Johnny Dangerously – ‘You, Me and the Alarm Clock’: Round 93 – Steve’s choice

You,_Me_and_the_Alarm_Clock

Johnny Dangerously, not to be confused with the Michael Keaton film of the same name, was the once alter-ego of Johnny Bramwell of I Am Kloot fame. This record was released in 1989 at the peak of the ‘Madchester’ baggy era but bears no resemblance to the sounds of that time (Stone Roses for one). It’s straight singer-songwriter, troubadour guitarist eking out a living on the dirty streets of Manchester – which is where Mr Bramwell was probably at during this period. He still plays impromptu gigs in Oldham Street, one of the former epicentres of the Manchester music scene. It bares the skeleton structure of I Am Kloot’s later work, but stripped back it still sounds crisp and fresh today. Its a remarkably accomplished debut, signalling much promise to come.

This mini album (defined as such in various sources although it’s just 6 songs, plays at 45 rpm and only lasts a little over 16 minutes – our shortest album yet Rob?) featured in an article in the Guardian titled “The Greatest Albums You’ve Never Heard“. Although some of the entries in this article (Neutral Milk Hotel for goodness sakes…) should not be there, this absolutely deserves its place. It is a musical gem, a lost one for me as well, falling between the cracks in my life. I used to “own” this album. My ex-wife had it in her collection so I can thank her for introducing me to it. When we split the album went with her. Poignant enough then that the last track on here (‘Tearing it Down’) sings about the loss of possessions and someone.

“She left me a reminder, of a world she left behind her. An overcoat, a coffee cup, an old…(something indecipherable) book binder. I could catch her right away but I would never find her”

So I sadly lost the album. Years later I read the Guardian article and tried to find it again, to no avail. I went to see Johnny Bramwell at a gig in Bristol a few years ago, and he started taking requests. I shouted out ‘Pierfront Arcade’ (track two on the album) to which he replied that he’d forgotten how to play it. So, there we go, lost to the artist himself……

‘Junk Culture’, the opening track, starts haplessly amongst the trash and rubbish of life, evoking images of the back streets of England, the US, trying to make sense of it all

“Stumbling through small life Nowhere, England. Shaking hands with the big time life idiots. I was trying to pick up some ordinariness. From the shopping bag inspirational choir”

UK artists have often tried to make sense of the US on their albums. Prefab Sprout do it on Steve McQueen. As an artist just coming into the world, Johnny Dangerously seems more vulnerable than most to the enormity of gaining success over the pond

“Sweeping through middle town America. Stepping into fact-or-fiction trash TV world. I caught a glimpse of myself scraping and laughing. Shuffling about amongst the newspaper”

Lyrically this album has recurring themes of love, loss, regret, fear, hope and valediction to memories. The imagery of the opening track is simple yet efffective, getting you to view things in a way you know to be true, and yet perhaps you missed them. ‘Junk Culture’ evokes images of the old cathode ray tube TVs and how they used to shut down to a small spot on the screen…”And a million TV screens close their weary eyes”.

The theme of nostalgia is very strong here too. ‘Pierfront Arcade’ highlights the true fragility of memories, and our inability to leave places without never returning, perhaps only in our minds

“Love is built in pieces, made right here in Fragile Town. You said once you were weaving, oh, but who is fragile now?….I said once I was leaving but I came back before too long”

‘Black and Blue’ is a tragic love song, recognising what ultimately you will lose in order to gain the heart of one you desire (“Lights are shining all round this world. You want them all but what you want is this girl….So give up the chance to be true. And all wind up like we knew we’d do. Bruised black and blue”). ‘This Town and Mary’ remembers a girl who came into his life, and to a ‘town’ unknown. Perhaps this town and Mary do not exist at all but I have sneaking suspicion that this references the same ‘Mary’ that featured in a short film I once saw. The subject matter of the film was a bright eccentric girl that was ‘on the scene’ in Manchester in the early 80s, but left suddenly for no reason, right before the ‘Madchester-Hacienda’ music explosion. The film featured one Vinni Reilly (of Durrutti Column, who we haven’t covered yet) remembering her as being quite fragile and full of contradictions. People said she wouldn’t have coped with the scene as it evolved, so perhaps she was best to go. I couldn’t find a link to the film, but would love to make the connection. The song however suggests ‘Mary’ is all of us (“Mary came from our town and was kicking at the ground. She was lost, she was found, she was me, she was you. And all the lies you tell sound true. You say you don’t til you do”). Mythologising people in your life, placing your own personna over them….

