Posted in glasGOwest

Happy Anniversary

We are exactly one year old today. Technically one year ago, we had our first post about Cancel the Astronauts. A year later, CTA have finally released their debut.  While we stumble along at the furthest periphery of the Scottish music scene, I thought that a good way to mark this date would be to feature two recently acquired deluxe box sets; namely Meursault’s ‘Something for the Weakened’ on Song by Toad records and James Yorkston’s ‘I Was a Cat From a Book’ out on Domino.

I made a point of sitting down and listening to the previous Meursault record ‘All Creatures Will Make Merry’ before attempting to write down my thoughts about the new one. My overall feelings for the band stem from my initial and current reaction to this sublime record. While I did have the digital emusic version for some time, to be honest, it didn’t get much play time. It was obviously special, but I seemed to be less taken with the quieter bits in between the more accessible stomping melodic fare. As a result, I tended to listen to it sporadically. After pre-ordering the box set, I also ordered a vinyl copy of ‘Creatures’. Much of the time waiting was spent listening to the first record. To say it was a revelation is an understatement. Quietly sitting on the couch, listening and watching the vinyl spin it all made sense; the poetry, the compelling and contemplative voice, the lo-fi erratic beauty of it all; I fell in love with an album previously only understood superficially.

Getting the Deluxe Box Set (now sold out) was a relatively easy decision. It contained the 12 inch, both 7 inch singles, badges, a lyric booklet, download codes, tote and t-shirt and, most importantly of all, the inclusion of a 12 track demo CD. I purposefully avoided streaming any songs because I wanted to put the record on and hear it for the first time when it arrived, something that isn’t actually easy to do anymore these days.

The opening track is both simple and effective; immediately we learn that the ‘weakened’ should not and will not be weak anymore. The next song ‘Flitten’ happens to be the one song I’ve heard several times before. I almost wish that I hadn’t. It is so powerful, in fact, that on the first listen it still manages to eclipse everything else on side A.  ‘Lament for a Teenage Millionaire’ steps back somewhat with its pleasing banjo melody. Oddly there were no lyrics for ‘Settling’ in the booklet. It might actually be my favourite song on the record. What is most apparent is the confidence in which the music is presented. The layers are elegantly put together. It is rousing, deep and heartfelt. It seems more purposefully put together. Overall it is a surprisingly economical, effective and polished masterpiece.

When you turn the record over and the vocals from ‘Lightning Bolt’ began, I was struck with just how much more soothing, comfortable and accessible Mr. Pennycook’s voice has become.  The new single ‘Dull Spark’ has a beautiful and gentle melody which perfectly sets up the grander ‘Dearly Distracted’ which follows. I happened to be browsing  twitter and just as the mailman rang Ian Rankin (having just obtained the record himself) had commented how up until then that song was the standout. I’d have to gently disagree. I had taken such a shine to ‘Settling’ that I was expecting something even more massive.

 The first listening sequence was as follows album, the demo cd, the album on mp3, and then one more listen of the demos. After one listen I was not altogether sure the record had managed to go beyond the previous. The demo CD is truly wonderful. In many respects it represents a bridge for those people stuck on the beauty of ‘All Creatures’ to more comfortably embrace the new record. The acoustic version of ‘Settling’ is worth the price of admission alone. The other alternate versions are as wonderful as the unused gems ‘Timbre’ and ‘Steve’. Given a hypothetical choice of only being able to keep the new record or the demo CD, I might just have chosen the 12 songs on the demo after my first listen. Hopefully this will be made available in the future.

Several subsequent plays balanced and deepened my appreciation of the new material. It is truly an accomplished release. Meursault, always a diamond in the rough, have spent a good deal more time working on the setting. It is grand and heartfelt. Emotionally satisfying and moving. It certainly will rank as one of the year’s best. Personally, I think it raises Scottish music in general to a whole new level. I mean this in all seriousness; this single record by itself has raised the bar. Whether Frightened Rabbit fame awaits them outside (or even within) Scotland is an unknown. What is certain is that they should be as successful, both domestically and abroad, if there truly was any rhyme and reason to the musical landscape.

Though it arrived a bit late due to the apparent unavailability of the backgammon pieces, the James Yorkston ‘I Was a Cat from a Book’ box set is equally impressive. For one thing, there is a genuine box. The double 10 inch gatefold doubles as the backgammon board. The 3 piece CD/DVD contains the album, some alternate versions and DVD of the Union Chapel show. For someone never having had the opportunity to see JY in person this probably ranks as the best extra bit of all.

