Wednesday, 23 March 2011

A.V. Club Undercover

As part of the A.V. Club's project, A.V. Club Undercover, musicians have been invited to create their own covers of a series of classic songs, from Blur to the Pixies. This week, Baths performed a lo-fi rendition of LCD Soundsystem's 'All My Friends', with organic percussion in the form of hand-claps and foot-tapping from his friend Dexter. 

The only other artist to take part so far has been Iron & Wine, who covered George Michael. There are now twenty three more songs waiting to be re-jigged, and musicians are given permission to cover them on a first-come-first-serve basis. 

In any case, the project looks to produce some intriguing results, and hopefully some exciting rejuvenations of aging pop songs. I'm keen to hear a stuttering indie musician take on Kanye West's 'Runaway', and Belle & Sebastian's 'Like Dylan in the Movies' will definitely produce some fun results if the band can pull it off. 

Watch out for forthcoming A.V. Club Undercover recordings as they pop up over the coming weeks. All the covers will be posted on the A.V. Club website as soon as they arrive. 

Iron and Wine, "Kiss Each Other Clean"

Whilst I usually try to rise above such stock comparisons of indie musicians, I’d forgive anyone who states that Samuel Beam reminds them of an early Sufjan Stevens.

Both men are known for their banjo-based strains of modern folk music and both have hit the mainstream over the past few years; Sufjan for his over-ambitious one-album-per-state project, Samuel for his Postal Service cover and notorious addition to the Twighlight soundtrack. Both maintain a slightly eerie Christian overtone to their music and both have moved away from their lo-fi roots to a more heavily produced, layered style of music lately.

But Samuel Beam has always favored understatement over Sufjan Stevens’ everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach. So, when Mr. Stevens discovered neon and overdosed on electric drums last year, Samuel Beam simply upped his band members and the percussion section of his arrangements, with distinctive results.

As with Stevens’ ‘Age of Adz’, ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’, the new album from Iron & Wine, marks an evident change of aesthetic without smacking of bandwagon-jumping. Some of the concoctions on the record - such as ’Me and Lazarus’ and ’Monkeys Uptown’ - are slightly jarring, but perhaps this is the price a modern folk musician pays for vying for originality.

A deliciously surprising moment when these innovations pay off is the jazzy brass accompaniment to ‘Big Burned Hand’, which manages to echo the manic genius of  Karl Blau at his best. That said, Beam ruins it slightly with the amount of distortion on the vocals, and the whole thing becomes slightly too much.

This, unfortunately, is the running theme throughout the album: it’s just slightly too much. The path from minimalism to maximalism cannot be rushed, and the rocky road can sometimes include the perilous introduction of vocal distortion where no vocal distortion should venture, and electric guitars where no electric guitars should be.

Beam doesn't always manage to make the eclectic instrumentals gel with his soulful brand of song writing. In a new musician’s shoes, “Kiss Each Other Clean” would be a bold and fascinating achievement, but Beams has his own delicately beautiful compositions to compete with, and the album never lives up to the understated passion of “Birds Stealing Bread” or the profound melancholy of “Fever Dream”.

I hope that this chaotic and intriguing offering from Iron & Wine marks the start of an experimental but well-conceived musical venture for Beams, but I can’t help but admit that the most accomplished songs on the album - ‘Godless Brother in Love’, for example - are the ones that retain Beams’ one-man-and-his-guitar trademark, and that, despite an admirable effort, this is what Iron & Wine do best.

Interview with the Naked and Famous

“I don’t have any friends in Auckland, so I’m allowed to dance when I go out”, David of the Naked and Famous tells me jokingly. The guitarist is sitting across from me in a small cafeteria, talking candidly about his home life in New Zealand.

The Naked & Famous have been rapidly swept into the limelight over the past few months, signing with a renowned U.S. label, releasing two hit singles, being featured in numerous magazines, not to mention winning a prestigious NME award, but David Beadle still retains the charming awkwardness of a small-town student.

When asked about his reception here in England, he seems slightly embarrassed. “We’ve had a lot of good press here”, he admits. “We recently won an award from NME, and we also got featured in the Guardian. I didn’t even know what the Guardian was, until my mum was like, “That’s a huge paper in England”. Auckland is very sheltered; I used to think the BBC just consisted of David Attenborough documentaries.”

