Pinkunoizu – ‘The Drop’: Round 58 – Rob’s choice

Pinkunoizu - The DropI don’t feel I have a huge amount to say about this record, as I know next to nothing about the band. Nowadays, I find I favour this arrangement (‘so do we’ I hear you sigh). Like most of you I used to pore over the pages of the music press for scraps of information about my favourite bands. Months could pass between mentions of The Fall or Big Black or whoever, but when they came these titbits felt like jewels to be turned in the hand, committed to memory and then squirrelled away for safe-keeping. Now, when everything is instantly accessible, I find i’m happy not to know.

The instant accessibility of music is relevant to my strong feelings for ‘The Drop’, released earlier this year. I still don’t have a firm grip on my views about how the ‘everything now’ approach which Spotify, Deezer, YouTube and online sharing will affect the way new music is made. If even an old geezer like me finds that Spotify has noticeably shortened his attention-span (“that’s no good: NEXT! that sounds better: 30 seconds BORED! NEXT!”) then will new music tend towards instant gratification and novelty? Will having all music at our fingertips reveal that there are no new tunes under the sun? Or will, as I hope, this open smorgasbord of sounds produce musicians with wildly careening influences and the ability to mash these together into yet more inventive shapes? (Sidenote: even this could ultimately be a cannibalistic cul-de-sac).

Okay, so I know just three things about Pinkunoizu. 1. They are a four-piece from Denmark. 2. Their name means ‘pink noise’ in Japanese. 3. ‘The Drop’, their second album, is a delirious blend of sounds and styles, from the 60s through to the 80s, and from the first time I heard it, it overwhelmingly fulfilled expectations I never even knew I had.

Part of the early fun to be had with this record is spotting the lifts and styles. It opens with zoned-out krautrock, then takes ‘New Life’ by Depeche Mode on a psych-trip to the sun and back before kicking into a Motor City ’68 freak-out jam. We’re three tracks in by this point, but seemingly have had 20 years of rock history crammed into our ears already. From here we’re led through fried acid folk, pastoral psychedelia, surf rock and blissed out British invasion whimsy. All of it’s compelling, joyful, liberating.

The most satisfying and surprising aspect of ‘The Drop’ is how, once the reference-spotting has run its course, the songs, followed by the whole record, slowly coalesce into a coherent whole. It should be possible to skip through so many genres with such apparent abandon and somehow make it sound like your own thing, but here Pinkunoizu nail that trick.

This is an album which could have been a collection of tired retreads or pale pastiches, but in fact feels like a musical air punch. It’s the record i’ve enjoyed the most this year. If the future is going to sound like the past but still be this good, then bring it on.

Tom Listened: Seeing as I am a bit of a connoisseur of  modern Danish kitchen-sink indie I was somewhat taken aback when Rob produced Pinkunoizu’s  latest from his bag. Hell, I didn’t even know they had a new record out!

Anyway, in much the same way as their other big albums (the ones that always turn up in those best of the decade lists, not their more obscure early records), The Drop is a wonderful mix of styles that should never work, but strangely does…in much the same way as Deus’ In A Bar Under The Sea without the Tom Waits growlalongs. I really liked this and can even see myself owning a copy before too long. A nice surprise!

Nick listened: The first three or so tracks on this didn’t strike me as being all that eclectic really, and I wondered a bit what Rob was going o about. Maybe it’s the mixing and mastering, or the happy euphonic accidents of vinyl that made it sound cohesive (I do struggle with hearing modern albums on vinyl first). That said, the second half was properly all over the place, in an enjoyable way. It reminded me a bit of Franco-Finnish duo The Do, but way more guitary.

Graham Listened: Really great first listen and wasn’t really struck by the Magpie approach that Rob thought the band were up to. Just seemed pretty damned inventive to me.


Pearl Jam – Vs – Round 58 – Graham’s Choice

Recently I have given cause for my fellow 220px-PearlJam-Vscontributors to start to get quite nervous that their DRC blog is rapidly turning in to some kind of Agony Aunt/Self Help page. I probably did not help with my introduction to this album when outlining that inevitably a personal crisis has some kind playlist which develops as time goes past. As they reached for their Kleenex, they seemed somewhat surprised that this popped out.

Rage is a dangerous emotion and needs to be channelled appropriately. For me, no album has done it better recently, and on odd occasions in the past, better than this. Yes, there is far more aggressive and abrasive stuff out there, but this has the bonus that it has rage you can sing along to at times, in addition to the mash outs.

