‘Saturday Night Fever: The Original Movie Soundtrack’: Round 38 – Rob’s choice

Saturday Night Fever1978 produced the attitudinal brio of Elvis Costello’s ‘This Year’s Model’, the sleek futurism of Kraftwerk’s ‘Man Machine’ and the bubblegum swagger of Blondie’s ‘Parallel Lines’. I listened to all three a lot in the run up to this week’s meeting but ultimately, and if I’m honest rapidly, I passed them all over in favour of the best-selling record of my given year, a record which co-opted, some say plundered and eviscerated, the sound of the mid-seventies underground and in doing so changed the face of pop music.

You can say what you will about ‘Saturday Night Fever’, and there are arguments a plenty here for those who wish to have them. It took an emerging musical subculture which was significantly black, Latino, gay, blue collar and made it white, straight, elitist, aspirational. It grabbed the niche sounds of New York and Philadelphia dance clubs and turned them into mainstream millions. It’s ridiculous and silly – woolly-headed music made in a time of social and economic strife which, despite, or perhaps because of, its focus on pleasure rather than politics, struck a hefty blow against activist punk and intellectual new wave. In doing so it created a schism between pop and these more engaged forms which had briefly, fleetingly threatened to unify. It opened the door for a generation of preening poseurs, more concerned with the state of their hair than the state of the nations.

All these are arguable points. You may wish to add the view that the Bee Gees, who contribute around half the tracks on the album, have possibly the most ludicrous vocal stylings in history. Again that’s arguable, but I would disagree. By 1978 Barry Gibb was esseqtially the lead singer, with his brothers supporting with harmonies and trills. Their falsettos are perhaps the most distinctive voices in pop. They are a marvel, as impossible to explain as they are to imitate.

But once the arguing is done, this remains: ‘Saturday Night Fever’ contains eight or nine unimpeachably perfect pop songs. ‘Staying Alive’, ‘How Deep Is Your Love?’, ‘Night Fever’, ‘More Than A Woman’, ‘If I Can’t Have You’… Pitchfork pretty much nailed it when they said “The first five songs on this double LP could be considered the greatest album side of all time”. Scattered across the remaining three are ‘Jive Talkin’, ‘You Should Be Dancing’ and the ten minute version of ‘Disco Inferno’.

Between the ages of 14 and 30, I would have scorned this record. How very stupid of me. Half of it is brilliant, the rest is forgiven.

Graham Listened: Certainly didn’t expect this one, but brilliant choice. Much as Rob says, there are so many reasons that this should be all wrong and not work, but it just has a quality to it that makes many of these tracks unforgettable and unrivaled classics. Because this record helped (or more or less single-handedly) took Disco mainstream, I would have avoided it like the plague  But there’s that moment in life when year’s later you discover what you have been missing. Who knows what other previously despised genre could be next for me to embrace?

Tom Listened: I have just returned from a five day jaunt to the tiny Pyrenneen mountain town/village of Bielsa – a funny little place nestling (as if against the cold) at an altitude of 1600m amongst the mighty peaks that form the French/Spanish border. The last time I was in Bielsa was as a 7 year old when my brother and I joined my father on a school trip he was running. My one lasting memory of Bielsa itself were our evenings in the local bar; an Orangina, some table football and the jukebox for company. All I can recall of the jukebox was, somewhat appositely, that it had plenty of songs from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. We weren’t interested in any of the other songs – SNF was where it was at – pop songs that were a cut above anything else…at least that was what it seemed like at the time. So, for me, Bielsa will always be connected to the Bee Gees and being there the other day seemed even odder given that Rob had just brought this to record club.

35 years on, the songs still sound as fresh and vital today as they did then – old friends that you’re always happy to reacquaint yourself with. The songs themselves are near-ubiquitous and I hear them often enough to not feel the need to own the record but you can’t help but marvel at just how many corkers there are on SNF – most bands would give their eyeteeth to have written just one of these songs!

Nick listened: As iterated by everyone above, this is great – these songs are as woven into the public psyche of the UK and US as anything by The Beatles or Elvis or Madonna or anyone else you could care to mention. Pretty much faultless.


Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden: Round 38, Nick’s choice

Tom’s “draw a pair of random years” theme has become a favourite; there’s no squeezing something to fit a theme, no talking your way around it – something was either released in the year you picked, or it wasn’t. I drew 1988 and 1996 this time, and had to choose an album from one and a track from another, and see if I could somehow connect them.

My first instincts for albums from 1996 all proved to be too long – Orbital, DJ Shadow, Underworld, Maxwell – due to the mid-90s fetish for squeezing as much music onto a compact disc as possible, or else had already been played at Devon Record Club – Aphex Twin, Screaming Trees. My first instincts from 1988 suffered the same two fates – Public Enemy too long, My Bloody Valentine played by Tom some months ago. What’s a guy to do?

Choose the dismayingly obvious pick that he’d forgotten about, clearly, that follows on from something played at our last meeting. But it took me asking for recommendations via Twitter for me to be reminded that Spirit of Eden came out in 1988, which seems like an incredible oversight given that, at a push, I’d probably pick it as my favourite record (though I kind of dislike the idea of ‘favourite’ records, in an unequivocal, all-time-number-one way). I have, after all, written reams and reams of fawning, hyperbolic guff about this record, this strange dive headlong into the avant-garde that got Talk Talk dropped and sued by their record label for delivering a willfully uncommercial album (the lawsuit was thrown out, but inspired a clause that became common in major label record deals binding artists to the promise of producing sellable music).

Nearly ten years on from writing the above hagiography, I’m much more pragmatic about Spirit of Eden – yes, I love it, and I like to play it sans distraction, loud, in a dimly lit room, so as to get the full experience, but I’m pragmatic enough to admit that I rarely ever get around to actually engineering that kind of listening experience (once or twice a year if that). I’d also probably hold up Laughing Stock as a stranger, more rewarding, more cathartic record these days, and, conversely, The Colour of Spring as a more frequently-turned-to, easily-consumed album that gets part way at least towards delivering some of the same emotional and aesthetic payoff.

