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My first ever white Christmas also turned out to be the saddest, with the news of Vic Chesnutt’s death by suicide on 25 December. He was 45 years old. A car accident at age 18, which left him partially-paralysed and confined to a wheelchair, is often credited for sparking his true creative flowering, as during his convalescence he devoured literature & poetry and had to relearn how to play the guitar with fingers that didn’t work so good no more. I’d assumed that his physical disability was also responsible for his complex relationship with death and mortality, seemingly flailing out at it one moment, calmly inviting it in the next. But a look at this biography shows that the first of five (suicide-attempt-caused) comas happened in his 16th year – the man clearly struggled with pain most of his life, his quadriplegia providing the emotional torment with a tangible sting.

Emasculate me with your biology.
Bend me, break me, I’m worthless.

(from “Arthur Murray”, on “The Salesman & Bernadette”, 1998)

Although his name was one I’d seen bigged-up for some time – he was clearly a songwriter’s songwriter – my first acquaintance with his music was 2007’s “North Star Deserter”, his stark songs given added ferocity by a backing band of Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto and members of A Silver Mt. Zion. This is a collection of blackly humourous musings on the nature of death & decay, backed with the apocalyptic guitar hurricane and mournful strings of early GYBE!, and made me an instant convert to one of our time’s most unique voices. I was privileged to see him play in Amsterdam in early 2008 – so fragile and small in his wheelchair, the lay of his guitar looking uncomfortable, the strumming of his two working fingers seemingly painful – yet so defiant, spiky and larger than life. He, and the songs through which he laid his life & struggles bare, easily filled every nook of the Paradiso hall that night, ably supported by what he called “the greatest backing band in the world”. It felt as though everyone present in that old church was in tune to the fact that we were witnessing something special. When I look back on a life of amazing live music experiences, that night will always stand out.

Vic Chesnutt live at Paradiso, Amsterdam (13-Feb-2008)

Chesnutt certainly didn’t let his disability hold him back in sharing his songs with the wider world – he has released some 15+ albums, culminating in 2009’s  “At The Cut” and “Skitter On Take-Off” (both released just a few months before his death). “At The Cut” again has Picciotto & the ASMZ’ers fleshing out Vic’s spare compositions. It is another set of literate dark-heart-on-sleeve contemplations, the stand-out track being “I’ve Flirted With You All My Life”, which Vic himself described as “a love song. It’s a suicide’s breakup song with death.” Although Vic’s multiple suicide attempts heightened the possibility that he could take himself away from us at any time, I had thought that the hope displayed in that song – “Oh Death, really, I’m not ready!” – meant that Vic had truly turned a corner, no longer wishing to die. It was a naïve thought – the struggle with manic depression is characterised by its peaks and troughs, following no linear path…

Why do I insist on drinking myself to the grave?
Why do I dream of a cozy coffin?
I had all these plans of great things to accomplish,
but I end up totally pathetic more than often.
(from “Old Hotel”, on “The Salesman & Bernadette”, 1998)

It’s at times such as these that you wish that people like Vic could see themselves as the rest of the world sees them, not just how they see themselves. Listening to his self-confessionals it would seem he considered himself a coward, weak, invisible – something worthless, small & broken – yet all the tributes flowing in provide a completely contrary view, best encapsulated by this one quote: Vic was “a tiny giant of a man”. In the words of his great friend Kristin Hersh (Throwing Muses, 50ft Wave): “what he left here is the sound of a life that pushed against its constraints, as all lives should. It’s the sound of someone on fire. It makes this planet better.”

You can listen to a 6 song sampler of Vic’s work with Picciotto/ASMZ here.


The Six Strings That Drew Blood (Rowland Around In That Stuff)


To add to the anti-festive mood round NarcoAgent Towers, I learned on New Year’s Eve that Rowland S Howard had passed away the day before. He’d fought a long battle against liver cancer, finally succumbing at age 50. For me Howard is one of the all-time greats of post-punk guitar – it’s his searing riffs that gave the swaggering, menacing The Birthday Party much of its swagger and menace. And what’s not to like about a man that listed his influences as “Hanging out with girls, smoking, fraternizing with girls, talking to girls on the telephone while smoking, smoking with girls.”

Howard joining proto-Birthday Party band The Boys Next Door in 1978 is credited with sparking that band’s transformation into something truly unique, and after the Party was over he pursued a varied solo career, collaborating with Lydia Lunch, Nikki Sudden, and also doing a stint in an early incarnation of Crime & The City Solution (after which he formed These Immortal Souls with other ex-Crims). His first solo album in 10 years – “Pop Crimes” – was released in late 2009. RIP.

Here’s the Boys Next Door/Birthday Party song “The Friend Catcher” performed live in Bremen, Germany sometime in 1982 (taken from “Live 1981-82“), as good a showcase as any for Rowland’s talent.

