Thursday, 28 January 2010

Spanish Democracy

As a country that suffered the ravages of dictatorship for so long, it's nice to see the Spanish take to democracy so heartily - and nowhere is it more evident than their Eurovision selection process.

Three years ago, fed up with a string of poor to middling results, some genius at RTVE had the brainwave of opening their pre-selection contest up to the masses and not only allowing anyone to enter, but giving the whole world the opportunity to vote on them. No filtering or fine tuning - anyone could enter, from the most professional record-company endorsed act to the most lowly bedroom artist. Now that's the kind of democracy I like!

So they put out a call for songers across the land to display their wares on MySpace, not realising the mild controversy that would ensue. The plan was that punters would vote for their faves, and the top few would battle it out in a televised final. All very good, but it didn't take into account that fabulous human instinct for making things cheekily difficult. Inside days an unlikely contender raced to the top of the vote table. Antonio  'El Gato' González was an elderly man who had his croaky homespun warblings set to a bizarre mininal techno backing track for the song La Bicicletera. It was racing away into a huge lead when someone at the Spanish TV station noticed that a bulk its votes all came from the same few IP addresses. It subesquently had around 100,000 votes taken away from it, but still finished respectably well up the table.

This may have been good news for those hoping for a more traditional song, but their previous fears were soon doubled by one Rodolfo Chikilicuatre with his faux reggaeton stomper Baila el Chiki-Chiki. Chikilicuatre (local slang for good for nothing), was the comic creation of comedian David Fernández, a regular cast member on rival TV station LaSexta's late night show Buenafuente. With plenty of free publicity, and a groundswell of populist funtime opinion behind it, the song walked the final, and finished in 16th in Belgrade - still one of Spain's best results in some years.

The following year RTVE tried it all again, only this time in a much more complicated way. Once again, songs were submitted via MySpace. Of the 978 entries, only 455 were considered to be within the rule. These songs were then divided into genres. The top 5 songs in each of the ten categories then qualified for a protracted series of auditions and ever decreasing heats. Runaway leaders throughout the contest were a flamenco dance act called Melody y Los Vivancos with their difficult but exciting song Amante de la Luna. But despite tieing for the lead in the final with the severe-haired songstress Soraya and her more traditionally-Eurovision flavoured dance piece La Noche es Para Mí, they missed out on a trip to Moscow on a countback technicality.

Soraya eventually came 23rd out of 25th in the final.

So bless RTVE for their persistence - they're trying the whole thing again this year. Thankfully though the process is much simpler. This time, 480 songs were submitted, of which 319 were banged up onto the TV channel's website for a straight open vote - the top ten going on to fight out a gala final. But there was immediate controversy. Each viewer to the site could vote up to five times a day from the same email address. This led to accusations that those artists signed to big labels would benefit from dedicated PR departments flooding the table with votes sent from a string of specially created email addresses. But despite this, a surprise candidate flew to the top of the leaderboard inside 24 hours.

The song Soy Un Tsunami by a botox-powered old gal calling herself Pop Star Queen stormed  to the head of the field. It was soon discovered though that the performer was in fact one Karmele Marchante, a presenter from another minority channel - this time TeleCinco - who wanted to pull a similar stunt to old Chiki Chiki two years before. Close checks were then made on the content of all the submitted songs, which saw Pop Star Queen disqualified, along with a few other popular tunes (sadly also including the rather ace La Fiesta del Fuego by old-skool Valencian rave head Chimo Bayo). This meant that the table was now topped by Coral Segovia and her formula Disney-esque ballad En una Vida - particularly ironic as it was Coral who was beaten into second place by Rodolfo Chikilicuatre two years since.

But that isn't the end of it. It would seem that the curious forces behind Pop Star Queen are attempting to rocket another hapless hopeful to unexpected stardom. This has seen the unlikely rise to glory of a surly looking body-builder called John Cobra, with his raspy piece of bedroom business Carol. Leaping from near the bottom of the table to a solid third place in a few short days, RTVE are bound to cobble up some reason to disqualify it, but I for one hopes he makes it - if only to see how the poor soul is going to perform it live on a big stage in front of a whole bunch of people.