PJ are an odd bunch and much of their behaviour has led to people believing their worthiness and sincerity has led to them taking themselves far too seriously and on occasion coming close to disappearing up their own proverbial. Yes they were in the shadow of Nirvana, but who wasn’t and I never imagined that they were trying to do the same thing.

The follow up to their debut Ten, Vs feels more honest with less pressure or possible rejection of need for radio friendly hits. The most ‘anthemic’ track, Leash, is littered with the profanities which immediately prevent mainstream radio broadcast. Go, Animal and Blood are all there as a helpful alternative to throwing furniture around the room, while Dissident and Daughter are there for the wind down afterwards.

I stayed with PJ for another 2 albums and felt that was enough as they were good at what they did, but had done enough for me.

In “agony uncle” corner next round, we will be focussing on your DIY problems as we have now moved on from previous personal issues causing disruption to normal service….

Rob listened (and also noticed, true story, that a picture of the late and much missed Claire Rayner seems to have appeared in our Media Library – Graham?):

No. No, no, no. I haven’t come all this way to suddenly start liking Pearl Jam. However, hearing this gave a good, an ultimately entertaining, opportunity to discuss why Pearl Jam were different from those other bands, in ways we each either applauded or decried.

I guess I never liked straight down the line rock music, however well it might be played, or with whatever level of conviction. Also, at the time Pearl Jam were hocking their wares, I was sufficiently unencumbered by self-doubt or wider perspective to consider them sell-out motherfuckers. They may or may not have been, but even 20 years later, they still sound a hell of a lot like a lot of bands that were.

Tom Listened: Two record clubs meetings ago Graham introduced The Pleasure Principle by Gary Numan and in so doing stated that I would hate it. This comment missed its mark by a country mile and I was bamboozled as to why Graham would have thought this (especially as I had brought John Maus to record club on a previous occasion – surely a pretty direct descendent of Mr Numan’s).

Well, Graham repeated the trick with Vs…and this time he was spot on! Sorry, Eddy and all you other Pearl Jam boys, but there is something about the sound you make that is deeply unpleasant to my ears and if I ever work out what it is (which will probably be, like, never…as I have no intention of ever listening to one of your albums again) I’ll let you know.

Nick listened: This album is totally conflated in my head with Ten, Pearl Jam’s debut; both of them got absolutely played to death by my friends when we were teenagers, and I don’t really know where one ends and the other begins. I never actually owned either myself, though I did own a Pearl Jam t-shirt. As such I have no idea whether I like this or not; I’ve internalised a huge amount of it simply via osmosis through repeated exposure, and familiarity and reminiscence ca easily be confused with affection and appreciation. That said, I have none of the issues that Tom and Rob seem to with this; Pearl Jam are very obviously ‘a good rock band’, I’m just not that bothered by rock music for the most part these days. I own a couple of their mid-period albums – No Code and Yield – but seldom play them, although “Given To Fly” used to get on a LOT of mixtapes / minidiscs / playlists [delete as appropriate]. Why is it OK to like Nirvana but not this? I’d just be projecting pseudo cultural studies ideology if I tried to answer that. It’s probably something to do with guitar solos.

House of Blondes – Clean Cuts: round 58, Nick’s choice

I’ve been wanting to play this gorgeous, modest album for quite some time, but holding off until we were at my house so that people could feel its beautifully-rendered synthesisers emanating from my speakers. Not that there’s anything wrong with anyone else’s speakers; just that I know that Clean Cuts sounds mighty fine through mine, and I didn’t want to risk a sub-optimal first impression.

Except that 2012’s Clean Cuts, despite being House of Blondes’ debut album, wasn’t my first impression of House of Blondes; in 2007 a band by the same name, led by the same man (New Yorker John Blonde) released another debut album (there’s quite a backstory regarding how I came to hear them in that linked article).

That band was a decent-enough indie coterie with some gently florid tunes, and I enjoyed their eponymous record. The House of Blondes that released Clean Cuts early last year is a synth-based three-piece however, and sounds almost completely different bar a few melodic similarities which seem to come, understandably, from the fact that the same guy is singing the songs. Beyond that, though, the analogue pulse, drift, reverberation and oscillation of this record sounds completely unlike the faintly folky guitar piano bass drums of House of Blondes mk1. And I’m glad, because while mk1 was nice, mk2 is wonderful.

