Jim O’Rourke – Eureka: Round 12 – Tom’s Selection

There are many reasons why I love Devon Record Club. Amongst these is the fact that it has saved me a not inconsiderable sum of money this year – instead of rushing out and obtaining the latest flash-in-the-pan, I have gone back to my record collection and rediscovered/reappraised so many treasures I have either neglected, forgotten or failed to fully appreciate in the first place. I have gained so much enjoyment through doing this that I am beginning to wonder if I need any new music at all, which is surely in direct opposition to the point of being in a record club in the first place. Oh well…whatever.

Insignificance, Eureka’s immediate successor in the Jim O’Rourke discography definitely fell into the ‘wrongly neglected’ category; an album I have always greatly enjoyed but have rarely turned to in recent years. Eureka itself has always been, at least until the last few months, one of those records that I knew I was supposed to like but never ‘got’. Insignificance is a sparkly beast, crammed to bursting with hooks, riffs, dynamism and, to my mind, some of the most interesting, hilarious, devastating lyrics in modern music. The fact that Eureka and Insignificance look like two sides of the same coin (both bearing somewhat disturbing images by Japanese artist Mimiyo Tomozawa) underline O’Rourke’s desire to subvert and discombobulate. The records sound completely different and, with the benefit of hindsight, I reckon that it was the fact that Eureka wasn’t Insignificance Part II (I know this doesn’t make sense in chronological terms but I obtained Insignificance first) that had been blinding me to its magnificence for all these years. But in recent times and with fresh ears, Eureka has begun to occupy an increasingly prominent place on my turntable, and in my heart, so that when Nick announced that our next offering had to be from 1999, I found myself favouring Eureka over another of my most treasured albums, Gorky’s Zygotic Myncci’s ‘Spanish Dance Troupe’.

What makes Eureka so great? It’s hard to distill into words but, over and above the beautiful musicianship, skillful arrangements and glittering songcraft, is an overwhelming feeling that, to O’Rourke, the listener is there to be challenged and confused.  Take the final, seemingly throwaway track, Happy Holidays. On the face of it, this is just an afterthought tagged on the end of the album, acting as a coda. But on closer listening this is surely a paean to some of O’Rourke’s influences. In under two minutes the song shifts through four phases starting out as a Jeff Buckley strumalong, transitioning through some Robert Wyatt wailing into a bar or two of Todd Rungren before signing off with something resembling Craig Wedren from Shudder to Think. Blimey!

So, is he poking fun at the genres he is inhabiting so adeptly on Eureka or is this a work of reverence? Is his gorgeous cover of Bacharach’s Something Big asking us to laugh at the original or buy the back catalogue? Is his tongue firmly in his cheek…or not? I don’t think it’s possible to work out the answers to these questions by listening the album, but I love the fact that I am being made to think about it. It’s a difficult act to pull off (interestingly tonight’s offering from Nick, The Make-Up, elicited a similar discussion) but I personally feel that in Eureka O’Rourke has made exactly the album he wanted to make before he went into the studio and that part of his intention was to create a soundscape that would force these questions to be considered by the listener. Oh…and to make some bloody great music into the bargain!

Nick Listened: Tom’s back to bringing along records that I already own to DRC, which is very nice of him, except this one I have actually listened to, and quite a bit too. I’m quite a fan of O’Rourke’s work, whether’s it’s this era of his solo career or his contributions to Sonic Youth, Wilco, and Loose Fur, especially his attention to and care for sound and mixing. Eureeka was actually one of the first albums I thought of choosing for the 1999 theme, but I decided against it. Partly I decided against it because I much prefer its slightly more energised follow-up, 2001’s Insignificance, which I’ve listened too far more often in the last few years.

Hearing this again, for the first time in a long time, was great though. I’ve always loved the beatifically repeating and surreptitiously swelling opening track, but often found that after that my mind drifts off and I lose sense of the rest of the album; I’m aware of its loveliness but not its substance or content. The record club chatter wasn’t much help at making me absorb the rest of the LP, but talkig about and engaging with the record directly definitely helped, and Eureeka struck me, 12 years on from its release, as sounding like a really influential record – the likes of Sufjan Stevens feel like they might owe a debt to its textures, balance, and atmosphere.

Graham Listened: A hat-trick of albums that I had never heard was the reward for my failing to find anything from 1999 that I wanted to bring along for a listen (though not played, there  was nearly judge’s warning issued when my copy of the Chemical Brothers 1999’s Surrender was found in the cd case of  1997’s Dig Your Own Hole!). Anyway Tom’s choice vexed me a little. I really enjoyed the variety/songwriting/arrangements etc, but on the night felt that I needed to know where Mr O’rouke was coming from. I was struggling to get whether he was being coy/amusing/ironic/playful/serious with the style and variety of the album. Clearly my problem as perhaps I should have not worried and just listened, but there seemed to be something about the album that had me questioning the artist. Should have just sat back and enjoyed I suppose?

Rob listened: Jim O’Rourke sits somewhere in the middle of my list of artists I should know something about but don’t. He flits and floats about around some of my favourite bands and records but I’ve never bothered to investigate him properly. In discussion I was surprised to find that so many people (inside and outside DRC) are so realtively heavily invested in him. I loved the record as it played (I have heard it before i the background) and ‘Women of the World’ stuck around as head music for about a week afterwards. Picking out the references and pastiches was good fun too. Most of the records the DRC have been animated by have been those where the artist’s intent is far from clear, and this worked well in that regard.

The Chills – Brave Words: Round 11 – Tom’s Selection

Music is a particularly emotive art form. One only has to have a quick glance at (pretty much) any internet music forum to witness the degeneration of perfectly reasonable, considered discussions into personal attacks, name calling and one-upmanship. For a fragile soul these forums can be intimidating places to inhabit – I tend to read (‘lurk’ I  believe it is somewhat pejoratively referred to) relatively frequently, write very occasionally and despair at some point or other in almost every thread I follow! And the one thing that annoys me most of all is the categorical nature of many of the responses; the apparent lack of awareness that one’s appreciation of music is COMPLETELY subjective in nature (hmmm…a categorical statement that!), that there are no bad or good records, just ones you either like or don’t like. Maybe pussy-footing around with opinion makes for boring reading, but the most objective and balanced I’ve found so far (thanks to Nick) – I Love Music – does a pretty good job of keeping the chat amicable and relevant and, for my money, it’s all the better for it.

