Saturday, 27 June 2020

Review: Swing & Bass Vol. 2 - Various artists

I always have a lot of time for the various projects of Fizzy Gillespie. The man behind Swing & Bass, Gillespie is a DJ, producer, and promoter – behind some of the hottest electro swing in recent years. The label Swing & Bass – an offshoot from the club night – put out its first compilation album at the start of last year, showcasing some of the best fusions of swing and drum ’n’ bass. And we now have Swing & Bass Vol. 2, an absolute mammoth of an album coming in at 21 tracks, and with contributions from producers and artists from all corners of the scene. With the summer in full force now, this compilation (surprisingly, the first compilation I’ve reviewed) represents a substantial attempt to replicate the sounds of what should now be the height of festival season.

The first track comes from Dom James and Odylic Force: a remix of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’. Now I love this song, so was a bit wary of how this might go, but they do it justice, slowly building up from the original, taking until about halfway to fully kick in. They haven’t tried to edit or change anything too much, and the remix works well – heavier than I was expecting, but decent (although the Weakest Link sample is a bit unusual). Next is Fizzy Gillespie himself, with his take on the Exciters’ ‘Blowing Up My Mind’. Unlike the previous, the beat here kicks in straight away, with a nice, reggae/dub feel which complements the R&B sample, as well as the light Amen break. I also must note the staccato treatment of the vocals, which Fizzy does excellently. And then Dan de’Lion and Mista Trick join forces on a remix of Ray Charles’s ‘Hallelujah I Love Her So’. This one’s a bit different, they’ve actually cut up the original music to use it almost percussively, rather than just sticking a breakbeat underneath. It’s brilliant to see this level of inventiveness – helping the track to stand out on the compilation, and feeling much more like a piece by these two producers, than just a Ray Charles remix. A great song. Skank Spinatra’s ‘Get Stacked’ then follows, starting off with immediate, sunny and tropical vibes. Whilst initially quite chilled, the drop completely changes the feel of the track, and I kind of wish it hadn’t. There’s certainly potential here, but ultimately, this one is a little forgettable.

We then have a combined effort from various artists: ‘Fields’ by Don Johnston and Joe Alias, featuring Dat Brass. This starts off with more of a live dynamic than previous tracks, which is always welcome, however there’s a particularly strange effect when the drop comes – changing from super rapid to really quite downbeat. It feels almost like a sudden tempo change, and doesn’t quite work, instead giving the impression of two separate pieces. The live parts are fantastic, but the bassy sections just don’t really fly. And then Freek & Kit follow with a cover of the Sinatra favourite, ‘That’s Life’. Again, this starts off quite nice, and when the instrumentals cut out, I’m wondering where the track will take us. Unfortunately, it ends up with just a rather generic DnB breakbeat, which is a shame, as the live parts are quite smooth. It must be noted here that there’s such a thing as too much contrast. So there’s been three tracks in a row now which have slightly missed the mark, and it’s up to Mista Trick to save the day with his remix of Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’. Mista Trick sure loves to tackle the giants of swing – there’s so much riding on these attempts – but he almost always comes out on top. This remains the case here – it’s not his most inventive remix ever, but it’s still great fun. And then Dr Meaker follow with one of the best tracks of the compilation: ‘These Sounds’. A remix of the Bucketheads’ ‘The Bomb’, ‘These Sounds’ brings the festival vibe – it’s upbeat, energetic, and promises nothing but a great time. This is the type of song that’s guaranteed to get a dancefloor moving, and could save any set.

When it comes to this swing ’n’ bass sound, perhaps the most accomplished artist is Phil Mac, who now follows with ‘Definition Of A Boombastic Jazz’ – a remix of the Dream Warriors. With a track like this, one must be conscious that ‘Soul Bossa Nova’ – heavily sampled in the original – has been remixed to excess, so a level of originality is paramount. Phil Mac’s remix certainly works though – it’s not the best version, but it’s one of the better ones; and I must also mention that the bassline featured here is one of the best on this whole release. The next track is Jimi Needles’ ‘Happy Feet’, opening with that classic swing sound – demonstrating that this track was definitely made with this particular style in mind, as opposed to just a throwaway track that loosely fits. The transition to the drop is a little stilted here, and could certainly flow better, but each section is still great overall. And then Catjam follow, immediately launching in with their garage-esque sound. It feels slightly withdrawn to begin, but once this gets going it transitions into an absolute jungle banger. The track is cut up in all sorts of directions, firing away simultaneously, and overall it feels completely chaotic in the best sense of the term. And after the madness of this piece, we have the Breaksmiths remix of Pete Rodriguez’s ‘I Like It Like That’. A great job has been done highlighting the best parts of the original song, although the breakbeat that then emerges is a bit too minimalistic. I see what they’ve attempted to do, but it wouldn’t hurt to be a little more overstated. Overall though, it’s a solid track, and flows unhesitatingly.

