Bob Marley and the Wailers – Uprising – Round 46 – Graham’s Choice

Tom’s choice of theme inspireddownload (1) me to take the plunge and purchase this album shortly after our last meeting. Up until recently, ‘Legend’ ticked the box as my sole source of Marley and reggae in general. A comfortable but lazy position to take and one listen to this, put it straight to the top of the pile of existing records I had thought about bringing along.

I found it instantly irresistible and have probably have been over-playing it since it was first unwrapped. I’ve never been attracted by the cover art on this album but now I’m passed that I can just get on with a wonderful groove that starts right from the opening track, ‘Coming in from the cold’.

My non-existent knowledge of reggae means I’m unlikely to contrast and compare very much on this one. But as his final studio release prior to his death in 1981, reportedly this was his most religious/spiritual offering combined with a band knowing exactly what they were doing.

Whether it just because I’ve got access to better audio equipment these days, but the detail on this album (of course best heard on cd) , of single instruments and percussion  is stunning and I find myself anticipating single piano notes etc. throughout the album.

The best known tracks are left towards the end of the album and fellow owners of Legend will know them well. The upbeat dance feel of ‘Could you be Loved’, softens you up for the spiritual body blow that follows with the beauty of ‘Redemption Song’.

Not the album I had originally anticipated bringing, but seeing as Rob brought along two that I had originally considered, just as well.

Rob listened: It’s hard not to enjoy ‘Uprising’. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could take against it at all. I have no great insight to offer. I’m resisting the urge to start farting on about how sunshiney this album is. I guess it’s potentially interesting to consider the dissonance between the way Marley presumably intended his music to be received, socially conscious, even revolutionary, and the common perception of these songs as the soundtrack to life on some idyllic (imaginary) Caribbean paradise. But i’m not that interesting.

I admire reggae immensely for it’s apparent reliance on extreme repetition. I hope one day to have listened to enough to be able to discern countless sub-genres, influences and radical expressive forms within it, but for now i’ll settle for it all sounding a bit samey and a bit good to my stupid ears.

Tom listened: Like Graham, my journey into the music of Bob Marley was ostensibly through Legend (although I do recall being appalled at the age of 10 that his ‘cover’ of  No Woman, No Cry was so rubbish in comparison to the definitive version by….you guessed it…Boney M of course).

Subsequently I have explored some of Marley’s back catalogue and I like all the albums I own, possibly preferring Rastaman Vibration (to Natty Dread and Burnin) due to the lack of Legends tracks on it, giving it a feel of a level playing field rather than having a couple of tracks that I know inside out already.

I have never been tempted by Uprising – I usually work on the assumption that an artist that has been around for a while is usually a spent force by the time they record their last album. There are some obvious exceptions to this rule but in Marley’s case the critics have tended to favour the run from Catch a Fire through to Exodus and I have been happy to be guided by their judgement. However, Uprising sounded pretty fine to me and, as far as I could tell, there was no particular drop in quality between it and Marley’s earlier records. Obviously, the two Legend tracks are amazing but there were plenty of others on this album that made just enough impact during the single listen to make me think that, given enough time, Uprising could easily hold its own amongst Marley’s more recognised classics.

Nick listened: Me being me, I never bought Legend and instead went and bought a handful of Markey’s studio albums while I was at university instead. One of them was this, and it’s great. Brilliant choice, and not one I would have considered as a ‘swan song’; I kind of know it’s last in Bob’s discography, but just don’t think of it that way.

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Joy Division – ‘Closer’: Round 46 – Rob’s choice

Joy Division - CloserI’m not sure how to write about ‘Closer’. I wasn’t sure how to speak about it when called upon to introduce it to the assembled DRC members. I fell back largely to shaking my head and squawking, “It’s perfect. It’s perfect.” Over and over.

That part at least i’m sure about. I bought ‘Closer’ in 1987, and I can’t think of a better record I’ve bought since. Years pass when I don’t listen to it, but it retains its power, its grace, its majesty, sealed up in marble as if preserved, embalmed.

I must have listened to it 20 times in the last two weeks, and it just grows and grows in stature. Age will not weather it.

Perhaps the one thing everyone knows about Joy Division’s second album is that it was a swan song. It was recorded in March 1980. Ian Curtis committed suicide on 18 May that year and the album, already complete and being readied for release, including the cover with its image of the tomb of the Appiani family in Genoa, came out exactly two months later on 18 July.

