Mark Lanegan – Blues Funeral – Round 42 – Graham’s Choice

mark-lanegan-band-blues-funeralDecisions, decisions, decisions. How would I choose  just one album from 2012 for the end of year meeting? Well, with only two to pick between, this was not too tricky.

Unconsciously I managed to begin and end 2012 with Mark Lanegan. Round 20 saw him appear with the Screaming Trees and started me wondering why I never followed his solo career. This album was released around the same time and I began looking in to his extensive solo and collaborative career pre and post the demise of his former band.

I’ve still to properly evaluate the rest of his releases but something about this album just grabbed me from the moment I first heard it. His vocal style has now evolved in to something so rich that listening to it is like curling up in your favourite (if you have one) blanket.

On ‘Blues Funeral’ he seems to steer away from purer Blues/Country sounds I’ve heard on his other solo work and produces, what some might say, is a scattergun of styles. For me it just shows how he can apply his vocal style across so many genres. Fitting disco, grunge, electro, blues, Spaghetti Western and U2’esque moments  all on one album, might be too much for some. He seems to get away with it because of the consistency of his vocals and lyrics brings it all together. He might have just been lazy but he never overstretches his delivery style across any of the tracks.

While his lyrics deal with his normal fare of hangmen, bells tolling, whiskey stained glasses etc., e.t.c………., there is just something about his vocals that keeps you listening and inspires hope across the gloom and menace he is painting.

My two picks from the album would have to be ‘St Louis Elegy’ (with the added tension that it could break in to Bon Jovi’s ‘Blaze of Glory’ at any moment) along with ‘Harborview Hospital’ (hinting that at some future point it may become socially acceptable to listen to the ‘Joshua Tree’ in public).

Nick listened: As was revealed back when Graham played Dust, I’m a fan of Screaming Trees (especially Dust), and I’m passingly familiar with Lanegan’s post-Trees work, too – most pointedly his albums in collaboration with Isobel Campbell (formerly of Belle & Sebastian) and with Queens Of The Stone Age.

I was intrigued by this album when it came out back at the start of the year, but somehow not enough to buy it – I heard bits and bobs in record shops and on 6music, and thought it sounded interesting. In contrast to Graham’s perception of an eclectic album, it came across to me as very consistent; as well as his oak-smoked, whiskey-aged, granite-hewn voice, Lanegan uses an almost monochromatic sound palette here, synthesisers and drum machines binding together his genre-excursions so they feel very much of a kind. I enjoyed Blues Funeral, but it suffered a little from the company it kept – Fiona Apple, Perfume Genius, and Julia Holter all blew me away, whilst this was just a good listen.

Rob listened: Really pleased to see this land on Tom’s special DRC meeting table. I’d played it on Spotify a couple of times earlier in the year and found it both more immediate and more varied than earlier Lanegan records I have. I love Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Mudhoney, Tindersticks, Lee Hazlewood and a number of other points of navigation which point to Lanagan Land. In theory he ought to sit in a sweet spot between all of these, but in practice I always find him good to listen to but ultimately a little underwhelming. I guess I was more whelmed by this, with its buzzing, krautish undertow and a more direct and brutish approach than some of his more country-inflected efforts. Glad to be reminded of a record which had become lost in the mists of 2012.

Tom Listened: Although I was initially reminded of Tom Waits at his least weird when I first heard Blues Funeral – the voice is ‘getting there’, although Lanegan may need a New Year’s resolution to up his cigarette quota if he is ever to catch up with the great man – on reflection I think latter day Springsteen may be closer to the mark. Having bought my first Springsteen album this year (Tunnel of Love) and listening to it today, I was struck at how Springsteen’s conventional approach to producing an album (as in, ‘collect 12 really good songs together that on first hearing sound pleasant enough but over repeated listens reveal themselves as much more than you initially thought but are ultimately just 12 really good songs rather than some sort of major artistic statement’), is probably mirrored by Lanegan’s album from this year. A pleasant enough listen then, certainly preferable (for me) than Dust and possibly one of those that would go on to reveal riches beyond what was initially obvious, although I don’t think track 10 would ever sound like the Beach Boys no matter how many times I listened!