The reason for the above rant – The Chills 1987 album Brave Words. I almost wrote ‘masterpiece’ instead of ‘album’, but, to be honest, it’s not a masterpiece, at least not in the conventional sense. The music on Brave Words is not particularly innovative, the singing, at times, is pretty ropey, Mayo Thompson’s (of Red Krayola (in)fame) production is murky at best and the quality of the songs is uneven. To make matters even worse, my vinyl copy of Brave Words is just about as warped as a playable record can be, having on one occasion (many years ago) been left in the roasting July sun on my brother’s bedroom windowsill! So objectively, Brave Words is a pretty poor offering for DRC (I think Nick may well be agreeing with this statement in his response). Yet I love it so. More than any of my other offerings thus far…way more in fact – we’re talking top ten in my collection love here. And it’s a love that deepens with each new chapter of our relationship (ironically, The Chills have a song called Familiarity Breeds Contempt on Brave Word’s successor, the also excellent Submarine Bells).

I can clearly recall listening to Brave Words for the first time and being distinctly unimpressed. I can’t quite remember the sequence of events but I believe it was around the time I first discovered the wonders of Antipodean indie through the delights of The Go-Betweens’ Liberty Belle… and 16 Lover’s Lane albums. I was looking for more of the same, but found Brave Words to be ham-fisted, amateurish and, in places, unmelodic in comparison (this was before the lo-fi scene of the early 90s came along and made that sort of thing commonplace, if not revered). But, by the law of the opposite of diminishing returns, I found myself enjoying each subsequent listen that little bit more; almost as if ticking off each freshly conquered song, to the extent that eventually (and it took a fair while) I came to see all the various facets of the album as essential components of a magnificent whole. And once this point had been reached, other attributes began to reveal themselves – the warmth of the sound, the sense of place (we talked about this at the meeting) that the record evokes, the ebb and flow of the songs as they meander from jangle pop (Push, the unimpeachable Rain, the deeply confessional Wet Blanket) , to spiky Buzzcockian (?) power punk (Look for the Good in Others and They’ll See the Good in You), to swaggering indie groove funk (16 Heart-throbs), to eerie and graceful (The Night of Chill Blue). Like so many bands on the Flying Nun label, The Chills main protagonist, Martin Phillips, spent some time playing with The Clean and whilst their myriad offspring have gone on to produce a wealth of first class music, it is Phillips’ vision and talent that, for me, are the zenith of New Zealand indie’s embarrassment of riches.

Rob listened: I clearly recall the brief period on the late 80s when the UK music press went NZ crazy. I remember reading about The Chills, and ‘Submarine Bells’ in particular, and thinking that when I heard it it would blow my mind into tiny pieces which I would find imposible to fit back together. I heard ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’. It didn’t. It was interesting to hear Tom’s description of his dive towards the antipodean at that time, just about the time I was swerving towards the USA. Like much of the music we’ve discussed this year, The Chills and, presumably, their compadres, don’t sound like much on first listen, but give up their riches the more you get to know them. I can’t help but wonder if those riches were deliberately buried, or whether Martin Phillips and co just happened to build their little pop shack on a spot that concealed a seam of diamonds? By which I mean this sounds great to me.

Nick listened: I hate to be predictable, but I didn’t get much from this, to be honest; certainly not Tom’s strong sense of location (although I’ve never been to New Zealand, which may be why). I could hear why Martin Phillips would be unhappy with the production, but from one listen I couldn’t hear past the production, particularly, nor did I much want to try again. To be fair, the second half of the album did open up into something darker and more interesting, intriguing, which was a relief because the opening couple of songs left me baffled as to why Tom was enthusing about it so much. The good thing, though, is that previously I knew nothing about the New Zealand scene at all – not even that it existed – and now I do have a slightly peaked curiosity to investigate at some stage. Possibly the only thing holding me back is the language barrier, or lack of – there’s not quite the frisson of “otherness” here as there is for me with Germany or Brazil.

Graham Listened: Although I knew of the Chills and some of the NZ bands of the time I would have struggled to name a track of theirs. However, this took me right back to the days of 80’s jangle pop/rock in the UK and I really enjoyed it. Can’t say I picked up on any clear NZ references, aside from the general style of music that was evolving there and in the UK at the time. They’ll stay a secret, but I was inspired to go back and find some guilty pleasures from the period (now where are those Aztec Camera cassettes?), D’oh !

The Associates – Sulk – Round 10: Tom’s Selection

The late 80s and early 90s were a time of musical epiphany for me; not so much for the newly made music I was acquiring (although much of that was great) but more due to my realisation that, with an open mind and a bit of effort vast troves of undiscovered sonic treasure were lying in wait. I loved to pore over the music papers reading the band interviews intently, trying to determine the influences of my favourite new group, the albums they regarded as inspirational, and I soon realised that these albums tended to be much better than the record that was actually being plugged by the band in interview.

So, whilst I had a thing for Spacemen 3 at the time, the music they introduced me to through their interviews (Suicide, Television, Stooges, Can, Modern Lovers and many more)  has been played far more regularly in my household than, say, Recurring or Playing With Fire. The touchstones come in and out of fashion (I haven’t seen, for example, Starsailor or Astral Weeks referred to much in the last decade – two albums that were omnipresent in the British music press back at the turn of the 90s), but the weight of history is (almost) always a good judge of what constitutes a ‘classic’. However, the major music publications seem to have a frustrating tendency to gravitate to the canon – do we really need to be told that ‘Blonde on Blonde’ is a great album, yet again – so for the real gems, those wonderful records that have slipped into obscurity, I found the artists themselves to be a rich and surprisingly reliable source.