There’s not much to say about the musical ability on the record, because it is just him and the guitar. Anyone who has been to see him live will know that he can fill a room with that simple formula. The vocal is very rich, regional and distinctive. The guitar itself accomplished and not readily accessible in terms of chord sequences and tunings. In some ways he bears resemblance to John Martyn (again we haven’t covered him…), some would say Go-Betweens are in there (I think that was you Tom?). Nobody bought the album when it came out, and Johnny Bramwell never released another under this name. So, there it is, gone but not forgotten. It deserves a higher place in the past, and perhaps even in the present, but then again it seems all that more beautiful as a hidden lost gem amongst the newspapers and dirty alleyways of Oldham Street in Manchester….find it if you can.

Tim Hecker – ‘Love Streams’: Round 93 – Rob’s choice

tim-hecker-love-streams

It’s tempting to hear and see ‘Love Streams’, the eighth album from Canadian electronic artist Tim Hecker, as his warm and fuzzy record. It certainly has a more organic, perhaps even welcoming sound than his previous couple. Also, it has a nice pink-infused cover, so, y’know, it could be ‘Chill Out with Tim’ couldn’t it? Well no, not quite.

Hecker, as far as I can see, has always used the building blocks of ambient electronic and contemporary classical music as his canvas and then employed distortion and degradation as his primary operating methods. He takes sounds as roots and nicks and chips and twists and bends and burns and intertwines them into shapes and forms that seem simultaneously to have burst from within and withered dreadfully away from their original forms.

Previously he’s been heavily into pipe organs, pianos, guitars, software, the ‘virginal’ (an early percussive harpsichord) and anything else he can get his hands on. He treats these instruments seriously, with reverence and technical curiosity, never as playthings or sound fodder to be thrown willy-nilly. Instead he uses them as serious thematic elements, to enhance, divert, combine and amalgamate, as colours to use to build shapes and as shapes to use as foundations for colours.

I don’t go all the way back with Hecker, not yet at least, only to his last three full lengths. ‘Ravedeath 1972’ took as its intent the destruction of music, and was suitably scabrous. ‘Virgins’ used live ensemble sessions as the basis for its explorations. It seemed to me to say something about the degradation of the human spirit, signified by the juxtaposition between the virginal instrument itself and song titles and cover imagery both of which invoked some of the darkest places in our recent history. It was a remarkable piece of work. I can’t explain why, but that’s always part of the wonder.

Now, with ‘Love Streams’, the human voice is given primacy, featuring for the first time in any of Hecker’s original work. He recorded raw material with the Icelandic Choir Ensemble, reportedly having them sing nonsensical words and abstract sounds, all to give him a source of sound to electronically manipulate, the way he has previously done with acoustic instruments.

The result is simultaneously warm and accessible – the human voice draws us in to any soundscape, almost no matter what else lurks therein – and endlessly fascinating. Following the routes of the interplay and entwined, slow-motion combat of voices and synths and percussion is both challenging and intriguing. the sounds confound, deflect, obfuscate and delight. Still, this is no twinkly piece of ambient electronica. It’s an floating, abstract miasma, an imagination of the way another species might invoke music. Whereas long-time Hecker buddy Daniel Lopatin seems to delight in deconstructing and then reconstructing music, twisting, perverting and destroying its body but retaining superficial traces to allow us to identify the corpse, Hecker is in another realm from start to finish, a place where music evolved under different influences into a different life-form.

There are breathtaking moments on ‘Love Streams’ and a thousand moments that will slip by un-noticed until the hundredth time. There are combinations of colour and flavour and texture that you will not have heard before. It will make little sense to you on many levels and perfect sense on others. Ultimately this is a beautiful work of sound, and perhaps my favourite thing to listen to this year so far.

Apart from those bees.

Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna Are You The Destroyer?: Round 92 – Tom’s Selection

 

aarefhissingImagine you’re watching one of those films whose opening sequence starts off with a view of a distant galaxy. The image starts to magnify and suddenly you are hurtling into an arm of the Milky Way (for it’s that galaxy), about two thirds of the way out from the galaxy’s centre. The magnification continues apace, now we’re being given a tour of the solar system, zooming past the gas giants, on through the asteroid belt and past Mars. Earth comes into view, we whizz through the atmosphere,  puncture a wispy cumulus or two to hurtle (invariably) into a suburban landscape, through an open window to focus on, perhaps, the main character of the movie. But rather than cut to the inevitable ‘get ready for school’ off camera dialogue of the protagonist’s mother, let’s continue to their record collection. The dude is an indie kid, but left field indie rather than middle-of-the-road indie and so, of course, has all the Of Montreal albums…and there they all are chronologically arranged pretty much smack bang in the middle of his alphabetically ordered albums. The camera continues to zoom in right to the heart of the Of Montreal selection, to Hissing Fauna (which is the middle album since the kid has a promo of 2016’s Innocence Reaches) and on it goes, to the centre of the album, to the gargantuan groove fuck that is The Past Is  A Grotesque Animal (track 7 out of 12), which happens to be the kid’s favourite 12 minute long existential dissection of a relationship gone bad in, like, ever. We carry on to the middle of the…I hesitate to say ‘song’ as that’s, kind of, doing it a disservice…piece, and examine the lyrics either side of the median:

‘Somehow you’ve red-rovered the gestapo circling my heart
And nothing can defeat you
No death, no ugly world

You’ve lived so brightly
You’ve altered everything
I find myself searching for old selves
While speeding forward through the plate glass of maturing cells’

and you’re amazed that something so poignant, so devastating and poetic could reside there. It’s only later, when you check out that song/opus/monster that you realise that going to its heart and finding such eloquence is not coincidence at all – dissect any part of The Past Is A Grotesque Animal and you’ll find similar, incredible, lyricism; lyricism as exorcism perhaps, as our hero, Kevin, tries to come to terms with the disintegration of his marriage, but, hell, his loss is our gain, so let’s rejoice that his world falling apart has led to such an outpouring; an outgushing if you will!

I only own the one Of Montreal album. There may be other Grotesque Animals all over their catalogue, but I doubt it. It feels so right that this is central, not just to the album, but…to everything! Listening again just now, the twelve minutes sped by. As those of you who follow the blog will know, I’m not, by nature, a lyrics kind of guy, but these, well they’re something else! Every line is quotable in isolation (in fact one of the music forums I used to follow went through a phase where pretty much every regular poster used a different line from TPIAGA as their tagline) but together they tell the tale of a man’s suffering that is heartbreaking in its honesty and breathtaking in its eloquence.

Spiraling out from TPIAGA are all sorts of kaleidoscopic goodies, pop gems mostly, skewed pop gems almost entirely! Some run off in every direction like disorientated mice, tangential to the point of abstruseness but always clinging onto the pop wreckage that Of Montreal choose to inhabit. Others, like the closing pair of She’s A Rejecter and  We Were Born The Mutants Again With Leafling are more straightforward but no less brilliant (She’s a Rejecter features the unforgettable lyric:

‘Oh no, she’s a rejector
I must protect myself

There’s the girl that left me bitter
Want to pay some other girl
To just walk up to her and hit her
But I can’t, I can’t, I can’t’

which is (a) hilarious, (b) shocking and (c) really sad). I love these songs, but they are exist in the shadow cast by their ever looming big brother and, as such, they feel like hors d’ouevres; wonderfully tasty but appetite whetters/palette cleansers.

My eleven year old son Kit described Hissing Fauna as sounding like a cross between Bowie and Prince when I played it to him the other evening. I guess what he was hearing was the same inventiveness and creativity, someone sounding as though they are not taking themselves too seriously, enjoying the process of making music that is shot from the heart, true to the self, groundbreaking yet familiar enough to be accessible. And whilst Hissing Fauna doesn’t make it onto my turntable all that often these days (it’s almost ten years old…blimey!), I always enjoy it, especially as I get closer and closer to its epicentre!

ANOHNI – Hopelessness: Round 92, Nick’s choice

a1895762218_10Hopelessness was one of my shortlist for the ‘no white men’ theme I set for the last meeting (which I then didn’t attend!). In the spirit of increasing the diversity of the artists we play at record club, and because I think it’s an excellent record, I thought I’d still play it.

