Rachel’s Café Oxford – Asian Bakery with great Char Siu buns!

I’m living a cursed life. I ate my first ever Asian bun (bao) in China. I followed that by eating about 100 more, still in China. I spent three weeks there when I was 20, and discovered that you were never more than 400 metres away from someone selling something delicious. Most of the time, I’d go for a char siu bun, which is a delicious BBQ pork variety, often made with something along the lines of soy sauce, honey, brown sugar, rice wine, hoisin sauce, and Chinese five-spice.

I came home depressed, thinking that now I was 4,000 miles from a good char siu bun. If I’m ever in London, and anywhere remotely close to Chinatown, I’ll always make a sharp b-line toward one of the Asian bakeries there. The great irony is that the bus stop I wait at to get a bus from Oxford to London is in St Clements, literally outside of Rachel’s Café, a nice looking Asian bakery.

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Occasionally I would actually look inside through the window, and could see buns 10 feet away from me. Somehow, whenever I thought about going inside to get something, the bus would always arrive, right on cue. It’s like the bus drivers of Oxford don’t want me to be happy, although that’s probably how everyone in Oxford feels generally.

One day fairly recently I just missed the bus I wanted, so I actually had 20 minutes to kill. I stepped inside Rachel’s Café, and now I’m happy, because I know I’m 400 metres away from a good Asian bun, at least when I’m at home.

First up, the important stuff. The place is independent, so that makes hipsters like me happy. Second, everything is home-made, so you know it’s good. So much of my bao disappointment in the UK has come from eating what’s clearly mass-produced stuff, which always lacks a little something.

3Let’s start with the char siu bun. When i was younger, and flying on a plane, I always wanted to open the window, and grab a passing cloud. Of course, that would have been the last thing I ever did if that actually happened, besides falling to my untimely death. But a good bun to me makes me think about eating clouds. They have this part-baked, light quality that just makes me want to bake one into the shape of a hammock and lie in it. And then eat my way out. But as well as having the right texture and flavour to the bun itself, the filling needs to be generous, and delicious too. Fortunately, the buns at Rachael’s are. The pork is super-tender, the sauce has the right level of sweetness and flavour, and the volume of filling is great.

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1On another visit, I also tried the pastry version of the char siu. With the same filling, you can’t really fail, but you have the added benefit of a little more crunch if that’s your thing. I also tried their coffee, and that in of itself is worth a visit. Plenty of places in Oxford do pretty average coffee, so it’s something easy to phone in, but they get it right here.

They also do plenty of sweet pastries, and Bánh mì baguettes. I’m working up the courage to trying something else, but I can’t stop myself from ordering as many char siu buns as I possibly can every time.

You can find Rachel’s online here, and in the real world here: 55 St Clement’s St, Oxford OX4 1AG. Important note – It’s a cash only place, so be sure to bring some!

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Top 10 Albums of 2016

N.B. – As I’m a law unto myself, this Top 10 includes albums that were released before 2016. They’re included because I first heard them in 2016. So there.

 

  1. The 1975 – I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

the_1975This may have been the easiest decision I’ve ever made. I raved about their debut album in 2013, and was a big fan of this band even before they became The 1975, after stumbling across them when they were called BIGSLEEP and had a couple of tracks littered across Soundcloud. But after hearing the lead out single of The 1975’s sophomore album, I wasn’t entirely sold.

However, something fairly coincidental helped to cement this album as not only my favourite of the year, but one of my favourites ever. Forever? Forever Ever. Forever Ever?

The album was released on February 26th, 2016. I’d spent the previous month working all hours of the day for something work related, that all culminated in a meeting that took place on…you guessed it, February 26th. The meeting just so happened to take place in San Jose, California, and I had the next 8 days to myself, along with a rental car, and one of the most beautiful coastal roads in the world. So after the meeting, I downloaded the album, jumped into my car, and had a little bit of a ridiculous adventure, soundtracked by this album.

Now I can hear what you’re saying. Yes, the album had the benefit of extenuating circumstances.

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All I’m saying is have you ever seen them in the same room at the same time?

My journey could have been soundtracked by the seminal Tweenies live album and I’d be sat here ranting and raving about…uh…*googles Tweenies names* Bella, Milo, Fiz and Jake’s gift to the world. But as it was, a stunning California road trip was accompanied by an equally stunning album.

