Category Archives: concerts

Boss Blogs #2: I’m 27 Years Burnin’ Down the Road

Anyone who knows me will tell you how much of a Springsteen fanatic I am. This is a guy who dragged his then-girlfriend all the way from south Wales to Philadelphia for a gig on the E Street Band reunion tour that ended up being cancelled because of a hurricane. Anyway, the first time I ever saw him live in concert was a few years before that, at Wembley Arena on July 10th 1992 – 27 years ago this week. By the way, I also have a weird fascination with the number 27, and I absolutely love it when things come together like this. Sometimes, life could almost be scripted.

I was eighteen at the time, and a friend and I decided to travel up to London by coach to catch one of the dates on the Boss’s four (or maybe it was five) night stand on the Human Touch/Lucky Town tour. You know the one, it was when he fired most of the E Street Band and hired a bunch of session musicians to play their parts. Bruce has always been a bit funny like that. He was and is very wary of people sticking labels on his music and is always trying new things, or at least trying old things new ways. After a brief spell in the very early seventies pretending to be the next Bob Dylan at the behest of his record company, he spent the next decade or so playing straight-up rock shows. Hundreds of them. Maybe even thousands. After the mammoth Born in the USA run, he was burned out. He decided he’d gone as far as he could in that direction and brought in a horn section for his next tour in support of tunnel of Love in 1988, which was full of bombast and theatrics. His next tour would be stripped down to solo acoustic (Ghost of Tom Joad, 1996/97), and in between those two extreme states of being we had… this.

A lot of people didn’t like the Human Touch/Lucky Town albums when they first came out. Personally, I loved them. I loved Human Touch, with its slick production and pure pop hooks slightly more than the more rootsy and raw Lucky Town. But weirdly, over time that situation has been reversed and it’s now the latter which is remembered with more fondness. With a couple of patchy albums to promote and no E Street Band, I suspected it was going to be a slightly surreal evening in London.

And so it proved.

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Not to take anything away from the band, who were about as polished and tight as you could hope for. The thing that struck me most was how charismatic the Boss was in the flesh. The moment he strutted onto the stage, greeted the crowd, and counted down into Better Days, he was captivating. For the first few songs I simply stood there with my mouth hanging open. I was in awe. The stripped down version of dancing in the Dark segueing into Darkness on the Edge of Town which appeared a couple of songs in still stands as one of my all-time greatest in-concert moments. All this was helped by the fact that without even trying, my friend and I had somehow managed to blag a couple of amazing seats. Centre stage, about half a dozen rows back with a completely unobstructed view. I would remember those seats over a decade later when my seat at the San Siro in Milan turned out to be on the wrong side of a massive concrete pillar.

The spell Springsteen was weaving was all ruined shortly after when he launched into an extended version of 57 Channels and Nothin’ On. I mean, the 2:57 album version is bad enough. He may have had good intentions when he wrote that song but man, it’s a stinker. It’s one of life’s great mysteries why some A&R clown at Columbia Records saw fit to release it as a single. In fact, I came to realize years later that Springsteen chose this particular night to play all my least-favourite songs. Right after 57 Channels came The River, which always struck me as a overlong and sombre (sacrilege, I know) and a bit later came Cover Me, possibly THE worst track on Born in the USA. Predictably, the set was littered with unremarkable deep cuts from the two new albums: Man’s Job, Roll of the Dice, With Every Wish, Leap of Faith, Local Hero, Real World. All these came at the expense of some bona fide classics that were dropped from the set-list. There was no Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, no Rosalita, not a single track from Nebraska, and not even a Badlands. He did, however, play Living Proof, in my opinion one of the most underrated songs in his extensive repertoire. Granted, it’s another one from Lucky Town, but not one he pulls out often. Certainly not often enough. Brilliant Disguise and Souls of the Departed also stood out. However, the absolute highlight for me was an epic version of Light of Day, complete with audience call and response. This was a track he’d given to Joan Jett for the movie of the same name five or six years earlier, and I didn’t even know he’d written it until that night. Jobbing session musos or not, by this point he had that band (along with every member of the 12,500-strong crowd) dangling on a piece of string.

