Jane Siberry – ‘The Walking’ – Round 2: Tom’s Choice

Jane Siberry – The Walking

Whereas Oar (my first selection for DRC) is a record that I have gradually come round to, Jane Siberry’s The Walking was, for me, love at first listen…odd considering its reputation as a difficult album. Indeed, the Rough Guide To Rock describes The Walking as a record to file alongside Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica and Starsailor by Tim Buckley. Sometimes I wonder whether I am listening to the same record as the critics. And whilst I would probably take a difficult Beefheart album to my desert island (Lick my Decals Off Baby would be my preference), I would be packing Jane Siberry’s 1987 album before it! The Walking has just as many twists and turns, blind alleys and unexpected shifts in texture, time signature and atmosphere as Beefheart at his most tangential yet, crucially, Siberry’s album is grounded in the most beautiful hook laden pop as opposed to the raw and visceral delta blues and free form jazz of the good captain.

Thinking about my choice from last night during the day today, I am minded to draw a comparison with Joanna Newsom. I am a great admirer of some of Newsom’s work, in particular about two thirds of the Milk Eyed Mender and a similar proportion of last year’s Have One On Me. I have never really clicked with Ys and yet, of all her three albums, the song structures on it probably bear the closest resemblance to those of The Walking. Joanna Newsom seems to have adopted a remarkably similar approach to constructing a record as Jane Siberry and pop hooks are in evidence throughout Have One On Me (see Good Intentions Paving Company, ’81, Baby Birch, Go Long, Jackrabbits) along with quieter, more difficult songs that have obviously been included to provide contrast and punctuation. However, to my ears, the (necessary?) comedown tracks just do not work as well as the more accessible, pop based songs and I could happily live without No Provenance, Occident and Kingfisher. Ys is a very different beast with songs meandering along through many different phases, yet without the hook driven poppiness to anchor it, it is a long and, at times (depending on my mood), turgid listen. In contrast, the songs on The Walking are all, in essence, pop songs but these are pop songs with a difference. With the exception of the third track (Goodbye) each song has a bright and breezy melody that envelopes the song and provides just enough of a foundation for Siberry to really experiment and surprise. All the songs contain dark passages, changes in light or texture, shards of noise or whispered vocals that serve to spotlight those glorious gossamer melodies all the more, precisely because they are used briefly and within the songs themselves. Throughout the album Siberry deconstructs her songs to the point of ruin and then, just when all seems lost, when she has created a cacophony of Tilt like noise or an eerily quiet whirring sound that plays for just the right amount of time,  she will reinstate the original tune. And the magic is that it is seamless. And how she does that is something I do not understand, and that is (partly) why this in one of my absolutely favourite albums. Of all time. Ever….and it only cost $1.95!

Nick Listened: I enjoyed this an awful lot, and while I could see straight away why Tom was incongruent regarding its comparison to the likes of Beefheart, the eccentricity of the compositions would, as we discussed in relation to Bohemian Rhapsody and Scott Walker, perhaps make it a little too leftfield for some. I was reminded very strongly of Kate Bush, but if anything even more out there. The occasional whirls into near-cacophony were always tempered by moments of extremely pretty melody, and my aesthetic tastes are at a point where mid-80s gated drums and grandiose sweeps of artificial synth strings don’t offend me like they used to. If I was to have any misgivings about this album by Siberry, it would be that the whole package, front-to-back, might be too rich, to luxurious, in both texture and melody and eccentricity, to take in often or in completion.


Shudder To Think – ‘Get Your Goat’ – Round 2: Rob’s Choice

Shudder To Think – ‘Get Your Goat’

'Get Your Goat' - Shudder To ThinkThis is Shudder To Think’s fourth album, released in 1992, and the one that preceded ‘Pony Express Record’, which is often listed as one of the great lost albums of the 1990s.

Here they use the shifting, interlocking time signatures that would come to map out Math Rock but with a looser, more open texture. Although their music is relatively complex, they aren’t as uptight as the bands that would follow them. ‘Get Your Goat’ sees the band playing with full confidence and joy in what they’re doing, but before they tightened and amped everything up for ‘Pony Express’. There’s warmth and fun in these songs, and each one contains at least one great melodic hook. Ultimately they were making challenging pop music, rather than just challenging music.

Craig Wedren’s voice is always pure pleasure too. He has rare, if not unique, drama and range, and when he holds a note it’s like being hit by a ray gun.