It was an album that just pushed all the right buttons. It was enough of a move forwards from the previous album to be brave, but not disconcerting. The radio-friendly pop hits were there (The Sound, Somebody Else), but the heart of the album, from the tail end of If I Believe You, to Please Be Naked, and lostmyhead, showed off their ear for ambient music.

First of all, look how casually I threw away that ‘radio-friendly pop hits’ line. How hard must it be to write a song as perfect as those two. In particular, Somebody Else is a lyrical and melodic monster. Beyonce topped a shit-ton of End Of Year album lists for Lemonade, which was great lyrically, but didn’t capture me with melodies as much as the 1975 record did.

And then back to that ambient comment. Ambient music helps to capture an atmosphere, without necessarily being obtrusive. If I Believe You and Please Be Naked build to an euphoric climax, which when accompanied by ridiculous views, sunshine, and bearclaws (all the bearclaws), I couldn’t help but feel giddy for most of that trip. Even now, 9 months after the fact, it still sounds as great as ever, and makes me (probably the only person in the world to) reminisce about my Nissan Versa, and that road.

 

 

2. Kaytranada – 99.9%

kayIf bees had knees, these knees would be these. Kaytranada is a Canadian born producer, who makes you think “what would J-Dilla be doing if he was still alive?” Probably this. Kaytranada spent the years before 2016 making the whole world want to work with him, and on 99.9%, he worked with the most zeitgeisty list of collaborators. Anderson. Paak before he took over 2016, Craig David before his revival really took hold, Little Dragon and AlunaGeorge as the ‘always there for a feature, but always a good feature’ twosome, and names like Phonte and Goldlink that I’d not heard before. So a perfect mix of collabs, but also a whole blend of styles. ‘ONE TOO MANY’ and ‘GLOWED UP’ are highlights, but the album doesn’t have a single slack second in it.

3. Maribou State – Portraits (2015 Release)

mariCitadel Festival, a one day festival in London landed on my birthday, so I toddled along to review it for Bearded Magazine. Sigur Ros, Caribou and Lianne La Havas were the big draws, but I spent some time familiarising myself with most of the other acts playing. Maribou State were one such act. As it transpired, I didn’t even get to see them perform, but I’ve carried on listening to their 2015 album Portraits anyway. It’s an atmospheric, warm collection of groove based electronica, with a great mix of vocalists and sampling. A perfect summer album, that still sounds good in freezing January.

4. Brand New – Leaked Demos 2006 (Mastered for 2016 Release)

leakedI’ve written at length about my Brand New obsession before. In 2006, we were three years past Deja Entendu, their second album, and desperately waiting for their third. Somehow, a set of demos got leaked and spread across Limewire (remember that?) and the like. Despite being demos, it still felt like a new album. Because of the leak, those tracks largely got scrapped and didn’t appear on The Devil & God Are Raging Inside Me, bar the odd scrap being used, like on ‘Sowing Season’. Fast forward to 2016, and we were (and still are) in another of those interminable waits for a new Brand New album. What we did get is a release of those leaked demos, now fully formed and mastered (and released on cassette. 2017, we don’t need more of this please). Besides the retro release format, it was like having a new release all over again. Tracks like ‘1996’ and ‘Nobody Moves’ neatly stack into Brand New’s modus operandi of post-emo alternative rock, and sound 10 times better than the demos, as great as they were.

5. Glass Animals – Life Itself

glassOxford has done a decent amount for music. Ride , Radiohead, Supergrass, and Foals to name but a few. Glass Animals will be are the next band worthy of joining that list. Their first album Zaba was full of woozy jungle beats, and Life Itself shows a band full of ideas. I mean, any band that can open up a chorus with “Pineapples are in my head” deserve our attention. It’s another thematic album that just works in its entirety, with the hip-hop influences a little more at the forefront than they were on the previous record.

6. Bon Iver – 22, A Million

I’m still mad at him for cancelling his European tour three days ago.

7. Frank Ocean – Blonde

Not as instantaneous as Channel Orange, but well worth the time, and probably worth the well publicised wait. That outro on ‘Self Control’ is worth the admission fee alone.