Hopelessness is ANOHNI’s debut solo record after years fronting Anthony & The Johnsons, and there are kind of three concurrent narratives happening here. Firstly, that this is ANOHNI’s first album since transitioning, which oughtn’t to be a notable thing but is; her voice is so recognisable and familiar after more than a decade in the public eye that to suddenly switch names (how does one pronounce ANOHNI?) and gender pronouns requires you to consciously rewire your synapses briefly before new habits kick in. ANOHNI’s gender identity has been something she’s sung about explicitly for years and, even though it’s not mentioned lyrically here at all, it’s still front and centre, not least because of the records bold, eye-bending cover, which merges ANOHNI’s visage with (I’m pretty sure) that of Naomi Campbell, who has been ANOHNI’s avatar in recent videos and performances. The identity of the person singing these songs cannot be separated from their content.

Secondly, Hopelessness is an emphatic move away from the piano-led, chamber-pop aesthetic of Anthony & The Johnsons. ANOHNI calls upon Oneohtrixpointnever and Hudson Mohawk for production, which basically takes her voice and recontextualises it with a backing of cutting-edge, but very accessible, electronic arrangements. There’s something predictable (I don’t use the term pejoratively) about the way ANOHNI enunciates; you can almost tell just from reading the lyrics how certain words will be sung, and she’d perhaps done as much as she could with her voice within her former aesthetic. Transplanted to another sound world, she sounds fresh again, powerful and emotional.

Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially, Hopelessness is lyrically a protest record, and it pulls no punches in this regard; the subject matter is upfront and laid painfully bare, as ANOHNI takes on murderous foreign policy, environmental collapse, masculine violence, untrustworthy politicians, drone bombs, and more over the course of 11 songs. Mass graves, beheadings, pollution, false imprisonments, and torture are all mentioned explicitly; this is a long way from Thom Yorke’s wordless vowels of pseudo-political existential crisis.

How well does ANOHNI deal with these topics? Consensus is that Hopelessness is an amazing piece of work, musically and lyrically, and I agree, but it’s not unanimous: Tayyab Amin insightfully lays waste to opener “Drone Bomb Me” from a perspective that would never have struck me independently; he criticises ANOHNI, as a white woman, for appropriating the terror of drone bombs as experienced by people in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) and using it for almost trivial purposes; a ‘love’ song.

You could argue about who the narrative voice in the song is, but ANOHNI has explicitly stated that “it’s a love song from the perspective of a girl in Afghanistan, say a 9-year-old girl whose family’s been killed by a drone bomb. She is kind of looking up at the sky and she’s gotten herself to a place where she just wants to be killed by a drone bomb too.” I can see Tayyab’s point, but I’m also happy to invoke Barthes: the birth of the reader is at the expense of the death of the author, and for me “Drone Bomb Me” is incredible, and an admission of the complicity of the general populace of the US (etc) in such horrific tactics; we elect these people, we know what they’re doing, and we’re letting it happen without really trying to stop it. It’s also an attempt (however successful or clumsy you may feel it to be) to try and understand the terror and hopelessness of the victims. I don’t know of anyone else who’s trying to do that in a way as direct as this.

At points Hopelessness is almost funny, because the subject matter and imagery of these songs is so utterly bleak and harrowing that if you didn’t laugh you’d cry. “I wanna burn the sky / I wanna burn the breeze / I wanna see the animals die in the trees” she sings in “4 Degrees”, which uses dramatic, synthetic horns over programmed beats (which almost sound like Kate Bush’s “The Hounds of Love” as they enter) as a bed for ANOHNI’s voice. It’s searing.

“Watch Me” deals with surveillance culture – “watch me watching pornography / watch my medical history” – framing it, with bitterly direct sarcasm, as paternal care. The subject matter of “Execution” (“it’s an American dream”) is equally as evident just from the title. Throughout, ANOHNI expresses things from the victims’ point of view, while recognising the people who caused them to be victims, directly or indirectly.

Hopelessness offers no solutions to the horror it describes, but it describes these horrors so well that it profoundly expresses the hopelessness (sorry) that comes from pondering them too deeply. I much prefer it to anything Anthony & The Johnsons ever did, and I think there are perhaps two main reasons for that; firstly that it’s easier for me to empathise with these concerns (I directly share them) as a happily-married straight white cis male than it is with, for instance, “my lady story is one of breast amputation”, as much as I may be able to sympathise with that.