Perfume Genius – ‘Put Your Back N 2 It’: Round 42 – Rob’s choice

perfume genius - put your back n 2 itFor me 2012 has been dominated and, to some extent book-ended, by two albums, ‘Mr M’ by Lambchop and ‘The Seer’ by Swans. Both are favourite artists of long-standing who have, after many, many years, produced career-defining records. Both albums manage to distill the essence of what has made their creators so important, to me at least, and still move their music on to yet another level of beauty, brutality, virtuosity and wonder (delete as appropriate). I saw both bands play devastatingly brilliant live shows this year. Kurt Wagner and Lambchop were exquisite, care-worn and heartbreakingly beautiful at the Bristol Fleece. Michael Gira and Swans were jaw-dropping, almost jaw-breaking, in their symphonic violence, a pulverising yet ultimately sublime experience which took days to recover from. I’m hopeless at remembering past gigs, but both these shows felt like they would fit comfortably within my top ten all-time list, if only I could recall the other 8.

I’ve already presented ‘Mr M’ to the Record Club and ‘The Seer’ is pretty much twice as long as the upper limit that DRC can tolerate. Which brings me for my record of the year choice, happily, to the second album by Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, which has also been on almost constant rotation this year. Superficially, there is little to bind this record to the other two. It’s a short album, just a little over half an hour, populated by 12 concise songs, most of which are simple sketches for piano and voice. However, Kurt Wagner would surely recognise the timeless delicacy of the songs and M. Gira would certainly appreciate the existential bleakness of the lyrics.

Hadreas has an incredible touch when it comes to melody. These are such simple, delicate, still songs but somehow he manages to breath a warm and fragile life into each. They are, in essence, torch songs, as memorable and beautiful as any, but meticulously drained of melodrama and sentimentality to leave brittle bones and reverberating husks. Within these he lays bare his passion, his self-loathing, his wounds and his desolate desires.

If this year has produced a lyric as bleakly poetic as ’17’ then i’ve yet to hear it. Almost laughable set down on the inner sleeve, in the context of the record it is horrifyingly direct and distressing. If this year has produced a song as heart-stopping as the 2 minutes of ‘Hood’, a moment more vertiginous than that when the drums swell in the middle of this track, then I don’t want to hear it for fear I may swoon clean away.

Hadreas is a rare, if tortured, talent. I have no idea where he may go from here, but ‘Put Your Back N 2 It’ is an album which approaches perfection. If Lambchop and Swans built the two major musical monuments of 2012, then Perfume Genius connected the two with a frozen river of votive songs.

Graham listened: I’ve left many a DRC meeting thinking about buying what someone else has brought along and gone on to do so. After listening to this I just knew I had to have  it, and with Christmas coming it went straight on my list. Simply astonishing.

Nick listened: Two for two. Emma and I saw Perfume Genius live (albeit very briefly) at ATP earlier this month, and also saw Owen Pallett follow him onstage and enthuse sincerely about how much Hadreas’ music means to him. On first exposure, in a Pontins discotheque, his piano-lead eulogies to youth, emotion, sensation, and regret didn’t come across that well (partly down to the very drunk girl puking on the carpet in front of us), but on record, Perfume Genius’ intimate talents were much more understandable. ‘Hood’, as Rob suggests, was worth the admission price alone. Suspecting that Emma would love the record’s bleak intimacy and simplicity, I bought her a copy last week in The Drift for Christmas. I’m looking forward to listening to it again myself.