A lot of people talk about how beautiful and sparse Spirit of Eden is, but for me its about the grooves and the noise – the crazy, over-driven harmonica, the heavy blues-y guitar riffs, the thick, liquid pulse of bass and drums. Certainly, some passages are extremely beautiful (the hushed choirs that close I Believe In You), but others – the crazed, thunder and lightning drums of Desire – are incredibly powerful and visceral. I find the whole thing incredibly moving: when Hollis sings “I just can’t bring myself to see it starting” in I Believe In You, I feel like my heart’s going to explode.

Spirit of Eden, as well as being the first “holy grail” of Devon Record Club that we’ve played thus far (that is, a record that we all own), is a fantastic (almost) singular experience, and I love it to bits. But I’m not sure I’m quite as passionate about it as I was a decade ago.

(Oh yeah, for reference, I chose A Survey by Tortoise as my track from 1996. The connection? Both albums have 6 tracks, take liberally from jazz, ambient, and experimental music as well as rock, and, well, Tortoise follow on pretty linearly from Talk Talk’s influence in many ways.)

Rob listened: Well I never. Just a fortnight after hearing the Mark Hollis album for the first time, and finding in it an agreeable contrast with earlier Talk Talk, and mere days after describing ‘Spirit of Eden’ as “the most consistently disappointing record I own” lucky me to get yet another chance to approach its sweeping foothills once again. Lucky, lucky me.

As amusing as I would find it to really stick the boot into ‘Spirit of Eden’ (much as its adherents fawn and weep over it, I bet they use it more to test their hi-fi set-ups), if I’m honest, I can’t. I don’t dislike it. Bits of it are nice. Some bits of it sound lovely. On the whole though, it bores me every time I hear it. And every time I hear it, cold, hollow, I get more irritated by it, moving farther away from its supposed majesty when I’m expected to grow closer. One more listen down, one more step in the opposite direction.

Graham Listened: Like buses, you wait until rounds 37 and 38, then 2 come at once. Nick has already described much of how I feel about this record and done it much better than I ever could. One thing that I’ll never get back though, was the first (virginal?) listen to this record. I came to Talk Talk late in the day, so there was never that rush to get the new album and listen to it until you convinced yourself it was good.  In my little flat in Exeter with my newly purchased “high-end” Goodmans CD player, I played this for the first time and was truly astonished. I went through a period when I would play it only when I could dedicate 100% attention, but following counselling, I am now able to play it as background music on the rare occasion.

Tom Listened: I have always been disappointed by the way I am so easily influenced by the opinions of others. Until Nick brought Spirit of Eden to record club, I have always considered it a near perfect album. However, having heard Rob’s enthusiastic dismissal of Talk Talk’s finest moment at record club made me begin to doubt myself…and I began to hear the record in a different way. Rather than submit to its glorious soundscapes and meticulously constructed songs I caught glimpses of what Rob was hearing. And, for a moment or two, it bothered me. Until the breathtaking Desire confirmed what I had always suspected – in this case he’s just plain wrong!

Spirit – how could I have ever doubted you?

Neil Young – Tonight’s The Night: Round 38 – Tom’s Selection

The mid 70s were an interesting time for popular music, not that I can remember much of it first hand, due to being five at the time…as opposed to off my head on drugs! Of those records that have stood the test of time, it seems as though a disproportionate number of them are bleak, harrowing, doom laden evocations of the human condition. Maybe these records document the point in time when the hippy dream turned sour, the idealism of the late 60s and early 70s giving way to self-doubt, cynicism and suspicion. Maybe the hippies had nowhere left to go but here. Ironically, seeing as he was the arch anti-hippy, this trend may have been kick started by Lou Reed’s 1973 rock opera, Berlin, which is just about as dark as an album can get and surely hugely influential (although you never can tell about influence, can you Nick!). Whatever, in the next couple of years there followed a slew of similarly unsettling offerings such as Gram Parson’s Grievous Angel, Big Star’s 3rd and Joni Mitchell’s Hissing of Summer Lawns. Artists were experimenting musically and thematically and were really challenging their fan-base in the process. It seems as though many of these records were poorly received in their day but they make for captivating listening all these years on and, to me, often sound far more interesting than their bigger selling precursors. Possibly the epitome of this phenomenon is Tonight’s the Night, Neil Young’s most ragged, tortured and, arguably, finest LP.

First a confession. I have never really ‘got’ Neil Young. This is strange considering I have a ridiculous number of Neil Young albums (after all, there are a ridiculous number of Neil Young albums to have). I have always suspected a case of ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ about his records; to my mind they often don’t go anywhere particularly interesting – a guitar workout lasting 10 minutes is pleasant enough but when the riff is so simplistic and linear (see Cowgirl in the Sand, Down By the River, Southern Man, Like a Hurricane), it can all get a bit monotonous. In comparison to, say, Halleluwah by Can which twists and turns and goes to all sorts of surprising places in its 20 odd minutes, I never found all that much to discover in Neil Young albums. But I kept buying them because I kept reading about how they were so good. The next one was going to be THE ONE. But it never was. Then I bought Tonight’s the Night…and then I stopped buying Neil Young albums!

