The Smiths – The Smiths – Round 48 – Graham’s Choice

Had illness not prevented my attendanceMI0001878519 at the previous round, this would have been my selection for that week. However, the motivation on that occasion would have been more around, “get one in by this lot, before anyone else does”.

When Nick set his ‘turning point’ theme, I looked around for records which marked a moment of  personal or listening significance and found a few turning points that led to equivalent of “no through roads”, as far as DRC is concerned. For example, the moment when you realise that it is probably a good idea to dispense with listening to prog rock, would mean all sorts of horrors could have been inflicted on fellow members.

But as turning points go, this revelation was more  like the slow turning circle of a ocean going super tanker, as it took me well over a year from release until I began to embrace the Smiths and their music. As some of the offerings detailed on this site show, at 18, I considered myself fairly eclectic in my choices and hadn’t yet tired of U2, enjoyed the acerbic prettiness of the Bunnymen, felt I was being ‘edgy’ by listening to R.E.M., and still managed to sneak along to see Marillion.

I wasn’t prepared to submit to the cultish observance to the Smiths which I saw around me. Neither was I prepared to listen to a music press touting them as the most important thing to have happened that decade. I constructed arguments  around why it was important to ignore them because of references (very misunderstood) to the Moors murders and a lead singer who seemed both too weird and cannot sing (‘…..but you should hear him play piano!’. Apologies, but could not resist).

Time is a great healer and by the end of 1985 a string of fantastic singles by the band had worn me down and I finally reached for my polo neck jumper and knelt at the temple of Mozza and Marr. The introspective and insecure subject matter of the lyrics began to fascinate me and I quickly discovered that the Smiths had some of the catchiest and most beautiful guitar based indie/pop rock that I had ever heard. My delay in submission simply allowed me to gorge on the subsequent compilations and singles I had ignored for over a year.

As for the album itself, I am so familiar with it, a judgement on how it sounds today is difficult to arrive at. ‘Reel Around the Fountain’, ‘The Hand that Rocks the Cradle’ and ‘Suffer Little Children’ still haunt with the combination of subversive lyrics and fantastic melodies. Quirkiness and energy still pours from ‘You’ve Got Everything Now’ and ‘Miserable Lie’. If you can’t sing along to all the words of ‘Hand in Glove’ or ‘What Difference Does it Make’, then you haven’t explored the treasures the ‘The Smiths’ has to offer and certainly never went to a student disco in the 1980’s.

Tom Listened: I have a theory, of which I am ever more certain with each passing meeting of the Record Club, that a predisposition (or not) towards a certain type of music or band is almost wholly contextual. Sure there is some music that is just plain awful (Black Lace, Pink Floyd) but for most bands that have released an album or two that have come to be considered as ‘classics’ it’s rare, if the volume is turned up and prejudices are put to one side, that the true quality of the work doesn’t begin to shine on through.

I have to thank Graham for enlightening me to The Smiths in general and their first album in particular. As a teenager desperate to avoid the cliques in the sixth form common room, I dismissed The Smiths as mopey and dull and way too affected – just like my ‘friends’ who listened to them. When my tastes in music began to broaden at university I listened to the eponymous first album a couple of times but I didn’t really want to like it and was almost relieved to find it mopey, dull and too affected. Although only removed by a few years, the ‘thin trebly jangle pop’ of The Smiths seemed a million miles away from the thrillingly visceral music I was exploring at the time – MBV, Pixies, Sonic Youth, Dino Jr etc and I was happy to hand back the cassette I had borrowed and say ‘thanks, but no thanks’.

But, as is so often the case, fast forward 20 years, let much water pass under the bridge and listen again, carefully and with an open mind and, sure it is still as trebly, jangly and affected as ever but there is also so much to enjoy here – Morrisey’s singing and lyrics are quite astonishing, Marr’s guitar work accomplished and innovative and the rhythm section is surely one of the most underappreciated bass and drum pairings in popular music.

I have subsequently dug out my CD of the Queen is Dead that has barely been listened to since I picked it up in a sale 10 years ago and it’s just great…as it’s supposed to be…and now I’ve allowed myself to like it, it’s as though my music collection has just gained another album! Silly me.

