Laura Nyro AND LABELLE – Gonna Take A Miracle: Round 94, Nick’s choice

nyroI could, and should, have just gone for the safe choice, and picked something from this year that I knew no one else owned because we’d talked about it, like Anna Meredith or Thee Oh Sees. Or some semi-obscure electronica like Akufen or Superpitcher. Or some bloody modern British jazz, like I pick every other bloody round anyway. But no, I tried to be a bit clever, and pick something by someone that somebody might have heard of. Tom asked what year it was from. When I said 1971 he replied that he owned something by EVERYBODY from 1971. And he does, the bastard. So Laura Nyro AND LABELLE cost me a tenner. Unfairly, I might add, because this album of sumptuous, fangirl covers of the soul, R’n’B, doo-wop, girl-group, Brill Building and Motown that Laura adored growing up as a teenager in the Bronx is most definitely a collaboration, and Tom only actually owns a live album by Laura Nyro which features no LaBelle at all whatsoever, making this, I think, a record by a substantively different artist.

Anyway, quibbling aside, Gonna Take A Miracle is produced by Gamble & Huff, who are basically the architects of that sumptuous Philly soul sound, and it is lush (but not, note, overblown). Laura’s a good enough singer on her own, but backed up by Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash, as well as the formidable musicianship of Gamble & Huff’s session band, she becomes part of something absolutely formidable, and not a little bit gorgeous. It’s a record made by great musicians as a tribute to the great music they grew up with, and as such it’s full of love.

There’s not a great deal else to say about Gonna Take A Miracle; it’s soul music, and it’s fabulous. I don’t have a back story with it particularly – I bought it years and years ago after reading about its status as a bit of a lost classic. I might argue that it contains the definitive versions of “Jimmy Mack” and “Nowhere To Run”, but arguing about this music seems churlish to say the least. Just enjoy it.

Mitski – Puberty 2: round 93, Nick’s choice

Erika_12JKT EPS_r3Frankly I’ve become rubbish at writing since I had a kid; my free time has been eroded, and I’d rather spend it on a bicycle or hanging out watching TV with my wife rather than hunched over a laptop typing. Hence the tardiness in writing this post, and the brevity of some of my recent responses. I am sure that you, faithful reader, are feeling pangs of yearning for more verbose times . (Today is a good day to post this, however, as Wikipedia tells me that tomorrow is Mitski’s birthday.)

So then, Mitski. I’d never heard of her before this earlier this year, when I noticed Puberty 2 sitting near the top of the Metacritic top albums list. The last time I noticed a solo artists I’d never heard of before on there was St Vincent in 2009, so I figured she was worth a punt. And she is!

Puberty 2 is, basically, an indie rock record; there are guitars, and bass, and drums (along with [synthetic, I assume] trumpets, and keyboards, and stuff), and a woman singing about identity and heartbreak and dreams belonging. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done before, and many times, but Mitski does it very well: perhaps her half-Japanese, half-American heritage (“your mother wouldn’t approve / of how my mother raised me / but I do / I finally do”) offers a slightly different perspective; perhaps the fact that she studied music at university in New York state gives her a compositional edge. Perhaps we should ignore the ontology and just listen to the tunes?

There’s a definite 90s alt.rock aesthetic to a good chunk of Puberty 2: the crunchy guitars that aren’t afraid to reach a dynamic crescendo (get a load of the grinding, swooning climaxes in “Your Best American Girl”), and the distorted vocals that reveal emotional tension by masking it could be from 1996.

This is probably just cultural privilege and cliché, but Mitski‘s voice wasn’t what I expected either; it’s a much tougher, more strident vehicle, and reminds me of someone who I can’t quite place. (On the night Rob said, instantly, Angel Olsen, but at that point I’d never knowingly heard Angel Olsen, so it wasn’t her – though I’ve since bought her new record and there’s a definite similarity. Tom said St Vincent, but that didn’t scratch the itch either.)

Puberty 2 is incredibly hooky; this year it’s Mitski’s tunes that are buzzing around my head: from the gentle refrain of “I Bet On Losing Dogs” to the thrashy, discordant blasphemy of “My Body Is Made Of Crushed Little Stars” and the poppy rush of “Happy”. If I was 17 rather than 37 I think I’d be soaking this album in, playing it over and over again and using it as a scab and a balm and an exorcism. As it is I’m just appreciating it on some kind of artistic level, and faintly wishing I was 20 years younger.

I doubt the others can even remember it by now…

ANOHNI – Hopelessness: Round 92, Nick’s choice

a1895762218_10Hopelessness was one of my shortlist for the ‘no white men’ theme I set for the last meeting (which I then didn’t attend!). In the spirit of increasing the diversity of the artists we play at record club, and because I think it’s an excellent record, I thought I’d still play it.

