Owen Pallett – Heartland: Round 36, Nick’s choice

Heartland is another record I’ve been hankering after playing at DRC since we started, and my determination to play it is what inspired me, mischievously, to set us a theme of ‘Concept Albums’, aware of the horror which that phrase inspires in Tom and Rob.

Because that’s what Heartland is: set in a fictional land called Spectrum, it concerns a young, violent farmer called Lewis, who is plucked from the fields and anointed for some higher purpose, embarks on an adventure, realises his status as a character within a song, rebels against his god / author (who is, of course, called Owen), who he then kills, and, possibly, assumes control of his own destiny. Or something. Sonically, Heartland is like a techno-classical soundtrack to the most amazing all-night role-playing session ever, and it’s also amazingly, beautifully listenable. It’s one of my very favourite records of the last few years, and I played it for months and months almost as instrumental music, before I even started taking in the narrative conveyed in the lyrics.

I’m lucky enough to know Owen Pallett (in an online sense) from his posts on ILM and his Twitter. We talk online reasonably frequently and occasionally exchange emails too, so I thought I’d ask if he’d like to say a bit more about Heartland for the benefit of our little club. Being a gracious and amenable individual, he did just that. This is what he said.

Owen writes: When Heartland came out I tried to have my cake and eat it too. I made a concept record but then asked that people ignore that fact; all I said was “Lewis is a farmer living in the fictional world of Spectrum.” So I spent most of 2010 being asked to explain the plot…

There have been some very detailed explanations online that people have written, parsing out all the references and annotating everything. At first, I thought I might do it myself, a la Barthes’ “A Lover’s Discourse”, but then I thought that’d deny listeners the pleasure of figuring it out for themselves. And they did; check out the Alpentine website for some pretty concise breakdowns, and Nick Thornborrow, who wrote an amazingly insightful and beautifully illustrated comic that offered up his own wordless interpretation of the events.

Lewis and myself, just like Barthes and his beloved in “A Lover’s Discourse”, are the same thing. Written by the same person, so it’s a false dialogue. The final track, “What Do You Think Will Happen Now”, is meant to allude to this falseness of the narrative: Lewis is doing this Puck-style “give me your hands” monologue which is actually a critique of quantitative listening, of aggregation, the fact that numerical critique leaves no room for human shit, human dirt. It’s not a very Lewis-y monologue, but what has been? Our voices are entwined and inextricable. Then, my own voice, entering halfway through and saying “oh my god get me out of the house I’ve been working too long on this record”, becomes the more concrete statement, and the theatre disintegrates.

There’s meant to be a liminal quality to me and Lewis; the whole record could be entirely set in a fictional world, or it could be me singing about my own issues. The most liminal moments are where voices are overlaid: “What Do You Think Will Happen Now”, and also “Oh Heartland, Up Yours”; I hoped that the sentiment “My homeland / I will not sing your praises here” would echo as being about both Spectrum and Canada, which has its own issues.

Lewis’ execution of Owen can be taken in many different ways. Is it a rehearsal of an in-real-life suicide/murder, like Mishima’s “Patriotism”? Is it symbolic of a cutting off of one’s dishonest narrative voice, the voice that lets a rhyming dictionary shape his meaning? Is it meant to be a commentary on in-real-life atheism, the physical execution of that which is said to govern you? Or a Boulez-style patricidal version of modernism? I thought about it from all these viewpoints and in the end, I just went with what sounded coolest, onomatopoeically. That’s kind of the burden of lyric-writing, you’ve got to make it sound good!

Musically, I wanted to try and create an arrangement language for this album that didn’t sound like Glass or Bach or Shostakovich or any other typically “Classical” composer. I didn’t fully end up succeeding; The Drift attempts the same thing and gets further than I did. But I tried it out.

So I basically tried to interpret various synthesis ideas and re-imagine them as orchestral music. “Midnight Directives” and “The Great Elsewhere” feature arrangements that are transcriptions of generative music patches I’d built in Max/MSP. “Flare Gun” and “Keep The Dog Quiet” both feature heavy noise gating and unnatural panning, which I wanted to sound more like Planningtorock’s “Have It All” than Prokofiev.

When I play “Lewis Takes Action” live I run my violin through a ring modulator at the end: for the recording, I transcribed that solo with all the resultant overtones reflected in the winds and strings. “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” has the orchestra behaving like it’s controlled by an eight-step sequencer. “E Is For Estranged” begins with an approximation of ‘white noise’ with a comb filter running through it. I hoped that listeners would be like “oh, OMD, Cluster, I get it”, instead of “sounds like Gershwin!!”

I listen to albums with the lyric sheet in my hand. I work hard on my lyrics and I don’t like listening to records where the voice is mixed louder than everything else. If it seems like arrogance to think that listeners would sit down and decode this album like a puzzle, I’d just say that this is just the way I listen to albums, repeatedly, trying to figure them out. Conversely, I hope too that people could just put it on and enjoy it!

Tom Listened: I have owned Heartland for a few years now but, as I have it on CD, I have only ‘listened’ to it whilst driving (I don’t tend to listen to CDs in the house – why settle for second best when you can indulge in some prime vinyl?). It’s not really driving music! Whilst there are some great songs on Heartland that are enjoyable enough to let wash over you whilst your mind struggles to cope with the stresses of negotiating British roads, I now know that it requires proper, close attention to get the most out of it and that is something I haven’t really given it as yet. Listening at Record Club, it made a lot more sense but I still feel some way off a proper understanding of how the songs work, in both lyrical and musical capacities, and it’s the sort of record where my lack of comprehension bothers me. I sense it just needs more time and intend to give it that if I ever remember to bring the CD in from the car!