The Birthday Party – The Friend Catcher (live in Bremen 1982)

See also Toilet Guppies


Go to your favourite record shop and pick up some of Vic & Rowland’s rekkids – because as long as you’re listening, they’re still somehow alive.




The first half of the year has again sped by in a flash, and despite occasional protestations to the contrary I can’t resist the list-making urge, so here are the fifteen releases that most caught the ear in the first six months of 2008.



Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy : “Lie Down In The Light” (Drag City/Domino)

The Brian Jonestown Massacre : “My Bloody Underground” (A Records)

The Bug : “London Zoo” (Ninja Tune)

Earth : “The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull” (Southern Lord/Daymare)

Fuck Buttons : “Street Horrrsing” (ATP/R)

Lo Dubs presents “Analog Clash” (Lo Dubs/Anthem)

Lustmord : “Other” (Hydra Head/Daymare)

Nadja : “Skin Turns To Glass” (The End)

Our Brother The Native : “Make Amends For We Are Merely Vessels” (Fat Cat)

Portishead : “Third” (Go! Discs)

Sixteen Horsepower : “Live March 2001” (Glitterhouse)

These New Puritans : “Beat Pyramid” (Domino)

Thom Yorke : “The Eraser Rmxs” (XL)

Torche : “Meanderthal” (Hydra Head)

Ufomammut : “Idolum” (Supernatural Cat)

 

 
Moving to the Netherlands has by no means restricted access to ear-and-mind-blowingly good live music (and then there were the three days of aural pleasure in Barcelona). I’ve tried to write about most of it, but these slipped through the cracks…

 
Vic Chesnutt w/ A Silver Mt. Zion @ Paradiso, Amsterdam (13-Feb-2008)

Chesnutt is a songwriters’ songwriter, lauded by his peers around the world, but 2007’s “North Star Deserter” was the first time I’d been exposed to his darkly humourous confessionals on death & wanting to bring it closer. His ‘backing band’ on that album – most of A Silver Mt. Zion and Fugazi‘s Guy Picciotto – are here tonight, throwing up squalls of howling Godspeed guitar and giving added pathos to Vic’s songs with mournful strings. After a rendition of “Debriefing” that threatens to blow the stained-glass out of the windows of this old church, they encore with a haunting “Ruby Tuesday”, Vic then remaining alone on stage to close, appropriately enough, with “Over”.

Here is a recording of “Ruby Tuesday” performed at The Button Factory, Dublin, Ireland on 01 Dec 2007. The whole show, courtesy of David Bell, is available at Internet Archive.

Vic Chesnutt & A Silver Mt. Zion – Ruby Tuesday (live)

 

Earth @ Effenaar, Eindhoven (07-Mar-2008)

Hearing the pure tone of Dylan Carlson’s Telecaster ring out at a volume where the drone can be felt as well as heard is thrilling (thanks must go in part to the Effenaar’s good sound setup). The opener “Hung From The Moon” is aptly-named – the notes hang in the air, the band’s slow-motion playing evoking a pagan ritual performed under a ghostly moon. Where once Earth was a solo mission, now Carlson is orbited by a stellar set of fellow cosmonauts – Adrienne Davies’s drumming verges on stasis but is precise & powerful, Don McGreevy adds planet-weight low end, and although Steve Moore’s Wurlitzer keys and trombone blasts could nudge the whole enterprise towards the dreaded blackhole that is j&*z, he fortunately steers a more psychedelic course. “Ouroboros Is Broken“, introduced by Carlson as the first song he ever wrote, is a monolithic juggernaut, Carlson sometimes holding his guitar aloft as though it were an offering to the gods. Support act Sir Richard Bishop joins the band onstage to add his Eastern-inflected guitar to “The Bees Ate Honey From The Lion’s Skull”, before they end this performance (and this tour) with the encore of “Coda Maestoso in F-flat Minor”, like “Ouroboros…” another early song reworked in the new Earth aesthetic.

Here is “Ouroboros Is Broken“, live at the Point Ephémère, Paris (17 Feb 2006), taken from the “Live Europe 2006” disc.

Earth – Ouroboros Is Broken (live)



The Cure @ Ahoy, Rotterdam (18-Mar-2008)

The current incarnation of the Cure looks a lot like one of the first, a stripped down rock band that delivers a guitar-heavy take on over 30 years of Robert Smith’s superlative songwriting. With no keyboard player, some of the keyboard parts are instead replicated by guitarist Porl Thomson, giving those songs an interesting twist. After a “Disintegration“-laden set, they treat us to three extended encores, the second drawn exclusively from “Three Imaginary Boys” and the first singles. To my delight (in a gloomy gothy kinda way of course) they finish (after playing for over three hours!) with my two favourite Cure songs – “Faith” and “A Forest”.


These New Puritans @ Paradiso, Amsterdam (06-May-2008)

On my first exposure to TNP (supporting Liars in London last year) I wrote them off as nothing more than youthfully energetic Fall copyists, but then “Beat Pyramid” (with its arcana-referencing distillation of the best of early 80s post-punk) became one of my favourite albums of the year. They deliver on the magicks of the album live, their frenetic set unfortunately cut short by the Paradiso’s sloppy scheduling. Check out some video clips from the show here.