Every piece written since about the album is duty-bound to point out that it is impossible to disentangle the content of the record from the context of what happened to Curtis following its completion. Why would we want to?

‘Closer’ is populated by young men, outcasts, walking away from humanity and towards eternity, to a doomed and inevitable netherworld. It may not be quite “a cry for help, a hint of anaesthesia”. From his lyrics, Curtis sounds beyond that, beyond saving. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it seems incredible that no-one heard these songs and foresaw what would follow, all of which makes the testimony of those who survived him, who genuinely saw him as one of the lads and had no idea what was happening, all the more heartfelt and affecting.

But Curtis’s tragically early death did not make ‘Closer’ one tiny bit better. The only thing that happened once the recording had finished on 30 March 1980 that made ‘Closer’ any more remarkable was whatever producer Martin Hannett did to take the tracks laid down, under his legendarily strict supervision, by these four young men and turn them into crystallised flashes of icy lightening. Not only are these 9 songs perfect, in their austere, compulsive beauty, but they also sound perfect. The balance between and space around the nagging, abrasive guitars, Peter Hook’s most restrained and haunting bass work, and Curtis’s vocals, at once friable and authoritative, is enough to bring tears to the eyes.

And then there are the drums. Hannett was obsessed with drums, and in Stephen Morris he found a drummer with the instinctive virtuosity to allow him to realise his visions. He famously made Morris reassemble his kit and mike it up on the flat roof of the studio, before recording the playback via a single speaker on top of the studio toilet during the ‘Unknown Pleasures’ sessions. For ‘Closer’ he went even further, recording every drum sound separately, Morris playing the other parts of each track by striking his knees, so that each sound could be treated individually.  He may have been deranged, a megalomaniac, but by god, drums have never sounded better. If the openings of ‘Passover’ and ‘Heart and Soul’ could be captured alive in jars and exhibited like fireflies, they’d burn forever. So crisp, so light, so ephemeral, so perfect.

Nothing on ‘Closer’ is not perfect. It anticipates so much of the music which has followed it, none of which can approach it. It has none of the noise and bluster, none of the rock or the roll, but all of the stillness, pulsing life and timeless genius. It’s the essential distillation of what these five men, Curtis, Sumner, Hook, Morris and Hannett, had in them to give. It’s a monumental album in the true sense of the word.

Nick listened: It hadn’t struck me until the evening when Rob played this that its title can be read two ways: “nearer to” and “to close”. Given what happened afterwards, and the lyrics and mood of this record, I’m almost inclined to think that Ian Curtis had the latter interpretation in mind. But that can only ever be speculation. No one really knows.

I’ve owned Closer for many years, but I’m not sure I’ve ever actually listened to it all the way through. I was a year and three days old when he died, so to me he has always been dead, and this album has always been a totem of… darkness. Isolation. I think I’ve deliberately never investigated Joy Division’s music properly (or even New Order’s) lest it prove to be too much, to be haunted. Even at record club, amidst friends and curry, it’s a you listen, harrowing in sound and sense.

Rob butted in: Nick, Curtis was one of four, and the others still say “nearer to”. Perhaps the ambiguity was deliberate, but the pronunciation has only ever been one way. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=969bX03pFg4

Tom Listened: As I have hinted in my write up of Spiderland, Closer is one of those albums that I acquired with a huge weight of expectation already on its shoulders…possibly too heavy even for Joy Division.

I had always been put off Joy Division because I never really got Love Will Tear Us Apart – it was just too gloomy for my 13 year old self to appreciate. In fact, it remains one of the few Joy Division songs I have never really clicked with (there are some on Unknown Pleasures too). But I chanced my hard earned cash on Closer anyway, mainly due to the overwhelming number of name checks in the music press at the time. And once I had got over my initial disappointment and actually listened to the album on its own terms, I began to see what all the fuss was about. For me Closer is a more accomplished piece of work than its predecessor, it works better as a whole and there are no weak links at all. And it feels so confident and timeless whereas Unknown Pleasures is much more identifiable as a post-punk album. So it’s odd that, despite all the boxes ticked and the awe with which I view the record, I hardly ever feel the urge to play it. Is that strange or unsurprising?

Graham listened: Being 14 year old on its release, this record passed me by at first. In fact it was probably a further 4 years until someone persuaded me I really should listen to this band. I wasn’t overwhelmed at first but as soon as I gave it time I was in. Devoured the back catalogue quickly and continued to buy the collections on cd. Simply awesome, but strangely something I wouldn’t think to play that often myself. I suppose that could be a degree of reverance that this album desrves.