Graham Listened: Given my selection for this round, I probably have no right in commenting on the artistic merits of any of the other selections. With Heartland I don’t feel at all qualified to comment as I haven’t begun to scratch at the surface of it all. Reading the lyrics alongside the first listen of an album was a throwback to my teens and something I haven’t done since. Like Tom said, this needs very close attention and should have just let it wash over me and then picked up the lyric sheet later, trying to immediately tie the story to the music was too much. When I put down the lyric sheets I began to enjoy the music far more and will need to approach a future listen far more carefully.

Rob listened: Nick’s not good at keeping secrets and I figured out fairly early what his choice was going to be. I listened to ‘Heartland’ a couple of times in the run-up to the DRC get-together, enough for it to start to become penetrable, for detail and texture to begin to emerge from the gently babbling brook. I enjoyed it yet more when we listened to it this evening.

It’s fascinating to read Owen’s thoughts – huge thanks to him for taking the time and to Nick for soliciting them. One of our recurrent discussion points is whether artists intend the depths and complexities that we as listeners subsequently find in their recordings. I guess the answer has to be ‘it depends’ but it’s pleasing to know that in some cases, and in this case in particular, incredible care and detailed preparation and planning has gone into the conceptual construction and lyrical execution of the finished work.


The Decemberists – ‘The Hazards of Love’: Round 36 – Rob’s choice

The Decemberists - The Hazards of LoveIn 2008 Colin Meloy and his troupe of troubadours attempted to lay to rest a question which had been troubling indie rock fans for some years: ‘What exactly would the Decemberists have to do to score less than 8.0 on Pitchfork?’ The answer, released in 2009, was ‘The Hazards of Love’.

It’s a proper concept album, a rock opera if you will, telling the tale of Margaret, who loses her heart to a shape-shifting forest spirit, the pair of them subsequently falling foul of his Mother, the abominable Queen. As you do.

It’s executed with verve and glee and, crucially, without any sense of irony. Meloy and co. had long acknowledged a debt to Pentangle, Fairport Convention and the artists of the British folk revival of the late 60s and early 70s. On their earlier records ‘The Tain’ and ‘The Crane Wife’ they dabbled with both song cycles and ornate folk-rock compositions and ‘The Hazards of Love’ sees them work this through to its logical conclusion.

I think it’s fair to say that the reception for the album was mixed. No-one really seemed to know what to make of it. The band had broken through with ‘The Crane Wife’ and i’m sure were expected to turn out a collection of stadium-sized tunes to cement their success and buy some bigger touring buses. Instead, this, an elaborate and full-blooded take on an outmoded form drawing in several singers to play a cast of ripe characters tottering their way through a pseudo-mediaeval narrative.

The first time I listened to THOL I cleared the evening, opened the gatefold sleeve for the lyrics,  and carefully followed along the themes and characters through the plot development. Turns out that’s the very worst way to go about it. The joy and the beauty of the record is not in the concept itself, rather in its execution. As soon as I gave up on it and began to treat it as a collection of songs, it opened itself up as  a delightful puzzle and a whole lot of fun to get involved with. The recurrent riffs and motifs that run throughout the piece form seams which occasionally erupt to the surface, coming to sound like old friends when they return. The cast of vocalists work well together but none can hold a torch to Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, who gives a full-throated turn as The Queen. If this opera had scenery, she’d be chewing it Pacino style.

My impression at the time was that most critics thought ‘The Hazards of Love’ was a mildly embarrassing mis-step, an indulgence from a band who had delved too deeply into their own affection for the music, the styles and the stories of the Olden Dayes. These days it just sounds like one of the Decemberists best albums, with memorable songs, great performances and a sense of a band coming together to create something in unison.

Nick listened: When I mentioned in my office that we were having a “concept album” evening a DRC, Ian (a potential future member) immediately said “The Hazards of Love!” I bought a Decemberists album once (The Crane Wife, I think – they’re still packed away for moving still so I can’t check) but wasn’t entirely taken with it for whatever reason – sometimes it’s just not the right time to get into a record or a band, is it?

So I was intrigued to hear THOL when Rob said he’d thought of it immediately too. I wasn’t disappointed; in fact I really enjoyed it, although, as usual on first listen to a record, I paid absolutely sod-all attention to the actual lyrics (Twilight-esque as they seem to be, with their tales of shapeshifting romance), but quite a lot of attention to the music, which was rich and rewarding, even when it dove headlong into prime Deep Purple Hammond-and-guitar-solo territory. Perhaps a little long (I’ve little tolerance for records that stretch much beyond 45 minutes these days), the only other criticism I’d throw at THOL is that I don’t really like Colin Meloy’s voice, which is too close to the pancreatic lost-my-dog-on-a-string moan of that guy from Neutral Milk Hotel. I’d love to hear THOL again, and maybe even pay attention to the words.

Tom Listened: We’ve had Marillion. May as well quote Meatloaf….Nick took the words right out of my mouth (thankfully not while he was kissing me). I don’t have a problem with Colin Meloy’s, or Jeff Mangum’s, voice and I haven’t ever connected the two but other than that I echo everything he said – a little too long, a little too indulgent at times, but, in general, surprisingly enjoyable, accessible and catchy…and on an initial listen much better than The Crane Wife. I liked it!

Graham Listened: Heartland lesson learnt, I just listened to this and picked up the lyric sheet on the odd occasion. Really grabbed me from the off with and immediately accessible (perhaps it had the Kayleigh factor in concept album terms?). Sad old hippy that I am, I really ‘dug’ the “John Lord’ish” keyboards and some of the guitar solo’s that I wasn’t really expecting to hear. Would take a good few listens for me to appreciate the full ‘concept’ as it were, but something I would be quite happy to do.

