Tall Dwarfs – Hello Cruel World: Round 69 – Tom’s Selection

downloadSomehow I have gained the reputation of being the ‘New Zealand Man’ of Devon Record Club. I think this is mainly due to the fact that, until Round 69, I had brought one more album from New Zealand than anyone else! It’s funny how these things stick. I do, admittedly, probably have more Flying Nun albums in my collection than the others…mainly because their contents have brought me great pleasure over the years! Always packed with ideas, usually utterly charming and, crucially for me, shot straight from the heart, the work of The Chills, The Bats, The Clean and Bailter Space is right up there. Until recently, Hello Cruel World was a bit of an outlier – a Flying Nun release I didn’t quite get. But then, on repeatedly listening to it in preparation for Graham’s holiday themed meeting (‘Hello Cruel World’ – what most holiday makers exclaim when they realise their travel agent was being economical with the truth) I got it and it got me…in a big way.

Whilst all the bands I have listed have their own distinctive sound, in truth most operate at the jangly end of the indie pop/rock spectrum. Tall Dwarfs on Hello Cruel World most definitely don’t – this is weird stuff, a progenitor of lo-fi if you like. But much like Guided by Voices at their finest, Hello Cruel World is crammed with so much creativity that those little slivers of genius that are so easy to overlook initially reveal themselves over time. And whilst there are plenty of moments where it all seems to be on the brink of collapse (indeed, the ‘song’ Phil’s Disease Part 4 sounds very much like the joke is on us as Tall Dwarfs’ main man Chris Knox snores/snorts his way through the lyrics) every track does something interesting, there’s absolutely no guessing what’s coming up next and, throughout it all, the band’s naive charm is so endearing that you have to have a heart of stone not to be won over by them – in time, if not immediately!

Tall Dwarfs hail from Dunedin, one of the more remote(!) outposts on the South Island of New Zealand…and it sounds like just the sort of record you would expect to be made in such a place. Primitive and yet unmistakably humble, Tall Dwarfs at no point in proceedings make the mistake of taking themselves seriously and the sleeve notes are almost as enjoyable to read as the songs are to hear. Instruments are listed – percussion consists of mainly kitchen utensils or hand claps, songs were recorded in bedrooms or hallways, occasionally something as conventional as a guitar gets mentioned. But at no point does Hello Cruel World sound as though Tall Dwarfs were hindered by their lack of equipment. As Nick pointed out on the night, necessity is the mother of invention and these guys manage to whip up a MBV maelstrom of guitar noise on closer (and all time classic) Crush, produce Suicide like keyboard sounds (and deranged, Iggyish vocals) on The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, use echoey, sinister tape loops on Turning Brown And Torn in Two and then produce a ballad of sheer breathtaking beauty in Shade For Today. And that’s just the last four songs.

Graham suggested (and I’m paraphrasing here) that most of the songs were great but needed cleaning up. I couldn’t disagree more. Strip away the mess and the scuzz and the limitations and surely you’d lose much of what makes this record so special…and whilst it saddens me to say this, because in an alternative universe Tall Dwarfs are U2 and Bono and his crew are the weirdos that only sad old men at record clubs listen to…I imagine the majority of people would agree, at least in part, with Graham’s statement.

Rob listened: Buying, listening to, sticking with, investing faith in records which don’t immediately seem worth it. Perhaps we all do it, but surely this sixth sense that there is something meaningful hidden inside has to be borne of experience, and the nature of these formative treasure hunts must hugely influence the type of places we are drawn to linger in future? Nick seems to stick around records which seem disarmingly simple at first and dig away at the surfaces until he breaks through into hidden depths of structure, texture, intent and meaning. Graham seems to take an (increasing) interest in choosing records which come pre-loaded with a bunch of possibly unfair negative cultural signifiers, or just seem to stink to high heaven, and sticking with them, finding genuine pleasure and staying loyal to it. Tom and I seem to share a willingness to dig through noise and interference to get to the heart of records where necessary. I suspect we take different approaches, and there are different places we like to dig. Some records are unfamiliar, noisy, repulsive, alien and require time to bring into focus, to form a relationship with. Others are made of more traditional songs which happen, through necessity or choice, to be shrouded by layers of distortion, poor sound quality, deliberate obfuscation by the artist and it’s only by spending time that the hidden music emerges.

One of the many things I liked about this Tall Dwarfs record was that it seemed to mix both of these modi operandi (I googled it, I’m not Latin). One of the many things I like about Tom is that he saw the glittering prize at the heart of this music and stuck with it long enough to unearth it and present it to us.

Nick listened: Tom claimed, as he so often does, that I would hate this before he put it on, because it was lo-fi and fuzzy and a bit odd and recorded badly, etc etc. But “lo-fi” and “recorded badly” aren’t necessarily synonymous (and neither of them always = “unpleasant to listen to”), and, actually, I really quite enjoyed it; it reminded me in some ways of those really early Beta Band EPs, back when necessity was the mother of invention, when a lack of budget and equipment can force creativity into interesting innovations. There were hooks and melodies and tunes presented here, in the kind of creative, limited ways that add a real aura of doing it for yourself (and if anyone else likes it that’s a bonus), which can make things feel very intimate and appealing.

