Meilyr Jones – 2013: Round 93 – Tom’s Selection

a1595449745_10As we drove over to record club, Nick and I were chatting about one of the current Netflix offerings, Stranger Things. Initially just checking in that we both liked it and sharing our general thoughts, the conversation soon focused in on the programme’s undeniable and overt use of cliche. I had seen this as a weakness at first and, during the first couple of episodes, they had been sufficiently obtrusive as to make me question whether or not to bother continuing with the show. However, my wife did a little bit of digging around on the interweb and before long found plentiful evidence that the use of cliche was a deliberate move on the part of the programme’s directors. For me, this changed everything – what I had perceived as weakness, laziness or, at best, an extreme lack of awareness transformed instantaneously into a mixture of homage, innovation and nostalgia. Before long, I was loving all the references to 80s kidcentric schlock horror, and not long after that I realised that I wasn’t noticing them at all as the characters and story drew me in!

Which brings me to 2013 by Meilyr Jones. He performs a very similar trick here but in a musical rather than cinematographic setting. Operating within the wistful chamber pop side of things, listening to 2013 it’s as if Jones is holding up his hands and admitting that the best tunes have already been taken, so let’s nick bits from here and there, create some new melodies along the way, have some fun and, ultimately, just do it all really, really well. Throughout the album, you will hear snippets of stuff you recognise, either lyrically (Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain makes an appearance on second track Don Juan, Wild World by Cat Stevens on Rome) or musically (Smoke on the Water’s pivotal riff forms the hook in Strange/Emotional’s propulsive and surprising chorus, Jarvis Cocker’s off stage asides are echoed on the baroque masterpiece that is Olivia). Elsewhere, similarities with your other favourite artists are evident, if less direct – Morrissey’s phrasing and singing style is recalled on a number of tracks (albeit with a discernible Welsh lilt on most tracks), Jens Lekman is evoked on closer Be Soft and, unsurprisingly, fellow Welsh wizards Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci can be heard reverberating throughout. At no point, however, does Jones sound anything at all like Paul Heaton!

Whether these reference points devalue or enhance your listening experience (or have no effect at all!) is up to you, but by the time the record ends, Jones leaves you in no doubt that he knows exactly what he is doing and, for me, that makes all the difference. In fact, to my ears, 2013 is one of the freshest, wittiest and well executed pop records I have heard in ages and, in another era, songs like the poppy How To Recognise A Work Of Art and Featured Artist or the devastating Refugees (which urges you to ‘turn off your TV’) would be topping the charts rather than only occasionally finding their way onto the late night shows on 6 Music!

Nick listened: Unlike Stranger Things, which I loved, I found it difficult to get a handle on this – I think because, while the former eventually pulled me into the world of the new characters it presented, I never really got a handle on who this Meilyr guy is. Obviously talented, I get the idea he’s hiding behind all these references (oh look, the Rebel Rebel riff!) as a kind of intellectual exercise. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but a single 40 minute exposure often isn’t enough to get beneath the signifiers and discover what’s driving them.

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Johnny Dangerously – ‘You, Me and the Alarm Clock’: Round 93 – Steve’s choice

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Johnny Dangerously, not to be confused with the Michael Keaton film of the same name, was the once alter-ego of Johnny Bramwell of I Am Kloot fame. This record was released in 1989 at the peak of the ‘Madchester’ baggy era but bears no resemblance to the sounds of that time (Stone Roses for one). It’s straight singer-songwriter, troubadour guitarist eking out a living on the dirty streets of Manchester – which is where Mr Bramwell was probably at during this period. He still plays impromptu gigs in Oldham Street, one of the former epicentres of the Manchester music scene. It bares the skeleton structure of I Am Kloot’s later work, but stripped back it still sounds crisp and fresh today. Its a remarkably accomplished debut, signalling much promise to come.

This mini album (defined as such in various sources although it’s just 6 songs, plays at 45 rpm and only lasts a little over 16 minutes – our shortest album yet Rob?) featured in an article in the Guardian titled “The Greatest Albums You’ve Never Heard“. Although some of the entries in this article (Neutral Milk Hotel for goodness sakes…) should not be there, this absolutely deserves its place. It is a musical gem, a lost one for me as well, falling between the cracks in my life. I used to “own” this album. My ex-wife had it in her collection so I can thank her for introducing me to it. When we split the album went with her. Poignant enough then that the last track on here (‘Tearing it Down’) sings about the loss of possessions and someone.