It was obvious from the off that this one was the real deal. The history of the album, the circumstances that led to it being the work it is, is well documented. Suffice to say, Young was in a pretty bad place going into making Tonight’s the Night…and it shows. And that is what makes it such a compelling listen. The songs teeter on the brink of falling apart throughout the album; they are raw, wounded and as vulnerable as the man who wrote them. Listening to Tonight’s the Night recently, I once again find myself wondering whether an album this messy would even get released in this age of studio perfection and computer technology. Having recently made two mega-sellers in Harvest and After the Goldrush, Neil Young must have had pretty much carte blanche at Reprise at the time and, whilst artists who have overwhelming power have often made appalling records, in this case such clout was surely necessary in getting it released – after all, the album only saw the light of day two years after it was recorded! Listening to it today makes me wonder about those decision makers in the big record companies. Alright, Tonight’s the Night was never going to sell as many copies as Harvest, but its tarnished brilliance is so hard to deny that it would have to be an inordinately cynical ear to turn it down.

There is little point singling out individual tracks as they really need to be heard as part of the whole. Young’s triple LP best of, Decade, includes the title track and Tired Eyes but neither of these songs make half as much sense as they do when heard on the album itself. As Rolling Stone’s Dave Marsh put it, ‘This is Young’s only conceptually cohesive record, and it’s a great one.’ Me, I’m glad I persevered with Young and, who knows, maybe one day I’ll go back to and fully appreciate all those other albums of his I’ve purchased over the years. But even if I never listen to one of his other records again, I know Tonight’s the Night is one album I’ll never grow tired of.

Nick listened: Tom introduced this by saying, twice, “Nick will hate this”, and describing it as (paraphrasing rather than verbatim) “the most rubbishly performed, sung, played, and recorded record ever”. He also said (verbatim) “This is the only Neil Young album that I own that I like. I own eight Neil Young albums.”

Well, I didn’t hate it. I own about four Neil Young albums (Harvest, Gold Rush, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and Rust Never Sleeps) and I quite like all of them. I quite like Neil Young, in a completely non-committal way, in that I think he’s a good songwriter, decent guitar player, and interesting, charismatic singer. I didn’t think Tonight’s The Night was badly played, sung, or recorded – certainly Neil’s vocals go a little further off-piste a little more frequently than on other records I know by him, but it was never monstrous or offensive – if anything, it was kind of touching for him to be clearly reaching beyond himself, writing songs and melodies outside his range. Neil’s tremulous, cracking vocals, if anything, accentuated the emotional heft of these songs about the deaths of his friends.

Rob listened: I liked this a lot. I rarely delve back beyond 1977 but many of the records I’ve bought in the last 15 years or so have a clear and direct lineage with the music that came from America in the midst of her post-Sixties comedown. Tom preceded ‘Tonight’s The Night’ by playing ‘Brute Choir’ by Palace Music. The two records could have been recorded in the same year. Neil Young’s songs here, perhaps simply as a result of their simplicity and honesty, sound as fresh and raw as the day he wrote them. Quiet, meaningful albums tend to get crushed like so many wheel-broken butterflies at DRC meetings where, truth be told, we like to talk more than we like to listen. ‘Tonight’s The Night’ had our rapt attention and rightly so.

Graham listened: Not sure what happened to the incredibly well-crafted review I left last week but here is a repeat summary. I also quite like Neil Young but have never sought out any of his records. I’ve considered it but then I’ll see him singing live on tv and pause for thought. After Tom’s introduction (which may have been a clever ploy for future use) I was expecting a bit of a ramshackle mess. What we got was something sincere, sensitive and captivating.

Mark Hollis – Mark Hollis – Round 37 – Graham’s Choice

Keen to stick to the theme (ahem…), I surprised myself by purchasing a copy of this album just a week before this week’s meeting. I’ve had copies in various forms for over 10 years, but never had a physical copy of the icing on the cake of my Talk Talk, post ‘Colour of Spring’ collection.  I also felt somewhat obliged to offer something by the way of an antidote to the distress I had caused in Round 36.

I pretty much ignored Mark Hollis and his Talk Talk colleagues until the early/mid 90’s. I had them typecast as New Romantic wannabees, though I had heard a couple of singles off their second album which sounded a bit more interesting. Still, not enough to persuade me into investigating further. I then started reading various articles which were heralding the band in a far different light.

I began by buying their third album, ‘The Colour of Spring’ (1986), which immediately ripped up all my preconceptions about them. Probably a bit too mature a sound for me to have fully appreciated in 1986, but it I loved it and found it immediately accessible. The direction they had begun with ‘The Colour of Spring’ continued on their last 2 albums which are amongst my favourite records of all time. When I consider why I don’t feel the need to buy much music anymore, maybe it’s because after hearing ‘Spirit of Eden’ and ‘Laughing Stock’, I simply didn’t need to. However, as my wife hates these 2 albums and is sent in to a rage by Mark Hollis’ one and only solo album, I don’t get to listen to them that often!

Until the very recent emergence of some new work, this album seemed to be the conclusion of Mark Hollis’ journey from ‘The Colour of Spring’, and his final offering as a solo artist. After ‘Laughing Stock’ it seemed unlikely that Mark could produce an even more stripped back and sparse sounding album, yet still make it sound beautiful and immersive. It took 7 years, but in 1998 he more than achieved that with this album. There is not quite the ‘drive’ and short-lived drama to some tracks which we heard on the last two Talk Talk albums, but that allows a more restful vibe to run throughout the album. There are some real raw jazzy moments, but nothing too “noodley”. As for the rest, just as you think it’s folksy, it’s classical, it’s ambient etc., etc. It’s probably easier to say what it’s not in some circumstances. If I did yoga, I’m sure this would be a great soundtrack.

I’ll admit that ‘A Life (1895-1915)’ is a track that I’m not in love with. It strays too much in to conceptual territory for me, and we all know where that can lead. But the stark beauty of the opener ‘The Colour of Spring’ (a very loose reprise of April 5th, from, confusingly, the album ‘The Colour of Spring’), is so disarming, I’ll put up with anything after that.

