Poly Styrene – Translucence: Round 103 – Steve’s Selection

R-871344-1167646732.jpegSometimes albums surprise you in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily describe as good or bad, but make you want to know more about the artist. So it was with this selection of mine. I was drawn to it through a short interview in the Guardian by Neneh Cherry. She of course has some links to the post-punk scene of her own through her former group Rip, Rig and Panic. This band also featured one Andrea Oliver – the mother of Miquita Oliver, the former host of  Pop World…ok, too far down that branch of the family tree now. But, somehow Poly Styrene was intertwined with her life enough to make her also want to know more about her. A crowd-funded film is being produced about Poly, which is due out next year. But just how this strangely iconic woman burst onto the punk scene, and beyond into critically acclaimed obscurity via a Buddhist community is enough to intrigue. Neneh mentioned this album in her interview, which at the time confounded and confused the post-punk scene, preferring instead to draw more heavily on jazz- infused folk. It really is not what you would expect had you only listened to the shouty in your face X-ray Spex (whom I also love). What you have to understand though is before Poly Styrene emerged onto the punk scene, she spent some time floating around the mid-1970s hippy festival scene (from about the age of 15 till her 17th birthday I believe). This album takes her back there and it is as delightful and beguiling as the front cover – with only the eyes present behind the headdress.

The first track, ‘Dreaming’ is immediately softer than its predecessors, with reggae-style drum rolls, and a drifting flute floating across the chorus (“I’m dreaming, I’m dreaming of you’). Her voice is lighter, less in your face, and she manages to reach vocal levels not achieved on the punkier songs on Germ Free Adolescents (X-Ray Spex’s only album). Straight away, a surprise, and in a nice way…’Toytown’ is in a similar vein. Trading raging guitars and roaring sax for light keyboard and reggae beats. The similarities with early Blondie are there. Later tracks with jazzier tones pre-date Everything But The Girl. The change in tempo displayed on ‘Bicycle Song’ is subtle and sophisticated, and the overlaid sound effects have a touch of the playful Barrett-esque psychedelia. ‘Translucence’ has a beautiful flute backing that make you feel like your gliding through a 1970s hippy folk festival waiting to catch the end of Pentangle’s set.

Poly Styrene went into hiding after this album. Her next ‘Generation Indigo’ was released when she knew she was dying from cancer. I can’t wait to hear her again in the crowd funded documentary film out next year. I bought a very fine mug (polystyrene cup?) designed by her daughter to help fund the project to pay tribute to this fascinating, perhaps underrated and secretive figure in UK music.

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King – We Are King: Round 102 – Tom’s Selection

At our ‘End Of Year Playlist Night’, Nick commented that my list of songs was miles off what he would have expected when we started meeting way back in early 2011. I had to concede that he was spot on in his assertion. Whilst my playlist had a couple of unsurprising selections in it (Okkervil River made it in – seeing them play Judy On A Street made it an undeniable choice; as did Kevin Morby, his Singing Saw album from last year whilst not really breaking any new musical ground has revealed itself as a work of richness and great staying power), the majority of the other tracks probably wouldn’t have entered my psyche, let alone my record collection, if it hadn’t been for DRC and its influence on my listening habits over the course of the past decade.

Of the less likely stuff on my list, Margaret Glasby, Katie Gately and Dele Sosimi would have probably missed out through obscurity – although I would have been well predisposed to these artists back then, I wouldn’t have found out about them without being nudged in the right direction by online recommendations. The rest – Solange, Dawn Richard, Petite Meller…and King, well I just wasn’t listening to this sort of stuff in 2011. I would have dismissed it as ‘not for me’; with a closed mind, I find it all too easy to convince myself that a sound is anathema to me, hit ‘reject’ and not bother to look beyond that initial impression.

More fool me!

Fortunately, though, my musical palette has widened considerably since then and hence I get to write about amazing albums like We Are King! However, being a relative newcomer to the delights of modern day R&B I feel somewhat wary in trying to pick out what it is about the King debut album that I like so much – I couldn’t begin to link it to influences and precursors and I have no idea whether what King are doing is particularly innovative or original. What I do know is that when I play the record it makes me feel great. And that’s good enough in my book! Even on the most horrible of days (today, for example) I can put We Are King onto the turntable and suddenly the skies clear, the sun shines, the birds tweet, flowers bloom…all is well with the world.