In many ways it felt as if Tall Dwarves had a similar set of aims to Everything Everything – to play as many styles of music as possible, to be as creative as possible, to not be limited by genre or expectations – except that, because they did have very real technological limitations, they were forced into decisions which made this record, for me, far more listenable and interesting than Everything Everything.

Graham listened: Certainly provoked some debate on the night about what we all are looking for. As an album its great, if takes a while to get ‘tuned’ in on the style. As an album it does what the artist wants and provides listeners with the determination, to unearth the pleasure within. Don’t feel the whole thing needs ‘cleaning up’ as by the end I was convinced it works as it is. There was a nagging sense for me throughout the album of ‘what if?’ Some of these tracks were great with striking melodies and hooks. Just couldn’t help feeling that a slightly more polished approach or maybe a cover by someone else, could have brought the band greater credit for what they had achieved with songwriting. Guess they weren’t bothered and were happy in themselves (as are the majority of their listeners!).

Advertisements

Carole King – Tapestry: Round 69, Nick’s choice

CaroleKingTapestryIt’s my fault, of course; I mentioned that I was on holiday the day after this meeting, and we’re approaching our usual summer break, so Graham said that “holidays” would be the theme. Now, growing up in Dawlish, everyday is a holiday, and growing up the son of Yorkshire folk, holidays are the maddest indulgence of all time, so I don’t have much experience of them; Emma’s dragged me abroad several times (I’m typing this in a log cabin by a lake in Sweden, as it happens), but they always seem like such an expensive faff when you could just stay at home and ride bicycles over Dartmoor every day for a week instead.

So when Graham said that fateful word, I had no inspiration at all. But one album, which I don’t associate with holidays and which lyrically has sod-all to do with vacations, popped into my head, and stayed there. So I decided to play that, rather than force some tenuous link, like I was sure the other guys would do.

And that album was this; Carole King’s multi-multi-multi-million-selling 1971 masterpiece of sophisticated, melancholy pop. I first bought it when I was about 20 or 21 at university, some 30 years after it came out. I knew it was famous, that it had sold a lot of copies, and I recognized a handful of the song titles. I didn’t realise how many of the melodies I would recognize, though, which was pretty much all of them; this is one of those albums that seems to have woven its very DNA through our pop-cultural landscape. Some might say it’s inoffensive, and it is, in that my mum and your grandad and nextdoor’s small children would all find something absolutely pleasant and pleasurable about it, but that’s not a pejorative at all.

Because Tapestry is an absolutely remarkable feat of songwriting (and not a bad feat of production and performance, either); when you realise how many songs Carole King wrote, up there in the Brill Building, for all sorts of other artists in the 60s and early 70s, and then you realise how many of her own performances of her songs are the definitive versions, too, then it becomes apparent just what a massive, seismic talent she was. And perhaps still is; I’ve never investigated beyond this album, because it just seems so perfect and of its time – I’d hate to hear artificial 80s production, for instance, dilute the warmth of her voice and her melodies, which fit so well here under a comfort blanket of homely arrangements played out on piano, guitar, bass, and drums, that sound at once timeless and absolutely of their time.

Possibly the most remarkable thing about Tapestry is how personal and intimate it feels, for a record that has sold so many copies to so many different types of people. Showered with Grammies and diamond discs and included in the National Recording Registry of sound recordings that “are culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States”, Tapestry is one of those rare things – a beautiful record that deserved enormous recognition, and received it. Plus, there’s a cat on the cover.

Rob listened: I don’t expect, reader, that you’ve been following the character development arcs that underpin The Adventures of Devon Record Club, but if for some perverse reason you have you’ll be expecting me to say that i’ve never heard nor felt the need to hear ‘Tapestry’. And you’d be right.

It’s one of the records that people like my parents listened to in the mid Seventies. When I found music, I rebelled against them and I rebelled against music as comfort, as safety. It’s like The Carpenters. James Taylor. To be ignored.

Before tonight I would have struggled to name any of tracks from ‘Tapestry’ with any confidence. I might have guessed a couple. As Nick rightly points out, it’s so woven into the fabric (that’s enough tapestry metaphors – Ed) of 20th century music that I could almost sing along with the entire album on first hearing. And to deny it would be to deny 40 years of pop history and to deny the pure songwriting talent that put together these beautifully simple pieces of craft and gave them to the rest of us. It’s part of all of us, whether we know it or not.

I’m a music snob who deserves everything he gets, and that’s why I love Devon Record Club.

Tom listened: The breadth of musical offerings in evidence at tonight’s meeting just goes to show how rich life’s tapestry is! By the way, Rob, is the ‘Ed’ in your comment, Ed Gore or Ed(itor)?

