Everything Everything – Man Alive: Round 69 – Ed’s selection

everything everything - man aliveThis record’s rather tenuous link to the holiday theme was that my good friend Stef introduced me to Everything Everything last summer whilst on holiday in France. I know, I know, but in truth, I have been wanting to play this album at Record Club ever since joining. It is unlike anything I have ever heard before and whilst I cannot truly say that I love it, it fascinates me. And I was really curious to discover the others’ opinions.

The first 3 tracks are an assault. The high-velocity staccato falsetto vocals, the ever-shifting bass line, the sudden key changes, texture changes; its like the band sat down and decided exactly how far they could push the listener. That might make the sound come across as calculated, which is certainly how I thought of it the first few listens, but on repetition the musicianship and craft shine through.

Man Alive is not just about seeing how many notes Jonathan Higgs can spurt out per second though as in the rest of the album the pace slows, the music is more expansive. However they keep hold of the complexity and sudden texture changes. I like the music better when you’re not straining to catch the lyrics, which is probably not a good way to listen to it anyway, but some of my favourite tracks are the slower tempo ones. The creepy ‘Leave the Engine Room’, ‘Final Form’, the barnstorming/barbershop ‘Suffragette Suffragette’ and the lovely, simple ‘Tin (The Manhole)’ which washes over you like some kind of post-modern classical church piece.

I like this album because it sounds like 4 talented musicians got together and decided to push themselves to create a sound that was not bound by any particular style, structure or vocal range. The songs are complex and high-octane but well-written, varied and interesting. From a performance point of view I am also deeply impressed by the falsetto sung by Jonathan Higgs. This is a really difficult skill to pull off, especially when crossing at speed to and from the normal vocal range, and he makes it sound easy.

This is not an album to settle down to if you’re looking for some nice tuneful background music. It’s demanding, complicated and rapid (it has almost certainly failed Tom’s ‘music with too many notes’ test!). And if you are after a big slab of passion and heart, look elsewhere. However if you want something experimental, grown-up, technically exciting whilst also pushing the boundaries of what the players themselves can perform, this is your album.

Rob listened: I really, really liked the fox on the cover of this record. Great picture of a fox there guys. Good work. Well done.

Otherwise, this seemed not so much an exercise in how far Everything Everything could push the listener, more in how far they could push the listener away. Nick is our man when it comes to production and compression, but the sound of this record seemed almost deliberately structured to deflect penetration. Ed’s right that there’s a lot going on here, but it all seemed to be going on at a cold and steely surface, all at the same level, and details were almost impossible to focus on without getting a headache. It was repulsive, in the true sense of the word.

And that was enough for me to switch off, i’m afraid. Which is a shame, as I got that complexity that Ed describes and I got the sense that they were pushing themselves into unusual places. I just couldn’t listen to them doing it.

Nick listened: I feel a bit bad that Ed wasn’t present to explain (or defend, perhaps!) his choice as we listened; a running commentary and enthused advocacy while listening can often blast open records that you’d otherwise shy away from by giving you an understanding of why someone else likes something, even if you don’t. No Ed meant no defense, and thus Everything Everything got an unfair, by our usual standards, hearing.

The name is a clue; they try to do too much, which I suspected shortly after I first heard of them. Initial descriptions – eclectic, gifted, complex – actually intrigued me, but then a few warning signs (signed to a label I don’t trust; Mercury nomination for an ‘indie’ band, etc etc) set off the sirens in my head, and I steered clear. Why? Because I assumed EE would be the kind of too-ambitious, everything-including-the-kitchen-sink act that I’ve been burnt by on numerous occasions over the last decade. And when it came to the empirical test, they were, sadly.

I have a strong suspicion that digital recording technologies are to blame; when you have literally no limitations to how many audio tracks you can record and how much manipulation you can wield via a software package, the creativity and quality control often imposed as a side-effect of technological limitations is no longer an issue, and the result is often, to my ears, inferior as a result. It’s that idea if having infinite choice options, and no wisdom to make the right choice. So you have the live drum kit (to a click-track) AND a drum machine AND some synth AND multiple guitar tracks AND samples AND four ambient room mics AND multi-tracked vocals AND and and and and and… and the result is too much information, jammed too close together. You end up with human music which sounds synthetic, rather than synthetic music which sounds human; people recording on perfect software rather than with imperfect machines. The sound of an algorithm.