Nick listened: It’s fair to say that I know late-period Talk Talk pretty well: I’ve written about Spirit of Eden extensively, and I even pitched a 33 & 1/3 book about it a few years ago (and got through the first couple of rounds of applications). I’ve described Laughing Stock, Talk Talk’s final record, as the only truly “profound” music I’ve ever experienced, but that was in a heady moment. (Nothing, ever, anywhere, is truly “profound”. Possibly.) So, predictably, I know Mark Hollis’ solo album very well, too.

Like Graham, I don’t actually listen to Spirit of Eden or Laughing Stock all that often, and I listen to this album even less. They’re all powerful, austere creations that I feel demand a certain amount of reverence and attention and ritual. I feel vaguely silly saying that, but it’s true. Plus my wife doesn’t like his voice!

Hollis’ eponymous solo album does indeed go further into considered minimalism than even Laughing Stock. Hollis apparently took himself off for several years and taught himself formal composition (and presumably went to the cinema and walked his dog and went to parents’ evenings etc etc etc too), so his solo album, unlike SoE and LS, which were edited together digitally from dozens or hundreds of hours of improvised explorations as far as I understand it, is actually a very different beast, despite similar timbres and ambiences. It never truly roils and thunders and screams like its older siblings, never surrenders to drama and noise and chaos, and it doesn’t wallow in the darkest recesses of human emotion. It also, consequently, doesn’t ever quite reach the absolute peaks of transcendent beauty either (beauty being, as with so many things, so often, largely a relative thing – exposed only to beauty and never to ugliness, how would you know what was beautiful?). Instead, its content to just exist to float, to be beautiful sans context. The minimal, heart-stroking piano of the opening track, the tap-tapping jazz percussion waves later on, the spaces, the ages, the woodwinds that sound like The Clangers, the lyrics about (obliquely, possibly) moving back to London so your kids can go to the cinema more often, or about dying just before the Great War, or about… what are they even about?

Apparently this album was recorded entirely live, in one room, with two microphones for stereo imaging, the instruments and their players positioned just so in order to avoid needing overdubs. It’s quite remarkable, and crystalline, and delicate, and strange, and precious. But I probably only play it once ever few years.

Tom Listened: In some ways I admire Graham’s chutzpah! To suggest his theme and then bring this was either a move of complete genius or utter contempt for the rules. If nothing else, he is certainly unpredictable.

Mark Hollis is an album I have owned since it was released and I am a huge fan of late period Talk Talk. But I have hardly ever listened to this particular album, and after hearing it again the other night, I remember why. It’s a beautiful, stunningly composed record by a wonderful song-writer. It is also, for me, the most claustrophobic record I have ever heard…it seems to suck all the air out of the room and, in much the same way as These New Puritans or Sunn O))) (I kid you not) the atmosphere it inhabits is just too unsettling for me to truly enjoy the experience. I think I’ll stick to Spirit of Eden, Laughing Stock and my Clangers box set for the time being and maybe go back to this when I am over-the-moon happy or suicidally depressed!

Rob listened: I don’t get Talk Talk. I want to, or at least i’m prepared to, but despite trying reasonably hard, it’s never happened.  I’d go so far as to say ‘Spirit of Eden’ is the most consistently disappointing record I own. Time after time i’ve gone back to it hoping to find the profundity, the worlds within worlds that others find therein, but I get less and less each time. I’d never heard ‘Mark Hollis’ before and, i’m pleased to say, I liked it more than any of the Talk Talk records I’ve spent time with. I found its baroque beauty and almost stifling intimacy quite entrancing. SInce hearing it i’ve been back to ‘Laughing Stock’, which seems to me much closer to this than to the Talk Talk records that preceded it, and I think perhaps somewhere between this and that lies the Talk Talk I may be able to get along with.

Ben Folds Five – ‘Ben Folds Five: Round 37 – Rob’s choice

Ben Folds Five - Ben Folds FiveWe were set a theme for this evening’s assembly. “Guilty pleasures or something surprising” we were ordered. I shall pass little comment on how closely my fellow members cleaved to this instruction, other than to say that two of them completely ignored it and the third brought an album of mental calypso covers which were, by any definition, surprising.

I went for the guilty pleasures angle. To be perfectly honest, I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, at least when it comes to art. You either get pleasure from it, or you don’t. But I understand the cultural concept and, if I’m really being perfectly honest, there are some songs and albums I love which give me pause to steel myself before I volunteer them in company.

I kicked off with ‘Ariel’ by Dean Friedman, the smart/stupid East Coast singer songwriter who, with this and his more notorious ‘Lucky Stars’, filled whole arteries of the radio network with cloying sugar syrup in the late 1970s. These singers and these songs (add to the list Neil Diamond, David Soul, Barry Manilow, Glen Campbell, Kenny Rogers, David Essex, Gilbert O’Sullivan, The Carpenters, Abba…) entered my young head by osmosis as I grew up. They were the first songs I learned to reject when I began to form a musical sensibility of my own and, for the last 15 years or so, they have been the songs which most immediately transport me back to my childhood. They carry such a sweet, beautiful charge that I find them irresistible.

I chose ‘Ariel’ as it’s the closest of these oldies to Ben Folds Five, a band who I loved unironically and unequivocally when they emerged but who many found unacceptably dorky, old-fashioned, retrogressive and just plain annoying. For me the band and this first album in particular wedded the energy and melodic dynamism of some of my favourite punk and indie (Buzzcocks, XTC, Madness) with the unfettered optimism and gawky sunshine of late 70s piano pop. ‘Ben Folds Five’ is an unashamed and infectious pop album, delivered by three smart-ass North Carolinians who managed, for a short period – probably two albums – to maintain a dreamy, unimpeachable alchemy of past and present.

