushes (Hydra/EMI, 1998) and Electric Arguments (One Little Indian, 2008).

As a collaborator, Youth’s relationship with Paul has been longer lasting and happier than most.  Sounes is frank about the deficiencies in Paul’s character, which in some cases may have marred his creative output.  Most musicians and producers with whom McCartney has worked have found him difficult, unwilling to listen or give ground.  Even during The Beatles’ reign, Paul angered both Ringo and George by telling them what to play, or in Ringo’s case, getting behind the kit while Ringo was taking a break or even recording new drum parts after Ringo had left the studio.  Therefore, over the years Paul has increasingly been surrounded by toadies who fear saying anything that might suggest anything other than that Paul is a consummate genius, lest they lose their job.  When producer Nigel Godrich, famed for his innovative work with Radiohead and others, urged Paul to “try harder,” Paul told him to f-off and stormed out of the studio.  This was par for the course.

Sounes argues that this petulant attitude, reflecting an egotism that was generated by his early fame and fortune, has caused Macca’s music to suffer.  For example, Flowers in the Dirt (EMI, 1989) is established as a pretty decent album that could have been amazing due to the prospect of a full-scale collaboration with the equally talented Elvis Costello.  Unfortunately, Paul wasn’t willing to change the way he composed, so Elvis left the building (to use musician Hamish Stuart’s clever phrase) after only three completed songs.  Stevie Wonder seems to have been one of the few people to whom Paul deferred.  Paul’s insistence on getting his own way caused several members of Wings to quit the band and well-paid musicians to abandon recording studios.  Can you imagine quitting a band led by a Beatle?  Things must have been damned rough.  Paul’s detractors have suggested that he and Linda had few if any real friends and kept to themselves (see “Man We Was Lonely”), and this egotism may have been a cause.

Sounes is also frank about Paul’s deficiencies when it comes to women and relationships.  In short, in the 1960s he was a dog. Prior to his marriages, he constantly had flings or quickies with a never-depleted stock of love-struck female fans.  One of the saddest aspects of this book is the way in which Paul fouled up his relationship with the lovely, smart, and sophisticated Jane Asher, with whom he had a long relationship and engagement.  Jane was an accomplished, serious actress.  Paul lived with her at her parents’ home and soaked up the cultured conversation of this well-educated family (her brother was the producer and singer Peter Asher, whom, as half of Peter and Gordon, had success with Lennon/McCartney songs Paul gave them).  By general consensus, Jane was good for Paul, perhaps too good for him.  Unfortunately, Paul was a product of the Northern English sexism of the post-war period in which he was raised.  He thought Jane should give up her career for him and stay at home waiting for him to return from touring.  Also, he cheated on her constantly, even after they were engaged.  However, Jane, widely regarded as Paul’s equal, wasn’t having it.

Somehow, Linda Eastman prevailed.  Paul’s friends were shocked that he would throw over Jane Asher for an uncouth American college dropout who became a photographer to gain entrée to famous rock stars.  She possessed little talent in the arts, and in one case she forgot to bring film for her camera when meeting rock glitterati.  Linda was well-known by the luminaries of the English rock scene, including Jimi Hendrix and The Who, as a groupie who had, let’s say, “been around.”  But she was gunning for Paul and told friends repeatedly that she would bag the Beatle.

Linda came from an acquisitive family that fought and dissembled to get what they wanted.  For example, few realize that Linda was of Jewish heritage – her family’s last name was an invention by her lawyer father, Lee, in order to insinuate his family into a WASP-y New England elite.  His given name was, oddly enough, Epstein.  In another example, after marriage, Linda said she wanted to clear up the widespread misunderstanding that she was related to the Eastmans of Eastman Kodak Company – but she started this rumor in the first place, as means of promoting her photography career. Linda’s father regarded her as a ne’er-do-well, a black sheep.  He disdained her interest in rock stars and photography – that is, until she landed a very wealthy Beatle. Then, she quickly became the golden child, according to Sounes.  After the marriage, Lee without delay extended his fingers toward The Beatles’ Apple pie, convincing Paul to try to get the other Beatles to have him manage their finances.  This attempt to mix family and business was unwise and nepotistic and, of course, the others weren’t having it.  The other three Beatles favored another wheeler-dealer, Allen Klein, who was known for getting his clients, including The Rolling Stones, dramatically increased earnings.  Later, the other three would regret that decision and sued Klein.