I can’t recall when I first became aware of Sulk (I don’t think it was through the Spacemen 3) but I do remember finding it on many occasions in second-hand record shops and walking on by, perhaps thinking that the last thing I needed in my collection was a load of sub-Duran New Romantic twaddle. It was also one of those records that appeared so frequently that I always thought to myself, ‘I’ll get it next time’. And then eventually it stopped turning up. And so I really wanted it. And I couldn’t find it! By the time I eventually secured a copy of Sulk, my levels of anticipation had become dangerously high, beyond that point where the outcome could normally be anything other than disappointment…at least that would be the case with most ‘ordinary’ records. But Sulk is anything but ordinary. Yet another ‘one off’ (they seem to be cropping up every meeting, these ‘one-offs’), Sulk is surely the weirdest, most challenging music ever to be referred to as ‘pop’. To echo my comments about Nick’s Rita Lee record from the last meeting, it is almost inconceivable these days that a record like Sulk could shift sufficient copies to reach number 10 in the album chart and stick around for 20 weeks.

The album itself is curiously put together, book-ended as it is by two instrumental tracks (‘Arrogance Gave Him Up’ and ‘nothingsomethingparticular’) – ironic considering Billy Mackenzie’s unimpeachable singing voice! Time hasn’t been as kind to these tracks and their reedy synths and tinny drumming, whilst nodding back to Bowie’s ‘Low’ and ‘Isi’ by Neu, in no way reflect the gargantuan complexity and thrilling innovation abundant throughout the album’s core. But as soon as the opener, Arrogance… finishes, it is clear things are going to be strange. ‘No’ begins with 30 seconds of unsettling guttural noise before erupting into a doom laden world of minor chords and ominous vocals that manage to sound both stately and otherwordly yet not crap (ie as in Goth). From thereon Mackenzie  is unrelenting, battering his audience with yelps and howls before suddenly diving into the depths of his remarkable four-octave range. The music is skittery yet magisterial, at times disorientating and always fascinating. To appropriate the words of one of my fellow DRC members Sulk is ‘one of my favourite albums ever’. Sub-Duran New Romantic twaddle this most certainly is not!

Nick listened: That opening paragraph, if you pushed the dates back a decade, could be something I would write, almost spookily so.

Anyway, once again Tom has chosen an album that I have owned for years but never listened to properly; I bought Sulk alongside Fourth Drawer Down probably six years ago or more, both albums together for a fiver or something, purely based on vague internet renown for the former album and Billy Mackenzie’s voice. Rob and Tom were insistent that I’d recognise Party Fears Two; I didn’t.

Sulk itself is, as suggested, a bizarre record: the drums seem too quick, too chaotic, for the songs; the synths and keyboards are somewhere between Bowie’s Berlin years and the worst 80s Miami Vice cheese, triggering cognitive dissonance regarding one’s taste; Mackenzie’s voice, and what he’s singing, are so flamboyant and strange as to seem avant-garde, yet we’re told this is pop? I think it’s only pop because it isn’t something else; pop by default.

Did I enjoy it? I was confused by it, which is a good sign, but I’m not sure what I thought of it yet. Like Pere Ubu, I’ve got the CD out of my racks and put it in a little pile mentally marked “to listen to soon”. Sadly I think Tom’s, and often Rob’s, choices suffer to my ears because of my antipathy to vinyl; that vinyl warmth that so many people love is like a veil over my ears on first listening, and I don’t feel like I’ve been able to hear the record properly a lot, especially if it’s in any less than terrific condition. I’m going to get teased for being a fidelity snob again…

Rob listened: Weirder than Nick’s Brazilian? Quite possibly. Either way, this is becoming a theme of the Club: records which either sound, or get filed as, ‘pop’ and turn out on revisiting, or closer listening, to be madder than a beach ball full of speeding frogs. I knew the two singles from ‘Sulk’ and ‘Party Fears Two’ is a fave, but hadn’t heard the album. It’s surprising. Had it been released in the last five years the critics would have been falling over themselves to praise its polyrhythmic precocity and we would assume The Associates were both wildly creative musicians and bulging-brained boffins. I haven’t looked back at the reviews, but I suspect back then they were just considered noisy Dundonians.

Anyhow, by far the major theme of the Club thus far has been the examination and revelation of how we listen to and discover music. Tom’s post and Nick’s response made me realise one of the key differences between their approaches and mine. Although in many ways we have ended up in the same places, amidst the hurly burly of discussion over the last 6 months, I’ve found myself wondering whether the way they seek music differs in some fundamental way to the way I do. Now I understand. When I read interviews, reviews and lists, and register the names of the bands and albums that have shaped the bands and albums that I love, I rarely, if ever, go looking for them. I’m never intrigued by a band’s advocacy of some long-lost obscurity whilst I am always irritated and dismayed when artists and articles talk about new bands they have discovered and of whom i’ve never heard. I love to read lists as much as they do, but when I scan them I do so looking for affirmation of the records I already have, rather than rare unseen names waiting to be learned and investigated.

I’ve thought a lot about this over the last couple of days and I could go on at even greater and more tedious length, but that’s what our meetings are for.

My Bloody Valentine – Isn’t Anything / You Made Me Realise EP – Round 9: Tom’s Selection

My Bloody Valentine. Well, it had to happen sooner or later! Seeing as I haven’t acquired an EP for a considerable time, Nick’s request for our 9th meeting seemed like an ideal opportunity to go back to one of my late 80s obsessions – MBV – and a time when I would readily snaffle up anything that the Melody Maker suggested was great, irrespective of format. As a result, my My Bloody Valentine collection currently has EPs outnumbering LPs and, I would guess, this situation is likely to remain as it is for a fair while yet!

Of the the three MBV EPs I own (You Made Me Realise, Glider and Tremelo)  the former is by far my favourite but then, let’s face it, it was made by a band at its peak. A controversial statement perhaps, but listen to the records!

Having played You Made Me Realise followed immediately by Isn’t Anything at DRC, I was surprised at how different they sound to each other. I bought the two records at the same time (in early 1990!) and always lumped them together as two sides of the same coin, perhaps viewing the You Made Me Realise EP as the leftovers of the Isn’t Anything sessions. Listening to the two records the other night however (for the first time together for well over a decade), it sounded obvious that the EP was MBV flexing their new found muscle, bending sound and experimenting with distortion over what are (with the exception of the still flabbergasting title track) essentially C86 jangle pop tunes of the type typical of their early EPs and the Ecstasy and Wine LP.

