Alexander ‘ Skip’ Spence – ‘Oar’ – Round 1: Tom’s Choice

Alexander Spence – ‘Oar’

Choosing an album for the inaugural meeting of the Devon Record Club was a strange process for me. Obviously it was important to make the right impression – especially when considering the esteemed company I was keeping – and my choice had to be obscure enough but not willfully so, something they’d have heard of and yet not heard. In my head I ran through a list of possibilities, over and over, to such an extent that, on the night prior to the meeting, I even had a dream that I had selected the post-rock behemoth that is Spiderland by Slint; a lame choice as anybody who is anybody knows this record inside out, back-to-front and upside down. And Rob and Nick are certainly anybodies who are anybodies! But by 6.30pm on the night of the meeting, I had narrowed down my choice to one of three. I went over to my LPs and my eye, followed by my hand, mysteriously bypassed my shortlisted contenders and settled upon Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence’s ‘Oar’. So that’s what I took.

Oar is a curious beast. Mainly acoustic, pretty much uncategorisable, varied yet coherent. I remember being unsettled on first hearing it, which is no bad thing in my book, but I wasn’t sure I liked what I heard. The music is spare, even spartan at times, and on some of the tracks (Weighted Down, Books of Moses, Broken Heart) the pace is funereal. I can not remember the exact chronology, but I think I purchased this after acquiring the first Moby Grape album and the contrast between Spence’s work on Oar and the psych pop anthems of his full band probably has no equal in popular music. There is no pop sensibility in evidence on Oar, the ‘Summer of Love’ is a very dim and distant memory; this is the paranoid, psychotic world of an acid casualty in meltdown. Sonically, the shift in atmosphere is similar to Scott Walker’s 30 year evolution from Make it Easy On Yourself’s bright melody to the blood curdling sound of Tilt, yet what makes Spence’s record so remarkable is the rapidity of the change – one, maybe two years of hallucinogens and his transformation was complete!

So what’s to like? Well…I love the fact that he’s playing very basic songs (on the whole) with minimal accompaniment and yet the sounds and songs are utterly unique. I recall a similar feeling upon hearing Sung Tongs by Animal Collective for the first time – with a myriad other acoustic guitar albums, how could someone produce something so unlike anything else? And to make it an enjoyable, even accessible, listen smacks of genius in my book.

But more than the songs and the sounds of the album, the words, the singing and the message, the one thing I admire about Oar above all else is its heroic, supremely courageous, honesty. Here was a man on the verge of commercial success, a possible major player in the late 60s rush to replace the obviously imploding Beatles, the worn out Byrds, the now less than essential Dylan. And Moby Grape could have been a contender to take over. But you only have to listen to first few bars of Little Hands, Oar’s opening track, to realise that Oar is no contrivance, no deliberate ploy to garner commercial success. This is the record that Spence HAD to make at that time in his life and by baring his soul, exposing his demons, in such a manner has produced an album that will live on, gradually gaining its rightful place in Rock ‘n’ Roll’s great lost classic albums Hall of Fame, long after the sunny dalliances of the San Fransisco scene have been well and truly forgotten.

Spotify link: Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence – Oar

Nick listened: Oar is a record I’ve been aware of for years but never heard; so Tom made a pretty perfect judgement call in picking it. By reputation I’m aware of its status as one of a raft of solo records made by less-prominent members of 60s and 70s bands who… how shall we say… had perhaps become a little damaged. I’m thinking of I Am The Cosmos by Chris Bell from Big Star, Pacific Ocean Blue by Dennis Wilson. I’m sure there are others. So was Oar what I expected? I’m not sure what I expected, but I wasn’t surprised, except perhaps by how much I enjoyed it – those other “psychedelic casualty” records have never actually resonated all that much with me. The way the final track unfurled a groove, accelerated and decelerated itself, was unexpected and very welcome. Despite our propensity for chattering over the top of the records we brought in, I don’t feel like I missed out on experiencing Oar. It’s slid a little way up my mental checklist of records to pick up when I’m flush again.

Rob listened: I confess I hadn’t heard of this. Having it trailed as a solo effort by the chap from Moby Grape I assumed that huge amounts of brain-smooshing drugs had been involved and that the record would be a spectral, acid-fried wash-out. Wrong. It’s great, and nothing like I expected. Rich and strange, it rolls and meanders and climbs and dives. Spence has a warm and welcoming voice, just enough to tempt you into the weirder backwaters. Sounded like a fine choice to me.

McCarthy – ‘The Enraged Will Inherit The Earth’ – Round 1: Rob’s Choice

McCarthy – ‘The Enraged Will Inherit The Earth’

I’m not entirely sure why I ended up choosing this. I’m not even sure it’s my favourite McCarthy album, but it seemed to mystically percolate its way to the surface whenever I thought about what to bring his evening, so I decided to just stick with it.

McCarthy were one of the C86 era bands. I think they’re interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, they sounded great. They jangle, but their sound, at least in the memory, has a complexity and density beyond most of their contemporaries, even on their early records where they were playing short songs in enough of a flurry that they almost tripped themselves up. Malcolm Eden’s voice isn’t quite substantial enough to carry the songs, and it’s hard to get a grip of at first, but there’s something in its blandness that makes it a perfect fit for the faceless authority figures he speaks for.

