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The Life of P

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Hell yeah, I remember Aurora

With apologies to Foo Fighters fans for the title’s lyrical bait and switch, this post is actually about Norwegian singer-songwriter Aurora Aksnes, whom I finally saw live a couple of weeks ago. I cannot think of a more uplifting return to live music after the pandemic, and it was particularly fitting to see her at the Brixton Academy where I went to my first gig 20 years ago (Iron Maiden in March 2002).

I have been a fan since stumbling upon Aurora’s EP Running With The Wolves in 2015, though it was her debut album the following year that truly blew me away. All My Demons Greeting Me As A Friend may have been an unwieldy title but its content was a sublime distillation of pain and hopefulness. The perspective she captured was that of having struggled silently for too long, fighting battles that others may not see.

And I was running far away
Would I run off the world someday?
Nobody knows, nobody knows

Aurora, Runaway

In Lucky, she wraps it in a lyric simulateously beautiful and coldly isolated, “And I feel the light for the very first time / Not anybody knows that I am lucky to be alive.” The line resonated strongly with me, particularly in the place I found myself at the time. It is those early songs in particular that provide cathartic relief in her live show, a crowd of humans drawn to her music for that reason. Aurora used to joke about the lack of overtly positive songs in her setlist, though infectiously poppy tunes like Cure For Me and Conqueror provide a wonderful release of tension.

There is a touch of the fae surrounding Aurora, her love of nature filtering through to her lyrics as she performs with her entire body, whilst her impish playfulness makes interviews a delight. Another artist might adopt these traits as an affectation but with Aurora it appears an unfettered reflection of her personality, something that came through in unfiltered lo-fi live streams during the pandemic in which she would sing and chat. Indeed, as her popularity has grown, she seems genuinely concerned about losing the personal interaction with fans at shows.

When a human strokes your skin
That is when you let them in
Let them in before they go
I would rather feel alive with a childlike soul

Aurora, Through The Eyes of a Child

What Aurora reminds me above all is the strength in softness, that it is not a weakness to be open or vulnerable but quite the opposite — to allow oneself access to those vital human experiences requires greater fortitude than to harden or close oneself off. Her vocals are at once fragile and determined. The result is subtly powerful, and perhaps explains why her music has attracted a wide spectrum of fans including many from the metal community — indeed, Aurora is a professed fan of metal and created a compilation EP For The Metal People of songs “influenced” by the genre like Under The Water and The Seed. Whatever your musical preferences, then, I do hope you can take the time to listen to a few of the linked tracks because there really isn’t anyone else quite like Aurora.

Under the water we can’t be together
Under the water we die
Then why do we jump in?

Aurora, Under the Water
Her live show featured a minimalist set with a large fabric disc in centre stage, illuminated by lights against which she struck a silhouette. This was, unsurprisingly, most effective as a surrogate moon during Running with the Wolves.

Needles & Pinches

Georgia Train lying on a bed of feathers and flowers

Content Note: infertility, miscarriage, suicide

A little over a year ago, singer-songwriter Georgia Train (formerly of Bitter Ruin) opened up to her fans about struggling with fertility treatment and IVF. Having done so, the devastation when the process was unsuccessful was atypically public. When faced with any tragedy, the best thing we humans can do is use it to fuel art, sharing that pain in a way that can connect us and make a stranger feel a little less alone. The result is her latest album, Needles & Pinches, which contains a beautiful outpouring of grief and hope. As well as recommending that you listen, I would like to use its release to discuss some of its subject matter, issues from which we typically shy away. The photographs illustrating this post are publicity shots for the album taken by Scott Chalmers.

Album cover for Needles & Pinches

“I’ll never forget the day
They told me you got away
From it all.”

Georgia Train, Needles & Pinches

The title track opens the album and is a statement of intent: brutally honest and hauntingly beautiful in capturing the weariness from gruelling fertility treatments, and then the overwhelming rage-inducing grief from the loss of a child. Conventional wisdom (at least in the Anglosphere) advises parents not to discuss a pregancy until 12 weeks in, since most miscarriages occur before that date. Whilst it is of course a personal choice for those involved, the default approach leaves parents who do experience miscarriage to deal with the anguish alone and with little support. Since it is so little discussed, many people are not even aware of how common it is, with 10-15% of known pregnancies ending in miscarriage (a figure that, along with the volume of unknown miscarriages, ought also to feature more heavily in the discourse around abortion).