But it's the lower reaches of the voting table that holds the most joy. Mainly populated by transvestites and old men hammering away on guitars, there are many splendours to behold, and I highly recommend a quick visit to the official site to sample some of them yourself. If for nothing else than to sample the glorious marvel that is SuperEddy...

With a week of voting still to go, almost anything could happen. Coral Segovia will probably win it, as there's a general feeling among Eurovision fandom that it's her turn. But I suspect that there'll still be some thrills and spills along the way - particularly as our old mate El Gato has suddenly started creeping up the charts again!

Y Viva España!

All photos © lays with the owners
Videos from YouTube. Underlying © lays with the owners of the clips. 

Monday, 25 January 2010

The First Lady of French Pop

When I first noticed that Europe's coolest first lady, Carla Bruni, was doing a stint on Jools Holland a few months back to promote her new album, I immediately assumed, as many of us must have, that it was some mere vanity project, existing only to boost the ego of a woman with impossible opportunity at her fingertips.

I didn't watch the show that night, but when, a couple of weeks back, I saw a massive pile of her album on sale for 99p by the checkout of my local hyper-discount record store, I reckoned it would be worth less than a quid of my money to see what horrors were inprinted on this shiny round disc. I rushed home, chucked it onto my stereo and prepared to giggle.

What I wasn't expecting was for it to be not only listenable, but a cracking little album. Bruni's breathy, minimalist style brings to mind the kind of husky teen ingenue that old rogues like Serge Gainsbourg used to get the best out of back in the day. Indeed, Bruni's backstory probably hindered sales of Comme Si de Rien n'Etait (translated as a somewhat knowing As If Nothing Happened) rather than encouraged them. But don't let her status as Sarkozy's missus, and her track record as an indulged heiress and lover of the powerful put you off, because it's a lovely album.

A little digging in the crates led me to discover that this is in fact her third album, her debut Quelqu'un M'a Dit being released some five years before she met the guvnor of France. This album is every bit as good as her more recent effort, Bruni's butterfly thin voice fluttering across gossamer thin melodies and brittle song structures. I was expecting something of far more bombast and bluster, but instead enjoy the floaty light brightness of her body of music work.

Her middle album, No Promises, was a little more poncey, putting to music the words of WB Yeats, Emily Dickinson, WH Auden and many more dusty old poets, and is currently trying to fit work on her fourth disc, including a collaboration with that old musical hack Lenny Kravitz, in between her civic duties and philanthropic doings. But as much as you try you can't knock her two albums of French language original songs. Seriously, if you see them going cheap somewhere give them a pop, as you may be pleasantly surprised.

And whatever you think of the woman personally, could you imagine what kind of album the other spouses of the leaders of the world would put out? Sarah Brown, get the singing lessons in - you've got three months to get the album out and help save your old man his job!

 All pictures © of their respective owners
Videos from YouTube. Underlying © lays with the owners of the clips. 

Friday, 22 January 2010

Brutal Noise on Tenerife

There's something about living on an island that turns its inhabitants a little batchy. Perhaps it's the isolation, perhaps it being cooped in with the same familiar faces day after day, or maybe it's just the sea air. But when that island is perched off the steamy coast of  Western Sahara, has the world's third biggest volcano looming preganantly over it, and suffers the greasy footsteps of over five million tourists a year pacing (and puking on) it's pavements things are bound to be a little more unhinged than the workaday insanity of say an Anglesey or an Orkney.

So it came as no surprise to discover that the holiday isle of Tenerife is home to some of the most blisteringly unique rock and roll music on the globe.

I discovered it all quite by accident. I was having a peek around the fabulous Last FM website before a recent trip to Madrid to see if there were any gigs of note in town when we were there, when an entry for a band called Brutalizzed Kids caught my eye. Their gig was a week after our visit, but there was something about their album cover that lured me to find out a little more. A middle-aged gent, stripped to the waist with a wispy tache and dreadlocks piled up on his head and a world weary look on his face peered disapprovingly out of the screen. Whether he was a band member or just some bloke off the street I didn't know, but I rushed stright to their MySpace and was instantly struck by their fabulous shouty racket.