Nick listened: The Smiths aren’t my band, the way that some other bands are. I feel no sense of ownership or kinship or belonging to their cult, particularly. I’m too young to have caught them in their (brief, prolific) heyday, and by the time I was a teenager exploring music they were a relic, something my older brother had listened to and that, thus, I would ignore, because who wants to follow the path already trodden? So I consigned them to a mental dustbin, labelled “miserablist parody”, and carried on with other music.

I eventually bought The Queen Is Dead when I was at university, treated it almost like a coursework assignment, and, like Adorno or Debord or Barthes, admired it and absorbed its ideas and structures, but never considered that I could fall in love with it. I only explored Meat Is Murder beyond that, because the old CD version had “How Soon Is Now?” on it, which I really liked, but I didn’t really bother absorbing the rest of the record.

Until about 18 months ago when the remastered box set, which collects all four studio albums and the four early compilations together, was ludicrously cheap – like £25. So other than the big singles and such, I only really heard The Smiths outside of The Queen Is Dead very recently. My feelings for them haven’t changed much, though; I still admire them more than care for them, as much as I may enjoy the way Morrissey writes lyrics and twists melodies and song structures over Marr & co’s instrumental backing as if he’d never heard a song by another rock band before. I think, from “This Charming Man” and all the daffodil-waving and fey-ness, that I’d expected their debut album to be limp, brief, and easily blown away in a gust of wind, but actually, like The Queen Is Dead, it’s surprisingly muscular and powerful beneath the surface. Thoroughly enjoyable.


Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – ‘The Good Son’: Round 48 – Rob’s choice

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - The Good SonI like to make my choices early. It’s rare that I haven’t decided which record i’ll be taking to the next Devon Record Club within a couple of hours of the end of the preceding meeting. When Nick imposed ‘Turning Points’ as a theme I immediately flashed on records like ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’ and ‘Nevermind’ as records which saw their artists becoming everything they could be. But these aren’t really turning points, more progressions, realisations. I knew I needed to find an artist who had clearly changed direction, and to do so they must have established one trajectory before and another after.

Once I started looking for favourite acts with a dozen or so albums, the list started to format itself. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy? Well, i’m not sure direction of travel is a property one can ascribe to Will Oldham. The Fall? Plotting their career path would likely sketch out a three dimensional pentagram. Nick Cave occurred next and ‘The Good Son’ was my immediate and natural choice. Cave and his band are a desert island artist for me. I firmly believe they are one of most accomplished and significant acts in the history of rock and roll. I’ve thought bringing them to Record Club many times, but never with ‘The Good Son’ in mind. Nonetheless, their sixth album, released in 1990, was, for me, a triple turning point.

Personally, I’ve loved every album the band made after ‘The Good Son’. All the ones before I like and admire and listen to, but I would line them up behind this one and those which followed.

In the context of the band’s career, ‘The Good Son’ seems constitute a taking of breath. The songs, and their playing, is calm. Even when the pace picks up and the heft increases, see ‘The Hammer Song’ and ‘The Witness Song’, there is very little sense of the frenzy, the possession, that charged the earlier records. On ‘The Good Son’ Nick Cave is no longer the deranged swamp church preacher. Now he is in control.

Legend has it that fans of the band, perhaps those who had stayed with them since The Birthday Party were at their savage peak, were confused or dismayed at this turn, at the sound of tender piano ballads where they had become accustomed to hollering, slashing blues. But since ‘The Good Son’ Cave and his compadres have released four records which I would consider masterpieces. The frothing Wild West opera ‘Henry’s Dream’, the state-of-the-21st-Century opus ‘Abattoir Blues’, ‘The Boatman’s Call’ – a prayer to love and ‘And No More Shall We Part’ – a recapitulation and perfection of cave’s milleu and the Bad Seed’s brilliance.  It seems to me that none of these would have been possible without ‘The Good Son’, which reset the meter for the band and opened up a whole new set of possibilities.

