Monday, 17 January 2011

If At First You Don't Succeed, Get Freakier

For regular students of the early stages of the Eurovision Song Contest qualification period, there's one moment above any other that fills them with rapt anticipation - what the hell is Sasha Bognibov going to send in this year?! Every year this willowy gothic popster with a camp walk and a killer pout sends in a couple of songs to the Moldovan application process in the hope of finally being selected, but every year he sadly misses out... although when you hear his songs you might be able to understand why. (And be warned if you do venture to click on the links here, because some of them make uncomfortable listening!)

His first attempt back in 2008, the title of which we'll abreviate just so that we don't end up on any kind of register or internet watchlist, caused an immediate stir. In fact it was one of the most breathtaking debuts in Eurovision history. I Love The Girls... was a staggeringly dangerous love song to the female youth of Moldova. A wobbily, funereal techno ballad, punctuated by Sasha's ghostly falsetto, it instantly drew howls of derision from around the continent. But it's understated swing proved to be a proper earworm, and you only needed to hear it the once to have it tattooed permanantly on your internal jukebox. You just didn't want to be singing it absent-mindedly down the local Safeways.

Funnily enough it wasn't selected for the televised stages.

But that didn't put Sasha off, and the following year he had another stab with a couple more songs - the most interesting being Knocking On Julie's Heart. He even got a German friend to make a video of him strutting around the sights of Chisinau and moodily air-grabbing in ruined buildings while daubed in enough eyeliner to make The Cure blush. Julie was a slightly less controversial choice than his previous effort. A more traditional ballad with a proper arrangement and lots of angst, the boy Bognibov kept his now trademark high voice and over-annunciated English, but occasionally slipped into moments of growly goth-metal rap and even strayed occasionally into soprano territory. It was a curious oddity, but strangely likable - and certainly more accessable than his other entry that year, the more trancy but somewhat unsettling and eccentrically autotuned Fuck Me Once

Funnily enough neither were selected for the televised stages.

For 2010's effort he went down a more sophisticated route, tapping a kind of piano bar goth swing groove with Do You Like My Sexy Lips. But despite having a hook nearly as infectious as his debut, its lyrical matter still managed to creep out music fans across the continent without them really even knowing why. While it was probably his most accessible stab at a slot on the big one, it still wasn't selected for the televised stages.


But as unsuccessful as his frequent attempts had been, he was beginning to gather a cult following. UK gossip site Popbitch has deemed him their favourite Moldovan and publish news of his every move, and the slightly more leftfield ESC fans (and yes, there is such a thing) have elevated him to almost godlike status. So the news that his relentless annual march to Eurovision ignominy had continued on to 2011 was met with much glee, and the song that he hoped would finally get him to experience his big day in the sun was strangely to revisit the themes that first brought him to our attention, albeit in a far beefier wrapper. Do You Know I Love A Girl? features for the first time some beefed up Rammstein-esque guitars and a full on band arrangement, only this time the girl in question is a year older.

Again there has been much indignation outside of Moldova about the song's subject matter, but strangely very little of the same hoo-haa back home. It could be that the customs and social politics of the country are so far removed from ours that his songs barely raise an eyebrow of dissent. Or perhaps he is too far down the musical foodchain for his countrymen to even notice he exists. But he doesn't seem to be having his windows bricked in the same way that anyone attempting such lyrics would over here. Indeed, despite some of the more unhinged sounding subject matter, there is an innocence and naivity running through his songs that make you want to grudgingly like him, despite your better judgement. He seems an intensly serious young man, so perhaps there's something in it that we just don't understand? Maybe it's intellectual beyond our ken? The product of a dark, superior humour. Or perhaps he's is just weird after all?

But this year the wider continent might just get the chance to experience his dubious concoctions. Rumour has it that the take up for this year's Moldovan Song For Europe competition is pretty low, and they're struggling to get enough half decent songs to fill up their semi-finals. So could we finally see our unlikely anti-hero on an international stage? It would certainly kick up a bit of a fuss now, wouldn't it!

