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

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

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

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

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

Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna Are You The Destroyer?: Round 92 – Tom’s Selection

 

aarefhissingImagine you’re watching one of those films whose opening sequence starts off with a view of a distant galaxy. The image starts to magnify and suddenly you are hurtling into an arm of the Milky Way (for it’s that galaxy), about two thirds of the way out from the galaxy’s centre. The magnification continues apace, now we’re being given a tour of the solar system, zooming past the gas giants, on through the asteroid belt and past Mars. Earth comes into view, we whizz through the atmosphere,  puncture a wispy cumulus or two to hurtle (invariably) into a suburban landscape, through an open window to focus on, perhaps, the main character of the movie. But rather than cut to the inevitable ‘get ready for school’ off camera dialogue of the protagonist’s mother, let’s continue to their record collection. The dude is an indie kid, but left field indie rather than middle-of-the-road indie and so, of course, has all the Of Montreal albums…and there they all are chronologically arranged pretty much smack bang in the middle of his alphabetically ordered albums. The camera continues to zoom in right to the heart of the Of Montreal selection, to Hissing Fauna (which is the middle album since the kid has a promo of 2016’s Innocence Reaches) and on it goes, to the centre of the album, to the gargantuan groove fuck that is The Past Is  A Grotesque Animal (track 7 out of 12), which happens to be the kid’s favourite 12 minute long existential dissection of a relationship gone bad in, like, ever. We carry on to the middle of the…I hesitate to say ‘song’ as that’s, kind of, doing it a disservice…piece, and examine the lyrics either side of the median:

‘Somehow you’ve red-rovered the gestapo circling my heart
And nothing can defeat you
No death, no ugly world

You’ve lived so brightly
You’ve altered everything
I find myself searching for old selves
While speeding forward through the plate glass of maturing cells’

and you’re amazed that something so poignant, so devastating and poetic could reside there. It’s only later, when you check out that song/opus/monster that you realise that going to its heart and finding such eloquence is not coincidence at all – dissect any part of The Past Is A Grotesque Animal and you’ll find similar, incredible, lyricism; lyricism as exorcism perhaps, as our hero, Kevin, tries to come to terms with the disintegration of his marriage, but, hell, his loss is our gain, so let’s rejoice that his world falling apart has led to such an outpouring; an outgushing if you will!

I only own the one Of Montreal album. There may be other Grotesque Animals all over their catalogue, but I doubt it. It feels so right that this is central, not just to the album, but…to everything! Listening again just now, the twelve minutes sped by. As those of you who follow the blog will know, I’m not, by nature, a lyrics kind of guy, but these, well they’re something else! Every line is quotable in isolation (in fact one of the music forums I used to follow went through a phase where pretty much every regular poster used a different line from TPIAGA as their tagline) but together they tell the tale of a man’s suffering that is heartbreaking in its honesty and breathtaking in its eloquence.

Spiraling out from TPIAGA are all sorts of kaleidoscopic goodies, pop gems mostly, skewed pop gems almost entirely! Some run off in every direction like disorientated mice, tangential to the point of abstruseness but always clinging onto the pop wreckage that Of Montreal choose to inhabit. Others, like the closing pair of She’s A Rejecter and  We Were Born The Mutants Again With Leafling are more straightforward but no less brilliant (She’s a Rejecter features the unforgettable lyric:

‘Oh no, she’s a rejector
I must protect myself

There’s the girl that left me bitter
Want to pay some other girl
To just walk up to her and hit her
But I can’t, I can’t, I can’t’

which is (a) hilarious, (b) shocking and (c) really sad). I love these songs, but they are exist in the shadow cast by their ever looming big brother and, as such, they feel like hors d’ouevres; wonderfully tasty but appetite whetters/palette cleansers.

My eleven year old son Kit described Hissing Fauna as sounding like a cross between Bowie and Prince when I played it to him the other evening. I guess what he was hearing was the same inventiveness and creativity, someone sounding as though they are not taking themselves too seriously, enjoying the process of making music that is shot from the heart, true to the self, groundbreaking yet familiar enough to be accessible. And whilst Hissing Fauna doesn’t make it onto my turntable all that often these days (it’s almost ten years old…blimey!), I always enjoy it, especially as I get closer and closer to its epicentre!

Nick listened: Emma bought this when it came out, but it kind of got lost in the hustle and bustle of other great records from 2007, which I rate as about my favourite year for music in the last couple of decades (Battles, LCD Soundsystem, Caribou, Patrick Wolf, Spoon, Stars of the Lid, Beirut, Studio, The Field, Radiohead, MIA). it wasn’t the only casualty; I got sent a promo of Boxer by The National and shelved it without listening for years. So Hissing Fauna got listened to a couple of times without penetrating what it was doing really, and then put away, eventually ending up in a box under the spare bed with hundreds of others when we cleared the bottom shelves to toddler-proof the livingroom. But I’ve dug it out now, and it’s back in the active collection.

The Roches – The Roches: Round 91 – Tom’s Selection

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Nick stipulated ‘no white dudes’ when he set Graham’s theme for him and as the record club crew were leaving my house, my mind had already begun sifting through the possibilities. Almost committing to numerous options – Prince, Smokey, Marley’s Rastaman Vibration…another Al Green album just to wind Graham up…I found myself gravitating, at the eleventh hour, to The Roches self-titled debut album, attracted by the bizarrely magical musical delights contained within as much as its adherence to Nick’s diversity agenda (do we bother with diversity anymore now that we have gained glorious independence from the tyranny of Europe?). It was surprisingly difficult to find records that fitted exactly to Nick’s criteria anyway…these white dudes have a habit of cropping up all over the place…but I contented myself with the knowledge that at least my chosen band had white dudes in the minority, most of the time, and that they probably didn’t really need them at all (although Fripp does play a blinder on the breathtaking Hammond Song and, presumably, twiddled the production knobs with aplomb).