Tom Waits – Bone Machine: Round 36 – Tom’s Selection

As a consumer of music who rarely listens to the words, let alone thinks about their meaning, concept albums usually pass me by. So it was with a sense of mild despair that I scoured my collection once Nick had suggested this as the theme for our latest meeting. It turns out, once I had actually thought about the lyrical content of a few ‘possibles’ that I own far more ‘concept’ albums than I initially thought (I put the word concept in inverted commas here because I am still unsure as to what a ‘concept’ album is). But I read somewhere on the internet – and the internet never lies, right? –  that Bone Machine is a concept album about death (THE concept album about death?) and as it is also one of my favourite albums… in the world…. ever, I didn’t ponder the voracity of the claim for too long before convincing myself that I could convince the others that Bone Machine is most definitely an album with a concept. After all, even though it doesn’t have any pixie queens or made up kingdoms, it does have locusts…just like any other concept album worth its salt.

Then a funny thing happened. As I listened to Bone Machine in the run up to the meeting, I began to hear things I had never heard before. Like…the words, for example. Of course, I had heard the words before. But I had never really thought about them and how they fitted together with each other and what they were trying to say and the like, so whilst I had always loved the lines ‘What does it matter, a dream of love or a dream of lies? We’re all gonna be in the same place when we die’, loved the way they sound and the images they evoke, I hadn’t really thought about what Tom Waits was trying to say with them. And I never really thought about how this song, Dirt in the Ground, fitted with the preceeding The Earth Died Screaming and the succeeding Such a Scream, a song whose main character (presumably Waits’ wife Kathleen Brennan) has ‘a halo, wings, horns and a chain’. It seems an awareness that Bone Machine is a concept album about death (or mortality) has made me appreciate it even more, which is quite an achievement as it was already languishing somewhere in my top ten albums…in the world…ever.

Whilst I am a huge fan of Waits, I still section his albums into divisions. In my mind Mule Variations and Real Gone belong with some of the pre-Kathleen Brennan albums in the third division of Waits’ discography. Second division and we have Frank’s Wild Years, The Black Rider and Alice. First division – Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs.* But Bone Machine is the Tom Waits equivalent of Liverpool FC circa 1975-1985 (as opposed to Liverpool FC circa 2012/13 – sorry Graham, couldn’t resist). Unimpeachable! It’s a parched album, tinder dry and is the most evoking of tumbleweed/dustiness of all his records. I got to know it whilst spending a year in the Australian outback and I can think of no better soundtrack or location depending on which way you’re looking at it. And although the album is riddled with death, it’s by no means a depressing listen. As always, Waits treats us to some exquisite ballads (A Little Rain ends with the devastating lyric, ‘She was 15 years old and she’d never seen the ocean…and the last thing she said was “I love you Mom”), and the album ends with the kooky ‘pop’ song, I Don’t Want To Grow Up and the sweet redemption of the closer, That Feel.

For me however, it’s the one-two-three of Goin’ Out West, Murder in the Red Barn and Black Wings that elevate the album from classic to  top ten…in the world…ever….and now that I have thought about the words, it’s even better than before!

* Of the later Waits albums I do not own Blood Money, Orphans or Bad As Me so they are currently not ‘divisioned’. I am not really a fan of pre-Brennan Waits…they lack the all important ‘clank’, and they are unlikely to ever be ‘divisioned’ as a result.

Nick listened: I know Bone Machine pretty well, but in an abstracted, ambient-music way – when I ran the film and music department of the university library we used to play this album quite often in the office (it was an unusual office!), and it was probably my introduction to Tom Waits. I’ve since bought several other albums by him, and would count Rain Dogs as my favourite, with this coming in second. I’ve never really thought of it as a concept album about death, but then again I seldom have a clue what Tom Waits’ cheese-grater-and-bourbon voice is actually singing about. So yes, a great record (I adore Waits and Brennan’s clattering, ramshackle percussion and live-in-a-workshop[!] vibe), and brilliant to hear in the company of the DRC crew.

Graham Listened: Firstly, in order to qualify my selection for Round 38, I heartily agree    with Tom that members should not be too constrained by any particular theme. Having never heard a full album by Mr Waits this was a real treat. I can’t think of an album I have listened to in the last few years that conjures up such strong all round sensory images of the types of places it was recorded in/conceived in/meant to be played in/set in etc., etc. The equivalent of the physical poetry of Dalglish underpinned by the grit and steel of Souness and Case.

Tom Replied: …but what about Fairclough?

Graham Responded:………….http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iu7vySQbgXI

Rob listened: I love Tom Waits, but i’m not a completist. ‘Bone Machine’ is one of the two or three of his albums of the last 30 years that I don’t have so it was an absolute pleasure to hear it. I’m finding it hard to place it within the discography as for me Waits is one of those artists who just IS, like an elemental being, he just exists on some other plane. His work is unique and, as a body, almost unimpeachable. I certainly don’t have the critical tools to start dissecting it, I just love it all, like Nick Cave or Will Oldham.

I think I received a ribbing on the night for suggesting that he sounds lke he lives in a workshop full of broken instruments, but it’s flattering that Nick has appropriated the line nonetheless. I certainly can’t claim involvement in or comprehension of the Liverpool AFC metaphor which Tom and Graham seem to be one-twoing merrily along.

The Sisterhood – Gift – Round 35 – Graham’s Choice

The Sisterhood - Gift
Inspired by listening to Fever Ray in previous round I decided to probe the darker regions of my album collection. Given my difficulties with modern day dance/electro I thought I should also explore something from when I used to frequent the New Wave “club scene”, as I’m far too old to have anything to do with that sort of thing now.

I brought this little curio along, prompted to some extent by the back story behind the album itself. I suppose I should have saved this for the theme night of “spiteful albums released as a commercial weapon”, but what the heck!