8. Asylums – Killer Brain Waves

A really fun rock album full of melodic chops and sing-along choruses, while skewering social trends and society in general at the same time.

9. Makthaversan – Makthaversan II (2013 Release)

Spotify started doing podcasts. Hooray! A series called AM/PM gets musicians to create two playlists, one for the morning, and one for the evening, with commentary on their choices. Indie dreamboat Ellie Rowsell (of Wolf Alice fame) got put onto Makthaversan by a friend, and I got put onto Makthaversan by her. It’s a fiery guitar-driven album by a Swedish band, and that’s about all I know. Other than the fact it’s great. Obviously.

10. Let’s Eat Grandma – I, Gemini

+5 points for the name alone. I heard ‘Deep Six Textbook’ once or twice, but it wasn’t until I saw them on Jools Holland and was equal parts captivated and baffled that I dug a little deeper. A Guardian review called I, Gemini “Nightmarish Fairytale Folk” which just about nails it. The record is made by two teenagers that met when they were four, and can seem to play about a million instruments. One of those bands that you watch and think “what the hell was I doing when I was 16.”

GUNSHIP – Tech Noir

My mind wanders when I run. A whole lot. Different things will drift into my head, I’ll think about it for a couple of minutes, and then I’ll get distracted by something happening in front of me. Today I witnessed one squirrel chasing another squirrel that had grabbed food from it, for around 300 metres. They were running alongside me, oblivious that I was running alongside them, separated by a chainlink fence. And once that day’s squirrel larceny event or its equivalent is over, I’ll have forgotten about what I was thinking about 30 seconds previously.

Today was different though. I followed through on a thought. I’ve listened to a decent amount of Fightstar in my time, and I’ve often found myself thinking: “That other vocalist (so not Charlie Simpson) has such a great voice.  He should do solo stuff.” I mean, the gaps between Fightstar albums are fairly lengthy, so it’s certainly a possibility, right? Well, today I listened to Fightstar’s latest album while running, and resolved to check their Wiki page to see if he (Alex Westaway) had.

Well, the result was unexpected. Alex and Fightstar bassist Dan Haigh formed a synthwave band called GUNSHIP. They released a self-titled album in 2015 that channels everything great from the 80s. Their wiki page describes what they do far better than anything I can say, so here it is. GUNSHIP is “a neon soaked, late night, sonic getaway drive, dripping with luscious analog synthesizers, cinematic vocals and cyberpunk values, exploding from the front cover of a dusty plastic VHS case which has lain forgotten since 1984.”

Not only that, but their videos perfectly channel their aesthetic, recalling the influences that drove them to make this type of music in the first place. Take a look at the video for ‘Film Noir’ below, and get ready for me attempting to follow through on more stupid brilliant ideas I have while running.

 

Citadel Festival – Victoria Park – Sunday 17th July

CITADEL-2016-GS-4251There’s a certain amount of schadenfreude on offer as you watch a rain-sodden Glastonbury from the comfort of your own sofa, but nothing beats a sunny day listening to live music, and so it was as Citadel Festival happened to sync up perfectly with Britain’s annual 4 day burst of what the rest of the world calls ‘summer’.

Citadel Festival, held in East London’s Victoria Park is a relatively new addition to the festival season. A one day event run by the hippy-chic team behind its big brother festival, Wilderness Festival, it offered a line-up well curated enough to stand out among the dozens of festivals competing for attention. Additionally, they made the most of their location, building stages around existing features in the park.

After stumbling past the Park Bandstand Stage on arrival, which made use of the 150+ year old Bandstand, Barbarella’s Bang Bang were finishing off their Euro gypsy punk set. The crowd were melting in the sun like the chocolate they were asked to call and respond to in the breakdown of the final track, ‘Cioccolata’. Of course, call and response is usually plan A for a performer in a festival set to get the crowd involved, and it was a theme that ran across the day, save for the final act. But more on that later.

Next up were the Pierce Brothers at the Urban Forest stage, which made use of, surprisingly, a cluster of trees to create an intimate, closed off stage. The Pierce Brothers consist of two Aussie brothers playing acoustic guitar and drums to produce typically anthemic folk rock. During their closer, ‘Golden Times’, the drumming brother holds a xylophone to the guitarist brother’s mouth, while simultaneously playing the didgeridoo.  It’s the kind of move that just helps to elevate the levels of fun beyond just being another band simply playing their own instruments, and makes them look a little more like Vishnu, what with his four arms….and his known love for a mean acoustic guitar. One of those things might not be true.