But mostly it’s because I think the arrangements are fabulous: Hopelessness works really well as just good pop music; richly textured, exciting, hooky and accessible. It’s over very quickly (less than 42 minutes) and it’s sonically most redolent of modern, programmed electronic post-r’n’b pop. That it’s using this accessibility to deliver a really harsh set of messages makes it really appealing to me; the old push-me, pull-you thing we’ve talked about a hundred times before. The juxtaposition of “Crisis”’ lyrics (“daughter / if I filled up your mass graves / and attacked your countries / under false premise / I’m sorry”) with the delicacy of the pointillist, repetitious electronic melody and, in particular, the shimmering, elevating beauty of the synth line that bursts through the song after three and a half minutes… well, it’s breath-taking.

Angry yet resigned; beautiful but terrible; daring and experimental; direct but complex; naïve yet sophisticated: on a creative level Hopelessness is clearly, to me, a significant achievement. The live shows (black silk facemasks, pre-recorded backing tracks, video screens of Naomi Campbell, ANOHNI facing away from the audience) seem to have been received in mixed terms, lots of admiration but little enjoyment; that can’t be said of the album, which is as pleasurable as it is harrowing.

It seems pertinent that closing track “Marrow” peters out quietly and suddenly, like it gave up trying to be a song anymore and just died. That’s hopelessness.

Steve listened: I found it to be more than a bit confrontational with its message, not pulling any punches. I was only recently discussing with someone about the lack at the moment of a good protest album, a reaction to current times, and here it is. The way he takes an almost devil’s advocate stance on the issues, getting you to see the futility (yes, hopelessness) of policies supporting bombing of innocents, climate change, surveillance makes a change from a right-on soapbox rant, or the sixth form politics of Radiohead.’Obama’ has an eerie tribal vibe to it. That felt quite sinister to me. We wondered at DRC if he’d heard it, and how it might make him feel. From the point of view of the audience (even if you’re not a drone bomber or Obama) I think it’s hard to enjoy this album at face value. It doesn’t let you do that with the directness of the lyrics. I just bought a copy (in the US) on vinyl. Safely tucked in my luggage I look forward to unwrapping and playing. I know it will make me uncomfortable but then a good protest album should do that.

Tom listened: I got the same feeling listening to Hopelessness as I did Hissing Fauna! ‘That’s ridiculous,’ I hear you say, ‘they’re chalk and cheese’. Of course, musically, they’re not that similar (although some parallels do exist). However, my experiences of both Of Montreal and Anthony (as I still can’t help but think of her) were formed at roughly the same point in time and it struck me whilst listening to both records that they are now on the cusp of harking back to a different era, that time has moved on. Obviously Anohni’s album has just been released, but her voice is so distinctive that, even though the music on Hopelessness is very different to that on I Am A Bird Now, I was still propelled instantly back in time to a point where what is current blurs into nostalgia.

I struggled with Hopelessness at first. Maybe for the reasons cited above (overexposure to Anthony in 2005 – Hope There’s Someone was everywhere at the time it seemed…apart from in Steve’s life!), maybe the subject matter, maybe it was too raw and emotive. But it grew on me as it went on and by the end I was more-or-less won over; I felt the songs in the latter half of the record were more understated and subtle but maybe I had just got used to the sound and themes of the record by then. An unexpected pleasure!

Stereolab -Emperor Tomato Ketchup: Round 92 – Steve’s Selection

StereolabEmperorTomatoKetchup

I was especially p*ssed off on 24th June when the EU referendum result was announced. There, I’ve said it. So the result for Brexit has influenced my choice this week. I wanted an antidote to this result. To celebrate all that is European. For me Europe represents a big melting pot of culture that crosses borders, breaks down barriers and this album does this in spades. Lætitia Sadier, Stereolab’s French born (UK living) lead singer mostly sings in her native tongue, in a style that sounds indifferent (yeah, f*ck you Farage), hypnotic and although my language skills are a little rustique these days – je comprends en peu. I originally wrote ‘je comprends en petit peux’ which roughly translates ‘I understand in small can’, which was odd because the first track of this album is an out-and-out tribute to Can! Shifting in tempo and all soggily and beautifully ‘beepy’, with a Hammond organ overlaid, the opening track ‘Metronomic Underground’ sets the tone for this album’s wonderful blend of europop, electronica and Krautrock. Most of the tracks on this album sound like they could carry on improvising into the night, just like Can were fond of doing during their legendary sessions.