Sadly, this bitter conflict over who would manage their money basically finished The Beatles.  Paul’s truculence in this affair would lead John to hurl a brick through Paul’s window.  Of course, the arrival of Yoko Ono, popularly credited with breaking up The Beatles, precedes this conflict, and arguably John’s cathexis on Yoko directly led to Linda and Lee Eastman.  Yoko’s constant, irritating presence and her interference in The Beatles’ recording process caused the other Beatles anger and resentment.  Hurt by his mate and songwriting partner John’s rejection of him in favor of Ono, Paul took on Linda as his constant companion.  In fact, they raced to get married before John and Yoko. Then, “when John saw that Paul had married Linda, he decided to marry Yoko,” Sounes writes.  Paul was jealous of Yoko’s relationship with John, just as he had been jealous of John’s relationship with Stuart Sutcliff in the early days.  Arguably, without Yoko, Paul would not have brought Linda, and thus Lee, into the scene so thoroughly.  One of the major lessons of this whole tale is that money is the root of all evil.

After Linda’s death Paul started acting like a horny goat again, and was totally taken in by the scoundrel and poseur Heather Mills.  If in her youth Linda was a promiscuous groupie (“a sex-positive fan,” let’s rather say), Heather Mills was a straight-up prostitute, not to mention a jewelry thief, soft porn model, and generally a sleazy person of debased character who parlayed charity projects into tabloid celebrity.  She preferred AC/DC to The Beatles, for Christ’s sake.  A former professional, Mills had a talent for sex, and this talent seems to have made Paul happy for a time.  But Mills was the consummate golddigger.  Greedy, haughty, and dishonest, Mills was strongly disliked by Paul’s family and friends.  Paul was not thinking with his brain but a lower organ.  It cost him dearly.

Speaking of sex, sexuality is a topic that Sounes deals with in intriguing ways.  He discusses the sexuality of John Lennon and John’s possible erotic experiences with early Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe and manager Brian Epstein.  The possibility of Paul being a homophobe is brought up.  Paul reportedly mocked Brian’s homosexuality (as did John).  According to Linda’s gay friend Danny Fields, Paul “didn’t like gay” and one collaborator of Paul’s was loudly accosted by Paul’s manager: “What do you mean by bringing someone… so obviously gay to Paul’s Christmas party?”  (On the other hand, he was friends with the openly gay art dealer Robert Fraser.)  Of course, homophobes are often dealing with repressed homosexual feelings themselves, which we would all seem to have to some extent.  Over the years, the relationship between Paul and John has been speculated upon tremendously, and while it was understood to have been platonic, it is clear that John had feelings for Paul that went beyond conventional friendship (see Philip Norman’s recent bio of John).  On some level these feelings may have been reciprocated, explaining Paul’s bitter negativity and jealousy toward Sutcliffe, whom he drove out of the band (albeit Stu couldn’t actually play worth a damn).

Lest this account seems to dwell on the negative aspects of Paul, it should be noted that Sounes emphasizes that Paul is essentially a decent human being.  He cares deeply for his family, a clan that is described by friends as warm and loving.  Paul can be charming and affable, and contrary to past accusations, he is seen to be quite generous at times as well.