“She left me a reminder, of a world she left behind her. An overcoat, a coffee cup, an old…(something indecipherable) book binder. I could catch her right away but I would never find her”

So I sadly lost the album. Years later I read the Guardian article and tried to find it again, to no avail. I went to see Johnny Bramwell at a gig in Bristol a few years ago, and he started taking requests. I shouted out ‘Pierfront Arcade’ (track two on the album) to which he replied that he’d forgotten how to play it. So, there we go, lost to the artist himself……

‘Junk Culture’, the opening track, starts haplessly amongst the trash and rubbish of life, evoking images of the back streets of England, the US, trying to make sense of it all

“Stumbling through small life Nowhere, England. Shaking hands with the big time life idiots. I was trying to pick up some ordinariness. From the shopping bag inspirational choir”

UK artists have often tried to make sense of the US on their albums. Prefab Sprout do it on Steve McQueen. As an artist just coming into the world, Johnny Dangerously seems more vulnerable than most to the enormity of gaining success over the pond

“Sweeping through middle town America. Stepping into fact-or-fiction trash TV world. I caught a glimpse of myself scraping and laughing. Shuffling about amongst the newspaper”

Lyrically this album has recurring themes of love, loss, regret, fear, hope and valediction to memories. The imagery of the opening track is simple yet efffective, getting you to view things in a way you know to be true, and yet perhaps you missed them. ‘Junk Culture’ evokes images of the old cathode ray tube TVs and how they used to shut down to a small spot on the screen…”And a million TV screens close their weary eyes”.

The theme of nostalgia is very strong here too. ‘Pierfront Arcade’ highlights the true fragility of memories, and our inability to leave places without never returning, perhaps only in our minds

“Love is built in pieces, made right here in Fragile Town. You said once you were weaving, oh, but who is fragile now?….I said once I was leaving but I came back before too long”

‘Black and Blue’ is a tragic love song, recognising what ultimately you will lose in order to gain the heart of one you desire (“Lights are shining all round this world. You want them all but what you want is this girl….So give up the chance to be true. And all wind up like we knew we’d do. Bruised black and blue”). ‘This Town and Mary’ remembers a girl who came into his life, and to a ‘town’ unknown. Perhaps this town and Mary do not exist at all but I have sneaking suspicion that this references the same ‘Mary’ that featured in a short film I once saw. The subject matter of the film was a bright eccentric girl that was ‘on the scene’ in Manchester in the early 80s, but left suddenly for no reason, right before the ‘Madchester-Hacienda’ music explosion. The film featured one Vinni Reilly (of Durrutti Column, who we haven’t covered yet) remembering her as being quite fragile and full of contradictions. People said she wouldn’t have coped with the scene as it evolved, so perhaps she was best to go. I couldn’t find a link to the film, but would love to make the connection. The song however suggests ‘Mary’ is all of us (“Mary came from our town and was kicking at the ground. She was lost, she was found, she was me, she was you. And all the lies you tell sound true. You say you don’t til you do”). Mythologising people in your life, placing your own personna over them….

There’s not much to say about the musical ability on the record, because it is just him and the guitar. Anyone who has been to see him live will know that he can fill a room with that simple formula. The vocal is very rich, regional and distinctive. The guitar itself accomplished and not readily accessible in terms of chord sequences and tunings. In some ways he bears resemblance to John Martyn (again we haven’t covered him…), some would say Go-Betweens are in there (I think that was you Tom?). Nobody bought the album when it came out, and Johnny Bramwell never released another under this name. So, there it is, gone but not forgotten. It deserves a higher place in the past, and perhaps even in the present, but then again it seems all that more beautiful as a hidden lost gem amongst the newspapers and dirty alleyways of Oldham Street in Manchester….find it if you can.

Rob listened: I listened indeed, but ‘You, Me and the Alarm Clock’ was gone before I’d managed to get a grip of it, like the old newspapers it invokes, it was swept away by the buffeting breezy conversation and, at the point where we might start to settle down and listen properly, it finished. Thanks the Steve for an impassioned write-up that leads us back into the record and reminds us that sometimes when we talk about the things we’re hearing, we do so at the expense of listening.

Fortunately ‘You, Me and the Alarm Clock’ is not quite as unfindable as Steve might have implied. Youtube seems to have most of it, revealing grounded, heartfelt, melancholy melodies and swirling words. Bramwell’s distinctive voice binds the two together.

I never really got fully on board with I Am Kloot. I bought their first album when it came out, I think just because I’d seen their name knocking about. I liked it a lot and can still get carried away on the beautifully woozy opening track ‘To You’ despite not having heard it for more than 10 years. Although the gap from this Johnny Dangerously record and ‘Natural History’ is even longer, the connection is direct and immediate, and sufficiently energising to send me back there properly.

