Picnic On Pluto

Amidst tales of gang warfare, violent betting rings, drug busts and overall criminal outlandishness, the Pop Miwsig Mobile Disco rolls up for the first time in Roath. We’re a tentative organisation as it is, always expecting something very near the worst, and as I’m told of granny muggings, muggings by grannies, knife-wielding mobs of hate and love (this gang is smaller), and the local café scene, which is enough to put hairs on the chest of small babies, suddenly the world doesn’t seem so bright and sparkly. Still, we have our music and will try.

Unloading records in Broadway, Roath, is somewhat like unravelling a picnic on Pluto, and I hope it’s not symbolic when my A Smile and a Ribbon CD rolls across the road, dodging Cavaliers and Chevrolets before disappearing down a drain as if into its own sleeve. Of course, I have a spare copy, but it’s the imagery that does me no favours.

You see, the Pop Miwsig Disco has an ethos, an ethos of fun, sure, but we’re out to sprinkle a bit of the soul of the underground into proceedings. And the kids are ready for it, at least I hope. Of course I’ve the choicest cuts of recent and staple Breakthrough Pop Alternative in my bag, the likes of CSS, Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura, The Pipettes et al … all the slinkiest and most tasteful stuff that thrives despite of, and not because of, cold industry hands, but there’ll also be new tracks, I mean, like brand new, and this is the thing …
Well, here I am in the lounge of tonight’s pub, and the interior is a fine representation of Roath’s recent history, sporting and pub memorabilia subtly eliminating any hints of a rich cultural and religious background. Earlier I trickled past the Church of St Margaret of Antioch, built in 1870 on the site of an earlier Norman chapel, and close by was another local landmark, the new Gothic revival church, designed on a Greek Cross plan by Llandaff architect John Prichard. This was financed totally by the third Marquess of Bute, in spite of his conversion to Catholicism in 1868 and his wife’s penchant for expensive jewelry, its innards featuring an opulent mausoleum housing tombs of nine members of the Bute family, including the First Marquess and his wives. I didn’t have time to take a boat out at the Roath Park lake, which I’ve heard a lot about, including the fact that it’s wet and not very hospitable if you fall in, which the odds of doing so for me, being a calamitous oarsman, would be high.

A crowd is gathering, but is it a Pop Miwsig Disco type of crowd? That’s the question, and we await the answer like Columbus’ crew did land. Tonight’s first set, from local lads The Roger Boons, rattles to an end after what seems like a short lifetime, the highlight having been the lead members’ shoes, which impress and insult the small audience in equal parts. Roger and his pals leave soon after, only to re-enter in an impressively more inebriated state ten minutes later to catch their pals, the organically-named Water, Fire and Air.

The stage here in this Roath backwater is pretty small and unglamorous, but WFA take to it with bona fide trad-rock pretension, painstakingly spelling out their name by way of introduction while their keyboardist, all long hair and bits cut short, underlines every letter with a different key, going up in scale from the bottom. I’m unsure if the number of letters in the band’s name coincides with the number of keys on his keyboard, but admittedly it’s an interesting thought. They screech to a stop exactly forty-one minutes and ten seconds later, the show having been a total charade of utter emptiness, each element of the band’s name slowly sucked out of me as I slump lower and lower in my seat. Their roadie, Roystan, was a nice guy though.

Some of the crowd seem to have stayed for our disco, and I harbour intrepid ambitions to make each member move at least one foot away from where they’re currently standing before the end. ‘CSS Suxxx’, a track that compliments the three Xs at the end of sensual Brazilian singer Lovefoxxx’s name with abundant glee, jumps out of speakers. A counterfeit Rolex watch glimmers in the moonlight before the landlord shuts the curtains, and as the beat morphs into a slinky introduction to their debut LP with the self-disparaging chant “CSS Suxxx” I feel a wayward tinge of excitement, which Ivor Cutler’s concise ‘For Sixpence’ enhances. Cutler had the kind of downright surrealism that, if you look hard enough, you’ll find in the chaotic tunefulness of a lot of the best modern Pop, only it was worn right there on his sleeve, among his bug badges. A nice introduction to proceedings by way of placid bizarreness that leaves the gregarious barman somewhat a-flutter. 