Hopelessness is ANOHNI’s debut solo record after years fronting Anthony & The Johnsons, and there are kind of three concurrent narratives happening here. Firstly, that this is ANOHNI’s first album since transitioning, which oughtn’t to be a notable thing but is; her voice is so recognisable and familiar after more than a decade in the public eye that to suddenly switch names (how does one pronounce ANOHNI?) and gender pronouns requires you to consciously rewire your synapses briefly before new habits kick in. ANOHNI’s gender identity has been something she’s sung about explicitly for years and, even though it’s not mentioned lyrically here at all, it’s still front and centre, not least because of the records bold, eye-bending cover, which merges ANOHNI’s visage with (I’m pretty sure) that of Naomi Campbell, who has been ANOHNI’s avatar in recent videos and performances. The identity of the person singing these songs cannot be separated from their content.

Secondly, Hopelessness is an emphatic move away from the piano-led, chamber-pop aesthetic of Anthony & The Johnsons. ANOHNI calls upon Oneohtrixpointnever and Hudson Mohawk for production, which basically takes her voice and recontextualises it with a backing of cutting-edge, but very accessible, electronic arrangements. There’s something predictable (I don’t use the term pejoratively) about the way ANOHNI enunciates; you can almost tell just from reading the lyrics how certain words will be sung, and she’d perhaps done as much as she could with her voice within her former aesthetic. Transplanted to another sound world, she sounds fresh again, powerful and emotional.

Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially, Hopelessness is lyrically a protest record, and it pulls no punches in this regard; the subject matter is upfront and laid painfully bare, as ANOHNI takes on murderous foreign policy, environmental collapse, masculine violence, untrustworthy politicians, drone bombs, and more over the course of 11 songs. Mass graves, beheadings, pollution, false imprisonments, and torture are all mentioned explicitly; this is a long way from Thom Yorke’s wordless vowels of pseudo-political existential crisis.

How well does ANOHNI deal with these topics? Consensus is that Hopelessness is an amazing piece of work, musically and lyrically, and I agree, but it’s not unanimous: Tayyab Amin insightfully lays waste to opener “Drone Bomb Me” from a perspective that would never have struck me independently; he criticises ANOHNI, as a white woman, for appropriating the terror of drone bombs as experienced by people in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) and using it for almost trivial purposes; a ‘love’ song.

You could argue about who the narrative voice in the song is, but ANOHNI has explicitly stated that “it’s a love song from the perspective of a girl in Afghanistan, say a 9-year-old girl whose family’s been killed by a drone bomb. She is kind of looking up at the sky and she’s gotten herself to a place where she just wants to be killed by a drone bomb too.” I can see Tayyab’s point, but I’m also happy to invoke Barthes: the birth of the reader is at the expense of the death of the author, and for me “Drone Bomb Me” is incredible, and an admission of the complicity of the general populace of the US (etc) in such horrific tactics; we elect these people, we know what they’re doing, and we’re letting it happen without really trying to stop it. It’s also an attempt (however successful or clumsy you may feel it to be) to try and understand the terror and hopelessness of the victims. I don’t know of anyone else who’s trying to do that in a way as direct as this.

At points Hopelessness is almost funny, because the subject matter and imagery of these songs is so utterly bleak and harrowing that if you didn’t laugh you’d cry. “I wanna burn the sky / I wanna burn the breeze / I wanna see the animals die in the trees” she sings in “4 Degrees”, which uses dramatic, synthetic horns over programmed beats (which almost sound like Kate Bush’s “The Hounds of Love” as they enter) as a bed for ANOHNI’s voice. It’s searing.

“Watch Me” deals with surveillance culture – “watch me watching pornography / watch my medical history” – framing it, with bitterly direct sarcasm, as paternal care. The subject matter of “Execution” (“it’s an American dream”) is equally as evident just from the title. Throughout, ANOHNI expresses things from the victims’ point of view, while recognising the people who caused them to be victims, directly or indirectly.

Hopelessness offers no solutions to the horror it describes, but it describes these horrors so well that it profoundly expresses the hopelessness (sorry) that comes from pondering them too deeply. I much prefer it to anything Anthony & The Johnsons ever did, and I think there are perhaps two main reasons for that; firstly that it’s easier for me to empathise with these concerns (I directly share them) as a happily-married straight white cis male than it is with, for instance, “my lady story is one of breast amputation”, as much as I may be able to sympathise with that.

But mostly it’s because I think the arrangements are fabulous: Hopelessness works really well as just good pop music; richly textured, exciting, hooky and accessible. It’s over very quickly (less than 42 minutes) and it’s sonically most redolent of modern, programmed electronic post-r’n’b pop. That it’s using this accessibility to deliver a really harsh set of messages makes it really appealing to me; the old push-me, pull-you thing we’ve talked about a hundred times before. The juxtaposition of “Crisis”’ lyrics (“daughter / if I filled up your mass graves / and attacked your countries / under false premise / I’m sorry”) with the delicacy of the pointillist, repetitious electronic melody and, in particular, the shimmering, elevating beauty of the synth line that bursts through the song after three and a half minutes… well, it’s breath-taking.