There are very few oversights in this compelling bio.  One lapse, though, is that Sounes doesn’t explore Paul’s alleged fascination with the occult, especially his reputed interest in Alistair Crowley and the Golden Dawn.  Sounes makes an offhanded remark about “magick” but generally dismisses this interest as “mumbo jumbo” in a few phrases.  Other writers, such as the controversial but fascinating Beatleologist Geoffry Giuliano, find this interest significant as the dark underbelly of Paul’s cheery, family man persona.  Another oversight is his failure to give longtime Beatles assistant Mal Evans credit for the creative role he in played in the Sgt. Pepper concept and the song “Fixing a Hole.”

On the whole, Fab is absorbing and well-crafted from start to finish, spinning many enchanting new stories that will keep Beatle fans thoroughly fascinated.

The paperback edition of Fab will be released on November 21, 2011.

Revealing increased sophistication, Dum Dum Girls’ most recent four-track EP, their first new release since debut album I Will Be (HoZac/Sub Pop, 2010), should be divorced from any lazy critical descriptor of “girl group” or “reverb” or whatever. It’s just a fine indie-pop release with strong, appealing vocals, simple but effective guitars, and well-crafted songs.

An emotive opener, “Wrong Feels Right” grabs your attention immediately with energy and drama.  The second, title track employs a garage-y, thumping, primitive rock vibe, replete with fuzzy, distorted wah-wah pedal.  A more subtle and understated number, “Take Care of My Baby” is a simple and touching waltz that recalls the most pastoral moments of Throwing Muses.  As for the closer, when I saw the title, I was skeptical, but Dum Dum Girls actually pull off an interesting cover of The Smiths’ masterpiece “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” the title of which they have abbreviated to “There Is a Light.” The song has been covered a fair amount over the years; Dee Dee and company’s take doesn’t top the original but it does offer a stripped-down and chugging but still evocative take on Morrissey and Marr’s lambent composition for the ages.  It sounds a bit like Dee Dee is fronting The Wedding Present.

For production, Dum Dum Girls brought in music-biz veteran Richard Gottehrer, a founder of Sire Records, with whom they worked on their I Will Be album. He is joined by Sune Rose Wagner of The Ravonettes, whose influence can be detected most on “He Gets Me High.”  Back in the 1960s, Gottehrer, together with Bob Feldman and Jerry Goldstein, penned such period pop singles  as “My Boyfriend’s Back,” a 1963 smash for The Angels (though originally intended for The Shirelles) and “I Want Candy,” a 1965 hit for their band The Strangeloves and later for Bow Wow Wow. During the latter band’s new wave era, he produced Blondie’s self-titled debut (Chrysalis, 1976) and co-produced The Go-Go’s debut Beauty and the Beat (IRS, 1981). The Raveonettes and these projects all have some varying degree of relevance to the sound of He Gets Me High, although the Dum Dum Girls’ songwriting and vocals are more notable than many of the older acts with whom Gottehrer worked. At times, He Gets Me High recalls artists as disparate as the Go-Betweens, Opal, Belly, Aisler’s Set, and Lida Husik, and reveals much talent and increased stylistic dexterity.  This impressive EP favorably forecasts their next full-length, Only In Dreams, to be released in September.

A SMALL PLANE OVER THE SOUTH DOWNS: The South Downs is a range of hills in Sussex, not far from London, but it may as well be a hundred miles away. At the top of the Downs, one can see the English Channel and the white cliffs [of Dover]. A week back I was there, alone on a ridge, when a single engine plane flew over. It was a solitary sound, a small picture against a summer blue sky and perhaps the essence of childhood happiness. This has always been in my mind as a favourite story board; I imagine it’s 1965, pre-mass communication. A weird innocence we hanker for.

A SPONTANEOUS EVENING WITH FRIENDS AND MUSIC HITS THE DECKS: I worry that I get little time to idle over music, the stuff that shaped me. On the increasingly rare occasions when a group of friends just happen to wind up in the front room, I love nothing more than to DJ all night at a steady, sipping beer rate. I will not try to impress, just force my total prejudice and politic of music and sound on the assembled bods. Everyone is smiling in the end.