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Tuesday, 11 January 2011

System Addict

When I was doing a little spot of freelancing the other week I had the pleasure of sharing an office with a young chap who is obsessed with collecting old prog and glam rock records on vinyl and playing them at open deck nights. He's travelled around the world looking for rare slabs of black plastic, and likes to share his wares to his fellow workers. Obviously the quality is variable, and not to everyone's tastes, but it's always an interesting listen at the very least.

But there was one song that really struck a chord with me and I had to find out more. That song was called Carmen Brasilia, and the band was called Anarchic System. Now ordinarily you'd expect a band by that name to be some crusty Latin American anarcho punk band, but instead they were a moustachioed French glam rock band from the early 1970s. And what a dash they cut in their satin loons and fluffy feathered hairdos.


But despite their foppish period looks, they were more than just a comedy pop act. Indeed, they were among the earliest pioneers of the electronic music scene, being one of the first bands to popularise the Moog in mainland Europe. Indeed, their debut single was a curious vocal cover version of Popcorn, the instrumental Gershon Kingsley tune made famous by Hot Butter in 1972. Indeed, despite the latter version going on to be the 191st best selling French single of all time, and there being a huge dusting of similar sounding covers for the next few years, Anarchic System's version still shifted a respectable 700,000 copies across Europe, and attracted the attention of major labels the world over.

Their follow up was the tune that lured me to their singular sound, Carmen Brasilia. Dubbed The New Popcorn, it was clearly an attempt to cash in on the popularity of their first release, and shared similar themetic elements, but it had a unique edge all if its own. Based losely on the main theme from Bizet's opera Carmen, it was a marvel of descending plinky-plonk pop, and is a lost gem of the early glam era.

But despite their success in the field, they had heavier aspirations, and cited Uriah Heep, Warhorse and even Black Sabbath among their influences. Their rockier output never quite hit the public nerve in the same way that their earliest singles did, but they still soldiered on for six years until 1978, releasing three great albums, Pussycat C'est La Vie, Generation and the fabulously titled Sugar Baby Mission Space Recording and a string of fine singles. And while they may be remembered more for their slightly cheesy looks than their top tunes, they've got a body of work that is worth further investigation. And if you ever see any of their discs in an antiquarian record shop, snap 'em up quick. I know a young chap who will be forever in your debt if you do.

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Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Bali Bali Hey!

It's easy to be complacent about our position at the hub of the punk rock universe here in the Anglophile West. We Brits and them Americans constantly bicker over who invented it and who has the ideological ownership of it, while our near neighbours in Northern Europe actually do all the hard work in keeping it going - out side of it at least. So we might all be surprised to discover that probably the biggest and most vibrant punk rock scene on the whole planet is bubbling away quite nicely all of its own accord on the other side of the globe in the world's fourth most populous country - Indonesia.

And the true kings of that scene - and hence one of the biggest, most popular punk bands on the planet - are a trio of big-quiffed, tattoo-stained rock'n'roll kids called Superman Is Dead. Looking for every bit like a flick-knife wielding street gang from some unhinged South Pacific swingtime gangster flick, S.I.D. are one of those bands that make the cool girls swoon and the slick boys get their names carved into their skin. And heck do they rock.

Formed back in 1995 in the seaside town of Kuta in the south of Bali, the music blasting out of the stereos of the hipster tourists tweaked some primal punk button in three young lads called Boby Kool, Eka Rock and Jrx (although those may not be their birth names) who pretty soon melded what they heard into their own high octane, top fuel version of transatlantic punk, working very much to the post-Clash/Rancid blueprint, via NoFX and Social Distortion, while keeping their own intangiable Eastern feel permeating the proceedings.

After a couple of cracking lo-fi albums on a local inide label, they nudged the attention of the local wing of Sony-BMG, who swiftly signed them to a mutli-album deal, starting with the blistering Kuta Rock City in 2003. Each subsequent release has been a massive international hit right around South-East Asia. They've just started to make a first foray into the Western world of rock with a hefty and extraordinarily well-recieved tour of Australia, so who knows, if they keep up their rollercoaster momentum we could soon see them zig-zagging over towards the supposed family seat of punk rock'n'roll. Or maybe now their scene is so big that it's us who have to go out to pay them a visit.

