Mulatu Astatke – The Story of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975: Round 32 – Tom’s Selection

Having been an avid follower of music for all my adult (and most of my teenage) life, new discoveries of old music are rare. Old but unexplored bands crop up every now and again but I’ve almost always been aware of them before I’ve heard them and in most cases I’ve listened to a song or two beforehand. Surprises are rare, good surprises rarer. But every so often something comes along that is utterly thrilling in its unexpectedness. A couple of months ago I was on a relatively long (by UK standards) and tedious drive, with nothing but myself and my far too familiar car CD collection for company, so I reached for that African CD languishing in my glove compartment that I had been given by my record sleeve designer mate, Matt. Somehow I managed to unwrap the cellophane from the CD case without crashing the car and, lo and behold, on inserting the disc into my CD player a rather wonderful mix of vaguely Arabian sounding horns overlying a more conventional Western sounding jazz background emanated from my C1’s tinny speakers. Then, about three minutes into the track an electrifying electric guitar cuts in. From that point on I knew this was going to be no normal listen. And so it proved…since that time, Mulatu Astatke has been my constant travelling companion and, unlike a lot of music that sounds great the first time through, my enthusiasm for this music seems to grow with each new listen.

For me, jazz has always been a slippery fish, too often veering from willfully difficult to cheesily easy with seemingly little room in between. If I’m totally honest, more often than not I admire jazz rather than love it (Miles Davis’ late 60s/early 70s output being a significant exception). But Mulatu Astatke’s music occupies that middle ground – accessible yet occasionally jarring, unpredictable yet never tangential; rather like Nick’s Four Tet offering on the same evening this is music that’s hard to imagine anyone actively disliking…but at the same time it’s anything but bland.

Those listening to this lengthy compilation (76 minutes in all) expecting to be invigorated by African poly-rhythms and tribal chanting will be sorely disappointed. Unlike, say, The Bhundu Boys (our only other African record to date) this is a subtly African sound and the casual ear would probably find it hard to determine its continent of origin (in fact I tried this out on a couple of friends at the weekend and got back Cuba, Bolivia and Argentina!). The reason for this is hinted at by the compilation’s subheading – ‘New York, Addis, London’. Astatke actually learned his musical craft in the Welsh border town of Wrexham of all places but his subsequent time in the major cities of England and USA has obviously informed his music, to such an extent that many of the tracks on The Story of Ethio Jazz would not sound out of place on the Beastie Boys’ funkiest album – Check Your Head (Mark – if you’re reading this, was he an influence?). Perhaps even more remarkable is the timelessness of the recordings, only the occasionally muffled production hinting that this music is not a contemporary release.

On my initial run through the album I remember thinking that the quality of the songs had to tail off – the compilation started off so well that it must be front-loaded or surely I would have heard of Mulatu Astatke before. But no! All twenty tracks are special, offering a great variety of music, sometimes funky, sometimes dissonant, occasionally mellow but always captivating. Not all tracks are instrumentals but they work equally well with or without vocals.

If you have never heard any Ethio Jazz before (props to Nick who, somewhat inevitably, had) I urge you to give this music a try. It won’t be the same unexpected surprise for you as it was for me, but it could open up a whole world of unexplored music. For me, this has been a supremely rewarding and enjoyable musical journey into the heart of Africa via New York, London, Boston and…Wrexham!

Nick listened: Tom asked us to try and guess what this was and when and where it was from before he revealed who it was by; just asking the question set synapses firing in my brain and correctly sussed that it was late 60s / early 70s and African. I may even have said Ethiopian specifically, as I own a ‘Best of Ethiopiques’ compilation and am aware of the cache the scene / genre / movement / whatever has had in certain circles over the last decade. The compilation I have has a couple of tracks by Mulatu Astatke, and I’ve also seen Broken Flowers, the Jim Jarmusch film which features some of his music, so even though I couldn’t remember his name, I’d heard him before. The music itself is great; funky, hypnotic, with apparently traditional Ethiopian melodic patterns overlaid on much more Western rhythmic and instrumental templates. As Tom suggested, there’s almost literally nothing to dislike; it’s just beguiling and cool and enjoyable. A great choice.

Rob listened: I had no idea.

Graham listened: Nothing to dislike, very cool but doesn’t really inspire me to want to explore any further. Ideal to have on in background but not one I’m likely to say “ssshh, listen to this bit”. Purely down to my ignorance, but found some of the latin influences had a slightly comedic quality to them.

