The dB’s – Stands For Decibels: Round 79 – Tom’s Selection

5099969595455_600I don’t know whether I mentioned this when writing my response to Nick’s post on Abbey Road but my relationship with it has charted a meandering and, at times, surprising path. My first experience of a Beatles album was Sgt Peppers but the one I fell hardest for and the first album to teach me the lesson that what at first sounds awful often turns out to be great was Abbey Road. I was ten or eleven at the time and instantly fell in love with Boney M’s Greatest Hits – who wouldn’t! -but, before long, that side of the TDK C90 (or was it Memorex?) was being rewound in favour of the fab four’s final opus – Ra Ra Rasputin well and truly lost out to Polythene Pam! Before long, the tape got stretched, but still I carried on listening avidly (obsessively) until I knew ever wonky nuance of its 45 or so minutes (I knew its length was close to 45 minutes because there wasn’t enough room for Her Majesty (no great loss) and I assumed my Dad had just cut off the end of I Want You (She’s So Heavy) because it went on a bit and he was conscious of the possibility of running out of tape. Imagine my surprise when I later bought the album on vinyl and found the Beatles themselves had done exactly the same).

But then a strange thing happened. As my Beatles collection grew and my Rolling Stones one began, I stopped listening to Abbey Road. And it sat parked (more or less) for the next dozen or so years, occasionally being played but never repeatedly. I can’t remember the chain of events of what happened next but somehow the tape (a different one by now) found its way into my car and I started to obsess over the album once again. This time it sounded different. Not just the sounds of the album, but the melodies, those melodies I knew so well that I had heard countless times before, were transformed when I listened through my twenty four year old ears! I guess I knew what to listen out for, could contextualise the album in a way I couldn’t when I was younger. To use a modern cliche, I now knew the ‘tropes and signifiers’! George Harrison’s masterpiece, Something, in particular, blew me away, a little more with each new listen, the fact that I had become aware that Sinatra rated it the most beautiful love song ever written perhaps affecting the way I listened to it.

In an admittedly very roundabout way, I am now getting to the point….exactly the same thing has happened during the last couple of months between me and the dB’s debut album, Stands For Decibels. Having listened to it a lot when I first acquired it I had ‘parked’ it for a similar length of time as Abbey Road, revisiting it occasionally but never for a sustained enough period of time to re-click with it. The prospect of a themeless Record Club and an urge to play something that the others would be unlikely to know already persuaded me to give it another chance. And, sure enough, I now feel this album is a very different beast to the one I originally spent time with.

I had thought that Stands For Decibels was a collection of eleven of the purest pop songs – like a early indie version of Help! or Turn Turn Turn or some such. Finely crafted songs, jangly guitars, harmonies and middle eighths and tunes about love and seasons and stuff like that. However, second time around, the ever-so-slightly off kilter nature of the songwriting, singing and lyrics (and the absolutely breathtaking drumming throughout) has made me completely re-evaluate the record. Somewhat appropriately, considering how this is a record that draws heavily from Big Star, my conversion can be summed up thus: whereas I thought this record was the eighties equivalent to #1 Record, it is actually much closer in spirit and adventure to Radio City. And that, in my book, is no bad thing.

In fact, the only problem I have with the album now, is one that I have always had with it. Opener, Black and White, is just too good. Anything that follows has to appear anticlimactic and, as a result, I have always struggled with the inevitable drop off. However, this time around I have rationalized the situation and have come to enjoy Dynamite’s weird (unique) vocals – the way they draw the word out in what can only be described as a sneer – and She’s Not Worried’s bubblegum harmonics. In fact the entire album has a depth perhaps not evident on initial listens and it sounds increasingly magnificent with each passing listen. Maybe in ten year’s time, having been kept off the turntable by more current pretenders, I will discover yet another facet to Stands For Decibels and be reminded, yet again, that the old guys had the best tunes all along!

Rob listened: Let’s be honest, we’re at something of a disadvantage when it comes to ‘Stands For Decibels’. I hadn’t heard it before, or indeed heard of it before. In fact, when Tom pulled it off the shelf I, reasonably, assumed it was another of the cache of vinyl he seems to have smuggled in from 1980s New Zealand, perhaps imagining he was going to kick start a new rock and roll revolution like those Liverpool dockers unloading shipments of blues in the 50s and 60s. But it wasn’t.

Meanwhile, Tom and the dB’s (that apostrophe is annoying, by the way) have had sufficient time together to fall in love, get comfy with each other and then become enraptured all over again. This unveiling at Record Club now seems more like a renewal of vows between the pair.