Another jewel exposed by The Spin Guide to Alternative Music (still not returned…whoever has borrowed it, please can I have it back!), I can remember feeling distinctly sceptical as I held The Roches debut in my hands in the record shop pondering whether to purchase an album that looks this bad – could it really reward the trust I was placing on one music journalist’s opinion? As covers go, it’s pretty atrocious and in failing light and with a bit of a squint, you could be looking at a Nolan Sisters record sleeve. The sisters look too self-consciously wacky, their mannered poses smacking of coffee shop kookiness and hinting at bad jokes, syrupy vocals and fey arrangements.

Turns out, that’s not far from the truth.

It also turns out that you do not have to be too far from that truth for the shit to turn to diamonds. Turn the ‘quaint’ dial around a notch and what could so easily be cloyingly unpalatable transforms into a thing of beauteous splendour, the use of humour veering from embarrassing to affecting. The Roches, on their debut album at least, are something to cross the road to rather than from!

A record of two halves, the first side of the platter fluctuates from the ridiculous to the sublime and back again with the aforementioned Hammond Song shining out like a towering beacon amongst the four other tracks – songs such as Mr Sellack and Damned Old Dog sail perilously close to the line of kooky but, to my mind, get away with it through a combination of charm and restraint. The final track on side one, The Troubles, raises the stakes – the sisters pondering as to whether their lives will be in greater danger whilst visiting the emerald isle as a result of the IRA’s firearms or the posited dearth of health food shops in Dublin! They get away with it…but God only knows how! But for an insight of just how incredible this album is, listen to the first two tracks back-to-back. The introductory opener We seguing into Hammond Song might be one of the most startling transitions in my record collection as the (frankly bizarre) chipmunk like sped up vocals at the end of We merge into the exquisite, close harmonies of Hammond Song. What follows is six minutes of bliss, chord changes to die for, a guitar solo from the gods and some of the sweetest singing ever committed to vinyl. It’s tempting to wish for the other tracks on side one to be more similar to Hammond Song but, on reflection, that would only serve to dilute the experience….a perfect palm fringed beach feels a lot more special if it’s the only one around!

That said, there are other moments of Hammond Song-like beauty scattered through the album and side two is much more consistent in tone and atmosphere, most tracks managing to amalgamate the aesthetically pleasing and the weird to form five cuts of the very finest female urban acoustic folk singer songwriter fare. Separating out the two halves, I’d take the second side every time (despite Hammond Song being elsewhere), but really they are intractable and, together, they form one of the more surprisingly captivating albums I own.

Rob listened: Loved it! Tom’s right about the delicate, wobbly balance between twee/kooky and funny/charming and also about the mercurial way in which the Roches walk the line. Some heartstopping songs and some that are laugh out loud funny for reasons that aren’t immediately explicable. Reminded me of Kimya Dawson, but without the artifice and the Be Good Tanyas without the weight of historical reenactment. Loved it.

Elton John – Tumbleweed Connection: Round 90 – Tom’s Selection

Elton John - Tumbleweed Connection-FrontIf there happen to be any regular readers of our blog, they may by now have cottoned on to fact that I love a theme – the manoeuvring of my record club chums (and myself) into redundant, dust ridden corners of our respective collections brings me great pleasure, especially when the process uncovers long forgotten or unfairly neglected treasures. To be honest, I suspect that we all own more than enough music now to keep us happy for the rest of our lives yet still we push on looking (usually in vain) for the next pearl, when we already have necklaces worth of the buggers lying dormant, waiting to be re-discovered. That’s where the notion of a theme comes in…put it this way – I have probably bought less new music in the last five years than at any time since my late teens!

As Rob has intimated, this particular theme was not that well formed in my mind when I hamfistedly attempted to articulate it to the others but its aim was, ostensibly, to direct us to parts of our record collections beyond that which we would normally consider, pushing back through those early forays into what we considered ‘cool’, back to a time in our lives when music was simply music – all the other accouterments; the image, the album art, the lyrics, the message and, crucially, whether it was ‘OK’ to like it or not….well they weren’t even a consideration. In other words, the stuff you loved when you were a kid!

I listened to nothing other than the Beatles for years. Eventually, having acquired all their major albums and most of the solo and Wings related McCartney (whoops) I thought I might dabble with the dark side and turned to their arch rivals The Rolling Stones. And there it ended for a significant amount of time – as far as I was concerned that was enough music for me to last a lifetime (it probably was, to be honest!). I stopped exploring, hunkered down with my copies of Revolver, Get Stoned and Pipes of Peace and played them over and over and over, stubbornly refusing to accept (whenever anyone was foolhardy enough to suggest it) that anything else of worth was out there. Alternatives were superfluous and, inevitably, inferior.

I have my Aunt Beatrice to thank for breaking this cycle. She had a cassette of Elton John’s Greatest Hits in her car and played it to me and my brother on one occasion when she was giving us a lift. At first I tried to resist but those songs were just undeniable and it wasn’t long before one of my parents’ friends who actually owned some records that weren’t jazz or classical (I found this hard to compute at the time) was, somewhat foolishly, lending me his Elton John LPs.

I’m pretty sure the self-titled second album was one of them, Honky Chateau was definitely another and maybe Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was in that original batch. But, somewhat bizarrely, Tumbleweed Connection was the one that really hooked me in. Why a 14 year old from rural Somerset would particularly enjoy listening to adult orientated psuedo-Americana as sung by a young man from Pinner is beyond me – all I can say looking back with over thirty years of experience is that, the tunes are still damn fine (on the whole) and, for the 14 year old me, that was enough.

I posited on the night that perhaps the fact that the album was a unified statement as well, as opposed to the wide ranging eclecticism of the Beatles and Stones best regarded work (and, for that matter, the majority of Elton’s other major albums) might have added to the fascination. Whatever, I was hooked and can vividly recall, to this day, sitting in my parents’ back room waiting in fevered anticipation as the dual cassette assault of the mid 80s (the computer game uploading whilst the music rewound) played out – much to my mum and dad’s annoyance, no doubt!