Like in the case of Meursault, my JY collection was limited to an emusic copy of ‘The Year of the Leopard’. For whatever reason, it was never really listened to either; with the exception of repeatedly played ‘Woozy with Cider’. I was enamored with the spoken word tale but did not explore the rest of the record. Odd as it might sound, I’d never really taken the time to hear James Yorkston sing.

The immediate reaction to the first song ‘Catch’ was how much I liked Mr. Yorkston’s singing voice. Watching a bit of the live DVD reinforces what a good guitar player-performer he is as well.  By the second song ‘Kath with Rhodes’ I was struck with the exceptional musical sensibility unfurling before me. Not just a pretty voice. The next two songs are equally satisfying. I literally knew nothing about the record other than it was coming out. I was completely taken by surprise to hear ‘Just as Scared’; unquestionably my favourite duet from the Fruit Tree Foundation record. The overall reaction was so favourable that  I had to go on a 5 item back catalogue online shopping trip to shore up some of the gaps in my instant  JY collection. 

I’m looking forward to the releases to come in our second year. There is so much still to explore. It has been a pretty amazing start.

To celebrate, Pedro has wangled us a couple of spots on the list for Django, Django this evening.  The Scottish connection just never ends.

Posted in Bands We've Chatted With

Cancel the Astronauts – Animal Love Match

I love the opening of Animal Love Match. It sounds like you are climbing a hill and then the uncharacteristically loud guitars signal that you’ve reached the summit. As the panorama unfolds the distinctive melodic CTA sound kicks in promising something even more than what has been offered before. Assuming much deliberation went into the opening track for the debut full length, what were your deliberations on executing a proper opening?

“We actually didn’t have to deliberate at all about this one. This was the album title so it made sense to put it first AND it has this nice buildy intro so it made sense to put it first AND it’s been the intro song of our live sets for about 18 months or something. Lyrically it sets out the themes and ideas of the album so it really was the perfect choice. There was some discussion about whether the intro was a tad too long, and we experimented with cutting it down, but nothing we did seemed quite right. We liked what we had already and I’m of the opinion that if people can’t concentrate on 2 minutes worth of buildyup noise then to bugger with them.”

I imagine it is a good idea to read the press release before submitting questions. 18 months. Would you have preferred to have recorded in a shorter time frame or did this drawn out period of time actually provide unexpected benefits?

“I would much rather it had been out 2 years ago, because it’s taken far too long to write and record. 1 album in 5 years probably isn’t a great model on which to build a successful band. I simply INSIST that the next one comes out sooner! Nevertheless, it wouldn’t have been as good if we hadn’t taken our time about it, and if this is the only one we ever make then I’m glad I can be proud of it. (Still should have had Echoes of Love on it mind). Since we had the luxury of recording it ourselves there was no deadline in place and we were able to add bits (and entire new songs) when we thought of them. We probably need a deadline next time and going in to a studio or hiring someone else outside the band as a producer/mixer/engineer is something we’re considering for the next one.”

I’m applying to be president of your American west coast fan club. As it turns out, it is the one physical EP I don’t have. Even worse, I just realized that I’ve never heard ‘Late in the City’ as my emusic download has duplicated ‘Country Song’ in the data file. You wouldn’t have any more hidden under a couch cover would you?

 “Sadly not, but as I understand it there’s quite a few of them on ebay; what’s more they’re cheap and they move pretty slowly! Shame about ‘Late in the City’. That’s a cracking song which we’re no longer allowed to play live, because Michael and Kieran think it’s “too long” and “boring”. Sadface. It’s one of my favourite CTA songs because it has a more laid back groove and we’re not all hitting everything very fast and very hard to a disco beat for a change.”

Some bands are content to recycle their material or, shudder, re-release an entire album. You’ve amassed an impressive back catalogue of songs and it would have been perfectly understandable to include a few more gems. Other than the two you decided to use, were there any that were under consideration?

“Fanclub, FFAG and She Said were all under serious consideration at various points over the last 18 months, but I’m glad we didn’t put any of them on. I really want to try and say goodbye to as many of those old songs as I possibly can. They’re good and I like them, and they’re fun to play from time to time, but we can do much better and we need to keep moving forward. So far people don’t seem too disappointed with the lack of old songs on the LP, which I think is proof enough that we’re improving as songwriters and that we made the choice. Besides, songs like Animal Love Match and Love Backwards are pretty old too by the standards of the really new stuff like Sold my Soul, so I think we’ve already got enough ‘old’ songs on there. I’m a devil for writing new songs and I get bored pretty quickly. Put me in a practice room to write a new song and I’m happy as Larry.”