Bizarrely, as Tom was introducing his record choice, he described how he had bought the Jane Sibbery album in San Francisco in 1999 at the same time as buying ‘Get Your Goat’. He had no idea that I’d brought that very album along to play. It’s a small world, particularly if you’re focussing on the angular american post-punk of the late 80s early90s part of it.

New Order – ‘Elegia’ – from ‘Low Life’

I was listening to ‘Brotherhood’ the other day and I thought about this song. I realised that it may be the single track that showed me that slow music could be as affecting and powerful as fast music. When I was at University I used to have a tape full of slow songs, almost as a novelty. I used to play it when I wanted to mope about even more than usual. I remember it had ‘Hardly Getting Over It’ by Husker Du and ‘Honey’ by Spacemen 3. I’m pretty sure ‘Elegia’ was the first track, and without the start it gave me, maybe I wouldn’t have found my way to Low, Lampchop, Slint, Bonnie Prince Billy and about half my favourite records. I haven’t listened to it for about 15 years, so I brought it along.

Tom Listened: I love Shudder to Think and, bizarrely, very nearly chose Pony Express Record for this meeting. Even though I have owned Get Your Goat for over ten years now, I haven’t listened to it anything like as much as PER and it was a real pleasure to be re-introduced to it last night. I think it always suffered by being the second Shudder to Think album I acquired, although having heard both records in the past 24 hours I have come to the conclusion that both are awesome!! Cheers Rob, great choice.

Nick listened: Weird coincidence aside, I enjoyed this greatly. Shudder To Think are a band I’ve heard of over but never had the compulsion to listen to for some reason. They’re regularly trotted out as an influence by bands I’ve loved over the last 10-12 years, from At The Drive-In to Dismemberment Plan, and I could hear the work of those bands as echoes of this. I think Rob’s right that there’s a looseness, a popness, a sense of fun in this rather than a sense of architectural rigour, but it’s probably a 5-listen record before one knows the patterns, the stops and starts, enough to dance and sing along. But dancing and singing along will happen, I have no doubt. I’ve borrowed Pony Express Record from Rob as a direct result of this choice; which is surely the point of DRC.

PJ Harvey – ‘Let England Shake’ – Round 2: Nick’s Choice

PJ Harvey – ‘Let England Shake’

In a flagrant disregard for both the rules and spirit of Devon Record Club, a certain member of the Club, who could possibly be my direct line manager at work, expressed a preference over my choice for our second meeting. Not wanting to be bullied at work anymore than I already am, I acquiesced…

I’m joking of course, although Rob did say he was interested in hearing Let England Shake. It’s also, being very new (out on Monday) and receiving of gushing press coverage, a very zeitgeisty record right now, and seemed ripe for consumption and discussion.

I’ve written about it already on my blog to an extent, so I’ll try not to repeat myself here, and instead add a couple of comments that I mentioned as I introduced it last night.

Firstly, there’s a lot of talk about this being a “political” record (yesterday I was in Loughborough giving a talk at a conference, and in conversation with one of the other speakers this record was mentioned, and his first comment was “it’s meant to be political, isn’t it?”), but I think talk of its politics is a misnomer. Let England Shake is only political in the absolute broadest possible sense of politics being about people. There is a deliberate narrative distance afforded by the arrangements and (in particular) the vocal performances that, to me, says Polly Jean Harvey isn’t judging the things she is describing them except in, again, the broadest possible sense; these situations are horrific, they destroy people individually and collectively in a literal sense. She offers no solutions, offers no alternatives, doesn’t ask the listener to decline, just leaves a big gap which the listener can fill with… whatever they choose. Which may be a political reading, or a humanist reading, or an ignoring of the lyrics altogether.

Secondly, the arrangements here are terrific, and very sophisticated to my ears. The musical appropriations, whether compositional or sample-based, are interwoven in a way that reminds me of Public Enemy: the grooves (whether guitar or drum or autoharp driven) and melodies are appealing, invite the listener in, express an aesthetic (a kind of modern, post-shoegaze folk) that is familiar and comfortable, but the samples and appropriations are so incongruous, so off-kilter, so dissonant in some cases (musicologically or culturally) that they work against that comfort zone, repel the listener, and create a truly compelling and truly weird dichotomy, in much the same ideological way that the sirens and so on in those early PE records seemed like noise but worked like hooks. Melodic references to Surfin’ Bird and Summertime Blues in a “folk” song? Strange.