Sadier’s vocal throughout this album is flat, but intentionally so, as it adds metronomy in itself. Repeating phrases, for example “Les pierres, les abres, les murs racontent…” (‘the stones, the tress, the walls tell’) on ‘Cybele’s Reverie’ evokes Sartre (pseud’s corner for me) and his hopelessness in amongst inanimate objects in his existential nightmare ‘Nausea’. There are nods in the direction of the punk band X-ray Spex (‘Germ Free Adolescents’ is lined up for DRC) and the saxophone on ‘Percolator’. The lyrics to ‘Les Yper-Sound’ seems especially prescient given Brexit in all its narrative for pitching camps against each other

“You go in that team
I go on this team
Divide everything
A flag or a number

Make ’em opposites
So there’s a reason
Stigmatization
Okay, now we can fight”

‘Spark Plug’ explores the ills of society and its ability to heal (‘There is no sense in being interested in an ill person. Or unwell a society if one cannot believe their readiness and the capacity for proper recovery’). I’m feeling better already about societé! The album is, despite the flat vocals, very uplifting. It makes you feel like part of a happening, an underground avant garde show, like you are in the experience, pushing the boundaries.

The title track ‘Emporer Tomato Ketchup’ resumes the metronomic, and Can-like beats of the opener. Here the tempo is quicker though, and the interchanging vocal melodies of Sadier are accompanied by Mary Hansen (who sadly died in London in 2002 in a bike accident), making a delightful and blistering Krautrock belter of a tune. All forlorn and introspective, a weep for ‘the sought after union bought us together’ on ‘Monstre Sacre’ takes an altogether different tone. These are the highs and lows of life in full, born out in glorious euro-technicolour.

I can’t help but feel that this “proud to be British” bullsh*t would not have come to the fore if we were more honest about our influences, perhaps more open to other European cultures and the way they have shaped us as a nation. On ‘Motoroller Scalatron’ Sadier sings “What’s society built on? It’s built on, built on bluff. Built on bluff, built on trust”. Come on people. Feeling British means nothing. Feeling part of society has far more to tie us together. Or does it? Is it more simple and perhaps therefore fragile than that? Sadier appears to question this.

Looking back, Sadier reflects “Discovery of fire, America. The invention of the wheel, steel work and democracy. Philosophy, the Soviets and other events in history of humanity. Happened at a certain given moment in time” over strings and a variety of retro electronic jiggery-pokery. There’s no going back on history, only forwards. Again, flatly sung, matter of fact, but backed with glorious electronica. The final track ‘Anonymous Collective’ focusses on the unseen things that hold us together….”You and me are molded by things. Well beyond our acknowledgment”. Maybe that’s it. Don’t focus on the differences (f*ck you again Farage), let’s hold together and to the things that bind us, the things unseen. To Europe! Vive les similarities.

Tom listened: A while ago now Rob mentioned that he was keen to do a podcast/radio type thing and one of the features he was hoping to instigate (Rob is an ideas man!) would be a slot where we would listen to an album by an artist we had previously overlooked, generally the bigger the artist, the better (big in terms of influence as opposed to sales, I suppose). When he mooted this to me I drew a blank. Which, in retrospect, was ludicrous! There were hundreds of missing pieces in my musical jigsaw puzzle but I just couldn’t come up with any when put on the spot.

Well, Record Club has been the equivalent of a rummage down the back of the sofa and, as a result, many gaps have been plugged. The Stereolab piece now being in place, my listening life feels a little more complete. Of course, I have heard them many times on the radio over the years and Emperor Tomato Ketchup sounded more-or-less as I expected it would…but better; the grooves particularly towards the end of the record really locking me in. The closest thing to them in my record collection is Pram, another mid nineties indie outfit, but listening to this made me realise that it was the right band that won the accolades – on the basis of this album Stereolab simply had the better tunes and grooves!

 

The Roches – The Roches: Round 91 – Tom’s Selection

51PUoR4TeXL

Nick stipulated ‘no white dudes’ when he set Graham’s theme for him and as the record club crew were leaving my house, my mind had already begun sifting through the possibilities. Almost committing to numerous options – Prince, Smokey, Marley’s Rastaman Vibration…another Al Green album just to wind Graham up…I found myself gravitating, at the eleventh hour, to The Roches self-titled debut album, attracted by the bizarrely magical musical delights contained within as much as its adherence to Nick’s diversity agenda (do we bother with diversity anymore now that we have gained glorious independence from the tyranny of Europe?). It was surprisingly difficult to find records that fitted exactly to Nick’s criteria anyway…these white dudes have a habit of cropping up all over the place…but I contented myself with the knowledge that at least my chosen band had white dudes in the minority, most of the time, and that they probably didn’t really need them at all (although Fripp does play a blinder on the breathtaking Hammond Song and, presumably, twiddled the production knobs with aplomb).