Anyway, at first listen I got more of Tom’s second wave vibe. The second-cousin-to-REM dream rock sound was familiar, but it seemed shot through with dogged and really quite disarming call-backs, not only to 60s pop and psychedelia, but to doo-wop, folk and soul. Nothing like the straightforward scratchy proto-college rock I was expecting, I can see just why this record has been giving Tom pleasure after unknown pleasure for so very long.

Graham listened: Far too quickly I classified this as the jangle type pop I was sort of  expecting it to sound like. The it went and got a lot more interesting and complicated from a musical point of view. Some bits reminded me of the less familiar tunes produced by the Monkees, some of the Beachboys and some of early REMish qualities. Throw in what Rob found as well and you have an interesting album, which by the end, I can see why Tom cherishes it so much.

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Dan Deacon – ‘Spiderman of the Rings’: Round 79 – Rob’s choice

Dan Deacon - Spiderman of the RingsDan Deacon sets his stall out early on ‘Spiderman of the Rings’, his first widely distributed album, released in 2007. ‘Wooody Woodpecker’ takes the (near) titular cartoon cackle-bird and turns his laugh, processed into high and low versions, and layers it into total cacophony. It’s hilarious, then overwhelming, then a little scary, as when something that seems good feels like it might actually be really, really bad. This fun house could actually be run by an escaped madman. It’s impossible to know whether to classify this as bubblegum pop or total noise war, and there aren’t that many opening tracks that straddle that particular dichotomy.

His deranged approach to music making is what makes this a wild and intoxicating world in which to spend time. Deacon, as evidenced here, is a maximalist by gleeful instinct, always piling stuff atop more stuff and pushing it all to the point where the heap starts to break down and collapse in on itself.

Reference the synth line in the middle section of ‘Wham City’. It starts like a simple-enough high-pitch oscilloscope tone and runs this way for a few bars. For the second pass Deacon adds more variation, the peaks are higher, the troughs lower, the oscillations more varied. By the third and final run through these ups and downs have been whipped into a crazy sonar jack-knife switching back and folding in half upon themselves. This sequence repeats for a number of minutes, a clear testament to an artist who will push from statement to over-statement to sheer lunacy in three easy steps. Note that this passage is but one in the middle of a 12 minute epic which is more notable for the schoolyard chant that runs throughout it and which I reproduce here as it epitomises and encapsulates the qualities of Deacon’s music better than I ever could.

There is a mountain of snow, up past the big glen
We have a castle enclosed, there is a fountain
Out of the fountain flows gold, into a huge hand
That hand is held by a bear who had a sick band

Of ghosts and cats
And pigs and bats
With brooms and bats
And wigs and rats
And play big dogs like queens and kings
And everyone plays drums and sings

About big sharks
Sharp swords
Beast bees
Bead lords
Sweet cakes
Mace lakes

O ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma

Deacon is a kid in a candy store who has quickly scoffed all the most additive-laced sweets and is now smashing his way into the toy store next door to grab the cheapest musical instruments he can find to make havoc with. Dance music is his milieu (although he has also worked significantly in contemporary classical) but glee is his mode.

His live shows are legendary. He regularly sets up his Heath Robinson collection of gear on a low table and floor level in the middle of the audience and just goes from there. It’s this simplicity of approach that drives Deacon’s music like a pounding little heart. That he uses these simple starting materials: joy, enthusiasm, a grab-bag of music-making equipment and a willingness to put the pedal to the floor and builds such insanely overwhelming music from them is very impressive. That he manages, in the midst of all this, to make music so deliriously convincing is a near miracle.

Tom listened: It has struck me, whilst reflecting on Spiderman Of The Rings, that what Dan Deacon manages to achieve is really quite remarkable. The playfulness, chaos and (seeming) naivety of the music on offer immediately brought to mind Animal Collective at their loosest and least structured. But Animal Collective have always sounded to me like adults trying to be children – Dan Deacon doesn’t sound like he is having to try at all. And I think the reason why is the fact that, unlike AC, Spiderman of the Rings is shot through with a sense of humour; a charming silliness that a five…or fifty…year old would appreciate (give or take five years here or there that describes me and my son, Kit – we both connected with the album straight away). Other words that spring to mind are bonkers and gleeful and neither are a bad thing as far as I’m concerned.

In short, the boy Mitchell produces another cracker from his treasure trove of alternative sounds and noises.

Graham listened: Basically what Tom said. Started off thinking this is a bit all over the place, but it charmed me fairly quickly after that. Uplifting and playful at the same time, is quite a trick.

