Björk – Debut: Round 73 – Nick’s choice

BjorkDebutAs usual I had a handful of choices for Tom’s simple “your favourite album by an artist that isn’t considered to be the critical or fans’ consensus ‘best’” theme, but Björk’s was the first I thought of and, frankly, the one I wanted to play the most.

My assumption was that over the last 15 years or so, Post and, especially, Homogenic, had come to be regarded as Björk’s best records by pretty much everyone, but 21 years on from its release, and about 19 on from me first hearing it in full, Debut still remains my favourite front-to-back record by Iceland’s favourite daughter. Luckily, when it came to trial by RateYourMusic, Debut was indeed not her top-rated record, coming below those two and also Vespertine. Vindication!

Of course Debut wasn’t Björk’s debut album at all; as well as the small matter of her having fronted The Sugarcubes (a band who seem to get mentioned an inordinate amount at DRC, mainly by Tom), there was her eponymous ‘real’ debut album as a 12-year-old, which I suspect very few people outside of Iceland have ever heard. (And probably not many will have heard of.) (There’s also Gling-Gló, a 1990 album where Björk fronted a jazz trio. Never heard it, but intrigued…)

The sound of freedom after the collapse of The Sugarcubes, Debut was sort-of a record of Björk’s move to London and immersion in UK club music, taking in trip hop, house, dance-pop, and much more. It’s a vivacious, joyful album, which covers a lot of ground both musically and emotionally, but most importantly to me it’s also Björk’s must unabashedly ‘pop’ record; as odd as “Human Behaviour” might be, for instance, it’s also outrageously catchy, and when you add in “Big Time Sensuality”, “Venus As A Boy”, and the fabulous “There’s More To Life Than This (Recorded Live At The Milk Bar Toilets)”, there’s no doubt in my mind that this is not just Björk’s most accessible record, but one of the very best albums to come out of the mid-90s. I still love pretty much every second.

Rob listened: I was a big Sugarcubes fan and bought ‘Human Behaviour’, the single, and ‘Debut’, on their respective days of release. The single, a strange and snuffling, otherworldly beast, was enchanting, but seemed somehow a logical progression. The album felt very different, a deliberate and unmistakeable break with the past. It’s easy to forget what a bold step ‘Debut’ was. For Björk (out into the spotlight on her own without her band, and into new territory – easy to forget because she’s been taking radical steps ever since with almost every record) but also for the music of the time. Moving this decisively into club culture seemed almost jarring, although the record is anything but. However, like everything else she’s done, ‘Debut’ is wholehearted, sincere and completely convincing. Hearing it again I was surprised to note just how well it has stood the test of time, despite being so closely bound to the sounds of the 90s dancefloor. Perhaps not a true debut, but this is certainly the true arrival of one of the most distinctive and transfixing solo artists of our age.

Tom listened: When Nick played us Post, years ago now it seems, I just couldn’t get on with it. It felt too much of its time for my tastes and I could all too easily imagine it being rolled out during a dinner party scene in This Life or Thirtysomething. No fault of the record itself of course but, for me, the hurdle felt insurmountable and I knew that Post was one Bjork record I could strike off the list.

In contrast I thought Debut was spellbinding, much preferring it to its successor. Debut sounded fantastically assured, which I found surprising given the relatively short shrift that the latter two Sugarcubes albums received from the music press at the time of their release. Debut sounded to me like a record that had been made by someone who either felt they had nothing to lose or that they just couldn’t lose. Bjork didn’t really fit into either of these categories however – she had tasted considerable success with the Sugarcubes at the start of their recording career and must have had a distinctly sinking feeling as the music press turned on them with subsequent releases.

Yet, despite this, Debut sounds so confident. In fact it sounds just like the album to launch a uniquely successful solo career, one that says to the listener, ‘forget my previous missteps give me a fair listen, trust me and I’ll pay you back in spades over the course of the next 20 years (at least)’. Perhaps its ironic, therefore, that Post didn’t have the same effect on me but, whilst I may not love all the music that I have heard of Bjork’s over the years, it’s always interesting at the very least and, in the case of Debut, it sounded downright vital!

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Acoustic Ladyland – Skinny Grin – Round 18; Nick’s choice

There was a little organisational chaos around this week’s DRC – we were meant to meet last week, at Tom’s with a complicated theme involving some serious (for us) logistical planning, but things fell through, so we rescheduled a regular, unthemed meeting for my house at short notice. So it seemed logical to go back to my mental checklist of albums I first thought of when DRC was conceived, and this excitable slice of “punk jazz” has now wormed its way to the top of that pile.

Released just before Christmas in 2006, I reviewed Skinny Grin at the time, and made bold claims for its genius and potential as a marketable crossover from the vibrant London jazz scene that’s produced seemingly scores of tokenistic-jazz-choice Mercury nominations – Polar Bear, Basquiat Strings, Portico Quartet, even avant-rock choices like The Invisible. I was convinced that Skinny Grin would garner universal acclaim and massive success.

Sadly, although it definitely got the acclaim, its bizarre choice of release date saw it fall into the cracks between Sufjan Stevens Yuletide boxsets and Celine Dion best-ofs, and nobody outside the crowd of usual suspects seemed to become enthused by it; it was too late to make any 2006 end-of-year lists, and by the time the 2007 ones rolled around, it had been forgotten in favour of Battles, who did a similar thing but seemingly from a different direction.

