Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Scout Niblett

[from Loose Lips Sink Ships, featuring amazing photography from Steve Gullick. Scout has a new album out soon, and I've been feeling a little 'kidnapped by neptune' myself lately, so I thought I'd upload it.]

The drivers oozing down the dew-slicked blackness of the road stare incredulous through their windscreens, slowing down at the same spot as if on cue, rubbernecking like this were the scene of an accident. If you could see the traffic from the sky, the cars might almost resemble some multi-coloured, tin-plated worm inching slowly along the tarmac, bunching up somewhere near the middle.

On the shores of a concrete island, a girl holds her tiny frame aloft in a perfect handstand stance, concentration etched on her face, skin reddening, her sandy hair grazing the grimy pavement. Which would be remarkable in of itself (this being the dead of night, in the bleakest middle of winter, and not some gymnastics event), even if she weren’t wearing a luminous orange tabard (which she is) like a member of airport security gone astray, or a day-glo Hallowe’en skeleton costume (which she is) that makes her look like one of Kreese’s lackeys from The Karate Kid. As the cars pass silently their headlamp beams pick out the reflective material on her tabard and skeleton, so she glints and flashes and glows in the darkness.

Her name is Emma ‘Scout’ Niblett, and she does things other people mostly don’t, like singing songs accompanied only by her own drums, recording mournful covers of reggae classics, penning poems of encouragement to Charlie Brown’s insecure playmate Linus Van Pelt, and performing handstands while dressed like Bones from Superted round the back of a dingy North London pub.

The world being what it is, a number of these things Scout Niblett does tend to aggravate people no end. Internet message board I Love Music features a thread running to 125 replies (last count) rather hysterically titled ‘Scout Niblett: the *WORST MUSIC* in the WORLD..…’, where Emma is, in turn, labelled ‘grating’, ‘retarded’, a ‘shrill little harpee’ [sic], ‘twee to the max’, and a ‘prima arsehole’.

“There’s some people, I’m sure, that don’t get it,” she shrugs later, drawing concerned stares with her tabard and bones in the pub. “But the people who get it love it! It’s extreme… Some people just write me off, some people think the music’s brilliant. There’s no middle ground.”

Those in the market for pigeon-holing have earmarked her as mere post-Cat Power fallout, but that can’t be right, because I never loved Cat Power like I love Scout Niblett (and I love cats, ask anyone), and I never looked forward to Cat Power shows like I hunger for Scout Niblett shows (actually, I never looked forward to a Cat Power show, period, after my first, but that’s another story).

She started playing guitar when she was twenty-one, besotted with Nirvana. “To me, the beauty of Kurts songs were that they seemed so easy to play. They were so simple, but so powerful. When I picked up the guitar, I just knew I needed to do it.”

The first song she ever played was The Pixies’ ‘Gigantic’, picking the bassline out by ear on a single guitar string. At university, she played in a group called Novachichi with Akiko, singing drummer for the awesome Comanechi and Pre, and studied music, art and performance. Regular live performance being a key part of her course, she played gigs when she could, performing at local Open Mic nights in Nottingham. “And Im really grateful for that,” she remembers, “because being forced to do it was so good for me. Im quite shy. I knew Id die if I didnt get into it, that Id die of shyness onstage [giggles], so I threw myself into it, and got really obsessed.”

She’d been dabbling with the drums since 1997, but a fellow regular at the Open Mic nights sold her on the instrument. “He was this old man, he would play calyspo songs on the guitar. Hed been in the military when he was young, so if ever there was a drum kit around, hed sit behind it and start playing the snare drum, singing Beatles songs. He used to play 8 days A Week And I thought it was the most amazing thing Id ever seen, and I wanted to do it.”

