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Last Friday saw two albums released that caught my attention, The Raconteurs ‘Help us Stranger’ and Black Midi’s ‘Schlagenheim’. I was a little underwhelmed by the Raconteurs when I saw them at All Points East last month, (probably because I was still buzzing from Yak’s riotous performance which had preceded them), so I wondered what it would be like to listen to these two albums together, and whether the new sound of Black Midi would blow them away. Not quite, is the quick answer.
I must admit I’ve been looking forward to the Raconteurs new album. I’m not a massive fan, but I have been really impressed by most of the tracks that have been issued as ‘singles’ in the run up to its release. Two of these - Bored and Razed and Help Me Stranger - kick off the album with the former a great Led Zep-like balls out rocker, and the latter a catchy little number with an almost ‘funky drummer’ like beat. Only Child slows the pace down before the tempo gets upped again with Don’t Bother Me, and then we drop back down with Shine the Light on Me and the rather MOR ‘Eagles’ like ‘Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying) – the low point of the album for me.
Thankfully the pace is picked up with the excellent Donovan cover Hey Gyp and the lead single Sunday Driver before we head into bluesy territory with ‘Now That You’re Gone’. ‘Live a Lie’ sounds very New York Dolls before we get back to Led Zep with ‘What’s Your is Mine’ and ‘Thoughts and Prayers’, the vocal on the latter almost sounding like it could be Robert Plant singing.
So is it any good? Yes, I think so – if you like your Led Zep and Stephen Stills et al (and I do) you’ll be very much at home with this album. It’s not going to change the world, but who cares? There’s a lot of decent tunes on here and it’s an easy listen. If you’re fan of the Raconteurs, Jack White etc, you’ll know what to expect and you won’t be disappointed.
Next, onto Black Midi’s debut album. The band have been widely described by the music press as the most exciting new band making music right now, and there’s a lot of love for them across social media so I thought I’d give them a go.
I must admit I’ve been a little put off by the incessant fawning by the likes of the NME, so I’ve had to be very disciplined and stop myself from becoming very dismissive of this latest music phenomenon. My initial impressions of the album were not good: immediate thoughts were that the band remind me of the Fast Show Jazz Club moment where the James Nance Quartet (with Theydon Bois on guitar) break into some ultra-pretentious improvisation, only in Black Midi’s case, featuring Shirley Bassey with mental health problems singing over the top. This vision was almost completely replicated at a recent BBC session, so much so that I thought Steve Lamaq might just turn around to the camera at one point and say ‘grrrrrreat.
Instead of dismissing them outright however, I reminded myself of an article I read once about Captain Beefheart’s seminal album ‘Troutmask Replica’ (from which Black Midi borrow) that said you will not understand it until you’ve listened to it a number of times. So I’ve persevered and I must admit the albums growing on me. Schlagenheim starts off with ‘953’ with an initial riff that directly rips Frownland by Beefheart before jumping into a heavy Metallica-like headbang, interspersed with those Bassey vocals. Speedway ‘Reggae’ and ‘Near DT, MI’ follow, all sounding like various Minutemen/Firehose tunes before the albums’ centrepiece ‘Western’ kicks in. ‘Of Schlagenheim’ reminds me of the Miles Davis’s Jazz/rock fusion era albums ‘Big Fun’ and ‘On the Corner’ and then we get first single Bmbmbm which starts like the Fall’s US 80s 90s mixed up with the end of ‘Nerves’ from Bauhaus’s debut album ‘In the Flat Field’. ‘Years Ago’ and Ducter round off the album, in suitably raucous fashion.
So is this album any good? That depends on how much of an open mind you’re prepared to give them. Overall, Black Midi sound like a bunch of lads improvising and mixing jazz and post punk music. If you like that sort of thing (which I do when I’m in the right mood) give them a try.
The (jazz) drumming on the album is brilliant, and it provides the platform for the rest of the band to wig out. After a while I started to not be so bothered by the vocals, and they start to just become part of the music overall, and they do make some glorious noise at points. The songs eschew traditional verse chorus structures, so if you feel uncomfortable with that you may struggle, and if you can’t handle your Captain Beefheart I’d give them a swerve too. Parts of the music press have made comparisons with Prog rock artists like King Crimson but don’t let that put you off, it’s not that horribly excessive and self-indulgent, although there are aspects of both traits.
Overall, listening to both the Raconteurs and Black Midi back to back just reminds’ how wonderfully diverse the alternative music scene is becoming and how exciting the UK music is today. Both bands will inspire new artists in time and introduce those bands to the different genres that have inspired them, and that’s a healthy place to be.