I guess this albums slots into many ‘guilty pleasures’ lists, partly because it so plainly references old records and artists we’re supposed to feel guilty about liking (see my previous list), but also because Ben Folds himself, by many accounts, having established himself as the cheeky ivory-hammering nerd du jour, took a right hand turn and became a bit of a dick. I don’t read interviews too much any more, so I don’t know what the guy has had to say for himself. I do think he suffered unfairly through over-simplified interpretations of some of his most bracing songs (‘One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces’, ‘Song for the Dumped’). It seems we spent the early 90s getting used to the fact West Coast rappers could speak in character and not expect to be censured for it and then withdrew the same privilege from specky college piano doofuses.

Whatever. ‘Ben Folds Five’, i’m not ashamed to admit, is possibly the record I’ve listened to most over the past 15 years. It’s a heady, funny, dynamic, moving whirlpool of wonder, to these 70s-grown ears at least. Pure innocent pleasure.

All of which leaves us to wonder, as all must at some stage, why on earth the piano never really caught on as a lead instrument? Too tough to play? Too expensive to buy? Too heavy to smash a drum-kit with? Who knows. I’m just glad Ben Folds managed it.

Nick listened: Sorry Rob, but I’m not buying this as a guilty pleasure, and it’s certainly not a surprising choice: you’ve mentioned before how much you love this record, and the whole idea of guilty pleasures is that you keep them hidden from public view!

That aside, it was great to listen to this: I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the whole thing front-to-back before, but I certainly know Ben Folds Five as a group, recognised the singles, and felt comfortable and familiar with the whole aesthetic and approach.

It does raise a couple of interesting questions, though. Firstly, does the instrument you compose on affect your compositions? As a non-musician it strikes me that it must do with at least some songwriters – the chords that fingers naturally fall to on a piano are presumably different to those for a guitar, the ways you move from chord to chord and note to note must be different, and then, presumably, the tunes that come out at the end must be somehow quantifiably different as a result. Could you compose a tune like Underground, with its drama and dynamism and melodicism, on a guitar? I kind of suspect you couldn’t, or, at the least, that it wouldn’t be an obvious thing to do.

And I wonder if this (My-First-Marxist-Cultural-Theory) tools-of-production-affecting-resultant-cultural-product micro-thesis is part of the answer to the second question, about why BFF were received the way they were, the “dorky, old-fashioned, retrogressive and just plain annoying” accusations, the perception of them being somehow faux and unworthy that came from the (often ravenously passive-aggressive pastures) of post-grunge alt.rock, where miserable authenticity and guitars are good and major-key pianos bad.

I dunno, but it’s an interesting thing to think about.

Tom Listened: Since writing my blog on Swell, Rob and I have been debating ( not continuously admittedly but it has cropped up on a few occasions) as to whether my brother really was enamoured with Ben Folds Five or not. Well, on the night Rob brought this to record club I had that rarest of things…a slight admission that perhaps I was right all along. I’m glad about that because I needed something to explain my somewhat unreasonable dismissal of this album at its time of release. It’s great fun – a set of rollicking, barn storming pop songs that race by (in a bit of a blur if I’m honest) in an early Todd Rungren power pop kind of a way. My only criticism is the uniformity of the songs – I would have preferred a little more light and shade in the compositions although I guess this often reveals itself with familiarity but it was hard not to compare Ben Folds Five with Something Anything and when the vast scope of that album is considered, Ben Folds Five seems like a much more focussed/unambitious offering….and occasionally the piano playing reminded me of Jools Holland, a man who will continue to set my teeth on edge long after they have all fallen out!

But, those slight reservations aside, this was definitely not something to feel guilty about and therefore failed supremely in fulfilling tonight’s theme…leaving a clear winner….ME!

Graham Listened: After the last round I had the music and lyrics of ‘Kaleigh’ stuck firmly in my head for a week afterwards. Rob certainly exacted his revenge, as for the last week I have been plagued by http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_tW3vU3RyQ. I singularly made this leap to Carole Bayer Sager after hearing Dean Friedman for the first time in a while. I may now be stuck in a 70’s Radio 2 playlist, so its probably the Beach Boys up next.

This album was great fun, though some tracks went on a little too long with a bit too much Jools’ish “noodling” for my tastes. The humour and irony of some of the Broadway/Showtune flourishes  were probably lost on me a  little. As the parent of an 11 year old daughter I find that anything related to Glee/HSM/Kids from Fame etc.etc., is no laughing matter!

Van Dyke Parks – Discover America: Round 37 – Tom’s Selection

The themes, assuming we have to adhere to them, comrades, are definitely getting more challenging. For our latest meeting we had to bring something that the others would find surprising (I suspect this was Graham’s attempt for the rest of us to join him in Marillion based shame). In the weeks following our last club night I have wrestled with this idea, as in, ‘How do the others perceive my musical leanings?’ Cue much heart wrenching psycho-analysis. You see, I have had an ever more overwhelming sense that my selections for record club up until now have been depressingly predictable. Even the less likely records have been predictable in their unpredictability. So, short of going to a second hand record shop and making some random selection I was more than a little stumped. In the end I opted for Discover America, probably a blindingly obvious choice for me to bring, but a music that is so unusual that until I bought it a couple of months ago, I had no idea existed. Surely that must be surprising?

I almost didn’t buy Discover America. Although I have been on the look out for some Van Dyke Parks on vinyl for most of my adult life, when it eventually turned up in The Drift record shop in Totnes, brand spanking new reissues of Discover America, Song Cycle and Clang of the Yankee Reaper, I was tempted to leave them on the shelf.