Clean Cuts is, to my ears, almost perfectly pitched and sequenced as an album of this kind; there’s an exquisite balance between “songy songs” and “tracky tracks” (as I so eloquently put it on the night), much like on Burst Apart by Antlers. ‘Ego songs’ – tunes that demand your attention, want to be hollered along with, be a single or thought of as an important statement – can be tiring if over used, as they often are on BIG. IMPORTANT. RECORDS. where every song matters and there’s no room to breathe. I’ve always liked the moments in between the ego songs, the segues and instrumentals and low-key songs and ambient wibbles that act as respite and palette cleansers, giving you space to just enjoy the wonder of recorded sound. Clean Cuts has those moments in abundance, and even the “songs songs” never stray fully into ego territory; as a result I’ve never grown tired of this record, despite having played it over and over and over and over again. And the “tracky tracks”, although occasionally beatifically absent and vatic, always feel like something more substantial than sheer ambience.

In terms of influences, similarities, and sound-alikes, you can draw obvious lines to New Order, Gary Numan, Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, Suicide, OMD, and countless other synth-oscillators over the last 30-40 years, but to do so is a little reductive; House of Blondes are their own thing, and very good too. The question of what happens to make some bands get picked up and go over the precipice into wider awareness is a strange one; Clean Cuts is self-released but as good as anything I’ve heard on an established record label. It’s one of my favourite records that I’ve come across in the last 12 months.

Rob listened: Liked this a great deal. Mainly on a purely sonic level, the sounds were lovely and assembled with exquisite care. Secondly, it seemed to chime with the Pinkunoizu record in that it took influences which it seemed happy to display, but wove something new and exciting from them. That’s a tough thing to do and when it’s done right it hits a big sweet spot.

Tom Listened: Whilst sharing only the slightest of direct musical similarities, Clean Cuts seemed to share much common ground with Rob’s offering – Pinkunoizu’s The Drop (to be honest, most records surely will have some common ground with The Drop). Both are records from bands that are so far off the radar that I haven’t seen their name mentioned yet at all in any of the end of year best of lists I have glanced at. Which is simply wrong – both sound to me worthy of adulation and respect….much more so than many of the records that have found their way onto said lists. And both are records that sound unencumbered by the weight of expectation, records made by people who are simply doing what they have to do, just getting it out there. Both are records that I will probably end up buying. Fantastic stuff.

Graham Listened: Sat nicely alongside Pinkunoizu, though a lot more sophisticated and mature than the cheeky upstart. Lots of reference points to electro that could be dubbed “my era”, which made it easy to get on with.

Al Green – I’m Still In Love With You: Round 58 – Tom’s Selection

green_al~~~_imstillin_101bPurchasing and consuming music is a funny business. Every time we turn on the radio, reach for an album on the shelf or go into a record shop, we are faced with a myriad choices that we almost immediately sift through, usually coming to a remarkably rapid decision.  For me, when acquiring new music the rapidity of the decision hinges on three things – knowledge, ignorance and assumption. Direct knowledge is the quickest method – I know the album, or artist and am able to make a decision based on what I already know. It’s also, for me, the most boring approach to acquiring music and has often led to my most disappointing purchases. Hence my avoidance of Spotify. Too much knowledge dulls the initial thrill I feel as the needle inexorably spirals towards the first notes of album I have never heard before. But a little knowledge heightens the anticipation and so I usually read and listen to other’s points of view prior to looking for new music. If I am entirely ignorant, I will usually dismiss the album without a second thought. But often I make assumptions about a record or an artist or even an entire genre that has meant that numerous wonderful records have passed me by for many years before I have eventually given them a proper chance – The Smiths, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Steve McQueen by Prefab Sprout to name but a few.

I have always loved the great soul singles of the late sixties and early seventies – O’Jays, Aretha, Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye – but I always assumed that (with the exception of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye) their albums would be full of lesser fare bar a few jewels, that had invariably become ubiquitous as singles anyway. So I pretty much avoided the genre because I have always wanted to own albums rather than compilations and I always thought that these albums would ultimately be disappointing due to the amount of second rate filler they would inevitably contain. But then Nick played Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul at record club. The consistently high quality of the music throughout that album made me reassess and, almost straight away, I was browsing sections of the record shop that I wouldn’t normally have considered going to. Soon I was excitedly clutching a copy of Al Green’s magnificent fifth album, rushing home whilst wondering what delights my needle would unearth once it began to work its magic.

Needless to say, I’m Still In Love With You is wonderful throughout – from the astonishing vocal gymnastics of the opening title track, through to the astonishing vocal gymnastics of the final track, One of These Good Old Days (featuring the legendary lyrics – ‘George Mitchell’s Minstrels, Elvis Presley, George Mitchell’s Minstrels, South Pacific, Elvis Presley, George Mitchell’s Minstrels, South Pacific’ etc etc ad infinitum….oh no, my mistake, that was Nick ‘researching’ his choice for the next meeting over the top of the last quarter of the record!). I find that when listened to in a room where ‘research’ is not being conducted, I’m Still In Love With You sounds even better!