Remarkably synchronous with Devon Record Club, King started out in earnest in 2011, perhaps spurred on by the burgeoning record club scene in the south west of England; their debut was a long time in coming, and the attention to detail and perfectionism shines through on the album. This is not an album that would have been tarnished by any lack of spontaneity – Pink Flag it most definitely is not – so why not take the time and get it right? It does say something about the confidence that the band must have had in their music that they were prepared to toil away at it for such a long time though. I guess their hourly earnings over those five years wouldn’t have been all that impressive. But the cliche goes that you are meant to suffer for your art, right? And, in this case, it has surely paid off – twelve exquisite tracks, not a weak link amongst them has led to encouraging reviews across the board, the metaphorical thumbs up from Prince, and the Album Of The Year award on the ILX music forum. If success in the music business is all about momentum and earnings then I guess King’s second album could be the point where they go big. If success is measured by the works of art you have produced, I would assert that King are already as successful as most recording artists would ever reasonably expect to be – in We Are King they have already produce a soulful masterpiece for these unenlightened times.

Sugar – Copper Blue: Round 103 – Tom’s Selection

In a moment of gay abandon I thought I would actually write up my choice from our last meeting. It appears that life has got ahead of us and, whilst we still meet up (occasionally), our blog has seemed to have stagnated to the point of ossification. But, seeing as I am gearing up to going back to work next week and, as a result, I am going to be spending an inordinate amount of time tapping away on a keyboard – when I started out, I thought teaching would be about…teaching (how naive I was!) – I thought it would be a good idea to get a bit of keyboard tapping practise in. So, here goes…

I took Sugar’s Copper Blue to the last meeting. I took it because it’s brilliant.

In fact, and I feel a bit disloyal writing this, I am increasingly of the opinion it’s the best thing Bob Mould has ever done. This is not something I would have ever admitted at the time, but over the years Copper Blue has become the undeniable choice from the ‘catalogue of Mould’ as far as I am concerned. In fact it’s also, for my money, one of the best rock albums of the 90s by anyone, its writhing, swirling melodic lines built for longevity and exploration..in stark contrast to some of the more heralded yet straightforward LPs that were covering similar landscapes at that point in time.

In comparison to Mould’s previous work in Husker Du, Copper Blue pounds its way through its 45 minutes, the tinny, trebbly production of New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig transformed into an irresistible melange of thundering drums and relentless bass, overlaid (most of the time) with Mould’s trademark guitar squalls and reverse solos. As a result the album exudes a warmth that was only hinted at on The Husker’s last two records and wasn’t really evident at all on their output prior to their move to Warner Brothers. And, in my opinion, Mould’s song writing is at its zenith on Copper Blue, ten tracks of peerless quality, from the ominous minor key riffage that opens The Act We Act, to the gloriously uplifting exit of Man On The Moon and pretty much everything in between. In fact, as a thought experiment, try supplanting any of Mould’s Husker Du tracks for a song on Copper Blue and it would only serve to weaken the album…that’s how good it is!

Pointing out highlights seems superfluous but I’m going to have a go…

‘A Good Idea’ is a Pixies’ song in all but name but, as if he’s pointing an accusatory finger their way, Mould seems to be saying, ‘Look, I invented this stuff and I can do it really easily and really well and…here’s a song that’s just as good as Debaser or Gouge Away or Where Is My Mind and it’s not even the best song on the record!’ ‘Helpless’ recalls Mould’s previous power pop triumphs when in his former combo (Makes No Sense At All, Could You Be The One), but with generous lashings of extra pop. ‘If I Can’t Change Your Mind’ harks back to The Byrds circa I Fell A Whole Lot Better and ‘Slick’ kicks up a maelstrom of noise all snarled vocals and reverb and anger.

However, my two favourite cuts on the album, and as a result, my two favourite moments in Mould’s entire canon are the aforementioned The Act We Act and side one’s epic closer Hoover Dam. The two seem to me to be two sides of the same coin, both tracks weaving an intricate path through light and dark; minor and major keys being used to accentuate the release and keep the listener guessing, even after riding the beast for the 100th time. They are astonishing songs on an astonishing album in an astonishing career and if Bob Mould ever goes on to better Copper Blue, he will have produced a work of such unimpeachable quality that ‘rock’ as a form of popular music may as well consider itself truly dead and buried.