Tom Listened: I was really glad that Rob brought Put Your Back In 2 It’ as his album of the year not least because I gave it to him for his birthday! I bought it with next to no knowledge of the band – I had read a few positive reviews and had a cursory listen in The Drift (how many plugs to they get from us nowadays? Surely it’s time to sort out some sort of commission…) to the first couple of tracks and, on hearing track 2 I came to the conclusion it sounded a bit like Will Oldham and would therefore nestle happily amongst the vinyl in Rob’s collection. It turned out that Rob already knew and liked Perfume Genius, that he had already played a track from the debut album at Record Club and, therefore, that I had shown supreme lack of imagination in making my choice of purchase. It also turns out that track 2 – the (ironically(?)) named Normal Song) is a red herring, being a couple of plucked strings on a guitar rather than the piano led torch songs that populate the rest of the album.

I liked the record – it sounded like a more honest, poignant and (much) less theatrical Anthony and the Johnsons (and I much preferred it to I Am A Bird Now, the one AATJ album I own) – but I wasn’t as blown away by it as I sensed Nick and Graham were…yet again I feel this is a record I would quickly grow to love if I spent some time with it, but I wish Hadreas had placed a more equal balance of guitar and piano on the record as I am a complete sucker for a parched acoustic guitar and a plaintive vocal (see the aforementioned Normal Song).

Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel etc: Round 42 – Tom’s Selection

FionaAppleIdlerWheel600GbAs we reach the end of another paltry year of contemporary purchases for me and the end of year lists are pouring in full of albums I’ve never heard of by outfits I’ve never heard of, I’m more unsure than ever of the worth of the process. You see, I could easily come up with a list of THE top ten albums from this year but it would include the majority of current albums I’ve got to know well over the last 12 months. If I were to post said list, I’m sure any reader would assume I had devoured far more music than I actually have and would not realise that my number 10 would represent a scraping of the barrel rather than a glittering jewel plucked from a huge vault of varied and comprehensive listening. At the other end of the spectrum are those lists that are so long they beggar belief – how can anyone get properly acquainted with 100+ albums in a year? Yet you regularly see lists of this length made by a single person! Do they do anything other than make lists while sitting around their stereo all night long? Probably not. Either that or (whisper it) they don’t really know what they’re talking about.

That said, it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that I don’t avidly follow the lists at this time of year scouring them to find that undiscovered gem I had previously overlooked or been unaware of. And as this is a time of giving as much as receiving it’s only right that I do my bit to contribute to the end of year thing. So…just in case you’ve lived in a cave over the last 12 months, have not followed the reviews or just think you happen to dislike this sort of thing, Fiona Apple released an album in June…and that’s my album of 2012 (and I’m fairly confident about this). It’s called: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (not sure these album titles do her any favours). I would urge you to listen to it. You may well find it not to your taste, and that’s fine, but I think you should definitely check it out. I say this, not because I’ve listened to hundreds of new albums this year but because I think it’s a remarkable album – brutal and subtle, always interesting and unsettling even if it veers tantalisingly close to ‘kooky’ territory at times (too close for some, perhaps). This is the first Fiona Apple album I’ve owned but it will probably not be the last.

The last time I heard a solo female artist sound this confident and instinctive on a record was on St Vincent’s second album Actor. The two albums don’t sound that alike really but they share an honesty and a lack of self-consciousness that enable the songs to reach parts that more considered records (see Strange Mercy) do not.  But whereas Actor has moments of sonic assault, it seems to me that The Idler Wheel is all about space, momentum and the balance between simplicity and complexity which seem to coexist simultaneously on many of the songs. Check out Periphery, Johnathan, Werewolf, Every Single Night…that’s practically half the album already! All these songs have such spartan instrumentation, often just a piano plonking away every now and then – it’s the melody lines and Apple’s (exquisite) singing that lift the song from the ordinary to the frequently extraordinary. That and the astonishing drumming that reaches it’s zenith on the album’s breathtaking closer Hot Knife which, for the most part, is just a drum, Apple and her sister Maude Maggart. This was a joker track (songs that we have to listen to properly..although you are allowed to check the football scores during them, apparently) for which nobody needed to be instructed not to speak! It’s a cracking end to a cracking album and if you can find a record from 2012 that I (and my family for that matter) prefer you’ll be doing well. Maybe the answer lies in those end of year lists. Then again, maybe not!