WINDING DOWN AFTER A GIG: This is a Llamas thing. I love playing a not too spectacular gig somewhere off the beaten track in Europe and winding down in a surprisingly odd little bar in the odd little town that we happen to be in, a bit of local colour and a real sense of quiet achievement. Gig was really nice but no big deal, but the wind down was special. I Iove those days. It’s really the moment when I say, “Yea. I’m in still a band, and I still love it.”

THE SPORTS NEWS IN THE GUARDIAN NEWSPAPER: A UK broadsheet. I get to read it after my 11-year-old son scours it. I tell him not to spill the news, as I look forward to reading the football over a Marmite bagel and a cup of strong tea at 7:45 AM.

WALKING UP TO THE EMIRATES ON A MIDWEEK EVENING: Arsenal play at the Emirates off the Holloway Road. Being on a 60,000 bods heading towards the ground, maybe picking up some chips on the way, and a program. The evening night air is alive with expectation. It’s quite magical. You really feel the love for the club. You can touch it.

FAREWELL ALDEBARAN: The classic psyche folk record made by Judy Henske and Jerry Yester (Straight, 1969). I think in times of odd insecurity, I reach for this record and feel reassured. I sometimes wonder if it’s one of the greatest records ever made. We can learn so much from its eclectic, avant-folk character. No two tunes on Aldebaran sound the same. Amazing.

DREAMING OF MY NEXT VISIT TO NEW YORK: I love New York, but have not been for seven years. I feel genuinely alive and on the edge of bliss when I’m there. Seeing as I cannot get there for the moment, one of my favourite things is dreaming of the next visit to NY.

A FENDER BASS COPY WITH FLAT WOUND STRINGS: This instrument is cheap and cheerful, the strings have not been changed in years, but it always delivers the right sound. Plying this little gem with a Dunlop .78 nylon pick is as close as we can get to Joe Osborne.

A NEW PAUL AUSTER NOVEL: Seeing the new Paul Auster hardback in the bookshop is always a happy day. I know the next few days are going to be given over to Mr. Auster, and I reserve a place for him… always… followed on by his good  wife.

RUNNING: Running from Peckham to Vauxhall Bridge on a spring evening, looking over at the Houses of Parliament, then running back. Exhausted but buzzing, I drink a cool Peroni and watch Newsnight. I write a lot of lyrics as I run, and sometimes just dive on a copy book as soon as I hit the home to get the ideas down.

ZOOM H4 RECORDER: My Zoom H4 recorder is a mini digital recorder that I take on all trips, as you sometimes have time on your hands and you tend to write on those occasions. The wee recorder is a vital companion and has been all over the world with me.

THE BBC: When I hear the authoritative tines of Radio 4, or the mystery of a late night Radio 3 new ensemble session, I know the world is okay, for me at least, in that moment. A sense of calm falls upon us.

Sean O’Hagan (pictured top left) is the frontman and songwriter of the London-based, 1960s-inspired indie-pop group The High Llamas. He was formerly a member of the band Microdisney, and he has frequently collaborated with Stereolab and Super Furry Animals. The most recent High Llamas album, Talahomi Way, was released by Drag City Records in April.

Photo: Steve Brummell

While Miami’s Lil Daggers have already made a name for themselves on 7″s and split EPs, it seems those early releases only provided a mere taste of what this group was capable.  What stood out about the band’s early material was a brash rawness to their rock, ruthless in every way with the kind of punk attitude that brings to mind X, The Mummies, Gas Huffer, Green River, The Sonics, The Stooges, and so many others. As the band began hinting at a full-length album release, I was prepared to hear more of the same – and I mean that in a positive way.  What I received instead was something completely unexpected, and I love them even more.