The reason? Until recently all I knew of Van Dyke Parks was that he released a few odd but revered records in the late 60s and early 70s and that he was closely involved in the Beach Boys’ Smile project. As a big fan of Pet Sounds (see Round 14) I had eagerly bought Brian Wilson’s Smile when it was released a few years ago. Hated it. When the true version saw the light of day in 2011 I was given it as a birthday present and was shocked to find it wasn’t much better. So my eagerness to check out some Van Dyke Parks had already cooled somewhat. Nevertheless, it seemed churlish to pass up the opportunity when it finally arose, so I asked the lady behind the desk in the shop which of Song Cycle or Discover America she would recommend in particular, to which she replied, ‘Neither. I don’t really get anything from Van Dyke Parks records. Do you?’ and she turned to her assistant who agreed wholeheartedly that VDP records were most definitely to be avoided. Whilst I admire the honesty of their answers, I can’t help but question their sales technique. Surely the idea of stocking a record is to sell it!?! Luckily for me, Mr Parks and The Drift, I stubbornly disregarded their advice and bought Discover America anyway, no doubt falling for the oldest sales trick in the book in the process.

Regardless, I have quickly grown to love Discover America. But that’s not to say that it wasn’t tricky at first. In his review of the first three VDP albums, Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene said, ‘If you’ve heard any of Van Dyke Parks‘ solo records in your life, your first reaction was likely some variant on “I don’t get it.” That’s okay, you weren’t supposed to.’ In fact, the only person I know who has unequivocally expressed a liking to Discover America first time through is my “notoriously hard to impress because she is ten” ten year old daughter, Tess. Maybe that’s because she is coming to it without the weight of expectation that decades of homogeny in modern music produces in us. You see, Discover America is an album of cover versions of 1940s calypso songs as played out in the mind of a 29 year old American composer. It’s different!

The album starts with Mighty Sparrow’s own recording of Jack Palance but from then on it’s all Parks’ own interpretations. And it’s clear a few listens in that this is a work of complete reverence for the material, Parks’ tongue is most definitely not in his cheek! It’s charming stuff and definitely not an album to section up into chunks – not many of these songs would make sense on a compilation of white American music of the last few decades. That said, current faves include the Toussaint compositions, Occapella and Riverboat, the bluesy vibraphones of John Jones and the lilting ‘Franco’ style Bing Crosby. But it’s the sort of album where the favourites chop and change and the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.  Whether Discover America constitutes a surprising choice or not remains to be seen, I’m just as interested to see if the DRC crew can see past the weight of popular opinion and join Tess in ‘getting it’ from the off.

Nick listened: Clearly I ignored the vague theme to “bring something surprising” (my records are all, bar new purchases, still packed ready for moving, so I’ve not got much choice for “surprising”!). But so did everyone else! Except Tom, who now has an exceptional track record of bringing records by artists I’ve been aware of for what seems like aeons but never got round to listening to. VDP is very much one of those – I knew he hung out with the Beach Boys and Byrds, scored other people’s records, and was generally a significant “figure” in that era of “classic” US pop/rock that certain print magazines have never got over, but I’ve never been curious enough to pick up a record. If I had, it would almost certainly have been Song Cycle, his debut, rather than this strange curio of a record. I have no idea how faithful VDP’s versions of these calypso songs are – I suspect his arrangements are considerably more ornate (orchestras not being that prevalent in the calypso I know!), but he does throw in steel drums and suchlike from time to time. It took me a few tracks to get a grip of what Discover America was doing, but by the second half I’d got into the vibe, and found myself really enjoying it. Would listen again.

Rob listened: Tom had played this to me a few weeks earlier when he was still in his period of bafflement with it. In my appreciation of music, or at least in the way I approach musical appreciation, I’m much closer to Tom’s children Tess and Kit than I am to the great man himself. I never feel the need to get underneath the skin of a record, unpick what makes it work, disassemble and reassemble it to learn how it fits together. I’d rather not know. It spoils the magic somehow.

Even if I did feel the need, I just don’t have the musical acuity of a Rainbow Snr or the critical vocabulary of a Southall. I just go with gut feeling. I found ‘Discover America’ supremely disorienting the first time I heard it. The second time it sounded like a crazy, sunny wonder. My only complaint is that it leaves me tantalised. Why is this such a curio? Why didn’t a tributary of the pop floodplain flow down from this record? How would the next 20 years have been different if our most prominent songwriters has displayed such  wild abandon and then chucked in such grin-spreading tunes?

Graham listened: When I saw the cover of this immediately concluded we were in for  something like REO Speedwagon or Journey. Not that I have have any of their albums, it just looks like the album cover that they would have.

That scary moment aside, I was very confused by this and the who/why’s/what’s it all about for a while. Something definitely not to bother too much about with this album and far better just to sit back and enjoy a very strange but ultimately ‘feelgood’ classic that I had never heard of prior to DRC.

Liars – WIXIW: Round 37, Nick’s choice

Since Rob played They Were Wrong, So We Drowned at us almost a year ago, I’ve been wanting to properly re-evaluate Liars, who I’d dismissed circa Drum’s Not Dead rather too quickly. When I heard that they were releasing a new album earlier this year, and that it saw them fulsomely exploring electronic music, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to tackle my preconceptions.

So I bought WIXIW (pronounced “wish you”) on day of release, and dove in enthusiastically. I’ve not been disappointed – alongside Field Music it’s probably the album I’ve listened to most this year, and it’s very definitely amongst my favourites. It feels to me like an important record, somehow, like it has a purpose and a point to make. I thought I’d passed a point of caring about “importance” in things like that, but Liars and Swans are making me doubt that I have.

Eschewing “rock” instruments and textures almost entirely, Liars recruited Mute label boss Daniel Miller to produce WIXIW, and his lifetime’s expertise in and knowledge of electronic music apparently awed (and almost overwhelmed) this otherwise seemingly pugnaciously confident trio. The resulting album, whilst sonically extremely confident and accomplished, is spiritually and lyrically conflicted and ambiguous: Liars here vacillate between the desire for proximity and intimacy, and solitude which borders on solipsism, and the cumulative effect is of a record full of and beset by doubt. The doubt that subsequently infects these songs seems to be about the creative process as much as it is outside relationships.