Nick listened: I bought Fiona Apple’s debut album many, many years ago, I think on the advice of my older brother after enjoying her cover of Across The Universe. I quite liked it, as I recall, but haven’t played it in many years – I suspect it was a victim of the post-adolescent indie boy’s fear of women. I’ll be revisiting it soon to reasses.

Because this was awesome; several times during the playback I said “this is a jazz album!” and, with its minimal arrangements, sense of musical freedom and unusual chords, it certainly felt closer to jazz than mainstream pop. Apple’s vocals, almost scatting at points, add to the impression. I was intrigued and beguiled by The Idler Wheel, and I’ll be picking it up pretty soon, I think. PS. I did indeed pick up a copy, last week in The Drift; I also picked up Ekstasis by Julia Holter, which Tom played a track from. An expensive week’s listening!

Graham listened: Unfortunately I am a bit of a ‘Kooky Monster’ and offer short shrift to those that bend, rather than play within or completely break, the rules. An interesting listen but it fell outside my my boundaries on to the stony land of stuff I don’t try hard enough to appreciate.

Rob listened: I had Fiona Apple filed somewhere only slightly to the left of Alanis Morissette and due North of Liz Phair. To be honest, all I really knew about her was that she used to be a bit poppy, had gone a bit more left-field and kept getting mentions on Pitchfork, although i’d never really unravelled whether this was because they dug her or because she was having some sort of extended public breakdown.

I’m so pleased Tom sorted all that out for me. ‘The Idler Wheel’ clearly deserves all the plaudits it has received. Somehow both rich and sparse, it feels like creature who’s internal structures you can see working mysteriously away whilst it lives and breathes. We talked about how lazy it feels to compare female singer songwriters only to other female singer songwriters. To be fair, we’re probably equally lazy when it comes to comparing male performers too. I wonder, however, whether the reason we find ourselves invoking St Vincent and Merrill Garbus and Joanna Newsom when we listen to a record like this, is that women just happen to be making the most challenging and inventive music at the moment?

Loved it, will buy it.

Grizzly Bear – Shields: Round 42, Nick’s Choice

Grizzly-Bear-Shields

And lo, our end-of-2012 meeting is upon us, and we all have to bring a record from the waning year. The best? Our favourite? What do these superlatives even mean? I’m not sure if Shields by Grizzly Bear, the Brooklyn four-piece’s fourth album, is either, but it’s certainly one of the records I’ve played and enjoyed the most over the course of 2012, even though it only came out in September. (Two of the others – Liars and Field Music – I’ve already played.) I know Tom and Rob are both fans of the band, but haven’t heard this record yet, and I suspected that Graham would have heard of them but not heard anything by them, so it seemed like a sensible, if obvious, choice, to finish off this year’s sessions.

Shields is, on first contact, the most direct Grizzly Bear album to date. 2006’s Yellow House (confession – I’ve not heard ostensible debut album Horn of Plenty, which is essentially, I understand, home demos by a near-solo Ed Droste rather than a full-band album) is an unusually structured, dream-like record which inhabit a strange space between alt.rock, folk, jazz, prog, and psychedelia. Songs take strange turns, disintegrate before your ears, ghostly repetitions of gossamer melodies which sound like they (to paraphrase Tom last night) were discovered in a dusty attic of an abandoned house. 2009’s Veckatimest firmed things up slightly by delivering a couple of bona fide singles and some driving, spiralling, physical psychedelia, but many songs still drifted in beautifully unpredictable directions. They’re the kind of records that reward repeat listens, where familiarity doesn’t breed boredom but revelation.

Shields, on the other hand, starts with three of the most rollicking, melodically and rhythmically direct songs Grizzly Bear have ever conjured (interspersed, of course, with an acoustic coda and ambient diversion or two). Things aren’t entirely straightforward, though – “Yet Again” dissolves in a firestorm of guitar noise, “Sleeping Ute” collapses soporifically into the aforementioned coda, and “Speak in Rounds” slowly coalesces into the ambient-interlude of “Adelma” – but for the most part, Grizzly Bear sound consistently like a proper rock band for possibly the first time.