Nathanial Ratcliffe and the Night Sweats were doing plenty of day sweating dressed mainly in blue and black denim as the sun beamed down on the Main Stage. Nathanial’s slice of Americana-filled rhythm and blues swings enough to capture everybody’s attention, even before he shattered a tambourine into a thousand pieces by hurling it to the floor. He also indulges in what he described as his first attempt at call and response. “I’ve never done this before, but then again, neither have you guys.” ‘Son of a Bitch’ gets everyone singing along, showing that some songs just beg to be yelled out into the hazy afternoon air, whether they’ve been asked to do it or not.

Over on the Communion Stage, Matt Corby and Lianne La Havas play one after the other. It’s a fitting arrangement, as both have the most incredible vocal skills, but do so much more than just sing. Matt Corby’s performance is focused and understated, but his voice melts people’s faces right off. He dips between some of his more psych-funk tracks, and the more straight-up gospel-rock  of ‘Knife’s Edge’ and ‘Brother’.

As the sun sets, Lianne La Havas plays what for her, as an East London native, is a homecoming show. While fire and brimstone moments such as ‘Forget’ and ‘Never Get Enough’ are ferocious and fun, it’s her cover of ‘Say A Little Prayer’ that’s the standout moment. Her band take a break and watch, and they do the same thing that most of us in the crowd do when she sings; tilt their heads to the side a little, and just watch in awe. It’s an impressive confirmation that even those that perform with her regularly can’t get over how incredible her voice is. She finishes off with a little call and response moment too, before the main stage headliners Sigur Rós finished off the event with the most disconnected festival headlining set likely ever witnessed. This sounds critical, but really, it’s the complete opposite.

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Now operating as a three piece, Sigur Rós are known for their atmospheric and sprawling music, with a rich and diverse back catalogue. They do have their lighter moments, but the Sigur Rós 2016 experience is very much focused towards the darker, broody side of their sound. The performance was tied intricately into an array of trippy and dazzling visuals. Captivating video filters were transposed over live footage, background video was displayed on a giant screen at the back of the stage, and sail-shaped skeletal lights hummed along in accompaniment. Huge crescendos would build as tracks moved from gradual, spacey arrangements towards thunderous endings. On one occasion, Jónsi, the lead singer, guitarist, and multi-instrumentalist channels Hendrix as best he can as he shreds a violin bow’s strings (which he uses to play guitar). Older tracks such as ‘Sæglópur’ and ‘Glósóli’ get an airing and new single ‘Óveður’ opened the show before the ferociousness of ‘Popplagið’ ends it. It’s a moment where all of the visuals from the previous 75 minutes or so suddenly crash together, causing a frenzied assault on the senses. The performance acted as an entirely cohesive piece, showing the possibilities of what can be done with a festival headlining set. It was a thrilling end to a diverse and perfectly curated festival.

 

Who is Jai Paul?

Recommended listening while reading:

 

No, I have no interest in knowing who Jai Paul is. I just thought it’d be fun to throw a ‘who is John Galt’ reference in there just to ensure I shed as many readers as possible before paragraph two.

Well that was a straight up lie. I’m obsessed with Jai Paul. The fact he’s officially released 2 singles in 6 years of being signed to a record label drives me crazy. I want more music. But then I thought of that (pretty terrible) Ayn Rand title // joke and I realised Jai Paul is basically John Galt. And I realised, he needs to stay that way. Enigmatic. No public presence. Perhaps, even, no new music. Ever.

Really?

Well, a little background for the uninitiated. Jai Paul is the name of a musician who got signed to the soothsayers of all big things, XL Recordings, off the back of one demo, BTSTU. This happened in 2010. Six years ago. BTSTU got released in Spring 2011 as a single. Another single, Jasmine, was released the following year, again in Spring. And then, in the Spring of 2013, a wedge of demos were hoisted onto a Bandcamp page, priced at £7, and rapidly gorged upon by the needy masses (myself included). You see, we were desperate for more, irrespective of it this was a leak or not. Turns out, according to Jai Paul’s one and only ever Tweet, it was. We all felt a little bad. But then we carried on listening to some of those demos and sat with wonder at how incredible they were. Str8 Outta Mumbai, amazing. A cover of that Jennifer Page song everyone sang while at school (Crush), amazing. Imagine what a real, finished album by Jai Paul could sound like?