It may seem odd that I have particularly strong opinions on this, but I am fortunate that a few friends felt able to open up to me about their struggles with having children, and what I saw above all was the crippling isolation they felt in not being able to talk freely about it, whilst going through an experience that permeated every part of their lives. There was a visible flood of relief simply in being able to talk about it with someone other than their spouse.

Georgia surrounded by syringes
These syringes are just half of a year’s worth of fertility treatment.

“And I know it’s easier to let go
To let the fire leave your chest
In exchange for deeper rest”

Georgia Train, Pain Beneath The Best

The fragile piano beneath the plaintive vocals on Pain Beneath The Best marks Georgia coming to terms with a friend’s suicide attempt. Lyrically it feels like an understanding embrace, accepting the truth of the pain but reminding you that the world would be worse without you in it. Yet her voice also echoes that personal hurt and the fear of being left behind. It is a pleasing balance to find, with many songs touching on this subject matter leaning more heavily into the anger at wasted life or expressing only the pain rather than the love which causes it. Discourse around mental health has improved immeasurably over the past decade but I feel a lingering sentiment that remains is the idea that suicide is a selfish choice rather than a last resort for those who can see no end to the pain they have endured for too long, and who genuinely believe others will be better off without them. It is only by starting from a place of understanding that those drowning deep within suicidal ideation will ever feel comfortable in revealing it rather than concealing their struggle until it is too late.

“I don’t to want to talk about it now
I just want to be the who when they
Point the finger and the who you say
You love”

Georgia Train, The Who

This is the common thread that I see through these particular trials — that they are so often concealed rather than shared. Particularly in our fragmented modern communities, where family and friends may be separated by miles or even oceans, it is vital that we are able to talk openly (whether the restriction comes initially from a personal choice or an external stigmatisation). Art like Needles & Pinches can reach us over those distances, so that we know we are not alone, but that is only the first step. I previously said that I felt fortunate to be able to support some friends through these agonising experiences, but I also worry about those I could not reach and mourn the ones I never can. As I often tell friends: you don’t have to talk to me about it, so long as you have someone that you’re talking to. And if you don’t, you know where I am.

Georgia dressed in black in a swimming pool

Musically Connected

Stepping Out

About a month ago I joked that musically, if nothing else, this year works. I realised in a recent conversation that because, entirely by coincidence, a bunch of friends and acquaintances are all releasing new albums this year, I probably sound far better connected than I actually am. I fully expect the number to drop to zero next year. But for now, I have three album releases to bring to your attention.

I have mentioned jazz singer/pianist Anthony Strong here before, though arguably not as often as I ought. Recently signed to French label Naive records, his new album Stepping Out is fantastic. Quite aside from the fact we have known each other since primary school, the album’s quality has now been independently verified after the reception it received at Keggfest. Meanwhile Lauren and I can both attest that the launch party at the Hippodrome casino was a roaring success, requiring some remedying the following day!

Georgia Train of Bitter Ruin

Whilst they have continued to play regular live shows, honing their sound and exploring new ways to increase their exposure, it has been several years since Bitter Ruin released a full-length album. Now Georgia and Ben have turned to Kickstarter to fund their new album after some calculations revealed it would be cheaper to build their own studio than to pay for the studio time they need. Having put up the first £10,000, they needed another £20,000 from Kickstarter. They need not have been apprehensive given the overwhelming support they received, with the entire sum being pledged within 12 hours. They have ten days left to go, and further funds will help with session musicians and the like, as well as securing you some cool merch. Give it a look, if only for the brilliant animated video that charts the pair’s history condensed to a couple of minutes. Personally, I am rather excited to see the end results of the full canvas paintings Georgia has been working on for one of the higher reward tiers.

Jaz Delorean of Tankus the Henge

Finally, although I have seen Jaz Delorean play solo sets on  regular basis, I had neglected to see his band Tankus the Henge, despite the fact I am hardly in a position to fault their nocturnal habits (routinely going on-stage around midnight). The release of their debut album seemed like an ideal opportunity to rectify this oversight, with a brilliant launch show at The Lexington. About as difficult to categorise as Bitter Ruin, Jaz describes his gravelly vocals as “like a younger Tom Waits” which is “crossed with Madness” once you add the full band. With smoke billowing out of an upright piano adorned with piping and dials as their fans cavort in steampunk attire, their live shows are certainly quite a sight. You can catch them all round the UK this summer.

Couple these three with finally seeing Sigur Rós in February and Voltaire in May, and you can see why I am suitably content to rely on music to see me through the year, if nothing else will. Any other recommendations are welcome as always.