What of the album itself? Well, until only a few years ago, I hadn’t heard Tumbleweed Connection since my mid teens. The cassette had probably warped or snapped and by then I was probably listening to Husker Du or That Petrol Emotion…or Dire Straits(!) and so I wasn’t going to waste my money buying an album I already knew so well and which simply wasn’t cool enough to like!

Becoming re-acquainted with it in the last few years has been interesting. I find about a third of the album bemusing, perplexing and..pretty boring to be honest! Opener Ballad of a Well-Known Gun is as plodding a piece of southern fried pub rock as you could ever have the misfortune to meet and Country Comfort has some of the most (unintentionally) hilarious lyrics ever written – come on Elton, do you even know one end of a barn, let alone a hammer, from the other? Musically its as predictable as the lyrics are surreal. Son of Your Father is risible in its lack of ambition, every note signposting itself before it arrives, this is country rock by numbers and, frankly, my teenage self should have known better! And closer Burn Down The Mission…well, it’s alright but it doesn’t half go on a bit!

But the other songs are as sublime today as they ever were. From the heart wrenchingly tender ballads Come Down In Time and Love Song (a dead ringer for some of Mark Eitzel’s more touching moments), to the soulful My Father’s Gun, which has an exquisite instrumental interlude proceeding it and, possibly best of all, the rollicking Amoreena, the good bits of Tumbleweed Connection more than make up for the rest and showcase a rare talent – the piano playing is, at times, breathtaking, the singing so unforced, so easy and the lyrics…oh, dang it, they are actually just awful pretty much all the way through the album!

But despite the fact that I now own plenty of records that Elton was trying to ape here (most directly The Band’s first two albums) and even though they are, in most cases, superior in pretty much every department (apart from the piano playing, of course) I still have a soft spot for Tumbleweed Connection..and I guess that after all these years, I probably always will!

Steve listened: Tom thought that I would hate this. Someone from the UK apeing an American sound. Parallels were drawn, before he revealed who it was, between Ronan Keating singing “life is a rollercoaster” with an Atlantic drawl that is about as contrived as it gets. But then the unmasking of the album itself. When I was a teenager I frequented the library for my early musical meanderings. MOR typified the non-distribution of taste within the libraries’ record collection – although there were a few gems that I will endeavour to cover at our subsequent meetings. I remember this album from their collection well, and actually quite liked it at the time. Listening again with fresh ears I can hear the terrible lyrics and the clear posturing to an American market by both singer and songwriter (Bernie Taupin was writing at this stage). There are moments of beauty though and you can hear the formation of the hits hiding around the corner. He is,on this album, one step away from “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, “Rocket Man” etc. Waiting in the sidelines where he could probably still walk down a street and not be recognised we catch Elton here at a time in his career when it was all about to break through. So, perhaps this is more experimental than all his other albums as we hear him honing his craft?

Rob listened: Well, this is quite something. I guess we can’t be too surprised to find our Elton adopting a musical persona that he thinks is natural, but viewed by anyone else seems a little… over the top? Still, some of the moves he tries to pull off on ‘Tumbleweed Connection’ are simply jaw-dropping. Tom has referenced ‘Country Comfort’ and, well, wow, it’s amazing. We picture Elton in his grimy dungarees, a mouth full of tacks, sweating under the summer sun just to fix up old Grandma’s barn. It’s amazing to think that just 10 short years after he worked on the Grammy’s farm and rode the riverboat to New Orleans (whilst planting the seeds of justice in his bones) he was sat behind a white grand piano dressed as Donald Duck playing to 400,000 people in Central Park. What an incredible journey.

I think Steve has a point in that you can hear classic Elton tucked away beneath the surface here, waiting to break through. What’s remarkable for me about Tumbleweed Connection is just how completely he commits to the concept. For someone making only their third album it’s quite some side-step, perhaps the sort of thing we might have expected him to try 20 years into his career once he was safe in his own success. And so, as silly as it seems to a newcomer like me, it’s still quite a thing to behold, and weaved throughout here are some lovely moments. As I type I’m listening to ‘Where To Now St.Peter?’ which seems to be a melange of about five different other songs by Elton, Creedence, Joni, Skynyrd, all delivered from the perspective of a man who is keen to make it clear that “I took myself a blue canoe”. It’s very silly, but also very lovely. Perhaps a little like Elton John himself.

Graham listened: I did not know this album existed. I’ve never listened to an Elton John album until now. Was this a serious attempt to break America? Was it a record company idea? Was it drugs? It’s wonderfully bonkers, even down to the fact they made the sleeve photos look like they had been taken in ‘sweet home alabama’. Unfortunately every time something musically interesting happened, Elton soon popped up with some lyrics about the sawmills, barns, rocking chairs, bayous and porches of Pinner.

Ted Leo + The Pharmacists – Shake The Sheets: Round 89 – Tom’s Selection

So Nick’s response to my claim that  Brian Eno’s Here Come The Warm Jets (see Round 88) was pretty ‘out there’, asserting that it was ‘just pop music’ really got me thinking as to what ‘pop music’ actually is, what distinguishes it from other genres and whether it has come to mean something significantly different to its more literal origins. Pop music as ‘popular’ music never made much sense to me. After all, wasn’t Mozart pretty darn popular in his day (and still is)? As is/was Metallica, Miles Davis and Robert Johnson? So, record sales alone doesn’t cut the mustard as far as definitions go. Nick suggested that pop music is anything with a riff, a repeated motif. Well, Mozart maybe not so much but the other three examples fit neatly inside that definition (as does William Basinski!) but I wouldn’t consider any of them to be pop music. So, I’m none the wiser really…The closest I can come to reaching a conclusion is typically vague – something to do with the way pop music makes me feel; it has to have signposts or signifiers that are recognisible and is, therefore, comforting and embracing. And it has to make me feel good. And whilst Here Come The Warm Jets certainly does the latter it does it in a different way; that good feeling is more one of excitement in its unpredictability as opposed to security in its well worn patterns and structures; something the songs on Eno’s debut solo album tend to lack.