Across the record their songwriting seems more focused, their instrumentation more forceful, but there’s still amazing subtlety on show, too; “The Hunt” and “What’s Wrong” display almost as much delicacy as anything they’ve done previously, while “Gun-Shy” pulls them in new directions I’m not familiar with. Which is to say that, even though Shields is undoubtedly more direct than its predecessors, it’s absolutely just as richly detailed and full of depth, too. I put it away for a few weeks when we moved house, wondering if I’d explored all there was to find within its coffers, and was pleasantly surprised when I dug it out again and realised I hadn’t.

I’ve liked, admired, and been intrigued by Grizzly Bear for an age, but this year I’ve fallen for them hard, and Shields is a big part of that.

Tom Listened: My entry point to Grizzly Bear was Yellow House and, once I had worked out what speed to play it at (after about a month of listening to it at a grizzly, funereal 33rpm) I was drawn to its otherwordly sound and haunting songs. I think it’s fair to say that I admired it rather than loved it but I was intrigued by something that sounded so unusual yet didn’t stray too far from the norm – it was, after all, guitar, bass and drums primarily but it certainly managed inhabit an unusual world quite unlike anything else.

And this was where Veckatimest fell down for me. The individual songs sounded great but, for some reason, the overall sound of the record didn’t draw me back very often – it just sounded like four accomplished human beings playing their instruments really well – and I haven’t listened to it for an age. The video of Ready Able though is amazing and me and my children have spent a disproportionate amount of time trying to guess what the story is.

I digress…I didn’t bother with Shields because, even though it had garnered great reviews, so did it’s predecessor. It would be bound to be another disappointment right? Pretty enough but not much to bring you back for another listen. Well, how wrong I was! Sure, Shields sounded fantastic. You’d expect it to. But this has an energy, a vibrancy that, for me, Veckatimest lacks. At times it sounded almost tempestuous – a million miles away from Yellow House but none the worse for it. Nick opined that the initial burst of vitality would soon ease but to my ears it was maintained through the course of the album. I loved Shields and am very glad indeed that Nick was so predictable!

Graham listened: Again, like Perfume Genius, I knew I had to have Shields as soon as I heard it and it went straight on Xmas list. While Rob’s choice knocked me over, I just found  Shields hugely enjoyable to listen to. It hasn’t arrived yet but I’m looking forward to listening again to see if some of the more bizarre reference points I found on first listen, still hold true.

Rob listened: Nick has been pulling ‘Shields’ out of his little knapsack at every meeting for the last four months or so, just waiting for an excuse to play it. I’ve been hoping he’d hold off until Christmas, as it’s the one record I was pretty confident i’d find stuffed up my festive stocking and i’ve been trying to avoid it. I was right in that respect, Santa sorted me out, with a little help from The Drift, but hearing it for the first time at DRC was a pleasure all the same.

I’m drawn really strongly to Grizzly Bear, and can relate to much of what Tom and Nick have said above. I have all their other records and have given lots of time to them, but I still don’t know whether I really get them. I’m not the sort of listener who will listen over and over to records waiting for the ‘click’ to happen. I like lots of impenetrable music, often simply for its impenetrability. Records change over time, but in most cases they give up their riches quickly and then the vitality slowly drips away with each subsequent listen. ‘Yellow House’ and ‘Veckatimest’ both seem like luminous mysteries to me, like a W.S. Burroughs novel or a David Lynch movie. I’m not sure I ever want them to click.

‘Shields’ sounded great and i’m desperate to get back home to listen to my gorgeous vinyl copy. I hope its so-called immediacy isn’t a sign that it will give up the goods too easily. I suspect in fact that its just a little louder, just a little faster, just a little spikier than their previous records but that there are still dark hidden spaces in there. Hope so.