Finally, for me, i had a turning point with this album itself. this was The third album i bought by the band, if you include ‘Tender Prey’, which I took back to Piccadilly Records, convinced I had a bad pressing. Thereafter ‘Straight To You’, one of the all time great love songs, was the flame that drew me to Cave, and I loved the album it came from, ‘Henry’s Dream’. ‘The Good Son’, released before ‘Henry’ but purchased after, made little sense to me at all, until suddenly it did. I think Shane MacGowan’s stumbling, winning version of ‘Lucy’, released in 1992 as a B-side to the pair duetting sort of pointlessly on ‘What A Wonderful World’, may have broken me in, or maybe the pure, dripping beauty of ‘The Ship Song’ finally penetrated my stern heart. I don’t think I’d ever clicked with such a slow record, a collection of such apparently plodding songs, but when ‘The Good Son’ came into focus for me it also opened up a world of possibilities which would take me from Tindersticks to Tom Waits, Palace Brothers, Low, Lambchop, Scott Walker and on and on to much of my favourite music today.

So, not the Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds record I would have chosen, but the right one for this evening. I firmly believe that the band and their singer songwriter took a big step here and have grown better and better as they have matured in the near 25 years since. In that time they’ve produced albums as rich, complex, self-contained, witty, engaged, moving, poetic, playful and rewarding as anything from Dylan’s back catalogue, but with a tiny fraction of the acclaim. If ‘The Good Son’ was the breath which made that possible, i’m sure glad they took it.

Tom Listened: Little do I want to pop Rob’s bubble of bliss since becoming a father less than a week ago, but I have to say that in the case of Mr Cave he’s just plain wrong. Having gone back and listened to 1986’s album of cover versions, Kicking Against the Pricks and then, immediately afterwards, the post Good Son Henry’s Dream…and fully expecting a DRC epiphany, I regret to say that things panned out exactly as I remembered them. The former is, for me, so wonderful, in a teasing, vaguely cheeky, yet wholly reverential way to the originals and it easily surpasses any of the latter works of Mr Cave’s I own (coincidently they comprise solely of the four ‘masterworks’ that Rob has mentioned in his write up). I found Henry’s Dream as patchy as ever – some fantastic songs sure (When I First Came to Town is my favourite) but it doesn’t hold up as a complete work as far as I am concerned.

So I guess it makes sense that The Good Son worked for me much more than I expected it would. I knew some of the tunes already (The Ship Song and The Weeping Song) but, on first listen they in no way eclipsed the rest of the material and all the songs seemed to neatly sidestep Cave’s occasional over-earnestness that at times muddies my enjoyment of his later work.  So I am very grateful to Rob for highlighting the transition point in Nick Cave’s career but, unlike Rob, I expect I will be exploring the pre Good Son material before delving further into the latter half of his chronology.

Nick listened: Like The Smiths, I bought my first Nick Cave record whilst at university; The Boatman’s Call. I loved it dearly at the time, though I’ve come to understand that it’s pretty atypical of his oeuvre. I’ve not really explored beyond that, though; I bought No More Shall We Part when it came out but found it very dry, despite the obvious care and craft that had gone into its construction. The fact that I’m using words like ‘craft’ ad ‘construction’ is telling; I like Cave’s assertion that he works on music in an office, like it’s a day-job, in theory, but something about the outcome didn’t do it for me. I’ve listened to Murder Ballads a couple of times, and the first Grinderman album (which I really quite liked), but nothing more.

This was really good though (as was the track from Abattoir Blues that Rob also played), and makes me want to investigate Cave’s ominously large catalogue a bit more. Without contextual knowledge of what came before, or much of what came after, I have no idea if it’s a turning point or not – it sounded like I expected Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds to sound, although perhaps more supple?

Graham Listened: It was great to finally find time to listen to a whole album of the man’s work. I have been dipping in and listening since the days of the Birthday Party, but strangely, never felt the need to buy an album for myself. Every time I catch him on the TV performing live I find his work fascinating and engaging.  It’s almost as if since he struck out on his own, nearly 30 years later, the size of his back catalogue has become too intimidating to know where to begin. This was great and sounded like something I should own, but reading other members comments, I still don’t know where to start.