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After that came the obligatory gut-busting, crowd-pleasing, booty-shaking, six-track, 40-minute extended encore starting with a breathless one-two of Glory Days and Bobby Jean and culminating in an electrified Born to Run (he’d performed it acoustically on the previous tour)and poignant show-closer My Beautiful Reward. In its entirety the show ran for over three hours, pretty standard for Springsteen. It was exhausting just watching him. The man himself was drenched in sweat, and I was so close I’m pretty sure some of it landed on me at one point. Or maybe my fading memory has embellished that little detail. It’s been 27 years, after all.

For full set list see here.

Boss Blogs #1: Meet me in the City Tonight.

 

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Allister – 20 Years and Counting (review)

Allister are one of the great forgotten pop punk bands. They had all the tools – cool image, solid musicianship, a great attitude, killer tunes, witty lyrics, tattoos – yet somehow got lost in the shuffle. Don’t get me wrong, they achieved modest commercial success, especially with their Last Stop Suburbia album in 2002, and cemented their place in pop punk folklore long ago (lest we forget they were one of the first bands signed to legendary label Drive-Thru records, also home to Senses Fail, Something Corporate, Newfound Glory, Halifax and Finch, to name just a few) but the big time always eluded them. In most places, anyway. Allister, and in particular bassist and singer Scott Murphy who for a long time sustained a solo career (I think he still does), was absolutely huge in Japan. No doubt a talented individual, Murphy’s charisma and boundless enthusiasm is admirable. I met him at a gig in London a few years back, and he was awesome.

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This album comes through necessity more than anything. They haven’t released anything since 2012 and wanted to mark what is essentially their 25th anniversary as a band, and 20 years since the release of their debut album which, incidentally, was recorded on a purported production budget of $700 and featured a cover of the Fraggle Rock theme. Kudos. Someone somewhere suggested a ‘greatest hits’ style compilation, but that proved problematic as it turned out Allister didn’t actually own the recording licenses for any of the tracks on their first few releases but owned the rights to the songs themselves. Hence, the solution was to re-record, and in some cases, ‘re-imagine’ them, and pad the thing out with a few new tracks. The pick of these is probably the high-octane Peremptory Challenge, ran a close second by the slightly more restrained opener Stay with Me.

As for the re-recorded tracks, most have been updated only in the sense that they’ve lost a lot of that energetic immediacy so prevalent in pop punk circles. The guitars are choppier, the bass section slightly higher in the mix, and most tracks have been brought down an octave or two in an effort, you feel, to ingratiate them with a mainstream audience who are rapidly forgetting what drums and guitars sound like, let alone pop punk. Some, like Moper and Flypaper benefit from this treatment, but others like Scratch and A Study in Economics seem to lose a little something. Or maybe I’m just too attached to the original versions and resistant to change. Dunno. Regardless, even at 50% capacity Scratch is approximately 50% better than 90% of other songs.

One of the biggest missteps is a wholly unnecessary remake of the ska-infused Stuck Powered On from the 2012 album Life Behind Machines. In my humble opinion it was one of the band’s weakest tracks anyway, and the 2019 version adds nothing to the original. Meh. All things considered, 20 Years and Counting is a somewhat patchy affair, but has enough quality to carry it through. Beyond the new material seasoned fans are unlikely to be overly impressed, but if this release exposes Allister to a new generation, it will have done its job.

To promote the release the band have made a cool new video for Somewhere Down on Fullerton, which you can catch HERE.


The Alarm – Equals (review)

I’ve been a fan of Welsh rockers the Alarm since I first discovered music in the eighties. Back then, their passion, integrity and sheer intensity spoke to me, and it still does. I’m happy to report that though the intervening thirty years or so have brought ups and downs, for me as well as the band, we are all still here. That’s something to raise a glass to. This might be the first official Alarm album of new material since 2010’s Direct Action. I say ‘might’ because it’s difficult to keep track as Mike Peters (sole survivor of the original incarnation of the Alarm and driving creative force) is one of the most prolific figures in rock. In the past few years there have been countless reissues, soundtracks, live albums and re-recordings of earlier material, as well as the recent Blood Red/Vinyl Black project, mostly put out through his own 21st Century Recordings label, all of which muddy the waters somewhat. You do get the feeling, however, that most of the aforementioned has been leading up to the release of Equals, which has more in common, both lyrically and thematically, with Direct Action than anything that has come between the two releases.