Jane’s Addiction – Ritual de lo Habitual: Round 41, Nick’s choice

c‘Discipline’. Another vague, tossed-off theme that caused me trouble. Not wanting to buy King Crimson’s 1981 album Discipline, and not being able to find the 2010 remaster of Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats, which includes the singles “Discipline” in the bonus material, I had to wrack my brains. Searching iTunes revealed no songs with the words ‘discipline’ or ‘punishment’ in the title. I half-heartedly flicked through CDs I’ve not uploaded. Nothing.

So my thoughts turned to disciplined bands. Maybe I could play something else by The Necks, or infamous straight-edgers Fugazi? But that didn’t seem right either. How about ill-disciplined bands? Surely few groups have exhibited less discipline with regards to any part of the aphorism “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” than LA’s notorious Jane’s Addiction? Pornography, hard drugs, and extravagant guitar solos. A song about being apprehended (and presumably punished) for shoplifting. And what’s ritual if not disciplined?

Side 1 of Ritual de lo Habitual is, after a brief female voice welcomes us in Spanish, an adrenaline-charged rush through LA funk-punk-metal, the first three tracks all played at breakneck speed, nonsense lyrics (“Bumped my head / I’m a battering ram / I goddamn took the pain”) juxtaposed with allusions to racial inequality (“My sister and her boyfriend slept in the park / had to leave home because he was dark”) before the 6-minute repetition of “Obvious” hints at the weird, disconcerting voodoo to come on side 2.

Before you flip the record (I’ve only ever owned this on CD, of course) though, you get “Been Caught Stealing”, massive student-disco hit from the dawn of the 90s, like a Californian take on Happy Mondays. It is, purely and simply, about the joys of stealing things from shops. There’s literally no other way to interpret it. There’s a barking dog and some of the most outrageous riffing you’ll ever hear.

Side 2 is a different kettle of fish. It opens with the 12-minute voodoo-metal paean to the ménage-a-trois depicted on the album’s cover (in a papier-mâché sculpture by Perry Farrell) that is “Three Days”, somehow both profound (“Without game / Men prey on each other”), blasphemous (“Erotic Jesus lays with his Marys / Bits of puzzle / Fitting each other”), and ludicrous (Dave Navarro’s extraordinary guitar abuse).

“Then She Did”, an acoustic-Zeppelin-alike with woozy, disconcerting electric violin, documents the heroin-overdose death of a female friend of Farrell’s, and also the suicide of his mother when he was 4, while “Of Course” is a strange European-sounding folk dance with lyrics about man’s inhumanity to man. “Classic Girl” closes the album gently, a lovely tune with words about being cocooned from LA gang violence by being in love, and about what dicks men are.

I expected most if not all of DRC to be familiar with Ritual…; how wrong I was.

Graham listened: I was intrigued to listen to this as it’s a band I always felt I should have found out more about when this was released. Whatever preconceptions I had were wiped out with one listen. I was expecting something much grungier and darker, frankly this plain “rollicking”.

Rob listened: With the notable exception of ‘Been Caught Stealing’, which is a proper unhinged pop fusion classic, the less I hear Jane’s Addiction, the more I like them. Or to put it another way…

I find the idea of this band much more appealing than the actuality. I heard them a fair bit during my student days and once past the schlock shock aesthetic – Alice Cooper did it better and funnier 20 years earlier – the music is just too forced, too predictable. If they made a sound anywhere near as wild as the image they managed to flog then they might have had something but, for me, they’re just another bunch of whiny West Coast rockers. And can there be four more dread words in music than “LA punk-funk-metal”?

Tom Listened: About one third of the way through Ritual de Habitual, Nick suggested (as the rest of us wittered on about something or other) that it hadn’t been getting much of our attention. My immediate reaction was to feel a little guilty – he certainly had a point – but I think the surprising anonymity of the record was also partly to blame.