Buffalo Tom – Let Me Come Over: Round 48 – Tom’s Selection

10805Buffalo Tom were the grunge era’s nearly men; seemingly always on the verge of breaking through into the big time but destined to be forever looking on from the sidelines (like the everymen they so blatantly were) whilst the demi-gods – Cobain, Vedder, Dando, Corgan – strutted their charismatic stuff through the pages of NME, Melody Maker, Rolling Stone and Spin and on to the day glow X-factor hit machine of its time that was MTV. I love the band photo of Buffalo Tom on the back of Let Me Come Over – Bill, Chris and the eponymous Tom sat around an anonymous table in some anonymous diner, looking slightly apprehensive yet vaguely excited like three young Dads about to go and see their children in their first Xmas panto. It’s a brilliantly mundane photo of a brilliantly ordinary band (that’s not meant to sound pejorative at all) and it wholeheartedly captures the reason why I like them so much…and why they could never mix it with the big boys – they were just three great blokes singing great songs without an iota of pretense or showmanship.

And that’s why, of all the records I immersed myself in the Spring of 1992 (one of the key turning points in my life) this is the one with the greatest power to evoke personal (rather than scene based) nostalgia. You see, when I listen to Nevermind or Blue Lines or Slanted & Enchanted all records that, in their own way, broke a mould and set a new agenda, and all records that I love or have loved, I do get a sense of nostalgia but they don’t take me back to myself, sat in my bedroom in my parents’ house counting the days before I would leave to go on my trip of a lifetime to Australia. No. I am reminded of Grunge and Trip-Hop and Lo-Fi and the music scene in general at the start of the 90s. These records are so connected to what came next, so steeped in the scene they spawned that, for me, the memories they evoke are forever blurred, tarnished even, so that I can’t even tell whether those memories are true or illusionary. But seeing as it was one of the most exciting times of my life, full to overflowing with the thrill of anticipation, it’s great to head back to those feelings every now and again…and that’s where Let Me Come Over comes in.

Buffalo Tom existed in a vacuum really. They had no angle, no ‘USP’ as Nick puts it. They just wrote really good songs…well, I liked them anyway! Admittedly some of their work was patchy and, for me, their five albums go: good, not so good, great, not so good, good. But I may be wrong as I haven’t listened to albums 1, 2 or 4 for some time now (and there are a few other albums but I don’t know them). But I am pretty sure that album number 3, Let Me Come Over, is the one where the stars aligned and there can be but a few albums of straight ahead US alterna-rock with a hint of grunginess that set the bar so consistently high through 12 tracks. There are no weak links here, no filler, no mis-steps and revisiting Let Me Come Over is like spending time with a long-lost, very dear and completely trustworthy friend. There’s no danger, no unpredictable mood swings or ghosts in the closet, just warmth, pathos and 12 sweet melodies – from the noisy opener of Staple to the noisier closer Saving Grace, through moments of calm (Frozen Lake), poignancy (Mineral, Porchlight) to anthemic sing-alongs like Taillights Fade and the unimpeachable Larry – that make me feel good about life. And what’s wrong with that?

Rob listened: I loved Buffalo Tom and I fully endorse Tom’s assessment of their place just below and to the right of the pantheon. Although a couple of their songs, ‘Sunflower Suit’ and ‘Crawl’, had as much impact one me and held the same addictive pull on me as anything Nirvana or Pixies ever released, it seems broadly fine for them to stand as workmen. The work they did was great and they made me very happy by doing it. ‘Birdbrain’ probably has more resonance for me, soundtracking the Summer between my first and second year at university, but it was great to hear ‘Let Me Come Over’ again after so many years. It may be off in the distance now, but its taillights have yet to completely fade.

Nick listened: My brother, who’s about the same age as Rob and Tom, professes to only like 3-minute-power-punk-pop. I have noticed that he has a Buffalo Tom album or albums on his shelves. Which is not surprising. Despite being aware of them for ever, seemingly, I’ve never actually listened to them knowingly. As such, I’ve got none of the attachment to them that Rob, Tom, and presumably my brother might do. This was very pleasantly workmanlike, as it were, but I definitely got the sense that it lacked that certain je ne sais quoi or creativity or charisma or insanity that the likes of Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins had which made them explode out of the scenes from which they emerged. But Buffalo Tom don’t seem to be all that bothered about not exploding, which is fair enough.