Hookworms – The Hum – Round 78 – Graham’s Choice

Not been able to get along to DRC for a while. download (2)But Tom’s fiendish theme (though hosted at my house as a result of those pesky ladies of book club), meant I could sneak in one of my possible albums of the year, having missed the annual DRC awards ceremony.

When Rob brought the band’s debut, ‘Pearl Mystic’, to Round 57 in 2013, it sounded like the most exciting new album I had heard in years. Rushed out to get it and been spinning it regularly ever since.

I picked up ‘The Hum’ on release and playing it every week since. The massive psychedelic/riffy/fuzzy/driven blow you up, over and down of the debut is still there but marginally improved by a bit more control and/or maturity? Anyway, like ‘Pearl Mystic’ the opening 2 tracks are killers but the rest of the album seems to hang together just a bit better and the way most tracks link in to each other, tips the balance on me preferring this to their debut.

Also by playing this album I found a way to sneak in/inflict some proper 1971 ‘space rock’ by Pink Floyd on fellow members as my track for the night. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1kZ6M2aMvw I’d be surprised in the ‘worms haven’t heard it, but if not, they should.

As an extra DRC bonus, playing ‘The Hum’  on a different CD player than normal, meant I discovered that track 9 actually exists, as up until that night my other CD player had never found anything past track 8! Whoopee, a good night’s work all round, though I’m easily pleased these days.

Rob listened: I’m not sure why, but having loved ‘Pearl Mystic’ and having been excited to hear what they did next, I never got around to picking up ‘The Hum’. So, I was particularly pleased to hear it this evening, and not only because up to the point he pulled it out of his bag we all thought Graham was going to adhere to the theme by choosing a Pink Floyd record which, he would presumably try to persuade us, was better than the other two he has already treated us to.

There was some discussion between Tom and I, hoary old lovers of late 80s Velvets-loving drone rock, as to whether Hookworms sounded great because they are great, or because they channeled bands we had very previously decided were great, and furthermore, we tried to put ourselves in the shoes of a youngster who had never heard Loop or Spacemen 3 or CAN or MC5 or the sainted Velvets and wondered what this referential music would feel like first time out? Between us we decided it would feel like having your face melted off by a jet engine. And I think we wished we could go back and feel that way again.

Tom listened: In many ways Hookworms are about as far away from Shudder to Think as it would be possible for two guitar based bands to be. Whereas the latter band are skewed and tangential and deliberately awkward, Hookworms songs are warm and inclusive and draw you in through their groove and repetition.

I liked both Pearl Mystic and The Hum but I definitely preferred the sophomore outing – it seemed a bit more concise than the debut and the songs seemed to me to have greater definition and a bit more character. I particularly liked the ‘bonus’ track that Graham discovered he had!

I find it odd that a band that is so redolent of so many that Rob and I were drawn to when we were at university actually sounds so little like any of them. Don’t believe me? Well play The Hum next to Playing With Fire or Heaven’s End and you’ll hear a band that are taking themselves (for better or worse) far less seriously, sounding like they’re having more fun and producing a far less threatening/ominous sound. Hookworms sound is much more messy too. But there’s obviously enough of a similarity for Rob and I to drone on (get it?) for hours on end about the good old days when bands just got on with it and put their music out there, warts and all. Whilst I probably won’t be buying the album, I always enjoy hearing Hookworms on the radio and I imagine they would be fantastic live.

The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead: Round 78, Nick’s choice

The-Queen-is-Dead-coverI was absolutely convinced that Rob had brought another Smiths album at some point (specifically, I thought, Strangeways Here We Come), but as soon as I pulled this out of my little knapsack I was informed that I was wrong, and that in fact it was Graham, who had played their eponymous debut. Serves me right for not researching.

But whatever; it still meant that I was OK to play The Queen Is Dead, which is my favourite Smiths record, if only by virtue of the fact that it was the first one I heard. Too young to be into them at the time (I’d just turned 7 when it came out, and was far more interested in Lego, I imagine, than Mancunian miserablism), I didn’t own a copy of this until I was 19 or 20 and at university.

One of the things that first struck me about The Queen Is Dead, and by extension The Smiths, given that I’d only heard a handful of tunes by them beforehand, was how funny they were. In the 90s when I was getting into music for the first time they were talked about as being impossibly dour and miserable, and despite the fact that I was probably at the height of my own personal miserablism during university, it was the theatricality and wit of Morrissey’s lyrics and delivery, rather than their angst-soaked pain, that appealed most.