Angry yet resigned; beautiful but terrible; daring and experimental; direct but complex; naïve yet sophisticated: on a creative level Hopelessness is clearly, to me, a significant achievement. The live shows (black silk facemasks, pre-recorded backing tracks, video screens of Naomi Campbell, ANOHNI facing away from the audience) seem to have been received in mixed terms, lots of admiration but little enjoyment; that can’t be said of the album, which is as pleasurable as it is harrowing.

It seems pertinent that closing track “Marrow” peters out quietly and suddenly, like it gave up trying to be a song anymore and just died. That’s hopelessness.

Steve listened: I found it to be more than a bit confrontational with its message, not pulling any punches. I was only recently discussing with someone about the lack at the moment of a good protest album, a reaction to current times, and here it is. The way he takes an almost devil’s advocate stance on the issues, getting you to see the futility (yes, hopelessness) of policies supporting bombing of innocents, climate change, surveillance makes a change from a right-on soapbox rant, or the sixth form politics of Radiohead.’Obama’ has an eerie tribal vibe to it. That felt quite sinister to me. We wondered at DRC if he’d heard it, and how it might make him feel. From the point of view of the audience (even if you’re not a drone bomber or Obama) I think it’s hard to enjoy this album at face value. It doesn’t let you do that with the directness of the lyrics. I just bought a copy (in the US) on vinyl. Safely tucked in my luggage I look forward to unwrapping and playing. I know it will make me uncomfortable but then a good protest album should do that.

Tom listened: I got the same feeling listening to Hopelessness as I did Hissing Fauna! ‘That’s ridiculous,’ I hear you say, ‘they’re chalk and cheese’. Of course, musically, they’re not that similar (although some parallels do exist). However, my experiences of both Of Montreal and Anthony (as I still can’t help but think of her) were formed at roughly the same point in time and it struck me whilst listening to both records that they are now on the cusp of harking back to a different era, that time has moved on. Obviously Anohni’s album has just been released, but her voice is so distinctive that, even though the music on Hopelessness is very different to that on I Am A Bird Now, I was still propelled instantly back in time to a point where what is current blurs into nostalgia.

I struggled with Hopelessness at first. Maybe for the reasons cited above (overexposure to Anthony in 2005 – Hope There’s Someone was everywhere at the time it seemed…apart from in Steve’s life!), maybe the subject matter, maybe it was too raw and emotive. But it grew on me as it went on and by the end I was more-or-less won over; I felt the songs in the latter half of the record were more understated and subtle but maybe I had just got used to the sound and themes of the record by then. An unexpected pleasure!

The Stone Roses – round 90, Nick’s choice

StonerosesSo Steve and I brought the same record to record club.

It was bound to happen eventually, and with hindsight now seems inevitable that it would be this record given that there are now two Mancunians of a certain age in our little club. Factor in our theme of “records from when your cement was still wet” and it was a recipe for duplication, even though it’s notably odd that we’ve never really talked about The Stone Roses at record club before.

But that’s OK, because I was 10 years old and living in Devon when this record came out, so my story is a little different to his. I first heard The Stone Roses through the wall from my older brother’s bedroom, and later as a teenager I felt a connection with this album (I’m hesitant to say this band after everything that followed) and the singles and b-sides around it like pretty much nothing else I’ve experienced as a music fan.

By the time I got to The Stone Roses the band were essentially no longer a going concern; friends saw them live in Exeter when they toured Second Coming but it wasn’t until a few months later, I think summer of 1995, that I really got bitten by them myself. And by then it was too late. Years and miles away from ‘baggy’ or ‘Madchester’ or whatever you want to call the scene that The Stone Roses germinated within, they were an abstract artefact to me.

With no prospect of new records by The Stone Roses themselves, or engagement with a local cultural movement happening around me, I went to the local record shop and ordered a copy of Ege Bamyasi instead, because I saw a reference to how “Fools Gold” sounded like “I’m So Green”. Detective work followed: The Byrds, Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Love, Simon & Garfunkel, Funkadelic, Public Enemy, etc etc; there was a lot to explore just from references in interviews and articles. Instead of accepting The Stone Roses as the be-all-and-end-all of music, I took it as a beginning, and it broadened my horizons immensely.

One of the key things about The Stone Roses for me is that it’s not really a ‘rock’ record; it swoons and sways rather than rocks. The postpunkiness that clattered through “Elephant Stone” had evolved into something different by the time they recorded the album. Take “Shoot You Down”; with its sashaying drums and delicate, supple guitar, it’s closer to jazz than to the sound of Oasis, who so many people seem to think of as The Stone Roses’ heirs.