Graham listened: Another band I always knew were there and deserved investigation, but never got around to it. I thought this was really great and after borrowing the album and listening to some others, I would agree it sounds their best. Strangely it sounds as if the ‘…Tom’s did it for Tom, in the same ways the Screaming Trees, did it for me around the same time. As no-one is  still reading this far down a review, its probably safe to reveal I currently don’t, and have never have owned, Nevermind. Phew, think I got away with it!

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On: Round 48, Nick’s choice

Marvin Gaye "What's Going On" high res cover artWhen I set us the theme of ‘turning points’ a fortnight or so ago I didn’t have a specific record in mind; or, indeed, a specific interpretation. A ‘turning point’ record could be a fulcrum of an artist’s career, a dramatic change in your personal relationship with music, a shift in the way an entire genre works, or anything else we could gerrymander an explanation for. It seemed like the kind of vague idea that could make for an interesting evening’s listening…

But when I actually started thinking about it I wasn’t feeling inspired. So I threw the idea out on Twitter to see what bounced back; someone mentioned this and a lightbulb went on in my head. It’s the most obvious turning point album there is, on several levels: Marvin’s seizing of creative control from Berry Gordy was an entirely new thing for Motown and for him (though not, quite, for soul music as a whole; Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul pre-dates it by about 18 months); it set the scene for Stevie Wonder’s amazing string of 70s solo albums (as well as quite a few other people); it established the idea that a soul album by a big-name player could be something other than a collection of singles and cover versions; and, for me, it was a seismic marker in my teenage musical development – the first soul album I bought, and a gateway into entire worlds of r&b and jazz that I’d barely been aware of outside of oldies radio beforehand.

As a 16-year-old I was a bit baffled by What’s Going On at first; I’d read a huge amount about it, about how it was legendary and amazing and significant, Ian Brown from The Stone Roses claiming it was the greatest album ever made, how it was soulful and serious, dealing with the Vietnam war and ecological catastrophe and economic meltdown. So I was expecting big things, as you would. Given what I knew about soul music back then, which wasn’t much beyond recognising all those classic Stax and Motown singles, I expected What’s Going On to be a string of undeniably great soul bangers, hit after hit after hit.

But actually, it’s something else entirely; the entire 35 minutes is a single piece, almost, the first side flowing through six songs which are more like segues or sections than discrete units, the second side a sandwich of two amazing grooves and a piece of subtly devout gospel. The opening two numbers, for instance, are essentially the same; the title track and its near-twin are separated by little but their lyrics. “Save The Children” and “God Is Love” are hymn-like calls to God, enough to make an atheist teenager feel hypocritical and uncomfortable just by listening in. “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and the title track were about the only two I recognised; the rest seemed formless, almost, strings and rhythm section and brass weaving through what seemed like improvisations (and which, I learned over the years, often were).

It took me some time to adjust my expectations and come to understand this record, but it wasn’t a difficult thing to do; not with music this amazing. Nearly 20 years on, I’d definitely claim What’s Going On as one of the greatest records ever made.

Tom Listened: Of course What’s Going On has been on ‘The List Of Albums I really Should Own But Don’t’ for years now and hearing it in full for the first time at Nick’s house has moved it way on up said list. I wouldn’t say I came close to working it out in a solitary listen and just as Nick has suggested in his write-up, it confounded my expectations (much more so than Innervisions which sounded more-or-less exactly as I had imagined it would beforehand) but I have been listening to records for long enough now to be able to tell the difference between discombobulatingly (is that a word?) good and discombobulatingly bad and this most definitely was the former.

A joy to listen to…as are most offerings at Record Club!

Interestingly (well I found it interesting anyway) I just noticed for the first time the lack of question mark in the album’s title.  Always assumed it was there. That changes things!

Rob listened: I too was baffled by ‘What’s Going On’ when I bought it in the mid-90s. It’s still a swirling, beguiling record, never quite what i’m expecting, always hiding something, always giving something different away. It still sounds like an amazing achievement. 40 years after its release I struggle to think of any other albums so compact yet fully-realised, so self-justifying as ‘What’s Going On’.

Graham listened:  Never heard this before and what a far cry from what I expected. Nick doesn’t credit himself enough for simply being a “bit baffled” by this as a 16year old. At my age it had me completely baffled by side 2. Having recently watched Platoon, I was happily groovin’ in the R&R bunker scene vibe as soon as the album began, but was not expecting the complete mixture of social and political commentary/religion/spirituality/jamming/gospel  that followed. Far too much to take in on a single listen.