Some memories of Scout: her walking through the audience, singing like a proud missionary, as Brother Daniel strummed twisted hymnals dressed like a muppet fruit tree; raging excited in the Buffalo Bar, planning a cover of Thin Lizzy’s ‘Jailbreak’ with similarly elemental grungers Winnebago Deal; close to tears one afternoon because her drum-kit has gone AWOL; glorious that evening, backed by her drummer Jason Kourkounis (formerly of Mule, Delta 72, Hot Snakes, Beehive & The Barracudas and Burning Brides), sorting through the heavy girders and sore splinters of her new album, Kidnapped By Neptune, to deliver something raw and richly melodic, vulnerable and empowered, something several leagues more starkly beautiful than her music’s cathartic origins might suggest; the day I realised that wig Emma used to wear all the time was actually a wig…

“I don’t really wear the wig anymore,” says Emma, of the ash-blonde mane she used to sport onstage, which so altered her appearance I thought she wore it to shake besotted stalker fans after the show (inna ‘Scout Niblett has left the building!’ stylee). “It’s kind of been replaced by this orange thing [indicates tabard]. It’s almost shamanistic, that the clothes you wear give you power within yourself. For me, its definitely about empowering myself through what these clothes do for me.

“Its not that they create a different persona Its not me wearing just any wig, its that particular wig, or that look… Like, with the orange jacket, it made me feel safe the minute I put it on. I know that sounds stupid, but I actually do get really strong feelings off certain clothes. And thats why I dont have many clothes, I get really obsessed with the clothes Ive had for years, because I feel like they allow me to be myself. Its not like I wear them trying to be someone else, they actually bring out that part of my self.

“It’s like with music,” she continues. “I love music. Its the only thing that really makes me feel I used to play piano when I was little, making up songs. I’ve just got a real need to express myself, and musics the thing that I love most. I didnt feel I had a choice about it, I just needed to do it.”

The first Scout Niblett song I ever heard and loved was ‘Gymnastic (Fall Over)’. Those crashing drums hit like amphetamine, blood-racing, dizzying. And her voice, unaccompanied, yelling and yowling, “Let’s go! Let’s go!”, all desperate, excited, like you could hear blood-vessels breaking in her throat: this incessant and insistent sense of urgency, forcing these words out of her at such a velocity and volume… An energy that was utterly contagious.

The second Scout Niblett song I ever heard and loved (and this one sealed the deal) was her titular blues for Linus Van Pelt, Emma playing cheerleader for that wonderfully odd and terminally insecure boy from Charles M Schulz’s Peanuts cartoons, the one who believes in the Great Pumpkin, and can recite whole chunks of the bible from memory, and who looked like an owl when he wore glasses to correct his lazy eye (and that made his sister Lucy cry, but don’t tell anyone or she’ll pound you), and who drags that dang security blanket with him everywhere he goes. I haven’t met a girl yet who wasn’t a little in love with Linus.

“I’ll draw inspiration from anything,” she grins, “Something will pop into my head and have me intrigued, curious, thoughtful enough to write a song. With ‘Linus’, I just got thinking about the whole thing with his security blanket. I wanted to tell him, ‘you don’t need it!’”

Do you have a ‘security blanket’ of your own?

“I don’t know. I guess, like I was saying earlier, my clothes. The tabard.”

But you draw strength from your tabard… Maybe you should let Linus alone, let him keep his security blanket?

“Yeah, maybe,” she muses thoughtfully, before stopping herself. She wrinkles her nose and giggles. “I love that we’re discussing Linus Van Pelt like he were a ‘real’ person!”

The strip’s almost-fifty year lifespan gave Schulz the time to invest these little kids’ unnaturally-extended adolescences with enough anxiety, whimsy, weird detail and emotional depth as to make them seem real. A very adult angst pervades Peanuts; it’s evocation of childhood is so realistic, so telling, because the strip takes a child’s perspective. Adults are always telling kids that childhood is the best time of their lives, free of the responsibilities of adulthood. But, trapped within their own dramas, and lacking the maturity or experience to put their anxieties into perspective, the trials of childhood - insecurity, humiliation, struggle, loneliness - seem very real and insurmountable to the children living it. Fear is a constant theme, emotional isolation another, as these children try and adapt to the very adult complexities of their lives.