Tom listened: Blocking out the Exeter University chit chat is something I have become increasingly adept at over the years (surprisingly, much of it is not all that relevant to me!) and, as a result, I was rewarded with a little gem of a listen. The fact that I was reminded, time and again, of The Go-Betweens at their most acoustic certainly helped to entice me as they are one of my all time faves but, to be honest, this album would easily have held up on its own merits without the help of its Antipodean counterparts. Just a shame it didn’t stick around a bit longer!

Nick listened: Sounded like he owned a bobble hat.

Tim Hecker – ‘Love Streams’: Round 93 – Rob’s choice

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It’s tempting to hear and see ‘Love Streams’, the eighth album from Canadian electronic artist Tim Hecker, as his warm and fuzzy record. It certainly has a more organic, perhaps even welcoming sound than his previous couple. Also, it has a nice pink-infused cover, so, y’know, it could be ‘Chill Out with Tim’ couldn’t it? Well no, not quite.

Hecker, as far as I can see, has always used the building blocks of ambient electronic and contemporary classical music as his canvas and then employed distortion and degradation as his primary operating methods. He takes sounds as roots and nicks and chips and twists and bends and burns and intertwines them into shapes and forms that seem simultaneously to have burst from within and withered dreadfully away from their original forms.

Previously he’s been heavily into pipe organs, pianos, guitars, software, the ‘virginal’ (an early percussive harpsichord) and anything else he can get his hands on. He treats these instruments seriously, with reverence and technical curiosity, never as playthings or sound fodder to be thrown willy-nilly. Instead he uses them as serious thematic elements, to enhance, divert, combine and amalgamate, as colours to use to build shapes and as shapes to use as foundations for colours.

I don’t go all the way back with Hecker, not yet at least, only to his last three full lengths. ‘Ravedeath 1972’ took as its intent the destruction of music, and was suitably scabrous. ‘Virgins’ used live ensemble sessions as the basis for its explorations. It seemed to me to say something about the degradation of the human spirit, signified by the juxtaposition between the virginal instrument itself and song titles and cover imagery both of which invoked some of the darkest places in our recent history. It was a remarkable piece of work. I can’t explain why, but that’s always part of the wonder.

Now, with ‘Love Streams’, the human voice is given primacy, featuring for the first time in any of Hecker’s original work. He recorded raw material with the Icelandic Choir Ensemble, reportedly having them sing nonsensical words and abstract sounds, all to give him a source of sound to electronically manipulate, the way he has previously done with acoustic instruments.

The result is simultaneously warm and accessible – the human voice draws us in to any soundscape, almost no matter what else lurks therein – and endlessly fascinating. Following the routes of the interplay and entwined, slow-motion combat of voices and synths and percussion is both challenging and intriguing. the sounds confound, deflect, obfuscate and delight. Still, this is no twinkly piece of ambient electronica. It’s an floating, abstract miasma, an imagination of the way another species might invoke music. Whereas long-time Hecker buddy Daniel Lopatin seems to delight in deconstructing and then reconstructing music, twisting, perverting and destroying its body but retaining superficial traces to allow us to identify the corpse, Hecker is in another realm from start to finish, a place where music evolved under different influences into a different life-form.

There are breathtaking moments on ‘Love Streams’ and a thousand moments that will slip by un-noticed until the hundredth time. There are combinations of colour and flavour and texture that you will not have heard before. It will make little sense to you on many levels and perfect sense on others. Ultimately this is a beautiful work of sound, and perhaps my favourite thing to listen to this year so far.

Tom listened: It’s confession time…I can recall very little about this album, although I do recall liking it! And I think that’s the problem I have with music that is predominantly electronic – generally I enjoy the experience of listening to it, but don’t find myself seeking it out for repeated spins (Fourtet’s Rounds has sat on my shelf for years and year, gathering dust. Music Has the Right…by Boards of Canada has been doing a similar trick in my car, Dubnobasswithmyheadman I’ve pulled out on a few occasions more recently, loved it, but it’s drifted back into the lesser visited recesses of my collection over the last couple of years). So, it makes me even more pleased that Rob and Nick bring this stuff to Record Club – surely exposing you to music that you wouldn’t naturally encounter is what it’s all about!

Apart from those bees.

nick listened: can’t remember a bloody thing about this but wrote it on my list of things to buy, so assume I liked it. Have two other Heckers and feel as if they’re more like homework than hobby, but this seemed to bridge that gap.