I went back to my record collection immediately afterwards and started looking for the ‘pop’ albums on my shelves. And, sure, I have Beatles and Stones, Elvis Costello and Metronomy records but I also own Shake The Sheets by Ted Leo + The Pharmacists and that, to me, distills the essence of what I’m talking about into its purest form, possibly more effectively than any other album I own. Every song on Shake the Sheets is a pop gem as far as I’m concerned, there’s practically no experimentation with form or structure (as opposed to say, Happiness Is A Warm, Revolution #9), no genre exercises (Dead Flowers, New Amsterdam), no attempts at pastiche (Love Letters, Goodnight, Michelle) just eleven cuts of finest pop punk meat, in some ways purer in what it is setting out to do in the name of pop (as defined by…me!) than any of the aforementioned acts managed on any of their albums…although Costello comes close on This Year’s Model.

The strangest aspect of Shake The Sheets as far as I’m concerned is how much I like it given how close it sounds to a myriad horrible guitar based indie bands that you can hear pretty much every day on Steve Lamacq’s show on 6music. Maybe its a case of emperor’s new clothes, maybe I want to like Ted Leo (because I read that it was OK to like him) and therefore I do…but I prefer to think there’s something else, something more tangible about they way he writes and performs his music. Perhaps it’s the conviction with which he and the band perform, perhaps it’s the punchiness of the rhythm section, perhaps the melodies are just better. I don’t know the answer, but I find the question an intriguing one, one that I would love to put to him to see if he is consciously aware of what he is doing to stand apart from the Lamacq pop/punk/indie crowd (assuming, of course, that I haven’t completely misread the situation).

Lyrically, however, Shake the Sheets is a million miles away from your standard boy meets girl pop fodder. Opener Me and Mia is just about the catchiest song about eating disorders ever written, Heart Problems starts with the lyric ‘You got a problem with your heart, follow the line down your left arm’ before going on to list an alphabet’s worth of prescription drugs. The song Shake The Sheets itself contains my favourite lyric on the album, one that seems remarkably prescient as the US presidential election looms large:

‘I want to take it to the president
Him and all his cabinet with a broom
I want to sweep the Halls of Arrogance
Sweep the walls of the excrement of these baboons’

(Notice that in his vision of the future, Leo isn’t expecting there to be a female president. God help us!)

So the lyrics are a bit of a curve ball and yet, despite this, I can’t help but think of this album as one of the poppiest I own. Way more so than the indie rock of The Tyranny of Distance or the grunge punk of Hearts of Oak, Shake the Sheets has a thrilling pace to it that never relents, technicolour melodies to match the album sleeve and a verse chorus verse structure (with just enough in the way of subtle variations to surprise you even after the 50th listen) to get even the most dismissive thirteen year old daughter humming along. That, for me, is the very essence of pop music!

Rob listened: I should be beyond this sort of stuff by now. And, y’know, it’s possible to argue that Ted Leo and his Pharmacists are a watered down Husker Du or a knock off Replacements (I could speak more accurately to this imagined accusation if I knew anything much about the Replacements).

But there’s a counter-argument that looks down on Ted Leo from a great height and observes that he is surrounded on all sides by a history of rock and pop music in the shapes of XTC, The Beatles (you know, when they were a good straight down the line giddy speed pop band), Squeeze, The Hold Steady, Buzzcocks, The Cars, They Might Be Giants, Dead Kennedys, Rocket From The Crypt, Lemonheads (you know, when they were a straight down the line giddy punk band), Silver Sun and a couple of dozen other bands that I’m totally in the tank for. And if Ted Leo and the Pharmacists can be safely placed in the midst of a crowd like that, then I’d be a fool to deny them.

I’m still unsure why I’ve found this record so simply pleasurable to listen to over the last few weeks when there have been a glut of bands taking a similar approach to so-called pop punk over the last few years most of whom I wouldn’t micturate upon if they were combusting. Perhaps it’s something to do with the… maybe the… oh sod it.

The chorus to the title song has something in the quality of the voice (that still reminds me of someone I can’t quite remember) which is part singer, part buzzing death machine, and this alone is enough to make me want to listen to the whole album a hundred times.

 

Brian Eno – Here Come The Warm Jets: Round 88 – Tom’s Selection

51S2KFVAJDLAs far as I am concerned, Brian Eno is, in many ways, the polar opposite of Neil Young. In the case of the latter artist I own an inordinate amount of music (bewilderingly, I found myself buying yet another Neil Young album – On The Beach – not so long ago to add to my inexplicably large collection) without ever really understanding why he is held in such high esteem (Tonight’s The Night being the exception, but even that is some way down my all time greatest albums list). Eno, by contrast, I love. He’s always interesting, constantly innovating; refreshingly challenging whilst remaining, essentially, accessible. I admire his eloquence, his creativity, his obvious and flaunted intelligence and his visionary approach to pushing the boundaries. Yet I only own two albums by him. They are Ambient 1: Music For Airports and Here Come The Warm Jets…and they sound like they could have been made by different artists on different planets! In fact, Another Green World, Nick’s choice way back in round 6 sounds different again although traces of both albums (if I recall correctly) can be heard echoing distantly on this, the third album Eno made as a solo artist.

So what is Here Comes The Warm Jets? Well…I’m even more confused than ever. It’s all of these things: groundbreaking, bonkers, beautiful, calming, unsettling, surprising, melodic, discordant, intriguing, unpredictable. It’s none of these things: formulaic, bland, safe, unapproachable, intimidating.

But is it pop music?