The nest track is ‘Accentuate’ by Crash Party, a remix of the swing classic, ‘Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive’. This is particularly notable for having several completely unexpected moments throughout, whether that be an unusual sample, the treatment of the original song, or the general musical approach. It really feels like going on a bit of a journey, so much happens throughout – it’s frantic. And then we have a remix of Cab Calloway’s ‘Minnie the Moocher’ – from Duke Skellington with Fizzy Gillespie. Now this song has been absolutely done to death, so I’m a little hesitant to see what they’re going to bring that’s different, but I must say that it’s definitely the darkest version I’ve heard timbrally; the low tonal sounds throughout contrast very interestingly with Calloway’s bright vocals. Ed Spinna then presents ‘Piddly Patter’, a remix of Nappy Brown – which is brilliant! – I always appreciate a good rock ’n’ roll remix. There’s a very fast build up to the drop, but it surprises me by how well it works – the song flows seamlessly. These two styles – rock ’n’ roll and drum ’n’ bass – complement each other fantastically, both being all about the constant progression of energy. And then a slightly strange thing happens, with the Powello Bros.’ ‘Hide De Hoes’. Was it a good idea to have two separate ‘Minnie the Moocher’ remixes on the same release? And worse, with only one song separating them? Whilst this was sloppy planning on the part of the compiler, this second version is actually an excellent remix – the better of the two – and the treatment of the original is fantastic, keeping all the fun and enjoyment of Calloway alive.

Slowly coming to the end of the release, DJ QuestionMark’s version of Randy Newman’s ‘You’ve Got A Friend In Me’ is an excellent choice for a remix, with some fantastically funky vibes featured throughout. The instrumentation of the original is used to its full extent, with absolutely everything being drawn out to the limit of its creative potential. This is easily the most skilful remix of the release, and one of the best as well. The next track, Captain Flatcap’s ‘Bang Bang Boogie’, I’ve already reviewed, but I’ll sum up in commenting that whilst I like the rocky vibes, it doesn’t quite utilise and flesh out its ideas to its full extent. Fizzy Gillespie and Duke Skellington then join forces again for ‘Joint Blast’, which starts off with some clear cha-cha-cha influence, before descending into another quite dark breakbeat – Duke Skellington seems to be getting increasingly fond of this effect these days. Of the two tracks from the collective contribution of these two producers, this is the better. Then, the Vaude Villainz’ Ballroom Bedlam features a slow and steady build, which pays off with a seriously filthy DnB drop. The Vaude Villainz are a powerful force, and personally, I’m glad that they’re still producing tunes like this one. And the final track is Extra Medium and WBBL’s ‘The Beat Goes On’, which like the Captain Flatcap, I’ve previously reviewed. Suffice to say, this is a seamless production, carrying with it both Extra Medium and WBBL’s distinctive styles.

Overall, this release is a little bit of a mixed bag. There are sounds featured from the whole spectrum of what can be called swing ’n’ bass, and sprinkled amongst the tracks are some genuinely fantastic pieces of music. Obviously, when creating a compilation like this – and especially of this length – much variety is needed; you can’t just have an album of vintage classics with Amen breaks positioned underneath. So this is a great example of how to do it the right way, with all sorts of different styles and approaches to the overall sound. However, so much variety can also be something of a downfall, and it’s true that a few of these tracks don’t quite live up to their potential. But I don’t intend to sound like my overall takeaway is negative – this is a fine release from very fine people, and I’m very glad that it’s been put together. As the first compilation to be featured on this blog, I couldn’t have wished for much better.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

From Tradition to Style: The Life Cycle of a Music Genre

It’s a debate that everyone’s familiar with, regardless of the specifics of the actual genre: what constitutes the “real” version of that genre? And by this I mean – is it how the music sounds that determines how it should be defined, or is it the process by which it is made, and the background from which it has emerged? It’s a phenomenon which has repeated itself across various different genres throughout time, and in each case, the result is that we emerge with two distinct varieties of a particular musical style. I’ll illustrate precisely the ways in which this has played out through five examples, starting with the one I’m most familiar with – as I wrote about this specific instance extensively throughout my PhD – jazz.

I’m not going to go thoroughly in depth into precisely what defines jazz – that’s another post for another time – but it should be quite obvious to anyone that there are two very distinct approaches to jazz in the present day. The first is the approach that views jazz as a specific method or attitude – a process which is then reflected in the resultant music. In this instance jazz is experimental music, that pushes against boundaries, and breaks with tradition. Think of a musician like Miles Davis, who continually changed his sound with each and every release. This is the position that treats jazz as a tradition (perhaps a rather ironic phrasing considering its determining aspects of breaking with such a tradition). Contrastingly, many contemporary jazz clubs will present musicians performing so called trad-jazz (again an ironic phrasing). In this instance, the music is simply a reconstruction of the classic jazz songs from their particular era. Whilst enjoyment can certainly be gained from such musicians, the response is far more akin to listening to pop music – simply a familiar style – than listening to music that reflects the true, innovative spirit of jazz.

In speaking of pop music however, this is another example whereby one can consider the genre in two distinct ways. What is pop?, one might ask – and it’s a very good question. A young music fan would likely point to a distinctive sound that is characteristic of modern pop music, represented by artists such as Lady Gaga, BeyoncĂ©, Bruno Mars. The style of music made by such musicians has come to represent pop music in the modern age, but of course – the phrase “pop” originally emerged simply as shorthand for “popular”. Interestingly enough, a musician could happily play this “pop” music without experiencing any popularity whatsoever; and similarly, many musicians who have experienced immense popularity perform music that couldn’t be further from this style. But – by this definition of popularity – anything could be pop. The Beatles were pop. Pink Floyd were pop. The Sex Pistols were pop.