But between start and finish Al Green traverses nine tracks of impeccable quality from the smouldering Love and Happiness, through the claustrophobic Simply Beautiful and his forlorn and yearning cover of Kris Kristofferson’s For The Good Times. Although some tracks stand out more than others, there really aren’t any duffers – a true ***** album in my book and a great first chapter on my journey into the treasure trove of 20th century soul music.

Rob listened: It seems sensible to accept that taste has to be subjective. Equally, there are some things which it seems sensible for us all to agree are undeniably fantastic. Here’s one of them. Listen to Al Green spin his voice out like a filament of blown glass and if you’re not ready to lie down and weep at the sheer beauty of the sound (or hey! stand up and cheer if you prefer! i’m open to new approaches), you’re from another planet.

Nick listened: I’m an asshole for shouting over this, even if it was educational shouting. Al Green is great; I only have a ‘best of’ rather than any studio albums. What I already knew of this was still magnificent, what I didn’t know already was very good on first exposure. His voice is like honey and gossamer at the same time. There’s not a lot else to say; it’s just a pleasure to listen to.

Graham listened: While most of the time his voice has healing powers, now and again I’m not totally overwhelmed. Booking my flight to Mars.

Fleetwood Mac – Rumours – Round 57 – Graham’s Choice

1977 was my lucky dip year for this download round’s theme. After exhausting and exhaustingly turning boxes of records and cd’s upside down looking for all the albums I thought were from 1977, I finally discovered that I only owned one from that year. Luckily for everyone, it was one worth listening to.

For a good part of my adolescence I parked Fleetwood Mac with the Beatles and the Beach Boys in the dullest parts of the Radio 2 playlists which played in the kitchen and the car. I reckon ‘Albatross’ must have got played at least twice a day during the Jimmy Young and Terry Wogan era’s at the helm.

I never thought of the band much until the end of the 90’s when I started to read about the history and mythology behind the band and particularly, the making of this album. By then tracks like ‘Go your own way’ and ‘Don’t Stop’ had started entering my subconscious. Finally buying and listening to the album was a revelation.

I think I used the word “craft” a lot when I introduced this on the night. There is just something about the way the vocals and instrumentation on this album are so perfectly put together, without sounding as if they have been slaved over, that makes it work so well. The subtle use of drums and percussion when you might not expect it, crashing guitars one minute to haunting and sparse the next.

The vocals drift from soaring sing-along’s to intimate stories of the complex relationships (and even if you don’t listen to the album you should read up on those) members of the band were involved in. The fact that some of those relationships are then openly exposed on the album makes it even crazier that something so well ‘crafted’ (there it is again) could be produced. Sex and drugs can sometimes produce a rock’n’roll masterpiece, and I would venture that this is one.

Strangely, I have never felt the need to go back any further with the band, settling with their next album, ‘Tusk’, as the end of the journey. ‘Tusk’ has moments of masterpiece but too many moments of madness/self indulgence that point to abuse of substances and disintegration of some of the creative madness that inspired ‘Rumours’.

Oh and just in case readers thinks I’m letting my current situation influence album selections around complex romantic themes, its a good time to recite my daily mantra, “I f*****g hate Coldplay!”

Rob listened: I’m forced to reflect that of the four albums played this evening, the only one I didn’t know well was this, the 14th best selling album in UK history, and 6th in the US. Having finally heard ‘Rumours’ through for the first time, i’m pretty happy with that situation. I’ve warmed to the pre-punk 1970s a huge amount over the last couple of years, and Devon Record Club has been a huge influence in that regard. I watched the Fleetwood Mac documentary on BBC Four recently, and found it fascinating. I was ready to be converted but ‘Rumours’ just didn’t do it for me at all. Some great tunes, and vocal hooks particularly, but it’s just too smooth for my rough palate. There’s no edge for me to get a grip of and those hooks just don’t stick in me.  Perhaps it deserves a closer listening. I’m sure it does. But i’m not sure that’s something i’ll bother with.

Tom Listened: For me, Fleetwood Mac belong in the same company as Madness, The Cure and Abba – capable of producing unimpeachable pop music, seemingly at will but, somewhat bafflingly, never quite managing to sustain their brilliance over the course of an entire album. All that cocaine must have blurred their judgment…after all Tusk has more than enough incredible songs on it to be a brilliant single album but whoever thought Sisters Of The Moon or That’s Alright With Me were a good idea? Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory!