Slint – Spiderland: Round 46 – Tom’s Selection

slint_spiderlandSometimes you just don’t know how lucky you are!

I chanced upon Spiderland not long after it had been released. My curiosity had been whetted by Albini’s stratospherically hyperbolic review in the Melody Maker (possibly the most renowned signing off of any album review ever?) . But I never actively sought out Spiderland, it was just on my radar when I went sniffing out that next life-changing album. And so it turned out to be…because once Spiderland had got its hooks into me, it just wouldn’t let go; it made much of my record collection at that point in time seem formulaic, safe and unoriginal and in many cases it made me appreciate those awkward, spiky albums (you know: Beefheart, latterday Waits, Red Crayola, Pere Ubu) all the more. For many years (back when I used to consider such ridiculous notions) – especially in those early days when it was MINE and I didn’t have to share it with all manner of post-rock wannabees – Spiderland was right at the top of the tree, my favourite ever album…if anyone would care to ask. So I was lucky to experience it at the moment of birth, when it crawled out of its modest Kentuckian primordial swamp and hear it in all its breathtakingly original glory.

I sympathise with the Nicks of this world who have come to the ‘party’ after the event. Acquiring acknowledged classics long after the hype machine has kicked into top gear is often a curiously hollow experience for me. Appositely, it took me a long time to warm to Closer by Joy Division (Rob’s choice for this round – I purchased it in 1993) because I had unrealistic expectations of what it could offer…it is just music after all, very good music as it happens but still just music! Similarly, over the decades Spiderland has gained almost mythological status with ever increasing numbers of name checks from admiring fans (often musicians) and its sound and structures have been echoed by other acts, some good, many awful. When such a weight of expectation combines with poorly conceived lowest common denominator copycat bands, surely the most likely outcome when listening to the motherlode is disappointment! No, it’s always better to get there first, when you have no expectations and can only be surprised by what you hear on the first listen.

That said, I didn’t necessarily click with Spiderland immediately. I recall getting Mercury Rev’s Yerself is Steam at about the same time and that was a much less subtle more obviously ‘out there’ record than Slint’s offering and so, for a while, that took pride of place on my turntable. But before long Spiderland’s creepy world took over and it was just about all I wanted to listen to for the majority of 1991 – a year that for many is exceptional but for me was all about just one record (I was always disappointed by Loveless, Bandwagonesque and Laughing Stock, much preferring their predecessors. Yerself is Steam went the way of Nevermind and fizzled out pretty quickly despite both having burned bright initially). But Spiderland was the gift that kept on giving, each listen revealing new sounds, fresh variations and dynamics, the atmosphere of the record would alter with the weather, my mood, the location I was listening in. It was quite unlike anything else. Hell, my Nan even thought I was doing the hoovering one day when she walked past my room and it was on. I can think of no higher praise than that!

It was obvious from the off that Slint had laboured over these six songs, which makes the story of Spiderland’s recording all the more remarkable. In a perilous financial situation going into the recording studio, Slint could only afford two days studio time to nail their masterpiece. Luckily they had spent six hours a day every day for the previous six months practising! Even more extraordinary, none of the vocals had ever been heard before as the band only practised the songs as instrumentals. McMahan had never ‘sung’ before either which makes his perfectly judged singing (no one would ever argue that McMahan is a strong singer but that’s not what this is about) on Washer all the more impressive. The upshot is that Spiderland is played superbly and constructed meticulously yet manages to stay fresh and feel relatively spontaneous and real.

Twenty two years on I am still in thrall to this amazing record. I genuinely heard new things on it when listening again prior to our meeting and I am pretty sure that Spiderland will prevail long after its unfortunately oversimplistic mantle as the birthplace of post-rock has long been worn away. Slint never went on to make another LP and that’s right. As my friends will attest, I wouldn’t buy it anyway! After all, how can you improve on perfection?

Nick listened: Sadly I didn’t hear Spiderland until 2007, by which time, sadly, I’d already endured a decade of Mogwai and Godspeed and Explosions In The Sky and other miserable men in black clothes doing things in the name and wake of this record, and it was impossible for me to hear past that legacy. (Good grief, Mogwai are a tedious band, who promise so much and deliver so little. About one song per album is worth taking away.)