Actually it was the melodrama that got me first, and I guess melodrama is the interface of angst and wit. The opening lines of “I Know It’s Over” – “oh mother I can feel the soil falling over my head” – so overwrought and adolescent and reaching, signified a self-awareness that I was only just becoming able to deal with, but which felt profound in its mocking of profundity, if that makes sense. There’s nothing quite as ridiculous as an over-earnest young man convinced of the import of his own, solipsistic emotional turmoil, and Morrissey at his best managed to both acknowledge and express that emotional turmoil and the ridiculousness at the same time. Did he know he was doing this? The answer, of course, doesn’t actually matter, but I doubt it was an accident. (Of course, as I became more familiar with The Smiths, I realised that this sense of humour had always been a key part of their genome, and that the people who’d claimed they were nothing but miserable were missing the point entirely.)

There’s a great story about how Johnny Marr, in the studio during the day with Joyce and Rourke, wrote and recorded what he considered to be one of his most beautiful tunes – a graceful, weaving, floating melody with the lightest of touches – and that he returned to the studio the next day to find that overnight Morrissey had written the lyrics, recorded the vocal, and called it, in an act of near blasphemy, “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”, royally pissing Marr off in the process.

The thing is, of course, that the reason The Smiths are so good, is precisely because of that awkward dynamic between Morrissey and Marr; the awkwardness, the cool, the humour, the miserablism all jumbled up together in a confusing but logical mix.

Graham listened: As we are at round 78, its getting difficult to remember why we brought some albums years ago. As I recall I was tasked with bringing something from 1984, which is why I brought the debut. But there is no debate in my mind about which is the better album. Though I’ve not played this for years I was reaching for my black polo neck and daffodils within seconds. Every lyric and riff came flooding back, as to me this will always be the ‘sound’ of The Smiths.

Rob listened: I was that miserable Mancunian and although I found them plenty funny, it was the mordant self-pity that got to me first. I found that completely over-powered and, to a great extent, I inhaled it, internalised it and built a sense of identity around it. Lots of us did. Due to age-constraints, The Queen Is Dead is the first Smiths album I heard (I was 15 when it came out and Andrew Nuttall, the class Cramps fan, lent me the record so I could tape it. Come to think of it, this might have been the first time anyone ever lent me a record…). And so, for me, it’s still the heartbeat of this most precious band. I love the luscious sound of ‘Meat Is Murder’, and that’s a record that arguably changed my life more than this one. I adore the spartan energy and somehow modern vintage sound of ‘Hatful of Hollow’, the urgent sound of four men inventing and inhabiting a world before your eyes. The beautiful shriek of ‘The Smiths’ will never lose it’s lustre and, although I never brought it to Record Club, ‘Strangeways…’ is a fine, fine record too. But this one, this is the bomb that started the war.

Tom listened: I can’t recall the circumstances now but I do remember buying The Queen Is Dead for my wife, Karen, thinking that she was a big fan. Having handed it over excitedly, she immediately took the wind out my sails by informing me that it didn’t have any of The Smiths songs she liked on it. As I was far from being a fan myself, it sat in a glove compartment for a number of years unlistened to and unloved.

That was until Graham played us The Smiths at record club and I realised that maybe, having hung on for 20 odd years, my aversion to Morrissey and co was cutting off my nose to spite my face. So I dug out The Queen Is Dead, dusted it off, and actually played the thing. And, of course, it is pretty magnificent. What’s more, now even Karen admits that, perhaps, the songs included on it are just as good, if not better, as the ones she cherishes so much from the group’s first flush of success. The icing on the cake is the fact that both the children love it, Tess for the stately majesty and doomed romanticism of There Is A Light That Never Goes Out…and Kit because it has the line ‘flatulent pain in the arse’ included.

Shudder To Think – Pony Express Record: Round 78 – Tom’s Selection

downloadAlthough nine times out of ten a record played by someone else at record club is the record I would have chosen by that artist, occasionally an album has been produced that has elicited a gasp of surprise, perhaps (read as ‘hopefully’) only internally, as in, ‘you brought that one?!?’ I thought it might be ‘fun’ to put the cat well and truly amongst the pigeons and set the ‘Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better’ theme. It turned out on the night, somewhat disappointingly it has to be said, that the moggy in question had had its claws removed, its teeth blunted and its pigeon hating gene well and truly modified. It all went off without a hitch – it transpires we are a far more laid back bunch than I had previously thought and nobody really fought for their former choice.