Or maybe that’s what Copper Blue did all along, it was just that none of us realised it at the time!

Steve Listened: It was great to revisit this album. I had forgotten how truly great it was. It also helped me unlock his latest solo album (‘Patch the Sky’) which I played at “full tilt” all the way home that night. I’ve also been re-playing Copper Blue a lot so thanks Tom – made me feel 20 again!

 

Tracks of 2016: Round 99 – Rob’s choice

I listened to lots of new music this year. As in the last few years, Spotify was the predominant medium, opening up a range and breadth that I never could have got close to in any other way. I noted end of year reports suggesting that labels and artists are now starting to see reasonable revenues from streaming services. I don’t know whether those claims hold water, but I hope they do. I’ve dredged music from all sorts of artists who I happily listened to via Spotify where in previous times I would never have bought a record. I hope they’re getting paid.

As is also becoming traditional, looking back at my end of year list I’m forced to reflect on my sources of new music, which are becoming narrower and narrower, in a way that I’m not entirely comfortable with. I lost touch with music websites this year and also with a couple of the podcasts I used to regularly take. Looking at the final list of 13 songs here, they are essentially either from artists who I already loved and whose records I would have bought, or from things I heard on the ‘All Songs Considered‘ podcast. Fair enough, many of them are artists I hadn’t come across before, and there’s some range here, but it still feels too monocultural. The end of year lists, including those of my fellow Record Clubbers, have already sent me scurrying to a number of other records I hadn’t really noticed. I guess in this day and age it doesn’t really matter when you find something so long as you find it, but still I can’t help feeling I’ve been more blinkered than usual this year. I’ll try to diversify in 2017.

So, what did 2016 leave me with?

The Spotify playlist above differs slightly from that presented to DRC just before Christmas. I’ve added back in tracks by Lambchop, Tim Hecker and BE that I had already played and which, taken together, would have eaten more than half my permitted running time. The list is also missing at least one important contribution. ‘Lemonade’ is not available, and ‘Hold Up’ is one of my very favourite tracks of the year.

There are other absentees to note. I only got the Solange record a few weeks before the end of the year, and so it hasn’t percolated yet. Similarly, Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’ has not yet been released in physical format,and only just made it onto Spotify, so I’ve only managed a couple of cursory listens. There’s also a longer, working version of this list, where I dumped all the songs I wanted to collect during the year, so in the unlikely event that you’re thinking, “this list is great, but I wish it were 3 times as long and had D.D Dumbo on it,” you are in luck.

What remains. It’s tempting to group these tracks and ascribe surely unintended meaning to those groups. So I will. There are lots of songs here that use guitars and drums and voices to communicate various feelings of unease, dissatisfaction, fear and mistrust. From Naps, building a nagging chorus from arguably aspirational longueur (“Three full days without sleeping, Three full days without going out”) to Shearwater’s ‘Filaments’, pulsating with paranoia in a world that just took one step too many towards the edge. EL VY’s contribution to the anti-Trump project ’30 Days, 30 Songs’ seems much less titillating now, but I can’t erase it from my mind or my playlist.

The feeling is not solely directed towards what’s been happening in the wider world. King Creosote, Lambchop and Car Seat Headrest bring it into the personal, with hypnotic/beautiful/rollocking takes on matters of the heart, the head and their most intimate connections.

Standing atop these three is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The legend around ‘Skeleton Key’ is becoming well-worn, and I’m happy that some of the more breathless early analyses are being brought back towards reality.The truth of the album is even more heartbreaking and remarkable. Cave and his family were struck by an unimaginable tragedy in the time between the writing of these songs and their recording. The result, captured with mesmerising beauty in Andrew Dominik’s film ‘One More Time With Feeling’ is Cave and his collaborators moving through their grief whilst recording the songs that make up the album. If you’ve ever wondered what people mean when they describe someone ‘interpreting’ a song, watch Cave, hollowed out and stupefied, sing the songs he wrote and pour into them feelings he could never have imagined when he did so.