So finely did Slint lay down the template for the people who followed them that I’ve been unable to hear them as anything other than cliché themselves; the mumbled vocals, the pointy, repeating & changing guitars, the drums that jar at the edges of where you expect them to be, the passage from quiet to loud, the crushing crescendos. Do Slint do it better? They might do, but it’s a thing I’ve heard so much, and feel I’ve gone way past (it feels like a very late-adolescence, early-20s sound and emotion and instinct to me, and I don’t particularly want to go back there) that I can’t quite tell.

Tom’s passion for this record makes me want to get it though. I’ve dug out my copy of Spiderland, asked for a lend of his 33 & 1/3 book on it by Scott Tennent, and I’ll see what happens.

Rob listened: Will Oldham/Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is one of my favourite, most precious artists. I love him and everything he does. I bought the first Palace Brothers records solely on the basis that he was the guy who took the photo on the cover of ‘Spiderland’. I loved that record too. I never understood it, and I never wanted to. I don’t know what they were trying to achieve, have no idea whether they felt they succeeded. I don’t know what other people see or hear in it, but for me it’s a shattered haunted house of a record, constantly shifting, reforming and slipping my expectations. I don’t listen to it too much these days, I reckon because I don’t ever want to solve its puzzles. One of the greats.

Graham listened: Certainly one where the discipline of DRC pays off. Had I been listening alone, I’m not sure I would have got much further than 5 minutes. When Tom suggested some loose comparisons to ‘Spirit of Eden’, I may have expressed myself somewhere along the lines of, “yur avin a laarff”. By the end of 6 tracks, I was intrigued and wanting to hear it again.

The Beatles – Abbey Road: Round 46, Nick’s choice

TheBeatlesAbbeyRoadFor a swan song to really be a swan song, the artist in question has to know that this is the end, don’t they? In which case, this has to be the ultimate swan song album; it was certainly the most often mentioned when I threw the idea out to Twitter. Hell, it even finishes (sort of) with a song called “The End”.

It took me a long time to get round to Abbey Road; my Beatles fandom pretty much started with “Day Tripper” and Rubber Soul and ended with The White Album when I first got into them in my early teens. Let It Be was a bad aftertaste, and something about Abbey Road (probably “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”) put me off getting to grips with it for quite a long time. While isolated tracks jumped out and did it for me, it probably wasn’t until the remasters in 2009 that I properly started enjoying the whole record. Bar “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, of course. I think my friend James claimed Abbey Road as his favourite Beatles album when we were both discovering them, and I was happy to let him have it.

So I’m probably alone in having known George & Ringo’s stomping groove in “The End” from “The Sounds Of Science” by Beastie Boys before I knew it was The Beatles. Likewise “Come Together” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” were bizarre, groove / drone based rock diversions from what I understood as The Beatles’ palette when I finally got around to them, a million miles away from both the early pop days and the psychedelic dandies era. Hell, some of the guitar lines on this album are almost as spidery and jagged as Slint…

Then there’s the second side. You could view the half-songs and sketches and segues presented here as filler or as some kind of final expunging of all the ideas left in George Martin’s big bin of Beatles bits. I didn’t get the concept of the medley for ages. Is the whole of the second side (from “Here Comes The Sun”) part of it, or just from “Sun King”, where the songs get really short and start segueing into one another? It doesn’t really matter, of course; the whole 23-odd minutes are dazzling. I once heard a mix of “You Never Give Me Your Money” which eliminated everything but the bass guitar, and even just that was extraordinary.

It’s remarkable to think that so many amazing melodies, grooves, and studio ideas were recorded in just a month. The way “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” gets consumed by sheets of white noise and then just stops. The way “You Never Give Me Your Money” moves through so many sections and arrangements and styles but maintains melodic cohesion. The control and mimimalism of the groove to “Come Together”. The fact that George wrote his two best songs. Even Ringo’s moment is beautifully played and arranged. Apparently, with a sense that this would be the final Beatles ‘product’, the four members agreed to put their (many and considerable) differences aside and go for broke. You can tell.

Rob listened: Fairly pleasant. This brings to 4 the Beatles studio albums i’ve listened to in their entirety in one sitting. Feeling pretty pleased with myself. I’m guessing they didn’t make many more so I’m pretty much a total expert on them now. But enough about me. I thought this was okay. ‘Come Together’ is a yawn-fest and some of the other stuff passed me by, but I did find myself singing ‘The End’ for a couple of days after the meeting, so these boys must have had something going on when it came to writing earworms.