Well, that question led to some heated discussion on the night between (unsurprisingly?) Nick and myself. I think we were listening to Dead Finks Don’t Talk at the time, a track which sounds, if anything, like a weirder version of early Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci (ie, when they were really weird, not ‘throw a couple of dogs barking in between two stunningly beautiful folk ballads’ weird) and I posited, perhaps foolishly, that for a man who had just come out of Roxy Music, a band that had recently experienced significant chart success with Virginia Plain, Do The Strand and Pyjamarama alongside impressive album sales for both their first two albums, this was a pretty ballsy move, a statement of intent that here was a man far more interested in making music for its own sake than for chasing fame and fortune. Sure, it’s not Oneohtrix or Emptyset or another one of those ‘Rob bands’ that seem to exist purely so that he can revel in the effect they have on Graham’s sub woofers (no euphemism intended) but I wouldn’t class it as ‘pop’ music either.

Admittedly, there are glimpses of pop on the album. Opener, Needles in the Camel’s Eye for example is a glorious three minute blast of noisy momentum with a hook laden guitar solo as its coda – a bit like getting on a pop bus with a breeze block on the accelerator and careering into Avant-Gardesville in  a spectacular multi-coloured explosion of sounds and wailing. Elsewhere, Baby’s On Fire sort of sounds like pop music if you narrow your eyes, squidge your ears and use your imagination but has some of the most blistering fretwork ever committed to vinyl. And Eno’s singing, if it can be called that, is more of a snarky sneer; all nasal passages and sheep-like tremelo, a bit like Kenneth Williams saying ‘I told you so’ over and over and over.

Other tracks drift by (On Some Faraway Beach, Here Come The Warm Jets) in an (almost) instrumental, (almost) ambient haze, or lurch out of the swamp laden with dirty grooves and monster loops (Driving Me Backwards) or sound like a crazy loon having dropped one tab too many (The Paw Paw Negro Blow Torch).

I like Record Club for many reasons but one of them in particular is that it has the uncanny knack for making me re-evaluate my preconceptions, prejudices and firmly held beliefs, about music in general and, more often than not, music that I have owned (and loved) for many years. This discussion was no exception; it got me thinking about what pop music is, what it’s for and, crucially, what it isn’t. And so I have thought about it for a long time now – I played this album on our Bowie tribute night about two months ago – and I have concluded that pop music is different things to different people and, for me, by veering close to the line every so often and offering that glimpse of pop nirvana only to head off again just as rapidly, Here Comes The Warm Jets is about as far away from pop music as you can get..and to exemplify the difference in what I mean, I dug out one of my favourite pop albums for Round 89…

Rob listened: I was really pleased to finally get up close to ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, before I’d looked at the cover art properly, I had always thought that the blue grass plant on the left of the image was some sort of Cookie Monster creature. Turns out it’s blue grass. Of course it’s blue grass.

Secondly, I’m a little distant when it comes to Eno. I admire his for many of the reasons Tom lays out above, but I guess I’ve always carried the sense that his music is an intellectual exercise, rather than an expression of passion or feeling. I stress, this is based on an ill-informed sense of Eno the man, rather than any significant exposure to his music.

Which makes this record such a thrill. It may or may not have significant intellectual or artistic intent, and we know that Eno has always been a thoughtful advocate for the interlinking of the two, but regardless, it’s a careering rock record, running wild with its own ambition, cackling as it tips over accepted norms. In that regard it reminds me of Michael Moorcock and JG Ballard, authors who were also at large while Eno was stretching out, and who also took seriously the project of using genre conventions to create new, unconstrained and transgressive art.

What’s particularly great about this album is just how effectively Eno marshals all of this into accessible and loveable music. And, directly or indirectly, this seems to me to be pop and rock music as much as The Kinks (‘Cindy Tells Me’) or Peter Gabriel (‘Baby’s On Fire’)  or Elton John (‘On Some Faraway Beach’). As for ‘Dead Finks Don’t Talk’, I was out in the kitchen making tea when it was playing, and I distinctly remember thinking ‘wow, this is a great track’. I loved the skittering groove, the focus of it, it’s simplicity and it’s motion. Then I came back in to find that it was causing some sort of ontological dust-up in my dining room. I thought it was straightforward, loveable music. With a weird shrieking guy hiding behind it, but, y’know, in a good way.

 

Marianne Faithfull – Broken English: Round 86 – Tom’s Selection

th8L08E8F7I have a few albums in my collection that do that thing where the whole work revolves (no pun intended) around one track. It may not be the best track on the album, but it centres it, acts as a focal point and can create the impression that all the other songs emanate from that source – the wellspring, if you like. A few records that, to my mind, do this thing: Astral Weeks (Madame George), Sgt Peppers (A Day In The Life), Marquee Moon (the title track), Stone Roses (I Am The Resurrection), Clear Spot (Big Eyed Beans From Venus). I didn’t think very long or hard about that list and I am sure some, if not all, of my choices are disputable but, for me, these songs do exactly the same job as Why’d Ya Do It? on Marianne Faithfull’s scathing 1979 comeback album Broken English.

I will always be able to recall the first time I heard this track. I had played the first side of the album a number of times already and loved what I had heard. The opening (title) song immediately stopped me dead on first listen. I was expecting to hear a floaty, wispy, 1960s folk-waif type of voice warbling above sparse and neatly strummed acoustic guitars. In fact I had very low expectations for Broken English…as I fired up the turntable in anticipation, I wasn’t really sure why I had bought it, other than the fact that it has a pretty unequivocal reputation. Imagine my surprise when a voice akin to a female equivalent of Tom Waits came creaking and croaking out of the speakers, whilst an early incarnation of The Knife layered glacial keyboard washes over an eerie and ominous bassline overlaid by shards of guitar set to emphasise the perilous nature of the subject material (the end of the world, of course…this was 1979, after all). The next three songs are all great but not quite as impactful. They smoulder rather than ignite but I would have been happy enough with my purchase even if side two turned out to be a dud.