Joni Mitchell – Hejira: Round 47 – Tom’s Selection

joni-mitchell-hejiraSubconsciously pandering once again to the boss’ surname, I found myself selecting another ‘Mitchell’ record to follow on from round 24’s ‘Mitchell record of the Anais variety’. Funnily enough the two records are pretty happy bedfellows as they both work as song cycles that are played out in the rural hinterland (in Anais’ case ‘Wilderland’) of the USA. And both give the impression of being laboured over, refined and revised coming as close as can be to realising the vision of the artist who made them. Lyrically rich and musically sumptuous, these two records stand out amongst those I have brought to Record Club of being works of great artistic accomplishment and skill and what they lack in spontaneity and raw edge they gain in depth – they are records that reward repeated listens and close attention. Rob must be a proud Mitchell indeed; surely it’s time the male members (unfortunate terminology admittedly) of the clan stepped up to the plate!

Of all the Joni albums I own (Blue through to Hejira), this one has always been the one I have been predisposed to, the one I regularly pull off the shelf, the one I am intrigued by. It’s not an easy listen; the songs are long and wordy and lack conventional melody; Joni’s voice throughout is exquisite but conversational in style and so the hooks that exist (and they do exist) are to be found elsewhere. Perhaps in the words she sings – current faves: ‘He sees cars as sets of waves’, ‘While the boarders were snoring under crisp white sheets of curfew’, ‘As snow gathers like bolts of lace waltzing on a ballroom girl’, ‘I dreamed of 747s over geometric farms’. To my untrained ears, these sound like the closest thing in my record collection to being poems set to music.

If the words don’t do it for you, perhaps the bass will as it is just about the only instrument on the entire album providing variety within the songs. And the playing is wonderful throughout, whether by Jaco Pastorius or Max Bennett, the bass draws you in and keeps you guessing right from the word go – in fact I reckon I could happily listen to the bass on album opener Coyote with no accompaniment on an infinite loop.

Having recently had a bit of a breakthrough with Hejira’s forebear, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, it has become ever clearer that the differences between the two albums is incredible. THOSL’s songs are the exact opposite of Hejira’s; complex structures that writhe out of of your grasp just as you think you’re getting to grips with them. Hejira is a much more subtle listen – it requires patience and a willingness to get to know it, not so that it no longer jars (as with THOSL) but so that those miniscule variations in arrangements and motifs can be recognised and enjoyed and if you ever worry that you’re going to have got them all worked out and have nothing left to unearth (you won’t!) you can always just kick back and spend an hour with one of the finest wordsmiths modern popular music has yet produced.

Nick listened: I’ve only ever listened to Blue by Joni, even though she’s an artist who seems to get name-checked by a huge amount of musicians I love (Tom began his intro on the night by saying how much Patrick Wolf loves this album). I’m aware that some of her later work is very jazz-influenced/derived, and have been curious to investigate The Hissing of Summer Lawns for a while. Hejira wasn’t really on my radar though, and on one listen wasn’t quite jazzy in the way I’d have liked – though from what Tom said I suspect Hissing… might be. It was still lovely though, and the lyrics are so dense and literary (note: I’m not putting ‘literary’ or ‘poetic’ lyrics on any higher artistic level than wordless guide vocals) that they’d take far more attention (and time) to unpack than a DRC session can facilitate. Awesome bass playing. A lovely and compelling sound.

Rob Listened: I’ve never knowingly listened to a Joni Mitchell album. I carried some ill-formed impression of what they’re like – drippy James Taylor-esque acoustic cooing – which i’m sure formed back when my musical planet was cooling from the molten heat of post-punk, pre-rave Manchester. It doesn’t help that her heyday sits squarely in my mid-70s blind spot.

Hejira was great. Fluid of motion, pure of sound. It fleetingly recalled lots of stuff I really did fall in love with and to, but remained resolutely other. I loved its flowing construction, clearly very deliberate, but seemingly unfolding casually, constantly, like a dreamy meander through the wilderness.