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Fugazi – ‘7 Songs’ and ‘Margin Walker’: Round 32 – Rob’s choice

We had a theme this evening, or more accurately we were granted freedom from a specific constraint, having been told that if we wished we could bring a compilation and play ‘free and easy’ with the selection of tracks to bring it down under the permitted time limit. As it transpired this was a ruse to allow Tom to play us some really great Ethiopian jazz. I decided to twist the rules in another direction by playing the constituent parts of a compilation album, ’13 Songs’, which I don’t own.

‘7 Songs’ and ‘Margin Walker’ were combined and released as the ’13 Songs’ album in 1989, just a few months after their initial release and prior to the DC band’s first album proper, ‘Repeater’. Much of what is remarkable about what Canty, Lally, MacKaye and Picciotto achieved as Fugazi happened after these first two EPs. Their 6 studio albums are consistently inventive, thrilling, artful and passionate, proving that you didn’t have to hang out in free jazz NYC basements with John Zorn to turn your punk into art.

But, and it’s one of the best buts of the last 25 years of underground rock music, if they had disbanded after recording just these two EPs we’d still be talking about them today. They form a succinctly brilliant collection of songs. After Minor Threat and Embrace, Ian MacKaye’s stated intention was for his new band to sound “like the Stooges playing reggae”. It’s a nice quote and, whilst there’s no direct correlation with Fugazi’s sound, they certainly managed to capture the burning intensity of Iggy and the Stooges and also to put a big, beefy if not exactly dubby bass guitar front and centre.

‘Waiting Room’, which kicks ‘7 Songs’ off, is about as good as it gets for me. Unimpeachably brilliant, driven and driving it’s also, for the floppy-haired student of the late 80s, a dance floor slayer. Guy Picciotto joined the band late and, as second vocalist, his role was conceived as the equivalent of the foil to a lead rapper and you can hear how carefully his vocals slot around Ian MacKaye’s artful lunkhead hollering, chalk and cheese but perfectly complementary.  That the rest of the EP can sustain itself after this most iconic opener is testament to its strength. Post hardcore, or whatever we want to call it, never sounded as tight and economical and Fugazi were never as locked in to their intense groove.

The 6 songs of ‘Margin Walker’ are, if anything, even better. The palette opens up, with Picciotto now playing second guitar, lashing expressive noise on top of the rhythm section’s deadly efficiency. It’s here that the variety and exploratory space begins to breathe through Fugazi’s sound. They never looked back.

Having said previously that I would try to stop talking and writing incoherently about the disparity between the reality and some spuriously imagined public perception of a band, I can’t let that angle go without comment as we’re dealing with Fugazi. The gap is as wide as they come in this case.

They carried a reputation as the foremost political punk act of the nineties, but this was gained not by shooting their mouths off to the press, nor by filling their songs with slogans and agitprop. With a number of notable exceptions (‘Burning Too’, ‘Smallpox Champion’, ‘Cashout’ etc) their songs were rarely directly political. Instead they sang passionately about personal commitment and it was this, rather than some simple revolution, that they were seeking to achieve. In striving to be true to what they believed they took control of the production of their own records, ran their own label, insisted on $5 all-ages shows and $10 albums. Good on them. Why the hell wouldn’t you, unless to make more money for yourselves.

They became, unintentionally I imagine, a beacon band for army-jacketed straight-edgers, a movement MacKaye had unwittingly become a figurehead for thanks to a single Minor Threat song, and to this day they carry a sometimes toxic reputation for over-earnestness, hostility, sanctimony and exceptionalism which is almost entirely a judgement on their more zealous fans rather than the members of the band. I interviewed Ian MacKaye in 1995, as it happens. He was generous, non-judgemental and funny and one of the warmest musicians I ever spent a couple of hours with. And his band were one of the best I ever heard.

Nick listened: I’ve been binging on Fugazi since Rob played them at DRC, ploughing again and again through 13 Songs, Repeater, Red Medicine and The Argument, my favourite records by them – the only ones I don’t own are Steady Diet of Nothing and Instrument (Soundtrack) – and not really listening to much else. They’re a fabulous band, an all-time great guitar quartet, arguably the platonic essence of the band-as-gang, out to change the world together spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. I only got into them with The Argument, working backwards from there, but managed to catch them live before their current, decade-long hiatus. They were, thankfully, scintillating.

