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Liner Notes – Dawn Eden

Liner notes by Dawn Eden, from Amoeba Teen’s 2018 double album release for the US, on Kool Kat records.

I love power pop, be it from the mod Sixties, the skinny-tie Seventies, or any of the genre’s various revivals, up to the present day. But if I am honest with myself, I will admit that whereas power-pop classics retain a timeless immediacy, many of them have something missing. That something is emotional maturity.

The problem, I believe, lies with the limitation of the musical form, one which Oxford Living Dictionaries defines with astonishing accuracy: “A style of pop music characterized by a strong melody line, heavy use of guitars, and simple rhythm” (en.oxforddictionaries.com).

Make no mistake, power pop classics have real feelings and real emotions between the grooves. But when artists are working within a genre in which the musical arrangements necessarily center upon tension and release, they do not have much room to go deeper than the outlines of love, lust, and/or loss.

One could certainly counter that teenage angst feels ineffably deep from the point of view of the teenager. Moreover, Phil Spector proved once and for all that, given the right musical backing, even a song with seemingly superficial boy-girl lyrics can touch on hidden places in the heart. There is a reason why, for listeners across the decades—and I count myself among them—a song like the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action” or Big Star’s “September Gurls” evokes a response that is at once universal and numinous.

Yet it must be said that those same artists often opted to mine their high-school memories for emotional word-pictures — think of the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Teenage Confidential” or Big Star’s “Back of a Car” — rather than depict the realities of life beyond parental curfews. Is it too much to hear in such songs a fantasy that, just as the music corrects unresolved G7 chords into satisfying Cs, so too the words might correct unresolved pain from the past?

Hence, for the listener who loves catchy melodies, ear-candy harmonies, guitars that alternately jangle and fuzz, and “simple rhythm” (thank you, OED) there is a crisis built into power pop: how can an artist take a medium designed to express teenage angst and adapt it to say meaningful things about adult life? Is such a task even possible?

I submit that it is, and that the proof is in the Amoeba Teen recordings that comprise this collection.

If listening to Amoeba Teen feels like entering into a story already in progress, there is a reason for that. Core members Mark Britton (rhythm guitar and keyboard) and Mike Turner (lead guitar) met as teenagers and have been writing together for nearly two decades. Although they first bonded on a shared appreciation of Cream and other classic British blues acts, their interests soon moved on to artists that were more melodic but still with prominent and layered guitars, including Neil Young, Jellyfish, Wilco, and Teenage Fanclub.

To hear Mark tell the story, it’s “extraordinary” that he and Mike, who were raised outside Birmingham in England’s Black Country (an area once known for its industry and now known for its bland exurban shopping centres) ever began writing and performing music at all, let alone that they joined forces. “We don’t come from musical families,” he explains, “and for many of our peers the arts were commonly considered to be for ‘queers’ or weirdos.”

Both men trace their interest in music to critical moments in their late childhood. For Mike, it was seeing Eric Clapton on Top of the Pops; for Mark, it was discovering a scratchy copy of Magical Mystery Tourat his father’s house and having his mind blown by “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Once Mark and Mike met, the duo got into the habit of meeting every Sunday night at Mike’s parents’ home to assemble demos on a four-track reel-to-reel recorder.

“When we first wrestled with the art of DIY music production, we’d finish a song in a night,” Mark recalls. “But as technology got more advanced and Mike’s engineering skills blossomed, each song could take three or more sessions to wrap up. In those early days we’d start with acoustic guitars and maybe finish with the clack of beer bottle tops on a glass for percussion; later on we began to introduce electric guitars, MIDI drum synthesisers and samplers.”

In time, the pair assembled a group to take the songs that they had workshopped into live performance, and Amoeba Teen was born. Opportunity knocked early on when Nokia contacted them wishing to use their song “Friend to the Stars” in a television commercial. But it was not to be, as Amoeba Teen’s online bio pithily explains: “They declined and chose to remain underground and drunk.”