I bought this in 1986, because basically I would have bought anything related to the Sisters of Mercy at that time. Behind the dry ice and the darkness, there was a great live show and a few decent tunes. However the original band imploded leaving Andrew Eldritch the rest of the band (which later became The Mission), with fans baying for output and financial commitments to existing record and publishing deals. It all gets a bit complicated there and the full story is here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sisterhood.

Simply put Eldritch managed to retain the original Sisters name, stop the rest of the band calling themselves The Sisterhood and meet his financial commitments with the release of this album. I can’t say I noticed it was apparently proto-techno/dark wave when I bought it. But when some of these tracks, like this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpW8JOXr-Hc&feature=related, were playing in nightclubs,  I was probably too drunk to care. There are vague hints of the sound of the Sisters debut, ‘First and Last and Always’, though the harsh electro sound is a mile away from their original sound. Eldritch’s wish to move away from guitar based songs led to the original band’s demise. Listening to this again 26 years later (yikes!) I’m thinking Mr Eldritch was experimenting with something quite interesting. However one listen to the official Sisters follow up, ‘Floodland’, was enough for me to drop them immediately, as what had been initially interesting had transformed itself into some pumped up and bombastic nonsense inspired by Jim Steinman (or was it Todd Rundgren?).

From that point on I reverted back to The Mission and became a part-time ‘Eskimo’. Anyway if nothing else, my fellow members are now thoroughly familiar with the operating manual for an AK47 and they have me to thank for that. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vkrs6SEMcUk

Nick listened: About half of this was absolutely fantastic; really dark, compelling synthetic grooves that segued perfectly on from The Knife and which reminded me of so many things, from 90s-onwards dance music to 70s krautrock and kosmische to post-millennial indie-goes-electro. The other half of it wasn’t particularly different or bad, it just didn’t quite find the beats or moods that the best tracks achieved (the opener was splendid, as was the one about building an AK-47). Really glad I’ve heard it – I had absolutely no idea it existed before the other night.

Rob Listened: Graham’s uncanny knack for picking a record none of us know but which sits on the equidistant between two of our other choices continues. None of us had heard of The Sisterhood and the petty hilarity of its origin, yet it sat as an almost perfect buffer between ‘Silent Shout’ and ‘The Money Store’, giving us pause to reflect on similar records created as fillers, tests or contractual get-outs, which are now held up as high art or futurist classics. ‘Gift’ isn’t quite in that league but, tonight at least, it was a fun listen.

Tom Listened: The trouble with getting to know a group at the bum end of their career is that the rest of their catalogue can get tarred with the same brush….’better to burn out than to fade away’, as Neil Young (ironically as it turned out) put it. So when Graham produced something with the word ‘sister’ on the cover my immediate instinct was to dive for cover. However, Gift turned out to be more interesting and palatable than I initially feared – sonically it was a complete surprise to me, lengthy grooves, not too much doom and gloom and, although a couple of tracks towards the end of the album dragged a little, I enjoyed the listen in the main.

As Rob has stated, Gift was an inspired companion to Silent Shout and The Money Store and comparing them made us wonder as to whether it’s present day technology or musical vision or a combination of both that is leading to work that is so much more complex, busy and intricate than that of 25 years ago. Whatever, Gift sounded like the musical equivalent of the ZX81 in comparison which is not necessarily a bad thing per se…just different.

Death Grips – ‘The Money Store’: Round 35 – Rob’s choice

Death Grips - The Money StoreWhen ‘The Money Store’ was reviewed on its release earlier this year, most critics seemed to fall over themselves trying to explain how they had struggled to categorise the Death Grips sound (was it ‘Rock Rap’? was it punk hip-hop?) before magnanimously declaring that pigeonholing was a waste of time. Perhaps it’s only critics who worry when they can’t slot a record into a well-worn genre slot.

For me ‘The Money Store’ is a delirious, ravenous, rampaging record. It’s blunt: witness Stefan Burnett’s brick-in-the-face vocals. It’s dazzling: samples and electronics course through the album like lightning bolts. It’s brutal, both in the heavy hit of individual tracks and the pounding pressure that builds up across the record as the blows keep coming. It’s also huge fun. Try doing the washing up to ‘The Money Store’ without either dancing around the kitchen or stomping around the house pretending to be a yobbish street hustler.

E.B. White famously said, “Analyzing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” When I hear a record like ‘The Money Store’ the folly of labelling music seems pure and palpable. Artists like Death Grips, Flying Lotus and M.I.A. don’t belong in a set but all seem to be smashing together sounds to reproduce the noise of the urban 21st century. Why bother worrying where to file it? Just dive in an enjoy the sheer energy, insistence and inventiveness.

Tom Listened: Rob’s choices have become increasingly cacophonous over the past few meetings. Since the tranquility and grace of Lambchop, he has pleasured us with albums by Fugazi, Babes in Toyland and now this (I missed the Dumb offering but I gather that was no walk in the park either). I’d be happy to wager that he won’t be bringing Richard Clayderman to the next one!

Death Grips is everything Rob has said it is in his write up. I thought it was wonderful – messy, irreverent and packed full of interest and invention. Having said that (and we talked about this on the night), I don’t really feel the urge to own it – even in those increasingly rare moments when my still just about innocent children are safely out of earshot, I reckon The Money Store would be unlikely to find itself on my turntable as, in a similar way to Babes in Toyland, it’s such a demanding and exhausting listen that I’d need to get me some Clayderman as an antidote…and I don’t want to have to do that.