It’s a crying shame that Fugazi’s attitude and ethos gets talked about far more, as a rule, than their exceptional, exciting, tight, taut, telepathic music. A lot of this talk is po-faced to the point of appearing misanthropic, and it can feel incredibly gate-keeperish; for years, to me, they were a weird, cultish, vaguely scary name that I didn’t understand or feel that I had mandate to investigate. It also, albeit unwittingly, seems to breed a particularly devoted, sour-faced type of music fan, anti-corporate, anti-capitalism, anti-fun, and imbued with a fervent belief in the piety of their fandom and accompanying lifestyle. I like playing devil’s advocate with Fugazi fans, pitching Ian MacKaye as an entrepreneur par excellence, who nailed devotional brand loyalty from a target-market which actively sought not to be a target market at all. Thatcher would have approved of his innate small-business acumen…

But much, much more than that, I like listening to Fugazi’s music; the anthemic choruses, the breakneck tempos, the excitational riffs, the powerful emphasis on rhythmic subtlety and flexibility, the endless sense of discovery that they managed to achieve despite, ostensibly, mining a relatively narrow sound template and aesthetic (guitars, drums, shouting); they’re incredibly fun and thrilling to listen to.

Waiting Room is an amazing song, an astonishingly fully-formed start to a career, and though the rest of 13 Songs (as I know it) isn’t quite as fabulous as that opening salvo, it holds up pretty damn well, as does the rest of their career. Ignore the pugnacious politics and pontificating; it’s all garnish, and allows people who’ve never really listened to Fugazi’s music to have some kind of pseudo-authoritative take on them as an entity. The most important thing about any band, any musician, any artist, is the music / art that they create. I couldn’t really give a damn about their ethos. Their records are brilliant.

Tom Listened: I always meant to catch up with Fugazi. Now that I have I realise what I fool I have been all these years, missing out on what seems (on a first listen to 13 songs) to be some of the best guitar driven music of the last two, three, four…..hell, maybe all the decades since Mr Hailey suggested we first rocked around the clock. Tight, dynamic, inspirational with just enough colour to entice you back, I can see just why Fugazi are so lauded and only last night I was trawling through Amazon’s current vinyl stock, considering which album to get. This might be expensive….

As an afterthought, I played some youtube footage to Kit, my 7 year old son. His words were, ‘it’s rubbish and the singer’s rubbish…literally’. The youth of today!

Graham listened: A real treat for the uninitiated (i.e. me). Tight, tense, driven songs which inspire and demand attention.

Spin Doctors – Pocket Full Of Kryptonite – Round 32 – Graham’s Choice

There is so much more to enjoy at DRC than just the music. The regular wrist-slap I receive for tardy blog posting, counting the minutes until Danny Baker gets name checked and how many times ‘Spirit of Eden’ can be mentioned in one meeting. My favourite feature recently has been the increasingly haunted looking expression on my more cultured colleague’s faces, as I prepare to reveal my selection.

Such foreboding can only really be generated by a combination of confidence and ignorance on my part and I would like to think I didn’t disappoint this week!

I have always really liked this album for the energy, enthusiasm and live ‘vibe’ that comes through on it. Yes, the band get carried away when they could have kept things a little more open and not so busy. Yes, there are moments when they decide to show off a bit too much, but I’ve always found a little bit of irresistible charm and exuberance here.

Like the millions who bought this, I heard “Two Princes” first, before buying the album. Strangely the album had been out for over a year before anything happened for the band. While genning up on this week’s selection, I am reliably informed that there was a  pseudo-hippie, jam-oriented blues rock scene in New York in the early 90’s. Can’t say I was aware, and certainly hadn’t noticed  this scene crossing the Atlantic over to Exeter. This album certainly doesn’t have any urban sophistication I might expect from a New York sound, though there are some jazzy touches here and there. As I said on the night, maybe I like this so much as it fills so many gaps in my collection.

Leaving  the better known singles, “Two Princes” and “Little Miss….” aside, the rest of the album is a mash-up of blues/funk/boogie/jam etc., etc…., with bits of hillbilly/redneck thrown in for luck. Too much for some I’ll agree, but with energy of a band who had honed their live show before commercial success, I think they get away with it (with the notable exception of the last track on the original release, ‘Shin Bone Alley..”, which verges on Tappish “freefall jazz odyssey” territory).

My personal favourite is ‘Refrigerator Car’, which sounds like it could have been a demo from ‘Second Coming’, or a lift straight off “Physical Graffiti’.