The last National album suffered a related fate to my ears; while they didn’t overstuff synthetic layers, they did seem to use every idea they had; violins, several guitars, brass, multiple pianos, etc etc. If you’re skillful you can pull it off, but it’s very very easy to overdo it, and to my ears EE overdid it.

Graham listened: Ed’s last paragraph simply sums this one up for me as at the time it went on, I was still firmly wrapped up in the emotional blanket of Carol King. I wasn’t in mood for anything taxing and my listening skills suffered. Need to borrow this off Ed to give a it a fair chance as I think I would have found just about anything fairly irritating compared to the warm glow I was still experiencing after listening to Carol. I recall warming to second half of this album as my defences weakened.

Tom listened: This is a tricky one. I think this is only the second time we’ve had a record that the selector was absent for (the first one was Bad by Michael Jackson, played by Nick on Rob’s British Number 1 albums themed night – in that instance he didn’t provide a write up so we didn’t get to respond). It certainly felt weird not having Ed there to enthuse us with his insights and, like Nick, I felt that would have made a difference.

I have been aware of Everything Everything for some time now as they have been championed by various DJs on 6 Music for a while now and they have always stood out a little from the standard 6 Music daytime indie fodder mainly by dint of the fact that their singer has a ‘different’ voice. I think it works quite well in catching the listener’s attention – there’s no mistaking it once you’ve heard it a few times – but, for me, it worked far less well over the course of an album than it does when you hear it as a one-off on the radio. The homogeny of the songs on the first half of the record and the lack of any discernible (on first listen, mind) melody meant that, eventually (around the midway point I’m guessing) I had more or less switched off.

The funny thing was that almost as soon as that had happened the album seemed to take a turn for the better; I vaguely recall a song that was a bit slower, had a bit more contrast and was much more compelling that what had proceeded it. And from there on, I kind of enjoyed Man Alive (certainly much more than I had up until that point).

However (and I guess this is down to the compression used in the production of the record), the album sounds like a Steve Lamacq album and, for me, that’s too much of a hurdle to surmount.

Beck – Odelay: Round 67 – Ed’s choice

beck-odelay2Hello, new face Ed here. Graham invited me along to give his record collection a rest every now and then. Round 67 is my second meet and it’s been thrilling to witness the passion, dedication, encyclopaedic knowledge and the sheer fun that the four of them have been having in Record Club. I’ve very quickly realised that compared to the others my knowledge of contemporary music is pretty shallow but it’s going to be fun exploring.

In 1996 Britpop was reaching a peak, Blur and Oasis were about to fight it out for number 1 slot and I was at college. Studying classical music I didn’t have much headspace left for popular stuff but apart from Blur Beck managed to sneak in and something stuck. I’ve kept touch with a few tracks from Odelay; Devil’s Haircut, Hotwax, Where it’s at, mostly because to my ear these are the catchiest. A big feature of Odelay that appealed to me as a teenager was Beck’s surreal lyrics and in opening track Devil’s Haircut he seems to be deliberately odd – “mouthwash, jukebox, gasoline”. This gives the repeated pay-off line “I got a devil’s haircut in my mind”, one of the few understandable sentences, more strength. He is setting a theme of the album as a battle between him and his brain; indeed, the opening line of the album is “Somethings wrong coz my mind is fading”.

The surreal lyrics are matched by Beck’s boredom at staying in one style for too long. He hops about between soul, blues, country, folk, a bit of rap. Instruments, samples, riffs, styles all come and go within the space of a single track but its testament to Beck’s skill that they, and the album, do not feel fragmented. Even the donkey braying at the end of ‘Jack-Ass’ somehow feels appropriate, especially as it contrasts beautifully, after a pause, with the soft, groovy keyboard opening to ‘Where it’s at’.

Revisiting the album now it’s the softer, calmer tracks that leave the greatest impression. ‘Lord only knows’ starts with a scream (there he goes losing his mind again) but develops into a country track complete with slide guitar and dodgy solo. The track ends with Beck muttering ‘Odelay’ over and over again like an old man, whilst the musicians play out.