Listening to Tapestry you could see why it sold a bazillion copies back in the early 70s, why the post-punk generation would have passed it over and why we now look back on it so fondly. Melodically, Tapestry is very reminiscent of Todd Rungren’s early solo albums, I thought, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Tapestry, knew the majority of it already without realising it and am very happy for it to be a set of songs I chance upon every so often…like an old friend I occasionally bump into rather than actively seek out.

Graham listened: Not much more to say than this was magnificent and possibly the most moving collection of songs on one album that I’ve heard since blagging my way in to DRC. It pretty much shut us up, which is normally a good sign. Though I’m still giggling to myself about the four of us sitting listening so intently to “you make me feel like a natural woman”.

XTC – ‘Black Sea’: Round 69 – Rob’s choice

XTC - Black SeaXTC got their hooks into me at an early age. They stuck there, I incorporated them and many years later they reeled me in.

I’ve argued before that everyone has a formative period when they are soaking in music from all around them and that the sounds that make up part of this absorbed fluid are the sounds which resonate the most down the years. Judging by the songs that still make the hairs at the back of my neck stand up, even though I was too young to buy them and have no direct association or specific attachment to them, my sweet spot was roughly 1979 to 1982. Not everything, you understand, in fact probably just a handful of songs, all told, but my what a whallop they still pack.

‘It’s Different For Girls’, ‘One In Ten’, ‘Games Without Frontiers’, ‘Johnny and Mary’, ‘Walking On The Moon’, ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’, ‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘Geno’, ‘My Girl’, ‘Oliver’s Army’ and on and on. I can place these and dozens of other songs within this timeframe just by the tingly effect they have on some reptilian part of my central musical cortex, where they pulse away forever, immortal, ready to transport me back to the kitchen of my parent’s house where I sat once, bathing in radio.

Some of these songs are by artists I’ve gone on to get to know well and cherish, like Dexy’s and The Beat. Others are total outliers for me. Bowie and Gabriel are major artists but we’ve never connected. I think of XTC as almost the prime example.Their charting singles from ‘Making Plans for Nigel’ through to ‘Senses Working Overtime’ lapped away at the edges of my developing sense of pop music and slowly became beloved years before I ever realised they were so deeply in my head but it’s only in the last five years or so that I’ve gone back and started to spend time with the albums that host these signature songs. In some ways I regret it, as with repeated playing comes a certain wearing away of the frisson, the scent of magic and transportive effect. Also, before I always knew they were there, waiting for me to reach out to them in discovery. Now that’s gone.

In every other way, no second thoughts. The records are rich, vibrant, inventive, playful and a pleasure to spend time with. None of them hit the bullseye quite like those key singles did when I was a schoolboy, but then how could they?

XTC are outliers, related to no-one, reminiscent of few and followed by fewer. They found and kept their space thanks to their twin engines, Colin Moulding and Andy Partridge, and driven by the two they put out 8 albums in as many years, from the buzzing post-punk This Is Pop? of ‘White Music’ through to the lush pastoral orchestrations of ’Skylarking’ (11 in 11 if you count the Dukes of Stratosphear and stretch out to 1989’s ‘Oranges and Lemons’). All this despite the well-documented breakdown that effectively ended them as a touring band.

The nexus for me still sits somewhere between ‘Drums and Wires’ and ‘Black Sea’, when they were spiky, driven, ambitious, unsettled and squirting out taut, telling pop in unique shapes whilst expanding their range and depth year on year. ‘Black Sea’ gets the nod although i’m not entirely sure why. In practice it might be because it’s exactly half way between the pop-zap of ‘Drums’ and the looser more folk inflected ‘English Settlement’. Every XTC record sounds like a step along the way, a mid-point between the last one and the next one. Perhaps the mark of a great band is one who’s best work you just can’t choose.

We talked about singles earlier, and ‘Black Sea’ produced five, although only three of these troubled the charts: ‘Generals and Majors’ is a fine bobbing and whistling bustle of a tune, poking a fairly blunt stick at militarisation but, primarily, giving us an incessantly toe-tapping first single, ‘Towers of London’ is a down-tuned paean to the builders who lost their lives whilst constructing the capital’s skyline, then next to last on the album comes ‘St Rock (Is Going To Help Me)’, a scratching, scathing hooligan of a number, on the one hand all slabs of guitar and stamping baselines, on the other a gleefully snickering poke at male impotence and incompetence.

The remaining 8 tracks are as varied and strong as these, if lacking the weight of 30 years airplay. ‘Respectable Street’ is the true bridge between The Kinks and ‘Parklife’, otften passed over when tracing the lineage, it nails suburban curtain twitchers (“Avon lady fills the creases/ When she manages to squeeze in/ Past the caravans/ That never move from their front gardens”) and stands as a clear signpost to the band’s heritage, which came down more from the Beatles and their contemporary chroniclers of the surreal mundanity of English life than from the Year Zero punks they just happened to be contemporaneous with.

Elsewhere there’s the party-starting nuclear terror stomp ‘Living Through Another Cuba’, ‘Love At First Sight’ and ‘No Language In Our Lungs’ demonstrating two sides of XTC’s pop stridency, the clattering ‘Paper and Iron’ and even an incongruent seven minute closer ‘Travels In Nihilon’ which comes over like a galley-ship freak out and just about manages to earn its place.