Well, it turns out, that’s where the real treasure lies. The first time I played the second half of Broken English was on a sunny Sunday morning. My 10 year son, Kit, and I were in the dining room – him drawing cartoons and me pottering around. As close to familial tranquility as we come! A perfect time to check out that second side…or so I thought.

The single The Ballad of Lucy Jordan kicks things off – a sweet song that burrows its way into your psyche with repeated listening  – first time through it seems a tad lightweight but its (Dr) hooks are undeniable and soon work their way in.

For me the album just goes from strength to strength from there on. What’s The Hurry has been described as filler by some, but I love it. Next up is Faithfull’s rendition of John Lennon’s Working Class Hero – never has a plodding dirge sounded so appropriate, which is ironic given Faithfull’s aristocratic background…but surely that was the point! It also contains the first undeniable (as in clearly audible) use of invective on the album. It’s not a good word, it is used repeatedly but it expresses ire, so that’s kind of OK – I don’t think Kit clocked it anyway. Let it pass, don’t allude to it and I might just have got away with it.

Well, how was I to know what was to come! Strangely, given how closely it resembles a Grace Jones song (any Grace Jones song will do), Why’d Ya Do It shares none of Jones’ love of innuendo and suggestion (essential ingredients if you are to get away with it whilst listening with a ten year old). So whereas Kit has heard Pull Up To The Bumper on numerous occasions and, presumably thinks it about neat parking or traffic jams or some such, there’s no possible misinterpretation of what Faithfull’s getting at when she sings:

Why’s ya do it, she said, why’d ya let her suck your cock?

or

Every time I see your dick I see her cunt in my bed.

Listening that Sunday morning, I was caught in two minds – turn the record down, or off and run the risk of drawing attention to it or let it play on and hope that the boy had other things on his mind….or hadn’t learnt any of those words yet! I can’t remember what I did in the end, but Kit has never mentioned the incident to me since and doesn’t seem to be any more traumatised than normal, so presumably no harm was done.

To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of the track. It’s immense and incredible but it sullies the listener to such an extent that it is hard to enjoy. I’ve never heard lyrics like it and, whilst I’m sure they exist on other records, context is everything and I never expected to hear something like this coming from the mouth of the woman who, just over ten years previously, had sung As  Tears Go By as sweetly as you like. The transformation is unbelievable and surely this record could only have been made by someone with nothing to lose – a super-successful starlet of the 60s who came upon hard times, developed a heroin addiction that left her on the streets, penniless and led to the forced removal of her only child into the custody of her ex-husband, John Dunbar. Faithfull was arrested for possession of drugs in the late 60s, attempted suicide a few years later and suffered from anorexia nervosa for much of this period. To make matters worse, if that’s possible, she was vilified by the press whilst Mick and Keef perpetrated many of the same crimes but were hero worshiped in return. Not surprisingly, by the time she came to record Broken English, Faithfull was well and truly pissed off. Hence, the inclusion of Why’d Ya Do It – a song so scathing and hateful that it could only really make sense when sung by someone who had lived through the darkest of times and survived, just, to tell the tale.

So, in context, its inclusion makes complete sense, and knowing Faithfull’s back story has meant that I am able to enjoy the track all the more. Whilst it’s not surprising that the song was censored out of the Australian release of Broken English (it’s not surprising per se but it is, admittedly, surprising that this should have happened in Australia of all places!), its non-inclusion would dramatically alter the album and, I would have thought, significantly weaken it.

In fact, I now have proof that this is the case. Obviously God, or the boss at Devon Electric, doesn’t like the thought of us playing such filth at record club. I kid you not, in a moment of perfect timing to die for, at the start of the third line of the song where Faithfull just begins to warm up the lyrics, we had a power cut. But not one of those thirty second affairs. No. One that lasted just long enough to get the other three out of the house and safely on their way home to bed to dream their sweet dreams, unsullied by what is surely one of the most exquisitely foul mouthed rants to grace recorded music. It’s their loss!

Rob listened: I used to give so little time to a lot of the records I reviewed back in the 90s. Although Marianne Faithful is revered by many of the artists I hold most dear, I took against her after a couple of listens to ’20th Century Blues’, her 1997 record of songs from the Weimar Republic and beyond. Something to do with the voice (which has to be completely unfair – I would have lapped this stuff up from Tom Waits), the persona (I recall hearing her saying some stuff I found faintly objectionable, pious little shit that I was and still am) and the songs (a tough sell to a non-committed listener). Everything I’ve heard from her since has come through that stupid prism. Never having heard her in her first flush I had nothing to contrast this reinvention of her career to, so off she went into the bin, literally in the case of ’20th Century Blues’.

‘Broken English’ was a revelation. It’s everything Tom describes, but I also got a vibe from the relatively recently rediscovered ‘Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument’ a record made in the 1980s by an artist who placed his traditional instrument on top of the instruments he could find around him, in this case a drum machine and a Yamaha DX7 synthesiser, and from these disparate ingredients made something truly idiosyncratic and strangely, counter-intuitively, timeless.

Anyway, I liked this a lot and I’m actually glad it died before the last track, which sounds like it might have created an impression capable of overshadowing the rest of the work.

 

 

Burning Spear – Marcus Garvey: Round 85 – Tom’s Selection

BurningSpear-MarcusGarveyI’m going to start off by laying my cards on the table…I know next to nothing about reggae! Sure, I have owned Legend for many years now (along with pretty much everyone else) and have even gone on to add a number of Bob Marley albums to my collection, but other than that my experience has been limited to hearing the occasional Shaggy or UB40 song on the radio. I always suspected there were deeper and more rewarding veins to mine than that…but where on earth to start?