The album is a masterpiece. I ceded ‘Magneto’ to Steve on the night, and chose ‘Distant Sky’ instead, a song that shows at least a glow of warmth on the dark horizon.

It’s left to Lizzo, BE and Laura Gibson to show us the way out. Gibson kicked off the year by enlisting us to ‘The Cause’ of love and driving us on with the ruthless logic of a Sergeant Major. BE, improvising live to the sound of a beehive (yes, I said ‘improvising live to the sound of a beehive’), reminded us that the world could indeed be beautiful if only everyone would shut the hell up and just listen.

Finally, ‘Good As Hell’ by Lizzo, is a barnstorming wonder, a vibrant reminder that sometimes just doing your hair and checking your nails is enough to make you feel on top once more. I listened to this song dozens of dozens of times and, especially in the last 6 weeks of the year, and superficial as this will surely seem, it never failed to leave me feeling that things could get better. And that’s some achievement.

Round 99 – Steve’s Selections – Year End Tracks

8b4e795c17070424342e2b923362abf90ad54b9dBlood Orange – ‘Freetown Sound’: “Augustine”
This is my first selection. This is from what is probably my favourite album of the year. Most of the other tracks I have picked have some sadness associated with them, but this tune just picks you up in its arms and loves you. It pulls all those 1980’s tricks I love. The album – which I will leave for another night – is a seductive mix of soul, funk and jazz, mixed up with guitar riffs and subtle piano interludes that will melt your heart. Dev Hynes may have failed to impress previously (although Cupid Deluxe has its moments) but here he has played a masterstroke. Augustine flows to the heavens and back. I recommend watching the video on Youtube for the full dance-off.

Whyte H27696orses – ‘Pop or Not’: “Promise I Do” Probably only known within a small(ish) radius around Manchester, Whyte Horses are described as a psychedelic band. On this number they manage to blend 60s psyche, with French super-pop. Notwithstanding the excellent production, you could mistake this track for somehing from another time. It’s a racy tune. The album takes you on a journey around the world, taking in different sounds from many different countries. It came in as the number one album for Piccadilly Records (my Mecca on Oldham Street). They can be a bit biaised but this year they have got it right.

replacmenetsReplacements – ‘Let it Be’: “Unsatisfied”
This was a controversial choice  – can we have a reissued album? This was reissued in 2016 and is the standout track on this classic album. It was quite bold of The Replacements to use the title ‘Let it Be’, given its associations with the Beatles. The song itself was released at the time of Reagan. The lyrics are all tongue in cheek irony

Look me in the eye
Then, tell me that I’m satisfied
Was you satisfied?
Look me in the eye
Then, tell me that I’m satisfied
Hey, are you satisfied?

and later

Everything goes
Well, anything goes all of the time
Everything you dream of
Is right in front of you
And everything is a lie (or) And liberty is a lie

The disenfranchisement with the way things are going in the US at the time, now re-released with new venom and relevance for the Trump generation seemed appropriate for a new listen.

rememberustolifeRegina Spektor – ‘Remember Us to Life’: “Obselete”
This track feels quite Christmassy (is there such an adjective?). The subject – depression and self-loathing – is far from the happiness, sparkle and tinsel of the festive season though. The song is just stripped down to her voice, which lays bare Regina’s incredible range. Despite the subject matter I find this song strangely uplifting. Facing how you feel about yourself during depression is the first step towards recovery. In that sense this song is very honest and open. Highly cathartic.

 

amber-light-siteJane Weaver – ‘The Amber Light’: “Argent”  This is all Stereolab, and reminds me of another album I brought along to DRC some weeks ago Stereolab -Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Being almost a direct copy is not a bad thing. Jane Weaver hails from Manchester, and is the wife of Andy Votel of Twisted Nerve Records fame. I know I know, some bias here for the Manc music but this is really rather good and well-worth checking out. The track I selected appears to follow Stereolab almost to the end when at the end, as a muscial deviation, horns are added. Beautiful.

 

a1895762218_10Anhoni – ‘Hoplessness’: “Obama” Given the unwelcome alternative and successor to Obama in the US one might be forgiven to take out the paintbrush and whitewash the past, forgiving the incumbent for terrible atrocities (drone-bombing, the continued use of state-sponsored proxy torture etc etc). This album pulls no punches on Obama’s legacy, particularly on this track. The sound is almost Native American Indian in style. A chant, summoning up the spirits of the dead themselves? Haunting.