Anyway, Rumours was always my least favourite of the big three – for me it lacks Tusk’s wonky personality (I’ve always been drawn to wonky personalities, hence the company I keep at record club) and the eponymous album has Rhiannon on it, so that’s always going to be better! But Rumours does have a clutch of all time classic songs, mainly the singles and whilst the rest of the album is a little too smooth and fluffy for my tastes it isn’t hard to see why this is such a behemoth in the rock ‘n’ roll canon. It was good to hear it (crackles and all) again.

Nick listened: There’s a literal list of albums on my phone – mostly recent stuff – to look out for and buy if the chance arises. There’s a theoretical list in my head – much, much longer – of other stuff that I’m interest in or feel I should own but never got round to. This was at the top of the latter list for years. I must’ve picked copies up a hundred times in record shops but never got to the till. It infuriated my wife. After Graham played it, I bought it. For £5. It’s great. I already knew 80% of it. The other 20% might be less great but it doesn’t really matter. These songs feel like platonic essences.

Portishead – Third: Round 57, Nick’s choice

ThirdI drew 2010 and 2008 out of Tom’s little bag of years, and knew straight away which year I had to choose an album from; 2010 is one of my favourite recent years for music, with wonderful albums by Four Tet, Owen Pallett, These New Puritans, and Caribou all having serious staying power in my affections, plus excellent records by Luke Abbott, The Knife, Warpaint, Vampire Weekend, Polar Bear, Lindstrøm & Christabelle, Laura Marling, Spoon, and LCD Soundsystem. It felt like a banner year.

2008, on the other hand, sucked so much that I didn’t even bother to make a list of my favourite records at the end of the year. Admittedly I was in a bad place – my career and health were suffering, I wasn’t writing about music regularly for anywhere, and I felt as if the musical support networks I’d had for the previous 7 or 8 years had collapsed somehow. Only perhaps three or four records from 2008 moved me at all, and they all felt tarnished somehow by how little I cared about anything else. Admittedly, in hindsight, this is my ‘fault’ more than it is the fault of ‘music’ – how can one blame music? – but at the time it felt profound and significant, and I wondered if my relationship with music was finished.

So obviously I had to pick something from 2008. Portishead it is.

Third is a record I admire much, much more than I love. It’s difficult to love; it’s difficult to bloody listen to, to be fair; it is an oppressive, intense, desolate affair, a soundtrack to nuclear terror and emotional isolation, a far cry away from the coffee-tabled trip hop of Portishead’s debut album, even if that record is unfairly maligned by association, and far more emotionally intense and bereft than its trendy ubiquity in the 90s would suggest.

It’s actually one of the few records I reviewed back in 2008, and I rolled out pretty much the entire breadth of my descriptive powers in that piece. Rather than smoky cinematic jazz, lounge, and hip hop, it draws from industrial music, krautrock, and post-punk, but it’s still just as cinematic as Portishead ever were, but it’s soundtracking a very different kind of film to Dummy.

Third is also mixed and mastered with oppressive volume and lack of space; there’s no air to breath and no room to move, but far from being a dunderheaded move to get on the radio (and remember hearing “Machine Gun” on the radio; fuck!) this is an artistic, aesthetic decision to pummel the listener quite deliberately. It works. I seldom listen to Third, but when I do I get to the end feeling suffocated, bruised, tortured. It’s an experience rather than a pleasure. In its way, it’s brilliant. It might have been a better choice for Halloween.

Tom Listened: This was a great record club evening for me – four top-notch albums that more than held their own in each other’s company. Third rounded proceedings off brilliantly.

I missed out on Third at the time of release. I heard Machine Gun somewhere and thought it was just too grey and industrial and harsh for me. And it still is in isolation. But it makes much more sense when nestled…that isn’t really the right word, is it?…in amongst the rest of the album.

Now, I’m a sensitive soul and scare easily. I don’t like scary films, or Sunn O))) or looking at the Exeter Record Club’s blog since Halloween and when I was little I was terrified of a picture in my Guinness Book Of Records of a speed skier wearing one of those funny helmets. So much so, that I would have to dare myself to look at it. I was about 15 at the time!