I can’t point you to one place for everything you need to hear from XTC (although you could start with ‘Fossil Fuel’, their dizzyingly strong singles compilation). To me they are a band who need, or indeed deserve, to be consumed whole. There’s more than enough for lovers of smart British rock to lose themselves in a back catalogue that really does reward a deep dive. That they never produced a single definitive statement ultimately, to my mind, is to their credit. They were too restless, too inventive, too playful, too damned good to be pinned down in one place.

Tom listened: That XTC are fantastic goes without saying. What it is that makes them so is harder to pin down. They don’t seem to do all that much that’s different to a plethora of other bands but are just off kilter enough to make them compelling. Maybe it’s Andy Partridge’s singing – a kind of back of the throat (but not raspy) my food’s gone down the wrong way kind of warble that sounds awful on paper but is palatable enough in practice to ensure that XTC stand out from the crowd. Maybe its the mix of pop hooks, new wave sounds combined with a whiff of psychedelia (which became more of a pong as XTC grew older). Maybe it’s just that they had the best tunes. Whatever, XTC stood out at the time, released a slew of impeccable singles but, it appears, had strength in depth. Sure enough, Black Sea sounded like a must have – more accessible and less arch than the sole XTC album in my collection, Skylarking. Another Mitchell endorsed cracker!

Graham listened: I used to love XTC as a youngster. Strangely I do not posses anything by them these days. I’m sure in a cardboard box lurking in the loft storage I would find a whole host of C90’s with their albums on, because I definitely used to have them on at home and in the car. So their absence from my collection is as much about media and format changes as it is about my lazy record buying. It was great to be reminded how great and important they were. It spurred me on to think about finding and opening that Pandora’s box of C90’s, to be reminded of what other treasures my tastes of the early 80’s could offer up. They’ll definitely be a bit of Aztec Camera and Orange Juice (like XTC, absent from my collection these days) knocking around in there. If DRC are really lucky, I’ll find a copy of Marillion’s 1984 ‘Real to Reel’ live album! Wish me luck boys!

Rick Wakeman – Journey to the Centre of the Earth – Round 68 – Graham’s Choice

My lack of physical product to Rick_Wakeman_Journey_to_the_Centre_of_the_Earth bring along to DRC has forced me down some strange avenues of new purchases recently. This venture in to extreme progressive rock, was fostered by a childhood fascination by this album. Too young to understand what it was all about, but it looked great. A gatefold with page inserts kept me occupied in record shops on many a wet Saturday afternoon. In the mid 70’s world of men with long hair, this was what an album should look like and was seemingly greeted with the appropriate respect on release in 1974.

I introduced this with a tug of the forelock to Punk, pointing out you can’t really understand what comes next, until you appreciate what came before. This has apparently sold 14 million units worldwide and has been described as one of Prog Rock’s “crowning achievements”. It comes post Wakeman’s debut of ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ and follows his departure from Yes after concluding ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’ was too pretentious!

How would you pitch this to a record company these days? “It’s too expensive to record in studio, can we hire the Royal Festival  Hall for a couple of nights, get the London Symphony Orchestra along and see if Richard Harris will be the narrator (David Hemmings finally got the gig)? “Cool, here’s the cheque”.

It sold in bucket loads, won an Ivor Novello awards and was described by  Melody Maker as  “entertaining, fresh and disalarmingly unpretentious”. I guess you had to be there at the time, because listening today I certainly don’t get it. The most dramatic element  are the pinched bars from  ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ by Edvard Grieg. Maybe just the rock/orchestra combo was enough to excite people? There were a splurge of subsequent albums by the LSO under the clever title of ‘Rock Classics’ (for reference listen to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXTtkKzLY4A)

Rick did an national arena tour of it this year, and even people from the Guardian seemed to enjoy themselves, http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/apr/29/rick-wakeman-review-journey-to-the-centre-of-the-earth

Having listened now, my childhood (perhaps ‘misplaced childhood’) memories are dashed. I understand better why punk turned up later in the decade, but have no idea where music like this ‘fitted’ in the mid 70’s. As for Prog, give me Marillion anyday!

Tom listened: My mum always told me that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!

Nick listened: I was fascinated by Ed’s reaction to this; as he’s a musician, I kind of trust and defer to his judgement on certain things, because he does actually know what he’s talking about, even if he’s not got the anally-retentive alt.pop factoid recall that some of us are blessed/cursed with. If someone who knows about playing music, especially classical music, says this is simplistic, infantile bullshit, then we’re correct to completely discard it, right? Even if we’re discarding it from some post post-punk ideological platform, rather than on a purely musical basis

And Ed did dismiss this as simplistic, infantile bullshit, so everything’s fine. This was overblown, deliberately therefore uncomfortably ‘odd’ for the sake of it (while at the same time being absolutely not odd in any real way, either), and sat at distinct odds with the Owen Pallett record, which, in some ways (strings, synthesisers, classical-meets-rock, other reductive signifiers), it bore some slight resemblance to.