Nick listened: Big cosign with both Rob and Tom; this is as brutal, rambunctious, crazed, and enervated as described, and then some. It’s a very modern, 21st centruy style of cacophany, too, and as Rob suggests, difficult (pointless) to try and pigeonhole to the point where even trying seems ridiculous: I’d add Animal Collective to MIA and Flying Lotus in the post-millenial kitchen-sink-eclectic artists list, and there are plenty of others too, who throw seemingly everything into the mix, process it, chop it, add a crazy beat, and call it pop music despite it being really quite sonically extreme an awful lot of the time. I guess, in these post-genre times, ‘pop’ is about the most efficient catch-all term.

Like Tom, I’m not sure what use I’d have for Death Grips in my day-to-day life, when I’d listen to them or for what purpose. Of course, music doesn’t need to have a purpose; it is a purpose in itself, and when the crazy, angry clattering coalesced into bona fide dancefloor hooks on the final track, Death Grips’ purpose was brilliant.

Graham listened: The first album at DRC which inspired me to consider fitting a sub-woofer in my car, tint the windows and drive around the ‘hood with intimidation in mind (even if just going to the Co-Op). As a parent I would be moderately concerned if it appeared on my daughter’s ipod but I might just sneak it in the car to pump myself up for a difficult day at work. Fantastic.

Swell – …Well?: Round 35 – Tom’s Selection

When my brother Ben died of cancer in 1997 I had the distinctly uncomfortable experience of going through his record collection and picking through those albums that had been stacked in his room at my parents’ house. It was a horrible process, one that I really would have preferred to have avoided at the time but now, 15 years later, I treasure those records of his and the memories they evoke.

Ben and I had always been competitive with each other; whether playing table tennis or Elite, doing our ‘O’ levels or winding up our Dad, we were constantly trying to outdo each other. Sure, he was my best mate (he was lots of peoples’ best mate) but I suppose one-up-man ship is part of the territory. However, we shared a love a music and for most of our teenage lives our tastes pretty much coincided – The Beatles, Dire Straits, Queen and Elton John….typical teenage fodder! However, once we went to university and our musical horizons broadened our musical preferences aligned far less frequently. I don’t know whether this was our competitive relationship subconsciously seeping into our musical world but whilst I had a thing for Big Star, Ben opted for The Rockingbirds; I fell in love with Love’s Forever Changes, Ben with Ben Folds Five and so on. Of course there was much we agreed on, many bands or artists that were just too irresistible. Swell were one of these bands. …Well? was an album that Ben discovered and we both enjoyed immensely. And I still do to this day!

Swell are/were a four piece formed in San Fransisco in 1989. They played indie-rock. They were often mentioned in the same breath as Red House Painters and American Music Club but this was down to geographical reasons and journalistic laziness rather than any similarity in aesthetic. Swell sound (to my ears) nothing like either of the aforementioned bands. In fact I struggled to think of any of Swell’s contemporaries who were producing a remotely similar sound. Pavement? Too scuzzy and lo-fi. Fugazi? Too hardcore and shouty. Slint? Too portentous and ominous. The closest soundalike I could come up with when listening to …Well? prior to record club is Spoon, but only in as much as both bands build the majority of their songs around a briskly strummed acoustic guitar, layering the sound with clean electric guitars, often groovy bass runs and usually nimble and light percussion. But they don’t really sound all that similar, as I am sure the others will attest!

Regardless, Swell were unlucky. Their sound is immediately accessible, all the songs on …Well? are hook-laden and captivating and they deserved to sell a lot more records than they did. From ear worming its way into my consciousness all those years ago …Well? has become one of those records that always gives me that little thrill of anticipation just before the needle finds its groove. It’s one of those records I’m very glad my kid brother purchased – I just wish he’d bought a few more records by Swell and a few less by The Rockingbirds!

Nick listened: I wasn’t blown away by Swell (who I hadn’t heard of prior, I don’t think), but I did enjoy listening to Well, and sometimes that’s enough. I’ve been vacillating between the sheer existential assault of The Seer by Swans and the just very pleasant, enjoyable grooves and hooks of A Thing Called Divine Fits this week, and wondering which I prefer. It’s like comparing apples and oranges, obviously, but the enjoyable, easy-to-parse, safe-to-consume-in-company records often get listened to far more often than the astonishing, perception-realigning stuff. Anyway, I digress. Whilst I definitely didn’t get Red House Painters or American Music Club (not that I know either all that well), I didn’t quite get Spoon either, but it was certainly closer to that end of the spectrum. Joy Division were mentioned, and whilst there wasn’t the sense of present desolation you get from that band (nowhere near, in fact), there was something a little doomy about the linear, propulsive, crawling basslines that drove the songs along. And who on earth are The Rockingbirds?!

Rob listened: I don’t get Spoon, or Joy Division, or Red House Painters, but I do get a healthy dose of Ben when I listen to Swell. I loved ‘…Well?’ the first time he played it to me and I went on to love 3 or 4 more of their albums. There’s something smoky, sassy and backwoods about ‘…Well?’. It sounds handmade and warm, like getting back together with an old friend and conversing in a shared language. Which, in a way, I suppose it is.

Graham listened: I had never heard anything by the band but was aware of the name. If this had been on my radar at the time I am sure I would have indulged. Wonderfully accessible, loose and relaxed sound which would have ticked lots of boxes for me, just at the time (post ‘Green’) I was falling out of love with American bands. Will be asking Tom for  a borrow.

The Knife – Silent Shout: Round 35, Nick’s choice

After playing Karin Dreijer Andersson’s solo debut at our last meeting and explaining my strained journey to liking Silent Shout by The Knife (Fever Ray’s parent-group, if you like), it seemed like an obvious choice to bring that album along last night, so I did. Since our last meeting I reckon I’d had the extra half a dozen listens I predicted I’d need to really, really like it.