It’s not hard to imagine the elfin Emma, dressed up in her tabard and skeleton costume, telling Linus about astrology as she takes the boy from the pumpkin patch to go trick-or-treating. Peanuts and Kidnapped By Venus, Scout Niblett’s third album, share a similarly anxious mindspace.

Self, or the sense of ‘self’, or the periodic loss of that sense of ‘self’ (and how that’s scary, and dangerous, and exciting, and healthy, and entirely natural, and perhaps the work of mysterious celestial forces) is a central theme of Kidnapped By Neptune. The sleeve artwork is mostly black, printed on card not unlike the paper you’re currently reading, sucking in light and reflecting none back (even the CD tray is cast in black plastic). There are only two photographs: the first, on the cover, is a blurred shot of Scout walking, back to the camera, into blackness, the reflector strips on her orange tabard flaring wildly. In the second photograph, the CD inlay’s centre spread, freezing waves erupt in frothy grey and white from the darkness. A closer stare into these choppy waters finds Emma drowning, not waving, her blonde hair lank and sodden and masking her eyes, willing herself softly swallowed by the waves.

The title is a reference to the several years Emma has spent with the Roman God of the sea fucking up her astrological shit. “Neptunes been really strong in my chart,” she explains, “and the whole thing about Neptune is you lose control of who you are. That can be a bit demoralising. But at the same time, its a good thing; youre able to see yourself in a less-fixed way. But its quite scary...

“Because I do astrology, Ive been able to see whats been happening Neptune just affects everything, it makes everything foggy. My whole experiences been not very solid, it’s been up in the air since Neptune came in the frame. It’s been there for two years; its always moving, but because the constellation passes so slowly, when it enters your chart, youll feel that for a long time.”

Emma’s dad bought her a book about astrology when she was six, which she would pore over for hours, researching her sun sign. As she grew older, she got deeper into the subject, composing her own charts by the time she was nineteen.

“I can do charts for other people, too, people ask me to write their charts all the time…” she smiles proudly. “It’s mostly maths, initially, because you have to calculate things. The art of it is trying to interpret what all that data means, what’s indicated by the pattern of the stars on the day you were born. And thats just a matter of sitting down for hours and writing it all down.

“When someone does your first chart reading on your personality, its just astonishing. And it feels so true, what it says about you just hits home. And then, through experiencing things over the years, you can see astrology working in front of your eyes, all the time. Astrology can help you be dynamic with whats going on, instead of just being a victim of it. Its empowering.”

Neptune’s disruptive influence, she says, anticipated several years of personal upheaval; her charts didn’t predict exactly what challenges and misfortunes would beset her, but the knowledge that she would be enduring some choppy emotional waters at least reassured her that she wasn’t losing her mind, that this was just a necessary period of astrological unrest that would surely be followed, at some later date, by calmer seas.

So she endured the insecurity and displacement of pursuing her art, travelling the world, relocating to America, finding kindred spirits in Danielson Famile, in Jason Molina and his country rock renaissance friends, in Swearing At Motorists and in Steve Albini, who records her at his Electric Audio studios in Chicago, his tight-focus, no-Vaseline-on-the-lens technique serving her sparse and brutal blues to the ground, capturing every gutteral growl, every sly lick, ever tender moan. She broke a few hearts, took a couple of lumps of her own, let her self melt a little with someone else’s, and when that didn’t work out spent some time licking her wounds, pulling herself back together again, and working out just exactly who that self was.

Sometimes, in a relationship, the line between yourself and your partner becomes blurred, and you find your own essential make-up somehow altered by this other person, what they mean to you, what they do to you, how they make you feel. And then, one day, they aren’t there anymore, and at first all you feel is the shock of that loss, that absence. But then you start to recover, and have to begin the painful process of working out just who you are again, when you aren’t a part of someone else, and which of these many component parts is really you anyway, and which of them you want to remain.