So given that Steve had brought the same album, I played a handful of the tracks from Turns Into Stone, one of many Silvertone cash-in compilations taking advantage of their miniscule early discography, but one that I can’t begrudge because it’s magical, and I’ve listened to it as much as, if not more than, the actual debut album. I played from “Standing Here” through to “Fools Gold”, and then skipped on to “Something’s Burning”; this handful of tracks taken together are the closest thing to what an album recorded directly after “Fools Gold” might have sounded like. (That this potential record never got made is a musical tragedy as far as I’m concerned.)

The instrumental coda of “Where Angels Play” is so mellifluous it practically levitates before your ears, content to exist as music and be beautiful without making a fuss. There’s something you’d probably have to objectively call a guitar ‘solo’, but it’s a million miles away from the cockrocking nonsense Squire would inflict in later years. Likewise the guitar playing on “Standing Here” feels effortless and lightweight, from the opening distorted yowl to the constantly varying chops through the verses, and the beatific, sad-eyed coda. And I’ve not even mentioned the rhythm section; Mani and Reni are doing things on these songs that I’ve never heard another ‘rock’ band do, rolling, floating, and swaying. If other music exists that sounds like this, I’ve never found it.

Even “Simone”, which I believe is simply a portion of “Where Angels Play” spun backwards, looped, and played around with, lead me outwards to ambient music; I doubt I’d have as much love for Eno or Stars of the Lid if I hadn’t spent hours as a teenage trying to figure out what it meant or how it made me feel things despite doing basically nothing but oscillate gently for four minutes.

Which is why the new single, their first in 20+ years is so disappointing; that subtlety, control, and grace that I was obsessed with, and which I still adore on the rare occasions when I revisit it, has evaporated completely. It shouldn’t be a surprise; it had gone by Second Coming (though I still rate “Begging You” as a fabulous piece of music), and there’s no trace of it in The Seahorses, or any of Brown or Squire’s solo music.

I feel like I listen to and enjoy a completely different version of The Stone Roses to the incarnation of the band that other people hear; we’ve often talked at record club about how we often like the same records as each other but for quite radically different reasons, and this band are a definite case in point for me.

Tom listened: The Stone Roses are a funny one as far as I am concerned. Loved them at the time, bought the debut on its release (despite the lukewarm reception from both NME and John Peel – two of my early musical barometers), went to an early gig at The Leadmill just as it was all kicking off, listened to little else during the glorious summer of 1989. Then Fools Gold came along, as well as that other single I can’t remember the name of and, for me, the lustre was gone and what came before was tarnished beyond recognition. A bit like Dorothy pulling back the curtain, Fools Gold revealed the mechanisms, showed the cogs at work, was ponderous and plodding and I fell out of love, just like that.

Fast forward almost thirty years, having barely listened to their stuff since, and I feel a mixture of emotions. The songs, in the main, have not recaptured that initial magic; I Wanna Be Adored just makes me think of the risible brothers Gallagher, Made of Stone whiffs of straightforward indie rock as pilloried by Lou Barlow a couple of years later, Bye Bye Badman does nothing for me and I never really got the appeal of She Bangs The Drums in the first place. However, the rest of the album gave me a huge dose of warming nostalgia, took me back to those endless sunny days when I felt that I was witnessing something culturally significant. It was a good time to be in the north of England and, possibly precisely because I haven’t been regularly revisiting it, The Stone Roses took me back in a way that few albums I’ve listened to recently have.

Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear: Round 89, Nick’s choice

My first exposure to this record was hearing “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” on the radio in the car, sometime last summer. My immediate reaction was to exclaim “what the fuck is this shit?!”, so affronted was I by its easy-listening, 70s AM radio instrumentation and faintly creepy lyrics about pulling up someone’s wedding dress.

By the autumn, though, it was clear that the album it came from was going to garner oodles of end-of-year plaudits, and critical and friendly voices I trust were, by and large, singing its praises; some of them vehemently so. Emma and I were intrigued, so we bought a copy. First couple of listens; meh. 70s country-soft-rock with glittery shoulder pads, exactly the kind of retro bollocks I hate. But at some point we started playing it a lot, especially in the car, and it all began to fall in to place…

Josh Tillman, which is who Father John Misty is, was the drummer in Fleet Foxes for a while, and then recorded solo under the name J. Tillman. He released a handful of albums of self-consciously obscure and sincere singer-songwriter stuff, in the mould of Dennis Wilson or Nick Drake; ie. he deliberately wanted to be the kind of singer-songwriter who people only ‘get’ after they’re dead. Then one day it seems he had an epiphany of sorts on stage, when he realised that people were responding more to his between-song banter and shit-talk than to his songs.

The result of this epiphany? A new nom-de-plume and a new approach to being a musician, which both acknowledges and lampoons the methods and traditions of the singer-songwriter and the relationship between them and the audience, and, most importantly, them and their material. Some have described it as ironic distance, but for me it actually feels more honest; if this were theatre rather than music I’d say he was indirectly breaking the fourth wall. More on this later.