I had never knowingly heard Jane’s Addiction before having always been put off by their antics and look (and also by how they were described musically, although this was probably a secondary factor) I was expecting something quite industrial and extreme. In my mind I have had them down as precursors to Nine Inch Nails and bed fellows of The Young Gods or Einstürtzende Neubatten. I was shocked by how unshocking this was…which made me then think about the the band’s image and, by the end of the record, (by which time it had got a bit more interesting, admittedly) I was feeling somewhat piqued that their record buying public had been duped into thinking they were getting some sort of edgy, rebellious manifesto where as in actuality, to coin Rob’s phrase, they were investing in some LA punk-funk-metal. Emperor’s New Clothes anyone?

The Beat – ‘I Just Can’t Stop It’: Round 41 – Rob’s choice

the beatTo beat: to discipline. Geddit?

The rupture caused, or at least symbolised, by punk rock not only persuaded a thousand kids that they could be musicians without conservatory educations, but it also cleared space for styles and genres which had not previously troubled the mainstream to break through in their own rights or, in some cases, in thrilling new combinations.

The Beat formed in Birmingham in 1978 and, in the words of their angle-cheeked frontman Dave Wakeling, combined reggae drums, pop guitar and punk bass, all finished off by the warm vocal interplay between toaster Ranking Roger and Wakeling himself. They weren’t alone in blending such apparently disparate influences and although The Specials seemed to retain the hipster vote (baffingly to my ears) and Madness went on to become bona fide pop alchemists, The Beat were at least equal to both over their brief five-year, three-album career.

‘I Just Can’t Stop It’ is their 1980 debut, featuring the restless, spiky pulse of ‘Mirror in the Bathroom’, the irresistible rushing reggae of ‘Hands Off… She’s Mine’ and ‘Best Friend’, which takes their saxophone strut and strays deliciously into what I guess would later be called indie pop territory, to be populated by Orange Juice (contemporaries of The Beat) and Lloyd Cole and the Commotions.

‘Best Friend’ was my favourite song for about six months in the late 90s when ‘BPM: The Best of the Beat’ was released. I’m increasingly drawn back to the music that I absorbed via the radio as a child. I assumed it would always be there, and most of it is still lodged somewhere in my head. When I started to buy my own records I looked forward relentlessly, leaving the likes of The Beat along with XTC, The Associates, Elvis Costello, The Jam, Joe Jackson, The Police, Ian Dury and the Blockheads almost completely unexplored, beyond the Top 40 singles which remain firmly embedded. It’s only recently that i’ve begun to go back and collect albums by some of these artists and, in some cases, it has felt like unearthing beautiful hidden treasure.

The Beat went on to tour the US with REM as support. I recall hearing Michael Stipe bracket them with Gang of Four and Wire as influences on his early records and, listening to ‘I Just Can’t Stop It’, it’s possible to hear murmurs of the chiming, restless guitar sound which would come from Athens, Georgia over the next few years. When the Beat stopped, Wakeling and Ranking Roger became General Public, whilst Dave Steele and Andy Cox formed Fine Young Cannibals. The Beat have reformed in various competing combinations over the last decade or so, both here and in the US where they were known as The English Beat and where they have, even more confusingly, gone on to share a bill with the US outfit who had the name The Beat before them.

Regardless of what they’re up to now, those first few records were as sharp as pop gets, and they deserve to be held in the highest company.

Tom Listened: This was splendid! As Rob says, it’s a little bewildering that nowadays The Specials should be just so lauded and The Beat never get a mention. Listening back to The Specials, I have to concede that whilst they have a few killer tunes (and Ghost Town is one of those perfect songs that don’t some along all that often) their song-writing just doesn’t seem as consistently high quality as The Beat on I Just Can’t Stop It. Reminiscent of all sorts (it’s so long ago that I can’t remember many specifics although I was reminded of Costello’s Get Happy on quite a few occasions as the record played) yet very much with its own sound, this was a real treat. Cheers Rob, made up for your last offering! 