Isn’t Anything isn’t anything like anything else. The echoes of MBV’s past are much more distant and the band are fearless and excited, perhaps knowing that what they were producing was unique and essential. It all sounds totally instinctive and jaw-droppingly good and, whilst I can accept the argument that MBV would go on to make music just as beautiful in the future, they would never again sound so confident and natural.

It’s almost impossible these days to not make comparisons between Loveless and Isn’t Anything and maybe it was easier to appreciate Isn’t Anything for what it is at the time of its release, uncluttered by the substantial reputation of its successor. I remember being dumbfounded on first hearing Isn’t Anything. I remember being slightly bored on first hearing Loveless. I can appreciate that Loveless was a remarkable achievement, a coherent aesthetic statement that opened up new avenues of exploration for popular music but, to me, it sounded so considered, so polished. I missed Isn’t Anything’s visceral quality and its sense of ‘let’s get this moment nailed down before it’s lost forever’. My theory is that Kevin Shields was terrified of having to outdo Isn’t Anything and the direction he eventually went in with Loveless was of the head – Isn’t Anything sounds to me like a record that came from the heart.  And played loud with your undivided attention it still sounds incredible.

Rob asked who we thought their influences were at the time Isn’t Anything was recorded. We struggled to come up with anything at all. Isn’t Anything really does sound like a record that came out of nowhere, had its moment in the sun, and then skulked off to the shadow cast by its attention seeking younger sibling. One senses that this generally under-appreciated slab of avant-rock (?) will go on to have the last laugh yet!

Nick listened: Unsurprisingly I know both Isn’t Anything and (the title track of) You Made Me Realise very well indeed; having never found the EP on a reasonably-priced physical copy, though, I’ve only ever heard a couple of the other tracks, which were all I could find on P2P networks at decent bitrates, way back when I used to still use P2P networks (I stopped in 2005). You Made Me Realise still feels epochal, and hearing it via vinyl and big speakers for the first time was awesome; it’s always struck me as a shame, though, that the “holocaust” section isn’t strung-out longer on record like it reputedly is live (I’ve never seen MBV). The rest of the tracks, especially Slow, which I already knew, didn’t disappoint, but they did strike me as feeling slightly immature and unformed, like MBV were taking steps towards an aesthetic they had yet to fully master. This has struck me about some of the other EP tracks I’ve heard from this era, too; many of them don’t seem as finished as the tracks that ended up the two legendary LPs.

It was the first time I’d heard Isn’t Anything in full for probably several years, and it’s still an awesome, bizarre record; it feels like it’s built out of Lego, constituent parts stuck together; like the bass runs and feedback squalls of Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside), which feel disjointed, like different parts of different songs, but which somehow work together. There’s a physicality, a bass, a drive, to Isn’t Anything which I think, on some days, makes me feel it’s a better record than Loveless, which can feel one dimensional and rhythmically staid at times. Isn’t Anything is no less rhythmically staid, but that physical dimension adds an enticing brutality.

Rob listened: My Bloody Valentine are one of those bands I like/admire/listen to without ever having obsessed over. ‘You Made Me Realise’ was a highlight of Students’ Union indie nights when I was at my shambling dancefloor peak and I bought ‘Isn’t Anything’ on the strength of that one still staggering song. It’s hard to think of any other track which smashes together the propulsive drive of rock music with the bliss and freedom of sheer noise, harnessing the best of both breeds and producing something completely new. Still amazing.

The album I never really immersed myself in. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that I remembered the details of most of the tracks, even if I would have struggled to name them if pressed. Like Nick, I think this is the first time i’ve listened to the record on a proper set-up. When I bought it I had a turntable with built in speaker which, one assumes, is not what Kevin Shields had in mind for the first of his two master statements. It sounded terrific. Like the others, i’ve never really connected with ‘Loveless’. Too hard to lurch about flopping your fringe to, and that’s where MBV and I really hit it off.

Pere Ubu – The Modern Dance (& Ice Cream Truck) – Round 8: Tom’s Selection

The premise: An album and a track by the same artist that has at least ten years between them. We spend a lot of time at DRC talking about artistic development over time. I thought it would be interesting to make this the focus of the meeting, to hear it rather than just talk about it.

For some reason I agonised over this selection more than any other since we’ve been meeting. I had narrowed my choice down to about four different artists and plumped for Pere Ubu in the end as their development through the late 70s and 80s is particularly interesting. However, the choice of album also led to much deliberation – should I opt for Dub Housing, the band’s mind-blowing but hugely difficult second album, or the (slightly) more immediate, straightforward pleasures (a word that can not really be used when considering Dub Housing) of the 1978 debut – The Modern Dance? Well, in the event, The Modern Dance prevailed – its hooks and more conventional sounds and structures are easier to digest in a single sitting yet it still sounds vital and innovative after nearly 35 years! How is that?

Well, I put much of it down to Beefheart. To me, a considerable proportion of the music that has dated badly over the decades has been very easy to pigeonhole, to place within a scene (think psychedelia, punk, prog-rock, glam, new romantics, shoe-gaze, Britpop, Madchester etc). Despite inevitably having a bright start, usually spearheaded by a groundbreaking album or two, as we all know it doesn’t take long for the chancers and talentless to hop aboard and before you know it much of the music that exists within a scene seems to lack soul (as in artistic integrity); the music is no longer coming from the heart but heading to the pocket. And all the detritus that the scene attracts starts to devalue the very stuff that made it so vibrant and exciting in the first place. The sounds of the scene become ubiquitous to the point of tedium so that when you go back to the source, to that cherished album that once sounded so fresh and unique, it no longer sounds like the record you once thought it was. It just sounds dated.