Well, good ol’ John Peel, that’s where. I mistakenly thought Peel had put a Burning Spear song in his Desert Island Discs’ collection – it turns out the song I was thinking of was Man Kind by Misty in Roots. No matter, Peel was my inspiration as I distinctly recall him playing Burning Spear at relatively regular intervals during the 15 years of so that I was an avid listener of his. At the time I would have probably have only given a Burning Spear song a cursory listen – I would have been far more interested in hearing the new Paris Angels, Telescopes or Chapterhouse offering! – but, since then, time has elapsed (and record club has happened) and my musical tastes have broadened significantly. And although the three aforementioned bands are all cultural behemoths who shifted the musical world (and, some would argue, society itself) off its axis, I would attest that Marcus Garvey the album might just be an even more significant work than anything offered up by this indie triumvirate!

Having finally acquired Marcus Garvey only recently – I tried to buy it online a few years ago but it never arrived – I was immediately surprised by its accessibility. I was expecting a much darker record, possibly due to the band’s name, possibly due to the fact that I knew Burning Spear to be a politically charged collective, possibly because Peel tended to gravitate towards the more challenging end of the musical spectrum. However, although the subject matter of the songs is highly political – Garvey himself was a key figure in the black rights movement of the mid twentieth century – the music is warm and inclusive and, although I would be the first to admit that I will always feel like an onlooker when listening to reggae, there is nothing on this album that feels alienating.

In fact, despite being released in 1975, the one thing that immediately stood out when listening to the album for the first time was the quality of the production. Every sound can be heard in crystal clarity and there is so much space in the recording that the excellence of the bands’ singing and musicianship is difficult to ignore. It’s almost impossible to not make comparisons with Bob Marley – I was trying to think of another genre of music where one single figure or band towers over the rest to the same extent…and couldn’t! – but I have to say that Marcus Garvey is, for me, a more successful album than any of the Marley albums I own (I have Burnin’, Natty Dread and Rastaman Vibration). That could be because the Legend cuts have become so ubiquitous that it is almost impossible to hear them with any sort of objectivity any more and, as a result, the album tracks feel less significant than they really are. But I have a sneaking suspicion that Marcus Garvey is just a better album, perhaps, in part, due to the fact that Burning Spear were not trying to write singles that sold in their millions and could concentrate on producing an album that works as a cohesive and complete whole, rather than just another collection of songs.

So, now that I have dipped my toes in the waters of roots reggae, I am keen to expand my horizons beyond the four albums and one compilation I currently possess. Where to go next though – Misty In Roots? Steel Pulse? The Congos?… UB40? Any recommendations would be gratefully received.

Aldous Harding – ‘Aldous Harding’: Round 84 – Tom’s Selection

aldous-harding-aldous-harding

Well, Nick wanted quiet, so I thought I would bring something that is barely there, in a literal sense as well as sonically.

In fact, Aldous Harding is barely anywhere….a record that neither Rob or Nick had heard of is rare indeed. A record that hasn’t got an Allmusic review is hallowed ground. In fact, Aldous hasn’t even got a wikipedia entry, which must mean that either she doesn’t actually exist, is less than two years of age…or that she is from New Zealand.

Which of course, isn’t the case. Not EVERYBODY I take to record club is from New bloody Zealand! Having researched extensively by, y’know’ reading books and stuff, it turns out that Aldous ‘Keith’ Harding was born in Chipping Sodbury in the year 2000. Solely proficient in the playing of spoons, it is actually her pet chimp, ‘Mr Crumble’ who takes the lead on most of the guitar solos on the album. The jury is out as to whether the music on this, her eighth album, is ‘black’ or ‘death’ or, indeed, ‘black death’ metal but the pounding drums and terrifying vocals have to be heard to be believed.

No matter how many times I hear it, her hidden track cover version of Showaddywaddy’s Under The Moon Of Love never fails to move me to tears. A departure from her earlier work, Aldous Harding the album has a pop sensibility that underpins every damn note on the record – imagine Tribe of Toffs’ John Kettley is a Weather Man crossed with Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell…III, and you’ll be close to the overall sound of the album, the chiming guitars from Crumble coalescing with Harding’s finest cutlery to produce sounds that echo glories past but are, frankly, unlike anything else in recorded music. Don’t believe me? Well do yourselves a favour and go buy yourself a copy of this fine slab of vinyl and then get back to me if it isn’t one of the best things you’ve heard all year!

PS Aldous…If you ever happen to stumble upon this ridiculous piece of writing (and with your internet presence I doubt you will), I most humbly apologise. I actually think your album is a wonderful, wonderful thing; one of the most delicate, arid and quietly devastating records I have heard in a long time.

My post is really just a silly way of pointing out how over-reliant we are on the internet, how rare it is that we can stumble across gems like this, whilst knowing so little about the person who made them. My discovery of your music (with so little to go on..thank you Marc Riley on 6 Music), and the time I have subsequently spent with your songs, has brought me great pleasure.

Rob listened: In accidental keeping with Tom’s conceit of obscuring his real thoughts on this record with some other writing, a veritable palimpsest if you will, I wrote up and, I thought, published some rather erudite comments on Aldous Harding a couple of weeks ago and they seem, on my return, to have disappeared.

It was quite refreshing to hear a record none of us had heard of, including Tom more or less, and which was practically unfindable online. No preconceptions, no-one telling us what to think. Just like the old days, perhaps. The record turned out to be an intriguing listen, working inside a range but within that displaying wilful variety between tracks. ‘Aldous Harding’ was a fascinating counterpoint to the Grouper record. One is an artist who obscures her true intentions underneath layers of fog and reverb. The other makes it difficult to know her by skipping around wildly between styles and approaches, within a crystal clear sound. I hope the internet discovers Aldous Harding soon.

