Friday, October 17, 2008

The great Apartments of Sydney

I wrote this on my old Myspace blog earlier this year. Seeing I don't really want to bother with the past, I thought that I might place this piece here...

I've always found Sydney to be an unusual place. A place with the terrace houses, long lost musical scenes and quite simply, it's size can be a little daunting.

Nevertheless, I took the rare chance to venture down just the other day. I was there for a few hours in September, driving my newly acquired DS21 up from Melbourne and stopping slap/bang in the middle of Chinatown. A little lunch and for a quick dash around the shops on Pitt St was the extent of the last visit.

Looking up at the subject title and trying to get back to the point, I realised why I am writing this. I went down to see the Apartments - a band who have recently decided to start playing again.

A lot of people find their way into the world of the Apartments via The Go-Betweens and that's understandable. A casual Go-betweens fan may realise that the band's singer and songwriter, Peter Milton Walsh was in the band for all of five minutes in late 1978. Someone who's a little more than casual may know that both Forster and McLennan wrote songs about him, namely 'Don't Let Him Come Back and 'That Way'.

I've always been the type of person who studies record sleeves. It's a great pity that I can't get an honorary doctorate in record sleeves, but maybe I just haven't looked into it enough.

When I bought my first Laughing Clowns record, it was at a time in Brisbane where you just could not buy anything by them second hand, and the CDs weren't readily available. This was the early 90s. The first Clowns record I managed to procure was the 12" for Eternally Yours. How I got into the Clowns is another story altogether, so I'll cut that bit out and get to where I am meant to be heading here.

So there it was - the record. The Judi Dransfield artwork. The credits. Now I looked at the musicians who played on this 12" and saw Jeffrey Wegener (who I knew was working part-time at this hideous record store in Adelaide St), Louise Elliott, Chris Abrahams and Peter Walsh. Now it got me thinking: is this the producer Peter Walsh - the chap who produced that Church record I have? It couldn't be - it turned out it wasn't. It was Peter Milton Walsh. So I worked out he had this band called the Apartments. I remember flicking through some 7" singles in the same shop I bought this Clowns record from and seeing a title by this band called The Apartments.

The next day, I rushed back into the store and bought it. I played it. I played it again. And again. And again. It was really quirky pop music. The vocal was so strange, so detached from any other singer I had heard to that point. The piano on the record is so basic, yet it makes the b-side seem like it should be the a.

Quite simply, it blew me away - I'd never heard something like this before. The lyrics made you feel like if you hadn't been like the character in the songs before, then you will be at some point in your life. Maybe you hadn't even lived.

The single was All You Wanted, released by Hot in late 1984 - not long after Walsh had completed his 12 months in Laughing Clowns. A 12 months which saw the release of one record (Law of Nature) and two tours of both Europe and Australia. Law Of Nature was the first true lyrical record which Kuepper wrote on his own, and it's a record I play more than any other of the 40-odd records he's responsible for. I'm sidetracking again.

That one pivotal moment of my youth where I heard the Apartments for the first time led me along this path of wanting to see them perform. In time, I had managed to learn a little more about them and all I could find was a series of dead-ends that took me many years to work out. It continues to be an adventure, I guess. There's still a lot of unanswered questions and I don't really mind. I'm not into the gossip aspect of musician, but I do like to know how someone gets to where they are - just in case I may want to take that trip myself. I hope that made sense - it's hard for me to articulate what I am trying to say.

Peter Milton Walsh did play a show in Brisbane at one of the spring Livid festivals with Amanda Brown, but by the time I knew about it... well, it was a little too late.

Years roll by and I read an article about The Apartments and Walsh mentions a possible tour of Australia that will coincide with the local release of their 1995 record, A Life Full of Farewells. This tour never takes place. They did play a series of shows in France around that time and deservedly so - they're the only country whose music fans seem to understand. It makes that cliche of the French being romanticists seem more validated and less of a cliche.

So they play a show in Sydney - their first since forever and I am absolutely there.