Another jewel exposed by The Spin Guide to Alternative Music (still not returned…whoever has borrowed it, please can I have it back!), I can remember feeling distinctly sceptical as I held The Roches debut in my hands in the record shop pondering whether to purchase an album that looks this bad – could it really reward the trust I was placing on one music journalist’s opinion? As covers go, it’s pretty atrocious and in failing light and with a bit of a squint, you could be looking at a Nolan Sisters record sleeve. The sisters look too self-consciously wacky, their mannered poses smacking of coffee shop kookiness and hinting at bad jokes, syrupy vocals and fey arrangements.

Turns out, that’s not far from the truth.

It also turns out that you do not have to be too far from that truth for the shit to turn to diamonds. Turn the ‘quaint’ dial around a notch and what could so easily be cloyingly unpalatable transforms into a thing of beauteous splendour, the use of humour veering from embarrassing to effecting. The Roches, on their debut album at least, are something to cross the road to rather than from!

A record of two halves, the first side of the platter fluctuates from the ridiculous to the sublime and back again with the aforementioned Hammond Song shining out like a towering beacon amongst the four other tracks – songs such as Mr Sellack and Damned Old Dog sail perilously close to the line of kooky but, to my mind, get away with it through a combination of charm and restraint. The final track on side one, The Troubles, raises the stakes – the sisters pondering as to whether their lives will be in greater danger whilst visiting the emerald isle as a result of the IRA’s firearms or the posited dearth of health food shops in Dublin! They get away with it…but God only knows how! But for an insight of just how incredible this album is, listen to the first two tracks back-to-back. The introductory opener We seguing into Hammond Song might be one of the most startling transitions in my record collection as the (frankly bizarre) chipmunk like sped up vocals at the end of We merge into the exquisite, close harmonies of Hammond Song. What follows is six minutes of bliss, chord changes to die for, a guitar solo from the gods and some of the sweetest singing ever committed to vinyl. It’s tempting to wish for the other tracks on side one to be more similar to Hammond Song but, on reflection, that would only serve to dilute the experience….a perfect palm fringed beach feels a lot more special if it’s the only one around!

That said, there are other moments of Hammond Song-like beauty scattered through the album and side two is much more consistent in tone and atmosphere, most tracks managing to amalgamate the aesthetically pleasing and the weird to form five cuts of the very finest female urban acoustic folk singer songwriter fare. Separating out the two halves, I’d take the second side every time (despite Hammond Song being elsewhere), but really they are intractable and, together, they form one of the more surprisingly captivating albums I own.

Rob listened: Loved it! Tom’s right about the delicate, wobbly balance between twee/kooky and funny/charming and also about the mercurial way in which the Roches walk the line. Some heartstopping songs and some that are laugh out loud funny for reasons that aren’t immediately explicable. Reminded me of Kimya Dawson, but without the artifice and the Be Good Tanyas without the weight of historical reenactment. Loved it.

Beyoncé – ‘Lemonade’: Round 91 – Rob’s choice

25-beyonce-lemonade-coverw529h352-9c63e958-da7a-4ee1-b52e-30236f27c313

When was the last time the album of the year was made by the biggest pop star on the planet?

‘Thriller’ in 1982? ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ in 1967?

Give it six months and there will be another name to add to the list.

‘Lemonade’, Beyonce’s sixth studio album is a breathtaking piece of work in which production, author, subject and songs all contribute, all are bound together inextricably and yet all are worn so very lightly. This is no portentous, overbearing statement double album, it’s a breezy 45 minutes that manages to be uplifting, inspiring and sharp as whilst diving deep into dark and difficult personal and political issues. Again, again, again, I can’t stress enough how, despite the rawness on display, the execution of the 12 songs here is so deft as to be giddily exhilarating.

And let’s remind ourselves once more, this is the Biggest Pop Star on the planet pulling all of this off.