It’s not clear exactly when willful obscurity and booze fell down Amoeba Teen’s list of priorities, but they were taking their real-world responsibilities far more seriously by 2013, when they took an extended break. During that time, Mike formed the Kenelms, the first band to perform the future Selection Boxstandout “This Spark,” while Mark issued an ostensible solo album, Odds and Sodd, that included some Amoeba Teen tracks. The rave reviews for Odds and Soddhelped move Mark and Mike to reform Amoeba Teen in 2016 with bass player Simon Muttit and drummer Carl Bayliss filling out the lineup.

Amoeba Teen must have amassed a storehouse of creative ideas during their hiatus, for at the dawn of 2017 they rewarded fans with Selection Box followed in five months by The Appleyard Sessions. Although Selection Boxis ostensibly the “pop” album and Appleyardthe “folk” album — they even contain songs titled “Pop” and “Folk,” respectively — when paired together, they seem not so much two different genres as two different ways of conveying the writers’ inner lives.

There is no doubt that Selection Box wears its “Hearts and Minds” on its sleeve. From the supercharged starburst of “This Spark” to the defiantly above-the-weather “Good Morning Sunshine,” to the tenderly encouraging “Fade Out,” the message is clear. Adult life is messy and often disappointing (“I try to keep up but I can’t stop”). Although nostalgia has its place (“what became of you?”), ultimately the only way to go is forward (“I won’t break down when the silver lining tears”). The challenge is not merely to survive but to thrive (“get up and gather the day”). Not until the final track, when self-giving finally triumphs over the temptation to solipsism, is the victory won: “I’ll lose my focus, stare into the mirror/Until I realise/That you are there right by my side.”

The frankness of Selection Box’s lyrics finds its complement in the intensity of the album’s musical arrangements. Save for a couple of tunes where the band lightens the mood, such as the lush “Memory Lane” (which manages to capture the mood of “Penny Lane” nicely without falling into soundalike territory), there is a surfeit of nervous energy in the (virtual) grooves. It’s palpable in the crunchy staccatoed guitar lines of “This Spark,” the slightly neurotic high-hat on “Hearts and Minds,” and the plaintive Al Kooper organ line feeling its way through “Fade Out.” Often, it threatens to bubble over into a kind of ecstasy, and sometimes it does. But even when it doesn’t, it’s always satisfying, because it speaks to the experiences of people who are trying to find beauty in everyday life.

That same search for beauty is evident in The Appleyard Sessions, but there it is expressed far more delicately, with lyrics that read like poems and arrangements that feel like soundscapes. Different listeners will no doubt gravitate to different tracks, but, for my money, the standouts are “Folk” and “3 a.m., Here I Am,” which combine to give the impression of a swatch of a soundtrack to a lost film.

There’s an entire story just in the reverberations of the opening guitar chord of “Folk,” with its mysterious tuning recalling Jimmy Page in his most Bert Janschian mood. I’m also taken with the subtle ambient effects that pan left-right left and the other elements of musique concrete thatwaft through the mix. Add Mike’s tensile voice as it chimes in with haiku-like verses, and Amoeba Teen succeeds in creating a sound collage that evokes Bookends-era Simon and Garfunkel.

A sense of melancholy pervades those songs and others on The Appleyard Sessions. The sense of hope isn’t as obvious as on the more buoyant Selection Box, but it’s there if one scratches beneath the surface. Here too, the lyrics of the final track veer into existentialism only to pull back with a poignant reminder that in the end, per Lennon and McCartney, the love you take is equal to the love you make: “Give what you can before the day’s close.”

With the recordings on this collection, Amoeba Teen successfully stretch the boundaries of power pop to make it express grown-up ideas. At the same time, they display a unique and beautiful flair for the familiar-yet-new melodies that keep the genre forever young. Their sound has real substance, and I’m excited to discover where their muse will take them in the years to come.