Anyway, despite initial misgivings, I now think I Love You, Honeybear is an amazing record, a document of the start of a relationship so honest, so warts-and-all, and so multi-faceted that I want to take it and rewrite the lyrics slightly so that it fits the early days of my own relationship, such is the emotional pull it has on me (aided, no doubt, by the fact that the object of the affections detailed has the same name as my wife). It makes me remember the heady, tumultuous, passionate times before mortgages and toddlers entered our lives, and it does it by being funny, caustic, cynical, weary, plaintive, self-aware, and so honest that it hurts.

The songs by and large eschew verse-chorus-verse structures, and instead move in a more creative fashion most of the time; which makes perfect sense, because both individually and as a whole they tell a story, albeit not entirely linearly; we start not quite at the beginning, and the very last words wind us back to a reminiscence of a first meeting. Occasionally there are refrains, but they tend to be melodic or instrumental; the lyrics seldom repeat, and the song structures are complex and rewarding, meaning that the album creeps up on you until its etched reams of itself into your cerebellum. Even the instrumentation, which made me shudder on first contact, is fabulous; more musicological minds than mine have described the songwriting and playing with awe.

Something which put me off I Love You, Honeybear initially was the overall presentation; the album title is horrible, the artwork is foul, the song titles make you wince (“When You’re Smiling And Astride Me”, eurgh). This is obviously deliberate; his albums as J. Tillman featured moody, black & white portraits of himself on the covers and song titles like “With Wolves”, “Visions Of A Troubled Mind”, and “Ribbons Of Glass”; in short they were boring, clichéd shit done a million times before by serious men in dark clothes with rhyming dictionaries and acoustic guitars. His new approach acknowledges the ridiculousness of being a musician, of the relationship between the singer and the songwriter and the singer and the audience. You could read it as disrespecting his audience, or you could read it as talking to them as intelligent people who can understand complexity. I favour the latter interpretation, obviously. The fact that he’s far more successful as Father John Misty than he ever was as J. Tillman suggests that people get it.

His Instagram feed furthers the approach by mocking the aesthetics of the role he assumes, but it also refers back to his songs. There’s a series of pictures of him in different locations – onstage performing; with Lana Del Rey in a very obviously posed and lit photoshoot; with groups of friends; standing in the middle of the road at night; behind the desk of The Late Show; in a livingroom full of colourful balloons; alone under a tree; with Thurston Moore’s arm around him – where, in every image, no matter who he’s with or what he’s doing, he’s glued to his smartphone, oblivious to what’s going on around him. The third song on I Love You, Honeybear is called “True Affection”, and is a very sincere appeal to talk “with the face” instead of through “all these strange devices”. The song is gorgeous and affecting; the photos juxtaposed with it are funny as hell.

One of the things that makes I Love You, Honeybear so rewarding is the shifting complexity of the emotional palette and lyrical perspective; it veers so often and so far in tone that unravelling the nuances is fascinating. There are straight-up jokes in the lyrics embedded alongside superficial nastiness and condescension, but there are also declarations of affection so deep and honest that they make my heart ache. Josh Tillman has been accused of misogyny, but the sentiments expressed are personal and specific, not generic, and balanced by self-deprecation and honesty. He’s listing things that bug him (and things that fascinate and bewitch him) about a single person, not an entire gender. And, frankly, the person he’s singing about seems to give as good as she gets, if not better.

There’s such attention to detail, such mundanity juxtaposed with such wonder, that it makes you wonder why more people don’t write lyrics like this; the conclusion is that they can’t. Often Tillman phrases things as if he was speaking directly to you, or writing for his own private need, rather than singing a song. Other lyricists sometimes seem to be trying to create new clichés, but he delves into specifics and similes in a way that completely eschews this. He’s not creating a new world, or abstracting this one; he’s chatting shit, being honest, making jokes to mask uncomfortable emotional truths, acknowledging the emotional barriers we put up. It goes beyond confession or candour into the often uncomfortable, complex, and sometimes irrational reality of actual human emotions, and it feels all the more affecting for it. He’s an asshole and a nice guy too, often at the same time, like most of us probably are.

The lyrics are so great, and so integral to my enjoyment of this record, that I thought about including loads of them here as examples. But, amazing as they are, they are lyrics still and not poetry, and removing them from the context of their musical accompaniment and vocal delivery shears them of a huge amount of their impact.

And what vocal delivery; I’m hesitant to talk about the nuance of this record again, but Tillman moves from a croon to a holler to a whisper so well, often in the same song; compare the engorged climax of “The Ideal Husband” to the lachrymose denouement of “I Went To The Store One Day”. It’s an amazing album to bellow along to as you drive; I nearly sang myself hoarse with it on repeat on a journey to Cornwall (which was silly, as I had to give a presentation when I got there).

And “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)”, the song I was so repulsed by on first hearing? I think it’s a masterpiece, one of the best songs I’ve ever heard. I genuinely can’t get enough of it.