I can practically hear many punk fans regurgitating at the suggestion that the Sex Pistols were pop musicians, which only serves to illustrate how punk music also falls victim to this phenomenon. Punk is analogous to jazz in many ways, in that the music originally sought to go against the grain, and was defined by its rebellious, individualistic attitude and ethic which underscored the music. Punk was the music that people made when they didn’t feel welcomed by any other style or subculture. And as with jazz, over time, punk in the public eye became less about this attitude, and more about a particular sound that came to define the style. Many emergent bands may now describe their sound as punk as it resembles this sound aurally, despite sharing none of the situational or circumstantial characteristics that defined the original music. The modern acts who would fall into the punk tradition then, would be acts such as Sleaford Mods (who I reviewed last month), whose sound is quite far removed from that of the original punk music, but whose approach is practically identical.

Another genre that has seemingly become a style, despite having deep-rooted traditions – especially so in this case! – is folk. Folk is defined by these traditions, music that was typically unrecorded (even in score), passed down through generations, and played in local communities. By this description, folk could not – by definition – have a particular sound or style, as the music is defined by the particularities that make it representative of its respective region. Yet, as with punk, many members of the public would recognise a particular musical sound as “folk” – particularly the music that has emerged out of the American folk tradition. Thus, contemporary acts such as the Lone Bellow – who like the previous trad jazz acts should perhaps be considered pop – tend to get categorised as folk due to their idiosyncratic sound, despite not originating from this tradition at all. The original folk tradition is still certainly alive however, and can be found in many local communities across the world.

And speaking of music that has been with us for generations, the last genre I will speak of is Classical. Note the use of the capital C here, for Classical most specifically refers to the music of the Classical period, roughly 1750-1810 (Haydn, Mozart, early Beethoven etc.). Yet today, classical with a small c is used loosely to refer to any Western art composition, regardless of era, or if the music is actually representative of the Classical period. The term is employed for everyone from Pachelbel (1653-1706) to Shostakovich (1906-1975), as well as contemporary composers such as Ludovico Einaudi. So as with jazz, pop, punk, and folk, when one refers to Classical it is often unclear what they are referring to: whether it be the specific music of this period, or simply any piece that has come from the vast sea of compositions of the past 300+ years.

I’m sure there are many more examples from a whole variety of genres. Ultimately, the argument of what constitutes the “real” version of a genre almost always boils down to this distinction. Where one fan may listen only to the music that imitates the original style without caring for the tradition, another may only follow the acts keeping up the tradition, disregarding those acts for not utilising this approach. In the end, both fans can be seen as somewhat misled. There are advantages to be found in the combined elements of both attitudes, and great music has been made in every example for each case. As I noted at the start, what often seem to happen is that we end up with two very distinct variations of the original genre. Whether one chooses to pick a specific side, or to acknowledge and appreciate the benefits of both, is up to the individual listener.

Monday, 8 June 2020

Review: The Stampede - Jamie Berry

Jamie Berry is a strong contender for the biggest name in British electro swing. Having produced so many classics for the genre, his music is known to all those even mildly familiar with the style, and for good reason too. Many of his releases serve to represent flawless examples of the genre, and as I stated in my review of his latest album, will often stand as some of the first tracks that one may come across when first discovering this music. His latest release, The Stampede, continues to solidify this reputation, presenting five new songs that illustrate exactly why Berry has come to be as popular as he is

The first track is ‘Parade’, a perfect name for the piece. Starting off slightly disjointedly, it quickly develops into a solid rhythm, before setting off on a quick journey across several different styles all the way throughout. Listening to this feels exactly like experiencing a parade: a parade of musical influences. It’s perhaps a little more bassy than we’re used to from Berry, which sets the tone for the rest of the release, representing something a little bit different. This feeling continues into ‘Cattywampus’; starting off with a bit more of the familiar Berry sound – making full use of a solid house beat, as well as an understated treatment of the samples in his trademark style – the emergent bass drop reveals more dubstep-esque influences, as well as some funky slap bass interspersed throughout as well. And then ‘Buffalo’s Ballroom’ begins, with its seriously high tempo; this piece is very very dancey – the beat never once hesitates, and neither will the listeners. There is some fantastic percussion underneath everything else here, and even in the more EDM-centric sections of the piece, the drums still remain closely tied to the jazz tradition – demonstrating the music’s roots.

Following these three more adventurous pieces, ‘Who’s That?’ is the most traditional Jamie Berry sounding track – of course, there’s got to be at least one to remind us of what makes his music so great. It’s quite a slow building track, steadily increasing the anticipation, and throughout the extended musical samples one can feel the underlying tension. There’s some terrific glitchy stylings in this one – including some great treatment of the vocals especially; and the piece ends brilliantly too, on a rather low note – leaving the audience wanting more. Finally, from the first few seconds of the title track, ‘The Stampede’, one can tell that this is going to build to something huge. The rhythm is seriously driving, and at any moment it feels like the track is building to something bigger and bigger – and when this comes, it only keeps building even further. Halfway through, we reach an absolutely filthy drop, which will amount to chaos on the dancefloor, and then towards the end, there are a few bass swells which seem to have come straight out of a Hans Zimmer soundtrack. This is how the piece – and the EP – ends: on a suitably epic tone.