Tom Listened: My Dad sorted out a TDK C45 of Abbey Road (backed with Boney M’s Greatest Hits) for my 11th birthday present. For the first few months I almost wore the tape out…rewinding it so I didn’t have to suffer Abbey Road on the way to Boney M induced nirvana. But, you know how it goes, gradually The Beatles earwormed their way in (probably via Maxwell and Octopuses’ Garden) and soon all the rewinding was in the other direction.

Abbey Road was my second Beatles album (after Sergeant Pepper’s) and whilst I have fallen out of love with the latter’s overcomplicated arrangements and over-considered song-writing, Abbey Road just about hangs in there…some of the songs suffer from being too familiar (I have nothing left to discover in Here Comes the Sun or Come Together or Something), some are a bit naff, but there are others that stand up with the best in the band’s catalogue. For me, Abbey Road is some way off Revolver’s spontaneous brilliance and if push came to shove, I would chose The Beatles or Hard Day’s Night (or maybe Rubber Soul) over it but it is one of those records that is always a pleasure to hear and it has probably stood the test of time even better than Boney M’s greatest hits!

Graham listened: Well Rob has listened to 3 more Beatles albums, in one sitting, than I have. I have a mental block when it comes to the Beatles. To me they inhabited the dull Radio 2 playlists of the late 70’s which I wanted nothing to do with, as I began the search for my own musical inspiration. The fact that my journey stopped at Marillion at one point, clearly means that I, and my opinions, are not to be taken seriously. I was genuinely surprised at the bluesy/rocky numbers on this album. Even so, I tried to bait the Beatles fans by suggesting that Led Zeppelin were doing a better job of that sort of thing in early 1969. I somehow felt as awkward about Paul McCartney “rockin’ out” in 1969, as I do when I see him on TV today. Weird!

Sade – Diamond Life – Round 45 – Graham’s Choice

downloadClearly on a roll now, I offered up my 3rd debut album since I couldn’t find one to bring along for the relevant theme night.

I guess when you reflect on the fact you own a record in LP, CD and digital format, there must be something about it that has motivated such purchasing activity. My only problem with this album is not really understanding why, I keep being drawn to pulling it out for a listen on a regular basis since its release in 1984.

It straddles a number of genres ranging across pop/soft-rock/jazz/soul/AOR and more. Certainly in 1984 it didn’t fit with indie tinged range of things I was listening to and seeing live. Maybe it was a London thing, as at the same time as this came out we were venturing “up West” as it were, to small clubs to see people like Carmel perform.

Perhaps we thought we were more sophisticated by dabbling with such styles and putting pop and indie to one side, for a while? More simply it could have been I was 18 and fancied Sade Adu.

It doesn’t sound as smart and cool as it did in 1984, but Sade still smolders in her strangely detached way, all these years later. Sometimes feel this should be available on prescription to all X-factor wannabees, just to show if you have the basis of a good voice, you don’t need to travel through half a dozen notes to sing one well.

Unfortunately, not long after its release, the album seemed to become absorbed by yuppie culture and dinner party soundtracks, leading me to reject it for a few years. But it keeps gnawing away at me over the years for a run out. Perhaps its simply nostalgia that shouldn’t be inflicted on others (I suspect some will agree), but there is something comforting about the style that doesn’t try too hard, is melodic and hooky enough to keep you interested and of course there is always pictures of Sade to look at!

If you were around at the time you you couldn’t ignore the three hit singles and ‘Your Love is King’, ‘Smooth Operator’ and ‘When Am I Going to Make a Living’ remain amongst the best tracks. Only six studio albums since 1984, more than 50 million albums sold worldwide and repeatedly well received output, suggests judicious use of her talents. Strangely, I have never felt inclined to purchase her later works. Perhaps this album fills a personal niche, and for me that’s value enough.

Helpfully the first line on the Wiki page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sade_(band)) cautions you not to confuse Sade with Slade. I wonder how many romantic plans with dimmed lights and a glass of wine have been ruined by Noddy Holder?