Their bombast is familiar, but still difficult to explain. Imagine the insistant industrial techno of Ministry or The Revolting Cocks fused with the sleazy Scandi rock and roll of Turbonegro or The Backyard Babies, sprinkled with the high tech energy of Pendulum and the filthy dirty basslines of someone like World Domination Enterprises from days gone by. And heavens I was hooked. The album Soy Muñeco has scarcely left my ears ever since - hit the link and buy the beggar, I implore you!

But then curiousity led me to wonder if they were an isolate incident, or if there was any similar noise on the island. Happily a quick MySpace trawl led me to loads more good stuff. Becerro are similarly noisy bunch, with a slightly more technofied edge, Ataud Vacante are old school punk with a sleazy edge,while 13 Motos are just a good old fashioned, nads out punk'n'roll act of the finest kind. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. There's plenty more - go search them out yourselves.

Every band is distinct, but all seem to share at least two members with the next. They say island life can be incestuous, but for me, this kind of cross-fertilization has led to some teriffically unique and brutal sounds. So next time your other half insists of dragging you to this holiday isle, ignore all the usual Brits-On-The-Piss sick in a basket bars and get yourself to the steamy clubs of Santa Cruz. Glorious treats await!

Pictures © Brutalizzed Kids.
Videos from YouTube. Underlying © lays with the owners of the clips. 

Thursday, 21 January 2010

A Fistful of Humppa

I have a long held belief that the true roots of rock'n'roll don't actually lay in the blues and the older music of the Africas, but in the raucous folk stomps of Northern Europe. Listen to the early country recordings of Ralph Peer, who took to the mountains of the rural states of America in the twenties to log the sounds and music of the region. The songs he recorded of family groups and solo troubadors like The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Fiddlin' John Carson had more to do with polka sounds of the Baltic and the wassails of Northern England than any kind of chain gang spiritual. It was those old country warblers and hillbilly cats that had such an influential effect on the early pioneers of rock'n'roll who came from the same neighbourhoods, and I fancy you can trace that polka element right through the ages to the simple hectic thrash of contemporary punk rock - simple tunes slammed out in boom-chit boom-chit time at a hectic speed.

Perhaps that's why I fell in love with the Finnish Humppa kings Eläkeläiset the second I heard them. And what's not to love? Five alt rockers on the dangerous fringes of middle age hammering out high octane retreads of popular songs as they sit around a table drinking raw vodka and acting disgracefully? They got me hooked and wanting to move to Finland and pester them outside their houses right off the bat.

Starting as an off-shoot of the old Finnish noisemongers Kumukameli, they soon became popular in their own right, and have since become inexplicably stadium huge across the German speaking nations and the former Soviets. And now they're about to embark on their biggest challenge yet - The Eurovision Song Contest.

This weekend sees them try their hand in the third Finnish semi-final in a national contest they are huge favourites to win. And if they make it to Oslo in May, and settle themselves in among the more traditional balladeers and Europop monkeys, I fancy that we've got an unexpected treat in store.

Any band who bury alocohol along their tour route, leaving clues on their website as to where to find it, or who offer fridge magnets, bottle openers, hip flasks and XXXXXL t-shirts for their stouter fans among their merch list deserve the love of Europe - even if it is only for three minutes on a Saturday night in May. If they can beat their main rival, the junior tango king Amadeus in their home selection contest, I can guarantee they'll be the ones you're all talking about at work the following Monday morning!

All hail the Humppa!

Pictures © Eläkeläiset.
Videos from YouTube. Underlying © lays with the owners of the clips.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Kammermetal-Core - German Chamber Music Rawks!

You can always guarantee finding something a bit odd in Berlin, and on a recent trip I stumbled across a gig that underlined that statement in big yellow marker pen. Chamber Metal, anyone?