So it certainly feels like Jamie Berry is trying to go in a bit of a new direction here. Not an entirely different direction by any means – the style is still instantly recognisable as his – but these tracks definitely have a bit more of an explorative feel to them. He seems to be becoming more comfortable stepping outside of his usual formula, and getting away from the standard house sound. And all this is of course very welcome – he’s been creating house-based electro swing for almost a decade now, and can demonstrably do a fine job of whichever subgenre he turns his hand to. Thus, this release is an excellent addition to his catalogue, and will delight any of those Berry fans who pay attention, both old and new.

Friday, 5 June 2020

My Experiences with Lindy Hop

Probably around 90% of the entries I post on this blog revolve directly around electro swing, the contemporary genre that recontextualises the music of the swing era. But as many fans of this music will be aware, this isn’t the only movement that aims to bring back this particular era in a new and exciting fashion. Running concurrent to electro swing, the past few decades has seen a resurgence in the popularity of the lindy hop – the style of swing dance that accompanied the original music. Throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s, revivalists built this scene up again from scratch, and despite both movements occurring simultaneously, the interaction between the two has been – surprisingly – somewhat limited. For those unfamiliar with the lindy hop style, the following video – from the 1941 film Hellzapoppin’ – demonstrates some of the greatest dancing ever recorded.

My own lindy hop journey began in 2014, as I was beginning my MA in Sheffield, when I joined the university’s Swing Dance Society. Quickly taking a strong liking to it, I ended up on the society’s performance group, and many of my nights out in Sheffield were at swing events. The city has a fair few of these, the best of which is The Big Swing, hosting events with live music every Wednesday. In fact, it was even at one of these events that I met Becca, my long-suffering partner.

For me, the link between electro swing and swing dance has always been quite evident, and I’m often surprised that the two scenes haven’t merged more. But it remains largely true that the audiences of both are quite distinct, and there isn’t a significant crossover. I have to give a big shout-out to Swingamajig here, who are one of the few events making serious efforts to create an overlap between the two, through their coinciding Stomp Stomp dance festival that they put on with Birmingham’s The Swing Era organisation. Admittedly, there are some fair reasons as to why lindy hoppers may initially be quite averse to electro swing (some of which are discussed on this blog) – and I discussed this idea with professional swing dancer Cat Foley of Liverpool’s Mersey Swing during my PhD research, who brought up the respective points that a lot of electro swing lacks a swung rhythm; that there are often different ideas around musical phrasing; that the tempos sometimes aren’t conducive to the dance style; and that the energy can often be too high. These are all certainly reasonable criticisms, but as we discussed, none of them are problems that cannot be overcome.

What seems to be the main underlying reason for the disparity however, is that there is something of a fundamental difference in the attitude of the two scenes. Where swing dancers largely see their practice as an act of restoration, electro swing practitioners generally view what they do as an updating of the original style. This has led to a situation in which the traditional lindy hoppers may be seen almost as a rival to the spirit of electro swing. Where lindy hop looks to the dance moves of the past, electro swing often prefers to look to other, more contemporary styles of dance, such as those featured in the above video by online dancer Forsythe. It’s led to a situation I’ve seen at various live events in which the more traditional swing dancers have been placed in a dance-off against various b-boys and b-girls representing the hip hop dance styles. A perfect example of this is found in the video for the Swinghoppers’ ‘Swing Hop’.

Whilst these sorts of battles are undoubtedly entertaining, they continue to maintain the status quo that presents swing dance and contemporary dance forms as two distinct, separate styles. What I’d really love to see would be a new movement that – as much electro swing has done with the music – combines the two dances in a way that stays faithful to both styles. This would of course be a challenge, but its not something that can’t be achieved; indeed – I’m already optimistic about certain performances that I’ve seen. The best example of this occurs at Montreal’s Swing Riot festival – again this features a dance-off between representatives of both scenes, but in this situation the two sides are actively encouraged to embrace each other’s styles. The results, as seen below, are truly impressive.

So I’ve got hope that these two fantastic scenes will continue to complement and reinforce each other. I’m certainly seeing this happening more and more often, and it’s not at all uncommon for an electro swing night to feature lindy hoppers, often advertising special deals and promotions for these dancers. Personally, I will continue to enjoy both scenes, and will give a special shout-out to The Swing Project, who are doing wonderful things for the dance scene in Cardiff. Both lindy hop and electro swing will benefit enormously from their association with one another, and the more that this is mutually recognised, the more that the scene will improve for everyone involved.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Swingamajig: A Retrospective

Following on from my Swingamajig review the other week, I’m going to be presenting here a bit of a history to the festival, and how it’s come to form such an important part of my yearly calendar. From the very first event back in 2013, the festival has only grown bigger and more innovative, and each year I’m always filled with anticipation looking forward to what’s going to be in store. In terms of large-scale electro swing events, no one does it better than Swingamajig, and it’s one of the few annual events that can always guarantee my attendance.

I first discovered electro swing at what was pretty much the perfect moment. I remember distinctly – it was late 2012, around the time when the genre was first really kicking off in the UK, and I stumbled upon this festival online when searching around for new music to listen to. I must confess that for this first festival, the Correspondents and Mr Switch (then called DJ Switch) were the only acts I’d even heard of, but a festival entirely dedicated to electro swing was enough to tempt me to attend. The event was much smaller then, compared to what it’s grown into, with only three performance spaces: one for live music, one for DJs, and one for all the additional displays – swing dance routines, circus performances, and even a keyboardist playing along to old Buster Keaton films. The standout performers at Swingamajig’s debut event were Lamuzguele, and the Electric Swing Circus themselves, who were both spectacular. I left having had an incredible time, and certain that I would return.