Which is where Kidnapped By Neptune comes in. Loss, absence, longing and displacement are all constants here, a sequence of songs mood-swinging between anguished melancholy and a desperate sense of self-assertion. It essays this period of ‘losing control of who you are’, as Scout’s world is scattered to the winds, and she sorts through the debris, trying to make sense of it all. Like the stars that make up a constellation were suddenly thrown out of their orbits, and struggled to pull themselves back into order.

It opens with ‘Hot To Death’, all swooning guitars and heavenly croons, a junk-sickly Breeders lullaby, slipping sharply into the cold, sobering nightmare of ‘Kidnapped By Neptune’. Fogged with the chilling gloom of ‘Moody’-era ESG, finding a funk similar to Free Kitten’s mantric ‘Never Gonna Sleep’, it’s a maddeningly-hooked breakdown, or maybe a ‘coming-to’, a bid hello to a self forgotten. Over a martial stomping drum break, an urgently pinging bassline, ‘shoop shoop shoop’ coos come on like The Flamingoes’ deliciously eerie ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ set to a motorik beat. Then, a slaloming low pulse sweep, a repeated refrain of “Where’ve you been? Where-where’ve you been?” melting into an ecstatic, yawning “Yooooouuu craaaaaaaaazy giiiiiiiirl!”. Repeat twice and finish; you cannot imagine how fantastic it sounds.

“I’d had that drum piece, the barumdum tish, in the back of my mind for ages,” Emma grins. “I started playing it It was a drum song really. It felt good to be so sparse, strip everything down to the element. I hummed the melody into my computer.”

‘Kidnapped By Venus’ is a certain kind of break-up song, greeting the person she was before the love she just lost, a cautious welcome like you might offer to a dear but errant friend who always drags you into their wild and chaotic turmoil when they come around (not that you don’t love every minute of it). Retelling Little Red Riding Hood, with Scout as both predator and prey, it gives way to the funereal, wallowing ‘Pom Poms’, Scout slumped in her own little corner, unloved, murmuring “Everyone needs a cute girl with pom-poms to spell out their name in song”. Skip forward to ‘Valvoline’, those rasping, rigid traps slamming petulantly, Scout shouting, “I am the driver! I am the driver! I am the driver!” And while she’s logged plenty hours behind the wheel of the tourbus, this is not just a song of motoring primacy.

“It meant two things,” she smiles. “It was definitely about driving, but the main thing it was about for me was saying, Im driving myself, Im doing this. Yeah. If that makes sense. Reclaiming my self, I guess.”

‘Wolfie’ is breath-taking, Scout picking out a Crazy Horse blues, mourning a dying love and dreaming what could have been. “My hand held yours, and who was prouder to be with the other?” she asks in hazy remembrance, the waning melody telling a more uneasy story. “I think it was me,” she answers, sadness creeping in. The tempo slows, becomes hypnotically erratic, melting into a wounded strum, roaring into volume then recoiling penitently, as she sloughs into a sentiment that stings, a painful desire. Her face pressed against the railings, yearning for what cannot be, she sings darkly, “In the end, I would have loved you forever. I know it to be true, because though we’re not together, love is never through.” She sounds utterly bereft, like she knows this will never heal.

“Periods of emotional instability are when I do my best writing,” she says. “Like, when Im feeling really alright and happy, I don’t really feel as much need to write a song. Im just someone who has extreme emotions, its not like Im always sad or Im always happy, and I know thats not going to change, so I know Im always going to need to write songs. And some of the songs are celebratory, its not like I cant write when Im feeling good. But its a different kind of energy. It feels good to get stuff down on paper.”

There’s an old Paul Simon lyric lodged in my head, about heartbreak leaving you open, “So everybody sees you’re blown apart, everybody feels the wind blow”. And there’s a lot of debris being cleared up across these tracks, a lot of very raw feelings being worked out.

“A lot of what I sing about, I dont really know what it is Im singing about until its done. I never sit down and think, Im gonna write a song about this. Its like my subconscious is trying to get some message to me, through my lyrics. Music’s helped me find myself, and define myself; its always really cathartic for me. And its helped these last few years, when Ive been Kidnapped by Neptune.”