Colombiaclub, an old US Forces cinema on the perimiter of the decaying Cold War landmark Tempelhof airport, was the glorious setting for a night of quite abject strangeness. Its faded 50s chic jarred nicely with the goth-tinged metalists in corsets and stove pipe hats that were mingling among the big-bellied rockers and excitable young nippers who made up the crowd in equal numbers. And the first band up only added to the already curious nature of the night..

Remember Twilight describe themselves as Kammermetal-core - Kammer meaning Chamber, as in Chamber Music. So it was a surprise to see that half of this mob looked like they could have been in any youth-fuelled metal band on the globe. But it was the addition of the more classically-brandished instruments that gave this mob its winning difference. Violins, cellos and a gangly, slightly self-conscious chap in a black skirt clutching an oboe mingled among the more trad black clad metalists - it all looked a bit incongruous, but it sounded flipping ace.

Next were Silent Poem. With a name like that I was expecting some withering goth-metal whimsy. But instead we were presented with another untraditional set up - this time drums, guitar, violin and a stick thin double bass. The jovial front boy oozed charisma, and their slick stompy sounds roped in genres as diverse as bar room jazz, celtic folk, ska punk and heads down and shake yer head metal noise. And the kids loved them, as a right old hootenanny kicked off down the front, with folk reels and headbanging colliding in a sea of thrown flowers. But all this was just the curious entree before the rich banquet that soon followed.

An old radiogram sat centre stage, wheezing out crackly sounds of the past, as a sketchy gent in white tie and tails crept on holding a candle lamp and began to dust the stage. One by one, Victorian gentlemen in tall hats and long coats marched purposefully onto the stage, the butler taking their vestments and easing them into their chairs. Once this drawn out but quaintly amusing ceremony had finished, six pale-faced characters stood before us - and there wasn't a single guitar between them. Double bass and cello flanked the wings, a hirsute ninja manned a hefty drumkit festooned with old lamps at the back, and two hollow-eyed dervishes tooted furiously on twin clarinets, while Bastille the butler skitted between them, straightening chairs, cleaning up and making the occasional proclamation.

Coppelius, it seems, are a high concept band. And that's before you even get to the music.

Steaming immediately into a barrage of power metal riffs sawn out on the big stringed things, their wind division piping out the melodies with a banshees wail, you suddenly realise you're among familiar company. Songs by megalithic metal monsters the calibre of  Metallica, Maiden and Rammstein are given the chamber treatment, sounding for every bit like they should always have been played this way. And while all this is going on, a funny old master-and-servant soap opera is playing out between the band and their trusty manslave.

Down the front, the metal heads are doing windmills to clarinet solos, and love notes are being passed to the on stage retainer to be read out to the adoring masses. If I could speak better German this could all make perfect sense - but somehow I like the not knowing. Well it does add further to the air of oddness and curious mystery.

Two and a quarter hours later and they were still heaving out the noise. But somehow it had only seemed like twenty minutes had passed, we were that engrossed. I'm not sure if we'd stumbled across the iceberg tip of a movement, or an isolated incident, but this Chamber Metal business gave us one of the best nights out I've had in a long while - and is a scene, I sense, that needs some further exploration.

Pictures © Remember Twilight, Silent Poem, Coppelius.
Videos from YouTube. Underlying © lays with the owners of the clips. 

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The Funkiest Music in the World

I remember a  few years ago watching a cracking documentary about the isolated people of Bougainville called Our Island, Our Fight. The island was a near autonomous region at the eastern end of Papua New Guinea being plundered for minerals by the shady multi-national RTZ. The island's residents were rightly narked that their Island was being ripped to bits without them seeing any benefits from the trade, so they started to kick up a fuss - a move that led to a blockade that completely cut them off from the outside world.

The film showed the islanders' remarkable resourcefullness, and their make-do-and-mend attitude led to them creating some extraordinary organic machines. But as fascinating as all this was, it was the soundtrack that really got to me. From the opening scenes, a fabulous, funky twang underpinned the movie's events - and I just couldn't work out what was making it. It didn't quite sound like a stringed instrument, but it also wasn't a drum noise. It had me bamboozled, until one scene panned round to show a gang of men hammering away on the end of a stack of bamboo pipes with their shoes! Now I wasn't expecting that.