When I went through the list of albums we have played at record club (a mind-boggling 300 or so records now), many of the records I have selected would now be replaced by something else from that artist’s catalogue. Rob was right with his rejection of Imperial Bedroom – but Trust is the keeper as far as I am concerned, not This Year’s Model. Hejira is a very fine record but I now prefer The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Court and Spark (probably the latter album would be my pick), their spellbinding complexity only becoming apparent over the course of the squillions of listens I have given them in the last couple of years. Strange Mercy was a bit of a hobson’s choice – an album of the year in a year when I bought very few albums. Actor is still St Vincent’s high water mark as far as I am concerned. I would also replace Barafundle with Spanish Dance Troupe, Knock Knock with either Supper or A River Ain’t Too Much To Love and maybe even Ekstasis with Loud City Song (although I am still getting to know the latter it sounds pretty amazing to me).

The others too have occasionally produced something other than the record I would have brought. Admittedly sometimes they have been hampered by a theme but in the case of Shudder To Think (coincidentally the same evening PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake was played) there was no such excuse. Rob was just plain wrong!

I can see why he would go for Get Your Goat as it panders to a more indie lo-fi scuzzed up aesthetic (without really being any of those things). It’s a bit more definable I suppose. Pony Express Record is a slippery fish, its modus operandi seems to be to try to meld as many genres as possible into every song, fly off at a tangent both melodically and lyrically whenever you think you’re getting a handle on things, in general to be as willful and annoying as possible. It shouldn’t work, it doesn’t really for the first ten or so listens (as Nick and Graham will no doubt confirm) and it very nearly doesn’t work at all. But somehow, and God only knows how people manage to write songs that do this, after a certain amount of work on the part of the listener, the mists clear, the sun beams through and all you can hear is one glorious hook after another after another.

And that’s why I think Pony Express Record is a notch above its slightly more accessible predecessor. But, then again, PER was my first Shudder To Think record and, having acclimatised to its bizarre structures and Craig Wedren’s preposterous singing voice and lyrics, maybe Get Your Goat just sounded a bit safer because I already knew what to expect. So maybe, just maybe (whisper it) I have been wrong all along!! Rob?

Graham listened (and for at least 20 mins was thinking “what the **** is this all about”): But sorry to disappoint Tom, because by the end I was firmly on board.  It would require many listens to fully enjoy the hugely intricate mix of hooks/riffs/structures/time changes/lyrics (and not quite sure I’m ready to submit myself to that yet) but it was all there after one listen. An amazing album.

Rob listened: First, a disclaimer. I’m going to write this without reference to my write up for ‘Get Your Goat’ which means I may be wrong when I say I brought that to just our second meeting and also that I may, in a few words time, be repeating myself when I go on about Craig Wedren having a voice like a raygun. If I didn’t say that last time, I should have.

Everything Tom said, but ‘Get Your Goat’ is better. One of the recurring themes in our discussions, sometimes explicit, often not, is the relationship between supposed ‘career peak’ records and those that lie either side of them and how both intersect with the maps of our own tastes and the geo-musicological forces that shaped them. Long may that continue. Trying to tease out of each other why we like one thing more than another is one of the great things about this club. The fact that we never quite nail any of it down is one of the great things about music, art and life. This themed-round was particularly fine in this regard. Bravo Tom.

‘Get Your Goat’ was my first Shudder To Think record. I was given it to review by an uninterested editor who saw me as the guy who liked noisy american music. He pretty much had me banged to rights. Because I had to write about it, and because at that stage I was a conscientious reviewer, I listened to it over and over and over, because I had absolutely no idea what was going on. And then, out of the conflicting vectors and topographies, shapes and relationships began to emerge until I had the measure of it. It probably took 20 or 30 listens. We’ve spoken before about records that ‘click’ and I’m generally happy to remain confused by those as once they click that seems like a puzzle solved with no need to return to it. Shudder To Think aren’t like that. Their songs are repetitive, melodic, hook-driven, poppy. It’s just that they’re working from a shattered set of rules. It just takes patience to get what they’re up to, and you’re away.

So, I love ‘Get Your Goat’ like a first love. When ‘Pony Express Record’ came along, It made sense straight away. It’s a fine, fine record and I totally get why it is considered their masterpiece, but for me it is a ramping up and honing down of what they were already doing. It’s their perfect statement and I like a little imperfection. I guess I also have to say that it is quite a lot closer to some of the Math Rock records it helped to inspire. That’s not it’s fault, but if a step towards ‘Get Your Goat’ is a step away from Tool, then i’m taking that step.

Anyway, I’ve written too much already, but let me tell you about Craig Wedren’s voice…