How many million people bought this? The 70s were weird.

Ed listened: Like politicians at a pre-election televised debate, I agree with Nick.

Steely Dan – Aja: Round 68 – Tom’s Selection

Aja2

Sometimes my willingness to be swayed by the word of others infuriates me. Curiously this phenomenon invariably seems to work in the negative sense…something I am convinced I would like gets struck off the list due to a negative comment here or a damning review there or the inevitable to and fro of opinions on the forums, or a raised eyebrow from Rob (conversely, it takes a lot longer and requires a much more emphatic and widespread response to convince me of something’s worth – more of that later). Of course, if you look hard enough, you’ll always find a naysayer or two and, as a result, I commit to far fewer acquisitions than I would if I was more impulsive and less drawn to the cut and thrust of cultural debate. There are advantages to my approach – I would be much poorer if I went and bought everything that caught my eye and I would have even more chaff in my collection than I currently do…but I may well also have a few gems in there that have passed me by!

The following story highlights the idiocy of my approach perfectly. If we’re sitting comfortably…

Many moons ago, my friend Clark Alston and I would go off on climbing trips around the country and, on said trips, we would pass the time talking about life, the universe and pretty much everything…but mainly climbing and music. Clark was a few years older and, at that time, those few years seemed to make such a difference. It was a time of great musical excitement for me as I was discovering that the late 70s and early 80s post-punk explosion was the motherlode…a time in musical history I would still rate as the most fertile and creative; anything seemed possible and listening back now it is remarkable how fresh, innovative, challenging and current much of that music seems today. And, unlike me (who had been easing into adolescence in a South Pacific island paradise), Clark had been there, living the dream, inhabiting those sweaty clubs packed to the rafters with spotty yoofs checking out the next Talking Heads or Magazine or Wire. And as a result, what he said (by and large) went.

So when Clark said that Pere Ubu’s Dub Housing was just about the best thing ever, I went out and bought it at the next available opportunity. When Clark waxed lyrical about the genius of Joy Division, I put aside my preconceptions and got Closer and Unknown Pleasures. And when Clark said Steely Dan epitomised everything he hated about music…well it has taken me 20 years to get past that one.

It may seem contradictory given my opening paragraph but the one thing that piqued my interest in Steely Dan was a recent artist poll on the ILM Forum. Suddenly there were all these people waxing lyrical about a band I had always told myself I would steer clear of. If the phrase ‘best band/album/song ever’ gets used often enough, eventually I will come round. So, after weeks of deliberation over whether to take the plunge and then which album to get, I found myself buying Aja online, trying not to think of Clark’s inevitably disapproving look as my mouse hovered over the ‘Purchase’ button on the website.

And now that I am well and truly obsessed with this breathtaking work of art, I have to say that it’s just as well Clark now lives in New Zealand or I would make it my mission to convert him to an album that is, admittedly about as far away a post-punk as you can get, but is surely as magical and inventive and soulful and exciting as any I own. In case you haven’t worked it out yet – I like it. But I totally get why you wouldn’t – the sound of Aja should be anathema to me, on the surface it’s so smooth and controlled and smothered, no rough edges or unpleasantness. If I had been subjected to the sound of Aja 20 years ago, I would probably not have been able to see past it. But experience can be a wonderful thing and now, a month or two in, I don’t even hear the ‘sound’ of the album. It sounds pretentious but I now listen from within the songs, they envelope me and I now find myself concentrating on detail, variation and musicianship, no longer hearing the sheen that so epitomises – perhaps misleadingly – Steely Dan’s production values.

Aja is seven long songs long and each one is a beauty. Side one is peerless – Black Cow, Aja and Deacon Blues all plough a funky jazzy furrow but are hook laden, make many twists and turns and, crucially, never just repeat themselves – each new verse or chorus holds a new surprise, an unexpected chord change, a melody shift, a missed beat, something to draw the listener deeper into the song, to reward the attention paid. Side two is almost as good and Peg (pretty much lifted wholesale by De La Soul for I Know) and I Got The News are possibly my favourite two tracks on the album. The guitar solo on Peg is a truly wonderful thing and Chuck Rainey’s bass work lifts the song to another level. The fact that Becker and Fagan auditioned five different session guitarists before choosing Jay Graydon (solely to play the solo on Peg) shows the depth of their shared vision – these guys knew what they wanted and were not prepared to compromise. The album took over two years to record. Listening to it, it’s not surprising such is the care and attention to detail evident throughout. A Guided by Voices album this is not!

So now I have taken my first steps in the waters of Steely Dan I am excited at the other wonders I have to discover – unlike many bands, there seems to be no consensus on their best album, it seems that any of the first seven (!) could be regarded as their best. So, what to buy next? It’s not such a bad problem to have!