They’re principally remembered for their politics, which were always described as “Marxist”. However there’s real nuance in their lyrics which are usually delivered as half-dialogue – in this way McCarthy are the older, politicised sibling to The Wedding Present’s soppy lovelorn teenager – and frequently move through several positions and persuasions before arguing themselves around to the opposite of their starting point. As much as they espoused a particular ideology, they consistently struck out against hypocrisy of any stripe. See the single ‘Keep An Open Mind Or Else’, where the narrator begins ‘With my last breath i’ll fight for your right to disagree’ and ends quite differently. It’s clear that they were aware of the problems and worried away at the contradictions in their politics. You can’t help wondering where their current contemporaries are.

It’s easy to mock them as over-earnest, leftist librarians, but in hindsight, they had a more clearly thought through world-view than I’ve ever managed, and I envy them that. Their certainty used to scare me a little when I was a teenager, but then many of my favourite records started out being placed on a high shelf because I was too nervous to take them on.

McCarthy’s other claim to fame is that Laetitia Sadier left Paris to come here and join Tim Gane, her boyfriend and the band’s guitarist. She sings on this, their second album, and also their third and last record and when McCarthy split up, the two formed Stereolab together.

This album is not as immediate as their first, and not as accessible as their last, but I think it might be the best all-rounder.

Iron and Wine – ‘Walking Far From Home’

I brought this because it’s weird. Like Sam Beam singing an old Iron and Wine melody whilst a four year-old tries out the settings on a Bontempi organ in the background. In a good way.

Spotify link: Iron & Wine – Walking Far From Home

Tom (sort of) listened: Jangle pop is really hard for me to ‘get’ on an initial listen, even without the added encumbrance of a simultaneous chin wag and, therefore, I left the meeting feeling that I wanted to hear the record again before pronouncing on it. I was reminded of some of the Flying Nun records of the 1980s, especially the Bats (who made one of my favourite LPs in The Fear of God…a record, coincidentally, that I dismissed as ‘rubbish’ -technical terminology- the first time I heard it). I certainly didn’t think Rob’s selection was rubbish, far from it, but it wasn’t immediate either and I certainly need to spend more time on it before its (initially) homogeneous template begins to reveal its undoubted subtleties. Unfortunately, Spotify failed me in my hour of need!

Nick listened: I must confess I found it very difficult to take anything away from McCarthy – I’m not the biggest jangle pop fan anyway and find the aesthetic very hard to differentiate the politics of small differences from. Add in the fact that Rob identified its lyrical themes as its USP, the fact that I tend not to notice lyrics, and the fact that we merrily talked all over it, and I have to confess to remembering very little about it. A lesson in the kinds of things that may or may not work well at Devon Record Club, perhaps? Given the fact that we’re all, and me particularly, gobby opinionated sods.

Bark Psychosis – ‘///Codename:Dustsucker’ – Round 1: Nick’s Choice

Bark Psychosis – ‘///Codename:Dustsucker’

My choice for the first Devon Record Club was an obvious one; so obvious I thought about resisting it and picking something else instead. But sometimes your first instinct is also your best instinct, so I’ve decided to stick with it.

///Codename:Dustsucker by Bark Psychosis was released in 2004; despite being only the band’s second album, it came out a full decade after their debut, Hex. In the space of that decade, the band had disintegrated from being a four-piece to a one-piece, becoming essentially the solo project of frontman and studio-mastermind Graham Sutton.

Music journalist Simon Reynolds infamously coined the term “postrock” in his review of BP’s debut for Mojo, positing it as being the next evolutionary step for rock, encompassing influences from dance, jazz, the avant-garde, and modern digital recording techniques. ///Codename:Dustsucker continues that evolution, drawing from Sutton’s time spent making drum n bass records under the Boymerang name and his burgeoning career as a producer of other people’s music.

Sutton spent five years making //Codename:Dustsucker, micro-editing it, re-recording sections, playing with the sound until he was happy with it. I interviewed him around its release and he said the making of music was far more important to him than what happens afterwards, and compared himself to Mark E Smith; except instead of always working and perpetually releasing something new every year, Sutton was just always working on the same thing.

Just over a year ago I reunited a load of the writers from Stylus Magazine, where I used to write, so we could put together our top albums of the last decade. //Codename:Dustsucker was the record I put at number one on my own ballot paper. It’s not something I listen to with great frequency; there’s an intensity and density to it that doesn’t require regular revisiting. But it’s a record I listen to in depth when I do play it, and a record that rewards that depth of attention.

So what does it sound like, what does it do? //Codename:Dustsucker is a very urban record, a very isolated record, a very dour record, but also a very beautiful and a very exciting record. It takes in the pseudo-freeform structures we recognise as postrock, but applies a far broader palette of aesthetics: you’ll hear touches of jazz, acid house, dub, and sheets of noise, plus oblique references to Chris Morris, lyrics in German, studio accidents preserved in aspic, the drummer from Talk Talk, a sample of a b-side by Bark Psychosis’ earlier incarnation, huge, squelching 303s, guitar, piano, bass, drums, “found trumpet”, and “indicators”. The usual.

Spotify link: Bark Psychosis – Codename: Dustsucker

Rob listened: I know what a touchstone this is for Nick so it was good to sit down and listen properly. It certainly sounds impressive, although when you’ve spent a year tinkering with a drum fill, I suspect it’s time you, or your records, got out more. I can hear the through-line from Talk Talk to Four Tet taking in the sounds of some of my favourite bands of the last 20 years. It’s to ///Codename: Dustsucker’s credit that it’s almost impossible to discern where it is the antecedent and where the descendant. Perhaps, as Nick might have us believe, it’s actually the motherlode. And hey! I’ve got that Boymerang record!