 

packshot1-768x768Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – ‘Skeleton Tree’: “Magneto”

In love, in love, in love you laugh
In love you move, I move and one more time with feeling
For love, you love, I laugh, you love
Saw you in heart and the stars are splashed across the ceiling

The imagery in this song is incredible. There’s no tune to speak of. Just a deep buzz-saw drone and the wonderful voice and mind of Mr Cave. At one point there is even some dark humour

Oh, the urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming
I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues

This was Rob’s Joker track. We sat silently and marvelled.

10_700_700_580_bobmould_patchthesky_900pxBob Mould – ‘Patch the Sky’: “Losing Sleep”

Bob back here at his best. It’s all hard guitars, tight drumming and a great tune. Sugar and Husker Dü. Apparently he just holed himself up in a wood shack recording studio and played music till he liked it. Great to see him back on form. It’s probably one of the standout tracks for me though as there are some duds on here.

 

 

 

e8074a26Wild Nothing – ‘Life of Pause’: “Love Underneath My Thumb”

Basically I will go for anything that sounds vaguely 80s. This track pulls all those tricks. A little bit of Japan, a bit Talking Heads (ok that’s 70s too but they were ahead of the game). The spash of choppy guitar chords over a synth and I am your’s. Delightful.

 

 

160682North Sea Radio Orchestra – ‘Dronne’: “Guitar Miniature No.4”

Just great guitar on this one. We were reminded of Robbie Basho from a previous round and the similarity is not lost. There’s some incredibly difficult fingerpicking here from the incredible NSRO. They are well-worth checking out for anyone into a bit of traditional UK home grown folk.

 

a3953211025_10Kool Keith – ‘Feature Magnetic’: “Tired”

Some basic old-school rap here. Kool Keith is an old-timer having been on the circuit now for more than 20 years. His lyrics are less confrontational here in this album but he blends some nice humour here with slagging off other rappers

I can’t believe I’m so good, I’m in the studio with carrot cake
Other rappers bake

 

DavidBowie★David Bowie – ‘Blackstar’: “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away”

What to say? I listen. I cry. I’m amazed at how good it really is, and his last recording  although I’m sure plenty more is tucked away. But this was his conscious last message to the world and it’s glorious.

I’m dying too

Push their backs against the grain
And fool them all again and again
I’m trying to

 He does it as well. Fools us all again. Takes us by surprise. The song segueways beatifully into the jazz-infused ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ which again fills the mind with questions. Is he singing about his own death? Yes, probably, but it’s just a great song on its own merits without digging too deep into the lyrics. Bowie bows out and stuns us all. Mesmerizing. RIP David…..

Anna Meredith – Varmints: Round 98, Nick’s choice

Anna Meredith came to my attention when she won the SAY – Scottish Album of the Year – for 2016 in the summer, beating the likes of Young Fathers, Steve Mason, Emma Pollock, and FFS. I didn’t know her name, but I did recognise the artwork for Varmints, and the description – classical composer makes debut pop/electronic album – made it sound right up my street.

It starts with “Nautilus”, an enormous, instrumental, Steve-Reich-like horn loop that never fails to get Nora dancing (she’s been known to point at the hi-fi and say “music”, and then get huffy if anything but this album gets put on). It’s not pop music, per se, and not quite dance or electronic either, but it is catchy, and it does make you move. As someone on ILM described it, it is “focused and amazing-sounding”. And it really is; the resonances of the horns and reverberations of the drums are monolithic and cavernous and loaded with detail.

Every single second of Varmints has something interesting going on sonically and/or compositionally; there’s a real feeling of musical depth and richness without it feeling complicated for the sake of complication. It’s been said that one of the joys of [pop?] music is how your brain tries to predict what’s going to happen next (and the satisfaction when you either get it right, or something beautifully unexpected happens), and Meredith surfs that line between comfortable, reassuring predictability and interesting, confounding unpredictability with expert poise.