Lastly, I think this record, after a week, is a masterpiece. I find it incredibly moving emotionally, which is why I don’t think of it as a political record. It doesn’t encourage me to postulate or hypothesise; it forces me to empathise, to feel horror, in the juxtaposition of the Summerisle melody and double-thwack round-the-maypole lilt of The Colour Of The Earth with its horrific lyrics of war and loss and the delivery, so removed, so remote, so deadpan, like children 100 years after the fact singing about the black death without knowing what it means and their parents recoiling in horror when the punctum strikes home.

Rob listened: This prompted great discussion about the Polly Jean’s place in the pantheon, and in our culture in general. Had she been to the wilderness and back? Had she in fact been making great records all along? If so, why does now feel like a return to the fold, the anointing of a national treasure? Most importantly it sounded like a fine, rewarding album, rich in detail that I’ll look forward to exploring.

Tom Listened: I have never bought a PJ Harvey album! There, I said it! I think this is about to change. What a brilliant sounding record. Whereas in the past her power came from being powerful, she seems to have learnt that power can come from restraint too and her voice on this album sounds to me like honey rather than the swarm of bees of old. Nice one Rob Nick. Great choice.

Electrelane – ‘I Want To Be The President’

Given that PJ’s new album is only 40 minutes long, I was able to pick an individual track to play too. Given Electrelane’s announcement this week that they’ve reformed and arranged a handful of live performances (no mention of an album yet, but I live in hope) it seemed timely to pick this tune by Brighton’s finest all-girl krautpoppers. A bridging single between their debut and sophomore records, it marks the first time Electrelane used vocals in a song, and as such is something of an epiphany moment for them. It also, being produced by Echoboy (ex of The Hybirds), adds an electro-pulse to proceedings which is atypical of their later, Steve Albini-recorded sound, but still very much identifiable as Electrelane. One of my favourite bands of the 00s.

Aphex Twin – ‘Flim’

In yet more flagrant disregard for the rules, I forced a second song selection on the DRC, and played this beatific b-side to the ravenously extreme Come To Daddy single. It does, indeed, move me in ways that nothing else moves me, both emotionally and physically – head-nodding has been known.

Aphex Twin is known for his technical nous regarding beats and constructions, but for me his real genius is melodic; the Richard D James album achieves the same kind of push-me-pull-you dichotomy as discussed regarding the samples on the PJ Harvey album, juxtaposing sweet, childlike melodies with jackhammer beats. The beats here are less frenetic, but still offer a stark contrast to the beguiling melodic manoeuvres. Flim manages to be both uplifting and mournful and kinetic and blissful all at the same time. It’s a trick that’s fascinated and enchanted me for nigh-on 14 years.

Alexander ‘ Skip’ Spence – ‘Oar’ – Round 1: Tom’s Choice

Alexander Spence – ‘Oar’

Choosing an album for the inaugural meeting of the Devon Record Club was a strange process for me. Obviously it was important to make the right impression – especially when considering the esteemed company I was keeping – and my choice had to be obscure enough but not willfully so, something they’d have heard of and yet not heard. In my head I ran through a list of possibilities, over and over, to such an extent that, on the night prior to the meeting, I even had a dream that I had selected the post-rock behemoth that is Spiderland by Slint; a lame choice as anybody who is anybody knows this record inside out, back-to-front and upside down. And Rob and Nick are certainly anybodies who are anybodies! But by 6.30pm on the night of the meeting, I had narrowed down my choice to one of three. I went over to my LPs and my eye, followed by my hand, mysteriously bypassed my shortlisted contenders and settled upon Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence’s ‘Oar’. So that’s what I took.

Oar is a curious beast. Mainly acoustic, pretty much uncategorisable, varied yet coherent. I remember being unsettled on first hearing it, which is no bad thing in my book, but I wasn’t sure I liked what I heard. The music is spare, even spartan at times, and on some of the tracks (Weighted Down, Books of Moses, Broken Heart) the pace is funereal. I can not remember the exact chronology, but I think I purchased this after acquiring the first Moby Grape album and the contrast between Spence’s work on Oar and the psych pop anthems of his full band probably has no equal in popular music. There is no pop sensibility in evidence on Oar, the ‘Summer of Love’ is a very dim and distant memory; this is the paranoid, psychotic world of an acid casualty in meltdown. Sonically, the shift in atmosphere is similar to Scott Walker’s 30 year evolution from Make it Easy On Yourself’s bright melody to the blood curdling sound of Tilt, yet what makes Spence’s record so remarkable is the rapidity of the change – one, maybe two years of hallucinogens and his transformation was complete!