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Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Mule music

Those of you who have taken rather a shine to the boy Joe McElderry's new career-defining single Ambitions may be surprised that it's already had a considerable track record long before last year's X-Factor winner got his tonsils around it. Indeed, before he'd even made his first nervous steps out of the house and onto his first auditions, it was well on its way to becoming one of the most popular songs in Norwegian chart history.

Its performers, Donkeyboy, had already been plugging their uplifting and sparkling brand of Scandi-pop around for a good four years before they were picked up by the label Warner Music - reputedly after an A&R man liked what he heard after he stumbled across them on MySpace. Their original take on Ambitions was released on 26 March 2009, and became an instant radio hit across the country. But despite a slow and gradual climb up the chart, by the time it finally made number one some 13 weeks later, it was selling by the trainload.

And there it stayed for the next 12 weeks, only replaced by the band's follow up Sometimes, making them the first act in Norwegian history to hold the top two chart slots. A number one album, Caught In A Life, soon followed, as did a European tour with A-Ha. Out of nowhere this unassuming little band from Drammen had become their nation's new pop darlings.

Their music is almost uncatagorisable - an amalgam of classic Scandinavian pop, eighties jangly guitar rock and an extraordinarily likeable while still slightly edgy contemporary feel. There's an almost evangelical joy to their live shows, and their wide-eyed innocence, married to their delicate but incredibly catchy tunes has been known to creep up on all but the most hardened music fans and sweep them off their feet. But take a look at their slightly odd videos and you'll see that there's some kind of substance behind the saccharin.

No wonder then that Simon Cowell knew he was on to a good thing and grabbed an option on the tune for his new young charge in a rare foray outside of his usual BMG back catalogue, giving the song a whole new lease of life. So perfect was the original that McElderry's version is a near note-for-note remake. Caught In A Life has just been released in the UK, possibly to quickly cash in on the smiling Geordie boy's almost certain success. Let's hope it ups their profile on these shores and they have a hit in their own right soon.

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Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Moldovan turbo folk bonkersness

There are those who claim that the root of rock'n'roll lay in the African songs and spirituals sung mournfully every day in the fields and on the ships to keep the spirits up. And while this may be true to some extent, another equally important musical root is frequently overlooked when it comes to chronicling the history of contemporary Western sounds - one that rises from the mountains and villages of central  and South Eastern Europe - and that music is polka.

It's not fashionable to say it, but the simple boom-chit two-beat beloved of accordian-handed folkies and riotous Balkan weddings is surely every bit as much to blame for punk rock as any amount of delta blues. The speed, rhythm and pure bonkersness of the genre is infused through contemporary pop, but it's those out East who still do it the best, and Moldova's Doinita Gherman is about as bonkers as it comes.

Hailing from the capital Chisinau, she started life as a more traditional ethno-pop act before she saw the light and began to pile on the rock, while still staying true to her folky roots. The result is a 150mph punky stomp, that sees her breathlessly below out the words while jumping about like someone desperately trying to put out a carpet fire.

You think I'm exaggerating? The video for her song Batuta sees her dancing up trees, on motorway central reservations, footbridges and anywhere her feet will take her. One gets the feeling that this girl never stops, and gawd bless her for it!

But she hasn't forgotten the old days, and still dresses in a stylised and somewhat raunchy version of the traditional Moldovan farmgirl dress, and crowbars traditional rhythms and dances into the high speed insanity. Whether we'll ever get to see or hear the girl on these shoresis unclear, and indeed unlikely. She is perhaps a little too obscure, and indeed hardcore for even the keenest world music enthusiast, but she's all over the internet, so make a point of trying to track her down - it's what the world wide web is for, after all!

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Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The purest rock'n'roll from Gothenburg

It's often the case that the biggest innovators, or even just the smartest, purest bands in their fields tend to get criminally overlooked. In some ways that's a good thing for we connoisseurs of the rock'n'roll, as we get to keep it sharp and unsullied by the taint of stardom. But on the other hand I'm quite sure that the bands themselves would like to be able to pay the rent without having to resort to a dreary day job.