Anyway, getting back to Beefheart. Love him (Rob, me) or not (Nick, philistines), there is no denying that he was one of popular music’s great innovators, totally out there on his own, making music unlike any that had been made before (on the whole) and unlikely to ever be replicated. There are not, to my knowledge, many Captain Beefheart tribute bands around! Fascinatingly, not one of the scenes listed above could be said to have been remotely influenced by him and the music that he produced on the majority of his albums is pretty much impossible to categorize. It seems that those who have been influenced by Beefheart tend to inherit his ability to produce art that is timeless. It’s probably partly due to the fact that it will, by definition, be challenging music that is too difficult for your average jobbing musician out for a fast buck to appropriate. So these bands plunder a rich seam, only accessible to the talented and/or visionary.

The Modern Dance, by taking elements of Captain Beefheart’s sound and approach to making music (the yelped vocals, the unexpected twists and turns in song structure, the brevity yet complexity – we’re not talking Pink Flag era Wire here – of the songs themselves) sounds to me like it could have been made yesterday, 35 years ago…or any time in between. Because there isn’t really anything else like it. It’s an amazing record, one that gets better with each subsequent outing and one that sets a consistently high bar from the initial nails across the blackboard wake up screech of Non-Alignment Pact to the aggressive hands claps, warbly organ  and ‘It’s just a joke man’ refrain of Humor Me. I love it!

Which makes 1988’s Cloudland album so fascinating. I’ve given this record a good few chances over the years and each time I’ve gone back to it, I’ve expected to discover it wasn’t the album I thought it was. Yet, having dug it out again for DRC, it still sounds as awful as ever to my ears. The production on the album is turgid 80s rock at its worst, the songs are linear and predictable, the band sound forced and tired, the magic has gone. Although 10 years younger, Cloudland sounds dated in a way The Modern Dance (and Dub Housing for that matter) don’t and although we played Ice Cream Truck, it was a random choice (Nick selected it for us) and any one of the other tracks on the album could have been used to illustrate the fact just as effectively.

In researching the two records for the meeting, I discovered that Cloudland was the result of the record company’s desire for them to make a ‘pop’ record. It made me think of a similar situation that had occurred 14 years previously when the great visionary artist of his time tried to produce an album that was dictated by his pocket, not his heart. The album was Bluejeans and Moonbeams and the artist – Captain Beefheart!

Rob listened: As a teenager, discovering and falling for PiL, The Fall and Joy Division, Pere Ubu were always there in the background, mentioned obliquely in reviews of other bands, apparently occupying a space somewhere in the same orbit as a bunch of bands I loved. I never went there. I guess I didn’t know where to start and had no-one to tell me. Then last year when Nick guested on ‘Strangely Strange but Oddly Normal’ on Phonic FM host Mark Armitage played a Pere Ubu track on which my wife commented: “this is the sort of racket you’d like”. She was right. I liked this on it’s own merits, and also because despite its idiosyncrasies I could hear through-lines from Can and Beefheart via Talking Heads and Wire to The Fall and Sonic Youth. I suspect that ‘Dub Housing’, if it’s an unhinged as Tom suggests, might be even more up my alley.

Nick listened: This was the first week where I owned every record played at DRC, even if I’d never actually played either of the choices that Rob and Tom brought along. Pere Ubu I never played because… well, I don’t know. I picked up this, and Dub Housing, years ago on the strength of the name-check in Losing My Edge by LCD Soundsystem; I found them cheap and it seemed silly not to stockpile them for later listening. I thing I put on Dub Housing first. Maybe I was expecting King Tubby. It was enough to make me not put on The Modern Dance, even after Mark played it when I guested on his radio show. When Tom played me the whole thing, though… well, it’ll get played soon. Now’s the time.

tUnE-yArDs – Whokill – Round 7:Tom’s Choice

For our 7th (!) time around, I chose Whokill by the band with the most annoying name to type in the history of rock music. I chose it because it is a remarkable record.

I suppose that if a relationship with a record is a bit like a relationship with a person, Whokill and me are in our first flush of love, where we can not wait to re-acquaint ourselves, to spend a little ‘quality’ time together. Most of my other choices for DRC are much longer in the tooth, resembling a couple approaching their ruby anniversary – we respect each other, we have our many good days and the occasional bad day, we know when to give each other space but we’re there for each other in our time of need. Will Whokill ever get beyond first base?….Only time will tell, but at the moment things are looking good (and writing this inane drivel has made me realise that owning a record collection is a bit like being a Mormon. Maybe I should move to Salt Lake City and be done with it). I literally can not wait to slap it on the turntable and lose myself in its myriad sounds and ideas. And it needs to be played loud – as in LOUD. This is no shrinking violet!

The last time I felt this way about a record was when I first put the needle to Actor – St Vincent’s amazing 2009 offering. Although sounding nothing alike, the two albums share much common ground. Both are supremely confident records, both unpredictable and surprising and both attempt (and succeed?) to be something that is unlike anything else that has ever been recorded. Which is easy if you’re happy to hit a badger over the head with a croquet mallet whilst stamping in a vat of blancmange, but is more of a challenge if the aim is to make a coherent, listenable and enjoyable album. In my opinion, both of these artists pull this off magnificently.

But whereas Annie Clark’s album has sweet tunes sung by a sweet voice in abundance – admittedly most have been skewered at some point or other – Whokill is possibly harder to pin down. Funky baselines accompany clatter and clutter and a holler that is unlike anything you’ve heard before. In the course of one song, Merrill Garbus’ voice can veer from an (only slightly) female version of Shaggy (the reggae star not the slacker cartoon character – now, that WOULD be something), to a guttural, unnerving roar, to a voice of almost Ella Fitzgeraldlike purity. It really is remarkable.

Whokill is an unusual album as it starts with three of its most awkward, challenging songs – My Country, Es So and Gangsta. Get through these exhilarating offerings and you’re rewarded with one of the albums warmest and most accessible cuts – Powa (described by Nick as ‘almost like a torch song’). Side two of the vinyl is simply stunning – the single, Bizness, is a highlight but, for me, the following two tracks (Doorstep and You Yes You) reach even higher peaks. The album takes an unexpected change of pace and texture on the lullaby Wooly Wolly Gong and then signs off with the typically choatic Killa.