If the single, ‘Cleopatra’s Cat’, didn’t put anyone off their follow up album, the reviews would have done. In the space of 3 albums the band went from selling millions to 75,000 and being dropped by Epic. Their last album in 2005 has had some good things said about it and I may give it a try one day. After a few break-ups and line up changes, the original line up were still touring last year.

Still sounds great to me and I’m sure my colleagues have a view (retires safe in the knowledge he has 2 rounds of comments to catch up on….)

Nick listened: I never know whether Graham’s going to play something I know and love (Dust by Screaming Trees, Scott 4, The The, Hendrix), or something I’ve subconsciously avoided (Roger Waters!). To be fair, his hit-rate is considerably better than he suggests above!

Spin Doctors, I’m afraid, probably fall into the latter camp, though. Whilst Two Princess is an all-time great pop single, a whole album of ostentatious funky guitar upstrokes, super-sharp 1991-vintage snare sounds, borderline slap-bass-playing, and wannabe-soulful vocals was a bit much to take. Especially when they went 12-minute funk odyssey at the end. There’s something over-eager, and thus “not quite tasteful”, about the whole thing. The strange thing is that, superficially at least, what Spin Doctors were doing wasn’t a billion miles from Jane’s Addiction, who are equally over-eager and “not quite tasteful” (not tasteful at lal, in fact), but somehow there’s an edge to JA which makes it acceptable to the music snob. I imagine Spin Doctors would have been a thoroughly rollicking live party band, but I’m not loving the record.

Interestingly, after The Modern Lovers last time out, Spin Doctors felt like the least “New York” band to come from New York ever. I have no idea why, but something about them screamed California at me.

Tom Listened: Sometimes music appreciation (or lack of appreciation) defies logical consideration. As I listened to Pocket Full of Kryptonite, I couldn’t really work out what it was about it that I found so unappealing. The guy’s voice is fine, the bass lines are funky and fun, the playing in general is accomplished, certainly in terms of what the band is setting out to do, but mashed together I found the whole to be much less than the sum of its parts (kind of the opposite of Spirit of Eden, which happens to be one of Graham’s favourite albums in case you didn’t know). Maybe the context didn’t do The Spin Doctors any favours – if it came on at a party I would probably have an enjoyable (and acutely embarrassing) boogie to it, but then I rarely get invited to those sorts of parties (or any parties come to think of it).

Rob listened: First things first. If any of the comments above, and obviously I can’t be bothered to read them, imply that the group found ‘Pocket Full of Kryptonite’ anything less than toe-tapping, then those what wrote them are damned liars. I was there and toes were tapped. Other than that, I agree with everything Tom and Nick said. I guess The Spin Doctors were, ultimately, victims of their own constraints, or limitations if you prefer. Nowhere to go from here except tighter or weirder and neither of those sound like interesting moves. Still, it sure sounds like they had a heap of fun making this record, and that’s something.

Four Tet – There Is Love In You: Round 32, Nick’s choice

I love Four Tet pretty unconditionally and have done for over a decade; in 2001, when I returned from university and discovered Audiogalaxy, Everything Is Alright, from his second album, Pause, was the first song I ever downloaded via the internet; I wish I could remember what prompted me to do so, as I’d never heard anything by him before. Not long afterwards, I bought a CD copy of Pause, and I’ve bought every album since, gone back and acquired Dialogue, his debut, and seen him live a couple of times too. He seems to have released records in parallel with Caribou, and they seem to have trodden similar paths (they remix each other regularly).

In 2003 his live show consisted of him sitting at a laptop and destroying his music. Given that I love his music, I didn’t enjoy myself; it seemed bloody-minded, wilful, and solipsistic. Eight years later we saw him at the Caribou-curated ATP festival, where he played a rapturously received set. It was a remarkable transformation, helped no doubt by his long-term residence as DJ at the Plastic People club, where, it seems, he must’ve learnt how to communicate with and move an audience.

There Is Love In You, which was my nominal album of the year in 2010 moves from Four Tet’s “folktronica” (I use the term reservedly) past, where electronic methods and acoustic instrumentation combined joyously, into much more pure electronic textures. The Ringer EP from 2008 had signposted this move fabulously, but still had a hint of experimental insularity about it, whereas There Is Love In You is fully warm, open, communicative, and, most importantly of all, beautiful. When I first heard it, I described it on a forum as “blissful end-of-the-night house, or end-of-the-breakwater ambient, or middle-of-the-city techno”. I stand by that.