Rob listened: This has been a favourite-in-waiting ever since I heard ‘Bored In The USA’ for the first time back in 2014. I had the same experience as Nick in hearing ‘Chateau Lobby’ without knowing who it was by, but the opposite reaction, falling in love with it before the second verse was done. The album proper took some time for me to get to know. As with Nick, getting it lodged in the car was the breakthrough, perhaps appropriately. Misty has the feeling of someone who could throw his battered suit carrier in the trunk of his car and disappear at any moment.

I recognise everything that Nick is saying above, but I don’t think it’s quite as unique or remarkable. Don’t misunderstand me, I think it’s great, and refreshingly nuanced and provocative. But to me this is a pretty standard literary approach to writing. Misty certainly does have ironic distance and Tillman is undeniably adopting a character and using him to say one thing whilst meaning another. He’s very skillful, lacerating at his best, and yes, he stands out because of the deftness with which he slips his stiletto between the ribs, seeking the heart. I think that’s less because he’s a genius (he’s not, he’s just very good) and more because we are used to most songwriters trying far less.

Tom listened: For some reason, I can’t help but compare Josh Tillman to John Grant…and, unfortunately, I have a problem with this association. My first exposure to John Grant was his Pale Green Ghosts album and I thoroughly enjoyed it initially. However, as I got to know it better I increasingly felt repulsed by it; the knowingness, bordering on smugness, of the lyrics had such a negative effect on me that I began to see that trait throughout the record – in the production values, the songwriting, the arrangements – to such an extent that I literally haven’t felt compelled to listen to it in years and I doubt I will again…at least, until Rob decides to bring it to record club! The odd thing is that 6music has recently had quite a lot of John Grant in spoken form (in interview or DJing shows) and I find him thoroughly likeable, engaging and modest!

Well…Father John Misty elicits the same feelings in me – he seems just too clever by half! I can admire the musicianship, some of the songs sounded truly beautiful, but I can’t shake the impression that every move is so deliberate, so considered that the soul has been all but sucked out of the music. Of course, I could just be experiencing what Nick felt when he first listened to the record and perhaps repeated exposure would reveal a compelling and addictive commentary on the human condition but I doubt whether I will stick around long enough to find out.

 

David Bowie – ★ (Blackstar): Round 88, Nick’s choice

DavidBowie★Well, we had to play at least one actual Bowie album, surely?

As usual I dithered on what to pick, only actually deciding on the evening (I took all the Bowie albums I owned in a rucksack). Having played Low at record club some time ago that was out, and my initial thought was to play 1. Outside, Bowie’s reunion with Eno from 1995.

1. Outside was the first Bowie album I ever heard, when my sixth form English teacher lent it to me a few months after it was released. 16-year-old me had no idea how to deal with 1. Outside, because it is a ridiculous conceptual mess, has too many songs, is about 25 minutes too long, has loads of ridiculous spoken-word character segues about ‘art-crime’ (wtf), and the mix is overstuffed with layers and ideas to the point of befuddlement and confusion on behalf of the already-conceptually-blindsided listener. 36-year-old me doesn’t really know how to deal with it any better.

That being said, many of the songs on 1. Outside are fantastic, and the music intriguing and creative; Bowie, Eno and their cabal of collaborators casually invent entire new genres at the drop of a hat (industrial jazz, anyone?). With some serious editing, it could have been one of Bowie’s very best records, but instead it’s perceived as an ambitious folly, and very dated. Not wanting to play the whole mess of an album, I compromised and played “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town” as an isolated track, because it’s very good.

Instead I played ★, because, well, it’s quite a talking point, for obvious reasons. I’ll spare you the contextual details – he’s dead, don’t you know – and instead say that, for me, ★ was the first contemporary Bowie record that I was interested in hearing. Pre-release chatter – Bowie’s recruited a jazz band and made a krautrock album! – made it sound like it would fall squarely in the Venn diagram sweetspot of my music taste, and so for the first time ever I intended to pick up a Bowie album on the day it was released.

I asked Emma to pick a copy up that Friday if she popped into town, but she didn’t, so she didn’t. I figured I might pop to Sainsburys after work and get a copy, but a footballing injury left me immobile for the weekend. And then I woke up on Monday morning and he’d died.

Which means that by the time I heard ★ I already knew the tragic context of its release, and was unable to listen without prejudice; it will always be the album he released two days before he died to me; it can never just be the new album by David Bowie. Which makes me a little sad, for several reasons.

Which is not to say that I’m in any doubt about the quality of Blackstar – the musicianship, songwriting, arrangements, and mixing are all pretty obviously excellent – I just wish I’d had a chance to form an opinion before the context was revealed.

What’s perhaps most surprising about ★ is how invigorated it is; “’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” and “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” in particular are powerfully driven, the new version of the latter almost sounding like Acoustic Ladyland’s frenzied modern jazz rock. It’s also incredibly forward thinking; you can tell it’s Bowie by his voice, obviously, but this is no exercise in retreading past glories – it’s another, final, reinvention, a new sound palette and aesthetic for someone who consistently explored new canvases and textures.