I’ve never knowingly listened to a James Taylor album.

Studio – West Coast: Round 47, Nick’s choice

studio-west-coastI put this on a few times the other week whilst working from home (it’s good for that kind of thing) and ended up writing about it for my 00s project over on my blog. Which made me wonder, would this go down well at record club? At 55 minutes it’s longer than I’d normally pick, but when Graham pulled out of our last meeting due to illness, this jumped to the top of the pile of things to play on un-themed evenings. So I did.

Ostensibly part of the “Balearic revival” (you may not have heard of this phenomenon) that about a dozen people on various music blogs and messageboards got excited about circa 2006/2007, Studio are a Swedish duo who make music that sits somewhere between twitchy postpunk and sophisticatedly smooth European dance, and West Coast is their only proper studio album. (There are a couple or three compilations, which bring together the various remixes they did for other people.)

I’d never thought of it before, but on the night Tom and Rob pointed out that, on the vocal cuts (especially “Self Service”), whoever it is who’s singing sounds a LOT like Robert Smith. You know, that guy from The Cure. And he does. I’ve subsequently found reference (on Wikipedia no less) to them being “the missing link between Lindstrøm and The Cure”. Which makes a lot of sense, because that’s pretty much exactly what they sound like.

West Coast has only six tracks, but the opener is a 15-minute instrumental sunshine roadtrip, and the closer is a 12-minute ambient twilight headtrip. Tracks 2, 3, and 4 are postpunky things with vocals and track 4, “Origin”, has some of my favourite ever guitars, painting dirty shapes into the corners of a great groove. I could listen to it forever.

I’m not making and great claims for West Coast; it’s not life-changing, no masterpiece, no great artistic statement particularly, but music doesn’t always need to be that. Sometimes it’s absolutely fine for it just to be incredibly cool and good to listen to, which is what this is.

Tom Listened: Nick, in response to Swell (round 34): ‘I wasn’t blown away by Swell (who I hadn’t heard of prior, I don’t think), but I did enjoy listening to Well, and sometimes that’s enough’. Substitute ‘Well…’ for ‘West Coast’ and ‘Swell’ with ‘Studio’ and my feelings towards Studio have more or less been encapsulated.

This was a pleasure to listen to from start to finish – it didn’t place any great demands on me as a listener and so I doubt it would go on to reveal much more but, much in the same way as Swell’s record (and my choice for tomorrow night’s meeting) an undemanding but enjoyable 50 minutes is sometimes exactly what the doctor ordered. In fact, having listened to Studio I was minded to pull out Our Ill Wills by The Shout Out Louds partly as it is a similarly ‘easy’ listen and partly because it sound like the Cure (although in the case of the latter it’s ‘In Between Days style Cure’ rather than ‘A Forest’ style Cure).

Rob listened: I’d never heard of Studio and a couple of minutes into ‘West Coast’ it felt like a major discovery. The opening half of the opening track was muscular, lithe, funky, gripping and thirst-making and then… it just seemed to dissipate. The rest of the album sounded real pretty, but never quite managed to get its claws into me again. Perhaps repeat listens would expose more, and I can see that I may go back, but first time around it felt a little bit like being jilted at the altar.

Sunset Rubdown – ‘Random Spirit Lover’: Round 47 – Rob’s choice

Sunset Rubdown - Random Spirit Lover“It’s a bit ‘Wizard Rock’ isn’t it?”

I trust my Cousin-in-law Sarah’s taste in music, but I have trouble predicting it. I guess I also assume that as a bona-fide Canuck, and Vancouver’s most adeptly sarcastic nurse, she’ll be so excited by the very notion of me liking Canadian bands that she’ll immediately like any that I recommend to her. Stupid of me.

So, she went to see Sunset Rubdown, one of my very favourite bands of the last few years, and current holders of my ‘Best Band Name Ever’ award, and thought they were “a bit ‘Wizard Rock'”. It’s a difficult charge to refute. Spencer Krug, the songwriter, singer, keyboard player and essentially main man of the band, plus about half a dozen other outfits, just writes songs that way.