The lights go down and ‘Brave Day’ by Tilly and the Wall shimmers with the immediate poignancy of loss and the distant euphoria of hope. It’s a song of typically flamenco-inflected brilliance that jumps from their Bottoms of Barrels set with spectral rhythm, gorgeous tap dancer Jamie etching extra layers of beats onto the organs and horns, and Neely, Kianna and Derek winding melodies around like sensual silk. To it my heart jumps like it just knows, despite everything, that something special’s around the corner, and aside from a duo of greased roadies who sip from a giant bottle of Castrol GTX while looking stubbornly indifferent, Roath does something like agree.

Camera Obscura’s ‘If Looks Could Kill’ is a kaleidoscopic if downbeat jig that smiles through the special, special melancholy Tracyanne Campbell effortlessly evokes. Coming out of drums, through guitars into Campbell’s killingly poignant vocals, stopping at heights of melody and re-collecting itself like a crouching spring before coming back for more and more, it’s a slice of teary Pop to die for. As silhouettes sway and ‘Come Back Margaret’ is sung into the sun from a thousand broken hearts, I muse that Campbell’s is the most moving voice in modern Pop, casting spells with sultry verse, and as the most elegant of borderline hits  ‘Let’s Get Out of This Country’ follows in dreamy splendour, I feel happy, sad, and fragile as a kitten, hoping of course that no-one notices. They don’t. And that quintessential Obscura line: “We’ll find a cathedral and you can convince me I am pretty.” Blinding, even in the throng of a disco.
I saw that He-Man like figure at the bar at the Half Man Half Biscuit Cardiff gig a few weeks ago, handle-bar moustache, shirt a little to small for his arms, jeans a little too tight, and a demeanour that said he wasn’t too impressed by proceedings. Nevertheless… gentle guitar rhythms that could open a Camera Obscura track, at least if they were Status Quo, and “is your child hyperactive / or is he perhaps a twat?” … How many people would you like to unleash this song on? ‘Surging Out of Convalescence’ is another gem from Half Man’s recent Achtung Bono set that launches missiles into shit-head space with exquisite accuracy. The monster’s moustache is all a-twitch, but some girl at the front knows every word, and, if only for her, later on I’ll play some more, maybe ‘Joy Division Oven Gloves’ or ‘For What is Chatteris….’ I’ll also get her to sign my Pop Miwsig box. Remind me.

Radio Luxembourg are one of the great fascinations of modern Welsh Pop, their Diwrnod efo’r Anifeiliaid EP, recently released on the Peski label, purveying a subtle yet seemingly carefree sound that abounds with cartoon quirks. ‘Mostyn a Diego’ is a sky-scraping, sun-drenched ode of twisting melody and cartoon narrative that should set the nation on fire during the summer, has done so for me long before, and just about does so for Roath tonight, looking from my current position behind a pillar. If Luxembourg are the sound of global warming, then maybe I’m all for it.