Most striking of Kidnapped By Neptune’s songs is the haunting, electrifying ‘Lullaby For Scout In 10 Years’. A song penned for whoever Emma will be in a decade’s time, it verbalises the fears and anxieties soothed by the Doris Day Easy Listening favourite ‘Que Cera Cera’ (check Sly & The Family Stone’s Stand LP for a soul-slaying take on this old standard), Emma asking herself “Is there someone to hold you tightly in their arms?” over tentative, twisted strings. “If there’s no-one, then drink a glass with me,” she reassures herself, before yelling, over the kind of splintering, charred guitars Kurt Cobain struck on In Utero, “Honey, If you’re still around”. It’s such a startling line, not least for that opening “Honey,” sung like this Emma-from-the-present might be the only friend Emma-of-the-future has (or maybe the only constant from this moment to that), but mostly for even questioning that she might see out another decade.

“I do think about it, yeah, what I‘ll be like in ten years’ time,” she laughs, “But I have no idea what Ill be like. The whole point of that song, to me, is if Ill still be around. Because I dont even know if Ill even be alive or not. Not for any specific reason, just because we dont know.

“I think its interesting to think ahead ten years,” she continues. “Even though we all know were going to die eventually, we tend to have this feeling that were going to be around until were at least 65, 70. But I think it’s good to question that, to question whether you’ll still be here in ten years’ time - I say ten years, but I could’ve written a week. I think it stops you taking everything quite so for granted.”

In the ten years since you started learning to play guitar, you’ve made records, travelled the world playing music, relocated to America, collaborated with wonderful musicians… Could you have predicted any of this then?

“No! Its amazing to me, it’s the best thing... And its funny, considering Im so obsessed with astrology and predicting the future… The paradox is, I love the fact that I cant really predict whats going to happen.”

What if someone came into the bar tonight and said they could tell you what the Scout of ten years time would be like, where you’ll be in a decade?

“I wouldnt want to know. [pause] Well, I would want to know, but I know it would be bad for me to know. Because if you know what’s going to happen in the future, you’ll just give up on the present.”

She’s doing better now, is Emma, better than when she wrote and recorded this album anyway. Neptune is making his slow exit, and she’s making some kind of sense of what’s left, after his disruptive visitation.

“Im very independent,” she asserts. “I think Im like that because I do have a strong sense of who I am, even though I have periods when it feels difficult, and I feel wobbly, trembly. But underneath, theres something Ive got That I know I dont know how to describe it…”

A sense of self?

“Yeah. Maybe that’s strange.”

Not really. You’re sure of yourself, because you know how it feels to be at odds with yourself. How can you know who you really are, what you can achieve and withstand, if you don’t challenge yourself?

She nods. “It’s those times when things are difficult, when you learn who you really are.”

(c) Stevie Chick, 2005

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Raconteurs win MOJO album of the year for Broken Boy Soldiers

[written for MOJO, obv., for their year-end issue 2006]

A luxuriously-appointed drawing room overlooking Hyde Park, the Royal Suite of London’s Mandarin Hotel doesn’t often play host to rock’n’roll groups – especially not those who only released their debut album a scant five months earlier.

But then The Raconteurs are no ordinary rock’n’roll group – a fact that both privileges and plagues them. Throughout 2006 they’ve enjoyed a profile their peers would kill for, not least thanks to the presence of Jack White on vocals and guitar. But Jack’s celebrity also dictated their first public appearance was a sold-out show at Liverpool’s Academy, rather than something more comfortably low-key, while the media focus on White (to the detriment of the others) sometimes harshes the mellow of a group who want most of all to be seen as ‘just some four guys’.

Those four guys stride into the Royal Suite around lunchtime, still on a bleary-eyed high from the previous evening’s triumphant show at Manchester’s Apollo, though they greet MOJO photographer Mattia Zoppolera with a little suspicion when he asks to shoot individual portraits, seeking a guarantee that the magazine will print portraits of all members of the group. Bonhomie is restored, however, with the award of MOJO’s Album Of The Year accolade for their joyously-rockin’, abundantly-melodic Broken Boy Soldiers.