I bought Silent Shout not long after it came out in February 2006, enticed by the rabid hyperbole being thrown its way on messageboards and blogs. The idea of atmospheric, intriguing Scandinavian dance music seemed like it would be right up my street, and, indeed, I loved the opening title track from the off. But it stopped there. Something about Silent Shout rubbed me up the wrong way, and I took against it vehemently, and cast it out. Or, at least, let it gather dust on the bottom-shelf (had The Knife been called The Spatula or The Baster, they’d have been situated on a higher shelf, at approximately eye-level, and thus harder to ignore, perhaps).

Partly I think my antipathy was to do with the thickness and density of the sound; in early 2006 I was at the height of my anti-compression campaigning, and I think I was looking for spacious, intricate, architectural sounds more akin to The Box by Orbital than what Silent Shout actually offered. Something nagged me about it; I wanted to understand what the fuss was about, to catch a glimpse of what I was missing and worm my way in. When I loved the Fever Ray album from the off, my desire to get Silent Shout only intensified.

Though it’s just as creepy and strange as The Box, Silent Shout gets there by different means; by and large it’s an album of direct, thumping, dancefloor-focussed electropop, irresistible beats and synth riffs (just get a load of the crazy, hook-laden opening to Like A Pen, which could be off Debut by Björk), but that thick production allows an array of startlingly cold, unnerving, and edgy textures and melodies in almost by the back door.

And then there are the voices; processed, performative, unrecognisable and alien. Both Karin and Olof sing, but it’s often hard to tell who is who, or if either of them are even human, let alone what the actual words they’re enunciating are. But when you do start to notice the words (or, you know, look at them in the sleeve), and you realise that you’ve been dancing to a song about domestic abuse or tapping your steering wheel to a song about childhood alienation. It’s… discomforting, to say the least.

But that’s Silent Shout’s genius, like a lot of great music; it has the push-me/pull-you dynamic that we’ve talked about before at DRC, beats and hooks to lure you in, textures and atmospheres to make you feel uncomfortable. Finally, I get it.

Tom Listened: Silent Shout was, in many ways, the record of 2006 – it topped numerous end of year album polls and signaled a new sound in electro-pop. Compared to, say, last month’s Junior Boys album the glacial fragility of Silent Shout produces an effect that is a million miles away from the bedroom environment that much of this genre evokes. It’s impossible to listen to Silent Shout and not think of snowy wastes, dark days and interminable nights, howling, icy Arctic blasts and mile upon mile of impenetrable evergreen forest. It’s a fantastic album, one that I listen to rarely, have always admired and, in a similar way to Nick, feel an ever increasing affinity towards as my understanding of it improves.

Rob listened: I knew nothing of The Knife until ‘Silent Shout’ topped the Pitchfork end of year poll in 2006. I bought it straight away and was entranced by it from the first listen. The skipping arpeggios of the title track, the clanging factory propulsion of ‘We Share Our Mothers’ Health’, the spooked domestic doom of ‘From Off To On’, the heartbreak of ‘Still Light’. It’s a wonderful record, one of contrast and coherence, motion and emotion and one of my very favourites of the last ten years.

Graham listened: Really enjoyed the atmospherics of this and some clever touches when it did the unexpected on a few tracks. I’m not sure I was getting the landscapes it painted for some of my colleagues but it oozed subversion and tension with hooks that keep you listening.

Babes in Toyland – ‘Spanking Machine’: Round 34 – Rob’s choice

babes in toyland - spanking machineMany of my very favourite albums sounded , and still feel, like debuts, even if they weren’t. ‘Songs About Fucking’, ‘Goat’, ‘Feels’, ‘Clear Spot’, ‘White Light, White Heat’, ‘There Is No-one What Will Take Care Of You’, all arrived like breaches with the orthodoxy, simultaneously shocking, baffling, offensive and intriguing. It just so happened that their creators were a few records into their careers.

So, when Tom asked us to being a debut album, I immediately thought of first releases which had a similar transgressive impact rather than those which simply foreshadowed greatness to come. In truth I chose ‘Spanking Machine’ almost immediately, wavering a little in the run up, drawn by ‘Yo! Bum Rush The Show’ and ‘Exile in Guyville’.

But ‘Spanking Machine’ is a true debut. The first time I heard Babes in Toyland, via John Peel’s late night Radio One show, they sounded impossible, like nothing I’d ever imagined I’d hear. Traumatised and compelled in equal measures, I bought the album and it delivered a heavy payload. Today, having spent the intervening 23 years digging around mostly american alternative rock music, I still can’t piece together a credible explanation for where Babes in Toyland’s sound emerged from. Few if any of their predecessors had anything like their savage intensity, their black-hearted wit, their body-blow combination of neanderthal bluntness and explosive female emotion.

From the rollicking delta punk of ‘He’s My Thing’ and ‘Swamp Pussy’ to the teetering scream therapy of ‘Vomit Heart’ and ‘Fork Down Throat’, the record veers from clattering mosh starters to lurching musical breakdowns. It’s one of the most honest records I’ve ever heard. So many artists write and record with some thought, big or small, for whether people might listen and what they might think. ‘Spanking Machine’ is pure self expression from three women who came together with no idea of the unholy, primal racket they were about to make.

The result has integrity, rage, blood and body fluids. It has Lori Barbero learning to play the drums by beating the living shit out of them, Michelle Leon hitting her bass like a field gun and Kat Bjelland simultaneously shredding a guitar and her vocal chords, screaming like a grown woman channeling Regan MacNeil. Most of all, it carries a dangerous rock and roll charge which remains volatile and incendiary even to this day.

Footnote: If you happen to find yourself blogging about Babes In Toyland’s debut album, make sure you include the name of the band in your Google Image search if you value your sexual innocence and your browser cache.