That sound had been kicking around in the back of my head ever since, until I randomly bought a job lot of albums in a cheap sale at an old dying record shop last week. I was churning my way through a rather interesting compilation album of international sounds called Island Blues, when all of a sudden that familiar and glorious thumppa-thumppa-thumppa-thumppa noise from Bougainville came belting out of my stereo.

Sure enough, it was a group from PNG called the Pynolasa Bamboo Band. I've tried to track some more of their stuff down on the internet, but alas to no avail. But I did get to find out a little more about this fantastic music. It turns out that it originated in The Solomon Islands, and started to shift to other neighbouring islands in the 1920s. Originally they hit the end of the pipes with coconut husks, but when American forces passed through in the war they suggested that their sandals might make better hitting paddles. And so it's gone on ever since. No contemporary instruments, no amplification, but such a glorious racket.

Have a look at a these few shaky YouTube clips, and you'll be hooked, I guarantee! Its organic rock'n'roll rattle is unarguably the funkiest music on the planet.

A bamboo band from Papua New Gunea

The Bougainville Boys in rehearsal

The Shortland Bambu Band from The Solomon Islands

A Solomon pipe band - just watch those kids hammer those pipes!

Map picture © Wikipedia.
Videos from YouTube. Underlying © lays with the owners of the clips. 

Monday, 18 January 2010

Pavel Turcu - Popstar For A Fortnight

Fame can be such a fleeting mistress, as Pavel Turcu is just beginning to realise. The last couple of weeks saw him rise from total obscurity to become Moldova's most talked about celebrity, only to have the rug pulled out from beneath him by his country's national TV broadcaster before he even fledged his popstar wings.

It started in such an unlikely fashion. TRM, the Moldovan state broadcaster, launched an open application process that allowed anyone to send in a song in the hope of becoming their country's entry for the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest. As the tunes rolled in, TRM put them all up onto their website to let the world have a look at and to gauge each artist's popularity.

Among the early adopters was our hero, a supermarket security guard from Ungheni with a gloriously innocent and optimistic tune called Imn Eurovision - a hymn about everything that is great about that funny old contest. The song was sweet enough, but it was the picture that accompanied it that started up all the fuss. Pavel cut a slightly awkward swathe in his starched, shiny suit and bog brush hair. But he also exuded a kind of home-spun charm that struck a nerve in everyone who saw it.

In days our boy had his own Facebook fansite, and his clip was getting more views than all the other songs in the contest put together. By the end of the week, parody clips and funny pics based on the unsuspecting singer were cropping up all over the web - including the inevitable Hitler/Downfall movie skit. He was rapidly becoming such a star that local TV news programmes were clamouring to interview him. At first they were slightly mocking of his limited but likable talents. But in time they too had hitched a ride onto the Turcu bandwagon.

It was all beginning to look good for Pavel. He was hot favourite among the Eurovision crowd to be chosen to represent his nation in front of 300 million viewers at the contest in Oslo this coming May. He'd even been practicing his dance moves in a fabulous (and admittedly slightly amusing) video that he'd published on his shiny new website. All that stood in his way was TRM and their final shortlist.

At the close of applications last week, some 87 songs had been entered. The telly folks had to trim that down a more managable 25 for the national final, and with the press that Pavel had been getting it was almost inevitable that he'd get through. After all, with public phone voting making up only a third of the eventual result, they could surely risk putting him in - if only to bump up the ratings.

But alas no. Instead they cut out all of the more outsider entries, and presented a list of safe and somewhat lifeless tunes. Pavel's hopes had been dashed almost before they'd begun. But in that fortnight he'd become the man that a whole country had suddenly been talking about. An innocent party in the kind of ad hoc personality cult that this old internet thing can create at the drop of a hat.

In his many TV interviews it was clear that he didn't entirely understand why all this was happening to him. So let's hope that it doesn't change the poor lad, and that he either goes back to normal as quickly as possible, or becomes a star of such magnitude that he can thumb his nose at the visionless naysayers at TRM. Good luck Pavel Turcu - we loved you!

Pictures & videos © Pavel Turcu.