“Well, cheers to that,” grins singer/guitarist Brendan Benson, as the group clink their glasses and coffee mugs with his bottle of Berocca vitamin supplement.

“You should’ve told us that before the photos,” laughs a visibly-surprised White. “Nice one.”

“Making this record was super-easy,” smiles Benson. “We didn’t try to come up with ‘the best album of all time’ or anything; we were just playing, screwing around, which is always the best way.”

“We made it like groups have always made their first album: quickly,” adds White. “It comes out of your head, you put it down on tape, it’s done.”

“Broken Boy Soldiers is almost like a demo,” nods Benson, “especially when you hear how we play those songs live now. Really, the next record will be our ‘first record’.”

Yes, the cat is out of the bag – new Raconteurs and White Stripes albums are due next year, schedules permitting.

“I’m over-flowing now with so many ideas,” offers White, gleefully. “I have a lot of White Stripes songs I want to record, and I want to make another Raconteurs record – I don’t know what should come out first.”

“How about we take all the good songs?” suggests drummer Patrick Keeler.

“In fact, just give us all your songs,” laughs Brendan, “We’ll sort them out for you…”

2006 was, by the Raconteurs’ own varying accounts, “long”, “busy”, “a blur”. They are unanimous upon the year’s highlight, however: the MTV Video Music Awards, held at New York’s Radio City Hall in August, the group joined by Lou Reed for a chuggin’ ‘White Light White Heat’, and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons for a short boogie through ‘Cheap Sunglasses’.

“Who would’ve thought, learning to play Velvets songs on the guitar at the age of sixteen, that you’d end up playing with Lou Reed?” reflects bassist ‘Little’ Jack Lawrence, softly. “He was… real nice!”

“Surprisingly so,” nods Jack, “having heard all the ‘stories’ about Lou. There’s a moment when we were playing ‘White Light’, and we hit the ‘oohs’ just right, and you can see him just grinning.”

“When we were rehearsing with Billy Gibbons, he plugged in and started playing, and we all looked like excited little kids,” adds Patrick. “My mouth hurt from smiling so much.”

It was a year The Raconteurs spent mostly on the road, playing high profile gigs like Lollapalooza and the Fuji-Rock festival in Japan. In their eyes, though, the ‘biggest’ show was their first, in Liverpool.

“I remember being backstage and thinking, for all we’d done together in the past – touring, recording – the four of us had never walked out onstage together before,” reflects Jack. “It was like we were all starting over again, at stage one – on purpose.”

Still, there are some who dismiss The Raconteurs as a mere side-project, another of Jack’s ‘premeditated’ follies.

“To me, that diminishes what The Raconteurs is,” muses Brendan. “That makes it sound like just some ‘side-project’. I mean, it is, but it’s so much more, as well. We all put our heads together and created something different, and it’s not entirely a reaction to something else – mostly it stands on its own.”

“People think everything I do is ‘pre-meditated’, because of The White Stripes,” bristles Jack. “They don’t understand that all the pre-meditation happened back in 1997, on that day when we said, ‘we’re only gonna wear red, white and black’. We never discussed that again, just followed it. But they think I sat down and decided what the Raconteurs would look like and sound like. And they’re so off the mark. It’s really unhealthy to have that kind of cynicism around you, it’s worse than having drug users around you.”

Cynicism from some corners of the media seems the only cloud souring the view from the Royal Suite this afternoon; soon they’ll be touring America with Bob Dylan, and then – at some undefined point in the hopefully not-too-distant-future, returning to the studio.

“When The Raconteurs make our second album, the dust will clear, and people will see us for what we are,” promises Jack.

Little Jack nods, and grins. “We’re gonna aim for Album Of The Decade on the next one!”