Next year, the festival was a step up. Using the same space in Digbeth, but with the introduction of a new and bigger main stage, the second Swingamajig was just as impressive as the first, and more so. Having had over a year to familiarise myself with the current electro swing scene, I was much more accustomed with the many acts across the festival, and the line-up – particularly on the main stage – was phenomenal. I’ve previously mentioned that the Electric Swing Circus’s performance this year constitutes one of my favourite gigs of all time, and other standout performances came from Temple Funk Collective, Little Violet, and the Destroyers. The headliner, Molotov Jukebox – despite being downgraded to the second stage – still put on a fantastic show, and the entire event was immensely enjoyable.

At the very end of this year, the organisers put on another smaller party, to enter into 2015. Held in Alfie Bird’s, a lovely little venue just round the corner from the previous festival’s location, the event was a brilliant way to welcome the new year. This was certainly one of my most eventful new year’s parties, having got the 6-hour Megabus from Newcastle down to Birmingham, only to party all night and then return on the same journey back the next morning. It was undoubtedly worth it however, as I had a great time at the event, and I’m very glad I didn’t miss this important chapter in the festival’s history. Highlights were Chicken Brothers’ set, and C@ in the H@, who brought in 2015 alongside Mr FX. If Swingamajig ever decided to do an event like this again, I’d be very keen to go.

Only a few months later then, the third official Swingamajig festival moved venues slightly, utilising Alfie Bird’s again, but also making use of the various other venues in the local vicinity. This also happened to be Becca’s first time coming to the festival, after my repeated recommendations, and what a first experience it was! This year, undoubtedly, had the strongest line-up yet – the festival was essentially a who’s who of the electro swing world. With a quadruple headline of Chinese Man, the ESC, the Correspondents, and Dutty Moonshine’s debut with the Big Band, one could not have wished for a finer line-up. The festival had six stages by the point, with some great cabaret acts, and the Ragtime Records warehouse – showcasing the genre’s best DJs – had some excellent performances from Hong Kong Ping Pong (my first time seeing them), and Tallulah Goodtimes, as well as headliner Ed Solo. This was a serious step up for Swingamajig, and I was very curious as to how they could possibly top this.

2016 then, came with high expectations. This year, the festival had moved to the Rainbow Venues, making use of some of the urban spaces of the first two years as well. This was ultimately the perfect location for this sort of festival, and the variety of spaces – up to seven stages now – as well as the giant circus tent for the main stage was flawless. One of my firmest memories of this year was the strength of the cabaret stage, which left audiences captivated for hours, and the Black Box stage was also a brilliant space for some of the more dynamic DJ acts. This year’s headliner was Balkan Beat Box, an interesting choice, as the band fall quite far beyond what one would normally think of when considering electro swing – but for a festival four years in, this is the type of choice that they were correct to make. Standout performances came from JFB – and also the Tootsie Rollers, who were an absolute joy. And as I say, this year’s venue was absolutely perfect, and it seemed like Swingamajig had finally found its home.

Thus, the festival returned here for 2017. Generally making use of the same spaces, with a few changes here and there (most notably the addition of the brilliant Vintage Terrace stage), the organisers didn’t need to mess too much with a winning formula. Notable for having no outright headliner this year, some of the most notable performances came from the Correspondents (effectively the headliner), Smokey Joe and the Kid (whose performance was absolutely magnificent – one of the best to ever grace Swingamajig), and Elle and the Pocket Belles – performing with Mr Switch. This festival also featured the notable addition of Scour Records, who programmed the Black Box stage, showcasing incredible performances from Featurecast, WBBL, Tuxedo Junction, and Extra Medium. Emma Clair also performed a great set this year, as well as Sam and the Womp. In terms of the sheer quantity of fantastic sets, this year probably stands out the most. This was also the first year that I attended the additional Stomp Stomp lindy hop festival as well, and it was clear that the organisers were doing as much as they could to cater to swing dancers too. By this point, the festival was absolutely at its best, and it seemed like nothing could stop its success.

And then, disaster struck. The line-up for 2018 was looking spectacular, with Slamboree due to headline – who I’d always thought would make an excellent addition – and some other great performers, including Duke Skellington and Vourteque, booked to come over from America for the show. But after several unfortunate circumstances, the Rainbow Venues – the perfect home for Swingamajig – had to permanently close its doors, forcing the festival to be cancelled. This was heartbreaking news for all of the prospective attendees, and especially so for those like myself who had been to every previous event and didn’t want to miss a year. Luckily, the organisers achieved the impossible and managed to arrange a smaller scale, last-minute replacement event. I have every respect for them managing to pull this off, and the event – held just around the corner, the last one in Digbeth – remained a great deal of fun. Duke Skellington still managed to make it over and performed a brilliant set, alongside headliners Oh My God! It’s the Church, Hong Kong Ping Pong, and Circe’s Diner – playing a pop-up acoustic show in a hidden-away corner of the festival. I can’t congratulate the organisers enough for pulling this off, and the show was a massive achievement.

