What I Listened To When I Listened To Music This Week – Owl John – Owl John

They’re calling it the “best games ever” but as the curtain drew on Glasgow 2014, something rankled with me. Glasgow has re-invented itself, from the depth of deep-fried everything and heroin, the city has emerged as one of Britain’s cultural capitals, a spectacular city for art, museums and music, so why exactly did the closing ceremony feature Deacon Blue, Lulu and Kylie Minogue?

Scottish music, and indeed Glaswegian music is surely one of Scotland’s greatest exports. Since the birth of popular music, Scotland has made great popular music. Scotland is the home of Postcard Records, so Scotland is, to all essential purposes the home of Post-Punk! Be it the brilliant angular-pop of Orange Juice, the jerky angular rhythms of Josef K, or the criminally underrated Scars, without Scotland the landscape of popular music in the 80’s would have been a lot less enjoyable, and without Franz Ferdinand many people wouldn’t have re-discovered the genre’s joys in the early 2000’s. All of these acts would have showcased Scotland a whole lot more than bloody Lulu!

Then there’s the undeniable lineage of Indie-Pop. There’s the obvious examples: Belle & Sebastian, Camera Obscura, The Vaselines, but there’s also The Just Joans, Ballboy and Delgados. All literate, all catchy, all Scottish! Who wouldn’t have enjoyed If You Don’t Pull or The Boy With The Arab Strap a lot more than Deacon Blue “rolling back the years” to reveal that Dignity is still a bit shit!

Name a genre and Scotland’s got you covered, if they wanted some atmospheric backing there’s Board of Canada, or Mogwai, who have a track record of musical/sporting crossovers with their brilliant Zidane soundtracks. King Creosote was involved somewhere at least, soundtracking a film about Scotland as part of the build up to the games, but any of the Fence Collective would have done a great job of blurring the lines between traditional Scottish folk music and pop as we know it today.

Basically, Scotland and Glasgow could have done a lot better than the frankly rubbish music they went with! A great chance to showcase brilliant Scottish music sadly missed…

OWL JOHN- OWL JOHN

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Owl John is the new solo project by Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchinson. At the end of last year following the release and relentless touring of the bands most successful album to date, Pedestrian Verses, Scott and his band were spent; on the verge of a full on meltdown and the tough decision to break the relentless cycle of touring and recording was made. The band downed tools, decided to rest, spend some time apart and resist the overwhelming urge to implode in on themselves. Musicians are however not the best at time off!

Scott being Scott, he couldn’t avoid writing music, despite moving to Los Angeles and all the issues that go with a trans-Atlantic relocation, he suddenly found himself with a collection of songs; not Frightened Rabbit songs, Owl John songs. He took his solo project to the Isle of Mull with a couple of musician friends from the band…err Frightened Rabbit, and harnessing the complete isolation the island provides began thrashing out the music that would go onto form this his debut “solo” album. He returned to Los Angeles to write lyrics, and suddenly it was done, if only all breaks from the realities of life were this productive!

The original plan was for Owl John to be a project based around the life of a fictional character, however despite the best laid plans the influence of what was happening in his life at the time of the recording process pour out all over this record. His feelings on the inner-workings of the music industry, the isolation of Mull and the loneliness of being thousands of miles away from home, are written in huge ANGRY letters all over this record. It fizzes with angst, despair and as ever with Scott’s song writing a touch of hope.

The best song here, Songs about Roses, is a superb rallying call for songwriters everywhere to rebel against the banality of major label requests. A finger picked guitar, underpins a typically confessional ballad, Scott singing “chloroform the singer who has nothing to say, stare in wonder as the masses sing along anyway” if he’s singing to himself or everyone else, isn’t entirely clear, what is clear is just how fed up with the situation he found himself in he was. A kick drum comes in dragging the song kicking and screaming towards it’s conclusion, “we don’t need songs about roses, we don’t need your terrible blues, we don’t need songs about roses, all we ask for is the truth” he sings as horns and electronic drums build to a cacophony which recalls the sonic build of latter day Radiohead.

Whilst some of the track, notably the delightfully grouchy bar-stool blues of Hate Music and jittery electronics meet jaunty piano of Stupid Boy, see Scott step away from Frightened Rabbit’s characteristic sound, his voice is unmistakable and, at times such as Two and Red Hand, their penchant for arena worthy bombastic choruses also drip through. It’s more a gentle re-imagining of his sound rather than a complete 180 from the day job.

Los Angeles, Be Kind, starts off with rapid metronomic pips at complete contrast to the gently strummed guitar accompanying them. The lead guitar line hints at the influence of alt-country, and lyrically it’s a wonderful take on settling into a new city, far from home. “Oh Los Angeles, be kind, no more trouble of red lights, I can learn to love you in good time” he sings, and in many ways it’s a more cynical take on Elbow’s love song to New York. Whilst Guy Garvey was completely smitten with his new home, Scott’s just warming to his, still unsure he is meant for LA he “gets drunk just to feel I belong” but ultimately concludes “we can live with each other, it just takes time.”

Ten Tons of Silence is a maudlin, hazy track. It has the feel of being a hymn sung from the gutter, looking out on the bright world beyond. A beautiful piano line somewhere in the middle, adds a fresh layer of sadness to proceedings, before the combination of synths, drums and a gabbled, heavily processed vocal line take the song to a heavy industrial sound, indeed there’s more than a hint of Nine Inch Nails here. The track sees Scott stepping entirely out of his comfort zone and it’s wonderfully exciting as a result. This industrial edge is also present on Don’t Take Off The Glove, which starts off life with a shimmering guitar that sounds not unlike The National, fits in some huge choruses, full of clattering drums and a yelped vocal declaring “there’s poison in the tap water” before settling into a delightfully frantic finale. It’s rife with paranoia, and darkness, the line “that sucker punch, that brutal touch, the cut keeps dripping, the blood won’t thicken” is as real as anything on Sharon Van Etten’s brilliant and painful album Tramp.

What you’re left with as if often the case with solo records is a touch of stick or twist songwriting, but unlike many efforts where the contrasts are too marked and too jarring, here it works. It’s a fine record in its own right, and might just be the best thing Scott’s done since Midnight Organ Fight first lifted him from the streets of Glasgow and dragged him kicking and screaming onto the world stage.

Owl John is out now on Atlantic Records. He plays Oslo in Hackney tonight

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