Nick listened: Tenuous linkage at best, Mitchell. This was great though, so I’ll let you off. I’ve never knowingly heard The Beat before, though I’ve heard of them plenty, and while I think The Specials are unnecessarily derided here (the debut is great!), I can see why you’d prefer The Beat.

Graham listened: What a treat! Rob managed to remind me of a band which, at the time, I always thought deserved far more credit for their work. Just as sharp and spiky as I remembered.

Depeche Mode – Songs of Faith and Devotion – Round 41 – Graham’s Choice

depeche_mode_-_1993_songs_of_faith_and_devotionReflecting local weather and transport issues, the last 2 rounds of “da Club”
have been subject to some early finishes and late arrivals. I missed most of Round 40, however in the brief period I was there, views were being aired whether themes were being well observed. Despite not being there long enough to play it, for once I had actually been compliant myself. Seeking more “discipline” amongst the members, an awkward theme for round 41 was born.

I consciously avoided and found myself irritated by Depeche Mode for the first 10 years of their career. But when Violator came out in 1991, I was intrigued by the singles and the positive reviews. This was my original thought for the round (as the title does sound like something you might select from a specialist magazine for those interested in the darker side of discipline). However, I plumped for their next album instead. Clearly (ahem…), the observance of discipline takes a good deal of faith and devotion.

Looking back it seemed to slip a lot of people’s attention that the “Mode” had already broken America with this album going to no1 in US, a year or two before the “brit pop” pretenders tried the same. A lot of better informed people than me put this albums sound down to the emergence of grunge, but I don’t really see it myself. There are some “gutty guitar” moments (for reference see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgAKNy23RSA) and a few bits of distortion, but for me it’s more about dark, pounding beats.

It’s a brave move on some of the tracks for Dave Gahan to take his vocals to such prominence. But even on the gospel orientated ‘Condemnation’, he just about gets away with it. It takes a moment to remind yourself you are still listening to the same band that were on “Swap Shop” in 1981 with (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JyG4NtpdO-Q).

‘In your room’ has always been the stand out track for me, with a feeling that it just sums up the claustrophobic sound they were trying to achieve. To lighten proceedings, the gospel theme returns on ‘Get right with me’ and just before the end the there is the softer ‘One Caress’, with nothing but vocals and strings.

Electro/techno or whatever doesn’t feature highly in my listening, but these two albums have always filled a niche. I’ve never felt the need to go looking for the 4 albums that followed, always concerned that they wouldn’t stand up against this one.

Rob listened: I’ve never felt a great deal for Depeche Mode. Their fans always seemed a little too earnest, their music a little too pedestrian, never really transcending. Even within these extremely narrow boundaries, i’m at the opposite end of the Depeche spectrum from Graham. Their singles compilations are divided between 81-85 and 86-98 and, looking down the track listings, there’s nothing on the second album I feel like I have time to hear again, whereas there is something a little delicious about the moment the drum machine kicks into ‘New Life’ and ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ is good enough for any 80s revival night. As for ‘Songs of Faith and Devotion’, well, I came in half way through and didn’t really manage to get a grip of it. I picked up the darkness, but it sounded like a band trying to be dark. I know Dave Gahan has been through difficult times and perhaps the rest of the band have too, but I didn’t get anything from this listen that really captured how that might have been. I guess i’m just not a believer.

Tom Listened: I would echo pretty much everything that Rob has written only to add that I quite liked it! But, as he has hinted, I couldn’t lose the feeling that there was something intangibly soulless about this record. No idea what it was that caused me to feel this way but, if I’m honest, this is how I’ve always felt about Depeche Mode and this feeling is probably too ingrained to be overturned, even through the strange and magical alchemy that is DRC. So, whilst I found it enjoyable to listen to, it didn’t leave a lasting impression on me – I guess me and the Mode will continue to be occasional acquaintances rather than soul mates!

Nick listened: I’m broadly with Rob here, even though I own Violator, and like it well enough – there’s just something a little too try-hard synth-goth about early 90s Depeche Mode. I didn’t mind it, but I pretty much never play Violator, and felt no need to get to know this any better.