2019 signalled the start of a new chapter for Swingamajig. The closure of the Rainbow Venues put a bit of stain on the Digbeth area, and so it was ultimately necessary to find a completely new home for the event. Perhaps slightly unexpectedly – but certainly very welcome – was the introduction of Birmingham’s Botanical Gardens. This gave the festival quite a new and different vibe: for the first time it was family-friendly, and there was a much less manic atmosphere to the whole thing. Depending on what one is into, either style of festival could be considered preferential, but I thought they both worked excellently in their own ways. Headlined by the Hackney Colliery Band – again, a bit of a departure from standard electro swing, not that that’s a negative thing – I’ve already published a review of this year’s festival in detail, but the highlights were undoubtedly Cut Capers, who’s afternoon set was 100% pure fun, and of course the Electric Swing Circus; as well as some of the DJs at the afterparty (which had more of a classic Swingamajig, chaotic vibe to it), such as Tuxedo Junction and C@ in the H@. Like, 2017’s festival, there was also a great deal for swing dancers this year, and whilst there was certainly a different vibe, the festival felt just as at home in this location as elsewhere.

So it was that I was actively looking forward to the return to this venue in 2020. Whilst the entire line-up hadn’t been announced in full, the addition of DJ Yoda as headliner was a stroke of genius, and I could not wait for what he had in store. And then, disaster number two: Covid-19. I won’t repeat everything I said on my previous blog post, but this was an even tougher barrier than the one the festival faced in 2018. Whilst the livestreamed quarantine party was still fantastic fun, there’s no doubt that we would have all preferred the actual live event. Still though, this proved that the organisers are capable of providing the highest level of entertainment, no matter what obstacles are thrown in their way.

I’d recommend Swingamajig to anyone into innovative music, festivals, dancing, or anyone who just likes having a good time. It’s genuinely one of my favourite dates of the year, and an excellent way to kick off the Summer. The past eight years have really solidified my love for this genre, and for music in general, and Swingamajig has played a big part in that. I can only hope that the festival will continue to grow in both scale and quality – although it’s difficult to imagine how it could get much better in this regard – and I have every intention of returning to each and every future event. One of the best things to happen to our contemporary music scene, Swingamajig is an experience that will not let down a single person.

Monday, 18 May 2020

How To Have an Argument

This post is going to be a little bit different, but it’s something that I feel is incredibly important, and something I hope has the potential to benefit many researchers, across any discipline. For those unfamiliar with this blog, I will specify that my own discipline is musicology, but the points I’ll be making will apply across the board. The topic I’m discussing is the art of debate, and the most effective ways to form a solid, airtight argument. People arguing badly is something that frustrates me endlessly, and all too often I’ll see it coming – most disappointingly – from somebody that I agree with. Thus, there’ve been countless times in which I’ve ended up arguing against someone whom I actually believe to be right, but can’t get on board with due to the uselessness of their argument. Indeed, someone arguing the right point badly can often be more irritating than someone arguing the wrong point well.

The following then, comprises various pieces of advice that I’d give to anyone caught up in a scholarly debate. If you’re trying to convince someone of your position, you should be wary to avoid these common argumentative flaws.

The merit of an argument does not rest on one’s personal qualities

This should be the most obvious point, yet I’m constantly surprised by its prevalence amongst otherwise intelligent people. The most common example is the dismissal of a person’s opinion when regarding a matter that doesn’t affect them directly – as if the strength of their argument is reliant upon their membership of a certain group. The idea that the exact same argument could be more or less accurate depending on who it comes from is so illogical as to be preposterous. An argument is either a good argument or a bad argument. The source of the opinion is irrelevant.

Listen to your opponent and avoid strawmanning

Strawmanning is a particularly dishonest tool used – sometimes unknowingly – to gain the upper hand in a debate. In essence, it occurs when one appears to argue against their opponent’s position, when actually setting up a different point that they may take down – despite their opponent never making this point. This is an easy way of appearing right, but doesn’t solve anything. If you disagree with your opinions position, argue against that position, and that position alone. Really listen to what they’re saying, don’t misrepresent their position, and only argue against the parts that you actually disagree with.

Your enemy isn’t always wrong and your ally isn’t always right

This fallacy results from the instinctively tribalistic character of human nature, and is one that we all fall prey to. If we have already aligned ourselves with a particular person or group, we will naturally tend to agree with whatever point they subsequently make. Similarly, if we’ve already positioned ourselves as against someone in the past, we will often automatically dismiss them. The fact is, anyone is capable of making either good or bad points, and you should never avoid agreeing or disagreeing with a particular entity on the basis that it may be uncomfortable for you to be placed in such a standing.

Never rely on ad hominem attacks

An ad hominem attack is where one attacks their opponent directly, rather than attacking their actual argument. The most obvious (and disappointing) example of this comes with childish name-calling, which clearly does nothing to improve one’s argument, but it may take subtler forms too. Say your opponent is being hypocritical – would pointing out their hypocrisy make your own point any truer? No, of course it wouldn’t. Your opponent might be making the most ineffectual argument in the world, but if they’re right then they’re right. No amount of pointing out their own personal flaws will change this.

Be dispassionate

This might seem slightly counterintuitive at first, but there’s actually some serious reasoning behind it. The important point is that in making an argument you should seek to be as objective as possible, and that a passionate argument comes from a position of subjectivity. Of course you are likely to feel passionate about your cause, but the argument itself should rely only on logical and coherent points. And if nothing else, the more passionate you are in your debate, the more likely you are to fall victim to any of these other mistakes.