The album opens with the wicked “Wasting,” complete with booming drums, throbbing bass, tight guitars, and a level of distortion and studio ambiance that makes that kind of raw garage rock great.  Somewhat unexpectedly, it reminds of Hole, The Muffs, and a number of surf rock bands that from the late 1980s and early 1990s, complete with a beautiful Farfisa organ.  They get into the song, take two minutes out of their day, and boom!, off to the next song with only the reverbed last note offering anticipation of what’s to come.  What happens for the next half-hour is a bit of psych-garage, complete with the kind of trippy, long drawn-out moments that can only come from the “album experience.”  In other words, the singles were quick bursts of energy, and while Lil Daggers offer that a number of times on this album too, the group also allow themselves to loosen up, as they get into… I was going to say progressive moments, but it’s certainly not prog rock. That is, there are no lofty flute solos with huge gasps of breath or math rock movements, but rather the kind of music one would expect a garage rock band to lay down if they were also into the Allman Brothers Band’s jams, paired with the dark sinister tones of Velvet Underground.  Wait, is that possible: a band sounding like an ABB/VU hybrid?  Well, how about “Pignose,” which is acoustic in nature and has Lil Daggers’ getting into a T. Rex/Jefferson Airplane motif?

Sure, it would be too easy to hear this entire album and just rattle off every predecessor and influence just to prove a point.  Lil Daggers feels like that album you could imagine your father tripping out on in the 1970s, or what I call a “back of the closet” album where it’s meant to be hidden because he doesn’t want to let mom and the kids know that he used to take some serious drugs, consume Everclear on a regular basis, and played chainsaw games with himself in order to see if he could actually see his insides.  Then one day he tells you he needs a pair of shoes that’s in the closet next to your mom’s old nursing school documents.  You go there and you find this record, slightly tainted due to cockroach stains and bong water drippings of unknown origin, and it feels like you may have found a holy grail.  Meanwhile, your father is in the garage waiting for you to get his shoes, but he’s kicking back going “now it’s his turn.”  That’s Lil Daggers, a psych-garage band who are ready to freak the hell out anyone who dares listen and embrace their music.  The inevitable result will be rewarding, because these sounds are too good and too powerful to be ignored.  This is a fantastic album by an incredible band who I hope will continue to explore their inner “back of the closet” selves for years to come.

“There was a playfulness,” Bryan Charles writes, describing the Pavement record that changed his life.  “[A] humor, a skillful balance of light and dark that I found lacking in most things – literature as well as rock music.”  It’s a lovely thesis and, considering his subject matter, appropriately indirect: the plaudits are aimed at late minor masterpiece Brighten the Corners (Matador, 1997), more an LP-length post-script to 1995’s roiling pop collage Wowee Zowee (Matador/Warner Bros., 1995) than anything.  In fact, for its first few chapters, Charles’ 33-1/3 series entry about Wowee Zowee feels like a bizarre bait-and-switch, resisting the pull of its central album via personal essay, meta-criticism, and (as noted) an almost fanatical devotion to Corners.  Charles’ prose, memoirish and blunt, chafes against whatever quotable, glossable lyrics he lifts from the band’s songs.  Early on, he even appears to sell Zowee down the river:

The funny thing was I never played Wowee Zowee.  It was there on the shelf with the other records, untouched.  I still had dim memories of that first time I’d heard it, the lack of excitement I felt.  I had a sense too that the record was a failure somehow, not as good as the rest.

But somehow, about 50 pages in, the whole thing – the head fakes, the autobio coyness, all of it – starts to resonate.   For Charles, accretion begets form and, directness aside, his real talents lie in creating a structureless structure that fits Pavement as snugly as Lester Bangs’ fried takes on Lou Reed or Camden Joy’s encyclopedic wonder at Frank Black.  The music demands a geography of evasive rhetoric, a certain quota of sidelong glances, seeming nonsequiturs, and bold turnarounds; by kissing his pop history with anecdotes and the overcast emotions of his mid-twenties, Charles nails the band’s gift for tucking profundity into simple songs.  Each incidental line about a crush or party or day job feeds into his greater idea: a belief that Zowee’s White Album-like sprawl was a wild, perhaps poor decision with unforeseen implications, a temporary chain-breaker that may have scraped away much of the band’s potential for growth.  The band acts as a metaphor for adulthood, lost opportunity, burnout, Gen X, you name it, and Wowee Zowee, in Charles’ hands, contains both the world and the hard work of living in it.