Musically Sociable

Today I am plugging a couple of musical selections linked predominantly by their social effect on my life. First up is a new music video from jazz singer/pianist Anthony Strong, For Once In My Life from his Delovely EP. Anthony is an old school friend of mine (as in we went to school together, not that he is old school). Anthony is the sort of person whose talent would be infuriating if he were not such a lovely, unassuming chap. He was also responsible for my initial introduction to some of London’s top burlesque performers, while he performed on that circuit. That has certainly led to a few of the more memorable nights out in the past few years. Unfortunately we seem to have reached a point where his releasing a CD or video is what reminds me that we are long overdue a drink. Therefore it is terribly important that you support him so that he can keep making great music and I can remember to catch up with him.

Next up, Amanda Palmer is again using Kickstarter to crowdsource funding but this time it is a little more ambitious: raising funds outside of a label to produce and promote her new album and an accompanying artbook, and to embark upon a worldwide tour with a new band. Any donation above a dollar nets a copy of the album, and backers have access to the first single now. This return to a patronage system (albeit a distributed one: people have donated anywhere between $1 and $10,000 each) is, she proclaims, the future of music and I am inclined to agree. I am always fascinated by the varied fans she has hidden amongst my friends, who crawl out of the woodwork whenever I mention her, whilst the crowds at her gigs are amongst the easiest to strike up a conversation and connect with if I find myself there alone — after all, at least half of them are guaranteed to be Neil Gaiman fans too. This summer she plays a sold-out London gig the day Jenna and her family arrive. Having been able to witness Jenna’s first real gig experience back in New Orleans (it was A Perfect Circle), accompanying her to her first London gig is almost as enticing a prospect.

If you happen not to care about music then, aside from the fact you have no soul, you may wish to check out the following:

Pure Ending

Pure Reason Revolution got their hooks into me from the moment I first heard them almost five years ago to the day. There are only a handful of bands that I feel compelled to see live repeatedly, and PRR I have seen every single year but one in the intervening period. Through auspicious timing they were also the band that initially got me into gig photography. So it was a strange experience to find myself holding an understated ticket for Wednesday’s gig which read simply “Pure Reason Revolution – Last Ever Show”. Part of me wondered illogically whether, if I didn’t go, it would mean they kept making music. Of course, they had announced earlier in the year that, after three studio albums and two EPs, the band was coming to an end with a farewell tour in November. And Heaven seemed a remarkably fitting location for their final performance.

It was the first time I have been to a gig knowing it will be the last time I ever see a band play, the last time I will hear each song live, which gives the whole experience a very different edge. They played two one-hour sets including their seminal album The Dark Third straight through in its ethereal entirety. Hearing an entire album live is a rare treat and there is no better way PRR could reward their fans — it was as close to a perfect aural experience as I can imagine. The only slight issue was that the sets arguably were the wrong way round. After leading with what is generally considered to be their finest work there was simply no way to top it, even when selecting the best tracks from the rest of their catalogue. Overall, however, it was a stunning send-off and I thoroughly deserved the complaints I received from my neck muscles for the following two days.

Every time I see PRR I bump into Jon, usually with Ian, Philly J and James in tow. Breaking with tradition, this time we met up intentionally beforehand: good practice since Jon and I will have to start making real plans to see one another in future… or find a new band. In the meantime, excuse me while I relive the Scala gig with this live DVD.

Bitter Ruin: Costume Change

GeorgiaFor those who don’t really care about the words that follow, here’s a gallery of photos from two Bitter Ruin gigs.

My overtly eclectic taste in music means that, while I certainly like some artists more than others, I have never been fanatical enough about a single band to become one of those dedicated few that follows the entire European leg of a tour, a permanent front-row presence that the band starts to recognise. While I wouldn’t trade the spread of music for a narrower focus, I always felt like I was missing out on some part of the fan experience. So it took me slightly by surprise when, during another band’s set at Bitter Ruin‘s Underworld gig, Georgia spotted me in the crowd and waved. Having accidentally discovered the band together, Romina and I now meet up every time the band play in London as a kind of sibling bonding ritual. Enough, certainly, that the band know whom we are and will even have the odd drink.

