Rickie Lee Jones – Pirates: Round 104 – Tom’s Selection

Before acquiring Pirates a couple of years ago, all I knew of Rickie Lee Jones was that she was the voice of The Orb’s magnificent Little Fluffy Clouds. I guess it must be pretty galling to be an esteemed singer-songwriter of yore and yet have swathes of an entire generation of music lovers whose only connection is a sample of a snatch of conversation of a promotional CD for one of your albums, even if that sample becomes one of the most recognisible, iconic samples of all time! Of course, I also knew the song Chuck E’s In Love, but never knew who sung it until I bought Pirates and started to do the obligatory on-line research.

So I really had no idea what to expect when I first played Pirates. And I guess that by the time that first play had ended, I still wasn’t sure what to make of the record; its mellifluous, jazzy soundscapes and Springsteenesque storytelling being at odds with what I would normally look for in a purchase.

But, with a little help from my daughter (who immediately clicked with the album, unencumbered as she is with the weight of musical prejudice) it, quite slowly admittedly, dawned on me that Pirates is a keeper, one of those records that reveals more with each listen, where the things that put you off in the first place become distant memories as the listening experience becomes more and more immersive and encompassing. I have loads of records that have pulled this trick in my collection (Forever Changes, Clear Spot, Pet Sounds, every American Music Club album ever, The Chills’ Brave Words) and have written about it in the blog many times over, yet it still never ceases to amaze me – how the songs obviously don’t alter at all, yet my relationship with them transforms them from anathema to essential with just familiarity, a little bit of close listening and an open mind.

At record club, however,  I was caught somewhere in between; the fact that there were two newbies listening for the first time brought back memories of my own experiences of first fetting to know the album. So, whilst the unimpeachable magnificence of opener We Belong Together remained untarnished, some of the other, more challenging numbers reverted, for the night at least, back to being…challenging, Skeletons vaguely musical theatre like qualities, for example, becoming unavoidable when listening in the presence of my esteemed and experienced fellow clubbers. Funny thing is, on my own or in the company of my family (all of whom are fans) I don’t really hear it like that at all!

I played Pirates again this evening for the first time since record club and  it all sounded fabulous again. It’s of its time, of course, and very much in the Springsteen/Waits (early years) mould of third person storytelling. Musically it harks back to some of Joni Mitchell’s more complex, jazz inflected mid 70s fare and forward to, say, Jane Siberry’s The Walking – maintaining that balance between the complex and the accessible; hooks abound but are rarely repeated, songs writhe around never really falling into a recognisible verse/chorus/verse structure whilst never veering too far away from that either. Many of the songs are exercises in delayed or unfulfilled release, We Belong Together  being a case in point as it threatens on a number of occasions to explode into a Born To Run style rocker, but Jones reigns it in almost immediately lest it should become too predictable.

I have no idea where Pirates sits within the pantheon, I still feel that it is a bit of an outlier in my collection and I know that my 25 year old self would have mocked me for even entertaining the idea of putting it on the record player. But for a 48 year old man (or a 15 year old daughter), Pirates works just fine and has brought many hours of unexpected aural pleasure over the past couple of years.

Rob listened: Well, it’s good to know that by the sheer gravitational force of our dense stupidity, Record Club attendees are able to warp the very sounds of a record around us, until it no longer seems the same. Sorry Tom. Glad it straightened back out.

I liked ‘Pirates’. Since Tom brought ‘Hejira’ to us a couple of years ago, I’ve spent lots of time going back to listen to Joni Mitchell, and, although I don’t think we talked all that much about her on the night, I can hear the connection now. It’s somewhere in a music that respects boundaries and form just enough to know when it’s wilfully over-running them.

And yes, there is Springsteen in the sometimes tumbling sing-speak story-telling, and perhaps a dash of Waits in the character portraits of lost nighthawks. But ultimately Rickie Lee Jones was a contemporary of these artists, not necessarily an acolyte, and so the credit for this intriguing and lovely record belongs to her.

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James Holden & The Animal Spirits – The Animal Spirits: Round 104, Nick’s choice

animalspiritsI’d only bought this record on the Friday before our Tuesday meeting, but the half-dozen (occasionally broken / distracted) listens I’d managed to accumulate in that short time revealed this to be about the most ‘Nick’ record I could bring to record club. Indeed, perhaps the most ‘Nick’ record I could even imagine at this point in time; it feels like the square route (or the sum, or something – ask one of the mathematicians in the group what I mean) of much of my favourite music for the last few years.