It’s heady stuff and, a fiction writer by trade – his first novel, Grab On To Me Tightly As If I Knew the Way, dropped in 2006 (Harper Perennial) – Charles leans hard on the Pavement-as-philosophical-guidepost stuff.  But this is a book about a record, too, and he does a solid job of amassing relevant players and kicking up new dust.  Bandleader Steve Malkmus gets outed as a small-time Billy Corgan/Kevin Shields type, the architect of and sole player on any number of songs; we find out he left the band over a very unpunk gentleman’s complaint (i.e. the other members couldn’t play their instruments).  We learn of drummer Steve West’s yen for painting wooden soldiers in-studio.  Recording engineers backbite each other, Matador Records head honcho Gerard Cosloy gives a hostile e-mail interview, and action painter/LP cover artist Steve Keene gets airtime to parse Wowee Zowee’s effect on the band’s career, thoughtfully noting that “it made them another band to critique instead of a band to worship.”  Even better, Charles’ book bares much of the telling minutiae missing from Rob Jovanovic’s 2004 clearinghouse Perfect Sound Forever (Justin, Charles & Co.), walking the reader through musty NYC loft apartments and music shops and college campuses. Given the air of mystery Malkmus and co. have cultivated over the years, Zowee can feel revelatory simply because it’s so concrete.

For all its illuminating dirt, though, Zowee lives and dies on its view of Pavement as a lit match in a cellar that keeps accumulating new trash, an ironical companion with enough sense to accept the world without capitulating to it.  “Pavement made fucking good records and they didn’t compromise,” Matador founder Chris Lombardi says late in the book, adding, “It felt good to like them.”  If Charles’ Wowee Zowee succeeds – and, flawed as it is, it would be hard to argue otherwise – it’s because the author clearly agrees.  While his style tends towards over-sincerity, he has the good judgment to let Pavement’s humor and balance shoot through his work; he trusts the album itself to keep things from capsizing.  In the process, Zowee pulls a trick most 33 1/3 titles never manage: it clarifies not just the details of the album, but the reader’s own, quite personal relationship with it.  Maybe it’s too messy, not a command performance, whatever.  But, for a 150-page breakdown and souvenir of a 15-year-old indie rock LP, it’s an inspiring, unexpected tightrope act.

Based in Brooklyn and having roots in the Midwestern cities of Dayton, Ohio, and Detroit, Michigan, where he lived for eight years, singer and instrumentalist Jimmy Ohio has struck upon a compelling and memorable style on Basic Black.  Stripped down and often bluesy, Ohio and his sidemen use piano, raw guitar, scorching vocals, and solid, simple bass and drums to convey heartache, strife, and other bleak emotions.  Fittingly, these five tracks (only four on the digital release – the 10” vinyl offers a bonus track) were recorded in a former Baptist church in Jimmy’s once-hometown of Detroit, with some notable Motor City musicians backing him.