(c) Stevie Chick, 2006

The White Stripes: Icky Thump

[for the London Lite]

It’s more than five year now since the White Stripes first arrived in the UK, amid a hail of hype (and whispered rumours as to the exact nature of singular frontman Jack White’s relationship with drumming ‘sister’ Meg) but our national fascination with the group shows no sign of abating. The groups who surfaced with them in 2001, The Strokes and The Hives, have been replaced on the nation’s tee-shirts and iPods by the likes of the Arctic Monkeys and Snow Patrol, but the allure and mystique of the Detroit duo remain intact, six albums into their career.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Since the Stripes’ last album, 2005’s blistering, wounded Get Behind Me Satan, Jack White has wed Mancunian supermodel Karen Elson (who contributed the album title, a corruption of Lancastrian colloquialism ‘ecky thump’), fathered two children, and enjoyed acclaim and success with his extra-curricular supergroup, The Raconteurs. And Icky Thump wasn’t recorded on a shoestring in the front room of singular singer/guitarist Jack White’s house in Detroit, or London’s fabled low-budget garage-rock haven Toe Rag Studios, but is the result of a marathon (by their standards) three weeks at the relatively luxurious Blackbird Studio, in White’s new home of Nashville.

Still, anyone fearing that such salubrious surroundings and Jack’s newfound domestic bliss might have smoothed away The White Stripes’ electrifying rough edges can rest easy: Icky Thump is every bit as endearingly ‘hand-made’, as wilfully noisy, as tenderly crafted and as lyrically tart as anything the group has yet released. ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told)’, for example, hides a stinging rebuke for a wayward lover within riffs evoking the ragged glory of Neil Young and his Crazy Horse, while ‘300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues’ finds Jack juggling a Dylan-esque vocal and some of the most searing guitar heroics of his career.

A certain timelessness, a fascination with the thornier thickets of rock’n’roll’s past, has long been par for the White Stripes’ course, evidenced no clearer here than on ‘Conquest’, a cover of a tune made famous by Patti Page (the best-selling female artist of the 1950s) boasting a truly jaw-dropping duel between guitar and mariachi horn, or the bagpipe-augmented Highland folk of ‘Prickly Thorn Sweetly Worn’. They aren’t just living in the past, however: the lyrics of lead single ‘Icky Thump’ form a rare diversion into political songcraft for Jack, aimed squarely at hypocritical anti-immigration protestors (“White Americans, why don’t you kick yourself out, you’re an immigrant too”).

Confidence is the key to this album’s success, White’s ability to shift from raucous rockout to tender balladry, from broken-hearted blues to pointed polemic, with nary a flinch. Fashioning songs that sound classic the first time you hear them, and performing with a passion that electrifies, they’ve held our attention for over half a decade now, and show no sign of faltering yet.

(c) 2007, Stevie Chick

Seasick Steve, The Borderline

[this was for Plan B, in February I think. Seasick Steve rools]

“Not bad for an old man, eh?” he croaks. He looks like he’s made of American redwood, with hard bitten baby blue eyes like an astronaut, a beard dredged from the bottom of the Atlantic, tattoos on those great tree trunk arms, exposed by his wife-beater and dungarees. He’s played with Modest Mouse, though he’s easily at least twice Isaac Brock’s age. The assembled audience, younger than you might expect, lean in close to Seasick Steve, to breathe in the perfume of the zillion down-home joints where he’s played his home-made slide guitars, much as he does tonight.

It’s a low, wise talking blues Steve plays, lean lone licks ringing out, guitar strings yelping as his metal slide presses down on ‘em. He’s not the only one talking tonight, and he stops the show for a moment to listen to the wankers babbling at the bar, seemingly shook. Maybe they didn’t talk all those years he spent as a hobo, travelling America with his guitar. Awesome songs like ‘Dog House Boogie’ and ‘Save Me’, ancient and sepulchral and electrifying, suggest the wankers should shut the fuck up and listen.