I know the Welsh valleys could do with some Luxembourg-like inspiration, but in Lucky Delucci they may just have some burgeoning pioneers of their own. Delucci’s ‘The Room That Never Sleeps’ caught the attention a while ago like an exotic Pop fragrance would in a musky realm of traditional rock, and a new track, ‘Voodoo’, goes one better, spinning out of twinkling, winking guitar into a mystery-tinged jig of immaculate proportion that makes you tap along like one slightly possessed. It is called ‘Voodoo’, after all. Delucci have a carefree attitude in swimming against prosaic Valleys tendencies, which favour almost exclusively pub-rock, trad-rock, and, if you’re particularly unlucky, pub/trad-rock; and we can only wish them well in etching unlikely paths to the stars. Roath acknowledges through gritted teeth.
Now every time I listen to Au Revoir Simone’s The Bird of Youth LP on Moshi Moshi Records, I seem to have a new favourite track, but seeing as ‘A Violent Yet Flammable World’ seems to ache like my head on a grey winter morn yet also soothe it with a supra-tender feminine touch, I’ll give it a spin. The delicate electronics of Simone have developed into sparkling fires of captivating Pop of late, the new record a startlingly pretty amalgam of downbeat gems of longing and desolation and shimmering paeans of pure Pop beauty that ebb and sway with sensuality and poignancy. For two more, ‘Night Majestic’ is an electronic flourish from a filmic paradise, a twisting celebration of magic in unlikely places that uses the metaphor of a night at the races with poetic sparkle, while ‘Dark Halls’ is blinding, just blinding, building as it does from drum touches out through waves of keyboards into a broad, spectral, ebbing nugget of utter fascination. Simone just might be the most thrilling subversion of electronic music since Ladytron, and so say half of Roath.
Boasting a cast of ex-players to rival Eastenders, The Loves are a perpetual revelation on the Cardiff scene, providing a genuine, multi-armed kind of intrigue. Technicolour, their recent collection of retro-Pop nuggets on Fortuna Pop!, has that air of celebration, or at least a certain empathy in sadness, hope, happiness, or whatever, that the band rarely fail to evoke be it ballad or belter. ‘Honey’ I particularly like for the fact that its whispered intro from co-singer Jenna sounds like a sexy and inspired quirk from the Godard archives, and goes on to utterly conquer like the most profound retro-sex beast in town. Two more are ‘Summertime’, for the reason that it’s sung by keyboardist Liz with the kind of unaffected, starry-eyed wonder that evokes Ooberman’s sublimely-gifted vocalist Sophia Churney, and the broken-hearted ballad ‘So Sad’, for the fact that its alternately upbeat keyboard conclusion, all quirkily fantastic 60s exoticism, turns a Roath bar into the venue of Meyer’s Night of the Dolls for a few brief moments. And how good is that on a summery April night?

Intruders passing out flyers for a bingo night! Is this common behaviour in Roath? I’ll have a word with my pal Paul about this, but the show goes on despite. London and Glasgow residents will be lucky enough to get the chance to catch the female Darren Hayman when A Smile and a Ribbon travel over from Sweden this month. Nicely named after a B-side by 50s sister duo Patience and Prudence, their debut album is getting a release on the resurrected Shelflife label, but thanks to Rachael at the very nice Cherryade Records I’ve been aware of them for a while, the three tracks I have growing on me like some rare golden moss. I admit it took me a while to realise that singer Rebecca Mehlman was referring to Darren Hayman on ‘A Nice Walk in the Park’ (the tracks did come in a twenty-four track compilation), but this of course makes it even better. Mehlman’s songs have the same kind of hopelessness in love, poetic outlandishness, honesty, lustfulness, and, well, … f**king romantic brilliance of prime Hefner. Indeed you could say they’re Hefner dyed in the ultra-pop sentiments of modern Swedish Pop, and what more could you possibly ask for? ‘A Nice Walk in the Park’ even has the quintessential guitar chug of ‘The Hymn For The Cigarettes’, and really, where else were the new Hefner going to come from in the current climate other than Sweden?

Talking of Hefner, as we should probably do more often, and Darren Hayman’s debut solo LP on Track and Field is a slice of more relaxed genius that shows he’s grown up from the outlandish and amazingly creative halcyon years of chasing dreams, women, poetry and art, but not so much so that he’s got no more to give. Table For One’s opener, ‘Caravan Song’, is a prime example, a swaying ode to a duo of middle-aged caravan-dwelling siblings and their mum that has a unique poignancy. Hayman’s way with a verse, chorus, keyboard or guitar remains possibly insurmountable, and, for one more, how about ‘Protons and the Neutrons’, a story of a modern Hayman muse, “the plucky little Christine”, that has the best lunar chorus I’ve heard since ‘Alan Bean’, one that picks you up and feeds tears into eyes with sheer poetic glory. Revitalised and playing regular gigs once more with his new live band The Secondary Modern, Hayman is alive and well to lead new Unpopular upstarts through seedy backwaters with a huge dollop of magic. 