So what is it? Well, four and a bit years ago (pre-kids), James Holden’s last record was one of my favourites of the year; massive, semi-improvised synthesiser explorations, with nods to jazz, trance, krautrock, and evocations of enormous natural British landscapes.

A particular standout track was “The Caterpillar’s Intervention”, which felt like a weird, acid-soaked, pagan, forest-dwelling jazz recreation of “Atlas” by Battles. Percussion, synthesisers, slightly deranged brass; these are a few of my favourite things. The Animal Spirits feels like it takes that track as a direct jumping-off point, and runs enthusiastically down the (heavily wooded, less-travelled) path it pointed towards. Which is basically exactly what I wanted Holden to do after The Inheritors.

For this new record – only his third album in well over a decade of making music – James Holden has put together a band with whom he’s recorded a number of live (no overdubs, I gather), semi-improvised synth + drums + brass + percussion (+ occasional wordless, chanting vocals) jams. This makes his 2006 debut (The Idiots Are Winning, a title which gets more and more prophetic / bathetic with every disquieting event in global politics), a one-man-in-his-bedroom techno album which took the beatific, widescreen trance of his early singles and remixes and edited it until it teetered on the edge of collapse, an outlier in his discography. To go from control-freakish, micro-edited techno experiments to what’s essentially live, improvised kraut-jazz-prog-rock, is quite a move in only three albums. When you consider that his first single was released in 1999, when he was just 20, it’s not actually that rapid an evolution, but still.

At times The Animal Spirits is a very heavy record; it could almost be hard rock or even full-on metal at times, but played with a very different set of instruments. At 9 tracks over 45-ish minutes, it’s considerably easier to consume than The Inheritors, which has 15 tracks and lasts about half an hour longer. The Animal Spirits feels focussed, lean, and precise, even as the music on it is raging, exploratory, and verging on hysteria. In many ways it fits very neatly as a wilder, less manicured partner to Floating Points’ material released this year: the progrock synth explorations of Reflections: Mojave Desert, and the strung-out, meticulous, almost-back-to-the-dancefloor pseudo-dance of “Ratio”.

It sounds fabulous; the synths are the main attraction, and the mix gives you full access to their warmth, buzz, groove, and melody. I’ve seen a couple of people suggest that the drums are too low in the mix, and compared to the kind of pumping, side-chained beats of Holden’s origins in dance music they certainly sound very different, but they’ve got the ragged crispness of a live kit performance, and all the excitement that goes along with that. If you want them louder, just turn it up; the mix and performances reward, even demand, that volume. The brass – cornet and saxophone – works both melodiously and chaotically depending on the track. On more than one occasion there’s a flute or a recorder, and a massive whiff of Canterbury hippy, which could put you off if the whole thing wasn’t so damn compelling. It draws from Morroccan gnawa music, ancient African Islamic spiritual religious songs and rhythms, and you can feel that it’s striving for something limbic, something sublime, not quite secular but… agnostic, and yearning.

In many ways it fulfils the promise I first heard in Caribou’s Up In Flames album way back in 2003, fusing electronic experiments with jazz, rock, dance, and more in order to find the head-spinning psychedelic space that they can all inhabit when they cut loose. There are a lot of people working in this milieu now, a karass (to again use Kurt Vonnegut’s neologism for a group of people with shared interests who are somehow spiritually bound together) including Floating Points, Four Tet, Caribou, Nicolas Jaar, the Polar Bear / Melt Yourself Down / Sons of Kemet British jazz cohort, Nathan Fake and Luke Abbott (obviously, as people signed to his label Border Community), The Invisible, and probably (hopefully?) some others I’ve yet to discover, too. It might just be the best record that any of them have released thus far; ask me again in a few months.

Rob listened: Loved it. For me it had shared DNA with the Fuck Buttons record I played a few meetings ago, aiming for the same steady layering of intensity. Fascinating to hear the different paths taken to get there and to think about how this heaviosity can be orchestrated with a live band as opposed to a computer. Really redolent of the wild natural spirits it was going for too. Great, heady and hearty stuff.