Spacemen 3 – Playing With Fire: Round 83 – Tom’s Selection

51EY2DMGRCLAbout half a year ago I set the theme that at our next meeting we had to bring a record by someone who had been discussed at our previous get together. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Often the records that we are not playing – but talking about – sound like they could be even better than the fodder we are consuming there and then. We also like to play ‘Spot the Influence’, aka ‘This sounds a bit like…’ incessantly, although I have to admit that I am probably the biggest culprit in this respect, so names crop up regularly but often only a couple of us actually know what they sound like. I thought it might be fun to try to connect together two consecutive evenings in this way, join the dots and hear what all the fuss was about. It sort of worked too, but perhaps would have been even better if we hadn’t done the politician/teacher thing of having the summer off and could actually remember the conversations we had had!

In the event I am not sure why I brought up Spacemen 3 at our previous meeting but I think (and I am very happy to be corrected on this)  it might have been at the point where Rob’s Haxan Cloak offering went all poppy and something there reminded me a little of Playing With Fire’s gargantuan, and somewhat idiosyncratic, centerpiece, Suicide. Suicide (the track) is an obvious tribute to Martin Rev and Alan Vega’s band of the same name but filtered through the haze of a very different cocktail of mind expanding substances. Whereas Suicide (the band) played mainly hushed, barely there, pitter patter pop (with the occasional bloodcurdling scream admittedly), Suicide (the song) is a full on aural assault; a pummeling, repetitive onslaught that needs the volume to be set to 11 to register the full impact. Seeing as the rest of the album is really nothing like it, and recalling the effect that The Haxan Cloak had on us, I can only assume that the connection was made in this way.

Funnily enough the majority of Playing With Fire is much closer in spirit and sound to Suicide’s eponymous debut album, especially its more blissful songs like Cheree and Girl. And to my mind, this is where it really hits it stride – minimal electronica with hushed vocals and pulsating drones sounding far more radical and enthralling than the somewhat tired, adolescent sloganeering and ‘Stoogeslite’ riffing of the ‘big’ hit single Revolution – which, as Rob pointed out on the night, really hasn’t worn all that well over the intervening 27 years. A staple of indie discos at the time, perhaps that’s where it should have stayed!

I bought Playing With Fire at the time of its release and was immediately hooked. I loved the sounds (which were unlike anything I had heard before) and, curiously, I was also really drawn to the coolness of the band. Being staunchly anti-drugs, I had no time at all for friends and acquaintances who dabbled, yet here I was, thrilled to be listening to a band who openly promoted the use of hallucinogens! This inconsistency made little sense to me but was something I felt deeply at the time. Thinking back now, it was almost as if, through listening to Playing With Fire, I could experience the effects of the drugs (which always fascinated me) without having to sell my principles or take the risks. The Spacemen were taking the trip to the other side and reporting back with what they found there. Cool.

Of course, that all sounds like total bobbins to me now and, to be perfectly honest, my feelings towards the record have diminished as a result. So Spacemen 3 are no longer ‘my favourite band…like…ever’, Playing With Fire is no longer the coolest thing since sliced bread and, it turns out, the ‘other side’ just happened to be a record that had been released a decade earlier and still sounds more dangerous, revolutionary and groundbreaking. Yet, despite these misgivings, I would attest that Spacemen 3’s third album is (on the whole) a damn fine listen that has held up surprisingly well over the intervening years and still manages to sound reasonably cool even in 2015.

Rob listened: An absolutely seminal record for me, this. Several years ago to this very day I arrived at university with my Fall and Pixies tapes and my poster of Morrissey’s shaved armpit. I assumed everyone else would be in tune with me and I was wrong. No-one liked the Smiths, The Fall hadn’t crossed their radars and PiL were an irrelevance. Instead, at least two of my new flatmates both had ‘Playing With Fire’ posters blu-tacked to the flaky paint on their bedroom walls. This was the club the new kids were in, and I was clueless. I was even more bewildered when I actually heard the record. No raging punk rock guitars. No cinder-throated vocals. No pounding percussion. Actually, no percussion to speak of at all.

Now, several years later, some of these sounds are the most evocative in recorded music. That spectral, bending guitar. That sobbing reverb, eked out with a dancer’s precision. That bronchial farfisa organ. Or was it a vox?

‘Playing With Fire’ is one of the handful of records that completely changed the way I listened to music and rewired what I looked for. The space, the pace, the mood were all things I had never come across before and, after some considerable time to be fair, I was intoxicated by it. Tom’s brother and I used to lie on the floor in the dark listening to ‘Suicide’. It was about the most transportive thing I did during those three years.

And now? Well, it still sets my spine tingling, although I’m not sure how well some of it holds up. As Tom has intimated, some of it really doesn’t. ‘Revolution’ really did used to sound like the barricades were being kicked in and now it just sounds impotent. It’s probably fair to class Spacemen 3 as baton carriers, taking the message from Suicide and the Velvets and keeping it alive for another generation to make more of. Nonetheless, there are things that they did that still sound like no-one else has ever sounded. And when those guitars shine out like warm sun-rays over the horizon, man, it transports me.

Nick listened: I bought copy of this while at university, more than ten years after it originally came out and a good couple of years after I’d fallen in love with Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen… and then explored their previous two albums with great eagerness. I’d read about how influential Spacemen 3 were, and heard “Hypnotized”, which, of course, sounds almost exactly like early Spiritualized songs (Pierce has seemingly spent 30 years rewriting the same three songs with vaguely different arrangements). This, however, sounded 50% like cheap demos of early Spiritualized and 50% like someone loading computer games on a ZX Spectrum in 1983 from cassette tapes. Completely underwhelmed by its “psychedelia”, I sold/gave away/lost my copy.

So hearing it again was intriguing; the criticisms still stand – it is cheap and rudimentary sounding – but they matter a lot less to me now; there’s something really interesting here now, that, with 15-odd years more experience and understanding racked up in my listening, I can appreciate as having been potentially pretty seismic at the time. From what I’ve read I suspect I’d like Recurring more than this, but thanks to Tom and Rob’s enthusiasm I’m now intrigued to explore further, and find out what I dismissed all those years ago.

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