Across Sunset Rubdown’s three widely released albums he weaves abstract tales stuffed full of kings and queens, horses and horsemen, dragons and snakes, leopards and birds. And synchronised swimmers. On ‘Random Spirit Lover’, the middle of the three, these tales spin out across his most ornate, self-consciously complex compositions, drawing in clear classical influences and constructing songs with interlocking themes, movements and sub-plots. Once you’re familiarised they are bright, delightful, compelling and quite unlike the work of any other songwriter i’ve come across.

Paul Klee described drawing as “taking a line for a walk” and Krug seems to be the Klee of keyboard klatter. Take the opener here, ‘The Mending of the Gown’. It veers all over the place, but always with disarming gusto. The first couple of times you listen it’s almost impossible to get a grip of. By the fourth of fifth time you’ve heard the song arrive at “This one’s for Maggie/This one’s for Sam/… I have lusted after you/the way bloodsuckers do!” you realise that the enchanted journey simply couldn’t have ended anywhere else. From then on following the route each time becomes pure pleasure.

There’s a leap of faith to be taken here. The “Wizard Rock” brickbat is sharp and accurately tossed, and pretty funny too. But there is such pleasure in Sunset Rubdown that clinging to ones sense of propriety is simply self-defeating. ‘Up On Your Leopard, Upon the End of Your Feral Days’ is absolutely one of my favourite songs of the last decade. It’s ludicrous in almost every respect, from the deranged madrigal opening through the hilarious cod-accusatory lyrics (“You’re the one who’s riding around on a leopard!/You’re the one who’s throwing dead birds in the air!”) but above below and right through the middle of all this, all these signals that tell the discerning music lover that this is NOT RIGHT AT ALL, the song is immense fun and that’s a quality that much indie rock seems to have incredible problems with.

I’m choosing this record partly because the word ‘Prog’ has been used in anger a few times over recent meetings. I sense we all have slightly different takes on it. I was brought up to loathe its pomposity, its empty grandeur and its po-faced self-satisfaction with its own perceived complexity. I don’t consider Sunset Rubdown to be ‘Prog’, but I’m hopeful that in considering the question we’ll be able to figure our way around the territory a little more.

Oh, I forgot to mention that ‘Random Spirit Lover’, unlike ‘Shut Up I Am Dreaming’ before it and ‘Dragonslayer’ after, sounds for large parts like it was probably recorded on a bunch of plastic musical instruments intended for use by children. For years I thought it was an album with no bass guitar on it. It’s tinny, tumbling, unhinged and liberating.

So, Sarah, yes it’s a bit ‘Wizard Rock’, but that’s absolutely fine by me. At least in this particular case.

Nick listened: Rob announced as he introduced this that he thought I’d hate it, and that it was long. Thanks, Rob. (Good job Graham was absent, as we each brought 50+ minute records this week, as if to compensate.)

Rob was pretty on the money too, sadly. This fell squarely into the school of mid-00s American indie that I don’t get; what I’d describe (borrowing from Dan Bejar a little) as post Neutral Milk Hotel and Soft Bulletin “West coast maximalism”, where everything gets thrown into the mix (“let’s have an accordion! And a banjo! And a harp! And a dog barking! And a cello! And a trumpet! And a celesete! And a Jews harp! And a massive acoustic guitar! And huge distorted drums! And let’s mix it so you can’t tell any of them from any other of them!”) and everything gets turned up. So it didn’t sound so much like plastic toy instruments as mushed-up instruments, and as a consequence I have no idea what the hell was being sung about (wizards or not) or how the songs went. And frankly, for me, life is too short to revisit Sunset Rubdown and get to know what it is that Rob gets out of it. But he probably suspected I’d say that!

Tom Listened: Well, as far as Random Spirit Lover is concerned I fall somewhere in between Nick and Rob’s two stools…I don’t fawn over it and I find much of it unwieldy to the point of distraction but I do enjoy much of it and have no problem with ‘the cramming of the instruments’ or ‘the tinniness of the sound’ and for some bizarre reason, (I think it’s Spencer Krug’s obvious playfulness) I find the lyrical content amusing rather than annoying. It’s a ridiculously over-reaching, overambitious record that, somehow, just about gets away with it and, interestingly, is a more intriguing and, I would attest, successful work than its more restrained and (moderately) more conventional successor Dragonslayer.

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