I’m fascinated by WIXIW, by the way its looped synthesisers, found-sounds and rhythms simultaneously attract and unsettle you, by the way its lyrics seem both obstinate and unsure (“I refuse to be a person”; “I wish you were here with me… / wish you would not come back to me”), by the way it marries beatific near-ambience (The Exact Colour of Doubt) with unrepentant, electro-shock-therapy 21st century punk (Brats). A handful of the songs seem straightforward accessible, with hooks, refrains and rhythms to tempt you in (the afrorementioned Brats, No. 1 Against the Rush), whilst others trade in complex, obfuscating structures (the title track) or spooked textures and messages (Ill Valley Prodigies), adding to the sense of doubt and duality.

Liars’ closest sonic and spiritual cousins on WIXIW are, rather unsurprisingly, latter-day Radiohead, and the vocals and melodies here are occasionally redolent of specific moments of that band’s career (one lyrical melody in particular reminds me of Amnesiac-era b-side Cuttooth), but there’s something edgier, more outsider, about Liars. I’ve delved backwards from WIXIW into Sisterworld, intend to reacquaint myself with Drum’s Not Dead as soon as our CD collection is unpacked after we move house, and I have another three albums to investigate after that. Exploring them from a distance, I’m rather disappointed not to have been along for the ride since the beginning.

Tom Listened: I was very taken with this (however you spell it/pronounce it). As opposed to other Liars records I have heard (records 2 and 3 in their discography), WIXIV seemed really accessible and friendly, even warm…which is not something I would have thought I would ever be writing with regard to a Liars album. Whilst it is probably a tad less intriguing than Drum’s Not Dead or the other one with the very long name, it seemed a much more enjoyable (in its purest sense) listen to me – kind of like comparing Clear Spot to Trout Mask Replica. I’d take the latter to my desert island but I have played the former far more times and am much fonder of it.

For some reason, and I am can not put my finger on why, there was something in the sound of WIXIV that reminded me of Tame Impala, but seeing as Liars are definitely not a retro-psych-rock outfit, I can only imagine its Angus Andrew’s Antipodean origins that are creating any vague similarities, most likely in vocal style.

Rob listened: Liars are one of my favourite bands of the last ten years. Any band that makes successively startling records, with no hint from album to album where they may be heading next, is surely a treasure to be clasped to the collective bosom. I’ve been trying really really hard not to buy records this year, and as such ‘WIXIW’ is at the top of my Christmas List and had remained deliberately unheard until this evening. I found myself deliberately failing to listen closely, deferring that particular pleasure, but the album sounded every bit as intriguing and mesmerising as Nick describes. I got lots and lots of echoes of ‘They Were Wrong, So We Drowned’ which is possibly my favourite of the preceding five albums. Whilst it’s a first to hear an album of theirs that seems to have such overlap with a previous effort, this simply serves to put a double underline underneath the first item in my letter to Santa.

Graham listened: I am a dinosaur.

Perhaps to expand a little, I mean the above in relation to all electronic/dance type music since the early/mid 1990’s. I nearly had a moment with The Knife and Fever Ray and its the closest I have come to an eureka moment. While choices like this continue to challenge me, I seem to be immune to the stuff and I’m gonna have to face it (apologies, but my anxieties around modern electronic music has led to me suffering a Palmerism).

I’m in no position to comment really but enjoyed listening to this and maybe if I had been at Round 18 I could have appreciated more the distance of travel from Rob’s offering earlier on.

Marillion – Misplaced Childhood – Round 36 – Graham’s Choice

When Nick set us the challenge of finding a concept album, my immediate reaction was where to begin with the options I had lurking in my collection. Then the reality dawned that I had not purchased anything resembling a concept album since 1987.

By then I had learned to leave such things well alone as there were far more interesting things to be listened to.

I referred fellow members to the sleeve notes which accompanied my copy of ‘Radio K.A.O.S.’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_K.A.O.S.) should they need any further evidence that my not having bought a concept album since 1987 was a very good thing. That still left me with a problem as to what to play. Rather than dip out, as I had done on debut album round, I assembled my dozen or so Floyd/Genesis etc. options and set off to, at least what I regarded, as the second novelty round (see round Round 17) of DRC.

My final choice above was inspired by a number of factors. I knew that Nick had had this inflicted on him at a vulnerable age and was interested to see how he felt about it now. I also retained a little bit of affection for Marillion having watched them live and seen them being savaged by the music press at the beginning of their career. Looking back, it almost feels like the music press had to invent the “neo-prog” genre just to explain them away. The suggestion was that they tapped in to a group of fans that had been in hibernation since the mid 70’s and were to suddenly reawaken when Marillion appeared in 1982. They didn’t fit the scene, they weren’t good looking, had questionable album cover art, but had a huge following and sold millions of records.

Anyway, with this 1985 album they managed a pretty neat trick by delivering their first full concept album and managed to produce a couple of AOR singles which charted both sides of the Atlantic. A challenge for fellow members would be to find another album which had such a significant impact on the naming of children, as in late 2005, 96% of Kayleighs living in the United Kingdom were born after 1985 (though maybe a few parents couldn’t spell “Kylie”). Anyway, while some of us sang along, recounting lyrics word for word after a 25 year break, others shifted nervously in their seats, while some bordered on spontaneous combustion. The album features the commercial singles at the beginning which then settles you in to a proggy/rocky ride to the triumphant U2’esque closer.

A lot of ground was covered in discussion and it was even speculated that in 1985 the logical implication, LM  NG was true, (where LM was expressing a liking for Marillion and NG was having no girlfriend). Some seemed to enjoy the ride, but I suspect not all.