Kieran Hebden (as his mum knows him) essentially builds up layer upon layer of intricate melodic loops and sequences, generally underpinning them with late-night four-on-the-floor rhythms, and very occasionally elaborating them with vocal snippets. It works both as music for dancing to and music for listening to; I can attest to it making a beautiful soundtrack to summer walks or bike rides (only ever on dedicated cyclepaths, kids – never use headphones on the roads!), but it also makes for wonderful gazing-out-of-the-window music on misty autumn days. Tracks like This Unfolds and Circling are just intensely pretty, and strangely emotive too; he finds that space between joy and melancholy with what seems like great ease.

Tom Listened: As far as I am concerned, Kieran Hebden shot himself in the foot when I went to see him play at the Exeter Pheonix a few years ago. I have never felt angry at a gig before – disappointed… yes, bored…plenty of times…never angry though. But Four Tet were trying it on. At the time I owned two Four Tet albums – Rounds and Pause – and I liked both, not unequivocably but enough to be looking forward to the gig. Just before the gig Hebden had teamed up with veteran jazz drummer Steve Reid and in concert the two of them produced seemingly random noise for the best part (or worst part) of an hour and a half. It felt like the audience were the butt of their own in joke and I lost a lot of respect for the man that night.

I honestly don’t think I had listened to Four Tet since then…so imagine my disappointment when Nick played There Is Love In You and it turned out to be so fantastic – better to my mind than either Pause or Rounds, loads to explore, lengthy songs to get lost in, a (gentle) funkiness that runs throughout the album, even some vocals every now and again. I’d love to see Four Tet performing proper songs like these in concert, but whether I would be prepared to risk another hour and a half of cacophony is debatable…at least if you buy the album, you know what you’re getting!

Rob listened: I’m shocked to learn than Nick illegally downloaded Four Tet’s music and I hope the police track him down and give him his just desserts.

I love ‘There Is Love In You’, from the beautiful, glowing opening vocal loop to, erm, the end, by which point I’m usually too far gone to worry about what the songs are called or what’s going on at all. It’s a weird record in that respect. I’ve listened to it much more than ‘Pause’, the other Four Tet record I own but in some ways I feel I know it less. Without listening back I can’t recall many of the musical moments, other than that opening vocal, name any of the songs or really bring much of it to mind at all. I confess I use it as a warm and thoroughly pleasant background soundtrack whenever I need to reach for one and it works perfectly. I love the fact that it still evades me. It makes me feel like I won’t wear it out any time soon.

Graham listened: It must be an age thing. I can get the “groove thang” with records like this and it will draw me in when I’m listening, but just don’t feel the need to listen again. I’ve even experimented with some purchases myself with the same results. The hooks and melodies that are devoured by others are wasted on me. I can understand the complexity and ingenuity that go into composition, but maybe I still perceive such music as a threat to establishment rock?

Janis Joplin – Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits – Round 31 – Graham’s Choice

A late change of mind on selections led me to this choice. To be fair to Ms Joplin I didn’t give her the best of introductions as I set fellow members the task of identifying the other 3 members of the 27 Club (artists who have died at that age) who I had so far brought to DRC. That guessing game then continued over the opening track (her version of ‘Piece of my heart’) which on hearing it for the first time, inspired me to buy this album.

Playing this again, really reminded me that I need to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy this album. Zooming down the motorway with this a full tilt can be an exhilarating listen, but to be frank, sometimes in a more intimate listening environment, what she does with some of these songs can be a very acquired taste.

When I first heard her version of ‘Piece of my heart’, the rawness of it just blew me away. Until I bought this I was aware of her iconic status but couldn’t really name a tune to identify her with. She clearly broke boundaries in her day as a female solo singer that led to her being revered in the period following her death, but I’m not all that sure if her recorded output does her justice. In her short life she managed to bridge psychedelia/soul/blues and inspire female singers to take centre stage. Her reported heavy use of drugs and alcohol, even before any sort of fame and recognition, meant she was unlikely to survive the late 60’s unscathed. Her death at 27 in 1970 brought to an end only a four year period since the release of the Big Brother and the Holding Company debut album.

Still, Columbia Records did quite nicely out of it as the “interweb” tells me that this album has sold 7 million copies since release in 1973.