(c) Stevie Chick 2007

The Black Lips, Old Blue Last

[I wrote this in April, I think, for Plan B, one of the few bits of journalism while tucked away writing my book (out October 9th, i believe!) and marking my students' coursework... I heart the Black Lips]

Live, The Black Lips sound exactly like their records. This is a trip, and worth mentioning, because The Black Lips’ din is a blind and fearless leap into that monoaural Crypt Records sound, that Mummies budget-rock ethos their golden gospel. Their latest slab of goonish, lairy r’n’b pop, Let It Bloom (to be found on the near-faultless In The Red Records) sounds like a 60s garage-rock rarity you just found in some suburban American yard sale, alive with crackle, gold-dust furring the needle and coaxing up some gauzy, soft-focus vibe where bum notes and musical primitivism are an aesthetic, an integral part of the group’s charm. And don’t ask me how, but in this sardine-can room, rubbing shoulders until sparks fly with curious hipsters and those garage-rock freaks usually found lurking at the Boston Arms, The Black Lips perfectly translated their lo-fi charisma and dirty-vinyl warmth.

A healthy fetishisation of certain classic rock’n’roll elements aside, the Lips are a most deliciously alive proposition. They bundle onstage with scruffy but clean black hair, four brothers of the same blood, one with a nefarious gold grill glinting in his gob, another with a lime green felt Smurfs hat pulled down over his mop. The vibe is The Monkees meets the Manson Famiglia, a near-psychotic happiness.

Their songs are true vintage stuff, an ersatz clutch of rooster-raw early Stones rumbles, weird garage-vignettes, blasts of woozy druggadelia and charmingly lop-sided pop songs. Their hooks are beautiful, misshapen things, like the maddening loop of drone-psyche madrigal ‘Hippie Hippie Hoorah’, sung as a psychotic round, burrowing into your brain like a television babbling absently while you sleep, or the dumb lope of ‘Boomerang’, a lazy boozalong with a twisted, off-kilter guitar lick like a warped, off-centre vinyl warble, a symphony of wow and flutter.

Like I said, it’s fetishised, but in a deliciously subtle, knowing fashion, a loving pastiche leavened with wit. For recent single ‘Dirty Hands’, a barber-shop valentine set to ‘Be My Baby’ drums on a burnt-out street corner, the boys sing like Peter Fonda badboys in some Roger Corman exploitation flick, locating some tender, innocent romance in its milieu of tattoos, drugs and an exquisitely summery laziness. “I’m wearing leather, cuz I really think it’s cool,” they strut, before wailing, like bullyboy biker choirboys with fool’s gold in their hearts and unmelted butter in their mouths, “Annnnn, do you really wanna hold my dirty hand?” It’s knowing, and coy, and sweet: a cocktail unique like only the Lips could pull off.

The sly self-conscious pleasure of the song-writing collides head on with the adrenaline-rush of their live performance, the three guitar-toting fellas almost tumbling off the tiny stage in wriggling reverie, the barking drummer invisible at the back: a fine chaos emanating from their general direction. Hair is shaken, guitars thrust in the air and swung above their heads in reckless fashion that still doesn’t upset the loose chime of their pop.

The aftermath of the Hives/Stripes insurgency of five or so years ago is a lot of professional dadrock retro chancers plying their high-budget necrophilia under the veil of garage rock, Jet being most heinous offenders. Like the Hunches before them, The Black Lips redeem this trend with a hurtling, helter skelter ricochet into the urchin-like mischief of the garage-rock template, snatching for golden tuneage with endearing, enthusiastic amateurism fraying their ends, an idiosyncratic mess of avant-pop with shades of Monks-esque lunacy haunting their stomp.

Thirty minutes after they shambled onstage, and they’re off again, grabbing the smoke machines and aiming them at the audience for the last thranging chord, our ears still ringing with their hazy, lusty, anarchic songs. Rock’n’roll hasn’t been plied with such dog-eared, homely and wonderful bonhomie since the last time Love As Laughter trod the boards, and The Black Lips are a similarly cherishable, riotous group. Prepare to fall in L.U.V. love.

(c) Stevie Chick, 2007