Nick listened: “Smooth Operator” is one of those songs that seems, to me, to be burnt into the world’s cultural consciousness, an indelible melody etched into our shared memory. Other than that, the first time I was really aware of Sade in any meaningful sense was circa 2000 when she released an album and was lavished with praise; suddenly I became aware of quite how successful she’d been in the 80s, and how… laid back about the time between album releases. Having gorged on Kaputt last year, and explored some Roxy Music and Prefab Sprout, smooth, sophisticated 80s sounds aren’t as alien to me as they would have been a few years ago. But even so, as beautifully-played (how do young musicians learn to play like this?!) and sung and produced and arranged as this was, there seemed something a little… bloodless… somehow, about it, to me at least. It may be that half the people I know who’ve made music aesthetically similar don’t have voices anywhere near as accomplished as Sade’s, and my brain therefore decodes / unpacks them as somehow riskier, more broken, more human, or it may be that the whole package here is just so smooth and aspirational as to seem unreal and therefore, to me, if not to millions of others, not worth thinking about anymore than I think about driving a Bentley. (Conversely the unrealness of My Bloody Valentine does appeal, but it’s a very different sort of unreal.) But a good listen nonetheless, and a surprising and excellent choice for our little club to pontificate on.

Tom Listened: I suppose we all go through that phase, usually in our mid to late teens, when we come to realise that our parents are not quite the all conquering super-heroes we always assumed they were (in my case their loss of status was only slight), when they reveal themselves as ‘as fallible as the rest of us’ human beings. I distinctly remember an incident in my adolescence that epitomised this realisation – the point when my pop music hating father returned from a long car journey extolling the virtues of this ‘amazing’ new artist he had discovered being played on the radio whilst he was driving – Sade. Now, the problem was not with Sade’s music at all, it was in my father’s reluctance to listen to any of the music we liked at the time (Beatles, Stones, early Elton John, Queen, Police) with anything other than sniffy dismissiveness at its ‘vacuous, trivial nature’ whilst then extolling such smooth, undemanding, seemingly light fare as Diamond Life. My brother and I just couldn’t compute this and so we dismissed the music of Sade without really considering its worth in just the same way as our father did with our favourite records.

I’m pretty sure that I had never listened to Diamond Life all the way through before Graham played it to us, but I had heard Smooth Operator and Your Love is King like a squillion times and, despite not having listened to them for ages, they still felt ubiquitous and slightly overfamiliar. I preferred the tracks on the album that I had not previously heard and it was not difficult to see why this album was such a big seller and also why my father would have liked it back in the mid 80s. For me, a little like Nick, it felt just a bit too smooth and polished to fully appeal and I didn’t get a sense of Sade as a person (although she’s got a wonderful voice) – in direct contrast to The Blue Nile, I felt as though she was detached from the material she was singing on Diamond Life and therefore I found it hard to connect with the record. So were Ben and I right to turn our backs on our father’s latest love 27 years ago? The jury’s still out, but I suspect it will be a verdict we never entirely find out!

Rob listened: I remember Sade as a mysterious and alluring character when I was growing up. Her songs never quite fit the pop mould they were apparently being squeezed into and, as far as I could tell, she was no ordinary pop singer, no Alison Moyet or Rick Astley. Although all three certainly had wonderful voices, I can’t recall Sade having a public profile as most pop stars were required to. Whilst I never felt the singles from Diamond Life were for me, I definitely did feel that they were something ‘other’. Fast forward 16 years and I found myself sufficiently intrigued and enticed by the reviews of ‘Lovers Rock’ to go out and buy it, although I recall pathetically claiming I’d picked it up as I thought my wife might like it, before keeping it in my car for the next 6 months. It’s a great record, with through lines from ‘A Love Supreme’ all the way to The XX.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying I enjoyed listening to Diamond Life for what I reckon must have been the first time. Thanks Graham.

The Blue Nile – Hats: Round 45 – Tom’s Selection

bluenile_hatsGraham sowed the seed at our last meeting – as cinematic listening experience go Hats is up there with Dummy as one of the most evocative, image laden pieces of art this side of an Ennio Morricone soundtrack.

Hats is the Blue Nile’s second album and for me, it is exquisite in every respect. I’ve seen it described in various places as melancholic, plaintive, wracked, harrowing but to my mind none of these adjectives quite nail it. The word that always springs to my mind when I listen to Hats (although you don’t really listen to Hats, you live inside it) is ‘romantic’…doomed romance undoubtedly, but beautiful with it and so, so sad that it is one of the few albums, possibly the only album that consistently leaves me choked up. Whilst this was being played at record club Rob seemed to mysteriously morph into Graham and just sat through the entire record without uttering a word. I am intrigued to know whether this was due to him:

a) Being asleep.

b) Becoming so maudlin whilst listening to Hats that he couldn’t bear to speak for fear of blubbing.

c) Being mesmerised by the album’s emotional heft and musical brilliance.

d) Being none (or all?) of the above.