Notice how all the events in the previous paragraph took place in Spring? And notice how the last event took place in 2013, three years ago? Well, much has changed since then. The world has changed in leaps and bounds. I think we believe the internet has given people an increasingly powerful voice, for good and for bad. I mean, we’re on the verge of naming a polar exploring ship Boaty McBoatface. Plus, Spring has just sprung again. Things with Jai Paul seem to happen in this time of year. And so just as releasing a Groundhog to see if he sees his own shadow has become a strange ritual, a bunch of people aimlessly wander around the internet trying to sniff out Jai Paul activity each Spring. We shout into the endless void of the internet in the hope it’ll stir something out of him. We are the groundhog handlers trying to drag the Jai Paul groundhog out of his little goundhog cage for our own shortsighted entertainment.

But it’s not the same as with other artists. Frank Ocean said he’d drop his new album in July 2015, and here we are in March 2016, still waiting. But we know he’ll be good for it. We know it’ll be worth the wait. We know he’s still alive, and who he is. And this Frank Ocean wait has become part of the cultural zeitgeist. Memes litter the internet every day as we jestingly post pictures of Frank out shopping when he should be at home, WORKING ON THAT DAMN SECOND ALBUM FRANK! COME ON MAN!

With Jai Paul, we know nothing, about anything, and maybe that’s why he should stay away. We don’t really have a clue who he is. He’s not something or someone to get eaten up and swallowed by the news cycle. A perfect example of this is Kanye West’s Twitter. There was a time when I was a Kanye fan. He was a little bit of a new thing. A bit weird, and made some pretty great music. He tweeted rarely, and it helped to make him more deceptive and unknown, likely for the better. Now that he can’t stop posting, we’ve come to realise that maybe we liked how it was before. EG, how to go from enigmatic to banal AF:

 

 

Some like to refer to Jai Paul as an alien who visited us for a while, who’s gone back to his home planet. I’m pretty sure he’s in London somewhere, doing something weird and amazing, like this ‘Foundation’ he’s set up with his brother recently suggests. It gives no information what it is, and just asks you to sign up with your phone number. He could be trying to sell us PPI Protection, but I’d be down for that because the hold jingles would be out of this world.

So are we going to get anything new from Jai Paul this Spring? Probably not. I’m at that stage now where I’m happy for it to never happen, which sounds weird and self-defeating, I know. But how can he beat BTSTU and Jasmine? How can he beat those leaked demos? This level of myth and legend surrounding his music and persona makes it nigh on impossible for him to really succeed in a conventional way, like appearing on a Graham Norton chat show making ‘banter’ with some other famous people.

Jai Paul

And him being this weird deity, with his one-tweet-Twitter, and his insane set-in-space collage of Lizo Mzimba, bears and Gianfranco Zola…. I’d rather never hear from him again, and put him on this untouchable pedestal rather than read what he had for lunch. Besides, his brother seems to make a pretty mean jam anway.

 

 

 

 

 

Darwin Deez @ Oxford O2 Academy // 03.11.2015 //

In what felt like a terminal wait between Darwin Deez’s glorious self titled debut, and the follow-up, ‘Songs For Imaginative People’, occasional videos would show up of Darwin shredding the bejeezus out of a guitar from the comfort of his own home. Usually a cover of some proggy-jam from a bygone era, it was clear that this was one type of music Darwin liked to listen to, and play. However, what he liked to create, based on that first album, was something quite different. It used simple, steady chord structures, creating charming indie pop.

With album’s two and three now under his belt, his live show now highlights his pure, unadulterated love of a face-melter, and how he’s begun to incorporate that into his music. The show opens with a couple of ‘oldies’ from album one, ‘Constellations’ and ‘The City’ highlighting the old Darwin style. Oh, and the between-song dance routines are still an ever-present part of the Darwin Deez experience. It wouldn’t be a Darwin show without it. But it’s when we get into the meat of the set that fretful guitar fireworks act as a lynchpin and centrepiece for the whole set.