I didn’t pick up The Next Day until last weekend – at the time I wasn’t impressed by “Where Are We Now”, though I think it’s a lovely song now – but listening in hindsight it almost seems like Bowie was getting back in the saddle, working up to match fitness before the main event of this record, which I genuinely do think, even shorn of context, is as good as anything he’s ever done. That ★ is loaded with resonances it didn’t have for a couple of days after it was released just adds to its depth.

Rob listened: Nice to have a bit of Bowie for ‘Bowie Night’. I haven’t been following much of any discussion of Blackstar since Bowie died, but I guess like lots of people, it was the first of his records in living memory that I’d actually been approaching with interest as its release came around. I’d heard a couple of things about the discovery of the backing band and Tony Visconti describing how energetic the sessions had been. ‘Lazarus’ sounded great and an album featuring a reflective Bowie above some meaty, beaty, jazzy rock sounded like a pretty enticing prospect. And then he died and it suddenly never felt like the right time.

Since then I’ve gone back to ‘Scary Monsters’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’ and ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’ and dabbled with other bits and bobs and especially gone back to those two Iggy Pop albums from 1977, but Blackstar has remained untouchable, a live relic too radioactive with meaning and Bowie’s recent touch to be manhandled. There’s a great line in an American Music Club song, perhaps my favourite of all of theirs, where Mark Eitzel sings “I’m as priceless as a brass ring / that’s losing the heat from your hand…” and I guess that’s how I felt about Blackstar.

So, thanks to Nick for breaking the deadlock. I thought the album sounded pretty good. The opening title track is pleasingly bold, austere and epic, the band slowly unfurling beneath Bowie’s (frankly shot, but not in a bad way) vocals and once those ten minutes are done we’re off an running. ‘Lazarus’ seems likely to stand as a musical epitaph, and it’s a beautifully measured and weighty piece. Elsewhere it was pleasing to note that Bowie still couldn’t shed his love of the shifting, skittering shuffle of a drum and bass beat and there was plenty to get absorbed in across the seven tracks.

I don’t think it’s possible to objectively compare this to Bowie in his 1970s pomp, but it’s a fine record, one I think I’ll go back to, and in that, for me at least, it’s up there with his best.

Tom listened: ….a long time ago now! In fact, since then we’ve lost such a slew of other recording artists (and, only tonight, there are concerns about Sinead O’Connor’s well being) that Bowie’s death seems like quite a distant memory. My world has turned pretty purple of late but if I look back past my current obsession I was deeply invested by the passing of THE great 70s pop icon, not least by the manner in which he orchestrated his life right up to the bitter end. The video for Lazarus had me spellbound – the confluence of music, image and reality aligning to give that brief period of time (because, it seems, all periods of time are brief these days) a real atmosphere.

So, like Rob and Nick, I was intrigued to hear Blackstar…but, to be honest, I still had pretty low expectations. Bowie had released so much less than ecstatically received stuff since Tin Machine that even when reviews started to pick up again (around about the time of Heathen I think) I immediately assumed it was the Mojo/Dylan effect of some hoary old rock journos thinking that the new album might echo if not surpass past glories if they shout about it loudly enough…and all at the same time!

Well…I was wrong about that. Blackstar is magnificent!

 

Nick’s 2015 playlist: round 87

1. “The Charade” – D’Angelo
2. “King Kunta” – Kendrick Lamar
3. “Black Eunuch” – Algiers
4. “Accelerate” – Susanne Sundfør
5. “Feel You” – Julia Holter
6. “Realiti (Demo)” – Grimes
7. “Dot Net” – Battles
8. “Archer On The Beach” – Destroyer
9. “Nest” – Young Fathers
10. “A New Wave” – Sleater-Kinney
11. “Play Mass” – Sons of Kemet
12. “Peroration Six” – Floating Points

As 2015 draws to a close, we inevitably turn to our ‘best of the year’ choices. Having already played the two albums that would probably have been my singular choice (Four Tet and Polar Bear), and knowing that Graham had bought no new albums this year and Tom had bought not many, I thought I’d try and give a small overview of what I’d been listening to, so as to cover as many previously untouched bases as possible. The result? A 12-track, 50-minute-ish playlist, burnt on to a CDR like we used to do in the olden days, and then judiciously ignored because we were eating curry and talking over the top of it.

My mix for DRC is a close cousin of the playlist I put together for Exeter Record Club a couple of weeks ago, with things like Polar Bear and Mbongwana Star removed (because I had played the whole album here) and D’Angelo added (because I played the whole album there). I also took out a 12-minute Aphex Twin synth oscillation, because, though it’s very beautiful, it’s very long, and enabled me to get a couple of other tracks in instead, and thus cover more bases.