Rob will no doubt want to expand on this (as it was his observation) but Whokill is a bit like an inverse of Bitte Orca by Dirty Projectors. The albums have similarities in terms of their sound but Bitte Orca’s pop sensibilities tend to be hidden deep within its tangential song structures and crazily altering time signatures. It takes a bit of work. Whokill comprises of what are, essentially, ten pop songs which have been smashed to pieces, liquidized, but are still pop songs at heart. It is a truly remarkable record, one that it would be very hard not to have an opinion about, and that has to be a good thing.

Nick listened: I’m undecided regarding what I thought of tUnE-yArDs, beyond the fact that I will only ever copy&paste their name and never faff around typing it ‘properly’ myself. It veered wildly from crazy, multi-directional, non-linear collage-esque sonics (with vocals just as erratic), to much more straightforward blues & soul style songs (sung in a straightforward blues & soul style way – I asked if Merrill was black, although i didn’t expect her to be), seemingly front-loading the oddest three numbers and then (almost) evening out into more placid territory afterwards. I’m aware it’s garnering rave reviews, but I suspect it’s the type of record that needs to be picked-apart to a degree and absorbed rather than fallen in love with straight away. But who knows? People are different.

It reminded me of lots of different things: the Micachu album from 2009; Beck circa Odelay; various blues singers and songs. It didn’t particularly, and thankfully, remind me of Dirty Projectors (I’m really not keen on Bitte Orca). It didn’t really remind me of Actor by St Vincent either though, which is a shame, because I love that record to bits. I felt like it would take me multiple exposures to get to grips with Who Kill, and I wasn’t sure the payoff would be worth the effort.

Rob listened: This was the second time I’d heard the album. I really enjoyed it. Particularly intrigued by her voice which seemed belt out the tunes whilst being weirdly difficult to get a handle on.

Albums which need work to get to know tend have to take their chances with me. Whereas Tom listens 6 times to anything before he’s happy to pass judgement, i’m perfectly happy to be wooed first time around. As Tom has mentioned, ‘Whokill’ seemed to me great avant-garde pop with strange undercurrents, rather than an initially difficult record which slowly reveals pure pop beneath the surface, like ‘Bitte Orca’. I have a feeling, from the way it’s being written about, that this will be top three in lots of end of year lists

The Feelies – Crazy Rhythms – Round 6: Tom’s Choice

Every so often something comes along that opens up a whole new set of listening possibilities, revealing a trove of music that had, up to that point, remained hidden or obscured. In the past John Peel, The Melody Maker and, dare I say it, Pitchforkmedia (as it was then) have all had a significant impact on my musical horizons and have introduced me to countless recording artists: some good, some bad and some downright ugly…but mostly good. At roughly the turn of the millennium, I purchased The Spin Alternative Record Guide and, for a while, this became my bible. I liked the way it was so confidently written even if, at times, it seemed to be deliberately willful. I liked that it wasn’t afraid to give ’10’s in its reviews. And I particularly liked the fact that it was crammed full of albums, even artists, that I hadn’t heard of before. My appetite was well and truly whetted and I scoured the local – and not so local – record shops looking for some of those lost jigsaw pieces. I picked up some great records in this time: Wild Gift by X, The Roches’ first album, some Pere Ubu classics, The Mekons’ Rock ‘n Roll, Compilation by The Clean, DB’s Stands for Decibels, most of Elvis Costello’s early records. It was an exciting time. I also managed to find Crazy Rhythms by The Feelies.

Crazy Rhythms is a great record, of its time but still fresh today. It’s one of those records which heralds a new beginning, using what has come before it but moulding it into new sounds and shapes. So, whilst echoes of The Modern Lovers, The VU, Can and Talking Heads can be heard loud and clear throughout this album, the band have a vision that is very much its own and are just using elements of their influences’ music to realise it. Each song is a single groove, no verse-chorus-verse predictability here, and structurally they remind me most of miniature versions of Halleluwah, Can’s epic groove fest. But where as Halleluwah is a sprawling, primal monster, The Feelies’ efforts are tight and spiky.

The album kicks off with a minute of barely audible percussion (the studio equivalent of the sound of a stalactite dripping onto the floor of a cave) that is joined, from way off in the distance, by a buzzing electric guitar that grows and grows and grows so that by the time the beat kicks in, the listener surely has no idea what is coming next. It is as thrilling a start to an album as any (hell, Nick had declared before the first song was out that he was going to buy the record!) and a great statement of intent. If it still sounds amazing in 2011, imagine how it must have felt to have chanced upon this album back in 1980! The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness (the album’s opener) sets the tone for the record, but its peaks are equalled, if not surpassed, by what comes later: Loveless Love, Moscow Nights, Crazy Rhythms itself, all blinding tracks that swell from quiet beginnings to huge, unpredictable grooves. Both Rob and Nick commented on the speed of the playing (fast!) and the unusual structures of the songs.

The Feelies took six years to produce the follow up album; I don’t own it and I don’t feel I need to. Crazy Rhythms is nigh on perfect!

PS…if the person who I lent my copy of the Spin book still has it and is reading this…can I have it back!

PPS…DRC Coincidence of The Fortnight The Spin Alternative Record Guide has their top 100 alternative albums listed. In the list Crazy Rhythms comes in at number 49, Another Green World at number 50. It’s nice to know that my choice was slightly better than Nick’s!

Rob listened: Another thoroughly pleasant shock. Expected this to sound like They Might Be Giants, based only on the observations that they look EXACTLY LIKE THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS. Instead it’s like a thriving cross between Bow Wow Wow, Talking Heads and Neu!. That’s pretty good in my book. Loved the sheer speed of it – boy these guys played fast – and loved the utter disrespect for song structure, replacing verse-chorus-verse with halfverse-extended groove-halfdifferentverse. I confess that once I’d got my head around the approach, I found the second side a little more repetitive, but that would probably open up with repeated listens. As this was released in 1980 it can nestle safely on my shopping list.

