Three new albums and a re-issue walk into a bar...
Mars - The Venus Fly Trap (Glass Modern)
It’s Not a Competition But I Win! – Lucy (Lucy)
El Bendito Y El Maldito - Horse Feathers (Polar Bear Records)
Yesterday Repeating - The Smart Folk (Self-Released)
The Venus Fly Trap? Never heard of them.
On investigating a little on the Interwebs, it seems that not only have I heard of them, I’ve probably heard them, but forgotten them.
Well, it was about 30 years ago, back when the UK was still reeling in the bass-centric aftershock of bands like Killing Joke, the Fall and the Gang of Four, but more importantly, the Second Australian Wave (you know, The Birthday Party, the Moodists...).
Let’s not forget the impact of The Scientists either... Certainly the Jesus and Mary Chain were heavily influenced by the BP and Kim Salmon’s mob of hairy ruffians; the JMC emerged, screaming like babies with diaper rash, in 1983. Also, around 1986 Big Black were making an impact on the UK (which would lead to a short-lived “subgenre” the UK inkies dubbed “arsequake”; there was another daftly-termed subgenre as well but you get the idea).
This is not to say any of these bands influenced the VFT (I have no idea, and don’t care), but to give you an idea of what had been happening in the hot-house of the UK music industry around that time.
So, it looks like the Venus Fly Trap formed in 1987, about the same time that Gallon Drunk were just starting up. This, “Mars”, was VFT’s first LP and was released in France in 1988. It’s been reissued before, once the following year, and again in “07.
Since 1988 the band have released nine albums and sundry singles and whatnot (about the same number of LPs that Gallon Drunk have released, and slightly more than the Jesus and Mary Chain have managed in all that time. Between, it must be allowed, hiatuses).
So are they any good, and what do they sound like?
Definitely, and perhaps a little like emphatic early Echo and the Bunnymen. Well, one song does. One reminds me of early REM. Actually, forget the comparisons. Here’s the main thing: the songs are damn fine, and the Venus Fly Trap’s music and songs have aged well and all.
I mean, some bands of that era sound like old men’s flannel with amplifiers (mind you, they probably did back then, too, but the inkies used to get their undies in an uproar over the most piffling of bands; you know, the “find-the-next-big-thing” syndrome), but no, Venus Fly Trap are as impressive today as when they first started. Big controlled feedback, distinctive drums and bass locking together...
and then this big, big voice.
Hell, if I’d heard them back then, and I may have, I don’t recall, I’m sure I would’ve liked them, although I can’t be sure of that. But I like them now, and that’s what bloody counts, doesn’t it. The present. The endless, tedious drivelling present.
My oh my, I seem to have wandered from the point.
The main man, it seems is vocalist Alex Novak. He’s one of those music obsessives we’re all familiar with; when he’s not listening to, DJ-ing, or making music, he runs a record shop (Spiral Archive in Northampton). Here’s a thing, ever Venus Fly Trap record cover is dynamic, striking. You don’t forget them in a hurry. Ditto the music.
So, what else do you need to do? Get this LP, pronto, here and while you’re there snaffle their latest album, “Icon”.
Now, Lucy, you’ve heard about, or heard. Adelaide band, fuzz guitar, pop songs with their starting point (it seems) on the west coast circa 1965, or something like that. Put a different way, they’re an underground band with some emphasis (if not a spiked knuckle-duster or two).
The lead guitarist and vocalist, Sarah, may well have an ex- or two to thank for inspiring “Fuck You and the Horse You Rode In On” (co-written with Liam Convey of Systemaddicts fame), “Built on Lies”, “Rescue Me” and the title track. Sarah also produces art, sometimes in the form of girl kid’s dolls which unexpectedly wield machine-guns.
Are you sensing a theme here? It’s not that she’s anti-men (she just got married to one, in fact), just that she is, shall we say, distinctive, talented and possibly capable of great volatility. Which is all over this record.
The song “It’s Not A Competition ... But I Win” nails one of those dreadful relationship whorls which we all find ourselves in at some point, where somehow each of us is competing. When we realise – the term - “it’s not a competition” bounces out ... and of course. That’s what it is. I’m afraid most folks just aren’t very nice.
The fuzz guitar is most enjoyable, I like the songs and you might just as well.
In the end, sod the relationships, grab your pint because Lucy are mighty good fun. Catch them live if you can. They're on Facebook and Bandcamp.
To Horse Feathers. There was a Marx Brothers film by that title. Because, “horse feathers” was slang for “rubbish”, if not “ludicrous rubbish”. Actually, I”ll just step back a moment and make the suggestion that we re-name Parliament. Let”s call it something that”s more honest. “Horse Feathers” springs to mind.
Now, there is another band using that name, they’re an “indie folk rock combo from Portland, Oregon” who are quite good, which seems to miss the point of the name. Also, they’ve been around since 2004, whereas the Birmingham Horse Feathers (cos that’s what we have on the player today boys ‘n’ girls) have been around since about 2000.