BenUnusually this meant seeing them play twice this month, both times in Camden: once at the Underworld at once at Proud. Seeing them twice is hardly a chore, but the second show was made more unique as the band were debuting both a new music video and new stage costumes, replacing the ones which had been their signature look for the past two years. Discussing the unveiling of the latter with Ben at the earlier Underworld gig, he seemed slightly confused by my apprehension, but given the theatrical nature of Bitter Ruin’s live performance, their fans have become so comfortably familiar with their stage appearance that any change was as unnerving as it was exciting. Naturally we need not have worried, their updated appearance creating a similar vibe with a more mature sensibility. I suspect Georgia was relieved to lose the heavy (if incredibly evocative) eye make-up, with the strange result that she looks younger while dressed older. The choice of song for the new video, the softer A Brand New Me, surprised many but looks as gorgeous as expected (if filthier), directed again by Mark Withers who also helmed the excellent Beware video. Meanwhile the band continue to take to the stage with increasing ease, Ben quipping, “When we say, ‘Any requests?’, what we mean is, ‘Can you guess what song we’re going to play next?'”

Weird Life Goals

On 30th March 2005, at a Nine Inch Nails gig at the London Astoria, I stumbled upon a small theatrical two-piece band from the US called The Dresden Dolls as they broke into the UK music scene. While their short support set blew me away at the time (and arguably outperformed the headline act) I probably didn’t realise the lasting impact they would have. Sadly I never had another opportunity to see them live before they split up.

One half of the Dolls is Amanda Palmer, who is regularly mentioned here as she routinely tours the UK. And so, a few years after I first saw them, I was able to have her sign my Dresden Dolls album. Drummer Brian Viglione, on the other hand, remained in the States and never graced our shores with his presence. It seemed increasingly unlikely I would ever get the album fully signed but it sat there, an unfinished work in progress, and it gradually evolved into a Weird Life Goal eventually to complete it.

Years passed. Amanda continued to visit the UK. Brian did not. At a concert disrupted by the volcanic ashcloud, another small theatrical two-piece called Bitter Ruin stepped in to support Amanda, and my sister and I became instant fans. Earlier this year Bitter Ruin announced a March gig at the Underworld with the newly formed Gentlemen & Assassins, fused from several bands. Their drummer: Mr Brian Viglione.

Even as I dropped the half-signed album into my camera bag, I didn’t really think it would happen. And frankly seeing Brian drum was enough. His skill is in making precision seem effortless; instead the energy (and there’s a lot) all goes into infusing his performance and sound with character.

But after the gig he emerged — those who have met him will know he is the nicest guy, incredibly grounded — and was happy to sign everything from legs to ukuleles to, well, my album. If you want to know what a Weird Life Goal looks like, here it is. We chatted briefly, I mentioned seeing the Dolls play live with NIN (“At the Astoria?” he asked incredulously, “Wow.”) and it dawned on me just how long this moment had been in coming. The signed album was insignificant, but the breadth of time and experiences it represented were not. I grinned the whole journey home.

So I guess the point of this is post is not to give up on those Weird Life Goals, however unlikely or unnecessary they seem. What they represent is something else entirely, and from the other side they will always make you smile.

Apologies for the inexplicably low-quality thumbnail images in this post.

Pure Reason Revolution @ Scala

In hindsight it’s rather a shame I didn’t take my camera to the Pure Reason Revolution gig last night since it dawns on me that my first attempt at gig photography was at one of their shows, when I broke in my 50mm f/1.4 lens. Since I just purchased a new EOS 7D body, this would have been a fitting opportunity to try it out. Instead, you’ll see its results shortly when I head to the States.

On to the gig itself. I knew Jon and Ian would be there, and — adopting a high vantage point — managed to scout them out along with Philly J. They missed an eclectic couple of support acts. The newly formed Clean Bandit are a bizarre fusion of string quartet, electronica DJ and drummer, fronted by a hip-hop MC. And yet it works in an incredibly fun way, with a vibrant vitality on stage. Mozart’s House is a perfect showcase, with the title alone epitomising their genre-defying sound. I can’t wait for them to record more.

Next up were Losers, a three-piece sporting the increasingly common female drummer option. Rather than blending styles, Losers seemed slightly schizophrenic, channelling in turns like ambient Nine Inch Nails and The Prodigy. Also, electric guitar played with a bow. The final support were Welsh act The Last Republic. Though the most accomplished (by which I mean they’ve actually recorded an album) they were least interesting offering. They produced a decent rock sound, and conceiving a high pitched wail by singing into guitar pickups through a megaphone is undoubtedly novel. But novelty does not necessarily imply a successful result.