So what’s to like? Well…I love the fact that he’s playing very basic songs (on the whole) with minimal accompaniment and yet the sounds and songs are utterly unique. I recall a similar feeling upon hearing Sung Tongs by Animal Collective for the first time – with a myriad other acoustic guitar albums, how could someone produce something so unlike anything else? And to make it an enjoyable, even accessible, listen smacks of genius in my book.

But more than the songs and the sounds of the album, the words, the singing and the message, the one thing I admire about Oar above all else is its heroic, supremely courageous, honesty. Here was a man on the verge of commercial success, a possible major player in the late 60s rush to replace the obviously imploding Beatles, the worn out Byrds, the now less than essential Dylan. And Moby Grape could have been a contender to take over. But you only have to listen to first few bars of Little Hands, Oar’s opening track, to realise that Oar is no contrivance, no deliberate ploy to garner commercial success. This is the record that Spence HAD to make at that time in his life and by baring his soul, exposing his demons, in such a manner has produced an album that will live on, gradually gaining its rightful place in Rock ‘n’ Roll’s great lost classic albums Hall of Fame, long after the sunny dalliances of the San Fransisco scene have been well and truly forgotten.

Spotify link: Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence – Oar

Nick listened: Oar is a record I’ve been aware of for years but never heard; so Tom made a pretty perfect judgement call in picking it. By reputation I’m aware of its status as one of a raft of solo records made by less-prominent members of 60s and 70s bands who… how shall we say… had perhaps become a little damaged. I’m thinking of I Am The Cosmos by Chris Bell from Big Star, Pacific Ocean Blue by Dennis Wilson. I’m sure there are others. So was Oar what I expected? I’m not sure what I expected, but I wasn’t surprised, except perhaps by how much I enjoyed it – those other “psychedelic casualty” records have never actually resonated all that much with me. The way the final track unfurled a groove, accelerated and decelerated itself, was unexpected and very welcome. Despite our propensity for chattering over the top of the records we brought in, I don’t feel like I missed out on experiencing Oar. It’s slid a little way up my mental checklist of records to pick up when I’m flush again.

Rob listened: I confess I hadn’t heard of this. Having it trailed as a solo effort by the chap from Moby Grape I assumed that huge amounts of brain-smooshing drugs had been involved and that the record would be a spectral, acid-fried wash-out. Wrong. It’s great, and nothing like I expected. Rich and strange, it rolls and meanders and climbs and dives. Spence has a warm and welcoming voice, just enough to tempt you into the weirder backwaters. Sounded like a fine choice to me.

McCarthy – ‘The Enraged Will Inherit The Earth’ – Round 1: Rob’s Choice

McCarthy – ‘The Enraged Will Inherit The Earth’

I’m not entirely sure why I ended up choosing this. I’m not even sure it’s my favourite McCarthy album, but it seemed to mystically percolate its way to the surface whenever I thought about what to bring his evening, so I decided to just stick with it.

McCarthy were one of the C86 era bands. I think they’re interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, they sounded great. They jangle, but their sound, at least in the memory, has a complexity and density beyond most of their contemporaries, even on their early records where they were playing short songs in enough of a flurry that they almost tripped themselves up. Malcolm Eden’s voice isn’t quite substantial enough to carry the songs, and it’s hard to get a grip of at first, but there’s something in its blandness that makes it a perfect fit for the faceless authority figures he speaks for.

They’re principally remembered for their politics, which were always described as “Marxist”. However there’s real nuance in their lyrics which are usually delivered as half-dialogue – in this way McCarthy are the older, politicised sibling to The Wedding Present’s soppy lovelorn teenager – and frequently move through several positions and persuasions before arguing themselves around to the opposite of their starting point. As much as they espoused a particular ideology, they consistently struck out against hypocrisy of any stripe. See the single ‘Keep An Open Mind Or Else’, where the narrator begins ‘With my last breath i’ll fight for your right to disagree’ and ends quite differently. It’s clear that they were aware of the problems and worried away at the contradictions in their politics. You can’t help wondering where their current contemporaries are.

It’s easy to mock them as over-earnest, leftist librarians, but in hindsight, they had a more clearly thought through world-view than I’ve ever managed, and I envy them that. Their certainty used to scare me a little when I was a teenager, but then many of my favourite records started out being placed on a high shelf because I was too nervous to take them on.

McCarthy’s other claim to fame is that Laetitia Sadier left Paris to come here and join Tim Gane, her boyfriend and the band’s guitarist. She sings on this, their second album, and also their third and last record and when McCarthy split up, the two formed Stereolab together.