A few years ago, I had to choose between seeing Teenage Fanclub or Bettie Serveert on the same night. What would you have done? How do I go about seeking absolution for going Dutch?

“I don’t really like Teenage Fanclub and I’ve never heard of Bettie Serveert so I’d have stayed in. And isn’t ‘Going Dutch’ a sexual euphemism?”

The thing I’m most astonished by after the first listening of the new record was how you’ve progressed. There has obviously been a good deal of maturation and development in the time since the first EP. What are you particularly most excited or happy about?

“Song wise I’m very pleased with Sold My Soul and Catch You. I think they prove to people that we’re capable of writing much more than just three minute pop tunes. I would agree that we’ve ‘matured’ and ‘progressed’. Some of this is natural because we’re older and because we want to try new things, but most of it I think is through deliberate choice. We decided when we first started to write upbeat pop, but we could equally have chosen to do sound more like Lekking or Catch You. I think the next album (and hopefully we make one) will sound less poppy still, and that’s what I’m most excited about- getting this one ‘in the can’ and starting the new one. I’ve got bugger loads of songs ready to be fleshed out; we just need to find the time to finish them. Unfortunately this takes a long time. There are very few songs that we write and record quickly- Sold My Soul being a delightful exception which we wrote and recorded in a month!”

Evol?

“It’s close to evil.”

Songs about love must be difficult to write without staying between the same worn lyrical goalposts. Do you maintain a lyric notebook? Are you inspired by things you hear?

“I have several lovely notebooks and hundreds of crumpled sheets of paper in and on which the lyrics are kept. A lot are in my phone, and I lost hundreds of lines when my phone (not backed up) got run over by cars a few months ago. Heartbreaking. I am mostly inspired by other people’s music to be honest, and I go back to the same songs and songwriters time and time again. The best ones you hear new things in every time, and there really seems no end to what you can dig out of other people’s artholes. That said, ideas come from everywhere, all the time- music, films, books, paintings, conversation, observation- and you never switch off. You need to have ears like sponges. ‘Goalposts’ make it sound a bit 2-dimensional. I genuinely think there are no borders or limits when writing about love. Instead of goalposts you should think of it as a multi-dimensional vortex, where there are no ups, downs , left or rights. It is always possible to say something new, or something old in a new way, or something old in an old but meaningful way if you just try hard enough.”

 This interview would mark our own one year anniversary. Do you place much stock in such things? (anniversaries that is; not the stupidity of blogging about Scottish music from 5000 miles away).

“No”.

My playing does not merit possession of these relatively modest guitars.  My rack contains: Alvarez MD60, Ibanez AEF-37E, Epiphone Sheraton 2, Fender Aerodyne Telecaster, Fender Fat Stratocaster. If you had to limit yourself to five guitars what would they be?

“1 acoustic one and 1 electric one. I literally know NOTHING about guitars. I can barely restring them without help. Seriously. I couldn’t tell you what any of the ones you’ve just mentioned look like. I’m honestly much more interested in the music you can make than with the instrument itself. I don’t even consider myself a musician, I consider myself a songwriter. That’s because I’m not very good at all at playing musical instruments. I learned by writing songs, not by practicing technique and theory etc. I really wish I’d have properly bothered to get good at the guitar and piano, because it would make me a better songwriter and performer. Unfortunately I don’t have the dedication or the patience to sit and practice scales. Whenever I get to a musical instrument I always end up trying to write something new, and as such I’m not very good at the actual playing part!”

I’m so excited about seeing Admiral Fallow next month in a little club down the street. The most frustrating thing of my extraordinary awareness of upcoming Scottish bands is not actually getting to see any them. Now that your about to take Scotland by storm, have you cast your gaze at the North American market yet?

“We’d love to but it’s incredibly unlikely I’m afraid. We’re so useless we can’t even organise our own gigs in Edinburgh. Would you like the be our North American booking agent?”

‘Lekking’ in the chorus – especially the line ‘who shouts the loudest’ reminds me of Tim Booth’s vocals. I imagine it has a lot to do with the length and cadence of the words. I’ve frequently read references to Pulp and would like to add that in the more contemplative songs you evoke James. What were you listening to in the 1990’s?