 

Butthole Surfers @ Melkweg, Amsterdam (15-Jul-2008)

OK so I went off them when they took the honourable Touch and Go to court, but there was no chance of me passing up the opportunity to see the original Buttholes line-up play again for the first time since the 80s. Being joined by ‘the kids from the School of Rock ‘ lent an air of parody to it all, but they played their best songs, Gibby the megaphone-toting headmaster directing proceedings from behind the amazing Gibbytronix, and fuck it if Paul Leary ain’t one of the best goddamn guitarists I’ve had the pleasure of hearing (and now witnessing).

A live recording of their show at the Forum in London a couple of weeks later is available for purchase here.



Having once been a relatively enthusiastic proponent of the end-of-year ‘best of’ list, a few years ago I stopped putting these together in favour of just creating an aural review of releases I particularly liked in the form of a CD compilation. I suppose I rejected the idea of trying to rank the year’s releases, to come up with the ‘best album’ of that particular year, as this was forcing me to evaluate the music on a critical/intellectual level that doesn’t work for me – for me music is about feeling; from wanting to bang my head or creep myself out, from getting goosebumps of euphoria to twinges of melancholy… But I suppose it is sacrilege for a music-related blog to come to the end of a year and not attempt some sort of round-up, so rather than create a ranked list justified by socio-political contexts or clever meta-musical references, these are the records (in no particular order) and live performances that have rocked / droned / folked up / brokebeat / hiphopped my world in 2007, that have made me feel



Top 25 Albums of 2007


NarcoAgent Top 25 Albums of 2007

from top, l-r:

Magnolia Electric Co : “Sojourner” boxset (Secretly Canadian)

PJ Harvey : “White Chalk” (Island)

Angels Of Light : “We Are Him” (Young God)

Low : “Drums And Guns” (Sub Pop)

Liars : “Liars” (Mute)

Mammal : “Lonesome Drifter” (Animal Disguise)

Grinderman : “Grinderman” (Mute)

Boris with Michio Kurihara : “Rainbow” (Pedal/Drag City)

El-P : “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead” (Definitive Jux)

Vic Chesnutt : “North Star Deserter” (Constellation)

Nina Nastasia & Jim White : “You Follow Me” (Fat Cat)

Om : “Pilgrimage” (Southern Lord)

Scout Niblett : “This Fool Can Die Now” (Too Pure)

Shellac : “Excellent Italian Greyhound” (Touch & Go)

Epic45 : “May Your Heart Be The Map” (Make Mine Music)

Magik Markers : “Boss” (Ecstatic Peace!)

MIA : “Kala” (XL)

Sigur Rós : “Hvarf-Heim” (EMI)

Stars Of The Lid : “And The Refinement Of Their Decline” (Kranky)

Jesu : “Conqueror” (HydraHead/Daymare)

Alela Diane : “The Pirate’s Gospel” (Holocene/Names/Fargo)

Six Organs Of Admittance : “Shelter From The Ash” (Drag City)

Bracken : “We Know About The Need” (Anticon)

Future Of The Left : “Curses” (Too Pure)

Earth : “Hibernaculum” (Southern Lord)




Top 5 EPs/Singles of 2007


NarcoAgent Top 5 EPs of 2007

l-r:

Efterklang : “Under Giant Trees” (Leaf)

Zonderhoof : “Zonderhoof” EP (Sound Devastation)

Joanna Newsom : “Joanna Newsom & The Ys Street Band” EP (Drag City)

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy : “Ask Forgiveness” EP (Drag City/Domino)

Jesu : “Sundown / Sunrise” EP (Aurora Borealis/Daymare)

 



Top 10 Gigs of 2007


NarcoAgent Top 10 Gigs of 2007

Future Of The Left + Infants @ The Luminaire, London (10 March 2007)

Josh T Pearson @ ATP festival, Minehead (27 April 2007)

Nick Cave / Grinderman @ ATP festival, Minehead (28 April 2007)

Dirty Three @ ATP festival, Minehead (29 April 2007)

Scout Niblett @ Bush Hall, London (21 May 2007)

Isis + Boris @ Koko, London (02 July 2007)

Liars @ Madame Jo Jo’s, London (03 July 2007)

Six Organs Of Admittance @ Paradiso (bovenzaal), Amsterdam (12 August 2007)

Sonic Youth do “Daydream Nation” @ The Roundhouse, London (30 August 2007)

Jesu @ Paradiso (bovenzaal), Amsterdam (05 December 2007)


Correctly guess which picture was taken at which gig and I will send you a copy of my “Best of 2007” 2CD compilation (once I’ve pulled my finger out of my ass and actually made the thing). Use the contact form on the Disclaimer page to submit your ‘entry’.



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