This album is not as immediate as their first, and not as accessible as their last, but I think it might be the best all-rounder.

Iron and Wine – ‘Walking Far From Home’

I brought this because it’s weird. Like Sam Beam singing an old Iron and Wine melody whilst a four year-old tries out the settings on a Bontempi organ in the background. In a good way.

Spotify link: Iron & Wine – Walking Far From Home

Tom (sort of) listened: Jangle pop is really hard for me to ‘get’ on an initial listen, even without the added encumbrance of a simultaneous chin wag and, therefore, I left the meeting feeling that I wanted to hear the record again before pronouncing on it. I was reminded of some of the Flying Nun records of the 1980s, especially the Bats (who made one of my favourite LPs in The Fear of God…a record, coincidentally, that I dismissed as ‘rubbish’ -technical terminology- the first time I heard it). I certainly didn’t think Rob’s selection was rubbish, far from it, but it wasn’t immediate either and I certainly need to spend more time on it before its (initially) homogeneous template begins to reveal its undoubted subtleties. Unfortunately, Spotify failed me in my hour of need!

Nick listened: I must confess I found it very difficult to take anything away from McCarthy – I’m not the biggest jangle pop fan anyway and find the aesthetic very hard to differentiate the politics of small differences from. Add in the fact that Rob identified its lyrical themes as its USP, the fact that I tend not to notice lyrics, and the fact that we merrily talked all over it, and I have to confess to remembering very little about it. A lesson in the kinds of things that may or may not work well at Devon Record Club, perhaps? Given the fact that we’re all, and me particularly, gobby opinionated sods.

Bark Psychosis – ‘///Codename:Dustsucker’ – Round 1: Nick’s Choice

Bark Psychosis – ‘///Codename:Dustsucker’

My choice for the first Devon Record Club was an obvious one; so obvious I thought about resisting it and picking something else instead. But sometimes your first instinct is also your best instinct, so I’ve decided to stick with it.

///Codename:Dustsucker by Bark Psychosis was released in 2004; despite being only the band’s second album, it came out a full decade after their debut, Hex. In the space of that decade, the band had disintegrated from being a four-piece to a one-piece, becoming essentially the solo project of frontman and studio-mastermind Graham Sutton.

Music journalist Simon Reynolds infamously coined the term “postrock” in his review of BP’s debut for Mojo, positing it as being the next evolutionary step for rock, encompassing influences from dance, jazz, the avant-garde, and modern digital recording techniques. ///Codename:Dustsucker continues that evolution, drawing from Sutton’s time spent making drum n bass records under the Boymerang name and his burgeoning career as a producer of other people’s music.

Sutton spent five years making //Codename:Dustsucker, micro-editing it, re-recording sections, playing with the sound until he was happy with it. I interviewed him around its release and he said the making of music was far more important to him than what happens afterwards, and compared himself to Mark E Smith; except instead of always working and perpetually releasing something new every year, Sutton was just always working on the same thing.

Just over a year ago I reunited a load of the writers from Stylus Magazine, where I used to write, so we could put together our top albums of the last decade. //Codename:Dustsucker was the record I put at number one on my own ballot paper. It’s not something I listen to with great frequency; there’s an intensity and density to it that doesn’t require regular revisiting. But it’s a record I listen to in depth when I do play it, and a record that rewards that depth of attention.

So what does it sound like, what does it do? //Codename:Dustsucker is a very urban record, a very isolated record, a very dour record, but also a very beautiful and a very exciting record. It takes in the pseudo-freeform structures we recognise as postrock, but applies a far broader palette of aesthetics: you’ll hear touches of jazz, acid house, dub, and sheets of noise, plus oblique references to Chris Morris, lyrics in German, studio accidents preserved in aspic, the drummer from Talk Talk, a sample of a b-side by Bark Psychosis’ earlier incarnation, huge, squelching 303s, guitar, piano, bass, drums, “found trumpet”, and “indicators”. The usual.

Spotify link: Bark Psychosis – Codename: Dustsucker

Rob listened: I know what a touchstone this is for Nick so it was good to sit down and listen properly. It certainly sounds impressive, although when you’ve spent a year tinkering with a drum fill, I suspect it’s time you, or your records, got out more. I can hear the through-line from Talk Talk to Four Tet taking in the sounds of some of my favourite bands of the last 20 years. It’s to ///Codename: Dustsucker’s credit that it’s almost impossible to discern where it is the antecedent and where the descendant. Perhaps, as Nick might have us believe, it’s actually the motherlode. And hey! I’ve got that Boymerang record!

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