The song that gets the band scissor kicking

I’d found myself disheartened with the job I was in at the time. I couldn’t see a way beyond it and I felt like the walls were beginning to close in on me as the end of the cul de sac approached.  At times like these I typically shut down and go quiet, pick up the guitar and start to mumble to myself!  If I felt weak and tired then I needed something to get my energy up and heart racing.

The main hook of the chorus came from a radio programme I was listening to on my journey home from work one day.  I can spend all of my time in my head, trying to work out what to do next, trying to get to a better place …. if only I can think what the solution is, I’m a clever guy, surely I can do that.  Of course when you’re that deep into the problem you can’t see the wood for the trees, let alone the way out.

The original demo of this is quite a country lilt, not what it ended up being. I must have got frustrated one day and tried it out a different way. But if any song in the set is  likely to have me jumping up and down and scissor kicking then it’ll be The Silver Lining. It’s my song of defiance, a rare two fingers up,  “never let the bastards grind you down”.   

Another song to reassure myself that I’m ok, everything will be ok.

Song lyrics

I won’t break down when the silver lining tears
There’s nothing beautiful about your self destructive air,
Falling out with those in high society
I fell in love with my anxiety

I’ve got electric static
For whatever that’s worth
Been listening to your words
The chapter and the verse

You can’t plough a field when
You’re turning it over on your mind
All the things I’m feeling
Are getting better given time

I’m not doing this for money, I’m not doing this for kicks
I’m gonna give it up for breathing out and breathing in.
Read between the lines and you’re gonna find yourself the truth
Counting all your blessing while you can claim for the abuse

I’ve got electric static
For whatever that’s worth
Been listening to your words
The chapter and the verse

You can’t plough a field when
You’re turning it over on your mind
All the things I’m feeling
Are getting better given time

 

Holding Up The Drugstore: A song about friendships and kindred spirits

Here Mike describes one of the fan’s favourites from the album, The Appleyard Sessions.

There is always time for a walk amongst nature, which is kind of where this song grew from. If I’m planning a trip out I’ll choose some songs to get me in the mood. If Neil Young asked “are you ready for the country”, then indeed I am, and was.  I hooked up some Gram Parsons and Ryan Adams and away I went.

I had written many of the words, and as Is usually the case I started to re-write and refine. Then more and more of the lyrics were changed.  I pulled out an envelope of cut up words from magazines and newspapers to take me away from my usual vocabulary, which is how the song took on another character.  My favourite is probably “caterwauling on the grand tour” or kicking and screaming though life!  Never give up, never be beaten.

And who is Daniel Finkelstein?  At the time he was a reporter on BBC Radio 4 and sometime World Service.  I liked the name and his reporting style.  The song blurs imagery of space and time, so why not add in a bit of world wide reporting to the mix?

It’s a firm favourite at the moment, when the band hit their stride with Holding Up The Drugstore it can swagger and sway a little, with just enough Neil, Gram and Ryan to keep me on the right side of the line.

Song lyrics

If this house of cards
Tumbles like a falling star
There will still be you and I
Faces pointing to the sky

We landed out of place
Outstanding half life trace
The stolen words resigned
What is it that you bought you’d find?

I’ll bring it all back home to you
Amongst the tangled line that we’ve been through
I’ve been running a fool
Running back to you
I’ve been running a fool too many times

I was holding up the drugstore
Caterwauling on the grand tour
The critics choice wonders of youth
Wasting time lamenting the awkward truth

Chorus: (as above)

Now I can give you heart and soul
To try to fill the me sized hole
And Daniel Finkelstein told me you would be mine
Slow watches hold you back in time
I can’t see you but I don’t know why

Chorus (as above)

If the cosmonauts
Stumble like a broken heart
There will still be you and I
Faces pointing to the sky.