Oddly enough I started the playlist with something from 2014; D’Angelo’s magnificent “The Charade” from Black Messiah, which he dropped with about 36 hours’ notice almost exactly a year ago, and thus missed out on all the 2014 lists. Is it eligible for a 2015 mix or poll? Well it’s in a lot of them, but more importantly it’s amazing, so who cares. I’ve seen “All we wanted was a chance to talk / instead we got outlined in chalk” pitched as one of the best lyrics of the year; I’m not a lyrics person as a rule, but in terms of efficiency, impact, and message, I’m inclined to agree.

“The Charade” is the first of a trilogy of tracks from American artists who explicitly addressed the broiling civil rights issues facing the country through 2014 and, sadly, into 2015 (and beyond). I’m a white man from south west England, so “King Kunta” (enormous bass groove, echoes of p-funk) and “Black Eunuch” (scratchy guitars, handclaps, gospel) are most definitely not about me and the culture I live in, but I can recognise that they are powerful and compelling. And that they move hard and brilliant, albeit in three distinctly different ways.

I’m also not a Norwegian woman, but Susanne Sundfør is, and she made a fabulous album of emotional, diverse synthpop called Ten Love Songs, of which “Accelerate” is just one. Julia Holter, meanwhile, made an incredibly mannered album of precise, sophisticated art-pop – I found it harder to love than Loud City Song, but very easy to admire.

I found it easier to love Grimes’ music, even though I didn’t hear any of her 2015 output until last weekend, when the physical release of Art Angels finally hit the shops. The demo of “Realiti” strips back some of the overloaded (but enormously fun) production ideas and sonic touches of the rest of the album, and lets the tune shine. Similarly packed with hooks and ideas was the Battles album, which seems to have been ignored almost everywhere; if anything I enjoyed it more than their debut.

Destroyer originally released “Archer On The Beach” as a single about five years ago, and back then it was a basically Dan Bejar half-singing over some ambient backing provided by Tim Hecker. Re-recorded for Poison Season, it is a wonderful, subtle, slinking piece of pseudo-jazz. I’m disappointed, if not surprised, that Poison Season is getting none of the end-of-year plaudits that fell enthusiastically on Kaputt; for me it’s every bit as good, but it’s eclecticism and lack of over-arching schtick compared to its predecessor makes it less easy to mentally categorise and, thus, appreciate.

Young Fathers go a bit Motown on “Nest”, one of the loveliest songs I heard all year, before Sons of Kemet play some thoroughly modern-sounding, African-derived, dance-influenced jazz, with tuba, sax, and double drum kits. The only band I saw live this year: a great choice.

Somehow I missed out on noticing Floating Points until this year, despite his singles over the last few years all seemingly being right up my street, and him being mates with loads of other people whose music I love (Four Tet, Sons of Kemet, etc). “Peroration Six”, the closing track on his debut album, was the first thing I heard by him, and it practically took the back of my head off. Sadly the rest of the album isn’t quite as good – the middle third goes a little too Tangerine Dream – but this makes up for it; maybe my favourite track this year.

Rob listened: Well, the curry was pretty distracting… I loved the list. It’s always a wonder to see other people’s end of year lists, especially those that you might reasonably think will be quite similar to your own until it turns out they just aren’t. It’s an old saw by now, but Nick’s list also reminds me why I love record club so much. In the venn diagram of our tastes, the overlaps may be big in absolute terms, but they are still relatively small. We’re each out there in our own orbits, occasionally brining back messages from  other worlds.

So, we ignored much of this, but I remember some. the D’Angelo track sounded much more immediate and arresting than did ‘Voodoo’ when Nick dragged us through that a year or so ago. Enough for me to definitely want to go back and check out ‘Black Messiah’. I tarried with the Algiers record in the middle of the year, but found that I liked the concept better than the music. One I need to revisit. Susanne Sundfor sounded terrific and Grimes unrecognisable, as it turns out that Realiti is not on the vinyl version of the album. I disappointment, but a nice coincidence in the context of the meeting.

Battles sounded really charged. Amazing how this band seems to have completely disappeared from the radar. Fair enough, they haven’t really crossed my mind since 2007/08, which now sounds like my loss. Destroyer doing what Destroyer does is pretty good by my estimation.

‘Nest’ was the big revelation of the night. I haven’t really tried Young Fathers, probably having made some hopelessly false assumptions about what they would be. This track sounded really great, strong, scuzzy, motown rock with melody, urgency and nagging vocal hooks. Time for me to check them out, finally.

Sons of Kemet was great too. Floating Points kind of drifted by, but in it I could just about grasp the bits that would have lodged in Nick’s particular musical medulla. the album has recnetly topped the Resident Advisor poll of the year, and in their summary they specifically mention that the bits that didn’t seem to work initially absolutely come to form a major strength of the whole piece eventually, so, one for me to start out on and for Nick to persevere with.

Thanks Nick. Here’s to 2016.