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When I started writing this review, I told myself that it should be more about the music than the man. God knows, there have been more than enough column inches written about Mike Peters’ (and latterly his wife Jules’) health issues. But it quickly became apparent that this was going to be easier said than done, as over the years the music and the struggle have become inexorably linked. Thriving in the face of adversity is a big component of the bigger picture, and in my opinion to not understand and acknowledge the back-story detracts slightly from the power of the music. To quote the Classic Rock review of Equals, “The fact that this album exists at all is a testament to the endurance of the indomitable human spirit in the wake of tragedy and woe.”

The tone is set from the restrained yet subtly defiant opening chords of the first track Two Rivers, an uplifting synth-led rocker with a lyrical focus on redemption and reinvention, and continues into standout track Beautiful, another hard-edged anthem with a soft centre. The next track sees Mike Peters rekindle his bromance with Cult guitarist Billy Duffy, who does a serviceable job adding some depth and potency to Coming Backwards, before the pace drops slightly for Transatlantic. The scathing, socio-political commentary of Crowd Trouble follows before we are hit by Peace Now, a kissing cousin to Neil Young’s Rocking in the Free World, which The Alarm covered in 1991 for their Raw album. A nice touch is the repurposing of Pink Floyd’s famous “Just another brick in the wall” lyric, along with the “No guitars in the war machine” refrain. The next highlight for me is another stirring anti-war Cenotaph, which surely ranks among the best Alarm songs ever written. Like Peace Now, this track was debuted a couple of years ago on the well-received Spirit of ’86 tour, itself a continuation of the Year of Strength, where it slotted in seamlessly alongside an expansive repertoire of 80’s classics. The album closes out with Hell Fire (on CD and download only) and Tomorrow which, from a slightly whimsical opening, builds to a soaring crescendo of a climax. A fitting way to finish.

You already know what you’re going to get with an Alarm/Mike Peters release, so there’s a small element of preaching to the converted here. Peters found his niche decades ago. He knows what the people who buy his music want and, apart from adding the occasional dance beat or funky bass line, is unlikely to break any new ground at this point in his career. But why should he? If it isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it. Impassioned and poignant, Equals stands as one of the best albums of his career to date, and it’s out now.


Boss Blogs #1: Meet Me in the City Tonight

For many people, seeing Bruce Springsteen live, especially with the E Street Band, is akin to a religious experience. His epic three-hour plus live shows are the stuff of legend. The vast majority of artists have their carefully arranged 16-song set consisting of a smattering of tracks from their latest sub-par album, closing the show with a few hits from when they were more popular to send the crowd home happy. They play the same songs, in the same order, every night. Even their salutations are hollow. “Thank you (INSERT NAME OF LATEST STOP ON THE TOUR)! This has been the greatest night of our lives!”

Of course it has, pal.

Springsteen doesn’t just go through the motions. Every show, every note of every song, is shot through with energy, emotion and intensity. Virtually every night the set list is different. Sometimes there are minor tweaks, sometimes there a radical overhaul. He usually does something special, making it unique for those lucky enough to be in attendance. He might dust off a rare deep cut, a non-album track, a new arrangement of an old classic, or an unexpected cover. He has an extensive repertoire to draw from, and nothing is off-limits. After Prince died last year he played Purple Rain as a tribute, in London he played the Clash song Clampdown in homage to Joe Strummer, and in Australia he played the relatively obscure INXS track Don’t Change as a nod to Michael Hutchence. It wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility to witness him tackle a George Michael or Motorhead standard at some point. The first time he ever played in Wales on the Magic tour in 2008 he started the show with From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come), in reference to the size and stature of the country.