The story behind This Spark

Here Mike Turner shares his memories of writing and recording This Spark…

I’d been in the zone of writing uptempo, fuzzed up, crunchy pop songs.  The snappier the better.  It needed a strong hook for the chorus, some nice harmonies,  oh and it needed to be about boy meets girl!  This Spark was born.

I can’t remember where the title came from, but the lyrics were fairly autobiographical.  Like so many of my songs the sentiment is one of reassurance, that no matter what is going on in your life, it’ll all be ok.  You’ll be ok.  The song is about how love can redeem you, can see you through.

When starting to rehearse it with the band we added the stop start arrangement in the first verse.  We laughed so hard!  Carl was being a joker and he couldn’t help himself adding in this cliched part.  It reminded me of the kind of thing The Cars would do.  Or maybe done hair metal band.  It was so obvious but so good.  So pop, it had to stay in.

When we came to record it s couple of years later I’d been left alone in the studio recording vocals when I got a bit carried away in the outro.  I kept adding harmonies, and then some more.  Before then the outro was just guitar based riffing, now it burst into life.  I was thinking Ben Folds meets Teenage Fanclub on a Mountain top with blue skies and s wRm breeze.  More pop!  More Melody!

This Spark lyrics

Honey,
When we see eye to eye
This is amazing
I know it’s not everyday
But we’re the same thing

We’ve got to see
When we’re together
We’re fineI’ll be your guide
Will you be mine?

Taking some time
Since I first set eyes on
You were alone and I was surprise
That you caught me up in such a strong addiction
Beautiful sensation

In dark, console me
This Spark, controls me
In a life, outta sight
In a life.
In time, you stole me

This Spark, controls me
In a life, outta sight
In a life.

Since distance,
It never came between us
Satellite, an electric line between us
I’ve gotta step back
Into the light

Now we’re standing on the edge of forever and some
Raise a glass, take my hand
We can weather the storm
We’ve gotta get up, get up, get up, get up
And gather the day

In dark, console me
This Spark, controls me
In a life, outta sight
In a life.

In time, you stole me
This Spark, controls me
In a life, outta sight
In a life.

Amoeba Teen Sign To US Label

British indie pop and alt country influenced band Amoeba Teen have sealed a record deal with New Jersey-based Kool Kat Musik that should result in their music reaching a wider audience.

Amoeba Teen guitarist and singer, Mark Britton explains: “Our American fanbase has grown rapidly over the last few months, so it made sense to for us to try and do more to get our music heard over there. Kool Kat Musik approached us after some favourable US reviews, and we were very impressed with their plans to raise our profile both there and beyond.”

“Kool Kat Musik has focused on the power pop and alternative country genres for over twenty years.  Amoeba Teen are a great fit for the label and should be well-received by our customers,” states Kool Kat Musik’s president Ray Gianchetti.

While there are no immediate plans for a tour across the pond, Amoeba Teen will be appearing again at this year’s International Pop Overthrow festival at The Cavern in Liverpool on Saturday 19 May. The global festival reaches much of the US but also takes a detour to the birthplace of the original British Invasion.

The night we trod in Paul McCartney’s footsteps

As we awaited the announcer to introduce our debut performance at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, I thought back to the hundreds of gigs Mike and I have done together that had led to this special moment.

Anyone can pick up a guitar and strum a few chords, but it’s a only a tiny percentage that know what’s it’s like to be on the other side of the curtain. It’s the smell of the venue when you arrive early for sound check, the familiar weight of my guitar case, the buzz backstage, the heat from the stage lights in your eyes, and the bleary-eyed journey onwards after the show.

I thought back to an earlier time before wives and kids when Mike and I shared a damp apartment together. Lorries rumbled past and rattled the windows as we tried to record our latest ideas. To our surprise, the phone maker, Nokia, had heard one of our tracks and contacted us to ask if they could feature it in their new advertising campaign. Seeing ourselves as ‘principled artists’ and disciples of the comedian Bill Hicks we turned them down. Was it the right move? Would it have given us more exposure? The money would have helped, for sure.