“Pulp, Oasis, Blur, The Verve, The Bluetones, Divine Comedy, The Lightning Seeds, REM. All that sort of stuff. Mostly guitars, mostly British. I like to stick on my James Best Of every now and then because they do have some cracking tunes don’t they, but I don’t listen to them very often at all. That said, you’re not the first person to say the singing reminds them of Tim Booth, but any similarity to him is purely coincidental.”

I’m not so patiently awaiting my James Yorkston boxset and State Broadcasters CD and matchbox moth. Is there anything you are looking forward to on the musical horizon?

“Hmmm… Frightened Rabbit must have a new album soon, and De Rosa have got back together. Apparently De Rosa are working on a new album which is very exciting! Did you ever listen to them?”

Now that the album is out, what do you see on the horizon for Cancel the Astronauts?

“Another one? Immediately!”

Although the world doesn’t need another record review – here goes.

I’ve always placed a good deal of importance on the opening and closing songs of an album. The titular ‘Animal Love Match’ starts off with a slow expansive keyboard fill while repeating the song title. Soon after, an uncharacteristic guitar assault signals that this is not your typical Cancel the Astronauts song.  After a two minute prelude, which is incidentally two thirds the length of almost all the other offerings to date, the two streams of sound coalesce and the familiar melodic onslaught of CTA commences. It invokes the anticipation that this record will take CTA to a whole new level.

A previous single and second song ‘Seven Vices’, in many respects, is the embodiment of the typical CTA song: strong driving melody; playful lyrics and even though I imagine that Mr. Riley doesn’t consider himself to be a singer; his voice is self-deprecatingly evocative – A less sardonic Jarvis Cocker.

I have to admit I’ve find the auto-tune treatment on the opening of ‘Intervention’ somewhat annoying. Seeing the video of the song played live without it in the Rockhopper at GoNorth reinforces how good this song actually is. Comparing the live version with the recorded one, I’m left feeling this is the one song that has suffered from a little too much time in the studio. Flipping back and forth between the two, I prefer the slightly sparser, wider open vocal dynamic of the live version.

CTA wisely use both of the two songs they’ve recycled from the back catalogue right at the beginning. Since Animal Love match seems as much a statement of intent as a song proper, it is the remaining nine songs that give a clear understanding of the overall maturation of their sound.

Love backwards – Evol- the Manic’s Revol instantly comes to this mind.  This is another song about love that somehow manages to tell a familiar story in an engaging way. The endearing thing about Riley’s vocals is their innocent sincerity and how nicely they mesh with the chiming ringing guitars. ‘Making Dynamite’ Is a great tune; it reminds me very much of my now defunct local favourites ‘elephone’. ‘Lekking’ starts out with a keyboard swirl, a singular guitar and vocals that are reminiscent of Tim Booth. This becomes most apparent during the refrain “Who shouts the loudest“.  Of course, the James comparison might just come to mind because of the lyrical choice of a monkey.

With the quieter and contemplative ‘Shapes’, you also can’t but help hear the James comparisons. There is a much greater purposeful conscious vocal range evident however. The similarity with the pacing and cadence of the words might account for the comparison. Perhaps it is really just a matter of emotionally reacting to that particular delivery; regardless of where it originates it is emotionally appealing. There is nothing derivative about the vocal delivery. However, I am curious how someone who has not been immersed in James since the 90s would react to those songs.

Just as the record has a ‘proper’ opening the closer “I Sold my Soul” encapsulates everything that is infectious about CTA and adds a two minute denouement mirroring the opening. One’s reaction to the album probably changes with your own personal musical goalposts; the two bands you inevitably try to pin any new band between. For me, at least, ‘Animal Love Match’ it sounds like 90’s 80’s influenced Brit rock/pop as seen from 2012. It is comfortably familiar at times. Someone of my generation inevitably hears and feels connections to the past a little more forcefully than someone less steeped in “British Alternative”. I personally have no idea how I would classify the noughties; I surmise it is the decade where genre classifications either disappeared or were finally overwhelmed)

Is this the best record I’ve heard all year? No. One does get the sense though that the best is yet to come. So many bands having perfected their sound by the first album, find that it really is only a matter of time before they gradually drift away from the very thing that sets them apart from the rest. CTA seems like a band that hasn’t yet reached its peak. This, although it might not sound like it, is a high compliment. There is so much more potential depth in their apparent musical approach; the very thing bands struggle with for the sophomore record. Although it is a bit early to be wishing for one the day of the debut release, I can’t wait to hear the next one.

All in all, this is an excellent record that should be in your Scottish music collection; perhaps for no other reason than that CTA have striven to create a record and sound that eshews the current Scottish musical sensibilities.