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I’m not as fanatical as some Springsteen aficionados. I’ve met people who have seen him live literally hundreds of times, making my six gigs in four countries over twenty years seem pretty fucking weak. Still, I do have some good stories. Like the time I was on a coach coming back from Rotterdam and French border police decided to take us in a room one-by-one and strip search us all. I’d never had that treatment before, so that was an experience. As was travelling all the way from Wales to Philadelphia for the reunion tour in 1999 only to arrive at the venue to find the show had been cancelled because of a hurricane. After being shut in the hotel bar for the night, we eventually got to see another show later in the week so the trip wasn’t completely wasted. Unlike me that night in the hotel bar. At the actual gig, my then-girlfriend went out for a cigarette halfway through the show and security wouldn’t let her back in, so she had to stand in a car park by herself in downtown Philly for two hours. No, I didn’t go out to find her. A man has to get his priorities right. Besides, I didn’t know what had happened until later. There were no mobiles in 1999.

Thinking about it, my Boss gigging history has been dogged by drama. I was also at the infamous Hyde Park gig in 2012, when the council pulled the plug in the middle of a historic duet with Paul McCartney. Hilariously, the Boss started the next gig in Dublin in the middle of Twist & Shout and had a fake policeman drag him from the stage at the end. The first time I ever saw The Boss live was as a starry-eyed 18-year old at Wembley Arena in 1992. By some fluke, my friend and I had great seats, just a few rows from the front. But probably my favourite ever Boss gig was at the San Siro, Milan in the summer of 2003. I’ve always thought the music spoke to me on some weirdly personal level, and that show seemed to prove it. I still worked in a factory in Wales at the time. I had a car, a steady girlfriend and a PlayStation. All the things that are supposed to make you content. But man, I was so fucking miserable. I was beginning to realize it’s a big world out there, and I was frustrated at only being allowed to experience a tiny part of it. My first book had just been released and, I knew big changes were coming in my life. He sang ‘Follow That Dream,’ a song he doesn’t do often, and it almost sent me over the edge. It certainly put things in perspective. I decided to roll the dice and risk everything to pursue a career in writing. Within a few months, I’d split up with my girlfriend, sold my car, laid my PlayStation to rest (which I still think is the biggest loss) and moved to Southampton to study journalism. Strange how things turn out. I look back on that San Siro gig as some kind of tipping point.

When Bruce & the E Street Band began this latest tour, they were playing The River album in it’s entirety from start to finish, then a handful of oldies at the end. Everyone knew it wouldn’t last. It was too rigid, too predictable. The handful of oldies at the end soon stretched to a dozen, then 15 or 16, and by the time he got to Europe the ‘whole album’ format had been discarded altogether in favour of a career-spanning mash-up. What’s even better is EVERY show is being recorded and released via his website. I used to collect live bootlegs. Over the years I amassed hundreds of them. I’ve always been aware that the studio albums, even taking into account the 4-CD retrospective set Tracks, only tell half the story. But they were expensive and the sound quality was hit or miss. Normally miss, to be fair. These new releases are absolutely flawless, and at $9.95 (MP3 format) for four hours of music, reasonably priced. There’s a bit of polishing and mixing going on, but if it enhances the sound quality I’m not against it like some purists are. Incidentally, if you want my opinion, I don’t think you can go far wrong by investing in the Washington National Park show.

After a few months off following the last US leg, the River tour found it’s way to Australia last month. Because, bizarrely, it’s summer there. And winds up next week in New Zealand. I’m envious of all you Australasians who were lucky enough to get tickets but I’m not that put out. I’ll just get the MP3s.

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2016 – The Greatest Year in Music for Three Decades?

No, this isn’t satire. This is some serious shit. Don’t mock. I know it’s a massive two-fisted claim, but when you think about it, 1986 was an outstanding year in music. Most of us just didn’t appreciate it at the time. Through no fault of their own, half the people who read this post probably weren’t even alive thirty years ago, which is a thought that absolutely terrifies me.

Slippery When Wet by Bon Jovi, License to Ill by the Beastie Boys, The Queen is Dead by the Smiths, Invisible Touch by Genesis, Graceland by Paul Simon, A Kind of Magic by Queen, Master of Puppets by Metallica, So by Peter Gabriel, Liverpool by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Classics, one and all. Thirty-year old classics. Well, except that last one. Apart from Rage Hard Frankie’s long awaited follow-up to Welcome to the Pleasuredome was utter crap. But it was memorable crap.