But I really didn’t see what was so difficult about listening to Third. I really liked it, don’t get me wrong, but I thought it was hooky and pretty melodic on the whole – not in a Russ Abbott way, admittedly, but it seemed to me that not far under the noise and the industrial atmosphere, form and light and humanity were readily detectable. In fact, the only thing that put me off rushing out and buying Third straight away were Beth Gibbons vocals. On Dummy they were theatrical. I thought that on Third they seemed (on first acquaintance anyway) a tad hammy. But maybe this would be something I wouldn’t even notice with familiarity as everything else about this record was astonishing.

Rob listened: Even if I didn’t love ‘Third’ as a record, I’d love it for the fact that it exists. In 1994 they were soundtracking sophisticated soirees. By 2008 they were doing… this. We can only pray that this album was picked up by hundreds, no let’s allow ourselves thousands, of people with their weekly supermarket shop and slipped out of its rounded jewel case in the same dinner party setting to horrified recipients. It would be up there with the great fan-alienating albums were it not for the fact that most of their casual fans had, presumably, moved on. (Actually, this is a slack point to make – ‘Third’ seems to have been pretty much their most successful album in terms of global chart positions). It would be up there with ‘Kid A’ as one of the highest profile left-turns, were it not for the fact that for Portishead ‘Third’ was a natural evolution, consistent with the work Barrow, Gibbons and Utley has been doing, a compelling synthesis of the sounds they made over their first two records, and the sounds that influenced them to make them. No matter if it misses these debatable marks, it’s up there anyway because it’s one of the most bracing and brilliant albums of the last ten years.

Graham listened: When, like many others, I rushed to hear what this sounded like on release, I was stunned. I remember seeing them perform ‘Machine Gun’ on Jools Holland and thought WTF? I was even prepared to consider that tape machines/backing tracks weren’t working when they did the performance. It feels like an album that should be kept in a locked draw but will still keep you awake by rattling and growling at the back of the cupboard. It was great to sit and listen properly as ‘MG’ just alienated me from the whole album and I never really went back to give it time. I still think it is a record that needs to be used cautiously.

Bruce Springsteen – ‘Born In The U.S.A.’: Round 57 – Rob’s choice

Bruce Springsteen - Born In The USAI drew 1973 and 1984 from the hat. I’d made my choice within 15 minutes.

In 1973 Bruce Springsteen released ‘Greeting from Asbury Park N.J.’, his first album. The second track, ‘Growing Up’, like most of the album, overflows with florid language, clever structural gestures and Dylanesque curlicues. It’s a decent song, about growing up.

‘Born in the USA’, Springsteen’s seventh album, was released in 1984. It bears none of the lyrical pyrotechnics, none of the unashamed cleverness of ‘Asbury Park’. In its approach it is straightforward, stripped down, direct. It’s a mature record from an artist who has figured out who and what he wants to be, and is executing it. It’s most striking quality, and one which is deceptively easy to overlook, is its remarkable, poetic concision. Songs are whittled down to their essences and the characters who have always lived and breathed in Springsteen’s songs, are much more alive for it. In literature, the likes of Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway are held as master stylists for saying more with less. In rock and roll, by the time he reached this point, Springsteen was their equal.

‘Born In The USA’ is a lyrical, storytelling masterclass. Moving, enervating, insightful, all backed by a band giving greatly and having a heck of a time. But the best of the best is the title track, an absolutely remarkable piece of work.

I’m a late convert to Springsteen, and sometimes I feel the convert’s zeal. It’s most strong for ‘Born In The .U.S.A.’, the song which first pushed me away, like many others who just heard it on the radio and dug no further than the surface, now burns brightest. Possibly the most wilfully misunderstood rock song of all time, both by those who loved it mistakenly, thinking it was a piece of rabble-rousing patriotism, and by those who rejected it as boorish nationalism without stopping to really listen. It’s a masterpiece, pure and simple.

The song was boiled down from a long standing work in progress initially called ‘Vietnam’. Like many of the songs which would eventually appear on the album, it was written during the acoustic sessions Springsteen worked through at Colts Neck in January 1982. Many of these were released unvarnished as the ‘Nebraska’ album. The demo version, a stripped acoustic lament, can be heard on the ‘Tracks’ album. At one point this is the version Springsteen favoured releasing. In fact at one stage he pushed for the release of the whole ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ set in their acoustic demo, the same stroke he had pulled with ‘Nebraska’.

Inspired by his work with Vietnam veterans groups, Springsteen captured the alienation and, ultimately, internal rebellion, in a few perfect brushstrokes.

“Come back home to the refinery,
Hiring man said, “Son, if it was up to me”,
Went down to see my V.A. man, 
He said “son, don’t you understand?”