Rob listened: I feel the same way about Steely Dan as Tom, in at least one respect. They represented one of the great landmarks of the overblown rick-kid music that most of the music I loved as an adolescent was supposedly trying to destroy. So, me, Steely Dan, bargepole. And no, I’ve never listened to them. Why would I need to?

But, but, but. If there’s one thing that Devon Record Club excels at, it’s overturning preconceptions, and Tom tends to supply the raw material them at a regular intervals. For me it’s the smoothness that tends to be the first turn off, but over the last 12 months or so both Joni Mitchell’s ‘Hejira’ and John Martyn’s ‘Grace and Danger’ have wormed their way through my defences over the course of a single run-through. I didn’t fall quite so hard for ‘Aja’ but I can see where Tom’s enthusiasm is coming from.

He quoted one of the two principals describing their process as ‘playing together until we can play it flawlessly and then carrying on beyond that to the point where things start to loosen up’ or somesuch, and through that prism I can see how enrapturing ‘Aja’ could become. Tonight I didn’t get too far beyond the superficial sheen, but I can sense the depths that Tom is swimming in and who knows, maybe one day i’ll dive.

Graham Listened: No, no, no, I won’t submit to liking Steely Dan! I’ve been troubled enough by Donald Fagen’s ‘The Nightfly’ during the last year and I’m not putting myself through that again. In 1982 I was 16 and must have been a bit of a hipster because I thought ‘The Nightfly’ was brilliant, sophisticated, clever etc…. Anyway, ffwd to 2013, when I purchased a CD of the same and this caused me probably the biggest trauma of the year and that’s going some for 2013. Like Aja, it sounded too clean, too smug, too lift musak. There, I feel better now, guess tastes change.

Nick listened: I’ve never knowingly listened to a Steely Dan album, despite thinking “Eye Know” by De La Soul is one of the greatest singles ever released. Like Tom and Rob, they were just beyond the ken for me, something never even to be considered, let alone investigated.

That said, I was keen to have this playback of Aja lift the scales from my eyes and open up a while new world to me. I wanted it to sound like the best, most intricate, most musicianly music I’d ever heard, for it to slot right in with various other technically-proficient stuff I love, from Grizzly Bear to Polar Bear to Owen Pallett to various other things where chops are not frowned upon as they once were. But it didn’t quite happen; the only track that jumped out at me was “Peg”, the one sampled for “Eye Know”, which was both uncannily similar to and also just different enough from the De La Soul song to fascinate; the bits I assumed would be sampled from it weren’t always, and the bits I thought De La Soul might have made-up themselves were clearly direct lifts.

Nevertheless I’m intrigued; I sensed something in Aja that might reward serious revisiting. So maybe I will.

Ed listened: When Tom first put this on I wondered what had attracted him to this cheesy 70’s American TV sitcom music.  I kept expecting the room to morph into a brightly-coloured milkshake bar.  However on listening to it again, my first impression was way off.  This isn’t just some slushy muzak, there’s real thought and creativity in it.  Unexpected chord progressions, catchy motifs, great drums, all enveloped in a professional-quality sweet wrapper.  Like Nick, ‘Peg’ might be my favourite and the track that helps me to understand Tom’s enthusiasm, although unfortunately I can’t seem to quite get away from the taste of chocolate malt.

 

Owen Pallett – In Conflict: Round 68, Nick’s choice

inconflictI played Owen’s last record back in round 36, nearly two years ago, and have been eagerly anticipating his new record for what, at times, felt like far too long (it’s been four and a half years). Owen’s own albums sadly suffer at the demands of his dayjob (scoring things – albums, films, whatever else – for other people [Arcade Fire; Spike Jonze; etc]), so a four-year-gap is sadly all-too frequent. A shame, because his own records are, to my mind at least, considerably more rewarding and enjoyable than those that he works on for other people.

Anyway, In Conflict is here now, and, as with all long waits, once it’s over the present dispels its memory pretty swiftly.

As with Heartland, In Conflict is a sumptuous sonic experience, full of immaculately rendered synthesizer arpeggios and orchestral flourishes and rich rhythmic pulses and tiny details. People still refer to Owen as ‘a violin player’ as if that’s the sum of him, but it’s actually a tiny piece of a complex jigsaw.

At times it reminds of many other things – people he’s worked with, spoken about being inspired by, and been compared to – but always subtly and eclectically. If I had any musicological skills I’m sure I could fathom a reason why, but there’s something about what Owen does that feels intrinsically more musical, and deeper, and more rewarding, than most if not all of those touch points.

A little poppier and more direct than Heartland, In Conflict sees Owen not hiding behind characters or concepts anymore, and instead singing more honestly and overtly about himself, his life, and his feelings. This isn’t necessarily a good thing – great art doesn’t need to be inspired by real trauma, catharsis, or events, as far as I’m concerned, although it can certainly help – but Owen manages it wonderfully. I never feel emotionally bludgeoned, pummelled, or unduly manipulated like I do by some overtly emotive and personal music; Owen’s music strokes my emotions rather than squeezing them or battering them.