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You might not think it, but look beneath the surface and you’ll see that three decades on, 2016 has been another stellar year in music for people of a certain persuasion. Not only did Blink 182 return revitalised and reinvigorated, but there were new albums from Bouncing Souls, Biffy Clyro, BabyMetal, Bayside, Bowling For Soup, and even a few bands that didn’t begin with ‘B,’ like Taking Back Sunday, Feeder, Good Charlotte, Yellowcard, Against Me! A Day to Remember, and the kings of modern punk rock (yes, I said it), Green Day. Still to come we have releases from Jimmy Eat World and Sum 41. Even the Ataris, who haven’t put out anything new since 2007, came to the party. Granted, October in the Railroad Earth is an EP made up of studio outtakes, so it’s neither a proper album nor new, but I’m including it here because I want to, and it’s fucking awesome.

You could say 2016 has been something of a pop punk renaissance, a fact further underlined by imminent new offerings from Billy Tallent, Tonight Alive, Set it Off, and the Starting Line. I think this speaks volumes about the state of the world we live in right now. People are fucked off and miserable. We want the happy back. Break out the fart jokes and beer, all is forgiven! ADTR, Blink and All Time Low even toured the US together in what is probably the greatest live bill I’ve never seen. Thanks for that. A slightly more unsettling alternative is that pop punk now qualifies as retro, and is benefiting from that warm, fuzzy nostalgia buzz that people yearn for when they hit their late-thirties. It’ll be popping up in Classic Rock mag next.

I realise all this might not mean much to some of you. But to get to the point, pretty much ALL my favourite bands of the past fifteen years or so are releasing new albums at roughly the same time. And not only that, but most of them are good! This is a truly unprecedented event of near-cataclysmic significance well worthy of a blog post. Like an inter-planetary alignment over Stonehenge or something. Now, if someone could get Funeral for a Friend to reform and knock out a new album by the end of the year, we’ll be golden. Ta.


BABYMETAL – Metal Resistance (album review)

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To steal a phrase from Roger Shackelford of Tainted Reality, ‘Is it weird to like BABYMETAL?*’

The answer is ‘Yeah. Probably.’

For the uninitiated, BABYMETAL are a manufactured J-Pop/thrash metal crossover act group comprising of a trio of teenagers in tutu’s and a backing band wearing corpse make-up and white flowing gowns. At first glance, it’s hard to take them seriously. I never liked Japanese music before. Or Chinese. Or Korean. It’s mostly horrible and you have no idea what they are singing about. But, God forgive me, I do like BABYMETAL. I just can’t put my finger on why.

Let’s not beat around the bush. They are weird with a capital W. They have a whole invented mythological back story about a Fox God sending them out into the universe to save heavy metal, and on their last tour they pretended to crucify the singer Su-Metal live on stage while the other two girls Moa-Metal and Yui-Metal danced around inanely. The theatrical element borrows heavily from the likes of Alice Cooper and Kiss, and it certainly adds something extra to their live performances. They’ve been huge in Asia since forming in 2010 and since then have slowly began to make their mark internationally, especially on the summer festival circuit. The video for Give me Chocolate has racked up over 46 million views on YouTube (only about half of which are mine) and last week they played a sold-out SSE Wembley Arena in London to kick off their 2016 tour in support of album number two. Metal Resistance was released on 1st April which they dubbed, ahem, Fox Day. And no, it wasn’t an April Fool.

Metal Resistance kicks off with the anthemic title track, whch has been a staple in their live set for a while now, before launching into Karate, the first single. Karate is typical BABYMETAL, pop sensibilities laid over a crunching guitar riff. That’s followed by Awadama Fever, which I think is about bubblegum gum. No, really. Don’t let that fool you, though. As with the first album, these songs have depth and creativity, seamlessly veering from speed metal to something akin to raggae or dubstep in the blink of an eye. The contrast, and the overall effect, is mesmerizing. Whoever writes these songs is truly gifted. As are the backing musicians, the Kami band. Listening to the album you would perhaps think the sound is a result of studio overdubs and fancy knob twiddling. But that’s not the case.