I think we can also agree that the name is being badly used here, for Birmingham”s finest, Horse Feather”s debut LP, “El Bendito Y El Maldito” is all killer - in fact it’s bloody brilliant, aside from being merely enjoyable. I mean, 20 years” playing before you put out your debut? Clearly, everyone’s been busy, and it’s hard to get rehearsals and gigs together when everyone has one of those real lives... must be like pushing a litre of vodka uphill with a fork. Without the bottle. But hell, “El Benditio” is just so bloody good.
Two of the members are in The Black Bombers who sound nothing like Horse Feathers.
Reality sets in... I sit here in 38C heat with a horrible neck and shoulder pain and should be in bed. U2 and Elton John played here recently, to huge crowds. No disrespect, honestly, but can’t all these people who so love the live experience go out and see other bands? If I could bring Horse Feathers (Birmingham, not Portland; on the interwebs they’re known as Horse Feathers UK) to my town, I would happily fork out.
Why? Right. Again, the 1960s. This time, the blues is a tad dirtier, with a distinct Spanish/ Mexican/ mescale tinge, shot with that big operatic aspect beloved of the Spanish (I still say, sod the Italians, the soul of the Spanish is closer to opera) whether they admit it or not, but with a modern retro streak a mile wide (“Reading comics and smokin” Camels” goes one line). Oh yeah, and there’s a wash of Morricone and Spaghetti Westerns (mostly shot not just in Italy but - Nyah Nyah - in Spain; and the term itself was made up by a Spanish journo) and there’s definitely a flicker of Link Wray. Just noticed that this magnificent beast was recorded, engineered and produced by Paul Gray at BCS studios - and I find myself wondering if it’s the Paul Gray who used to play with The Damned. (ED: No.)
So, call it what you will. Sorta C&W, but not really. So cinematic there are snippets of dialogue in between some profoundly moving pieces; “Simple Song” is simple in name only. Hell, “El Bendito Y El Maldito” is more like a soundtrack LP, and never more so than when Carmen Vaughn starts her vocal; you want to see the film so much you invent it in your mind. What’s she look like? If Howard Hughes could hear “El Bendito Y El Maldito” he’d commission a script and, I strongly suspect, find someone who resembled Jane Russell to smoulder and burn the barn down.
And, if you’re vinylly challenged, the initial 12" of “El Bendito Y El Maldito” came with a 4-page insert, playing cards and a download code (300 copies only). Brilliant, wonderful stuff. Buy it here.
Lastly, to The Smart Folk, who I’d never heard, and never heard of, until my poor groaning in-box was violently assaulted by their download. The Barman has already gotten moderately excited over these characters (they’re a Sydney outfit) but hell.
Now they have me to deal with.
The Smart Folk are well and truly ensconced in the mid-1960s. And there’s a distinct tinge of Mod in here. Now, I know how that sounds. However, it’s not like that; The Smart Folk don’t sound like they’re aping anyone. More, they sound like they’re simply slipping back into a loved old pair of trews which, somehow they still fit into. Must be all those black bombers.
First, it’s the songs; they’re fun, strong, and the music lifts you into what the vocalist is singing about - which, since you can understand him, you’ll be singing along as well. A built-in attitude, blues-based rock with hooks and harmonies with lyrics as tough as any gritty underground band starting out. So, rebellion disguised with lollipops? Kind of. I mean, yeah, you’ll recognise Beatles and Who in there ... and doubtless a dash of Kinks as well.
Back when a rock’n’ roll band could make pointed social comment without appearing like a berk. And the guitars ... such a great series of sounds. Of the time, but not. I might add that, unlike so very, very many bands which try to approach this period, The Smart Folk are not simply another r’n’r band with a slight tinge, or a set few structures which keep our heads nostalgically nodding. A lot of work has gone into this LP, and gloriously, it doesn’t show. Nor, in fact does their age; “Yesterday Repeating” sounds as fresh and bright as the first time you heard The Kinks, or the Who.
The Smart Folk are: Chris Newton and Pete Kowal - guitars and vocals; Keith Claringbold - Bass; and Pete Iacono - drums and percussion. Most of the songs are written by either Newton or Kowal, with the exception of “Take That Chance Again” (Claringbold) and “In My Own Time” (the brothers Gibb).
Put simply, “Yesterday Repeating” is something you need on your turntable, and in your car. Hell, put this on at the office Christmas Farty and you’ll have the dancing ladies come up to you asking who this ‘60s band is. If you tell them any different, they won’t believe you.
“Yesterday Repeating” is right up there with the albums of that period, and this.
I’ve said it before, and I expect to say it again before I snuff it: there’s an entire world of new music out there, and it’s been avalanching down over the last 20 years ... to great silence from the
media and the punters who you’d think would be all over these LPs.
1/2 - Venus Fly Trap
- Horse Feathers
- The Smart Folk