In fact, David Attenborough documentaries have had a lot to do with the life he lead before getting involved with the band. Beadle studied Biology and Philosophy at university after deciding that the music industry was too difficult to get into. When I comment on his odd subject choices, he responds with characteristic modesty. “I figured I only had like, eighty years to live”, he tells me, “so I thought I’d try to learn as much about the world as I could in that time”.

Throughout our talk, I get the impression that that he – and the rest of the band – consider themselves quite separated from the mainstream indie circuit. He shrugs off a question I ask him about free downloads and torrents, stating, “I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that; I’ve only been in the industry for a year or so. If I say anything about internet downloads, it’s probably been said already”.

But he does acknowledge that the internet played a big role in his band’s success. “It’s the nature of the internet that things can just take off with no warning. The first single that we released, ‘Young Blood’, immediately got a lot of exposure through the web”.

This is the sort of exposure which thrust the Naked & Famous into a throng of hype-hungry critics, and which, it seems, David Beadle is still getting used to. He is pleasantly informal, making cheeky jokes at intervals in our conversation, and it’s hard to forget that, less than a year ago, he was simply an ordinary student in New Zealand with a passion for music. I’m curious to discover just what sort of musical background he had in his homeland. 

“New Zealand is very sheltered when it comes to international music”, he says matter-of-factly. “No bands ever travel there to play, so live music wasn’t a big part of our lives growing up. There’s this huge annual festival called ‘Big Day Out’, so one day a year we get to see all the bands we like, but other than that there aren’t many gigs going on. We mainly listened to ‘90s alternative records as teens: Tool, Massive Attack, stuff like that”. 

And what about the native music scene in New Zealand? “It’s tiny.” He laughs. “You can pick maybe two New Zealand-based bands from each genre which are fairly well-known among their own crowd. Our musical buddies in New Zealand are ‘Kids of ‘88’. They’re a really fun, talented electro-pop group who we gig with a lot. We actually played with them at ‘Big Day Out’”.

Speaking of ’88, I’m interested to know how the ‘80s have influenced the band’s debut album. It seems apparent that the Naked and Famous have drawn a lot from the ‘80s aesthetic, with their synth-heavy pop songs and abrasive vocals.

“I actually don’t listen to a lot of original ‘80s music, but we all like a lot of the new wave of ‘80s-influenced stuff which has been coming out lately”, David explains to me. “Unfortunately, I think the ‘80s has had the biggest impact on my fashion sense”, he jokes.

“The two singles we released, ‘Young Blood’ and ‘Punching in a Dream’, were very poppy and synth-based, but there are also a lot of darker, heavier moments on the album. A big theme of Passive Me Aggressive You is polarities: some of the lyrics are very dark and some are more poppy, and the same goes for the music”.

This eclecticisim, David tells me, is a happy accident, resulting from the fact that the album was pulled together very quickly from a year’s worth of recordings. Everything, it seems, has happened very suddenly for the Naked and Famous, including a recent record deal with a top U.S.  label. How did they manage it?

 “After ‘Young Blood’ was released, we started getting chased by all these American record labels, but Fiction Records (our current label) really stood out for us. They’ve worked with Crystal Castles and Kate Nash, so they’re really cool guys. Before we signed anything, we went for dinner with some label representatives and just hung out as friends. We all agreed that we wanted to work with them”.

As our discussion draws to a close, I ask David if he has anything to say to the readers of Varsity. He thinks for a second. “Um, study hard? Tell your parents you love them?” And, with a slightly nervous smile, the scruffy, small-town New Zealander returns. “I don’t really have any good advice”, he admits shyly.

In the whirlwind months since the release of ‘Young Blood’, the young musicians that collectively make up the Naked and Famous have been swept halfway across the world on tour, and I’m not surprised that their new rockstar lifestyle hasn’t quite sunken in yet.

Perhaps I’ll ask him again in a few months when things have settled down, but I have a feeling that the guitarist will still be cracking silly jokes and wearing crumpled t-shirts, even if the band’s inspiring musical offerings have made them global superstars by then.