Solve the right problem

This is something that endlessly infuriates me – which is when someone presents an attempt at a solution to an issue, that simply moves the issue around without actually solving it. The perfect analogy is someone painting over a rotten wall. Whenever coming up with a suggestion for something that needs to be done, you must ensure that your solution is actually a solution – and not just a way of hiding the problem. Otherwise, at best you’ve changed nothing, and at worst you’ve made the issue worse.

Seek objective sources for evidence

I’m sure this is a familiar scenario to everyone: whilst caught up in a debate, your opponent assures you that what they are saying is fact, and then demonstrates this by showing you a random website which – lo and behold! – confirms everything they say as true. The truth is – you can find anything to support your position if you look only for what you wish to find. This is what’s known as confirmation bias, and the best way to avoid it is to always use reliable sources for evidence; and if employing the use of search engines – by only ever asking open-ended questions that don’t already imply a particular answer in the phrasing.

Never rely on arguments from authority

You may have noticed a bit of a running theme by now, which is the constant reminder that the strength of an argument relies only on the argument itself, and that the person making the argument is irrelevant. Any claim that “this is the position of x expert, and is therefore correct”, or that “I am the more knowledgeable in this area, so I know what I’m talking about” is inherently flawed. If one’s experience gives them superior knowledge, then that knowledge should be used to form the argument. It’s never enough to simply state that you know the correct information without actually doing anything to provide it.

There is always a place for nuance

It’s incredibly rare that someone will hold an opinion that can simply be dismissed outright. Whenever someone maintains a particular position, there will almost always be some kind of reason for them to do so, and you should always seek to understand the particularities of that position before rejecting the entire thing. As long as your opponent is at least attempting to use logic (so ignoring the few exceptions in which people genuinely believe complete and utter nonsense – flat earth; anti-vaccination; moon landing conspiracies; homeopathy etc.), any blanket rejection of an entire belief reveals nothing but wilful ignorance.

Don’t judge your opponent’s position from your own perspective

This may possibly be the most important point I raise here, and it’s something that we all do. The point is – we all have preconceived ideas, and we judge other opinions on the basis of those ideas. Thus, an action or a belief may be considered wrong on the basis of one person’s beliefs, but could be completely logical when considering it from a different person’s point of view. So it’s essential to take a step back whenever disagreeing with someone, and asking yourself if their position is entirely mistaken, or if it is only to be considered mistaken from your own, individual perspective.

Always be willing to concede a good point

And finally – there is absolutely no point in having a discussion of any kind with someone if you’re not going to be willing to admit when you’re wrong. You must be able to acknowledge when you’ve made a mistake, and be humble enough to accept that you’re not going to be right about everything. If you’re able to demonstrate enough respect to your opponent to accept when they are right, then hopefully they will extend the same courtesy to you. Otherwise, the whole exercise is essentially futile.

It’s a confusing world that we all live in, and the only way to make sense of it all is through thorough, reasoned, and respectful attempts at understanding one another. I also want to stress here that I don’t consider myself a perfect debater either, and I don’t want to come across as making all these points from a position of authority. I am occasionally guilty of many of these flaws myself, and it’s important for all of us to recognise how we can improve in the act of social discourse.

The final point I’ll raise – the most vital, yet frequently overlooked – is that the purpose of an argument is not to win. If your only aim is to defeat your opponent, then you are fundamentally missing the point. Rather, the purpose of an argument is to collectively arrive at the truth; and if you take close care to follow these bits of advice, you will be far more likely to emerge at the other end having done so.

Friday, 15 May 2020

Review: All That Glue - Sleaford Mods

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and begin by saying that I think Sleaford Mods are the most exciting thing happening in British music right now. With their ingenious fusion of punk rock, hip hop, techno, and avant-garde minimalism, they’re one of the few acts who can genuinely claim to sound completely original, as no other act even approaches their totally unique style. And yet, I can totally understand why one might not get this act at all. I must confess that the first time I heard them, I was quite dumbfounded, and didn’t quite know what to make of them. It wasn’t until I first saw them perform live at Boomtown 2018 that I first really understood the act, and they’ve since grown to become one of my favourite bands. This new release, All That Glue – with its excellent parody of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain featured on the cover – promises “an array of crowd pleasers, B sides, unheard tracks and rarities”, stretching from 2013-2019.

The compilation opens with ‘McFlurry’, first released on the Austerity Dogs album. It’s a good choice for an opener, as it introduces the Sleaford Mods’ sound perfectly. The bassline has a solid groove, and there are some really unusual synths halfway through that come off just as wild and disorderly as the vocals. The first rarity, ‘Snake It’ features a particularly strong minimalistic influence, but despite sounding this repetitive melodically, demonstrates some genuine musicality in Andrew Fearn’s loops. ‘Fizzy’, whilst not quite a classic, is certainly a fan-favourite, and features one of Jason Williamson’s best vocal performances – the anger is palpable. There are some nice little melodic lines towards the end of this one which add so much, whilst adding so little. Another new track then follows with ‘Rich List’, one of the most bleak lyrically, and the low tones of the music reflect these themes. The vocals however are almost anthemic, and I can certainly imagine a crowd chanting along with the chorus. ‘Jobseeker’ then represents one of the major selling points of the compilation – as despite being a firm fan-favourite for years, this is its first official release. One of their best-known songs, ‘Jobseeker’ features really quite clever lyrics, with internal rhyming reminiscent of some classic hip hop songs; and a very strong rhythm that remains active throughout the whole thing. Whilst the production value is fairly low on this one, I feel that it’s actually an artistic choice, that accurately reflects the themes of the piece. The anger then continues into ‘Jolly Fucker’, another fan-favourite which feels a bit like an extension of ‘Jobseeker’, both tonally and in mood. There’s a serious increase in energy however, and the vocals just seem to keep going, never once stopping for a breath.