At first Varmints almost felt too… positive? Too major-key? As if there was no real edge or dissonance to it. But a; that’s not actually true, as there are numerous frenetic / angry / charged / sad moments, and b; even if it was, I’m not sure that’s necessarily a bad thing. “Taken”, the second track and a single that’s found loads of airplay on 6music, definitely felt a touch too… something… in its male-female harmony vocals the first few times I played it (“Taken sounds like Nirvana’s Lithium as performed by an am-dram society” read another ILM comment), but the slashing guitars, tightly-wound synth loops, and odd rhythmic changes, as well as those hard-to-ignore vocals, have seeped into my cerebellum over the months to the point where I now thoroughly enjoy it.

About half the tracks are instrumental, and the album mixes up synthetic elements with cello, drums, clarinet, guitars, and many more different live instruments. The tone shifts massively from track to track; “Something Helpful” is delicate and yearning, but “R-Type” is almost violently repetitive and machine-like, and “Dowager” is tinged with sadness through both the arrangement and the lyrics, while “Blackfriers” is essentially beautiful, plaintive ambient music.

Meredith herself was born in London but moved to Scotland aged two, and has various compositional awards, a Masters from the Royal College of Music, and composer-in-residences on her CV. She’s also released a pair of EPs, Black Prince Fury and Jet Black Rider from 2012 and 2013 respectively, from which “Nautilus”, originally from Black Prince Fury, is the only track to feature on Varmints. Each EP has a rather surprising and surreptitious cover version hidden on it, by the way…

Nils Frahm – ‘Solo’: Round 98 – Rob’s choice

nf-solo-front-1600x1600

Nils Frahm is an enviable talent, but also a reachable one. His facility with the piano is, from the perspective of someone who does not really know how one goes about the business of playing a piano, marvelous rather than virtuosic. That is to say that what is so hypnotic, so engaging about the music Frahm makes at the piano, is not some display of unfathomable technical proficiency (he may be amazingly proficient, I don’t know), but instead it’s the warmth and the openness of the relationship he has with the instrument. He seems to sit down and talk with it, recording and lovingly curating the conversations that ensue.

‘Solo’ is the perfect example. It is warm, enveloping, comforting, friendly, delightful, simple, giving, still, spacious and gorgeous, as so much of Frahm’s music is. This is one of the most reachable records of recent years, or any year come to think of it. ‘Solo’ has accompanied more of my thinking and doing time in 2015 and 2016 than any other sound. We’ve been over this ground before, worrying about the utility of music instead of just getting on and utilising it. This is a beautiful record full stop and that cannot be lessened by the use I have made of it. In fact, far from being mere tools for filling backgrounds, this is a record that gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling of gratitude when I think about it.

There were whole stretches of the last two years when I couldn’t write without ‘Solo’ playing in the background. I’d be lying if I didn’t put its utility down to its smooth surfaces and the absence of hooks to lodge in the mind. But also, perhaps subconsciously, there is something about this record that speaks directly to notions of creativity and the image of a human at work. Nils Frahm created these pieces during a mammoth improvisation session on a handmade, 12-foot tall upright piano. As in some of his earlier work you can hear and feel the join between man and mechanism as keys are depressed, hammers lifted and wires struck. There’s a sense of a blank page, of someone sitting down to figure out what can possibly be done and then how to go about doing it.

Tom listened: Nils and his amazing 12 foot deep piano was the topic of hot debate at record club. You see, the fact he’s sitting atop the instrument makes much more sense to me, commanding the sound that emanates rather than being cowed by it; I had imagined a little man under a huge organ type affair, the machine as master and manipulator, the, no doubt minimal, music (you can tell from the album art these days) being far too repetitive and simplistic for my tastes. I was gearing up to write my ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ response again.

But no!

On Solo, Frahm has that stately elegance and dignity that can only remind one of Eno (and his much smaller organ) on Music for Airports. That’s a huge compliment, seeing as Music for Airports is a magnificent piece of work. The resonance of the notes as they hang in the air like the floating embers from a fire being replenished just in time, just as they fade out and die is a wondrous thing and kept me captivated throughout. Good choice Rob and full marks on the anti-prog meter.

Nick listened: This was lovely. I’d like to own it. And the piano is tall, not deep.

Steve listened: Beautiful record and now in my collection.