But the final proof that Springsteen had learned to say more with less comes in the lines he leaves out completely. When the subject matter becomes too emotionally charged, his lyrics fade into the silence of a sob. The two verses which deal with the death of the protagonists brother in Vietnam both leave gaps where there should be lines. The song is a structural masterpiece.

Still it may have joined the ranks of his other low-key pen portraits were it not for the ultimate decision to let the E Street Band go wild with it. They go off like Fourth of July fireworks, and this contrast is what makes the song, ending as it does with a cry of self-determination and defiance in the face of grinding adversity. Forgotten and abandoned by his country and without the means to escape on the huge mythic motorcycle which previous Springsteen characters could always do, our man kicks back in the only way he can, insisting on his own vitality, insisting ‘I’m a cool-rockin’ daddy in the USA now!’.

The version of the song we know was created on the fly by Springsteen and his band. It was the second and last take of the song that the band recorded. It’s extraordinary. Even just the crashing, exploding drums are enough to make it an incredible listen.

By the time we reached ‘Born in the U.S.A’. The fantastical dreamers and fighters of the early records had been dealt a dose of reality by world they met on subsequent albums. Those we met on ‘Nebraska’ crossed the line in their attempts to escape the chains. Now, on his seventh despatch from blue collar America, Springsteen’s characters were struggling but ultimately finding ways to carry on through a harsh decade, with their determination and humanity intact.

Tom Listened: In my response to Graham’s album of last year – Mark Lanagan’s Blues Funeral – I wrote that it reminded me of latter day Springsteen in that it was a collection of really good songs…and that was about all it was. No grand artistic statement. No boundary pushing sonic cathedrals. No great surprises. I should have added, ‘and what’s wrong with that?’.

But I was wrong about Springsteen anyway.

At the time I had just acquired my first Bruce album (Tunnel of Love), more by default than anything else as it always seems to be the ubiquitous Bruce album in those bargain bins in second hand record stores. At the time I hadn’t realised just how good it is. In fact, these days I find it hard to think of a side of vinyl that is more realised than side two of Tunnel of Love.

But the point that I am labouring to get to is that Springsteen, for me at least, takes a bit of work. What at first may seem like just a collection of pleasant songs, in time reveals themes, characters, and musical depth that can be easily overlooked on a first listen. Blimey – it’s only taken me nigh on 30 years to ‘get’ the song Born in the USA!

Hearing it the other night, listening to it properly…well it just sounded like a completely different song to the one I must have heard a squillion times before. Rob’s introduction helped, but that was mainly to do with the song’s lyrics and story. And it wasn’t only that – the music sounded completely different to what I was expecting too. Where as in the 80s all I could make out was the bombastic, overwhelming drumming and Bruce’s unrefined holler of voice, what I heard this time were chord changes to die for and real emotion in every word…and bloody loud drums! An epiphany!

After that, I’d be lying if I were to make out that there wasn’t a drop in intensity and awesomeness. But that’s understandable, given just how good Born in the USA is…and that I hadn’t had 30 years to acclimatise to the rest of the album. But I’m looking forwards to adding another Springsteen to my collection and hopefully I can get there with the rest of the album within the next 30 years!

Graham listened: Bruce and I have kept a respectful distance between us most of the time. I had a copy of this on release and was gushing over it at the time. Then I started feeling it was all a bit ‘redneck’ right wing and too mainstream popular. Obviously politically naive myself at the time, I rather missed some of the point! But then the big brash live shows and the video for “D in the D” pushed me further away. But years later when I listened to ‘Nebraska’, Bruce outfoxed me again. This sounded great, big, brash, energetic sound, which I can accept now is an ‘ok’ thing. But there is something still about “D in the D” that makes me wince, it’s almost the equivalent of Portishead’s Machine Gun.

Nick listened: I know I ought to give Bruce some time – so many people I respect, musicians or just fans, adore him – and I know he’s great and I know he’s on the side of the angels etcetera, but something just isn’t clicking. Or… not even that. I just don’t feel like there’s space in my head for Springsteen. Everything Rob said about this record was right, and it was clearly not the Republican chest-thumper some wanted it to be way back when, and he clearly does what he does really well… I just can’t bring myself to be interested in it particularly. But I didn’t dislike it in any way.