Anyway, some great things about In Conflict:
• The way the bass and drums kick in in “In Conflict” (yes, I only phrased it that way to repeat the word ‘in’ three times in a row).
• The way the melody evolves effortlessly through “On A Path” until nothing else could possibly happen but the inevitable chorus (which whirled on a nearly endless, joyous loop through my head yesterday as I cycled 70 miles over Dartmoor, and never once bored me).
• The way “The Riverbed” sets the tension level at ‘breaking point’ from the moment it begins and somehow manages to maintain that remarkable pitch throughout its entire length without shattering into a billion pieces or exploding into bombast.
• The way he literally sings a phone number at the end of “The Secret Seven” and it sounds wonderful.
• The way there are literally dozens and dozens of other great things I could have chosen, and I’ve barely even taken in what he’s actually singing yet. (Even though I know he’d like me, and everyone else, to sit and listen to this with the lyrics in hand; hell, he even put the lyrics on the album cover.)

So yes, another Owen Pallett album, and it is, again, very good. Wonderful, even. He’s so good at music.

Ed listened: Nick leant me ‘Heartland’ a few weeks ago and after a few listenings I still find it hard to get into. Owen Pallett is clearly a talented composer, a violinist (my instrument) so what’s not to like? Well, I found the album inaccessible, a little bit impersonal, like he was watching a film of his own life that no-one else could see. Mind you, Nick did say that it rewarded repeated attention so maybe I just haven’t listened often enough. Happily though I enjoyed ‘In Conflict’ straight away. It seems more direct and passionate and listening to it again now I am really enjoying the stylish sophisticated sound he is getting from his synth/strings combo. Particularly good is the corner around ‘The Passions’, ‘The Sky Behind the Flag’ and ‘The Riverbed’. The first with the slightly creepy synth slides, the second personal, really beautiful with a gorgeous string ensemble ending, then 40 seconds later the strident, urgent opening to ‘The Riverbed’ kicks in and washes away all that subtlety. If Owen Pallett can be this good maybe I should give ‘Heartland’ another go…

Rob listened: I liked this a lot. I also struggled with ‘Heartland’. I appreciated the distinctive vision and it’s always a pleasure to hear something that seems to have genuine originality, to sound not quite like anything you’ve heard before, but I found the whole experience too cold. I’m sure that was a layer to be melted through with repeated listens, but I never found the time or the motivation to make those.

‘In Conflict’ however was immediately intriguing and engaging. I liked the sound palette, open and enticing, I liked the acute approach to song construction. I also liked the contrast with my first impressions of ‘Heartland’. I found this new record derivative, and that’s not a bad thing. It reminded me of the Beach Boys, Wild Beasts and other maestros of the sophisticated pop delight. Some of the sounds hit me as direct lifts from the Oneohtrix Point Never record. For me, Owen Pallett is playing with other people’s music here, and that’s producing interesting and rewarding new combinations and sounds. I like them.

Tom listened: I’m going to be really boring here and re-iterate Rob and Ed’s comments. I admired Heartland but found it impenetrable; I just couldn’t connect with the songs although it was easy to recognise the skill and vision of the man who created them.

In Conflict felt better right from the off. Warmer, more inclusive and hookier, I really enjoyed the listen and now it’s only the reediness of Pallett’s voice that I have a problem with; in much the same way that I have never managed to get to grips with Thom Yorke’s singing or Bernard Sumner’s. But the songs on In Conflict seemed so good on first listen that it would be churlish to pass it by without giving it another chance!

The Chameleons – ‘Strange Times’: Round 68 – Rob’s choice

The Chameleons - Strange TimesI have no idea how big the Chameleons were, or how far their music spread. Let’s not panic, i’ll look it up before I finish writing this, and I have my suspicions, but they could have been the biggest band in the world or just a tiny little secret that occasionally leaked out of the North West. I suspect they were somewhere between the two, and retained the possibility of being both at the same time, like some sort of musical quantum uncertainty.

They certainly never seemed to fit comfortably within the world around them, ironic when you consider their name. They were too grandiose to be successors to Joy Division, too artful to beat U2 to the stadium doors, too long-form and serious to grab radio time from The Smiths and too rocking to divert attention from Talk Talk.

Yet for those of us who grew up around Temptation at the Hacienda, the Ritz on a Wednesday night, DeVille’s on a Saturday, the Chameleons were part of our musical lives. No record threaded so mysteriously through the DNA of Manchester indie clubs more than 1986’s ‘Strange Times’, their third album and the last of their first incarnation.

‘Soul In Isolation’ would drag the extrovert introverts out onto the empty floor to share their inner turmoil through a common language of shuffling moves and fringe flicks. Later in the evening ‘Mad Jack’ would pull everyone else in to shake their heads around and at the end of the night ‘Swamp Thing’ would have them all howling to the dripping rafters.

And yet even then they felt like a secret. These songs, along with ‘Tears’, the earlier ‘In Shreds’ and ‘Up The Down Escalator’ could be heard on local late-night radio (shout out to Tony the Greek), and those nagging, un-put-downable melodies would snake their way into your head and yet always their was the sense that half the youngsters bellowing “Not too many hours from this hour/ so long/ a storm comes/ or is it just another shower?” as a note of defiance against the encroaching night would actually struggle to name the band they were feeling so emotive about.