‘Chelsea’s Hotel’ closed album two, and is a track most people, myself included, wouldn’t place in their list of favourites. But hidden away in this lesser-known track is a lead guitar riff weaving through the chorus that’s quite the departure from what we’ve come to expect. With a live airing, Darwin and his band take that chorus riff as an opportunity to expand the track into something almost double in length, with Darwin evoking the spirit of those aforementioned videos as he gets to break free of the shackles of his usual sound.

‘Redshift’ follows not long after, and plays a similar trick to ‘Chelsea’s Hotel’, before the show closes out flicking between tracks from his new record, Double Down, and his debut. Darwin spoke openly ahead of Double Down’s release that he was looking to re-create the sound of his debut a little, and when tracks get played next to each other, that’s easy to hear. The lead guitar riffs on tracks like ‘Kill Your Attitude’ act as commas and full stops between his lyrics, just like on set closer ‘Bad Day’. But there’s something smart to those simple arrangements that helps to nestle those melodies into your brain, accentuated when hearing them live. Now we just need to wait to see what videos Darwin posts once he’s done touring to figure out what to expect next time round.

Wolf Alice @ Oxford O2 Academy // 04.04.2015 // World domination is next

WABombastic but ultimately-empty rhetoric is the kind of thing that keeps part-time blaggers/bloggers like me going. It’s too easy to say nice things in the hope of scoring retweets to get my precious view count up. But here’s a thing that I believe with 100% sincerity (‘cos I’m a stats guy). Wolf Alice are Britain’s best live band right now.

Wolf Alice swung past Oxford 10 months ago before their second EP – ‘Creature Songs’ – was released. It was a show which pointed to a bright future for the band, but like a greedy kid at Christmas, I wanted more. There was an underlying hope of ‘how great can this band be with a bigger collection of thunderous post-grunge rock ‘n roll?’ And so 10 months on, with a first U.S. tour behind them, a debut album close to being released, extensive radio play and a ballooning fan base, what we got was Wolf Alice v2.0. Harder, better, faster, strobe lighting. They have played more shows this year already (by April 1st 2015) than compared to all of 2014 (told you I’m a stats guy/thanks Songkick). Like Jafar, Dr. Evil and Pinky & The Brain, they are ready to take over the world. Except Wolf Alice might actually pull it off.

Latest single ‘Giant Peach’ showed singer/guitarist Ellie Rowsell experimenting with her singing voice, throwing in chant-like bursts, yelps, and fun little low-octave moments. That experimentation has now become stitched into their live shows, such as on the show opener, ‘Fluffy’. Instead of a pretty-literal translation from record to real-life, the live version is made fresh with little nuanced changes like Ellie changing up the vocal tone and style of delivery. For a band that’s clearly destined to tour the dickens out of their music this year, that variety helps to spice things up.

The world will finally get studio versions of live staples ‘Your Love’s Whore’ and ‘You’re A Germ’ once the album arrives, but what they represent is what we expect Wolf Alice to be right now. The lightness of touch they show on ‘Your Love’s Whore’, building gradually from the rhythm section to an awesome cacophony of noise by the end. And on the flipside, a whole lot of fury on ‘You’re A Germ’ as the crowd screams back their 1 times tables in the chorus.

Even more exciting is the notion of experimentation, with the band not afraid to take a risk or two. An airing of forthcoming album track ‘Soapy Water’ sees drummer Theo using a drum pad for the first time, while Ellie channels a little of Lana Del Ray as she croons wistfully. Wolf Alice have done mid-tempo before, life started for them as a folk-pop two-piece. But ‘Soapy Water’ is something completely different.And that’s exciting.

However, main-set closer and latest single ‘Giant Peach’ is everything we’ve come to know and love: pure chaotic perfection. Somehow it sounds ten times heavier than anything else that’s come before as a gargantuan Muse/Led Zepp-in-their-heyday guitar riff floors the room. I’m told an encore happened afterwards but I was busy picking up pieces of my shattered skull from the floor.

Get ready to bow to your new overlords, Wolf Alice. And get ready for their debut album, ‘My Love Is Cool’, dropping on June 22nd through Dirty Hit.