No doubt the truth will out with time. Whatever, Hats broke new records for the quietest listen we have yet had with whole tracks passing by in total silence!

In direct contrast to an Elvis Costello album, Hats sets a high bar from the off and maintains that quality throughout. On the night I played Always Coming Back To You as a precursor (my favourite song from Scott 1) because Hats has always struck me as the kind of album that Scott Walker would have been making if he had continued to produce albums like the first couple of self-titled efforts on into the 1980s. The production values are undeniably of their time, but the songwriting is timeless, from the gigantic swirling mass that is Headlights on the Parade, the equally fine (despite the Tina Turner bassline – thanks Graham) Downtown Lights which reveals an uncharacteristic glimpse of Paul Buchanan’s anger and angst in the song’s quite brilliant coda, to the more stately, practically funereal ballads of Over the Hillside, Let’s Go Out Tonight and From a Late Night Train. Throughout Buchanan’s voice is ravaged and ragged, always effortlessly powerful but equally always restrained; this is a heroic effort free of sentimentality where the city is the backdrop and hopeless love is the subject.

The city plays a huge part in Hats success as an album, creating images in the mind that are hard to shift and shape the record, providing the ‘scenery’ for the acts that are played out in its seven perfect jewels.  But the city that The Blue Nile evoke on Hats is a million miles away from the snafu city that Bitches Brew has always conjured up, the dangerous city that Stevie Wonder sang of on Innervisions or the alienating, paranoid Cities on Talking Heads’ Fear of Music. No, Hats is a city of upturned collars, hunched shoulders, drizzly pavements, loneliness and street lamps. And this picture is painted in each and every song, nuanced and subtle and poignant and devastating until the final Saturday Night offers the faintest of glimmers of hope when Buchanan admits that he ‘loves an ordinary girl (who will) make the world alright’. The fact that earlier in the song he admits to the listener that he expects this love to be unrequited is par for the course…this is The Blue Nile after all, not bloody Katrina and the Waves!

Nick listened: There isn’t much else to say after Tom’s beautiful write-up here. I’ve owned Hats for years and, while I don’t play it all that often because it does, certainly, require a specific mood to fulsomely appreciate, I do love it dearly. A beautiful, lovelorn, windswept, failed urban romance of an album.

Graham Listened: A band I seemed to have read a good deal about over the years and would probably have had agreed they were good despite never having listened to one of their records. Tom, your write up says it all, in fact, “I hang on every word you say”. Magnificant sweeping cinematic vibe, whereas I always had imagined a far more delicate and paired back sound. Shows how much I know!

Rob listened: First things first. Tom, since you asked, the answer is ‘not quite’ to each of the four options above, but if you mixed them all together into some sort of swirling mood-gloop, that’s probably somewhere near how I felt. In truth, my state of mind was largely being shaped by the comedown from three days of codeine-based painkillers, followed by the double-whammy of a massive local anaesthetic and preparatory root canal work. The effects of the former were fading, and aftermath of the latter starting to make itself felt. I guess in some senses, the Blue Nile probably did fit my mood fairly well.

It struck me, listening back to ‘Hats’ a couple of times after the meeting, that to share Tom’s feelings for it you probably either had to have lived with it through thick and thin and to know it intimately enough that Paul Buchanan’s weltanschauung becomes your own for the duration, or alternatively be attracted to the precise, smooth, lush signifier sounds of 80s sophisticate pop. I reckon Tom, Nick and Graham each tick one or both of these boxes. I’m afraid I don’t.

Some of ‘Hats’, particularly some of Buchanan’s vocal lines, has started to grow on me, and I can imagine the circumstances in which I might reach for it. Balanced against that, I feel sufficient, gentle, magnetic repulsion from the AOR sound that I suspect my mental filing system will keep pushing The Blue Nile towards the back.

The Books – ‘Thought For Food’: Round 45 – Rob’s choice

The Books - Thought For FoodGuitarist Nick Zammuto and cellist Paul de Jong met in New York in 1999 where they shared an apartment building and, after realising they shared a musical aesthetic, formed The Books. ‘Thought For Food’, released in 2002, is the first of their four albums.