The one false note for me is the 5th track ‘Derelict’, where Beck sticks with the same chord structure throughout, apart from a sitar-led break half-way in. It does not have the restless, upbeat nature of some of the other tracks. Compare with the next track, the excellent ‘Novacane’, with its soft opening interplay between guitar and bass, then harmonica, then in-your-face two-note repeated power guitar, then another 4 or 5 changes in texture all of which fit seamlessly into each other.

I like Odelay because I admire Beck’s songwriting skills, his musicianship in playing so many of the instruments heard, his experimentation in different styles but mostly because the album is just so damn cool.

Tom listened: For me, Beck was another one of those artists I was highly suspicious of when they first appeared on the scene. Naturally, I knew best….until, that is, I actually listened to the stuff. I think my prejudice was propagated by the hype surrounding Loser and the sentiments of the song itself. What’s more Beck looked too good to be making good music, moved too well too, and had bloody awful cover art (particularly on Mellow Gold – what was all that about?).

It wasn’t until Odelay (probably Devil’s Haircut) that I became acquainted with the music and it turned out to be right up my street – crammed with ideas, pretty edgy and inventive and the hipster cool was well earned as opposed to expected. So I fell hard for Odelay, even harder for its more wayward younger sibling, Mellow Gold, and even tried One Foot In The Grave…which was just about OK, at a push.

These days, I only listen to Odelay every so often. I find it a little bit dated, a little bit patchy (by far the worst track is High 5…Derelict is great, Ed) but there are enough crackers on the album for it still to sound like a bit of a treat (and Jack-Ass is as wonderful as ever).

Rob listened: Most of the reasons I didn’t like ‘Odelay’ at the time don;t really stand up to serious examination. Nonetheless, here they are. Examine them seriously if you so desire.

It’s way too tricksy. Too deliberately tricksy. Too distractingly tricksy. Sure, I see the attraction, the giddy thrill of hearing someone smash together disparate sounds in ways you’ve never heard done before. But enough already. Once said person has been smashing those disparate sounds together in disparate ways for 20 minutes or so, you just want them to stop and choose some of their favourite sounds, disparate or not, and see what happens if they smash those ones together for a while. You never know, you might make an album full of Jack-Ass and that would be great.

I like unsettling and disturbing juxtapositions, even restless and unceasing splicing (see ‘R Plus Seven‘ for instance) but Odelay always sounded like a cocky dude showing off a scrapbook they just knocked together. I never felt there was anything coherent or heartfelt underneath and that these things were being done (there’s a giveaway, I think of them as ‘things’ rather than ‘songs’) to show how clever or skilful Beck was. And, when i’m in a particularly bad mood, this sometimes began to feel like a queasy-making exercise in (whisper it) hipster appropriation.

I like ramshackle records that veer all over the place and have songs which seem not to resolve or even be whole or finished, but the best have intrigue, hidden places, fascinating, nagging qualities and, sometimes killer tunes. ‘Odelay’ always seemed to lay everything it had out in front of you, like a rich kid spreading out his toys, and ultimately none of them seemed more than surface to me.

Most of the people I knew absolutely loved it. I thought they loved it because they thought it was wild and kooky. I thought it was calculated, soulless and boring.

I guess I still do. I’m listening to it now and, half way through, it’s bleh. I’ve been thinking of how much i’d prefer to be listening to Sebadoh III for most of it, so I think that’s what i’ll do now. There’s a record with commendable lack of focus which is shambolic and endlessly intriguing and just happens to have ‘The Freed Pig’ for a kick off.

I like Beck. He seems to do interesting things (Karl – those puppets are completely amazing), have ideas which no-one else seems to have, play and compose his music with virtuosity and passion. I’m really glad he’s around. I just think ‘Odelay’ is totally over-rated. And boring.

Nick listened: Cracking singles, fun album, bought it way back when, don’t care about it or Beck. That’s about as much as I can say; there’s something about his wanderingly eclectic Scientologist troubadour schtick that keeps me at arms’ length. I’ve barely investigated anything that came out after this, and I seldom revisit it on its own terms. I’d much rather take another dive into Paul’s Boutique.