Acoustic Ladyland started their career with an album of, unsurprisingly, acoustic jazz reinterpretations of Hendrix tunes, and then spectacularly found their own sound at the edge of jazz, punk, the avant-garde, and metal with their second album, Last Chance Saloon, which came out around the same time as Polar Bear’s acclaimed, Mercury-nominated quasi-crossover, Held On The Tips Of Fingers; the two

Skinny Grin itself is frenetic, groovy, teetering-on-the-edge-of-chaos stuff. One track is mixed by none other than DRC-fave Scott Walker, who adds what sounds like a muzzle of angry electronic bees to the jerking, multi-directional instrumentation. Guest vocalists, and bandleader Pete Wareham, trading saxophone for microphone, add a punky, poppy dimension to some tracks, but it’s the (predominantly) instrumental tracks that hit the hardest, packing a progressive punch that transgresses genre boundaries like little else I’ve heard before or since. It’s not just jazz fusion; it’s far more exciting than that.

Tom Listened: I am amazed at how consistently Nick manages to choose records that I don’t know, most of which it’s turns out, I really like! This was another one, captivating from start to end, hard to pin down (was it jazz? rock?, fusion? – horrible word that), yet so effective in doing what it was setting out to achieve. I liked the vocal tracks just as much as the instrumental ones and would look forward to exploring Skinny Grin further, despite the fact the band have such an awful, and totally misleading, name. Well done Nick – another goodie!

Rob listened: I loved the first track which seemed cast as a face-off between a cocktail jazz quartet and a herd of straining mid-90s metal apologists. Which is all good in my book. As the record progressed, it started to lose focus, a sense of purpose, for me at least. I liked the compressed thrash jazz workouts wherein Acoustic Ladyland genuinely seemed to be onto something, combining the free associative joy of both genres without, apparently, doing either a disservice, but the more the record went on, the more I found my attention drifting.

Patrick Wolf – ‘Wind In The Wires’ – Round 3: Nick’s Choice

Patrick Wolf – Wind In The Wires

Patrick Wolf’s second album was a very last-minute choice for this week’s DRC; I have a list of potential future choices saved on my computer’s desktop, but nothing there was really speaking to me as I pondered what to choose. Then, all of a sudden as I got home and prepared to hit the road for Sidmouth, this struck me as being an obvious choice. Subliminally perhaps I felt a thread or theme running through from my other choices; Tom pointed out during the evening that I had chosen three solo artists, and all English, for our first three meetings.

And three English solo artists who all make music very much influenced by and about England itself, too; from Bark Psychosis’ evocation of crepuscular urban landscapes and the people within them to Polly Jean’s exploration of the emotions of war and how conflict has shaped and scarred our nation, and now to Patrick Wolf’s meandering, wounded troubadour escape from London to Penzance, taking in Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s coastal railway line through Devon, howling atop Cornish cliffs, and the emotional peril of self-discovery.

I was interested in Patrick Wolf from his debut album, 2003’s spitting Lycnathropy, which tied up violin-folk with glitchy beats and Freudian wailing, but the reserve of Wind In The Wires, his second album from 2005, was what made me a fan. Seeing Patrick perform these songs live, stripped to voice, one instrument (violin, ukulele, or piano), and a barefooted drummer, at Exeter’s Phoenix made me fall absolutely in love with this record, though. There’s a musicality, a compositional ease, about the way he moves through a tune and from tune to tune that manifests here which few of his contemporaries can get close to.

Patrick himself is a divisive figure, though; I know some music fans and writers who cannot stand to listen to his records for the ostentation and diva-ish-ness they perceive as being his character. I interviewed him (over the phone) once, and found him to be compelling and compassionate, if a little controlling (he is a complete perfectionist regarding his music). His hair has regularly been coloured shocking red or stark blonde, his face glittered, his wardrobe veering into sparkly silver shoes or ostentatious feathered capes; in short, he is, and can be, and will be in the future, a glam figure, stomping and strutting. But here, on this record, he is stripped back (even if the arrangements aren’t, necessarily). It’s the only album cover (of four so far) where his hair in the cover photo is (close to) its natural colour.

So the record begins with a song about being tired of the scene in London, leeched dry by libertines and lasciviousness, and winds its way to space and fresh air in Cornwall, depicting the journey, epiphanies along the way, a period of realisation, and finally, to close, the return leg back home, enervated and positive and with a finished record to press. It could be taken as a concept album if one wanted. I adore it. But what would Devon Record Club think?

Rob listened: I think both Tom and I were expecting something a little more theatrical from Patrick Wolf. From my perspective, having formed a rounded judgement largely by flicking past his album covers in the racks, I thought we’d get the bastard offspring of Elton John and Julian Cope. Instead this seems the very essence of pastoral Elgartronica. I confess I wasn’t convinced at first. Something about that voice, and its background, sounded too forced, to keen to be something, to say something. Pretentious, in the true sense. Nick’s defence was well-marshalled, and by the time the closing tracks came around, I started to get a feel for why Wolf might inspire such devotion.

Really glad to hear it.

Tom listened: I was very pleasantly surprised by this album – it was nothing like I was expecting and, once I had gone through the excruciating process of trying to recall who his voice reminded me of (Josh T Pearson from Lift to Experience to save you the bother), I realised that I had been completely drawn in by the album and was really enjoying what I was hearing. The experience of having my expectations confounded by this record really got me thinking about how detrimental image, perceived personality and prejudice is when listening to music and how, despite finding the record fascinating, I still am finding it a little difficult to see beyond the overblown theatrics I had witnessed on Later…with Jools Holland. More fool me!