Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Unknown Pleasures: Dakota Suite

Dakota Suite is not so much a band, more the brainchild of Chris Hooson, a social worker from England. He manages to hold down a full-time job while also producing some affecting music.

Their early singles were compiled on an album entitled Alone with Everybody. That title alone should give an indication of the music contained within, it's not the most cheerful. Hooson conveys resignation more than angst. It's been said before that his music is very informed by American Music Club and Red House Painters, and that is undeniably true of his 'singer-songwriter' material. This compilation is quite varied, with some singer-songwriter type material, slightly countrified rock, and some jazzy / classical instrumentals. All the songs are uniformly slow, some feature deep strums of an acoustic guitar, whilst others are piano-based. One of the finer piano-based songs is Autobiography, which is nicely underpinned by some cello.

Their first full album proper is, to my ears, somewhat disappointing. Entitled Songs for a Barbed Wire Fence, it presents a slab of grimness, though not in a good way. The vocal songs are punctuated with instrumentals, and the album was followed up with Dakota Suite's first instrumental album, Navigator's Yard, a series of chamber pieces strongly featuring piano. In other words, classical music. It's quite soothing and tranquil to listen to.

In 2000, they released Signal Hill, a major step forward. The album is back to mostly vocal songs, with some excellent mood-piece style instrumentals. Close Enough to Tears is a fragile, plaintive ballad, begun on acoustic guitar around Chris gently singing 'never let me go'. Other highlights include the wonderful pair of songs: Riverside, recorded beside a train station and consisting only of acoustic guitar and Chris repeating the phrase 'is it true, are you breaking up inside', he is then joined by some trumpets. It sounds awful but works wonderfully, then leads into Raining Somewhere, an instrumental played on electric guitars, somewhat reminescent of Red House Painters' Katy Song, it creates a lovely autumnal Sunday afternoon mood. It's the sound of loneliness. The album ends on an upbeat note, with When Skies Are Grey which Chris says is about football, specifically Everton.

They then released a mini-album, Morning Lake Forever, which was dominated by Chapel Rain, a lengthy piece with the refrain 'I must be evil' (another RHP reference?). The album also contained some experimental type pieces. Lesseps is almost completely electronic, a nice departure for them, incorporating some new sounds. Turk 1 is a propulsive (for them) instrumental with jazz overtones.

They then released another instrumental album, this time using an orchestra, The Way I Am Sick. This River Only Brings Poison, followed. This album featured contributions from ex-American Music Club members, Bruce Kaphan on steel guitar and Tim Mooney on drums. The album featured some of Chris' loveliest songs, the duet featuring a female vocalist (Laura Donohoe?) on How Safe We Must Seem being a particular high point. It's very chilled out and mellow.

A four-year silence followed. I had some email correspondence with Chris around this time, and he was disappointed with how This River was received and the whole process of releasing an album. He spoke about not releasing any more music. I was glad to hear then that he was releasing Waiting For The Dawn to Crawl Through and Take Your Life Away. The album is a mixture of singer-songwriter oriented songs and some instrumental pieces. It came with a free DVD, Wintersong, which was a documentary about the band, and contained some interesting observations from Chris and his life.

Which brings me to their latest album, The End of Trying. The title is so resigned, and this follows through to the music. It's an instrumental album for piano and cello where he collaborates with notable cellist David Darling. The album works well as a mood piece. It's hard to pick out individual tracks. I ordered mine directly from Chris.

Dakota Suite are not the first band in the world to play somewhat slow, sad moody music. But I think the jazz / classical influence gives them a fresh twist. Their distaste for live performance means they will probably remain underappreciated by most.

For more about the band, check out http://www.dakotasuite.com/

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Ron Asheton RIP

It hasn't been a good start to 2009 musically. Just when the Stooges had made a comeback and started to receive some real acclaim, I was sorry to hear of the death of their guitarist, Ron Asheton.

I have had to take a month to digest this news. Ron Asheton's riffs were central to the first 2 Stooges albums. The first album, The Stooges, was some of the most basic rock n roll ever recorded. The songs were basic, childish, bratty, repetitive and downright puerile. Which is what made them great. Mostly using 2 or 3 chords, Ron's chords formed the basis for 3 of the greatest ever songs: 1969, I Wanna Be Your Dog, and No Fun.

From the moment the riff for 1969 kicks in, you are transported to a grimy, rough little setting. Helped in no small way by Iggy Pop's singing. He's not the greatest singer in the world, but he sings with just the right attitude to make these songs REAL classics. Forget the Beatles, the Stones, the bloody Beach Boys and all the other artists from the late 60s / early 70s that form the so-called 'canon' of rock. These songs take rock, screw it up into a little ball and trample on it. This song even coaxed some emotion out of Andrew Eldritch from the Sisters of Mercy in their cover version!

I Wanna Be Your Dog is even better. Possibly the greatest riff of all time, I defy anybody not to completely change their posture, walk or whatever they are doing when they hear it. No Fun, much-loved by the Sex Pistols, is equally basic. To me, it's like a theme tune for a mode of behaviour. I used to walk around with this in my headphones as an antidote to all the blandness out there. Also, these songs are great to sing because the words are equally basic.

They got more ambitious with the 2nd album, Fun House. TV Eye is solid guitar craziness. The guitar riff makes you want to go crazy and shout at the top of your voice. However the moment of genius in that song belongs to Iggy. Right in the middle of the song, he screams so hard that he starts coughing. And they just left it in!

Ron also perfected the quieter, slow release, heavy guitar dynamic on Dirt, which lopes along driven by the bass and beat, with Ron playing perfectly pitched guitar over the top to match Iggy's tension-filled vocals.

However for the 3rd album, Raw Power, due to events recounted elsewhere by better writers than me, Ron played bass. Anybody who's heard that album will tell you that due to the way it was recorded, it's hard to pick out the bass.

Of course it wasn't all good. We Will Fall is 10 minutes of tedium. Guitar-free if I remember rightly, think it was their answer to the Doors. And once you hear it, you won't be in a rush to hear it again.

The comeback album, The Weirdness, was nothing special either, but as a means to an end it got the Stooges to reform. I was lucky to see them play in Dublin in June 2008. The guitar had lost none of its power, even in a large outdoor venue, and Iggy's energy was both infectious and hilarious (in a good way).

Ron Asheton never achieved much else away from the Stooges. But for the first 2 albums alone, he deserves to be remembered as a cool guitarist. Forget the word legend, it's not very-Stooges. He was a cool guitarist.

A New Start

From now on this blog will change its emphasis. It will stay music-focused but will provide more balanced writing, about whatever I see fit.

There's enough negativity out there.