Sweden’s Lucky Lucky Pigeons are close behind aforementioned compatriots A Smile and a Ribbon in current estimations. ‘Keep On Kingie’ is a demo track that came slightly too late for the ebullient DIY masterpiece Happy Birds Day EP on Oxford’s Freedom Road Records, but features the same kind of keyboard shimmies and verses of sheer fun to hang your hat on as EP nuggets ‘Who Smells Marshmallows?’ and ‘N to the Ice’. Growing out of the rattle of a tambourine into an anthem of shabby homemade brilliance, ‘Kingie’ has the best chorus this side of Achtung Bono (“Don’t lay down on the rails / you’ve got to keep on swinging your pony tail”), and is a true feast of quirky Pop profundity to make you smile to yourself in dreams. Fantastic.
Rough Bunnies’ ‘Dance With Your Shadow’ is an off-kilter belter of the same fuck-you spirit, equally shimmering with the DIY ethos on slightly more melancholy notes. It still has a certain, laughing euphoria though. ‘Rollercoaster Ride’ is another soulfully off-key blast lifted from their Rough Bunnies Saved My Life album on Sweden’s grand Songs I Wish I Had Written label (see also The Lovekevins and Le Sport). Comprising of two Swedish cousins Frida and Ana, The Bunnies are a band that touch outsider hearts with pure black and white gold.

The Scandinavian assault continues, albeit this time coming from Finland with a slab of shimmering lo-fi from Cats On Fire. The Cats are signed to Hamburg’s Marsh-Marigold label, and going by ‘Higher Grounds’, their recent The Province Complains LP is one to seek out straight away. All chugging guitars and handclaps, the track is coated in the kind of homesick sentiments that lend a magic allure, singer Mattias Björkas doing the far-away blues thing with a similar ear for a twisting Pop tune as esteemed contemporaries Voxtrot. Cats On Fire play the London date with A Smile and a Ribbon this month, also supporting the fine Butcher Boy at the Luminaire before joining Darren Hayman for a gig in their native land. And watch out for that guitarist in the left speaker, who sounds a little like he’s plugged in on another planet.

The Pop Miwsig disco is really going some now and people are still awake. Tonight’s final slice of Scandinavia comes in innovative dual form, and if you’ve got a boy and a girl in a band, why not have two different versions of the same song? The Mare’s ‘Sad’ and ‘Sad Affair’ ride melodic trails like ghost riders in the sky, and evoke a certain dusty atmosphere within the magic confines of Pop that’s well, just ace. Jennie Sundstrom’s version sees the track, all evocative guitars and spectral percussion, glow with feminine fragility and shimmer, while Charley Rivel gives it a crazy kind of wonder, like Jack White singing off Darren Hayman’s back in a bubble-strewn wild-west. And that, I think you’ll agree, is really something.

Time to turn the heat up now with exclusives slices from an upcoming collaboration that promises to shred all previous notions of Hip Hop cool. Yea Big (he of last year’s amazing avant-Pop collage The Wind That Blows the Robot’s Arms, on Chicago’s Locust Music/Jib Door) has teamed up with Illinois rap/keyboard-meister Kid Static, and the effect is, well, Superdope, as they might have it. ‘Joining Forces’ is a slinky slice of lunar rap flavours, maniacal lo-fi rhythms and low-down melodies, while ‘Heavy Catamaran’, purloined from the upcoming Heavy 7”, skips with the gregarious thrills of yore and slithering, upside-down, folk-inflected staccato genius that sets ears on fire from the lobes up. A description on their website has them down as “one part short shorts, another cybernetic organism”, and what more can you possibly ask for in a couple of wryly politicised cartoon crusaders? The story goes that Big, a lauded Chicago beat maverick, street performer and new-folk crusader (put that in your pipe), advertised for a rapper on a popular internet message board, initially sailing a sea of disparaging remarks before Static came to the rescue to help him etch paths to the stars. It’s a meeting made in an outlandish kind of heaven, and Illinois will soon be blessed with an extensive tour. I only wish I were there. Somewhere J Saul Kane is smiling, and so of course is at least one third of a backwater Roath pub.