Pure Reason Revolution’s set was largely a mixture of their second album and their recent release Hammer and Anvil. Their slightly rockier third release hasn’t really grabbed me yet, though many tracks work better live. On the other hand I’m hesitant to rule it out so swiftly, since Amor Vincit Omnia took a while to grow on me. We agreed, however, the night was fully redeemed by an encore of old songs from their early releases. And, of course, thanks to Clean Bandit there was a string quartet on hand. That rendition of Bullitts Dominae will now be tough to beat. And apparently for pre-ordering at the gig, my name will appear on the sleeve of the live DVD they recorded. Which is a nice touch.

Incidentally the bouncers on the door were evidently pro-student protest. For my part I’m impressed by their tech savvy use of Google Maps to outmanoeuvre the police and evade initial attempts to “kettle” protesters. It seems the tools available to both sides are ever-improving.

Just One Evelyn

A volcano and Twitter brought me to you. Do you realise how beautiful that is?

-Melissa Auf der Maur

Evelyn Evelyn on Thursday night at KOKO may be have been the best ever gig that wasn’t. The quirky music of Evelyn Evelyn is performed by the fictional titular conjoined twins (or a musical and artistic collaboration between Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley, depending on your level of suspension of disbelief). Unfortunately one of the Evelyns (Jason Webley) couldn’t make it because she (he) was stuck in the US due to the volcanic ash cloud disruption. The result was a mess. And excellent.

I have previously described Amanda Palmer gigs as being “Amanda and friends” or, in this case, Amanda and whoever she dragged through the ash cloud. Luckily for us this included the sublime Bitter Ruin. A small band from Brighton, this twosome features the incredible voice of Georgia Train, by turns equally powerful and delicate, coupled with the Spanish twang of Ben Richards’ guitar. Be sure to listen to Trust and Soldier (and if you only click one link, make it that one). I find myself already eagerly anticipating the May release of their full album. Also supporting were the disarmingly enthusiastic Robots in Disguise (who may actually be robots in disguise) and the assured Melissa Auf der Maur (who may grow on me).

In a creative solution to the missing Evelyn, the gig was punctuated by a scripted fake webcast with Jason on plane to the UK, projected on a giant screen at the back of the stage, through which he could chat to Amanda and play a couple of songs with her. To explain the extent of the range of music experience that evening I could mention the country song about Icelandic volcanic ash clouds, but it really requires just three words: ukulele Radiohead cover.

Amanda seemed to flag a little (likely through exhaustion) by the end, but returned for a superb second encore with an energetic Girl Anachronism followed by a sort of Sex Pistols karaoke, with the lyrics to Anarchy in the UK projected as the crowd sang along, the front row (and Neil Gaiman) danced up on stage and Amanda Palmer crowd surfed. A fantastic closing given that it was conceived that very day when Amanda and Neil sat in a café as Malcolm McLaren’s funeral procession passed. Touring issues be damned, (record label) freedom clearly suits her well.

The Disgruntlement Factor

When I first came across the facebook group trying to subvert the pre-determined X Factor Christmas #1, I will openly admit I thought they had no chance of even making a dent, let alone headlines.  It turns out that I was wrong. Their push for Rage Against the Machine’s Killing In The Name hit BBC News after pulling ahead of this Joe chap from the show in digital downloads. I still suspect their efforts may be in vain as the physical version of Joe’s single is only released today and will undoubtedly cause a spike in sales.

Simon Cowell’s (unsurprisingly) massively egotistical response labelled it “cynical” and “stupid” and he then proceeded to explain it was all about him. Sorry Simon, it’s not. It’s a retaliation against the whole commercialised package that uses an entire TV show as a glorified advertising campaign to buy/”fix” the Christmas #1 in much the same way as these chaps are attempting. Whatever Simon may argue, both are equally “cynical” and “stupid” if it’s supposed to be about music. People are welcome to buy the X Factor single and if another bunch wish to express their views with their wallets in an alternative direction, surely that’s exactly the sort of audience participation Simon usually endorses…

The great irony is, of course, that Sony BMG wins doubly out of any competition since both songs are released under their label. The strongest argument against the campaign is that they’ve rallied around an old song (albeit one I rather like) rather than something new which they feel isn’t being given a fair chance against the X Factor machine. But what better than Rage in an attempt to take on the system? It’s no wonder Tom Morello approves. All I can say is I certainly know which song I’d prefer you buy. Call it my Christmas present. It would certainly be a moment to be remembered in music chart history.

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