So far, so straightforward. From here on in it gets a little more difficult. There’s no simple label to cover what they do on ‘Thought For Food’. I’m not even going to list the labels which come closest in an attempt to substantiate this point. I’m not sure where I’d start, but i’m sure even telling you what this record is not would somehow be misleading.

Telling you that the record blends acoustic and electric guitars, delicate strings, occasional vocals and percussion and then spreads this backdrop with a dark and glittering collection of vocal samples might put you in mind of The Avalanches, or any number of quirky one hit wonders. If so, we’re nowhere near.

For a start, those guitars, those strings. Although exquisitely played, with every note perfectly enunciated, the instruments here, even when acoustic, are often played percussively. They are spiked, pulsating, aggravated. This is fretwork as a means of attack. There are a number of tracks wherein Zammuto plays what may well be a perfectly lilting melody, using pretty complex guitar lines, but refuses to let any notes overlap, refuses to allow harmonics and chords to form. The result is tense, troubling, and difficult in ways which are hard to specify.

These urgent, disorienting pieces are shot through with samples of speech from TV, radio and films which serve only to make the experience stranger. Snatches of golf commentary, uncomfortably robotic flirting, the deadened tone of a schoolboy repeating the word ‘aleatoric’ before attempting it in a spelling bee. Winston Churchill puts in an appearance.

Given its meaning (“dependant on chance, luck or uncertain outcome”) and its prominence in the album’s second track, one might expect there to be something aleatoric about The Books’ approach. However, despite the unusual results, there seems to me to be nothing left to chance at all in ‘Thought For Food’. It’s incredibly carefully assembled, with nary a note or string out of place amid all the apparently chaotic complexity.

I wanted to bring it this week as it offers a complete contrast to the Mount Eerie record I offered at the last meeting. ‘Thought For Food’ is about as far from the natural world as acoustic music can get. It’s a paean to all things human. This is a man-made record and it seeks to portray the simultaneously bewildering, alientating and meaningless complexity of the world we have built. It comes across like the soundtrack to its own ‘world in a day’ documentary film. What is not clear, however, is whether it’s a hymn of celebration, or of warning.

All of which perhaps sounds a little dour, a little worthy, which it shouldn’t. The record is richly rewarding, brimming with brio, enchantingly constructed and played and, in its own dark way, great fun. Its certainly one of the most singular and impressive albums of the last decade and one you should want to spend a lot of time with.

Nick listened: For some reason I missed The Books in the same way as Rob missed Boredoms; around the time of this record I was listening to a lot of superficially similar music – Four Tet, Manitoba / Caribou, múm, Clue To Kalo, Cornelius, Koushik – which fell under the ‘folktronica’ banner and which mined the area between acoustic instruments and electronic manipulation. I wrote about a lot of it, was invited to contribute to a magazine in the states that specialised in stuff of this ilk, received promos by the armload of stuff like it, but somehow managed never to divert any attention towards The Books. I suspect, prosaically, predictably, stupidly, because they were called The Books, and I therefore filed them next to The Shins and all those other wimpy definite-article indie bands that were doing the rounds back then in my mental taxonomy. My loss, because this was really interesting, and I’d like to hear it (and The Lemon Of Pink) again.

Tom Listened: I have tried and tried (I was going to add a third ‘tried’ but I haven’t tried THAT hard) to get into Thought for Food for many years now but never have. So I was really keen to hear it at record club and was sure that a close listen and Rob’s eloquence and insightfulness would unlock the album for me at long last. But…a bit like Tony Curtis’ character in Some Like It Hot when Marilyn is kissing him to convince him he isn’t impotent, ‘No…nothing’. I appreciate The Books are doing something very original and probably unique in producing the sound they do, and I can also see that there is great skill and vision there too but, to be honest I will probably end up playing their less well regarded third album, Lost and Safe, a whole lot more because it has those things that Thought For Food does not; you know, songs and melodies and singing and (a little) momentum and the like. And yet, despite all this, there is still a tiny little bit of me that thinks, ‘don’t give up just yet, one more try and it will all fall into place’. What to do?

Graham Listened: First time listen to this band for me and immediate thoughts were confused. Slowly began to appreciate what was going on here and then managed to latch on. Complicated structure which needs to be allowed to wash over you rather than examined too much. Eventually found the minimal melodies truly absorbing, and all that in one listen!