But for all those briefly hip acts who forge a couple of quick hits before being consigned to the dustbin of uncoolness, there are a dozen who even crash and burn before they raise a murmor. And then there's those who plough on regardless, turning out disc after disc of fabulous stuff. Gothenburg's Sillverbullit are just that kind of band.

Formed in 1995, they were originally called Sillverbullet, until someone who already had a similar name went and had a moan. Indeed, they're known as Citizen Bird in America to cut down on potential lawsuits. But whatever name they happen to go by on any given day, they've consistently been chucking out three great albums and touring furiously, but to little commercial success - although they did manage to bag a gong for the best Swedish album of 2004 with their Arclight CD.

Unusually they've stuck with the same line-up right through their career, bound together by their howling dervish of a lead singer Simon Ohlsson. So fractious and unhinged can he get that he was once thrown out of a venue by security while the rest of the band played on.

But what do they sound like? A fantastically atmospheric high octane, ambient rock and roll onslaught, yet still capable of some devistatingly tender moments. Every song sounding like an extended intro, they hurl out the chunkiest riffs like they were playing the last song on Earth, sounding a little like the sixties would have if punk had happened in 1959. Or like Joy Division borrowed Can's metronome and upped sticks to Scandinavia. Swirling clouds of organ lap around the guitars like a filthy cloud of lust, while Ohlsson slurs out poems to human politics, smiting all the numbskulls and thoughtless haters as he goes.

They don't get out that often these days, but when they do it's incendiary. So if you spot the name when you trawl the listings make sure you get out and see them. Fellow Swedes like The Hives, The Hellacopters and Backyard Babies may have stolen some of their commercial thunder, but this Silverbullit can duke it out with the best of them, and would win a live play off hands down.

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Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Ukraine's Housewife Superstar

For those among you who enjoy a quick flutter I'd advise a tasty yet unlikely ante-post bet. The race isn't on until the second week in May, but if you get your money on early you may be on for some tasty returns. Oh yes pop fans, bet all you can afford on a Ukrainian win, because Verka Serdushka is having a go at Eurovision again.

You may remember her previous attempt back in Helsinki in 2007. A vision in silver, the song Dancing Lasha Tumbai came in a close second to Serbia's Harry Potter-alike balladeer Marija Šerifović. She may not have won, but the following Monday the watercoolers of Europe were alive nothing but talk of this bonkers tin-foil clad trannie with a big star on her head, like some turbofolk Edna Everage from space. And like her antipodean cousin she's become an enormous star in her home country and  its associated empire.

The story goes back some 20 years when a teenaged performer called Andriy Danylko created the character of a larger-than-life middle aged railway ticket inspector from the sticks for a local comedy talent contest. His creation became an instant hit, and it wasn't long before Danylko had created a host of other characters and took the whole lot out on tour around the former Soviet republics, creating a massive stir.

Along the way he has put together nine albums of high octane East European oompah disco, plus the occasional collection of more laid back ambient tunes under his own name, but somewhere along the line it became clear that Eurovision was the logical international conclusion for his character's insanely bouncing storyline. It was feared that the character may be too much of a Ukrainian in joke, but those who didn't necessarily get the gag still enjoyed three manic minutes that turned the living rooms of Europe into a carnival of insane thrashing about.

But it nearly never happened. Questions were asked in the Ukranian parliament as to whether such a "grotesque and vulgar" artist should represent the country on an international stage. And their old grumpy uncles across the border were convinced the words 'Lasha Tumbai' - reputedly Mongolian for 'Whipped Cream' were actually the thinly veilled political dig 'Russia Goodbye'. Danylko claimed otherwise, but it was still enough to cause such a stir across that half of the continent that the song was already a massive international hit before that performance in the Finnish capital.

And now she's having another pop. She's only one of the 25 approved finalists as this point, but if the good people north of the Black Sea are still in on the joke and the ironics Eurovision fans of the West are out in force come May 15th, we could well be all back in Kiev come the spring of 2012 - and that would hardly be a bad thing, would it!

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