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See? How tight is the Kami band? They have to be one of the most technically proficient outfits around today. And did you see that circle pit go off? Dear me. Anyway, back to the album, and another early highlight is Meta Toro, which sounds suspiciously like a nursery rhyme with marching drums and death metal growls. I told you it was weird. The track GJ features some frankly awesome fretwork and yet another killer chorus while Sis Anger is obviously a nod to Metallica. At least somebody liked St Anger. The pace relents toward the end for the lighters-aloft ballads No Rain, No Rainbow and The One, but sandwiched between them is something called Tales of the Destinies, possibly the most experimental track on the album, which sounds a bit like Dragonforce on crack. In his review for Classic Rock magazine, Stephen Dalton said, “Sometimes overwhelming, always exhilarating and occasionally jaw-dropping, Metal Resistance could well be the greatest album ever made.”

And he wasn’t even kidding. At least, I don’t think he was.

At the end of the day, I think if you try to explain to someone what BABYMETAL is, they would probably think you’ve lost your mind. But somehow it all fits together, and it works surprisingly well. The musicianship, the image, the choreography, the songs, the message, even the contribution of the Fox God. The whole operation is a finely tuned machine founded on raw talent, and this ‘difficult’ second album at least proves that the success of the debut wasn’t a one-off. If anything, Metal Resistance features an even stronger set of songs, with more depth and clarity. Undoubtedly another step on the road to world domination. Bow down, all ye unbelievers. Resistance is futile.

*Just so you know, BABYMETAL is stylised in BLOCK CAPITAL LETTERS. I don’t just get really excitable when I say their name. Although, I kinda do.


Foo Fighters – Saint Cecilia EP Review

“Even in the smallest way perhaps these songs can bring a little light into this sometimes dark world. To remind us that music is life, and hope and that healing go hand-in-hand with song.”

– Dave Grohl, November 2015

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It has long been said that Dave Grohl is the nicest man in rock, and so it proved last month when his band made this new EP available for free as a ‘thank you’ to their legions of loyal fans. Not only that, but in an open letter he dedicated it to the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks and hosted a donation link on their website.

Having just finished Mick Wall’s biography Learning to Fly, I’m in the midst of a bit of a Foo’s frenzy. I’ve been a huge fan since an ex-girlfriend played me Monkeywrench about fifteen years ago. That song is still perpetually on my playlist, but it wasn’t until I saw them play Cardiff CIA on 2002’s One By One tour that I really started taking notice. It was the first time I saw them live, and the gig was spectacular. You can’t fail to be impressed by their professionalism and musicianship. But what really made a difference to me and most of the audience that night was when the band came out for the encores wearing Welsh football shirts. The national team had beaten Azerbaijan 2-0 in Baku earlier that day, a month after beating Italy 2-1 at the Millennium Stadium, and under the leadership of Mark Hughes were on the cusp of qualifying for the 2004 Euros. As it happened we eventually lost in a play-off to Russia, but the fact that Dave Grohl and co didn’t just acknowledge there was a match that day, but took the effort to ingratiate themselves with the Welsh public to such an extent was nice to see.

To the music…

Saint Cecilia contains 5 tracks, most of which sound more like vintage Foo’s. That isn’t surprising because one of the songs, the Neverending Sigh, is apparently almost two decades old. That would date it somewhere between the Foo’s first two albums which are still, by many people’s estimations, among their best to date. Title track excluded, there is a distinct lack of soaring, arms-aloft choruses to be had here. Compared to the last two studio albums, which at times come across as sprawling and unfocused, the songs on Saint Cecilia are short, punchy and to the point. Sean rocks up with a fuzzy guitar, smacks you in the face with it, and is gone in just 02:11 while Saviour Breath is so breathlessly intense it could easily pass for a Motorhead cover. Iron Rooster offers some respite with it’s jazzy hooks and dreamy melody, and the aforementioned Neverending Sigh rounds things off with the hauntingly self-analytical refrain ‘No one lets everyone in’ perhaps betraying a younger, less confident Dave.

According to Wiki, Saint Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians. It’s also the name of the hotel in Austin where these songs were recorded. Not that you would know they were recorded in a hotel. This EP isn’t just one for the completists, but a worthy addition to any collection. If it was a release by a younger band you would mark them one to watch, but the Foo’s have been there, done it, bought the Welsh football shirts, and they are still doing it. Kudos.

Oh, and Russia? We’ll see you in France next summer.

Get Saint Cecilia here


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