This was the first ever CD I ever bought, minutes after purchasing my first CD player in 1990. The purchase may have been driven by the fact that not only did I want to hear more of what Janice had to offer, but also that it was part of Sony’s “Nice Price” range and I was probably short of cash!

Spending an hour or so on YouTube is probably a better introduction to her, as her waifishness and vulnerability, combined with raw emotive power give her an level of impact that easy not easy to get across on CD. In my opinion, my other icon selection, Mr Hendrix, leaves a recorded legacy that more than matches his legend.

There are only  2 of her own tracks,  ‘Down on Me’ and ‘Move Over’ which along with ‘Piece of my heart’, ‘Try’ and ‘Me and Bobby Mcgee’, are the highlights of the album for me. The tracks chart her progress through being lead singer of  Big Brother and the Holding Company, moving on to her  solo career, backed by  The Kozmic Blues Band and The Full Tilt Boogie Band.

As a result of the power of advertising, if you buy the 1999 reissue of this album you’ll also receive  ‘Mercedes-Benz’ and you can delight in the irony of how a song about the shallowness of materialism finished up selling its namesake http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjTuRDW2NHY

Tom Listened: Although I can barely remember listening to Janice Joplin’s Greatest Hits album, I’m going to have a go at writing up my thoughts on it anyway.

Once again, Graham has taken me way outside of my musical comfort zone and whilst this is music that I wouldn’t gravitate towards of my own volition, I like the fact that my judgement as far as Janice Joplin is concenred is now a little more informed than it was before (seeing as it was previously based (almost) exclusively on ignorance). Like some of Graham’s other recent choices, this struck me as being a very musically crowded offering…it seemed as though the volume knobs were turned to 10 on every instrument and Joplin’s voice carries enough power to run a small town…and she doesn’t hold back! It’s kind of the opposite of Spirit of Eden (one of Graham’s faves I believe) which I listened to the other day and was mesmorized by, especially the way it consistently shifts from quiet to loud/intimate to threatening in such a subtle and effective way. It says a lot about Graham’s ecleticicsm (and my lack of it) that both these records reside happily in his collection…me I’m glad I’ve heard it but once was probably enough!

Nick listened: Janis’ is a name I’ve known… forever, or so it seems. But, as Tom and Graham both suggest, it’s not for the most positive reasons. Her notoriety as a poster-child for the hippie excesses of the 60s and the voice of Woodstock, and, sadly, as a member of the horrific non-club that is the “27 Club”, has almost completely overshadowed her music. I’d never heard of Big Brother and the Holding Company, or The Full Tilt Boogie Band, and I couldn’t have named you a song by her or told you what she was like as a musician. I think I’m faintly guilty of conflating her with Joni Mitchell in my mind… So I was actually pleased to hear her music at last, and I enjoyed it, but I agree strongly with Graham’s reservation regarding whether she was actually doing something great with every song she interpreted, or just plain murdering some of them. Her sound is amazingly prototypically-late-60s, acid-fried rock, groovy and soulful, and her voice very much fits with that, but I wonder if this of-its-timeness has perhaps been part of why her legend, rather than her songs, are what I knew before the other evening?

Lambchop – ‘Mr. M’: Round 31 – Rob’s choice

Lambchop - Mr. MIt’s been an unusual year so far, for reasons I don’t need to bore you with, and one of the upshots is that I’ve more or less stopped buying records. Whilst I’ve listened to lots and lots of new and new-old music via Spotify I’ve only actually bought two new albums released this year. The more the year progresses the more I’m starting to think that perhaps I only actually needed one. I’ve been listening to ‘Mr M’ almost compulsively since it came out. It’s at the forefront of my mins whenever I reach for music and, more times than not, I can’t come up with good reasons to skip past it.

I could have chosen any of Lambchop’s 11 albums to play for DRC. I like some more than others, but none are less than great. Allmusic.com describes them as “arguably the most consistently brilliant and unique American group to emerge during the 1990s” and that’s pretty tough to gainsay.

I’ve noticed that when explaining my DRC choices I have a tendency to tie myself in knots attempting to dispel what I imagine to be some fallacious public perception of a band or record I love. After two or three attempts on a given evening my fellow players get a glazed look, start ignoring me and begin talking about CAN instead. I suppose that this reflects a lack of self-confidence: I imagine that everyone else must be down on the music I choose to elevate and end up constructing tortuous ripostes to non-existent dismissals. I need to get over this pernicious mental hurdle.