Nick listened: It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast between Tom’s choice, which we played directly before Babes In Toyland, and Rob’s; from minimal, shy, winsome electronic boys to snarling, growling, thrillingly luddite girls. I was aware of the name Babes In Toyland but not really of their sound or ethos, beyond them being a rock band. Spanking Machine isn’t the kind of thing I’d normally listen to for pleasure, being at the brutalist end of the rock spectrum, but as a one-off DRC choice it was a great choice, particularly compared to what came beforehand. Not sure quite what Rob means about records that sound like debuts but aren’t though…

Rob attempted to clarify: I guess that was a vaguely made point even by my standards. I meant to say that a good proportion of my very favourite records and artists sounded shockingly new the first time I heard them, even if the records themselves weren’t debuts. They were debut musical experiences for me. So when Tom set the theme, I began looking for debut albums which also carried the full shock of the new, hence ‘Spanking Machine’, rather than those which might be lesser known works of artists who went on to create canonical works, say ‘Bleach’ or ‘From Her To Eternity’.

Tom Listened: Despite not knowing the debut album of one of his favourite recording artists (you will have to go and confess to high priest of American Indie-Folk…Cardinal William of Oldham), I agree with pretty much all else Rob says in his write up for Spanking Machine (he’s better when not dealing in facts, you see). I also agree with Nick.

Spanking Machine has been gathering dust in my collection for the last twenty years or so and it was thrilling to hear the first two thirds of the album again. I was surprised at the variety of sounds on offer both within and between songs and realised that there is much more (well, alright…more) subtlety to the Babes debut than I assumed. However by the half hour mark I was beginning to feel exhausted – aurally pummeled – and the last few songs passed by in a blur of vague recognition and a remembrance that Spanking Machine was one of those records that I often used the vinyl equivalent of the ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card. One side was usually enough; thrilling, visceral and brutal.  Both, for me, in one sitting and it bordered on masochism!

Rob recanted once more: Oh for goodness sakes. This point about debut albums clearly got so munged up in my pointless tiny head that I conflated my list of debuts and not debuts. If you lot hadn’t made such a big deal I could have just removed the whole stupid paragraph.

Graham listened: The remaining debuts I looked at for this round just didn’t inspire me to pitch up with anything this round. If I had chosen anything and had to follow this, well, game over. Never heard it, so hung on by fingernails all the way through. Possibly the artistic/aural equivalent of flower pressing with a brick, awesome.

Junior Boys – Last Exit: Round 34 – Tom’s Selection

Over the past decade I have become increasingly predisposed to the possibility of enjoying synthesised pop music. Throughout my twenties I hung on to Neil Young’s somewhat derisive line from his 1992 song Natural Beauty, ‘an anonymous wall of digital sound’ and made most of my music purchases accordingly – guitars, bass and drums will do thank you very much. I would occasionally dabble in an Underworld or Sabres or DJ Food release but nothing really grabbed me. I guess I have The Postal Service’s Give Up album to thank for my change of heart; an album that at first set my teeth on edge but gradually became a firm favourite despite Ben Gibbard’s undeniably insipid singing voice and the decidedly adolescent nature of the lyrics. If I have any guilty pleasures in my record collection (according to Rob there is no such thing but then I  reckon there is not much Catholic blood chugging through his veins), Give Up would surely be towards the top of the list. Whatever, it opened up a genre of music that I would probably have otherwise dismissed and I now look forwards to the latest offerings from, say, Hot Chip or Metronomy as much as any other band. So whilst my original choice of debut album was discarded on account of the recent glut of post-punk at the club, I was just as excited by the prospect of playing Junior Boy’s first record: Last Exit.

Last Exit is a curious album. If it qualifies as pop it’s only just. Atmospheric definitely and not necessarily easy to comes to terms with. On face value it can seem at times to be ridiculously simplistic but this is a red herring. The complexity is there but as it is shrouded in minimal bleeps and blips, skittering drum patterns and barely there vocals it may take the casual listener a while to recognise. This is a record to play loud and listen to carefully. It works as background music too, but the payoff is greatly reduced.

So what sets it apart from the myriad other ‘blip pop’ albums around? Well, for me it’s the space, the emptiness, the way that notes and beats seem to coexist on this album without much sense of what each other are doing  so that, suddenly (and invariably immediately prior to full alignment) they drop out of the song altogether a bit like with the planets where the constituent parts chance upon an instantaneous moment of cohesion every so often. It’s all just maths after all! But that’s not to say that Last Exit feels in any way random or willfully difficult. This is a meticulously constructed album with subtle melodies (especially on album highpoints Teach Me How to Fight and Birthday), gentle grooves (see Bellona and Under the Sun) and consistently effective song-writing.

Maybe Neil Young was (partly) right at the time he wrote the lyrics for Natural Beauty. But had he been able to to transport himself twelve years into the future he might have discovered an album of digital music that blew his theory out of the water – an anonymous wall Last Exit most certainly is not.

Nick listened: A lot of (seemingly intelligent) people said a lot of very, very crazy, hyperbolic, rabidly excitational things about Last Exit around its release in 2004. “Junior Boys have done no less than singlehandedly re-imagined a future for white pop,” started one review from an online music magazine (a very good online music magazine at that!). At the time I was a little bemused; I’d seen their name talked about in whispered reverence online for a few months as early EPs and singles crept out, remixes by the likes of Fennesz and Manitoba (now known as Caribou), and I’d listened to Junior Boys expecting great… nay, ASTONISHING things. Nothing less than a future for white pop, perhaps. And what I got was… minimal to the point of vapidity, shy to the point of solipsism, so empty and desiccated and cold and uncommunicative that it seemed like the opposite of pop, rather than a reinvention thereof. Which isn’t to say that it was bad – just not at all what I thought I was being sold by the discourse.