Speaking of gregarious thrills, and I’ve been lucky enough, actually via the Yea Big website, to get into something of a lost folk gem in recent weeks. John Hartford was once the undisputed “King of the Mississippi River”, and to many always will be. Damn right too. Aereo-Plain is the LP in question, from which numerous tracks speak with the air of the humble master; actually the whole of Aereo-Plain, from pastoral instrumental fiddle numbers through bluegrass and country stomps, is downright fantastic. ‘Steamboat Whistle Blues’, with its sparkling acoustic guitar and blinding, smiling fiddle, is a piece of bluegrass that soars with the quintessential Hartford beguilement, while ‘With a Vamp in the Middle’ is a track of easy greatness that goes straight to the heart on the back of Hartford’s easy way with a tune, and ‘Steam Powered Aereo-Plain’ the sound of fiddle and man bleeding tears at nature’s feet. Stories about the man, who spent his picaresque poet’s life veering from music to the Mississippi river, where he piloted the steamboat “Julia Belle Swain” at summertime, abound, including my particular favourite about the time he led a massive festival crowd on a fiddle march through the considerable grounds and back safely to the stage. I don’t know how many times I’ve said it recently, but what a guy. Oh, and the fabled Hartford phrase that I’ve had etched on my Pop Miwsig Disco box like a school-kid on his pencil-case: “A banjo will get you through times of no money, but money won't get you through times of no banjo.” He also drew his LP covers with both hands simultaneously. What a man. No arguments.

Like Hartford, I have a feeling that Great Lakes will be singing to me deep into the summer months. They had their third LP, Diamond Times, re-released recently on Track and Field, and its impeccable musical sheen gives way often to profound, intricate moments in that Hartford-esque style, some achievement for an overtly “orchestral” work. Like Hidden Cameras at their very best, guitars twanging to complex Pop rhythms, ‘The Moon and the Lunatics’ is, well… sublime, taking you to places of utmost and unexpected allure as the joint vocals of Don Donahue and his female counterpart make exhilarating constellations amidst the steel guitar. Same too ‘Night Hearts’, a celebratory country-speckled gem, pianos rolling in dancehall time, fantastic boy/girl vocals and guitars twitching like sounds from myriad legends. Don’t know how it passed me by in the first place, but the wise people at Track and Field are spot on to give it another push.

Also wise are the people at Somerset’s noble Tiny Dog Records, who bring Flipron’s howlingly grand ‘Dogboy Vs Monsters’ out from it’s home inside the magnificent surrealist baroque kennel that is Biscuits for Cerberus for a May release. I’ll be shouting here there and everywhere quite soon of how we’ve got them booked for a rural Wales date in May, but for now am too immersed in the sounds of Hawaiian guitar decadence to care about any tomorrows. Amazing lyricist that wiry-haired frontman Jesse Budd is (think Ivor Cutler doing Half Man Half Biscuit on a haunted Caribbean island), his random instrumental pieces open the door wide to psychedelic dreamlands. ‘Skeletons on Holiday’ here tonight is like being picked up by The Snowman and taken on a flying tour through the psyche of Tim Burton back to a time when instrumentalists roamed the earth, proud, humorous, and inspired. Above the missile-proof canopy of my Pop Miwsig Booth I even ascertain the smile of Django. Or is it Roy Smeck? Either way, it’s something crazy, and pretty special.

Coming to the end now, and what better way to finish tonight than with just one more blast from the North and a small slice of the Bogarts and Sinatras? Herman Dune’s Giant quaintly succeeds in casting lovelorn romantics in immaculate shades of black, white and neon; tracks like ‘1, 2, 3, Apple Tree’ and ‘I Wish That I Could See You Soon’ their only consolation. The former fills the deep dark Roath night with cooing and romance, David Ivar Dune’s shambolic poetry momentarily turning skies blue (“and you know how people shorten other people’s names to show their affection / like if you called me Ray and my name was Raymond / well your name ain’t Susan but I would call you Sue to show you how bad I like to be with you”), while ‘I Wish That I Could See You Soon’, basking in the vintage sounds of the John Natchez Bourbon Horn Section, is a slice of glistening, lovelorn wonder to end any intrepid venture in glory.

Was tonight a success? I don’t know. Certainly I think it might have been. So does my pal Paul, and Kev from The Roger Boons. But really, how reliable is a man speaking through a straw blowing bubbles high over his Malibu and Lucozade? Maybe we’ll return to Roath. Who knows? If not, I’m sure someone else will have us.

© 2007 Neil Jones

Bookings for the Pop Miwsig Disco can be made through email, mobile phone or telepathy. Download the Roath mix here.