Nick listened: As insinuated in Tom’s post, I got along VERY well with this. I’ve only very vaguely even heard of The Feelies, and had no idea what they might sound like. I think I expected something jokey and New Wave, based on the cover (and the fact that Weezer pretty shamelessly ripped it off) and the year of release; to actually be confronted by a load of elongated, elastic, jittery grooves, more in common with CAN than Elvis Costello, was delicious. Like Rob I loved the speed of it too; I remember being told that it was harder to play slow than to play fast, especially when it comes to drums, but I’m glad that The Feelies didn’t feel the need to try and prove that. Something about it reminded me of really early Byrds, too; the energy and pace of stuff like Feel A Whole Lot Better, perhaps. I’ll be buying this when I get back from holiday in June and have some disposable income again.

Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo – Round 5: Tom’s Choice

In typical teacher fashion I set my charges a homework and then neglect to do it myself! A vinyl copy of my new purchase coupled with a week in a caravan in North Wales has not been conducive to completing the required six listens since the meeting (I have probably managed about four) but I have begun to grow into the record and it has started to reveal its secrets with each subsequent listen. My relationship with Kurt Vile’s latest album is now at the stage where I know the songs well enough to recognise the occasional motif/melody/riff, have a sense of the running order of the songs (so that I can anticipate the sound of the next song before it appears) but I am still a long way from making sense of the record as a whole. To me, this sounds like an exciting and interesting album, more enticing, perhaps, than his last release (2009’s Childish Prodigy). It has a breadth of style that the previous album lacked and a poppier side to Vile’s songwriting is revealed in songs like ‘Baby’s Arms’ and ‘Runner Ups’. Vile’s voice is instantly recognisable and at times reminds me of an authentic version of Bobby Gillespie’s somewhat affected Southern drawl. It is also pivotal. Replace his singing with a more anonymous vocal and the effect of the album would be very different – there is no doubt that Smoke Ring For My Halo (the title kind of gives it away) needs to be delivered by a voice that has lived the songs. In my mind, no matter how pretty the tune – and some of them are surprisingly pretty – Beiber would struggle to pull off the cover version! My current thinking is that this album could be special but could just as easily fade away into the background of my collection.

My reasons for setting the condition of bringing a ‘first-listen’ album to this meeting centre on my frequent inability to make accurate judgments of a record’s quality on first listen, something that the format of the club requires on (often) two listens a session. I am amazed at how difficult I still find this, having been through the process thousands (if not tens of thousands) of times. So I thought it would be interesting to document the process of getting to know an album from scratch to see how the listener’s relationship with the album develops with familiarity. During the meeting itself I felt a little disappointed with my choice. Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse sounded to me to be one of his very best (and that’s saying something) and Zaireeka was more like a religious experience than a record! So poor old Kurt Vile never really stood much of a chance; I truly believe nothing can measure up to the sound of Zaireeka and Apocalypse’s twists and turns made Smoke Ring For My Halo seem a little linear and predictable. But maybe the comparison is unfair, perhaps a little like comparing Citizen Kane to Inception 3D or something (note, I am not saying that SRFMH is the musical equivalent of Citizen Kane). However, as I have subsequently listened to SRFMH, the gap has closed, Zaireeka’s sonic assault has faded (although I am not sure the neighbours would necessarily agree) and Kurt Vile’s songs have revealed a complexity and warmth that was not evident to me on first listen. God knows how the professional reviewers ever reach a decision when having to award stars to records!

I am going to buy Apocalypse, I am going to carry on listening to SRFMH and I will return to update this post when I have got to know both albums properly*.

* Zaireeka is obviously going to have to wait.

Nick listened: I feel amazingly sorry for Kurt Vile, because I can remember almost nothing about this record given what followed at this session: Zaireeka blew everything else out of the water, and while I’ve listened to the Callahan a few times since, I’ve had neither chance nor inclination to revisit this. I was expecting it to be more gnarly, more noisy, but instead can only recall it being pleasant if nondescript alt.country. Sorry Tom, sorry Kurt!

Wildbirds & Peacedrums – ‘The Snake’ – Round 4: Tom’s Choice

A strange thing happened to me at 2009’s End of the Road Festival. I’ll come clean – festivals and me generally don’t get on. Too many people, too much squalor. Unpleasant toilets, too many people. Back pain from standing up too long, lukewarm reception for your favourite band because most people in the crowd have never heard of them, too many people…I could go on.  EotR 2009, however, worked in every respect; the sun shone, the site was clean…hell…even the toilets were OK! Best of all were a slew of bands that put on performances that were just too good for anyone to ignore – The Tallest Man on Earth, The Low Anthem, Dodos, Okkervil, Dirty Projectors, Josh T Pearson. Possibly the best of the lot were Wildbirds & Peacedrums. My brother-in-law and I, bored by whatever was on the main stage, speculatively wandered over to the tent and caught the last song and a half of what was evidently quite an event. On stage: a man, a woman, plenty of hair and a drum. And you couldn’t take your eyes off them! In twenty five years of regular gig going I don’t think I can recall a band play with such intensity and abandon, so completely lost in their music and channeling so effectively every last joule of energy they could muster into the crowd. Martyn and I knew immediately that we had just more-or-less missed something quite spectacular and felt simultaneously disappointed and privileged.

That was that until about six months ago when I ventured into the excellent Drift record shop in Totnes and, flicking through the vinyl, came across The Snake. I very much doubt that I would own this record if I solely purchased music from the internet – although the gig(let) had been amazing, I had dismissed the band as being a wonderful live act who probably disappointed when trying to reproduce their sound in the studio. But it seemed a little like fate that the record was there, in non-virtual form, in a little independent record shop in rural Devon. The guy behind the counter certainly seemed pleased with my acquisition and I left the shop curious and strangely confident that this was money well spent.

Wildbirds & Peacedrums are married couple Mariam Wallentin and Andreas Werliin. They hail from Sweden. There must be something in the water over there. Education, welfare state, high taxes, equality, dark nights, northern lights…whatever it is, they’re doing something right if their music scene is anything to go by. Wildbirds & Peacedrums are yet another special Swedish band. But a national proliferation of talent and quality in no way detracts from the consistent excellence of The Snake. I suppose the album’s closest Swedish cousin would be The Knife’s Silent Shout but whereas that record sounded glacial and sinister, The Snake is visceral, energetic at times, and has a much warmer heart. Although the drums take centre stage, the closer one listens the more one hears – these are complex songs with subtleties that reveal themselves with time. To be honest, I don’t really know what compelled me to take the album to DRC as I had never really intently listened to it before. This is evidently not an album to have on in the background as you attempt to wash up whilst your daughter asks you about her maths homework and your son is making farting noises on his forearm. It took an evening of proper listening round at Nick’s place for The Snake to reveal its true quality to me and now I am going to have to go and rewrite my bloody Best of the Decade list!