Smog – Knock Knock: Round 57 – Tom’s Selection

Over the course of the last decade, (smog)_rel_48Bill Callahan has slowly but surely worked his way right up to the very top of my skewed American indie singer songwriter pile (a pile that is actually more populated than one might think). As each subsequent Bill Callahan or Smog release has slow-burned its way into my affection, my love for Mr Callahan’s oeuvre has deepened. Since the recent release of Dream River, that despite being a fine enough LP hasn’t yet clicked with me in the way that the previous album Apocalypse did, my obsessions have deviated to three of Bill’s earlier Smog releases – the subtly great latter day Smog album, Supper, the amusingly titled and particularly varied and sprawling Dongs of Sevotion and, possibly greatest of all, 1999’s imperious Knock Knock, an album that is as close to perfection as a skewed American singer songwriter can get. So whilst I was less than enamoured upon pulling out 1999 and 1992 from the hat of delight/doom – 1999 being previously plundered for one of Nick’s themes, 1992 being a fallow year for me due to doing the ‘finding oneself’ thing in Australia at the time – I became increasingly happy with my choice of album over the course of the fortnight leading up to record club night as each subsequent play revealed a little more depth, warmth and beauty to a record that I already regarded as one of the best.

But just what it is that makes Knock Knock so great is hard to pin down (as I am about to demonstrate). On paper Knock Knock sounds less than edifying. Four electric guitar tracks that chug along nicely but where not a lot happens – Held, No Dancing, Cold Blooded Old Times and Hit The Ground Running. Five acoustic tracks where even less happens, ending in the barely there Left Only With Love..and the opening (vaguely) Laurie Andersonesque Let’s Move to The Country, in which nothing much happens in a slightly more off-kilter way. So to conclude…unless you’re a fan of William Basinski, in which case the album is all over the place…not a lot happens! But this album’s all about subtlety, nuance, wit and poise. A study in the ‘less is more’ approach to music making. Whilst the aforementioned electric tracks provide the hooks it’s the quieter tracks that offer the breathtakingly beautiful moments that come along every so often in the Bill Callahan discography. River Guard, Sweet Treat, I Could Drive Forever and, to cap it all, the exquisite Teenage Spaceship repay rapt attention and a quiet room; initially they were the tracks I was least interested in. Now, I listen in spellbound attention as they meander through their (lack of) paces marvelling at Callahan’s ability to say so much through so little, both musically and lyrically.

For those of you who only know Bill Callahan through his later self-titled work, Knock Knock may seem a spartan and more left-field affair than they are used to. Callahan has become such a refined and sophisticated writer in recent times that the rawer earlier Smog work can seem like the work of a different artist altogether. But the difference would be made even more stark for anyone who chanced upon Smog in their very early days (when they made Guided By Voices seem positively Hi-Fi) and had then given up on them. Because by Knock Knock, Callahan had worked out his strengths (and, importantly teamed up with US indie superman Jim O’Rourke) and was well on the way to documenting what has gone on to become one of the most vital, vibrant and astonishing chapters in the great American songbook. And within that chapter, Knock Knock more than holds its own as one of the great skewed indie American song writer albums!

Rob listened: I share Tom’s reverence for Bill Callahan. He’s one of the few songwriters who can bring forth pure joy just by doing what he’s doing and doing it so very well. I realise i’m terrible at getting to the root of what makes any artist or record any good, but my take on Callahan is that his deep, resonant voice and his deliberate, deceptively simple approach to writing (how few words has ‘Teenage Spaceship’ and how much redolence of adolescent isolation) tell of self-confidence and inspire a feeling of safety. ‘Yes’, we think, ‘this guy really DOES know what he’s doing’. And we put our trust in him. I spend a lot of time listening to his records (‘Apocalypse’ and ‘Sometime I Wish…’ may be my most reached for records of the last two years) but I don’t spend too much time parsing them. Even after all these years, they are unfolding like gentle mysteries. I feel like we’re growing old together, and I really like that. At this stage I can’t imagine what a Callahan mis-step could possibly sound like. And it’s nice to have someone you can depend upon.

Graham listened: Not often I lie in a bath of warm chocolate, but if I did, I would probably add this to the accompanying playlist. I was really intrigued by its subtlety and although not a huge amount going on, it just washed over nicely. It fitted so well on a night where we indulge in a fair amount of bombastic sounds. Off to see how much Dairy Milk it takes to fill a bath.

Nick listened: I’ve only listened to post-Smog Smog, when Callahan has used his own name, but I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve heard, some of it very, very much. This too; unsurprisingly – it’s the same guy, and produced by Jim O’Rourke, who I really like. “Teenage Spaceship” was especially lovely. This has replaced Rumours on the theoretical list of albums to buy in my head. It sits just below 20 Jazz Funk Greats by Throbbing Gristle.

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