This is important only in that this evening I found myself defending Lambchop against non-apparent charges of repetition and sameyness. These are easy to dismiss. Since ‘I Hope You’re Sitting Down’ in 1994 Kurt Wagner’s band may have retained the same essential method, but their music has stretched and flowed right across the landscape of modern American music.

It’s hard to be objective when I’ve been listening to this album at least half a dozen times a week for the last four months, but I think ‘Mr M’ may be their best record yet. This is intimate music, music with enough space and room for the listener to step inside it and have it feel like home and with such warmth that it’s almost impossible to resist doing so. The group play with such restraint, such gentle mastery that just being ion the same space as them is an enormous pleasure.

Still, despite line-ups which have chopped and changed and expanded to incorporate more than a dozen players at once at time, at the centre of Lambchop is always Kurt Wagner, his cracked and glowing voice and his words, the poetry of everyday scenes and scenery. He’s wonderful on ‘Mr M’. His singing balanced perfectly between hesitancy and insistence, his words tiptoeing a line from funny to bleak, from everyday to profound. “And the sky opens up like candy / and we do the best we can…” catches all the beauty and sadness of life in just two lines.

Apparently these songs were written partly to try to deal with Kurt’s grief at the suicide of his close friend Vic Chesnutt. They ache with loss but are so beautiful as to almost transcend it. “Took the Christmas lights off the front porch / What felt like February 31st”.

I can’t define beauty for you, and despite having heard Nick tack the word ‘phenomenological’ to it on more occasions than I care to remember, I’m none the wiser as to what it comprises. Still, if you pressed me for an answer right now, in mid 2012, I’d politely direct you to this record by this wonderful band. And then I’d be off, dreaming through these songs again, of that beautiful sound, wanting to live forever where that voice emerges, from that slight smile, from that face, beneath that cap, ideally sat on a chair on a stoop somewhere in Tennessee.

I didn’t have time for a track this evening, but we did talk about how great Lambchop’s performance of ‘Give It’ was at the Merge XX event a couple of years ago. This isn’t the best take around perhaps, Kurt’s voice is almost shot, but it’s a fantastic moment and it makes the feet skip and the hairs on the back of the neck twitch.

[youtube:http://youtu.be/zW3CRdTPEOY%5D

Nick listened: Nixon and Is A Woman were my introduction to Lambchop a decade ago, and I’ve subsequently investigated much of their previous work and kept pace with everything they’ve released since. Those two records still stand proud above the others in my esteem – Nixon with its drama, its soul, its occasional touches of dischord, and Is A Woman with its unique, laconic quietude. I’ve enjoyed everything else I’ve heard by them, and loved parts of it, but nothing else has really grabbed me. Oh C’Mon / No You C’Mon seemed like a strange concept (not a double album, despite apparent cohesion; too much to consume at once), Damaged was an uncomfortable listen given the context of illness, and OH (Ohio) just came out at the wrong time for me to give it time, and so has gatehred dust on the shelf. Mr M is the only subsequent release I’ve not bought yet, with emphasis on the yet; it sounded absolutely lovely, and I’ll keep an eye out for it over the coming months.

Tom Listened: A long time ago now I had an Uncut magazine sampler CD called Sounds of the New West and one of my favourite tracks on it was Saturday Option by Lambchop. After I became hooked on this song, I eagerly purchased its album, What Another Man Spills and there my relationship with Lambchop ended…..until, that is, Rob played Mr M to us.

On an initial listen I much preferred Mr M. WAMS never really grabbed me and I found it a bit of a mess of disparate styles and mumbled lyrics. Whilst I agree with Rob that Kurt Wagner has a unique singing voice, it’s not one I necessarily find easy to listen to. However, it sounded much better to my ears on Mr M, the context of the songs fitting his voice perfectly and there was a stately confidence throughout that perhaps reflects the self-belief that doing one thing well for a long time brings. So, just to put Rob’s mind at ease, I liked this record (as I do most of his offerings)!

Graham listened: Dangerous territory here. I’ve been aware of the band for many years and really liked what I had heard to date. Listening to a complete album for the first time has cemented my belief that this is a band I could really get in to. Could be expensive, 11 albums, where to start?

The Modern Lovers – The Modern Lovers: Round 31 – Tom’s Selection

Although I had been intending to treat the record club to the delights of the debut album by The Modern Lovers for some time now, a recent posting at the seminal sickymouthy blog site (if you don’t already follow this, you really should…it’s awesome stuff!) got me thinking that the club should be introduced to Jonathan Richman sooner rather than later.