Nick listened: When I was 10 I was a contestant on a BBC kids’ TV quiz show, and I won a Sony Walkman. Around about the same time, I inherited a box of albums on cassette from my older brothers (they’re 9 and 11 years older than me). One thing leads to another, and three of those cassettes got listened to a lot. An awful, awful lot. So much so that, probably 20 years since I last heard Misplaced Childhood in full, I could remember almost every lyric, every musical fill and riff and turn, every spoken-word passage about poetic Scottish spiders.

(If you’re wondering, the other two were Open Up And Say… Ahhhhh! by Poison, and Appetite for Destruction by Guns ‘n’ Roses.)

At 33, I have no idea whether I like Misplaced Childhood or not; there’s too much time, too much baggage, too much association to make a genuine value judgement. I never really investigated Marillion any further – I think Script For A Jester’s Tear was in that shoebox too but I didn’t take to it – probably because it was lacking Kayleigh and Lavender as frontloaded hooks to lure in the pre-adolescent me. I’ve threatened several times to buy it on CD, but never done so. Not because of Emma’s threats to divorce me, but out of some sense of learned guilt – this music is bad, is wrong, is pompous and decadent and all that bad stuff that punk washed away.

But it’s also, occasionally, incredibly catchy, melodic… and beautiful? Exciting? It was absolutely fantastic fun singing along the other night, pulling faces, throwing comedy prog-shapes, watching Rob squirm uncomfortably. I’d say, if pushed, that I don’t believe in “guilty” pleasures (I’m not religious and certainly not Catholic): Misplaced Childhood comes pretty damn close to being one, though.

As an aside, I used to moderate a band’s forum, and whenever arguments broke out, as they tend to do on forums, I would post the complete lyrics to this album as a way of making people shut up and leave the offending thread. I’ve not done that in years and years and years. So, in that great tradition, here are the lyrics to Kayleigh. Please feel free to pick your cheesiest remembrance from amongst Derek Dick’s words…

“Do you remember chalk hearts melting on a playground wall
Do you remember dawn escapes from moon washed college halls
Do you remember that cherry blossom in the market square
Do you remember I thought it was confetti in our hair
By the way didn’t I break your heart?
Please excuse me, I never meant to break your heart
So sorry, I never meant to break your heart
But you broke mine

Kayleigh is it too late to say I’m sorry? But Kayleigh could we get it together again?
I just can’t go on pretending that it came to a natural end

Kayleigh, oh I never thought I’d miss you
And Kayleigh I thought that we’d always be friends
We said our love would last forever
So how did it come to this bitter end?

Do you remember barefoot on the lawn with shooting stars
Do you remember loving on the floor in Belsize Park
Do you remember dancing in stilletoes in the snow
Do you remember you never understood I had to go
By the way, didn’t I break your heart?
Please excuse me, I never meant to break your heart
So sorry, I never meant to break your heart
But you broke mine

Kayleigh I just wanna say I’m sorry
But Kayleigh I’m too scared to pick up the phone
to hear you’ve found another lover to patch up our broken home

Kayleigh I’m still trying to write that love song
Kayleigh it’s more important to me now you’re gone
Maybe it will prove that you were right
or it will prove that I was wrong”

Tom Listened: This was undoubtedly one of Graham’s more inspired choices. Just to see the look on Rob’s face when Marillion was compared to Low (the band not the album). Don’t believe me? Go listen to Lavender, imagine it slowed down to a funereal lilt, chuck in some mumbled lyrics and an acoustic strum. It’s a dead ringer. And the best bit? That little look in Rob’s face when he suddenly realised that this comparison was not so wide of the mark after all. Priceless! Now, he will of course deny it but it was there, just for a split second admittedly, but definitely, undeniably, there.

Of course the record itself is preposterous, the production of the music is almost as horrible as the production of the cover art…and the lyrics?…Well, just see Nick’s post. However, some of the melodies are sweet and I reckon I may just get in touch with Mimi and Alan and suggest that they follow through.

Rob didn’t listen: 

“Awful, awful” – Nick Southall

“I may just follow through”  – Tom Rainbow

“I retained a little affection for them being savaged” – Graham Pollock

Reactions can easily be taken out of context. If Tom saw a look which he interpreted as acceptance crossing my face when he talked about ‘Lavender’ sounding like my beloved Low it could have actually represented any of the following fleeting thoughts: ‘Why am I in a room listening to Marillion?’ ‘Why aren’t these people who I thought were my friends smashing this record to pieces?’ ‘Did someone just mention Low and does this mean i’m being talked down to safety?’ Amusing as the point is, in the interest of accuracy I have to say that I did not even fleetingly give it credence. Here’s why: Imagine ANY rock song, in fact ANY SONG AT ALL, slowed down to an acoustic brush and hum and it will sound like Low. Here’s one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nVrwzptNVc. So, it’s like observing that the sky appears to be blue or suggesting that the Pope shits in the woods, or somesuch.

Secondly. Oh god, do I have to go on? When I was fifteen I decided that the music I liked was Public Image Limited and this begat The Smiths which begat The Fall. In making this choice, I set myself against a number of the opposite positions I could easily, accidentally, have adopted. These included any records made pre-1977. I have softened on this. Most importantly I adopted an ideological repulsion for prog rock and, particularly Marillion and Genesis. I have not softened on this. I never listened to their records, but some of my friends did. Hating those records was one of the things I did as a teenager to create my adolescent self. I see now that this was, essentially, just blind luck. I could have gone the other way. But I didn’t. To go back now, or at any point over the last 25 years, would be to strike at the very foundations of the person I’ve become. Everyone likes a revolution, and addressing preconceptions about oneself has to be healthy, but some keystones need to stay in place or else the asylum beckons.

Prior to this evening I didn’t give a fuck what this record sounded like, it was kryptonite as far as I was concerned. That’s a poor attitude, I know, but it explains the largely physical reaction I had when confronted with a record I had never heard but which I had arbitrarily yet passionately set myself against.

Now, against my will, I’ve sort of heard it and I was right all along.

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