Eight years on, I still find Junior Boys, and Last Exit in particular, much easier to theorise than to love, much easier to talk about than singalong with. There are some great, subdued melodies here, doubtless (Birthday, High Come Down), and some delicious grooves (Under The Sun), plus moments of vatic beauty, but were there really tunes, hooks, choruses, actual pop thrills? I wasn’t sure.

I was delighted that Tom faced his electronic trepidations and chose this record, and was able to play the vinyl, after I was so used to MP3s and then a CD; the warmth and hum of vinyl, which normally feels like a veil over details and excitement to me, helped Last Exit make more sense to me, made it more human. If my CDs weren’t packed up ready for moving, I’d have dug it out as soon as I got home so I could listen to it again. An intriguing record, but still, for me, hard to truly love.

Rob listened: First things first, that’s a truly Catholic attitude to guilt Tom! Confess your most minor discretions and hope the biggies go unnoticed. If your idea of a guilty pleasure is the Postal Service, then you need to get out and start sinning much more heavily.

I really enjoyed ‘Last Exit’ and have listened to it a couple of times since. It’s unwinding a little more each time. Having neither a time machine or a crystal ball, I can’t comment on the extent to which it may or may not have opened up the future of electronic pop music, but its corners and curves seem to me to have been passed down through the bloodline, perhaps smoothed by evolution, and can be seen beneath the skin of The XX, about whom similar claims continue to be made.

Graham listened: Having been ‘largin it’ (well in the kitchen anyway) to some of the Olympic opening ceremony dance tracks the night before, tonight would surely be an epiphany in my journey towards appreciation of modern electronica/dance? Nope. In parliamentary terms I refer the other honorable members to the answer I gave in Round 32 about Four Tet.

Fever Ray – Fever Ray: Round 34, Nick’s choice

Despite the massive acclaim, I didn’t like Silent Shout by The Knife initially; something about the production put me off, the density of it. I know it’s meant to be oppressive and strange, but it’s also meant to be pop, or catchy at the least, and the weight of the sound, the saturation of it, made me take against Silent Shout at first. I’ve grown to like it more over the years, and feel like I’m probably just half a dozen plays away from really, really liking it now.

But the debut solo album by one half of The Knife, Karin Dreijer Andersson, clicked with me straight away, even though some people consider it to be even weirder, more oppressive, more unnerving and obtuse. The beats are less directly dance-oriented, the synthesisers and electronics more about atmosphere than about hooks, and, crucially for my ears, the production opens up, explores space and textural richness, and in doing so creates an almost tangibly beautiful landscape for Dreijer’s strange songs.

Because the songs on Fever Ray’s eponymous debut are nothing if not strange, concerned with the oddness of domesticity, observations and tales about both childhood and motherhood, lyrics about watering neighbours’ plants, about dishwasher tablets, about riding bicycles. Dreijer sings of living “between concrete walls / in my arms she felt so warm”, presumably a reference to her new status as a parent when she recorded the album.

In some ways, Fever Ray’s album is like a weird cousin of Kate Bush’s Aerial, an album concerned with washing machines and children and maintaining sensuality despite (or because of?) these intrusions on adult life. But, as ever, I’m not focussing on the lyrics, as strange and beguiling as Dreijer’s vignettes may be: I’m taking in the pure sound of it. The slow-burning, thrumming introduction of If I Had A Heart; the beautiful final third of When I Grow Up, synths and guitars intertwining like lovers; the sparse, crepuscular vistas of Keep The Streets Empty For Me; and Karin’s vocals throughout, digitised, filtered, altered, made massive, cavernous, android and unreal even as she sings about the most mundanely human topics possible.

Fever Ray is an incredible debut, an incredible record, the kind of thing that rewards attention and only gets better over time. I like it more than any single thing by the renowned group it’s an offshoot of, to the extent that thinking of it as a side-project, or solo excursion, seems ridiculous.

Tom Listened: Rob lent me this album a while ago. I turned a cursory ear to some of it and was happy to return it to him knowing that I could cross it off my intended purchases list. While listening to it at record club I worked out what the problem is with it (as far as I am concerned anyway). It’s sequenced in such a way that the most accessible songs appear later on in the album. In this day and age, it is so rare for this to be the case that I reckon I unfairly dismissed this as being too bleak (Silent Shout was darker than my sensitive soul can cope with anyway) to bother with without ever having reached the latter half of the record.

Well, giving this a proper listen last Wednesday, I can now see what all the fuss is about. I think I’ll always find Karin Andersson’s vocals to be a bit too ominous/alien for my taste (that acceptance speech thing doesn’t help) and I struggled to see the beauty in the tracks when it was pointed out but I did enjoy this much more than I thought I would and could see it really clicking in with a few more listens.

Nick responded: See this is one of those odd things about music and ears and brains and stuff; I’ve always thought that Fever Ray started with its catchiest songs (at tracks 2 and 4) and then got darker and more impenetrable from there!

Rob listened: Whoever said ‘Silent Shout’ was supposed to be catchy pop? It’s a nightmarish glimpse into a forest world of dark desires and degenerative disease, and quite brilliant for it.

However, I can’t say much about ‘Fever Ray’ that Nick hasn’t already covered. For me it’s an almost perfect record in conception and execution. Eerily familiar yet tantalisingly alien, Karin Dreijer never puts a foot wrong. The sounds are melt-in-the-mind perfect, her vocals a woozy, half-remembered dream and the whole package one of my favourite records of the last ten years.

Graham listened: Another new one on me and connected with it pretty much straight away. The use of synth and electronic sounds to create the atmosphere and feel of this album intrigue me opposed to the way their use on a lot of electronica/dance alienates me. Evoked some familiar atmospherics to that of early Cocteaus but also more weirdly I was reminded of the type of feel Depeche Mode were after with Songs of Faith and Devotion, strange?

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