As it happened, it complemented Nick’s album of choice (David Bowie’s Low) very well – on both albums it is possible to detect faint echoes of a Germanic sound within the songs (presumably, what with the chronology of The Modern Lovers – it was recorded some years before it was released –  this would be because the key Krautrock players were similarly influenced by the Velvet Underground), both albums were released at the point when punk rock was gathering its head of steam and both albums made us question whether punk was really as necessary, or as groundbreaking, as the ‘I was there’ crew make out. Low and The Modern Lovers both sound as (if not more) revolutionary today than the majority of punk rock records I know but they are revolutionary for very different reasons and whilst the two albums share some common ground they are VERY different beasts.

Whereas Low is beautifully constructed, wonderfully played and impassively glacial, The Modern Lovers is a scuzzy mess of irreverence, bad singing, corny wordplay and fuzzy production. And yet it works brilliantly- if Nick can listen to it in its entirety and not be moved to comment (or talk at length) on the production values, it must be doing something right! Jonathan Richman’s biggest trick is to take the sound of the Velvets and remove it from its pretentious arthouse origins to…somewhere much less self-reverential and MUCH more fun. This is not an album for chin-strokers and pipe smokers; this is an album that will get you tapping your feet, nodding your head…hell, you could even dance to it if you felt so inclined! And by popping the pomposity of the Velvets, he creates a new environment for a familiar sound which alters the way you listen to and hear his music. To me the Velvets always sound claustrophic, urban, paranoid…and often threatening. In contrast, The Modern Lovers is inclusive, expansive and vaguely pastoral heralding America’s wide open spaces as traversed by Roadrunner’s main character.

Although the album kicks off with The Modern Lovers most well known (and most loved?) song, there is no drop in quality over the course of the record’s nine tracks. Despite the inclusion of a couple of slower songs, the overriding musical theme is the pulsating chug of the rhythm section that provides the backdrop to Richman’s songs. It’s a great sound on which to hang some idiosyncratic lyrics, some simplistic but deft melodies and some wonderfully messy guitar lines. And as the head bobbingly magnificent Modern World draws to a close (in which you’re asked to ‘share the Modern World’ with Jonathan – inclusive or what!) you can reflect that sometimes the simple pleasures in life really are the best.

Nick listened: This was great, just what I was hoping for after listening to Roadrunner a few times in my quest for songs featuring the motorik beat. I’ve bought a copy. Not much more to say.

Rob listened: Great record. I only really knew ‘Roadrunner’ ahead of time and subconsciously had Richman filed under literate troubadour, somewhere West of Robyn Hitchcock. This was great, driving rock and roll with a sense of economy which concentrated the groove and an attractive East coast who-gives-a-fuck drawl. I’ve listened to it a couple of times since and it’s irresistible, bridging 20 years of music and reducing them down to a powerful essence. I don’t, however, think it says anything one way or another about punk. The music of 76-78 was always part of a continuum that included this, the Velvets, Nuggets, Stooges, Bowie, MC5, New York Dolls, Pub Rock, Black Sabbath, Beefheart and on and on and on.

Tom Responded: With regard to your final sentence Rob: I know this, you know this but there are plenty of people who would have you believe that music was rotten in the mid 70s and that punk represented some sort of year zero. To my mind, records like Low and The Modern Lovers blow this theory out of the water and suggest that punk was far less essential than is often made out.

Rob responded, even though he shouldn’t and we’re all seeing each other again on Wednesday anyway: Tom, I know you know, and I know you know I know. Anyone who thinks 76 was a total year zero is a total zero, but it did change some things. We talked a little about how the Velvet Underground seem to be afforded less influence these days, and that’s perhaps so. Influences change, and the Jesus and Mary Chain went off the boil in 1988. Perhaps the same is happening with punk. We have another 30 years’ worth of music history to pile on top of it now, so of course its overall influence has diminished, washed out by hip-hop, techno, rave, whatever. But at the time it changed some things and it was, in its own way, important. Things just happened the way they did. Clearly this is a fascinating debate which we can continue next week when I bring along my ‘Best of Sham 69’.

Graham listened: Now Rob and Tom seem to have finished I suppose I should commit my thoughts. There were a few moments on this record where I wondered if the looseness/messiness/corniness were steering it near to rubbishness. It just about gets away with it, but I sensed some laziness.