Another rarity, ‘Routine Dean’ demonstrates some classic punk rock energy; the bassline could easily have come from a ’70s garage punk act. This is reflected in the energetic vocals too, and a track such as this displays flawlessly the benefits of having a vocalist with such a broad accent as Williamson’s. Definitely the most punk rock of the release. ‘Tied Up in Nottz’ is probably the band’s most well-known song, the lyrics of which present a perfect snapshot of working-class life in Midlands England. Particularly explicit, this track is one of the best examples of how the band may fall victim to the marmite effect: I imagine listeners will either love or hate it. Another new track is ‘Big Dream’ – the shortest of the release, which again features a strong punk influence. There’s a great loop in this one, although there’s no variation whatsoever – so it’s no surprise that the song is so short. Whilst I do think more could have been done musically, I recognise that maybe leaving it so condensed is a deliberate move to reflect the pessimism that contrasts the ambition of the song’s title. We then have ‘Blog Maggot’ – also unreleased – which is a bit more laidback than the rest so far, although the lyrics are still just as angry as ever; also featuring some of Williamson’s more eccentric and erratic vocal effects. And then there’s ‘Tweet Tweet Tweet’, originally featured on Divide and Exit – one of my favourites, and the song that really made me fall in love with them at Boomtown (captured excellently on this recording). Every aspect of this track is brilliant: the musical layers, the melodies, the lyrics – which sum up the feelings of the song perfectly. I definitely appreciated the inclusion of this one.

Another fan-favourite, ‘Tarantula Deadly Cargo’ begins quite curiously with some jazzy samples, which signal something a bit different, and indeed – this song does stand out as rather subdued compared with what we’ve heard so far. It’s almost relaxing – at least, as relaxing as one could ever call this band – and the most classically minimalistic of the release. ‘Fat Tax’ then has a bit of a bluesy feel to it; again, pretty chilled out – at least instrumentally – although the vocals still show a fair amount of outrage, demonstrating a strong contrast. There are some good internal rhymes in this one too. ‘Slow One’s Bothered’ is the third slow one in a row, with a bassline that reminds me a little bit of the Gorillaz. Vocally, the melodic lines are similar to the previous ‘Rich List’, in being very easy to sing along with – it’s simplistic but effective. And continuing this comparatively sluggish feeling over the second half of the release so far, ‘Revenue’’s lyrics stand out as being rather desperate, hopeless, or despondent – rather than impassioned; and the bleak and barren feel of the music reflects this mood as well. After these four quite lethargic songs, the energy begins to return again through ‘Rochester’, in which the remnants of rage build all the way throughout, with the lyrics calling out some of the grimmest aspects of society. There are some creative uses of samples towards the end, before ‘TCR’ brings us back to an absolute classic. Another of my favourites – I love the musical subtleties throughout, that really make this one what it is. The lyrics are fantastic too, witty and sharp, and showcasing Williamson at his best.

Previously unreleased, ‘Reef of Grief’ is catchy from the off, and again features some pretty amusing lyrics. It’s a decent track, and although it doesn’t stand out too much amongst the rest, it remains a solid tune. ‘B.H.S.’ then follows – one of their best-known tracks – originally featured on English Tapas, and it’s just brilliant. I’ve nothing bad to say at all. It epitomises what’s so great about their sound perfectly, and is honestly just a great song in general – even despite the band’s abnormalities. ‘Second’ is the band’s latest single, only recently released in advance of the compilation. It’s possibly my favourite video of theirs, and shows that the band are going from strength to strength. They have such an excellent formula, and each song demonstrates this, whilst never getting stale. At the end of the release, All That Glue features two tracks from their latest album, Eton Alive. ‘OBCT’ is pretty unusual-sounding for the band, with much more of a whole, all-encompassing sound, whilst Williamson’s vocal line is almost standard singing. I’m reminded of ‘I Feel So Wrong’ off of English Tapas, and it’s nice to hear the band going out of their comfort zone. There’s even a kazoo solo. And then, ‘When You Come Up to Me’ demonstrates this to the extreme. It begins with some futuristic, alien-esque sounds that persist throughout, and Williamson’s singing is even more different here, to the point that he’s even hiding his distinctive accent somewhat. It’s very unusual, but a completely appropriate place to end: with one of the band’s newest songs showing their potential future possibilities.

Whilst I see Sleaford Mods as a spectacular band, I’ll reiterate the point that some people, undoubtedly, will completely dismiss them. And I don’t think those people are wrong – they’re certainly an acquired taste, they’re not for everyone, and a lot of their music is really quite challenging. But for those who are lucky enough to understand and appreciate what makes this band so special, All That Glue is a fine collection of some of the best examples of their sound. There isn’t a bad song here, and the release exhibits some of the most characteristic examples of what makes the band so enthralling. Whilst I would maintain the position that the finest way to experience Sleaford Mods is through their live shows, All That Glue comes as close as one can probably get to demonstrating the best of the band’s strengths on record. An excellent compilation, and one to which I will return.