What’s more, she’s pulling it off amidst the meteorology of the interstellar forces between her and her husband, one Shawn Carter aka Jay-Z. Not only is this a remarkable record by the world’s biggest star, it’s one which is laced with implied criticism and public admonishment for one of the other top 5 stars in pop. Who she lives with.

It must have been some first listen in the Knowles-Carter house.

And so what do we have?

A record full of beautiful detail and flourishes. The bingo hall organ that rills through ‘Pray You Catch Me’, is incongrous, and just a bit weird, and deliciously fleeting. It’s gone before you realilse it’s happened, leaving a background echo and a sense that not everything is going to be okay on this fairground ride.

Elsewhere there’s the horn riff that emerges from the middle of ‘All Night’. It’s the hookiest thing I’ve heard in ages and it’s used so delicately that it becomes genuinely nagging and moreish.

It’s a record packed with moments too.

Like when the air horn cuts through the phasing sample from Andy Williams ‘Can’t Get Used To Losing You’. It’s subtly amazing, an act of low-key genius. The sound of a sweeping clash of cultures, and it’s a throwaway in the first 10 seconds of what becomes ‘Hold Up’, an exquisite track.

It’s also a record packed with startling, revealing, insightful and nuanced words. Take ‘Hold Up’. It’s no simple ‘you done me wrong’ diss track for a disloyal partner. Here is introspection, guilt, self blame, defensiveness, possessiveness, confusion, anxiety. This is a song written from the perspective of a woman who feels completely isolated by her jealously and, ultimately, by her husbands infidelity. It holds its tension until the very end and the repeated refrain “I look in the mirror, say ‘what’s up’?” a hopelessly defiant cry of loneliness.

The ambiguity and self-relexive power of these lyrics, even when plumbing the dark recesses of the heart, is a pure joy. “What’s worse, to be jealous or crazy, jealous or crazy?” And earlier, the psychological insight that delivers the line “I’m praying you catch me”, the protagonist yearning to be found running through her partner’s call list just so the suffocating suspicion and the dread she is writhing in can be brought out into the open.

The suspicion and self-doubt boils over in the next track, don’t hurt yourself a writhing, seething, excoriating smack down of a track. Underscored by thrashing barbed-wire guitar from Jack White, she bellows:

WHO THE FUCK DO YOU THINK I AM?…
(You can here her rage splattering against the mic here)

I am the dragon breathing fire
Beautiful mane I’m the lion
Beautiful man I know you’re lying
I am not broken, I’m not crying, I’m not crying
You ain’t trying hard enough
You ain’t loving hard enough
You don’t love me deep enough
We not reaching peaks enough

Uh, this is your final warning
You know I give you life
If you try this shit again
You gon lose your wife

Cards on the table, all I know about Beyonce’s marriage to Jay-Z I know through listening to this record. I have no idea whether this record alludes to true events or is an elaborately imagined and constructed fiction. It doesn’t matter.

It’s either a staggeringly frank statement from the most popular powerful performer in pop music, a performer who could have made an album of sugar kisses and butterflies and sold just as many copies, or it’s a work of astonishing authorial vision. If she’s putting herself into a character’s head, then it’s a different, but no less astonishing achievement.

And you shudder for the man who may have unleashed this avenging angel. And then you think, you go, you go, go give him what he deserves.

Elsewhere, there are wonders, from the country stomp of ‘Daddy Lessons’, again more complex than first apparent, and perhaps not quite so autobiographical, to
‘Formation’ which closes it off, with her rallying cry to black women to form up and slay in the struggle for gender and race power and equality. It’s no meek call for philosophical egalitariansim, it’s a red raw assertion of life, love, sex, money, greed, determination and power, inabashed and undeniable.

And once again, to close, all of this is in a set of 12 exquisitely constructed pop songs.

I’m going to stop now. Perhaps you have ‘Lemonade’ in which case you don’t have to take if from me, but here it comes anyway: This is quite something.

Tom listened: I wish we hadn’t had Lemonade with curry on the night, not because of any ensuing issues with my digestive system but because our physical removal from Graham’s living room to his dining table, coupled with his children’s bedtime meant that it was almost impossible to discern. I definitely felt the album suffered as a result and, occasionally found myself tuning in to something that sounded as if it was probably amazing, only for it to fade away just as rapidly in a melange of coriander and chit chat. A shame as I am sure I would have been impressed (and have been mightily by the stuff I have heard on the radio) and am very keen to acquire the album once it gets released on a decent format. I wish I could say more about it!