They weren’t exactly ahead of their time, their slanted post punk approach had been done in detail by the time they started in 1981, instead they seemed more to be between times. The pantheon of post ’77 Manchester bands trips of the tongue of any music fan. Buzzcocks, Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses and onwards to Oasis and the end. If you’re lucky they might thrown in The Fall, Magazine, 808 State and a few other choice names. If they mention Northside it’s time to sidle away.

The Chameleons never get a look in, despite operating in a relatively open space between scenes, post Joy Division, pre-Madchester and despite trading in an enthralling rock music, which weaved epic ambition around beguiling instrumentation and a singer with a voice, half Marc Almond, half Manfred Mann’s Paul Jones, strong enough to drag his own searching melodies all the way from heaven down to earth and back.

‘Strange Times’ captures them at their confident best. ‘Mad Jack’ kicks off with driving energy and then we’re into what comes over now like a greatest hits home straight. ‘Caution’, a rolling, queasy piece of jangle with a sharp undertone. Then ’Tears’, featured here in a slower, more meditative alternate take from the version released as a single. The vocal melody is beautiful and strong enough to carry both versions. ’Soul in Isolation’ tends towards clattering industrial rock but plays its hand just enough to stay the right side of the line between epic and overblown. Then ‘Swamp Thing’ with it’s eastern inflected introduction, jackboot drums and perfectly pitched growth from snaking intimacy to bellowing catharsis.

The remaining five songs are fine examples of mid-80s post-punk rock, as strong as anyone else was putting out. They retain just the faintest whiff of the sixth form, but the honesty and heart which underpins the writing is more than sufficient to get them by.

Plus, Mark Burgess’s facility with a vocal hook really is something remarkable, his ability to segue between hooks within a single song is transcendent and by this point it had been developed to its most intoxicatingly powerful. ’Tears’ for example contains at least three vocal melodies so elementally unforgettable that lesser bands could have hung careers off any one of them (for reference: 1: “And I wasn’t worried at all”, 2: “Can you tell me how will it be now, how will it be?” and 3: “Will the ghosts just stop following me?”).

They deserved better at the time. ‘Strange Times’ was their major label debut (on Geffen – one of the theories as to why they never made the splash they might have is that their first label, Statik, obscure but an offshoot of Virgin and thus the band never featured in independent charts and so evaded the music press fairly effectively) and it failed to trouble the charts. There’s no mention of it in the end of year lists.

They deserve better now. To my ears they are still the equal of any of the bands plying their trade in the space between punk, goth and rock in the mid-80s and at their best they do things few others were ever capable of.

Tom listened: Already familiar with The Script Of The Bridge, The Chamelons’ debut album, I knew what to expect from Strange Times but, in much the same way as a cliched old game of English football (on at the moment…but I’ve found something better to do, Graham and Ed!), this was very much a game of two halves, one of which exceeded expectations! Which is to say that I adored the first few songs here. They were bright and brisk and sharp and melodious and reminded me a little of a slightly more earnest and darker (read: gothier?) That Petrol Emotion. The second half of the record I found to be less captivating but I imagine this was as much to do with it being the end of the evening and a first listen as opposed to any significant drop off in quality.

So, on reflection, The Chameleons’ third album was a hit with me…but on points only. Curiously, however, I didn’t come away from the listen feeling compelled to acquire any Chameleons’ stuff – in much the same way as Script Of The Bridge, I enjoyed Strange Times as it played but because the sound and aesthetic is very much of its time and, for me, it’s not a time (or sound) that particularly resonates, I couldn’t imagine ever feeling compelled to pull it off the shelf to explore what it has to offer. That’s my loss I suppose!

Graham Listened:  Stuff from this period generally hits my ‘sweet spot’ and Rob definitely delivered with this one. Not sure if it is rose-tinted ears falling for simpler times but this was great to listen to. I’m sure a C90 of this and some other Chameleons’ offerings are knocking about in box somewhere. Just one of those bands that were ‘classy’ at the time and had a sound that you wanted to hear. I never picked up their albums but that was mainly down  with me aligning my self with the darker side of the ‘force’, as I toyed with the Sisters and The Mission. My loss ultimately.

Nick listened: People have been telling me to listen to The Chameleons for years; apparently Embrace sound(ed) like them (in the early days). Well, as we’ve discovered, I think I hear Embrace differently to most people, and I didn’t quite get the lineage here that’s been suggested to me, even though I could hear similarities to the likes of Echo & The Bunnymen, who I can hear as precedent for that Yorkshire band.

Being that bit younger than most of the other guys, this didn’t trigger any Pavlovian responses in me. I quite enjoyed it, but something in Burgess’ voice didn’t appeal, and the melodies felt a little gauche and unsophisticated at times; I wonder if those were two of the things that prevented them crossing over beyond their home territory?