Rob listened: I found in ‘The Snake’ some of the cold distance and alien-ness that the others ascribed to ‘Hidden’. It’s great to hear a band taking spare ingredients and hammering something new out of them. We talked and thought about Morphine, Low and ‘Sung Tongs’ as similar examples of instrumental restriction driving either wild invention or pure distillation. It’s intriguing also to hear this and find parallels with some of the other remarkable music coming from Sweden over the last decade. This lady came most easily to mind. I missed Wildbirds and Peacedrums at the End of the Road. I was probably off watching Fleet Foxes with the masses. Whilst I didn’t have enough of a chance to get a real grip of their spooky-forest drum folk tonight, I found what I heard thrilling.

Nick listened: I had never heard of Wildbirds & Peacedrums before, which is unsurprising I suppose given how Tom discovered them; it seems like a certain amount of happenstance was required. I find it intriguing that Rob found this to be spooky and These New Puritans to be “enveloping, groovy, and fun”, because The Snake, on first listen, seemed to me to be a warmer, friendlier, less aggressive take on percussion-driven alternative-to-something than These New Puritans, certainly in terms of pure sound; the drums which drive this album while just as naturally-mixed as those on Hidden are so much less overwhelming and oppressive. Beyond that, the music reminded me a little of The Dø, a French indiepop duo, but more abstract and less song-based. I didn’t like The Snake enough to rush out and buy my own copy (heaven knows where I’d find it other than online anyway), but I will try and borrow it when we meet next at Tom’s gaff (now that I have relented and left my record player out all the time) so I can get to know it better.

dEUS – ‘In A Bar, Under The Sea’ – Round 3: Tom’s Choice

I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed. Having excitedly revealed my chosen album for DRC and expecting the other members to have been intrigued and curious to hear a band they had heard of but not heard, it did not augur well to find that Rob had consigned dEUS to his (admittedly vast) ‘loft collection’ and Nick ‘thought he owned it, or was it the other one by them?’.

But by the time the scratchy, tinny opening gambit ‘I Don’t Mind Whatever Happens’ had segued into the effervescent call and response funk-groove of ‘Fell on the Floor, Man’ I knew that, no matter how disparaging the views of my fellow club members, I would remain unmoved in my conviction that ‘In a Bar…’ represents a high water mark of mid 90s kitchen sink indie, to be ranked alongside Pavement’s Wowee Zowee and Alien Lanes by Guided by Voices. Although these three albums sound markedly different, there is much that binds them…a playfulness and eclecticism that resembles a 5 year old with ADHD having just eaten a bumper pack of Haribo, surreal lyrics that do not bear close scrutiny but have occasional glimpses of genius, seemingly throwaway tracks that, in time, turn out to be pivotal to the ebb and flow of the listening experience. One thing that can not be argued with is ‘In a Bar…’s ability to surprise. If you think you know what’s coming next, you’re wrong. This is not a simple matter of having no two consecutive tracks that sound alike; no two of the fifteen tracks on the record are remotely similar. As a mathematician, I would be intrigued to determine the probability of this occurring without producing a cacophonous, incoherent mess. ‘Slim’ would be my guess!

dEUS are obviously music lovers and in thrall to their influences. However, this record is very much their own and whilst echoes of Waits, Sonic Youth and the Velvets can be heard at times, this is no pale facsimile. The fact that ex-magic band member Eric Feldman produced this album speaks volumes, not only because (at times) the record borrows elements of the good captain’s songbook, it also shares his adventurous, envelope pushing aesthetic. From the indie-tuba led ‘Theme from Turnpike’ to the apparently seamless transformation of the classic ‘Little Arithmetics’ from breezy indie-pop to guitar maelstrom, nothing is predictable or misses its mark. Yet, I would argue that the album is not a difficult or inaccessible listen – hooks abound, melodies are strong and lyrics pull you in. Almost unbelievably, the best is saved for last. ‘In a Bar…’ is that rare beast, an album that finishes with (to my mind) its three strongest tracks – the beautiful piano led ballad of ‘Disappointed in the Sun’ runs into the epic, intense, exhausting ‘For the Roses’ only to close with the wistful and delicate ‘Wake Me Up Before You Sleep’. …And then a little silence, before going through it all again.

Rob listened: Well, this didn’t sound much like the record I thought I had in the loft, which turned out to be by a barely-registered offshoot project called ‘Moondog Jr’, although I do have a few dEUS singles stashed up there somewhere, I reckon. I couldn’t believe how (apparently wilfully) eclectic this album was. It’s made me think about how bands, when they begin, move from writing their first song, to their second and third and on and on, approaching each from a blank slate, but somehow, almost always, assembling a collection which has a strong sense of togetherness, of a sound. Not so for these Belgians, at least on the evidence of this. The songs swing from Tom Waits barroom blurs, through Can-meets-Pop-Music-by-M, to Pixies rifforama, Pavement spikiness and pattering Wilco alt-country waltzes. By all reckoning it should sound like a half-baked mess. It all sounds pretty great.

Nick Listened: Sure enough, I do own this, and The Ideal Crash too, though I’ve never listened to the latter and not listened to this in several years. So long that I couldn’t remember a damn thing about it, actually. I had it mentally filed under “crazy genre hopping indie stuff”, and that’s where it’s going to stay; the first half in particular being completely all over the place, as if dEUS had heard a huge array of American music while growing up in Belgium, but completely shorn of context, and just decided to mash their favourite bits into one another regardless of whence they came. The result is a little disorienting, but definitely enjoyable too; I’ve pulled this out of its alphabetised home on the shelves and put it next to the CD player to remind me to play it again. So, despite Tom’s misgivings, a winner.

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