The simplicity of the compositions, love of rock’n’roll, and pure passion poured into the singing often give the music a classic feel.  “It’s Been a While” is a blistering, bluesy shuffle in 6/8 with fiercely delivered vocals.  The bent guitar notes and fiery riffs heard on this tune are courtesy of esteemed Detroit garage-rocker Dan Kroha (The Gories, The Demolition Doll Rods, The Readies).  Kroha’s contributions impress throughout and can recall Keith Richards and Ron Asheton. Another distinguished player on this EP is Tony Maimone, long-time bassist for Cleveland new wave/experimental stalwarts Pere Ubu. Maimone’s fuzz bass on the Stooges-referencing “Rock and Roll God” gives this braggadocious, stomping song plenty of drive and heft. Also hailing from Motown, Trevor Naud (Zoos of Berlin, PAS/CAL) provides simple, effective percussion that allows Jimmy room to stretch out vocally.  The tense “Hello and Goodbye” is built on a base of sparse piano chords, a simple backbeat employing the space between the notes.  This short, sharp song will get into your head, demanding repeat listens.  A high point of the EP, “Quiet Sound” is a poignant, understated missive about love, recalling the more “quiet sounds” of Big Star and The Rolling Stones along with the ballad “Damaged” by Primal Scream.

Formerly a member of the Detroit duos Misty and The Ultimate Lovers, Jimmy Ohio has forged his own style, although in spirit this might recall contemporary artists such as Akron, Ohio’s Black Keys or Richard Swift.  The 10” vinyl version of this release is recommended over the digital, not only just because 10” records are fun, but more so because the packaging of this release is brilliant, with minimalist design and a one-sided record with a totally black, smooth reverse.  Basic Black in size 10 is a necessary addition to the collection.

You mightn’t know it but DeVotchKa, a Denver band whose name derives from the Russian for “girl,” had been laboring away, honing their East-European gypsy punk sound long before they were asked to helm the acclaimed Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack (Lakeshore, 2006). That Grammy-nominated effort deservedly brought them into the public eye. In the seven years prior to that, though, they had produced four albums and an EP, Curse Your Little Heart (Ace Fu, 2006), a set of covers that centered on their idiosyncratic version of Siouxsie and the Banshees “The Last Beat of My Heart.”

Following 2008’s A Mad & Faithful Telling (Anti-), DeVotchKa’s sixth studio album, 100 Lovers, opens by trickling into “The Alley,” a track which eventually soars against lead singer Nick Urata’s plaintive vocals. “All the Sand in All the Seas” follows, wearing a slightly menacing tone, along with lovely tripping piano, soaring strings, and a subdued “wooing” choir. Then “100 Other Lovers” bears the bouncy cadence of a David Byrne tune before pogoing over to David Bowie in cabaret crooner mode.  Urata’s vocals often hover over Bowie/Byrne territory with a measure of Thom Yorke injected intermittently. “Exhaustible,” for example, sounds like Radiohead gone folk, not to mention a bit twee, with a warbly, whistly dalliance with Mercury Rev along the way. On “The Common Good,” Urata’s keening even somewhat bizarrely reminds of The Killers – if The Killers employed Balkan strings and handclaps before dissolving into grungy guitar.

DeVotchKa handles this riffling through musical genres deftly. Even if the effect is sometimes to feel a trifle fabricated, these change-ups are simply a self-consciously articulated part of an intelligent design. “Interlude 1,” for instance, hints at Transylvanian horror until it introduces “The Man from San Sebastian,” which rolls from its gypsy-esque beginning before forging quickly into Balkan Bond (James Bond, that is) territory with Bowiesque vocals. “Bad Luck Heels” even imports some mariachi style in the form of delightfully concordant trumpets and another reverently “wooing” male choir. “Ruthless” and “Contrabanda” continue to mine this playful Mexican/gypsy punk vein, too. Then, initially somber yet increasingly assertive, the closer “Sunshine” brings the effort to its denouement with instrumental, cinematic (somewhat studied) concision.

There are moments then when you find yourself admitting to the following: It’s great music for soundtracks, but without an attending movie to project upon your mind’s eye, some of DeVotchKa’s music may not lure you into repeat listens. Some may even conclude that it is best left as background dressing for those parties which crave a little more exotic sound than they deserve. Mercifully, however, if DeVotchKa are destined to be sonic wallpaper, you’d be hard pressed to find better executed decoration. It’s not just a dish of warmed over “world” music we’re served up here; it’s a deftly woven, whirlwind tour through varieties of musical experience.