I saw their soundcheck at Brisbane's Troubadour in June - from the moment all the levels were right, I was just blown away. I felt this great rush of adrenalin go through my body and when this happens, it's a yardstick to measure just how good a show I'm seeing is. This narcotic feeling rarely happens. When Ed Kuepper played 'Too Many Clues' at the Judith Wright a few weeks ago, it happened. And when Walsh started the opening chords to 'The Goodbye Train' on Thursday night it happened again.

Sitting on the mezzanine floor with my uncomfy chair and the speakers sitting just about level with me, it all sounded perfect. I love a good live mix and I am rarely treated to one, but such is showbiz.

I am not sure what makes their shows so amazing. I have seen them as many times as the band have performed publicly - be it in Brisbane or Melbourne and now Sydney. Admittedly, the set has featured the same songs and quite frankly, I couldn't give a fuck about it. The new arrangements to the bulk of the songs (particularly 'Thank You for Making Me Beg') provide a freshness. All the songs blend in - even if they were written in 1983 or 1993 - it's like the clocks never stopped.

I guess I am making up for lost time. When you know that there could be a time when one of your musical heroes could turn the taps on again, it's exciting. I don't mind waiting yet another ten years for a Scott Walker record to come out, because I know it'll be the record he wants to make and that it'll just make bands like Radiohead seem more and more idiotic and pointless.

I waited the best part of fifteen years to see the Apartments, so I am making the most of the situation and that's Walsh's brave decision to pick up the Telecaster and to play his songs again. I never thought it would happen. The more I would write letters to Peter, the more he would underline the fact that it was a vanished world.

And after seeing the various audiences who've presented themselves to the shows, there's one thing that's clear - I'm not the only person who enjoys the songs. It's some of my heroes, some of my friends and some of my enemies too.

But as for Sydney - it was a wonderful night - just being in the audience amongst the names I have seen all over the record sleeves I have in my collection was a little overwhelming. A drummer here, a producer over there, a photographer by the stairs, a guitarist keeping the bar from falling down, an artist cracking jokes outside the venue, a bassist that looked like a chicken, but who soared like an eagle.

A wonderful, unforgettable atmosphere which I was glad to occupy for one summer night in Sydney.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The music of Drenica, or an uncritical aesthetic study on the hill-country folk music vernacular of Western Kosovo part two: Turbo-Folk v Gangsta Folk

With the advent of Turbo-Folk music filtering through the Balkans in recent decades, true folk music of Drenica becomes more scarce as the years roll on. In case you're wondering, Turbo-Folk is when you put a dance beat over some traditional instruments to give it a more modern sheen. That's the most short-hand explanation of it, anyway.

If you've heard the original Borat theme from when it was on the Ali G show, then you'll know what I'm talking about. And yes, that's a Drenica-born and bred artist performing the theme song - not a Kazak.

I'm straying away from what I wanted to showcase, and that's what I call Gangsta-Folk. No eighties Mercedes Benzes with German plates doing drive-bys along rocky mountain ways, but plenty of gold teeth and gun-waving.

This video is from Vllezerit Qetaj (the Qetaj Brothers), who formed in the early sixties and are familiar faces on DVD and video collections of Kosovar folk groups. The best environment to hear Albanian music is much like this Youtube clip I happened to find. The title of the song is loosely-translated as Stop Serbia For I See Smoke says it all, and as will the guy you see at 1:29 letting a few bullets go out the window during the performance.

The players sit in a circle in the middle of a usually rectangular men's room. As you can see in the clip, there's a bit of goulash and caustic Russian tea doing the rounds so therefore I'd be safe in saying this was someone's wedding or a young boy's circumcision party.

The instrumentation is typical of a musical group of this area, with Cifelti (a two-stringed lute instrument tuned B-E), Sharki (its larger five stringed cousin), piano accordion and a def, a skinned tambourine.

This is the music of Drenica at its wildest and most unhinged.