As the Cavern’s sound engineer made final checks, I smiled to myself as I remembered the crazy drunk at one of our first gigs. He’d taken offence to one of our songs and started a punch-up in the audience. Mike continued casually playing his solo as another member of the audience pinned the manic to the floor with a bar stool.

There have also been moments when one of us wanted to give up. But it’s the support from music fans like you that encourages us to carry on.

The original Cavern got demolished years ago. Nevertheless, this is the stage that has witnessed performances from Paul McCartney, Dave Gilmour, Travis, Oasis and Arctic Monkeys. And I guarantee you that they each felt the same excitement at playing that stage as I did, however cool and casual they may like to appear.

One of the songs we played that night is featured in your free album download. Here you can check out Under Your Skin live at the Cavern.

How A Marching Band Turned Lemons Into Lemonade

The story of how Mike and I discovered music and, eventually, each other as songwriting partners is no rock n roll fairy tale. Truth be told, what’s extraordinary is that we even discovered music making  at all.

We don’t come from musical families, and for many of our peers the arts were commonly considered to be for ‘queers’ or weirdos.

We were raised by what our politicians like to describe as ‘hard-working families’ from the Black Country. Situated in the heart of the England, without a seaport or trading river, the region climbed its way out of nowhere to become the workshop of the Victorian Empire. We’re descended from people who made the nails, chains, rivets, pumps and pistons that created wealth for others.

By the 1980s empty factories were being replaced with giant shopping centres as Britain struggled to fulfil Thatcher’s vision of a modern economy. The last few die-hard punks hung out among the piss stained concrete of our hometown’s crumbling 60s bus station. London for us – with its cultural melting pot of creative opportunity – was an unnoticed distant star.

Like rainwater finding a roof’s hairline cracks, though, music was determined to work its way into our lives.

Boxing Day each year included a reluctant visit to my dad’s. I was 11 the year I took my faulty new record player with me. Dad got the turntable working and tested it with one of his few albums. I studied the blue framed sleeve that featured four oddly dressed people looking down at me. The first track to emerge from the crackle and static was Strawberry Fields Forever. For a kid who’d grown up on compilations of plastic pop, this was nothing short of revolutionary. Out of the wilderness of grey mediocrity I’d been given the key to a gem-encrusted golden cavern. I was giddy, overawed, mystified… hooked. Dad and I shared a rare moment of solace that day, a brief respite from an otherwise strained relationship. I learnt that good music could do that.

Mike’s first moment was the bass drum thump from his elder brother’s Boy’s Brigade band. With the smell of freshly cut grass hanging in the air, the marching rumble and ring of xylophones grew louder as the band approached, triggering an explosion of adrenaline that left Mike simultaneously excited and scared by his reaction.

One late school night a short while later, Mike secretly distracted himself with his portable telly to discover a bearded man creating an extraordinary sound with his guitar. With his dad’s diet of 50s country and Buddy Holly, plus Thursday night’s Top Of The Pops, hearing Eric Clapton for the first time opened up a new dimension to his nascent curiosity in guitars.

Such formative, chance moments set off a chain reaction towards our lifelong quest to decode the mystery and magic of making music for you.

Mike and I eventually met at college. By then those early musical embers had turned into a wildfire. Armed with our cheap guitars and a shared fascination with infectious melodies,  harmony, and crunching guitars, the collective mission to mix our strange brew began.

And now here we are, years later writing, recording and performing songs all over the world for music fans like YOU. Because even more importantly, it’s YOU, the listener, that makes all of it matter.

We’re a product of an environment already accustomed to turning lemons into lemonade. And we look forward to many more sometimes-hard, sometimes-ugly, always-worthwhile experiences along this musical journey.

We write about this whole weird, beautiful, ugly, stupid, funny and sad human condition called life. It’s our medicine and yours too if you need it.

Here’s to hoping that you are part of that journey.

Thank you for being a listener and for making it all matter.